Friday, April 20, 2018

The Servant of Two Masters

Last night, I saw a delightful college production of Carlo Goldoni's commedia dell'arte-inspired play The Servant of Two Masters.

Goldoni originally wrote the play for Antonio Sacco, an actor who specialized in Arlecchino-style roles, often appearing under the name Truffaldino, as he did in Goldoni's play.

Though Goldoni chaffed under what he considered to be the constraints of commedia, he included a number of the form's stock characters. The father of the young lover Clarice is Pantalone, the stingy old man. He, in turn, has engaged his daughter to the son of Dr. Lombardi, who is based on the Il Dottore character in commedia.

One of the most memorable characters in the play is the innkeeper Brighella, who is also based on a commedia type, though he is less violent than he usually is in commedia. Truffaldino, of course, must have his own love interest, and Goldoni gives him the servant Smeraldina, based on the Columbina of commedia.

Though The Servant of Two Masters is the most famous play Goldoni wrote for Sacco, it was not the only one. He had previously written Truffaldino's 32 Mishaps, and would go on to write Truffaldino's Son Lost and Found.

Goldoni's rival Carlo Gozzi also used Sacco in his Truffaldino character, most famously in The King Stag, which also includes Pantalone, Clarice, Smeraldina, and the Captain Spavento character from commedia, promoted to being a general this time.

Commedia characters are frequently portrayed in miniatures and prints, but it's also nice to see them where they belong: on the stage!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Seagullmachine

Last night, I went to the first preview of The Assembly's new piece, SEAGULLMACHINE, at La MaMa. According to the company's website:

The Assembly’s newest performance smashes together two iconic riffs on the Hamlet story – Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine – combining theatrical realism, immersive staging, live video, poetry, comedy and tragedy to excavate the legacy of 20th-century drama in the light of the present-day, and ask: What’s the good of making theater anyway?

If you're expecting a full-on mash-up of The Seagull and Hamletmachine, however, that's not what this is. The audience is led into the Ellen Stewart Theatre at La MaMa, past the risers where they would usually sit, into a specially built mini-theater, with a three-quarters-round seating area at the back of the regular stage.

Sitting here for the first half of the show, they watch what is a pretty traditional production of the first three acts of The Seagull. There are a few avant-garde touches, such as a chrome-looking sculpture being used for the seagull that Konstantin shoots, and some video monitors showing the area behind the stage, but for the most part, it's not too different from any production of The Seagull you would expect to see in the Village these days.

After the intermission break, the audience returns to their seats for the final act of The Seagull, which is performed in roughly the same style, until we get to the last line, and the performance transforms into Muller's Hamletmachine. The two plays might seem to be an odd pairing, but the pieces are both variations on Hamlet. As a program note for the performance argues:

Both plays are, of course, haunted by Shakespeare's Hamlet. In The Seagull, a young artist-intellectual unsettled by his mother's new partner and his own troubled relationship, utilizes a boldly experimental play-within-a-play as a weapon against the mores of his parents' generation. In Hamletmachine, the figure of Hamlet reckons with the failures of his art and idealism to transform the world, and endeavors to destroy the theater once and for all.

Muller's Hamletmachine is notoriously open to interpretation in terms of how it should be performed, but The Assembly uses this to their advantage, having Konstantin (Jax Jackson) double as the Hamlet figure, Nina (Layla Khosh) as Ophelia, Trigorin (Ben Beckley) as Claudius, and Arkadina (Nehassaiu deGannes) as Gertrude.

For the end of the show, the audience is also led out of the mini-theater where they had been sitting into a space where the performance can truly become immersive. Wear comfortable shoes, and don't be afraid to leave your bags and coats at your seat. (They'll let you get back to them. I promise!)

SEAGULLMACHINE is running until May 5th. If you're interested in going, check out The Assembly's website here:

The Assembly

Friday, April 13, 2018

Plutarch's Caesar

Ben Jonson quipped that his friend William Shakespeare had "small Latin, and less Greek." It's true that Shakespeare must have been familiar with Ovid's Metamorphoses in the original Latin, but other than that, Johnson seems to have been right.

Fortunately, by the end of the 16th century, people in England didn't have to be able to read Latin and Greek in order to have access to the classics. Many of Shakespeare's plays are based on the ancient historian Plutarch. In order to read Plutarch, the playwright simply read an English version by Thomas North, which North had translated from a French version of the original Greek.

