Monday, May 21, 2018

Happy Birthday, Mary Anning!

Today is the 219th birthday of Mary Anning, the fossil hunter and paleontologist who revolutionized the scientific world at the beginning of the 19th century.

My play about Anning, Bones of the Sea, had a reading earlier this year by Elephant Room Productions. You can hear a selection from the play (and an interview with me) on the company's podcast The Trumpet.

Anning was a working-class woman and a religious dissenter. She had three strikes against her: wrong class, wrong sex, wrong religion. Yet she managed to make remarkable contributions to the scientific world. Now more than ever, I think we need stories like hers.

The fossils Anning uncovered (including the first discovered remains of an ichthyosaur, which she and her brother found while they were still children) provided the core of the fossil collection at the British Museum in the 19th century. Most of those fossils have since been moved to the Natural History Museum in London.

When I was in London a couple years ago, I took pictures of some of the fossils Anning had collected. Unfortunately, she had to fight to get some of her finds recognized. After she uncovered a plesiosaur, some skeptics claimed she must have faked the fossil, arguing no sea creature could possibly have had a neck that long. After colleagues of hers uncovered another plesiosaur fossil elsewhere, more people started to believe her.


I'm hoping the play will have another reading in the coming year. Stay tuned!

Thursday, May 17, 2018

WORTH in Indianapolis

Good news! My play Worth has been selected for the Khaos Company Theatre's new play festival in Indianapolis this November.

A five-minute excerpt of the play will be performed November 3, 2018 at The Neidhammer coffee shop on Washington Street. There are 14 other plays that were also selected to have excerpts read at the festival. Audiences will then be asked to vote on their favorite excerpts.

The excerpt with the largest number of votes will be declared the winner, and that play with then be performed in full during the company's following season. This November, Khaos is putting on last year's winner, Yellow Heat: Vincent Van Gogh in Arles by Allan Bates.

Worth deals with an investigation of a potentially fraudulent money manager in a charged atmosphere following recent financial scandals. The characters begin the play by acting respectably, but gradually turn vicious as livelihoods, reputations, and their own sense of identity get called into question. The play explores where we are in the wake of the financial crisis and where we might be headed.

The piece was developed at the Abingdon Theatre Company, where it received a script-in-hand reading, but it has yet to be fully produced.

More information to come!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Saint Joan on Broadway

Last weekend, I saw Condola Rashad as the title role in George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan on Broadway. And yes, this Manhattan Theatre Club production definitely highlights the star power of Rashad, whose face adorns playbills, advertisements, and the theatre's marquee.

That doesn't mean that the supporting cast is anything to sniff at, though. This is one of the best ensemble casts you'll see doing a Shaw play. The show opens with Patrick Page as the irrepressible Robert de Baudricourt. Page is probably best known for his turn as the lord of the dead in the off-Broadway musical Hadestown. It should come as no surprise, then, when he returns in the second act as the chilling Inquisitor and dominates Joan's trial scene.

John Glover similarly dominates the second scene of the play as the Archbishop of Rheims, one of several advisors who bullies about the young Dauphin. Adam Chanler-Berat (the original Peter in Peter and the Starcatcher) plays the Dauphin with a goofy but lovable immaturity. Joan's miraculous picking out of the blood royal in a room full of nobles is hardly miraculous, given how much Chanler-Berat's Dauphin sticks out from the rest of the crowd, but as the Archbishop says, a miracle is simply an event which creates faith.

Daniel Sunjata shines as Dunois in the third scene, when the wind miraculously changes direction after Joan's arrival. The wind effect was achieved with projections across the set, which resembled a set of massive chimes hanging from the fly space of the theatre. Set designer Scott Pask (who also designed the sets for Something Rotten) managed to create an evocative abstract set that still conjured up the feel of the middle ages without looking explicitly medieval. Costume designer Jane Greenwood, on the other hand, strove to create period costumes, which I appreciated, as other productions I've seen of Saint Joan have all been in modern dress.

