Saturday, March 17, 2018

Wonderland, N.C.

This afternoon, I saw the students of East Carolina University put on a wonderful production of my adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.

Today's show was in Jacksonville, N.C., at Parkwood Elementary School. Lots of folks showed up, including my old friend Jeff Hidek, who I used to do theater with in Pensacola, and who now lives in Wilmington.

It was great to see Jeff again, and his daughter seemed to enjoy the show, as did the other kids in attendance. Jacksonville doesn't get a lot of live theater, and this might have been their first play for some of the kids in the audience.

Catie Griffin, who plays Alice, did a wonderful job, and kids seemed to really relate to her. Michael VanHouten plays Lewis Carroll, as well as the Cheshire Cat and the White Knight. When he fell off his horse as the White Knight, there were howls of laughter from the audience.

The rest of the cast, likewise, did an excellent job. Jordan Biggers, who plays Alice's sister Lorina, also grabbed the audience's attention as the Cook and Tweedle Dee. Tyler Whitley, who plays Tweedle Dum (as well as the Dormouse and the King of Hearts), is considerably taller than her, but the staging made use of their height difference to great comic effect.

Emma Myers was delightfully frightening as the Queen of Hearts (also playing the Duchess and the Carpenter), and Connor Gerney was delicious as the Mad Hatter. Conner also operated some of the puppets, and his frog footman was a big hit with the audience. Of course, you can't have the story without the White Rabbit, which Grant Morgan hoppily played, jumping across the stage, later returning both as the March Hare and as the Walrus.

Many thanks to Nick Lease and Michael Eubanks for directing this production, and to the whole crew who helped bring it off today. Tomorrow, the show will be playing at the Turnage Theatre in Washington, N.C. at 2:00. The performance is free and open to the public, so if you're in the area, please come on out to see it!

Friday, March 16, 2018

ALICE Featured in Jacksonville Paper

My adaptation of Alice in Wonderland has been featured in an article in the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina.

I just arrived in North Carolina tonight, but earlier today the show had its first performance. There will be another performance I'll get to see tomorrow, and then one more I'll get to see on Sunday, after which I'll be heading back home.

You can read the article here if you're interested. I spoke with the reporter on Thursday over the phone, so I'm quoted in it, as is Liz Owens of the Zing Zumm Children's Museum. The play is being produced by East Carolina University, and is directed by two ECU seniors, Nick Lease and Michael Eubanks.

I'm very much looking forward to seeing the show tomorrow!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Trumpeting My Play

Last month, Elephant Room Productions did an in-house reading of my play Bones of the Sea, about the nineteenth-century paleontologist Mary Anning.

Robert Gene Pellechio interviewed me for ERP's podcast The Trumpet. You can listen to the podcast online here. It also includes an excerpt from the play, read by Katrina Art and William Gwyn.

It was great  to hear the piece read out loud in the recording, and I'm currently working on some rewrites based on what I heard. Hopefully, Mary will be able to take to the stage sometime in the future.

In the meantime, if you're interested in the company's Elephant Ears Reading Series, I definitely recommend ERP. They're a good group.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

ALICE Opens Next Week!

I'm very excited that my stage adaptation of Alice in Wonderland will receive its world premiere in North Carolina next week.

East Carolina University students Nick Lease and Michael Eubanks are directing the production, and I've been in touch with them over e-mail. We've made a few changes to the script, some of which I'll be keeping for future productions, others of which are necessary for a younger audience, but might be adjusted for different productions going forward.

The piece will open on Friday, March 16th, but I'll be having to miss that performance, as my plane doesn't get in until quite late. I will see the performance on the following day at the Children's Museum in Jacksonville, as well as the performance on March 18th at the Turnage Theatre in Washington. (Apparently, North Carolina has a lot of towns named after presidents.)

Though this production will be the world premiere, Kim Sharp previously directed two staged readings of the piece at the Abingdon Theatre Company.

If you live in North Carolina and you're in the area, maybe you can pop in for tea!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Pippa Passes

Closet dramas, plays meant to be read rather than performed, tend to be a bit dodgy. Occasionally you get a gem, like Ibsen's Brand or Peer Gynt, where even though the author didn't seek production, the play gets produced successfully anyway.

Robert Browning's plays were a different matter. His A Blot in the 'Scutcheon should have been a hit, but William Charles Macready gave it an early death. After that unfortunate incident, Browning turned to writing dramatic monologues, and sometimes full-length closet dramas.