How do we know Shakespeare read North's translation? He borrowed heavily from the language he used. In Antony and Cleopatra, for instance, Shakespeare takes North's description of Cleopatra's barge, and just tweaking a word here and there, turns it into iambic pentameter and makes it fit the verse form he wants. Passages in Julius Caesar might not be quite as close, but they still betray a direct debt to Plutarch, and in particular to North's rendering of Plutarch into English.

Consider this famous passage from Act I of Julius Caesar:

                    Let me have men about me that are fat,
                    Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights.
                    Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look.
                    He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

Compare that to this prose passage in North's translation of Plutarch:

Caesar also had Cassius in great jealousy, and suspected him much: whereupon he said on a time to his friends, "what will Cassius do, think ye? I like not his pale looks.... As for those fat men and smooth-combed heads," quoth he, "I never reckon of them; but these pale-visaged and carrionlean people, I fear them most," meaning Brutus and Cassius.

Shakespeare's version is better, but it borrows key words, including look(s), fat, men, (carrion)lean, and head(ed).  The syntax is changed, but the meaning is essentially the same. Shakespeare knew when to borrow good material, but he also understood how to reshape it to turn what was good into something better.

In Act II, Shakespeare borrowed from North's Plutarch in penning possibly even more famous lines for Caesar:

                    Cowards die many times before their deaths;
                    The valiant never taste of death but once.
                    Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
                    It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
                    Seeing that death, a necessary end,
                    Will come when it will come.

Here's what it says in North's translation of Plutarch:

And when some of his friends did counsel him to have a guard for the safety of his person, and some also did offer themselves to serve him, he would never consent to it, but said: "It was better to die once, than always to be afraid of death."

Shakespeare elaborates on the quote in the original, expanding it into a meditation on the subject of death and bravery. A simple aphorism becomes a moment of philosophical reflection. Shakespeare didn't always expand upon his material, though. One of the most chilling moments in Plutarch's story of the assassination of Caesar is this:

Furthermore there was a certain soothsayer that had given Caesar warning long time afore, to take heed of the day of the Ides of March, (which is the fifteenth of the month), for on that day he should be in great danger. That day being come, Caesar going unto the Senate-house, and speaking merrily unto the soothsayer, told him, "the Ides of March be come:" "so they be," softly answered the soothsayer, "but yet are they not past."

The play relates this exchange with remarkable brevity:

                    CAESAR: The ides of March are come.
                    SOOTHSAYER: Ay, Caesar, but not gone.

It seems that everything has been done already in one way or another. Playwrights always use source material. Shakespeare just seems to have been able to use his better than most. When he found gold, he polished it. When there was a nugget of precious material, he mined it further until he found what he wanted. And when he came across a gem, he chipped back at it until he uncovered a heart that sparkled all the more brilliantly.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Lake

The playwright Frank D. Gilroy is known primarily for writing the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1965 play The Subject Was Roses. His later play, Lake, had to wait until after his death to be performed, but it finally received its premiere by the Hudson Guild Theatre Company, which completed their run of the piece this afternoon.

It's too late for you to see it now, dear reader, but I managed to catch the last performance. Gilroy wrote the piece for a panoply of 84 different characters to be performed by a cast of 10. Hudson Guild increased that cast to 18, and there's no reason its characters couldn't be distributed between a variety of different numbers of actors. Like A.R. Gurney's The Dining Room, the show's flexibility makes it ideal for high schools and community theaters.

Lake tells the story of a small community not unlike the one around Erskine Lake in New Jersey, where Gilroy's own family spent summers when he was growing up. In the play, developers fail to bury water pipes deep enough in the ground, so they freeze during the winter, cutting off water, but an enterprising salesman turns this goof into an advantage. He markets the community as "summer only" to attract a certain class of people, and lots sell like hotcakes.

The play follows the community that develops through the 1930s and early 1940s, but changes forever with the advent of World War II. There is always tension between the well-to-do families that summer at the Lake and the year-round locals, who are sometimes looked down upon as hillbillies, or simply as workers whose place is to serve. After the war, however, both groups have suffered unspeakable losses, and the old ways just don't work anymore. The lake community transforms into a bland suburb much like everywhere else.

Lake offers a micro-history of an American town from 1929 to after 1945. It is sometimes a sad, bitter story, but Gilroy has clearly tried to be truthful when telling it.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Travesties

Last night, I saw Roundabout Theatre Company's production of Tom Stoppard's wonderful play Travesties.

