Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Amphibian Finalist

My play Apprenticeship is a finalist for Amphibian Stage's SparkFest 2023. If the piece is accepted, it will receive a 20-hour developmental workshop and staged reading at Amphibian Stage in June.

Amphibian received 200 submissions and has now narrowed down its choices to 36 finalists.  Of those, three will receive staged readings in Fort Worth, Texas. In the past, Amphibian has developed plays by writers including Steven Dietz, Chris Cragen Day, and Charles Jackson, Jr.

Apprenticeship tells the story of a young man who lands his dream job working for a legend in the publishing industry. As he learns what it takes to succeed, however, he starts to question who his role models should really be. The piece had a reading last summer over Zoom, but has yet to be produced.

Interestingly enough, the talented actress Jessica Vera, who was in that Zoom reading, has worked with Amphibian a couple of times in the past, most recently starring in Egress by Melissa Crespo and Sarah Saltwick in 2021.

Amphibian will announce the three plays it plans to develop no later than April 5th. Hopefully, Apprenticeship will be one of them!

Monday, March 13, 2023

Byron and Steerforth

Today I received in the mail the latest issue of Dickens Quarterly, which includes an article I wrote on how Charles Dickens modeled the character if James Steerforth in David Copperfield after the Romantic poet and dramatist George Gordon Byron.

The article is called "'In a Dark Wig': Reinventing Byron as Steerforth in David Copperfield." I took the title from another Dickens novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, in which Mrs. Jarley dresses up a waxworks of Mary Queen of Scotts "in a dark wig, white shirt-collar, and male attire" to look like Lord Byron.

I received a lot of help on the article from Geoffrey Bond and Christine Kenyon Jones, whose book Dangerous to Show: Lord Byron and His Portraits is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of how Byron's image was shaped, both by himself and by the numerous artists who depicted him. Mr. Bond was kind enough to share some images from his personal collection, including a print of a George Sanders portrait that appeared in Thomas Moore's biography of Byron and a print Dickens's illustrator Robert Seymour did for William Parry's book The Last Days of Lord Byron.

The firm of Byron's publisher, John Murray, lives on today, and I was grateful that the John Murray Collection could share with me an image of a pencil and ink sketch of Byron done by another Dickens illustrator, George Cattermole. That image is now used as the logo of the Byron Society.

Readers of this blog will know that Byron owned a patchwork screen decorated on one side with images of some of his favorite actors. (An image from that screen is reproduced in my book, Romantic Actors, Romantic Dramas.) What people might not know is that Dickens and the actor William Macready decorated a screen of their own with prints of Byron as well as other celebrities. That screen is currently at Sherborne House, and the Friends of Sherborne House kindly allowed me to reproduce an image of it.

Yes, this article is rather image heavy, even without reproducing two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne, the illustrator who worked with Dickens throughout most of his career. Though Dickens was primarily a novelist rather than a playwright, he was influenced by Byron's poems and plays, as well as the previous writer's life.

If you're interested in Dickens and his work, please check out the Friends of Dickens New York. We meet once a month, and are currently discussing Oliver Twist. You'll also soon be able to hear me ramble on about Pickwick Papers on the YouTube channel for the Rosenbach Library. For more information on Pickwick Monthly (online) click here.

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Wedding Night in D.C.

I am pleased to announce that my short play Wedding Night will be getting a staged reading in May at Anacostia Playhouse in Washington, D.C.

Renee Charlow is set to direct the piece on May 8th as a part of the theatre's New Voices New Works program. The performance will begin at 7pm, and will also include A Day Outdoors by Steve Gold and Scott and Zelda Shapiro by Lawrence DuKore.

The theatre solicited plays from across the country that adhered to the theme "Love will make you do right/make you do wrong." The chosen plays will be presented on three subsequent Mondays, April 24th, May 1st, and May 8th. All tickets for the reading are pay-what-you-can. 

