Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Moby Marathon

This year marks the bicentennial of the birth of author Herman Melville. Though he was actually born in August, November was the beginning of the narrator's journey in Moby-Dick, so it is this weekend that the Rosenbach Library and the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia will be sponsoring a marathon reading of the novel. And I'll be there.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off--then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Thus begins the unnamed narrator who asks us to call him Ishmael. I won't be reading those lines, but I am slated to read Chapter 10, "A Bosom Friend," about Ishmael and his shipmate Queequeg.

I wrote my own stage adaptation of Moby-Dick which premiered at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater on Cape Cod. This weekend, though, it will be a treat to experience the full text of the novel as part of a 25-hour marathon.

The reading will commence at 2:00 pm on Saturday, November 9th inside the Independence Seaport Museum. We'll be on the deck of the Schooner Diligence, which is a full-scale replica of a historic ship and is located inside the main exhibition hall. Organizers estimate the reading will end at approximately 3:15 pm on Sunday, November 10th.

I'll actually be sneaking out for part of the marathon on Sunday to catch my friend Herb Moskovitz give a talk at the Philadelphia Branch of the Wodehouse Society about the stage and screen adaptations of A Damsel in Distress, a novel that is admittedly lighter fare than Moby-Dick, but did inspire a musical with songs by George and Ira Gershwin.

Anyway, the Moby-Dick marathon is free and open to the public, so stop by the Independence Seaport Museum sometime this weekend if you happen to be in Philadelphia. It should be a voyage to remember.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019


Monday night, I went to a reading at the historic St. Peter's Church in Chelsea of the new play called MONSTERS SPEAK. The piece is a series of monologues written by William Henry Koch, Jr. re-imagining some of the most famous creatures of stage and film.

The first monologue, performed by Ryan Hilliard, portrayed Doctor Frankenstein's monster, and it was quite comic in tone. The nameless creature, wittily self-aware, made numerous references not just to Mary Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein, but to the James Whale film adaptations as well.

The first adaptation of Frankenstein was Richard Brinsley Peake's 1823 melodrama Presumption. Though the play had comic moments, it was meant for the most part to be taken seriously. Later that year, however, Peake wrote a second play, Another Piece of Presumption, which begins in a theatre with the playwright Dramaticus Devildom endeavoring to get his play staged. Devildom's play, it so happens, is essentially a comedic version of Peake's last play, with the main character's name changed to "Frankenstich" and Devildom commenting on the story throughout the action.

Koch's monologue, then, is a part of a long history of Frankenstein adaptations, which have over and over again revisited older material from a new and often campy perspective. James Whale, after all, followed up his 1931 film version of Frankenstein with The Bride of Frankenstein in 1935, and arguably one of the best adaptations of the story is Mel Brooks's comic send-up Young Frankenstein, which later returned the story to the stage as a Broadway musical. Peake would have been unsurprised.

The second monologue of the evening portrayed Kharis, the title character in the Universal Pictures Mummy series. In Karl Freund's original 1932 film, the mummy's name is Imhotep, but in a series of follow-up films his name became Kharis. His goal was the same, however: to bring back to life the woman he loved.

Damien Mosco performed the monologue, which was serious and brooding, rather than comic. Unlike the story of Frankenstein's monster, the tale of the mummy originated as a film, though mummies have appeared on stage from time to time. Charles Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep, for instance, contains a memorable Egyptian sequence with a mummy.

Koch performed the final monologue himself, taking on the persona of Quasimodo from Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He portrayed Quasimodo in the tomb with the body of Esmeralda, the two finally united if not in love, in death. During a talkback after the reading, Koch said that of all the numerous adaptations of the novel, he could not think of a single one that kept the book's original ending.

A number of years ago, I did see a puppet version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame that ended in Quasimodo's skeleton clutching the skeleton of Esmeralda in the tomb, but by in large, Koch is right. Even Victor Hugo didn't keep Victor Hugo's ending when he wrote a stage adaptation of the novel called Esmeralda (though he did keep multiple deaths).

MONSTERS SPEAK was a delightfully spooky lead-up to Halloween. Wishing everyone many more merry monsters as we experience the creepiest time of the year!