The play is an extremely witty farce Stoppard wrote after reading a biography of James Joyce. Stoppard was fascinated by a brief account of Joyce taking part in a production of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest in Zurich, Switzerland during the First World War.

Peter McDonald plays Joyce in this production, and pulls off both the ridiculous sight gags and the occasional magic trick Stoppard's script requires him to perform. The protagonist of the play, however, is not Joyce, but Henry Carr, who worked for the British Consulate at the time and was recruited to play the lead in Earnest. (As Travesties mentions repeatedly, the lead is not Earnest, but "the other one.")

Tom Hollander plays Carr, and it's easy to see why he received an Olivier Award nomination when he played the role in London. (This production, directed by Patrick Marber, was originally done at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which previously transferred a revival of Sunday in the Park with George to Roundabout.) Carr begins the play as an old man, remembering not just Joyce, but also the communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and the dadaist poet Tristan Tzara, who as it so happens, were also in Zurich at the same time as Joyce.

Dan Butler plays Lenin, and Seth Numrich plays the monocle-wearing Tzara, who flirts wildly with a young woman named Gwendolyn (who by chance has been helping Joyce as he writes Ulysses). Gwendolyn is not a historical figure, and her resemblance to the character of the same name in The Importance of Being Earnest is not coincidental. As the play proceeds, we quickly perceive that Carr has gotten quite a bit mixed up in his head, and his memories cannot be entirely relied upon. Scarlett Strallen, who plays Gwendolyn, can more than be relied upon, however. An alumna of such farcical comedies as A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, she's very much in her element in Travesties.

The same is also true of Sara Topham, who plays the librarian Cecily, another character who appears to have walked out of The Importance of Being Earnest and into Carr's memory. Topham played the title role in Saint Joan at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake last summer, and she was also quite memorable as Beatrice-Joanna in Red Bull's production of The Changeling the year before that. In Travesties, she shows remarkable versatility, performing a racy table-top dance in Carr's imagination, and then later appearing as an old woman who helps to set the historical record straight.

Tickets for Travesties are on sale through the middle of June, so book now. It's rare to get a chance to see this Stoppard gem, and even more rare to see it performed this well!


Monday, April 2, 2018

THE RAINBOW Next Month in Michigan

Next month, the students at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan will be putting on my play The Rainbow as part of their Studio Theater Showcase.

The showcase will be playing from Thursday, May 3rd to Saturday, May 6th. Gerard Dzuiblinski is directing the showcase, which will be in the Studio Theater (F-161) on the college's Dearborn campus on Evergreen Road.

The Rainbow is included in the anthology The Best American Short Plays: 2012-2013, published by Applause. Two monologues from the play are also collected in Best Monologues from the Best American Short Plays, Volume Three.

A couple years ago, 21st Ward Theater Company in Philadelphia produced a site-specific production of the play in Gorgas Park. The play was originally performed at the American Globe in New York in 2012 as a part of their short play festival.

Best of luck to all those involved in the HFC production. Wish I could be there to see it!

Saturday, March 31, 2018

ALICE Pictures

I just received photographs from the wonderful production of my adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that toured through North Carolina earlier this month.

East Carolina University produced the show, which was directed by Nick Lease and Michael Eubanks. A couple of the performances were at the Turnage Theatre in Washington, N.C., and another was at Parkwood Elementary School in Jacksonville, N.C. They took some great photos, and I wanted to share a few of them here.

Here's Alice (Catie Griffin) with her sister Lorina (Jordan Biggers) at the beginning of the show:



Alice falls down the rabbit hole and finds herself in a rather curious place.


Once in Wonderland, she encounters the Duchess, played here by Emma Myers.


A friendly cat (played here by Michael VanHouten) helps her along the way.


Here's the crazy tea party with the Mad Hatter (Connor Gerney), the Dormouse (Tyler Whitley), and the March Hare (Grant Morgan).


The highlight of the show was a manxome Jabberwock. You should have heard its mighty burbles when it came whiffling through the tulgy wood...


Fortunately, Alice slew the beast with her vorpal sword. What a finale!


Thanks to everyone who made the show a success, including sound and lighting designers Jayme Johns and Andrew Fiorini, Dylan Bailey and Jordan Early who costumed the piece, and puppet designer David Lynn. Leslie Shaw stage managed the show, and Patch Clark provided faculty supervision.

Here's a shot of the whole goofy cast and crew:


Everyone at ECU was great, and I hope to work with them again some day.