Friday, June 24, 2022

My Fellow Americans

Today brought the huge but expected news that Roe v. Wade is now officially history. A lot of people in America--particularly women--are feeling frightened and powerless.

It so happens that a play I wrote, My Fellow Americans, which is slated to be performed as part of the Secret Theatre's One-Act Festival, is becoming unexpectedly quite relevant.

The play envisions a female President of the United States giving her dream speech on television, but just as she finishes the speech, pressing issues intervene. The play stars Rebecca Ana Peña as the President and is being directed by Rachael Langton.

We will be performing the play under an Actors' Equity Association showcase code. Performances are July 13, 20, 27, and August 3. If we are lucky enough to get into the semi-finals, there will be an additional performance on August 13, and if the play makes it to the finals, it will be performed again on August 14.

I last had a play in the Secret Theatre's One-Act Festival in 2019, when they did my comedy Burns Night. Since then, the theatre has closed and re-opened. Their new location is at 38-02 61st Street in Woodside, Queens. Come on out if you're in the mood for some politically relevant theatre!

Don't feel like you have to wait until next month, though, to see a play about a strong woman standing up to power. Tonight I saw Shakespeare Downtown perform Bernard Shaw's play Saint Joan at Castle Clinton in Battery Park.

The play is free, and Billie Anderson gives a strong performance as Joan of Arc. Saint Joan closes on Sunday, so see it while you still can.

Monday, June 20, 2022

Cymbeline, By Jove

Last night I saw New York Classical Theatre perform Cymbeline in Central Park. Last summer, the company performed Nahum Tate's adaptation of King Lear, but now they are back to sticking (more or less) to Shakespeare's original text.

The plot of Cymbeline is intentionally complicated, blending together legendary history with one of the folk tales that appears in The Decameron. This production has the potential to add to the confusion by having a small cast double in multiple roles.

Fortunately, the doubling adds to the production rather than taking away from it. In some productions, the actor who plays Posthumous doubles as the villain Cloten. That was how the Public Theater did it in 2015 when Hamish Linklater played both roles. In this case, however, Brandon Burk plays both Posthumous, Imogine's husband, and Guiderius, her long-lost brother. The delightfully comic Evan Moore-Coll instead plays Cloten, as well as assorted other roles.

One of the highlights of the show is when Aziza Gharib, who plays Imogine, appears in Posthumous's dream as (according to the stage directions) "Jupiter descends in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle." Unlike the Jacobean stage, Central Park is not equipped with machinery to lower giant eagles from the Heavens. Instead, Gharib appears with huge wind-swept pieces of fabric, while two other cast members hold them out and provide other-worldly sound effects.

The supporting cast is in fact quite good. Jenny Strassburg plays the evil queen, a delicious role, though the character disappears toward the end of the play. Perhaps to compensate for that, she also plays Belarius, who fosters the king's lost sons. (The second son is played by Christian Ryan, who doubles as the deceitful Iachimo.) Terrell Wheeler (who also appeared in The Assembly's wonderful production of That Poor Dream) plays the important supporting roles of Pisanio and Caius, while the king himself is played by Nick Salamone.

If you want to see the production, it will be in Central Park until June 26th, after which it will move to Carl Schurz Park, and then Brooklyn Commons Park at MetroTech.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

The Pantomime of Life

English Pantomime, which draws upon the tradition of commedia dell'arte, has had a lasting impact on British drama. Charles Dickens was a fan of the art form, and discussed it in an essay entitled "The Pantomime of Life."

The essay originally appeared in Bentley's Miscellany under the heading "Stray Chapters" and was published concurrently with Dickens's novel Oliver Twist. The author confessed "to a gentle sympathy with clowns and pantaloons--to an unqualified admiration of harlequins and columbines..."

Around the same time he wrote that, Dickens was editing the memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi, the most famous clown in the history of Pantomime. Pantaloon, by the way, was a British descendant of the Italian stock character Pantalone, and harlequins and columbines likewise developed from the Arlecchino and Colombina characters in commedia.

In the essay, Dickens posits that our delight in pantomime comes from the fact that they form "a mirror of life." Just as an audience laughs at a self-satisfied pantaloon falling down on the stage, the public in general enjoys watching the descent of any self-satisfied man of the world, and according to Dickens, "the more suddenly, and the nearer the zenith of his pride and riches, the better."

Even more common in life, the essay claims, is the clown, who takes lodgings he has no intention of paying for and obtains goods under false pretenses. "The best of the joke, too, is, that the very coal-merchant who is loudest in his complaints against the person who defrauded him," Dickens writes, "is the identical man who sat in the centre of the very first row of the pit last night and laughed the most boisterously at this very same thing."

The essay continues to compare the opening of a session of parliament to the raising of a theatrical curtain on a pantomime that is "particularly strong in clowns." Dickens's satire is always sharp, but it helps to have a good knowledge of the theatre to understand all of it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Mandragola

One of the most famed practitioners of commedia erudita--or learned comedy--in Renaissance Italy was the statesman and political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli.

Though Machiavelli is most famous today for writing the cynical (or perhaps merely realistic) handbook The Prince, he also created quite a stir in the dramatic world by penning a cynical (or perhaps merely realistic) comedy Mandragola, or The Mandrake.

