Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Coming to Iowa

My one-act play The Mysteries of the Castle of the Monk of Falconara is slated to be produced at Iowa State University this May.

The play will be performed as part of the university's One-Act Play Festival, which will be staged May 6-8. The piece will have only one performance, but it will be open to the public free of charge.

Are you an Iowa State University student interested in acting? Then come to auditions on March 1, from 3:00 to 5:15 in 308 Carver Hall. Auditions are open to all students, regardless of major.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

There's Something About Marys

Last night, I saw Jackie Sibblies Drury's new play Marys Seacole, which is inspired by the life of the British-Jamaican world traveler who helped wounded soldiers during the Crimean War.

Presumably, the play is called "Marys" because each of the six performers has a variation of the name Mary, and each seems to represent an aspect of the famous Mary Seacole. The leading actor, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, most closely represents Seacole, and is listed in the program as "Mary." Karen Kandel, who appears as Seacole's mother among other characters, is listed as "Duppy Mary." Gabby Beans, whose multiple characters assist Seacole in various ways, is listed as "Mamie." Other actors are listed as "May," "Merry," and "Miriam."

Born Mary Jane Grant, the historical Mary Seacole learned traditional medicine in Jamaica and referred to herself as a "doctoress." She travelled to Britain, the Bahamas, Cuba, and Haiti before she married Edwin Seacole in 1836. Eight years later, he died, and after a period of grief, she rededicated herself to healing others. She travelled to Panama and tended to victims of a cholera epidemic, avoiding opium as a treatment and generally prescribing herbal remedies. Later, when the Crimean War broke out, she offered her services, but the British War Department declined.

Undaunted, Seacole went to the Crimea anyway, set up a hotel, met with Florence Nightingale, and provided aid and comfort to British soldiers. The position she had of being a healer, but neither a doctor nor a nurse exactly, might have inspired Drury to use Seacole as a representative of the many heathcare workers in the U.S. today who have various levels of training and provide necessary services but don't enjoy the status (or salaries) of certified doctors and nurses. Consequently, the play travels back and forth between Mary Seacole in the 19th century and a character named Mary in the 21st century who is an immigrant from Jamaica working in a nursing home in the U.S.

The concept provides a lot of humor and allows Drury to meditate on caregiving in America today at the same time she is exploring the life of Seacole. Personally, I was more interested in learning about the historical Seacole, but Drury's present-day characters also sparkle with life (even when they are dying) and rarely fail to entertain. The play is performed without an intermission, but it is divided into two acts, during the latter of which the two realities become increasingly blurred. Toward the end, the play takes another turn, when Mary has a powerful confrontation with her mother that brings up a host of issues.

Marys Seacole is playing at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theatre until March 24th. If you're interested in seeing it, check out the show's website.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Theatricality in THE COUNTRY WIFE

The prologue to William Wycherley's Restoration comedy The Country Wife takes a bit of a personal turn when Wycherley writes:

                    But though our Bayes's battles oft I've fought,
                    And with bruis'd knuckles their dear conquests bought;
                    Nay, never yet fear'd odds upon the stage,
                    In prologue dare not hector with the age,
                    But would take quarter from your saving hands,
                    Though Bayes within all yielding countermands,
                    Says you confed'rate wits no quarter give,
                    Therefore his play shan't ask your leave to live.

Who is this Bayes that Wycherley mentions? He's not an actual person, but the fictional playwright in The Rehearsal, a satirical play written by George Villiers and a group of his upper-class friends.

Bayes is based on John Dryden, and The Rehearsal skewers Dryden's play The Conquest of Grenada. As it happens, Dryden wrote in the prologue to The Conquest of Grenada a denunciation of contemporary dramatists which did indeed seem to hector with the age.

The Conquest of Grenada is written in two parts, and the prologue to the first was written to be recited by Nell Gwyn, a talented actress who even attracted the attentions of the king. Dressed in a broad-brimmed hat, she addressed the audience with these words:

                    For 'twere a shame a poet should be killed
                    Under the shelter of so broad a shield.
                    This is that hat, whose very sight did win ye
                    To laugh and clap as though the devil were in ye.