The fourth scene of the play came right before intermission, which was also the case with the production I saw last summer at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Though the scene is essentially just a conversation between the Earl of Warwick (played here by Jack Davenport) and Cauchon (Broadway director Walter Bobbie returning to acting for the role), it can produce fireworks when you have two great performers. That was the case here, where the characters' anachronistic discussion of Protest-ant-ism and Nation-al-ism drew howls of laughter from the audience.

In the scene that follows the Dauphin's coronation as King of France, a bitter pessimism set in, preparing the audience for the most famous scene in the play, Joan's trial. In Dark Night of the Soul, my own treatment of the Joan of Arc story, the trial takes up the entirety of the play, and Shaw understood that this must be the crux of any drama about the Maid. It is here that the actor playing Joan really has a chance to showcase her talent.

And what about Rashad, whose face adorns all of the publicity for the show? She's a rather unconventional Joan. Gone is the young innocence we typically associate with Joan, as Rashad gives us a much more cunning saint. In the first scene, as she fingers a chair in Baudricourt's quarters, we almost think she might be mad, but as Baudricourt's perception of her changes, so does ours. This is a woman who knows what she's doing and has no illusions about the dangers she is facing.

Rashad also isn't afraid to show the weakness of her character. She is battered down by the trial scene, and seems defeated when she declares that "only a fool will walk into a fire." Her freedom is more important to her than her life, though, and her embrace of martyrdom is paradoxically life-affirming in this production.

Director Daniel Sullivan also opts to keep the play's epilogue, which is perhaps the highlight of the show. It's delightful to see all the characters from the play scoot their way into the bedchamber of the sleeping king. When Glover returns, this time as a gentleman from the 1920s, his incongruous clothing makes an excellent contrast with the rest of the cast in their medieval garb, a joke of Shaw's that is lost in modern-dress productions.

Broadway's revival of Saint Joan, aided by Rashad's star power, will help to introduce a lot of playgoers to Shaw who might not generally see his work. Though this version is not as innovative as Bedlam's production of the play a few years ago, it does competently showcase Shaw's writing and will hopefully renew interest in Joan of Arc as we approach the 100th anniversary of her canonization.

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Premiere of THE CENCI

On this date, May 7th, in 1886, Percy Shelley's long neglected drama The Cenci received its world premiere in a private performance at the Grand Theatre, Islington.

Censorship laws meant that the play officially had to be a closed affair, but in practice the much-publicized event was anything but private. This ambitious production by the Shelley Society featured the prominent actress Alma Murray as Beatrice Cenci. It boasted massive sets, an orchestra, original music, and special wigs and dresses for Murray by name designers.

The Shelley Society enlisted the up-and-coming theatre reviewer George Bernard Shaw to handle press relations. I presented a paper on the play's influence on Shaw at a Shaw conference in New York in 2015. I later revised the paper, and last year it was published in the journal Shaw.

The Cenci managed to win over a select audience. According to The Saturday Review, "The applause was loud and continuous." Many of those who had packed the Grand Theatre were die-hard Shelley fanatics. This included an elderly Robert Browning, who, according to the New York newspaper The World, "stood up waving his handkerchief at the close."

After seeing the production, Oscar Wilde wrote in the Dramatic Review that "no one has more clearly understood than Shelley the mission of the dramatist and the meaning of the drama." Shaw was not so enthusiastic. He wrote a review in the magazine Our Corner in which he called the play "a strenuous but futile and never-to-be-repeated attempt to bottle the new wine in the old skins."

Shelley in fact did attempt to write other plays, including Hellas, a reimagining of Aeschylus for the Greek independence movement of the 1820s. The Cenci is the best of his plays, though. If you're interested, you can read the full text here.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

THE RAINBOW This Week

My short play The Rainbow will be performed this week at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan.

The play will be put on as part of a Studio Theater Showcase being directed by Gerard Dzuiblinski. The first performance will be on Thursday, May 3rd, and the show will be playing until Sunday, May 6th.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend, but my aunt who lives in the area is going to try to see it on Sunday. Hopefully, she'll be able to report back that it went well! The play will be performed in HFC's Studio Theater (F-161) on the college's Dearborn campus on Evergreen Road.