Wedding Night depicts a young woman saying goodbye to her mother and moving in with her new husband under less than ideal circumstances. As darkness descends, new possibilities emerge that none of the three ever anticipated.

If you're in the D.C. area in May, I hope you'll come out and see the play!

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Becomes a Woman

Many people are familiar with Betty Smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, either from reading the classic 1943 novel or from seeing the film version directed by Elia Kazan just two years later.

Before she was a novelist, though, Smith was a playwright, albeit one more likely to get prestigious awards than actual productions. While taking classes at the University of Michigan, Smith wrote Becomes a Woman, which won the school's Avery Hopwood Award and earned the author $1,000.

Unfortunately, in 1931 no theatre stepped forward to stage the play, and the piece has remained unproduced until now. The Mint Theater Company, however, is currently bringing Smith's play to life for the first time in a lavish new production featuring Emma Pfitzer Price as Francie Nolan, the character who later became the namesake of Smith's heroine in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

The Francie in the novel is a girl, but in the play the audience gets to see how a shy 19-year-old (as the title puts it) becomes a woman. When we first meet Francie she is singing blues songs at the sheet music counter of a five-and-dime store. A series of men come in and ask her out on dates, always using the same old tired line. When the son of the owner of the chain Francie works for walks in, things look like they could be different, until he uses the same line as all the others.

Act Two takes place in the kitchen of Francie's family. Her father, played by Jeb Brown, appears to be a petty tyrant, until he decides that his daughter's behavior has brought shame upon the family, at which point he becomes a much more serious and repulsive tyrant. Peterson Townsend, who plays the boss's son, Leonard Kress Jr., manages to remain charming up to a point, but after he decides to toss poor Francie over, warnings about the fickleness of men become all too true.

Francie's one real friend, Tessie, is wonderfully portrayed by Gina Daniels. She makes an adorable couple with her ambulance-driver boyfriend Max, played by Jason O'Connell, who made a splash in Sense and Sensibility a few years ago. The pair relieves some of the tension in the third act, when we finally meet the wealthy Leonard Kress Sr., played admirably by Duane Boutté. It turns out father is not like son, as the elder Kress comes to appreciate Francie's strength and sense of purpose.

What makes Becomes a Woman truly special, however, is Francie's final confrontation with Kress Jr., as Smith expresses sentiments that seem remarkably ahead of their time for 1931. Director Britt Berke helps to bring out the power of Smith's words in the scene through simple yet effective staging. It should be noted that the versatile set designed by Vicki R. Davis lives up the the Mint's usual high quality, and is effectively lit by lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, who also designed lights for the Mint's wonderful production of Conflict. In addition, Emilee McVey-Lee provides costumes that successfully evoke America during the period between the two World Wars.

Becomes a Woman is only scheduled to run through March 18th, so make sure you see it before the show closes later this month. It took 92 years for the play to make it to the stage, and there's no telling how long we might have to wait for another production of it that is this good.

Friday, March 3, 2023

Reviewing Eugene O'Neill

I recently joined the Eugene O'Neill Society, and yesterday my first issue of The Eugene O'Neill Review arrived in the mail.

The journal includes my own review of a production Irish Repertory Theatre did last year of O'Neill's A Touch of the Poet, starring Robert Cuccioli and Belle Aykroyd.

It's an honor to have my review included. This issue has some fascinating stuff, including an article about an unperformed adaptation of The Hairy Ape by Shirley Graham originally written for the Federal Theatre Project, and another article on the influence Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths had on O'Neill.

Many thanks to the journal's editor, Alexander Pettit, for putting together such a lovely publication, and to Bess Rowen for asking me to review Irish Rep's production for the issue. I hope to have more work published in the journal in the future.

Right now, though, my attention is on earlier dramatists, as I am giving a paper at the end of the month on Olympe de Gouges and Ira Aldridge for a conference by the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism.

I don't know if O'Neill was familiar with the work of de Gouges and Aldridge, but I imagine he would have liked their plays!

