Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Postdramatic and Its Discontents

It has become trendy in recent years to speak about "postdramatic" theatre. The idea is that drama can create an overall mood and emotional connection to the audience without being... well... dramatic.

It might seem odd for drama theorists to be anti-drama, but the idea is hardly new. While some scholars see the origin of a postdramatic theatre in the 1960s, way back in the 1890s it was Symbolism that prophesied a theatre without traditional realistic plot structure.

One of the great practitioners of Symbolism was the Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck. His play Pelléas and Mélisande, which premiered in 1893 in a production directed by Aurélien Lugné-Poe, was roundly attacked by critics. Lugné-Poe draped gauze in front of the playing area and intentionally used low lighting, so the audience literally had a fuzzy view of the action. This created a dream-like atmosphere that was the antithesis of the Realism then popular.

Perhaps even more outrageous was the obscurity of the play's plot. It is filled with water imagery, such as when the heroine, Mélisande, appears at the beginning of the play, crying into a spring. She is not from here, but from somewhere far, far away. She is lost, and is gazing down at a crown at the bottom of the spring. Someone gave it to her, but now, she doesn't want it anymore.

"Ah-ha!" cries the veteran audience member of well-made plays. "We're going to find out who this young woman is! She clearly has a long backstory that will be revealed throughout the drama, and eventually we'll find out who she is, where she comes from, who gave her the crown, and the significance of it falling into the spring."

Nope. We find out none of that. Though after she marries Prince Golaud, Mélisande does later gaze into an old fountain together with her brother-in-law Pelléas. She drops her ring in the fountain, never to get it back again. When Golaud questions her about the ring, she claims she dropped it near the sea. (Why not tell him the truth about the fountain?) He sends Mélisande to search for it in a seaside cavern, together with Pelléas.

Later, Golaud takes Pelléas down into the underground passages beneath the castle where there appears to be a subterranean lake. You know. Just 'cuz. It isn't so much that there is no cause and effect. Rather, cause and effect follow the emotional sense of the drama. Maeterlinck builds up water image after water image, not to mention imagery involving hair, light, and gold. These images create the emotional response of the audience, not sensationalistic plot points.

Last night, I saw Claude Debussy's opera based on Pelléas and Mélisande performed by the Metropolitan Opera. The music was beautiful, and Paul Appleby and Isabel Leonard did wonderful jobs in the title roles. Marie-Nicole Lemieux was exceptional making her Met debut as Geneviève, Golaud and Pelléas's mother. So, did the audience love it?

"Nothing happens!" I kept hearing people complain. And it's true. Very little happens in the opera from a plot point of view. The opera, like the play it's based upon, does a wonderful job creating mood and providing the material for reflection and contemplation. It does not, however, provide the operatic drama of a heroine leaping from the battlements or a hero throwing himself on the limp body of his consumptive lady love.

So if you're not down with the postdramatic, I recommend you skip Pelléas and Mélisande. However, if you want to experience the intensity Symbolism is capable of in a world class venue, go now. The opera is only playing through the end of the month.

Friday, January 11, 2019

Signed and Delivered

While in London, I wandered into the Bookshop Theatre and made some interesting finds. One of them was an acting version of Henrik Ibsen's play The Pretenders published for the Yale University Dramatic Association in 1907.

The translation they used was that by the British theatre critic William Archer, who was one of Ibsen's early champions. Growing up, Archer had spent time with family in Norway, so he was able to read Ibsen in the original and translate his plays into English.

Most intriguing to me was the bookplate, which states that the volume was presented to London's Academy of Dramatic Art by none other than Mr. William Archer himself in October 1908. The handwriting looks like other samples of Archer's writing that I've seen digitized. So is this actually a signed copy of a translation by one of the most important theatre critics of the turn of the century? It looks like it.

According to the book's introduction by William Lyon Phelps, the Yale Dramatic Association was founded to "produce only dramas of great literary value, and only those which were seldom or never played on the regular professional stage." Well, that certainly sounds like Ibsen's The Pretenders! Few people perform the play even now, in spite of Ibsen's considerable reputation.