The most famous of these is probably his 1841 play Pippa Passes, actually composed before the affair with A Blot in the 'Scutcheon. It follows a young Italian woman named Pippa who works winding silk in a mill, but who wanders through the town of Asolo on New Year's Day, her one day off from work.

Pippa admires other residents of the town whom she considers to be her betters. "Asolo's Four Happiest Ones" include "Great haughty Ottima" who is admired by a German man named Sebald, the newly married couple Jules and Phene, the young Luigi and his elderly mother, and a visiting Monsignor who is staying at his brother's home.

Throughout the day, Pippa passes by each of these four "happy" residences that are anything but happy. In each case, a disaster is about to happen, but Pippa's simple song turns people's hearts, and she ends up doing good unconsciously. Ottima and Sebald, it turns out, have murdered Ottima's husband, and just as they are about to glory in their bloodshed, Pippa's song moves them to repentance.

Pippa then passes some art students making fun of Jules for his new bride. Realizing that he has been tricked into marrying Phene, Jules is at the point of sending her away so they can both be free from the scorn of those around them. Instead, after overhearing an old ballad sung by Pippa, Jules resolves to abandon his sophisticated but shallow circle and run off with Phene to "Some unsuspecting isle in the far seas!"

Next, Pippa passes some policemen and the English informer Bluphocks who is about to betray Luigi for his revolutionary activities. Browning shocked his contemporaries by making Luigi a would-be regicide, but when Pippa sings of an ancient king, he begins to think better of his plan. Luigi's final line is actually ambiguous: "'Tis God's voice calls: how could I stay? Farewell!" What is clear, however, is that whatever action he takes, he will undertake it with a purer heart due to the influence of Pippa's song.

Pippa passes some "Poor Girls" who appear to be prostitutes and then by the house of the Bishop's brother. The Monsignor confronts a blackmailer who goes by many names, including Maffeo. Apparently, the brother had a child, and to cover up the illegitimacy, paid Maffeo to kill the infant. Browning turns the tables on us, though. Maffeo reveals that the child lived, and is none other than "a little black-eyed pretty singing Filippa, gay silk-winding girl." Pippa is apparently the heir to the brother's estate, and to secure it for the Monsignor, Maffeo offers to have the young woman entangled into the world of the prostitutes, where she will never again be a threat. Upon hearing the voice of his niece, though, the Monsignor has Maffeo gagged, bound, and carried away.

The final scene shows Pippa alone, unaware of the way she has influenced everyone she passed. Her final lines are moving:

                              All service ranks the same with God--
                              With God, whose puppets, best and worst,
                              Are we: there is no last nor first.

It's hard to imagine Pippa Passes actually being staged, but people have tried. The Browning Society did an adapted version in Boston in 1899, and Henry Miller wrote an adaptation that ran on Broadway in 1906. Three years later, D.W. Griffith made a film version that included Mary Pickford. You can watch it on YouTube here:

D.W. Griffith's Pippa Passes 

The film makes great use of directional lighting, but of course lacks Browning's poetry. It also leaves out the politically fraught Luigi storyline and adds a conventional story of a drunkard. Most frustratingly, it also drops the scene with Maffeo where we learn Pippa's true heritage.

Griffith also made a film version of A Blot in the 'Scutcheon, but it appears to be lost. Perhaps it's just as well.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Reimagining Richard

Yesterday, I mentioned the 1993 film version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. Today, I want to write about the film version of Richard III that came out two years later.

Ian McKellen had starred in a stage production directed by Richard Eyre that reimagined the chronicle play as taking place in Fascist-era Europe. The idea was to create a parallel reality in which Britain had gone the way of Germany and Italy and embraced totalitarianism. The concept worked.

McKellen himself wrote the screenplay, with help from the film's director, Richard Loncraine. It doesn't so much adapt Shakespeare's play as put it in a blender and turn it into a delicious new concoction. Scenes are rearranged, lines attributed to new characters, and completely new contexts created that will shock and amuse those familiar with the play.

I remember how when I was in college, I came into New York City to see the film at a discount movie theatre complex (now New World Stages). After the opening sequence in which Richard kills the former Prince of Wales and King Henry VI, we see a celebration for King Edward, complete with gorgeous 1930s-era ball gowns, a big band, and the vocalist Stacey Kent singing... there was a wave of laughter that came over the audience as people recognized what it was!