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Goethe on the Theater

I recently wrote a post about beginning a translation of Nathan the Wise by G.E. Lessing. That's not the only German play I've tried to translate, though, and I've previously blogged about a translation I did of a song from Faust by J.W. Goethe.

At the rate I'm going, it will take me years to translate the whole of Faust, but I wanted to share some of my translation because it relates to Goethe's view of the German stage in his time. In the prelude to the play, Goethe shows a conversation amongst a director, a playwright, and a comic actor.

The director is most concerned with commerce rather than art. He asks the writer and actor what play they should do, not seeming to care much, so long as it pleases a paying audience. In a typical passage towards the beginning he says:

I very much want to please the crowd,
For as they live, they give us our living.
The posters are up, we've cried the play aloud
And everyone waits to see what play we're giving.
They're seated already, with expectant faces,
Wondering, now, what exactly our play is.
I know how to keep the people happy,
Though what this crowd expects no one knows.
Something to keep gramps there from feeling too nappy.
I bet he's seen some awful shows.
What shall we do that's fresh and new
And will have some meaning to it, too?

The writer, who is described as a dramatic poet, is an idealist. He wants nothing to do with the practicalities of the stage. Instead, he imagines a more exclusive drama that has spiritual meaning. He rails at the director, saying:

O do not talk to me about the crowd,
Or in an instant the spirit shall fly away!
For the masses, my head remains unbowed,
For they'd run for strudel soon as hear a play.
No, drive me to where heaven's silence is allowed,
Where only the poet and his friends can stay,
Where love and friendship our hearts unfold
And the Hand of God may our spirits mold!

The actor, who is described as a comedian, is even more cynical than the director. Still, he seems to understand what will make a good play. Bringing the playwright back to earth from his poetic flights of fancy, the actor asks:

Who will entertain the folks right here?
That's what they want, and they should get it.
A brave knave is the thing to fit it.
That's me, always ready to appear.
Who knows how to be pleasant and please,
Needs not be bitter about people's taste;
He wishes to bring in lots of fees,
By moving the masses with great haste.
Be only brave and master a smile,
Give into fantasy, and have a good cheer,
Believe, understand, and feel for a while,
But mark you well, with a laugh and a jeer.

The fact that the actor always does everything "with a laugh and a jeer" associates him with the character of Mephistopheles in the play proper, while the playwright's idealism makes him similar to Faust. Indeed, some productions double those roles in performance.

While I haven't completed the full translation, if you'd like to see more, please contact me. It would be great to see my translation of Faust actually performed!

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Pieces of Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin is generally regarded by Russians as the greatest author in the Russian language, but his work doesn't always find a place on stages in the U.S.

That's why I was excited when I heard that the Russian Arts Theater and Studio would be presenting the best-known of Pushkin's "Little Tragedies": Mozart and Salieri.

As you might have guessed from the play's title, Pushkin's drama helped inspired Peter Shaffer's hit Broadway show (and later film adaptation) Amadeus. In two simple scenes, it portrays the jealousy of the composer Antonio Salieri and re-enacts the murder he later claimed to have committed, poisoning his artistic rival W.A. Mozart.

Riccardo Ripani plays Salieri in the production currently running in New York, and it is perhaps fitting that he is outshone by the charismatic Di Zhu who plays the more famous Mozart. Zhu actually plays Mozart in more than one sense of the word, since she provides live piano music throughout much of the performance. This is no mean feat, since the onstage piano is literally spun about the stage by two angels (Semion Kashirin and Anthony Nikitopoulos) as she plays it.

After performing Mozart and Salieri, the company provides an interlude, consisting of passages from Pushkin's poem Ruslan and Ludmila, recited in both English and Russian. That is the only Russian in the show, however, as the cast then performs in English Pushkin's comical Scene from Faust, a send-up both of the poet Goethe (a central figure of German Romanticism) and his admirer Lord Byron.

Ripani plays Faust in this scene, while Zhu plays Mephistopheles in a demonically good costume. If you're interested in seeing it yourself, the show is playing until April 1st.