Phelps goes on to say that on January 19, 1907, the Association presented Arthur Wing Pinero's comedy The Amazons to a crowded theatre. The play was such a success and made such a profit that they were then able to present The Pretenders in the spring. The play had five performances, one in Hartford, two in New York City, and two in New Haven. Phelps claims this was the first time the play was performed on an American stage.

I was pleased to pick up the volume, which has now made the long journey back to America.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Back from England

I'm back now from England, where I was visiting my sister for the holidays, but also got a chance to see some great theatre.

On Boxing Day, I went ice skating at Canary Wharf, and in the evening we had tickets to see Hadestown at the National Theatre. Unfortunately, the intimate show got a little lost in the larger space of the Olivier Theatre, though it was still nice to hear the music again live.

As I previously wrote, I visited the Foundling Museum the following day, where there was a small exhibit on the actress Kitty Clive. They also had on display a famous cartoon lampooning John Philip Kemble and the Old Price Riots. Portraying Kemble as "King John" it makes reference to an old nursery rhyme, stating:

        This is the Manager full of scorn,
        who rais'd the price to the people forlorn.
        & employed the Thief-taker shaven & shorn,
        that took John Bull with his buglehorn,
        who hissed the Cat engaged to squall,
        to the poor in the pigeon holes, over the Boxes.
        let to the Great that visit the House that Jack Built.

The House named in the rhyme is Covent Garden, which Kemble rebuilt at great expense, then raising the prices of tickets to recoup his investment. When protests broke out inside the theatre, Kemble hired thugs to enforce decorum, but that apparently didn't stop crowds from hissing the opera singer Angelica Catalani, the Cat in the poem.

Friday, we took the train out to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Timon of Athens. The play was done quite well, but I was mostly excited to see the hometown of William Shakespeare. I hadn't been to Stratford since the 1990s, and while I got to see Shakespeare's grave at Holy Trinity Church then, I missed seeing the Bard's birthplace. This time, the birthplace was at the top of my list of things to see. It was decked out for the holidays and quite a sight to see, as was Holy Trinity at night. I wandered about the graveyard, much to my sister's consternation, but it was incredibly picturesque.

We spent the night in Stratford, and in the morning visited the site of New Place. The house, which was once the grandest in Town, was bought by Shakespeare after he became successful, but its owner in the 18th century burned it down out of spite. So what is there to see now? Beautiful, beautiful gardens. Though New Place no longer looks like it did in Shakespeare's day, it is well worth seeing. It's also right near the Chaucer's Head Book Shop, where I picked up a couple of choice finds, and while you're in the neighborhood, make sure to also check out the Guild Chapel.

A little further away is Hall's Croft, where Shakespeare's daughter Susanna lived with her husband, the doctor John Hall. The building is remarkably well preserved, and also has a nice garden. It also had (appropriately enough) an exhibit on period medicine. Though Shakespeare never lived in the house, he was likely a frequent visitor. Walking around, you still get a sense of the type of atmosphere that surrounded Shakespeare in Stratford.

We had to get back to London for Sunday, though, when we had tickets to see Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Seeing the show by candlelight was a real treat. The following day (New Year's Eve) I visited the Tate Britain, where they had on display a portrait of Mary Ann Yates in Arthur Murphy's play The Orphan of China, itself a reworking of a zaju play by Ji Junxiang.

After welcoming in the New Year, we visited Kensington Palace, which had on display costumes from the recent film The Favourite. After touring the palace, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where I of course had to see the theatre collection. They had on view the Royal Patent which Charles II gave to Thomas Killigrew in 1662. That patent gave Killigrew a near monopoly on theatre produced in London, though he still had to compete with William Davenant, who had a similar patent.

I spent most of the following day in Greenwich, where (among other things) I toured the Queen's House, designed by Inigo Jones, who also designed masques during the Jacobean era. That night, we had tickets to see Danai Gurira's play The Convert at the Young Vic. I enjoyed the play thoroughly. However, the Young Vic is located dangerously across the street from The Bookshop Theatre, where I picked up a few more books to load down my luggage for the return trip.

The next day there was a trip to Pollock's Toy Shop, where I picked up the colored prints to make a toy theatre of Oliver Twist. I already have a modern toy theatre of another Charles Dickens novel, Great Expectations, but that is a modern design. These prints are facsimiles of actually 19th-century designs. When I will actually have time to build a toy theatre with them remains to be seen, but I'm glad I have them.