After The Rehearsal, Bayes became Dryden's unfortunate nickname. What Wycherley seems to be doing is attacking Dryden through the fictional Bayes, reminding the audience of the playwright's rather defensive prologue. To be fair to Dryden, his prologue actually attempts to poke fun at audiences in a humorous, good-natured way, as Gwyn was more than capable of doing.

However, the prologue is not the only part of The Country Wife that tips its hat to the institution of the theatre. From the very first act, Wycherley uses meta-theatricality, reminding the audience of the very institution in which they are watching his play. Dorilant speaks of "orange wenches" who sold refreshments in the theatre, the "vizard-mask" which was worn by ladies to disguise themselves at the theatre, and even "a great-bellied actress" and "a second-hand critic."

Toward the end of the first act, Horner tells Pinchwife, "I saw you yesterday in the eighteen-penny place with a pretty country wench." Seats in the gallery above the boxes were only eighteen pence, and Pinchwife seems to have taken his new bride there to hide her from his friends. Unfortunately for him, this tactic doesn't work. Not only was his wife Margery seen, but she develops a taste for the theatre. Complaining to her sister-in-law, she says that at the playhouse Pinchwife kept her "amongst ugly people" and while she found herself "weary of the play" she "liked hugeously the actors."

The gallery was where the cheap seats were, and below them were the boxes, where respectable people could watch the play while still enjoying some privacy. These seats were the most expensive in the auditorium, but not necessarily the best place to watch the play. The floor of the auditorium was known as the pit, and since it was closest to the stage, it was where the best seats were if you actually wanted to see and hear the show rather than just be seen and gather with close family members and friends. Upper-class men would purchase box seats since that was expected of them, but if they wanted to get a better view of the stage (and mingle with the general public) they would then go down into the pit to watch the show.

In Act II of The Country Wife, Margery's sister-in-law Alithea complains when invited to the theatre, "I will not go, if you intend to leave me alone in the box and run into the pit, as you use to do." Her husband-to-be responds to her, "if I sat in the box, I would be thought no judge but of trimmings." True enthusiasts of the theatre sat in the pit, which of course made it difficult for respectable women to fully enjoy a play while maintaining their respectability. That didn't mean upper-class women didn't attend the theatre, though. They would just have to stay in a box, or if they did venture down into the pit, they would generally wear a mask. In Act II a group of women even comes over to Pinchwife's house expecting to take his new bride with them to see a play.

Pinchwife's strategy to take his wife out into the world but not provoke the desire of men is to dress her as a man and pretend that she is her own brother. Alithea suggests she instead "put on her mask" as would have been common for women attending the theatre. Later, however, she reflects that "beauty masked, like the sun in eclipse, gathers together more gazers than if it shined out." Similarly, when Margery Pinchwife dons male clothing, she attracts more attention from men than ever, yet her husband must stand idly by while men insist on kissing his "brother-in-law" right in front of him.

Though the theatre becomes less important in the play's final acts, there are still references to it. In Act V, Mrs. Squeamish says, "that demureness, coyness, and modesty that you see in our faces in the boxes at plays, is as much a sign of a kind woman, as a vizard-mask in the pit."

Remember, only disreputable women could be seen in the pit, so many ladies wore masks to disguise themselves there. Squeamish is saying that the reputation of a "good" woman in the box seats was just as much a disguise as the masks worn by prostitutes and loose women down below them.

It's a rather cynical attitude, but The Country Wife is a rather cynical play!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Oliver Twist for the Toy Theatre

While in London last month, I went to Benjamin Pollock's Toyshop in Covent Garden. That's where I picked up reproduction prints for a Victorian toy theatre version of Oliver Twist.

I haven't built the theatre yet, though I already have a toy theatre of Great Expectations. As today is the birthday of Charles Dickens, I thought I'd share some images of the prints I bought. They're reproduced from actual designs published by John Redington.

The first step in the process is to build the proscenium. Below is what Redington's proscenium looked like. Notice that spectators can be seen in boxes on either side of the stage. You can also build up the proscenium with pieces meant to give it extra height, if you want.