The college found the piece since The Rainbow is included in the anthology The Best American Short Plays: 2012-2013, published by Applause. The play was originally done at the American Globe in New York as a part of their short play festival. Later, 21st Ward Theater Company produced a site-specific production in Gorgas Park in Philadelphia.

Tickets are $5, which includes six short plays performed in an intimate setting. If you're in the area, I hope you can attend!

Sunday, April 29, 2018

This is just to say...

Generally, when I see a good play, I post about it, and when I see something that's bad, I write nothing.

Unfortunately, the New York Theatre Workshop's production of Caryl Churchill's A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was so irredeemably bad, I really have to say something.

Yes, the lighting design was pretty terrible, right from the moment theatre goers sit down and have stage lights shining right down onto them, blinding the audience. (See, it's a light shining on the audience. Get it? Aren't we clever?)

And yes, the mixing of candle lighting and 17th-century costumes with t-shirts and plastic bags failed to work. (You see? He's wearing a ruff and drinking a bottle of coke onstage to show that it's relevant to today. Aren't we being revolutionary?) Funny how plays like The Secret Theatre are able to make past events relevant to the present without beating the audience over the head with it in a ham-fisted manner.

But what I really need to write about is the tremendous misuse of funds provided by Diana and Joe DiMenna and TDF. You see, the program contained this promising little note:

New York Theatre Workshop gratefully acknowledges the generous support that Diana & Joe DiMenna and TDF TAP Plus have provided to enable the C2 open captioning services. With the tremendous leadership of Rachel Chavkin and her team of designers, a captioning board has been fully incorporated into the design of the production.

What does "fully incorporated" mean? It means that smack in the middle of a set is a glowing display using 1980s technology to display every word of the play in the most uninteresting manner possible. Really? You got all that money, and all you can show for it is one of those visual displays you used to see on bank signs?

When Deaf West did Spring Awakening on Broadway, they included extremely creative projections that popped up on different parts of the set. It was amazing! Hearing audiences got a translation of the ASL being used on stage, and when somebody spoke and there was no ASL, Deaf audiences got to read what the characters were saying. Brilliant!

These designers were obviously not up to the caliber of the folks at Deaf West, and maybe they didn't have the same budget as a Broadway production, but this is not a new issue, people! When Bertolt Brecht wanted to make sure audience members--regardless of their hearing--understood every word of a song, he projected the lyrics onto an old sheet at the back of the stage. I'm sure it was much cheaper than the C2 captioning, and more effective, too!

Brecht had other reasons for using projections, as well, and any time you add an element like projections or electronic captioning into a show, it is going to change the dynamics of the performance. He realized this, and used it to his advantage. The folks at NYTW do not seem to have done this. In fact, they don't seem to have thought the whole thing through at all.

By the way, nowhere in the program did NYTW mention ASL-interpreted performances for the play. As a recent article in American Theatre makes clear, many Deaf people prefer ASL-interpreted performances to open captioning. So what was the real reason for including open captioning at every performance of the play? Was it to "ensure access for any and all in our midst" as the program note stated, or was it really to make hearing people feel smug and self-satisfied while they ignored what Deaf audiences actually wanted?

Regardless of the motivation, it was a failure, and a failure that could have been overcome if NYTW had taken the time to do things right. It's time to end the practice of theatres paying lip service to accessibility, screwing it up massively, and then patting themselves on the back for being socially responsible.

The sheer inanity of this production did give me time to count the empty seats in the rows ahead of me during the second act. It looked like about half the audience left at intermission. Whether this was because of the obnoxiously bad open captioning or due to the production's many other shortcomings, I can't say, but when your massive incompetence chases away half your audience, you are hardly providing accessible theatre.

Next time, NYTW, instead of springing for all that money to install the type of thing I saw in front of malls in 1987, give me $5, a digital projector, and a copy of Microsoft PowerPoint. I guarantee you I could come up with a captioning system that is more creative, less distracting, and more inclusive than what I saw in your theatre.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Witches' Songs

The text of Macbeth calls for two songs that are also in Thomas Middleton's play The Witch. Though The Witch seems to have been written after Macbeth, many critics believe the songs are by Middleton, as full lyrics appear in The Witch and Macbeth simply gives the first lines of the songs in stage directions.