My final day in London was spent on another Dickensian errand: visiting the newly rediscovered portrait of the author at Philip Mould & Co. While on my way there, what did I pass but the site of the house where the actress Nell Gwyn once lived!

So it was a trip with many theatrical connections. It's good to be back, however, and now I need to settle in and do some writing. Happy New Year!

Monday, December 31, 2018

Top Plays of 2018

Each December, I compile a list of the top plays I saw that opened that year in New York City. Last year, Sweeney Todd, HOME/SICK, and Julius Caesar topped the list.

This year both Roundabout Theatre Company and the Public Theater have multiple shows on my list. Playwrights William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw get multiple nods as well.

So without further ado, here’s my list:

10. Romeo and Juliet – Each year, New York Classical Theatre Company puts on free productions in the city’s parks. This summer’s production of Shakespeare’s classic tale about star-crossed lovers used innovative doubling to tell a familiar story in a memorable new way.

9. Heartbreak House – Gingold Theatrical Group makes the list this year with another innovative adaptation of a classic. This re-imagining of Shaw’s chestnut about Europe during World War I was reset as a play-within-a-play during the London Blitz, which worked quite well.

8. Love’s Labour’s Lost – This Shake & Bake production combines the Bard’s romantic comedy with a five-course tasting menu. The actors do a wonderful job creating magical moments in a pared-down production in the Meatpacking District. The food is tasty, but it’s the acting that is truly delicious.

7. Stories by Heart – So, what is this thing? That’s what John Lithgow quipped at the beginning of his one-man show about the stories his father read to him as a child. Ordinarily, I don’t go in for one person plays, but Lithgow’s mixture of personal memoir with classic storytelling won me over in the end.

6. Othello – Not everyone loved the Public Theatre’s production of Othello this summer at the Delacorte, but I found Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s direction to be superb. The relationship between Iago and Rodrigo was particularly fascinating to me, and Chukwudi Iwuji did a great job playing the title role.

5. Mother of the Maid – The Public Theatre scored another hit with Jane Anderson’s new play Mother of the Maid about the family of Joan of Arc. The piece was marketed as a vehicle for Glenn Close, who played Isabelle Arc, but Anderson’s play tells the story from an interesting perspective, and would be worth seeing even without Close’s star power.

4. Bernhardt/Hamlet – As a fan of both Sarah Bernhardt and William Shakespeare, I knew I had to see this show. This is probably Theresa Rebeck’s best play to date, and the cast was superb. Janet McTeer was deservedly praised as Bernhardt, but Dylan Baker was also wonderful as the legendary French actor Constant Coquelin, and Jason Butler gave a memorable portrayal of the playwright Edmond Rostand.

3. Pygmalion – Bedlam theatre company’s productions are sometimes hit-or-miss, but they are generally memorable even when they don’t entirely succeed. This year’s re-imagining of Shaw’s most popular play definitely qualifies as a hit, though. The immersive first act led into an exploration of not just class, but also race, ethnicity, and assimilation, all in the frantic Bedlam style in which performers play multiple characters to hilarious effect.

2. Twelfth Night – What happened to musicals this year? All of my top ten picks were straight plays this year, with the exception of Shaina Taub’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which she co-created with director Kwame Kwei-Armah as part of the Public Works program, but came back in a new production this summer as a part of the regular Shakespeare in the Park season. Taub’s songs are inspired by Shakespeare’s text, but not usually direct settings of his poetry, in spite of the fact that Twelfth Night already contains multiple songs. Her lyrics fit in with the Bard’s play beautifully, and her performance as Feste was equally delightful.

1. Travesties – To me, the most delightful production this year, however, was Roundabout’s revival of Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties. As a playwright, I’ve always admired Stoppard’s skill in weaving together the stories of James Joyce, Vladimir Lenin, and Tristan Tzara into a rollicking farce that also makes us think and feel in new ways. Perhaps because this production was directed by a fellow playwright, Patrick Marber, it was able to encompass both the profundity and goofiness of Stoppard’s writing. A cast that included Tom Hollander, Scarlett Strallen, and Sara Topham also seemed exceptionally sympathetic to Stoppard’s ambitious vision.