Pollock's will also sell you a reproduction of the script that Victorian children would use when enacting productions of Oliver Twist. In their version, the play opens at the "Three Cripples," which is the name of an infamous tavern in Dickens's novel. Here's what it looked like in the imagination of a Victorian toymaker:

The second scene is in a workhouse, which is where Dickens begins his novel. The reason it doesn't look as bleak as you might expect is because this is where Mrs. Corney and Mr. Bumble meet to discuss where to apprentice Oliver. Strangely enough, the script doesn't contain the story's most famous line:  "Please, sir, I want some more." Young thespians could have added it in, of course.

As in the novel, Oliver is apprenticed to Mr. Sowerberry, the undertaker. Noah teases him, telling Oliver his "mother was a right down bad 'un." The two fight, and there is even a special double character figure of the two of them fighting. When Mr. Bumble sees this, he resolves to lock the boy up and inform the workhouse board. Oliver decides he must run away at once, and the curtain falls on Act I.

The second act opens with a scene of the road to London. The gothic ruins in this scene look like they come from another play. This is the road to where? Well, one of the extra pieces that comes with the set is a milestone showing it is twelve miles to London, so that could certainly cue the audience into where the scene is. It's along this road that Oliver meets the Artful Dodger, who invites him back to Fagin's house, which is the next scene.

Below is the interior of Fagin's house. In the background are stolen handkerchiefs, one of which resembles a Union Jack for some reason. The stage directions call for "Thieves discovered smoking" and Dodger enters with Oliver. The young orphan marvels at all of the handkerchiefs, and Fagin sends him out with Dodger and Charley, telling him, "do whatever they tell you." Oliver agrees, and the boys go to our next scene, which is a street in Clerkenwell.

The street scene below could no doubt be used in a variety of plays, but the script suggests it be the setting for a surprisingly expository scene. We don't actually see Dodger and Charley robbing Mr. Brownlow and Oliver being caught by mistake. Instead Dodger simply narrates: "Oliver was with us, and just as we nabbed the wipe, he turned round; we cut--Oliver run, and they run arter him, thinking he was a thief." The boy is then taken to Mr. Brownlow's house.

Maybe we weren't expecting the pink walls, but I suppose this looks like a typical middle-class Victorian home. Prominently displayed is a portrait that resembles Oliver so much that Mrs. Bedwin remarks upon it. Mr. Brownlow notices the resemblance, too, and tells Oliver, "Your likeness to one whom I once dearly loved--will make me regard you with interest and affection." Mr. Brownlow's friend is skeptical, but Oliver is sent back outside to pay a bill to the bookseller.

Scene 8 returns to the street, where Nancy and Bill Sykes kidnap Oliver and take him back to Fagin's house. That means the next two scenes in a row repeat previous backdrops. We then return to a chamber in Mr. Brownlow's house. Wait a minute, this is Mr. Brownlow's house? Who knew Mr. Brownlow was into interior decorating with an orientalist aesthetic. According to George Speaight's history of the toy theatre, this scene was actually pirated from a design for a rival publisher's toy theatre version of Forty Thieves.

We next return to Fagin's house, where the thieves (but not forty of them) plan to use Oliver to break into Mrs. Maylie's House. No, I'm not sure what's up with those potted plants, but it is a lovely moon. Oliver is captured, of course, and we get to see Sykes with a pistol. The script says Sykes is supposed to re-enter "with pistols" but only one pistol is on the character sheet. As Oliver is wounded, the curtain falls on Act II.

Act III opens in a hall in the house of Mrs. Maylie. The interior of the house is a bit more convincing to me than the exterior, but the scene is brief, and we are quickly transported to London Bridge. Nancy meets with Mr. Brownlow while Noah spies on them. Another street scene follows, where Noah tells Sykes. I'm skipping over these images to get to the really frightening one: Sykes's garret where he murders Nancy.

Another scene at Mr. Brownlow's follows, but the climax of the play is on Jacob's Island. The stage directions state: "The white part of the window to be cut out, and the Room in Set Piece to be placed at the back of the opening." We get to see inside the building, and then have the scene outside on the roof as Sykes is hunted to his death.

And that's the play! Maybe next year on Dickens's birthday I can actually perform it with a real toy theatre!