Sunday, March 22, 2020

Lucia di Lammermoor

One bright spot amidst the current darkness is that the Metropolitan Opera, which had to shut its doors due to COVID-19, has been streaming operas online for free every night.

I caught Bizet's Carmen and Verdi's La Traviata, and last night watched Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. That last opera is based on a Sir Walter Scott novel, The Bride of Lammermoor.

Though I've never read the novel, I do have a copy of Scott's poetry that I picked up at John K. King Books in Detroit. It contains some of the poems that Scott interpolated into the novel. For instance, Lucy Ashton (the Lucia of the opera) sings this song in Chapter II:

               Look not thou on beauty's charming,
               Sit thou still when kings are arming,
               Taste not when the wine-cup glistens,
               Speak not when the people listens,
               Stop thine ear against the singer,
               From the red gold keep thy finger;
               Vacant heart and hand and eye,
               Easy live and quiet die.

If that's not ominous enough for you, a prophesy appears in Chapter XVII that doesn't sound too good for her lover Edgar, who is Master of Ravenswood:

               When the last Laird of Ravenswood to Ravenswood shall ride,
               And woo a dead maiden to be his bride,
               He shall stable his steed in the Kelpie's flow,
               And his name shall be lost for evermoe!

Hey, no one ever said this was going to be a comedy! Kelpies, by the way, are shape-shifting water spirits, and the Met's production had a wonderfully creepy ghost that appeared by an old fountain.

Tonight, they're showing Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, so I should tune in now!

Thursday, March 19, 2020

SOCIAL DISTANCING: a play for the mental theatre


CHARACTERS

FIRST, any age, any race, any gender

SECOND, any age, any race, any gender


TIME

Now


PLACE

Here



                                                FIRST
Stay there!

                                                SECOND
I'm not--

                                                FIRST
--Stay.

                                                SECOND
I'm not moving.

                                                FIRST
Good.

                                                SECOND
Are you okay?

                                                FIRST
I'm social distancing.

                                                SECOND
I see.

                                                FIRST
It's important to maintain... space... between one person and another.

                                                SECOND
I know.

                                                FIRST
So stay where you are.

                                                SECOND
Where would I go?

                                                FIRST
I don't know. Just don't... move.

                                                SECOND
Can we talk?

                                                FIRST
Will you stay where you are?

                                                SECOND
Yeah.

                                                FIRST
Then we can talk.

                                                SECOND
What I wanted to say was... well... about last night.

                                                FIRST
What about it?

                                                SECOND
Last night... when I said I loved--

                                                FIRST
--Don't say it!

                                                SECOND
When I said... what I said... I meant it.
                        (pause)
I mean it.

                        (silence)

                                                FIRST
I know.

                                                SECOND
I realize this... isn't a good time right now... but I want to be with you.
                        (pause)
I want to be close to you.

                                                FIRST
We can't.
                        (pause)
Social distancing.

                                                SECOND
Yes.

                        (silence)

                                                FIRST
You see... there always has to be... space... between one person and another. Otherwise... someone could get hurt.

                                                SECOND
If you could just trust--

                                                FIRST
--I don't want to hurt!
                        (pause)
I don't want to hurt... you.

                                                SECOND
I'm ready to take that risk.

                                                FIRST
I'm not.

                                                SECOND
All I'm saying... is maybe after... I mean, later on--

                                                FIRST
--There is no later. There's only now.

                                                SECOND
It won't always be like this.

                                                FIRST
You sure about that? Because I'm not. Even after... after we forget... what happened... it will still be there. The possibility... the risk. It will still be there. It will always be there.

                                                SECOND
I suppose that's true.

                                                FIRST
Which is why... social distancing... is the only way. There must always be space. Between one person... and another. There has to be space.

                                                SECOND
But I--

                                                FIRST
--Don't say it.

                        (silence)
                                                SECOND
I do.

                                                FIRST
Could you... leave me alone right now. I'm... social distancing.

                                                SECOND
Okay.
                        (pause)
I'll be back.

                        (silence)

                                                FIRST
Good.

                        (end of play)

Monday, March 16, 2020

Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard was born in South Africa of Dutch and British descent, so being white, he enjoyed tremendous privilege at the time. Over and over again in his plays, however, he rebelled against the various privileges he had and pressed for social change.

Prior to 1994, South Africa had a strict system of racial segregation (known as apartheid). Under this system, people of different racial groups were forbidden from appearing on stage together or even sitting in the same auditorium together. These prohibitions were openly defied by South Africa's Market Theatre in Johannesburg, which produced many of Fugard's plays.

Fugard's early play Blood Knot was first produced not in a theatre at all, but in a rehearsal room of the African Music and Drama Association in 1961. The play tells the story of two brothers who have the same black mother, but different fathers. Fugard played a light-skinned brother who passes for white, while the black actor Zakes Mokae played his dark-skinned brother who goes to work every day to support both of them. Not only was it illegal for Fugard and Mokae to appear together on stage, but the play began with Fugard bathing Mokae's feet, an action that infuriated authorities. The production was shut down after a single performance.