One of the more interesting (and appropriate) choices was to make Edward's queen and her family Americans. At first, I was skeptical of what seemed like a ploy to attract mainstream audiences with Hollywood stars like Annette Bening and Robert Downey, Jr., but the idea works. Elizabeth Woodville, who married Edward IV, was an outsider, a widow of one of Edward's opponents who did not come from royal stock. Making her family Americans makes sense.

The film also makes great use of unexpected locations. The ballroom scene was actually filmed in St. Cuthbert's Church in London. (The pillars are quite striking.) The bathroom of that fictitious ballroom, however, was actually the Holbein Room at Strawberry Hill! The real Tower of London seemed too familiar to be used as the Tower in the world of the film, so instead the Tower scenes were shot in gritty, industrial buildings.

If you've never seen the movie, definitely take a look. It's well worth viewing.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Much Ado About Tragedy

I recently acquired the DVD to Kenneth Branagh's film version of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. I was rather taken aback by a quote from Roger Ebert on the case: "CHEERFUL FROM BEGINNING TO END."

Really? Cheerful? The false accusations of infidelity? The father wishing his only child was dead? The nearly averted duel between two friends? Cheerful?

One of the things that interests me about the play is how it constantly borrows the characters, plot devices, and even language of tragedy and turns them into comedy. Don John, for instance, seems a forerunner of Iago and Edmund in his motiveless villainy. The friar's idea of pretending a young woman is dead comes right out of Romeo and Juliet. Over and over again, the devices of tragedy are used for comedy.

This is seen in the Prince's line (much played upon in the piece) where he says: "In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke." The phrase became proverbial, but originally it came from a poem by Thomas Watson. The first few lines (themselves including a rough translation from a sonnet by Seraphine) run like this:

                              In time the Bull is brought to wear the yoke;

                              In time all haggard Hawks will stoop the Lures;

                              In time small wedge will cleave the sturdiest Oak;

                              In time the Marble wears with weakest showers:
                              More fierce is my sweet love, more hard withal,
                              Than Beast, or Bird, than Tree or Stony wall.

Shakespeare likely didn't get the line from Watson, though. He didn't need to. It was already much more famous from Thomas Kyd's use of it in The Spanish Tragedy. The villain Lorenzo says at the beginning of Act II:

                              My lord, though Bel-imperia seem thus coy, 
                              Let reason hold you in your wonted joy: 
                              In time the savage bull sustains the yoke, 
                              In time all haggard hawks will stoop to lure, 
                              In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak,
                              In time the flint is pierced with softest shower; 
                              And she in time will fall from her disdain,
                              And rue the sufferance of your friendly pain.

Basically, he's telling Balthazar, son of the Viceroy of Portugal, that if the lady Bel-imperia is not moved by friendly courtship, they can force her to do their will. For Shakespeare's audience, the Prince's lines might have carried some dark overtones, and they almost certainly would have reminded people of Kyd's bloody play.

The villains in The Spanish Tragedy ultimately make good on their threats and kill Bel-imperia's lover, Horatio. The murder scene, memorialized on the frontispiece for the published edition of the play, ends like this:

                              BEL-IMPERIA: O, save his life, and let me die for him! 
                              O, save him, brother! save him, Balthazar!
                              I loved Horatio, but he loved not me. 

                              BALTHAZAR: But Balthazar loves Bel-imperia. 

                              LORENZO: Although his life were still ambitious, proud, 
                              Yet is he at the highest now he is dead. 

                              BEL-IMPERIA: Murder! murder! help! Hieronimo, help! 

                              LORENZO: Come, stop her mouth! away with her!

Here's the image that appeared in the published script:

Notice the villain on the right is speaking the famous last line "stop her mouth!" Does that line sound familiar? It should. 

At the end of Much Ado About Nothing, a character says of Beatrice: "Peace! I will stop your mouth." Now the character attributions in the play are notoriously problematic. (At one point, Dogberry is referred to as Kemp, the name of the actor who played him.) Here, the original text lists Leonato as the speaker, but most editors agree that the line belongs to Benedick, and the traditional stage direction there is that he kisses her.

So what is Shakespeare doing? He's taking a line famous for its use in tragedy and reworking it into a confirmation of romantic happiness that resolves a comedy. Gutsy, innovative, but hardly cheerful from beginning to end.