Most likely, they were a later addition to Macbeth made by theatre professionals always looking to utilize a popular song if it could serve their purposes. Of course there are other possibilities as well. Maybe Shakespeare wrote the songs, and Middleton incorporated them into his own play, of perhaps the lyrics were written by a member of Shakespeare's company who contributed to both plays.

The first song, "Come away, come away," occurs at the end of Act III, scene 5 of Macbeth. Here's how the song appears in Act III, scene 3 of Middleton's play:

               WITCHES: Come away, come away, 
               Hecate, Hecate, come away. 
               HECATE: I come, I come, I come, I come, 
               With all the speed I may, 
               With all the speed I may, 
               Where's Stadlin? 
               STADLIN: Here. 
               HECATE: Where's Puckle? 
               PUCKLE: Here. 
               WITCHES: And Hoppo, too, and Hellwain, too; 
               We lack but you, we lack but you. 
               Come away, make up the count. 
               HECATE: I will but 'noint, and then I mount.

                              A spirit like a cat descends.

               WITCHES: There's one comes down to fetch his dues, 
               A kiss, a coll, a sip of blood, 
               And why thou stay'st so long 
               I muse, I muse, 
               Since the air's so sweet and good. 
               HECATE: Oh, art thou come? 
               What news, what news? 
               MALKIN: All goes still to our delight, 
               Either come or else 
               Refuse, refuse. 
               HECATE: Now I am furnish'd for the flight.
               FIRESTONE: Hark, hark, the cat sings a brave treble in her own language!
               HECATE, going up: Now I go, now I fly, 
               Malkin my sweet spirit and I. 
               Oh, what a dainty pleasure 'tis 
               To ride in the air 
               When the moon shines fair 
               And sing, and dance, and toy, and kiss; 
               Over woods, high rocks, and mountains, 
               Over seas, over misty fountains, 
               Over steeples, towers, and turrets, 
               We fly by night, 'mongst troops of spirits. 
               No ring of bells to our ears sounds, 
               No howls of wolves, no yelps of hounds, 
               No, not the noise of water's breach 
               Or cannon's throat our height can reach. 
               No ring of bells, etc.

The other song, "Black Spirits," appears at the beginning of Act IV in Macbeth, which also has the famous "Double, Double Toil and Trouble" song. This fact has led some scholars to speculate that Middleton wrote that song as well, along with perhaps other passages in Macbeth. There's no external evidence for that theory, but lack of evidence has rarely stopped fans of Middleton from attributing all sort of things to him.

Whether "Black Spirits" was written by Shakespeare, Middleton, or someone else, here's how it appears in Act V, scene 2 of The Witches:

               HECATE: Black spirits and white, red spirits and grey, 
               Mingle, mingle, mingle, you that mingle may. 
               Titty, Tiffin, keep it stiff in. 
               Firedrake, Puckey, make it lucky. 
               Liard, Robin, you must bob in. 
               Round, around, around, about, about, 
               All ill come running in, all good keep out. 
               FIRST WITCH: Here's the blood of a bat. 
               HECATE: Put in that, oh, put in that. 
               SECOND WITCH: Here's libbard's bane. 
               HECATE: Put in again. 
               FIRST WITCH: The juice of toad, the oil of adder. 
               SECOND WITCH: Those will make the younker madder. 
               HECATE: Put in; there's all, and rid the stench. 
               FIRESTONE: Nay, here's three ounces of the red-hair'd wench. 
               ALL: Round, around, around, about, about, 
               All ill come running in, all good keep out.

Regardless of who wrote the songs, the fact that two plays by different dramatists shared some of the same material probably tells us something about playwriting and theatre production during the Jacobean era. Authorship was complicated, and companies had few qualms about recycling material. When directors today incorporate modern songs into Shakespeare's plays, they might be doing something similar to what Shakespeare's own company did hundreds of years ago.