In the decades to come, Fugard continued to write plays in which actors of different races appeared together. As if that were not enough to earn him the enmity of the government, his plays explicitly attacked the apartheid system. His 1969 play Boesman and Lena deals with two mixed-race characters who have no place in South African society and must walk from town to town.

Together with the actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, Fugard wrote Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, which became an international success. The trio later wrote The Island (which takes place in the notorious Robben Island prison which held Nelson Mandela as well as other political prisoners) and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act.

Fugard's most famous play, the semi-autobiographical "Master Harold"...and the Boys, was banned in South Africa, so it premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1982. His 1989 play My Children! My Africa! showed a black student and a white student attempting to have a civilized debate while violence is raging outside the school where they are. That play was allowed to be performed in South Africa, but by then, apartheid was losing its grip on the nation. After the historic election of 1994, Fugard explored the transition to freedom in such plays as Valley Song, Sorrows and Rejoicings, and The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek.

Below is a picture of the Signature Theatre Company's production of The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. The play tells the story of an artist who feels compelled to paint designs on boulders in spite of his society seeming to fall into chaos. I suspect the central character has a bit in common with Fugard himself... and perhaps he can provide a model for us as our own society falls apart that the seams.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Blog of the Plague Month

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland....

That's how Daniel Defoe begins A Journal of the Plague Year. Well, COVID-19 isn't the plague, which killed a third to half the population of Europe when it spread through the continent during the 14th century. Even worst-case scenarios don't suggest that.

Nor is it as bad as the plague was in 1665 when it ravaged London yet again. That outbreak wasn't as severe as the original onslaught in the middle ages, but by the 17th century people had built up some immunity to it, as no doubt we will to this latest virus. The disease that devastated London in Defoe's novel got worse as the weather grew warmer, whereas experts predict the current outbreak could abate during the warmer months. If it's any comfort (which it probably isn't) we have it good compared with Defoe's protagonist.

Still, it's hard to focus on anything other than the fear of disease that's gripped hold of New York, the country, and the world. At the college where I teach, classes are moving online not just for the month, but for the rest of the semester. (Given that the administration had been pushing us to go online long before the virus was a concern, I suspect this has as much to do with saving money as with public health concerns.) A production I had coming up has been postponed to October, and the Shaw conference I had hoped to attend in May has been postponed indefinitely.

London theatres remain open for now, but Broadway has shut down until Easter. The Metropolitan Opera has cancelled performances as well, but fortunately will be broadcasting operas on the internet all this week. That effort is much appreciated. Though there is no substitute for live performance, the Met recognizes that human beings have needs other than just bodily functions. With churches closed, our spiritual needs are not being met, and there is a complete lack of political leadership right now. The Met seems to be one of the few institutions that actual cares about people beyond telling them to stay at home and not touch their face.

We've all heard the story by now of how Shakespeare wrote King Lear during an outbreak of the plague. Honestly, that sounds a bit suspect to me, since we're not even entirely sure in what year Shakespeare wrote the play. Sometime around 1606 seems like a good guess, though, and I went out (before all the bookstores close) to buy a copy of James Shapiro's book The Year of Lear, which makes that speculation. I am unlikely to write Lear during this outbreak, though, since moving my classes online will probably take up much of my remaining spare time.

Today is the Ides of March, and the American Shakespeare Center chose this day to endorse on the New Play Exchange all of the finalists for their Shakespeare's New Contemporaries contest. Matt Bird and I collaborated on a play called Shakespeare or the Devil which was one of those finalists. Now all we need is for our present plague to recede so someone can produce it.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Wole Soyinka

Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka studied at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom, so he was already at home in the U.K. when the Royal Court Theatre premiered his early play The Lion and the Jewel in London in 1959.

An English-language verse comedy of Shakespearian proportions but dealing with the traditional culture of Soyinka's own Yoruba people, The Lion and the Jewel blends together European and African traditions to deal with the conflict between modernization and traditional culture. Sidi, the jewel of the village, gets her picture published in a magazine and comes to think of herself as too good for any of the local men, but she ends up falling for Baroka, an aging leader who is the lion of his community.

Soyinka's play A Dance of the Forest premiered in Nigeria's capital city of Lagos on October 1, 1960, as the new nation celebrated its official first day of independence. Soyinka also started an influential new theatre company that year, the 1960 Masks, which sought to create a distinctly national theatre for Nigeria. Though ethnically Yoruba, Soyinka chose to write in English both to create a unified national theatre that could transcend tribal divisions within the country, and to appeal to an international audience.

The writer's Yoruba heritage still comes through in his plays, though. This is especially true of his 1964 drama The Strong Breed, which is centered around the Yoruba masquerade festival of Egungun. During the festival, an individual designated as a "carrier" is expected to carry all of the evil in the area away from the community. The Strong Breed shows a conflict between the individual and the community come to a head during a celebration of Egungun that does not go as planned--and with tragic results.