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Love Suicides of Sonezaki

Chikamatsu's play The Love Suicides of Sonezaki is considered to be a classic of the Japanese theatre, so I was very excited to see a production of the play last night as a part of Lincoln Center's White Light Festival.

The production was done in cooperation with Japan's National Bunraku Theatre, Bunraku Kyokai. The theatre was founded in 1963 to bring together narrators, shamisen players, and puppeteers who are all necessary for the creation of Bunraku, a traditional performing art in Japan with deep roots.

In Chikamatsu's time, the puppet theatre he wrote for was called joruri, though the form evolved over subsequent centuries and became known as Bunraku. It involves a chanter who narrates the performance and voices the characters, a shamisen player who provides musical accompaniment, and multiple puppeteers. For the main characters, three puppeteers at once operate a single puppet.

The production I saw added a new element: video projections created by the artist Tabaimo and Hiroshi Sugimoto, who is also listed as artistic director for the piece. Sugimoto clearly wanted to blend together the traditional with the 21st century. The video helped to create the world of the play, supplementing rather than replacing the puppets and set pieces. Occasionally, the audience got to see close-ups of the puppets on the projections, but those moments were rare, as the production kept the focus on the performers (human and inanimate) in front of us.

The Love Suicides of Sonezaki originally premiered in 1703, less than a month after the infamous double suicide depicted in the play actually occurred. The basic idea, two lovers deciding to join each other in death since they cannot be together in life, is both inspiring and disturbing. In 1717, Chikamatsu added some scenes to satisfy demands that the villain of the play be punished, but these additions failed to resolve controversies around the piece. Couples reportedly committed suicide together in imitation of the lovers in the play, and in 1723 the government officially banned the work from being performed.

It was not until 1955 that the play was performed again. By then, any performance tradition specific to the piece had been lost, so modern interpreters of the work have a bit more of a free rein than they might have with other Chikamatsu plays. In that spirit, the video projections seemed to fit right in with the piece.

It isn't every day that Bunraku is performed in New York City, so I'm glad I was there to see it.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Cyrano, My Love

I just saw Cyrano, My Love, a wonderful new movie written and directed by Alexis Michalik that imagines how Edmond Rostand might have come to write his classic play Cyrano de Bergerac.

Theresa Rebeck gave her own account of Cyrano's creation in Bernhardt/Hamlet, one of my favorite plays to open in New York last year. Michalik's take is not as psychologically believable, but it's not supposed to be. Instead, it is a wild, theatrical romp through the backstage shenanigans of what was predicted to be a disaster, but ended up becoming one of the most beloved plays of the French theatre.

Thomas Solivérès plays Rostand, a neo-romantic poet whose recent play La Princesse Lointaine was a flop in spite of starring the divine actress Sarah Bernhardt. He sets out to write a play for the comic actor Constant Coquelin (played by Olivier Gourmet), who has his own troubles with the Comédie-Française. While Coquelin tries to sell the play to backers, there's only one problem: it isn't written yet.

In scenes reminiscent of Shakespeare in Love, Rostand stumbles upon the inspiration he needs. This is largely with help from a young costumer who becomes his muse, even though (as in Cyrano) she thinks she is in love with a handsome actor whose letters to her are all penned by Rostand. Sometimes we get scenes right out of the play, only performed by Rostand and his contemporaries in the film. And speaking of film, a short by the Méliès brothers even makes an appearance, leading Rostand to despair that the theatre itself might soon become obsolete.

Much of the fun of Cyrano, My Love comes from brief appearances of historical figures of the era, including a consumptive Anton Chekov, waiting patiently downstairs at a Paris brothel while a certain Constantin is indulging with one of the hostesses. The movie also makes Rostand frenemies with the farce writer Georges Feydeau, who is shown getting ready to open another crowd pleaser as Cyrano is also in rehearsals. Indeed, the movie at times seems more like a crazy Feydeau farce than the love-sick heroic comedy that made Rostand famous.

None of that really matters, though, since the film is so delightful. When Cyrano first opened at the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin in 1897, the audience called the actors back for curtain call after curtain call, and when I saw the movie at the Angelika Film Center, the audience likewise burst into applause. If you get a chance to see it, you won't be disappointed.