So that’s my list. Here’s to an even better year of New York theatre in 2019!

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Faustus by Candlelight

I just got back from seeing Christopher Marlowe's play Doctor Faustus performed by candlelight at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London.

The production has certain parallels with the version of Timon of Athens I saw on Friday in Stratford-upon-Avon, in that both took male-heavy plays and recast not just the leads but a number of the principal roles as women.

Jocelyn Jee Esien plays a quite feminine Faustus in this production. Is that Miss Faustus or Mrs. Faustus? Ahem, that's Doctor Faustus to you! Playing the role in a full dress and jewelry--and surrounded by books--Esien is 100% woman and 100% intellectual.

She summons up Pauline McLynn as Mephistopheles. Dressed in red and with flaming red hair, she wears a combination of an Elizabethan dress and tight-fitting trousers. This Mephistopheles has no problem pushing back at Faustus, and Esien's Faustus openly mocks her in return.

Wagner is played by Mandi Symonds, who also doubles as the Old Man (changed to an Old Woman) at the end of the play. Hers is a comparatively serious Wagner compared to some of the ones I have seen in the past. However, we don't get to see Wagner conjure demons in imitation of Faustus, or gain a comic follower of his (err... her) own.

Doctor Faustus has both an A and B text, but this version seems to hew more to the B text published in 1616. Personally, I tend to favor the A text, but this production does a good job of taking some of the goofier scenes from the B text and performing them with class. (I just hope no one had to sell their soul to do it!)

Saturday, December 29, 2018

A Timely Timon

Last night, I got to see Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

I had previously seen Hunter in Kafka's Monkey at Theatre for a New Audience. She was also filmed in that company's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Hunter is wonderful in the role of Timon. This production flips the gender of not only Timon, but a number of the other characters as well. Alcibiades is played by Shakespeare veteran Debbie Korley, and Nia Gwynne plays the cynical philosopher Apemantus. The scene where Apemantus accuses Timon of stealing his (in this case her) philosophy is particularly moving.

The production uses Greek-inspired music composed by Michael Bruce to draw parallels between the opulence and downfall of Timon and the modern Greek fiscal crisis. To drive home parallels between Shakespeare's play and contemporary Europe, designer Soutra Gilmour dresses Alcibiades' revolutionaries in yellow vests like the recent protesters in Paris. Their anger at the greed and corruption of people in power certainly has resonances today.

Timon of Athens is infamous for having an ending that fizzles out rather than building to a peak, but that isn't a problem in this production. Director Simon Godwin transposes some dialogue from Henry V to the ending of the play for dramatic effect. Plus, he has Timon's limp body appear in a rather striking manner at the play's close.

This production runs until February 22nd. If you're anywhere near Stratford, it is well worth seeing.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Kitty Clive

I'm currently in London visiting my sister for the holidays, and today I went to The Foundling Museum, in part to see a small exhibit on the 18th-century actress Kitty Clive.

No, Clive was not a foundling, but the museum also houses a collection related to the composer George Frederick Handel, who was intimately involved with concerts raising money for the Foundling Hospital in London. Clive participated in these concerts, and in fact sang in the first London performance of The Messiah.

Clive was also a playwright, but of short dramatic sketches like Every Woman in Her Humour rather than full-length works. Her acting gained the respect of Horace Walpole, Henry Fielding, and other great writers. She played Portia opposite the Shylock of Charles Macklin, and later acted regularly with David Garrick.

Before she was discovered, Clive was lodging in a house across the street from where the Beefsteak Club, a collection of men involved with the theatre, used to meet. She was supposedly singing a song while washing the steps to the house, and the members of the Beefsteak Club, having their windows open, heard her and were immediately enchanted. In 1728, at the age of 17, she joined the company at Drury Lane, the most prestigious theatre in the country,

Clive did not always get along with management, however. Eventually, she had to defend herself and her right to make a livelihood in a pamphlet called The Case of Mrs. Clive Submitted to the Public. Some scholars have speculated that Fielding might have aided her with the prose, but the general consensus is that the force behind the pamphlet was Clive herself.