The year after he wrote The Strong Breed, Soyinka was arrested for going into a radio station and replacing a tape of a speech by a government official with a tape accusing officials of election fraud. He was held by the government for months, and only released following protests by the international community. His arrest did not stop him from continuing to write plays critical of the authorities, but a greater crisis arose in 1966 when a military coup led to a bloody civil war. During that period, Soyinka was jailed for an even longer period.

Ironically, while he was languishing in prison, Soyinka's plays were achieving international success around the world, including a New York City production of The Trials of Brother Jero. The play pokes fun at a corrupt seaside prophet in Nigeria who cynically uses Christianity to promote his own interests. After a military dictatorship took hold of the country, Soyinka penned a darker sequel, Jero's Metamorphosis, in which the characters in the earlier play align themselves with a murderous government to continue to enrich themselves.

Nigeria's brutal political situation also came through in adaptations Soyinka wrote of Western classics, including The Bacchae of Euripides and Opera Wonyosi, the latter of which reworks Bertolt Brecht's The Threepenny Opera (itself an adaptation of The Beggar's Opera by John Gay) with topical references to contemporary Nigeria. His 1971 play Madmen and Specialists bitterly probes Nigeria's civil war, and had to be written while the author was living in exile due to the country's difficult political situation.

Perhaps Soyinka's most famous work, however, is Death and the King's Horseman. The piece is based on real events that took place under the period of British colonial rule and shows the futility of attempting to force people to change tribal customs. The play greatly increased Soyinka's international profile, and in 1986 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the first African writer to be so honored. Since winning the award, Soyinka has continued to write, including penning the radio plays A Scourge of Hyacinths and Document of Identity. He has also continued to voice his opinions on a variety of political issues inside and outside Nigeria.


Thursday, February 27, 2020

Moulin Rouge

Last night, I got to see Moulin Rouge on Broadway, thanks to the show's online lottery. It was certainly a night to remember.

I saw understudy Dylan Paul as Christian, but the show's star Satine--Karen Olivio--was there, and Danny Burstein was playing his regular role as the master of ceremonies, Harold Zidler.

Since I loved the 2001 movie so much, I had my reservations about the stage show, but the script by John Logan does an admirable job of keeping the moments we all loved from the film, but always with a twist from the original.

When you walk into the auditorium, you find that the theatre has truly been transformed. The audience gets the feeling that they really are at the Moulin Rouge, not the actual nightclub that opened in Paris in 1889, inspired posters by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and later became a home of successful operettas, but the Moulin Rouge of the movie, the wild fever dream of film director Baz Luhrmann.

Though Alex Timbers directed the stage musical, Luhrmann is credited as a creative consultant. The collaboration appears to have worked well, since the show's aesthetic feels unified. From the moment you enter the theatre, performers are already walking around, smoking, flirting with each other, and generally enthralling the audience. "No photography until intermission," the ushers tell you, which allows everyone to savor the moment. (Unfortunately, it also means that intermission becomes selfie hell, but that probably couldn't be avoided.)

The opening number does a great job of evoking not just the setting but the various types of people who frequented the Moulin Rouge. The most interesting denizen of the club is Toulouse-Lautrec, played wonderfully by Sahr Ngaujah. I had seen him before in various Athol Fugard plays at the Signature Theatre, but missed his Tony-nominated performance in Fela! on Broadway. He's an amazing actor, and he inhabits the the character of Toulouse-Lautrec--again, not necessarily as he was, but how we might dream him to be.

When the film came out, it was a shock to hear pop songs performed in a period piece set a hundred years in the past. The stage musical could only meet the challenge of the original by incorporating some new pop songs, many of which weren't even written when the movie premiered, but have so infected our culture that we cease to even think about what their lyrics are saying. By resetting these songs in a completely alien environment, we hear them in a new way, and the show is able to use them to tell its story, even though they were never intended for that purpose.

Moulin Rouge is a jukebox musical, but it uses its songs so cleverly, we don't feel we need new music. The old songs feel new, whether they're a recent hit by Beyoncé or a classic tune by the Rolling Stones. (Speaking of which, Tam Mutu does a mean Stones cover as the villainous Duke of Monroth, who is far more evil than he ever was in the movie.)

So if like me, you had reservations about seeing the musical on Broadway, put them aside. Missing this show would be an elephantine mistake.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Spain in May

It's official. My paper on Sarah Bernhardt's influence on George Bernard Shaw has been accepted for the International Shaw Society's conference in Cáceres, Spain.

The conference (which has the theme of "Shaw in Europe") will be held at the University of Extremadura from May 27th through 29th. The ISS also extended to me a generous travel grant, which will be making the trip much more affordable.

Cáceres is a walled medieval city that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It's also just north of Mérida, which has some excellently preserved Roman ruins, including a Roman Theatre I am keen to see.

I've attended past Shaw conferences in New York and Niagara-on-the-Lake. This will be my first time traveling to Spain, though. I'm looking forward to it!