Machiavelli had already translated Terence's comedy The Girl from Andros when he wrote Mandragola, and he would later adapt Plautus's play Casina as the Italian comedy Clizia. However, his most famous play doesn't adapt a classical source, but instead comes up with something entirely new.

In the first act of Mandragola, we meet Callimaco, a young man in love with the married woman Lucrezia. She is too virtuous to return his affections, though, so he confides in his servant Siro a plan to win her. To make his plan work, he needs the services of the rascal Ligurio, who is quite... well... Machiavellian.

The second act shows Ligurio getting Lucrezia's husband to visit Callimaco, who poses as a doctor who can end the couple's childlessness. He tells the husband that there is no better way to ensure fertility than to have a woman drink a potion made from a mandrake root. The problem is that the next man to sleep with her is sure to speedily die.

Since the husband believes the story, the trouble is in convincing Lucrezia that the best way to honor her marriage is to sleep with a man other than her husband, thus ending the couple's childlessness and sparing her husband's life. In the third act, Ligurio and Callimaco enlist the help of both the corrupt Friar Timoteo and Lucrezia's own mother, Sostrata, who ultimately prevail with her.

The fourth act presents a complication when Callimaco realizes that he has offered to help the husband to kidnap an unsuspecting young man they can put in bed with Lucrezia. The problem is he himself wants to be that young man, so how can they get around this? Ligurio comes up with a plan to disguise the friar as Callimaco and have Callimaco make a funny face and put on ragged clothes so that he looks like a different person. The plan is so ridiculous, it actually works.

If you expect the dishonest characters in a Machiavelli play to get their comeuppance in the end, you will be sorely disappointed. All ends happily for the scoundrels, and they even exit going into church together. That last element might seem scandalous today, but the play's first documented performance in 1526 was during the carnival season, when licentiousness was winked at by authorities.

For that 1526 performance, Machiavelli composed four songs to go in between each act. The songs cover up the passage of time between the acts, and also comment upon the themes of the play. Mandragola is not for everyone, but it certainly had an influence on Renaissance drama.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

               For God's sake let us sit upon the ground
               And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
               How some have been depos'd, some slain in war,
               Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed...

That speech doesn't appear until Act III of William Shakespeare's Richard II, but it opens the production by Hudson Classical Theater Company currently playing at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park.

Hudson is a mixed bag, but sometimes their stagings of Shakespeare, such as 2019's Antony and Cleopatra, are well worth seeing. The location, in an idyllic open-air setting, tends to work well, in spite of the uncomfortable stone-step seating and the constant plague of helicopters.

Nathan Mattingly is well cast as Richard, the spoiled pretty-boy who becomes his own worst enemy, but can't help but become sympathetic by the end. The role has attracted a variety of actors through the years, from Charles Kean to David Tennant. Richard is a better poet than he is a king, but that just means he has some of the best verse in the play.

Opposing Richard is Bolingbroke, played in this production by Dominic Williamson, who quickly gets everyone on his side through his willingness to take decisive action while Richard dithers. For those who know what happens in the next few plays of the tetralogy, however, this action will bode ominously, since once you start deposing kings, you open up a dangerous precedent.

When Richard finds himself abandoned and begins reciting the same lines that opened the production, they don't feel repeated. Instead, we find ourselves listening to the same words in a new way. Director Nicholas Martin-Smith should be commended for making this work, as well as for finding innovative ways of using the space.

If you're interested in seeing the show, it's playing at 6:30 pm Thursdays through Sundays until June 26th. Admission is free, but they do take donations, so please be generous. The company also provides cushions for the seating, but they can't control the weather, so try to go on a clear night!

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Jacinto Benavente

I'm back now from the Shaw conference in Cáceres, Spain. While I was in Madrid, I came across a monument to Jacinto Benavente in Retiro Park.

In the United States, the most famous Spanish dramatist of the 20th century is Federico García Lorca, so why doesn't he have a major memorial in Madrid?

Well, there is the matter of Lorca being murdered by his own government, but the larger issue is that those writers who ultimately gain the most respect internationally are not necessarily the ones who are honored in their home countries.

That's not to say that Benavente wasn't recognized outside of Spain. In fact, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1922. But Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson also won that prize, while his fellow Norwegian dramatist, Henrik Ibsen, did not. Momentary recognition does not always translate into lasting fame.

So who was this Benavente guy, anyway? A native of Madrid (unlike Lorca, who was born outside of Granada), Benavente was known for writing in a Realist style. His 1913 play The Unloved Woman has been repeatedly adapted to film. An earlier play, The Bonds of Interest, is frequently cited as his masterpiece, and is his most frequently staged work.

But is it staged as frequently as Lorca's Blood Wedding or The House of Bernarda Alba? Probably not. Sometimes, life just isn't fair.

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Roman Theatre

If you've ever wanted to see a theatre where the ancient Romans put on plays, Spain is actually a pretty good place to go.

I've been in Cáceres‎ for the Shaw Conference, and today a few of us took a brief trip to Mérida, which has some very well preserved Roman ruins.

Mérida was founded by the Romans as Emérita Augusta, since it was meant to be a home for some of the greatest veteran soldiers of the Roman army.

In order to keep the veterans entertained, in 15 B.C.E. a son-in-law of the Emperor Augustus built a theatre there. It held about 5,000 spectators, and was decorated with an elaborate scenae frons, filled with statues.

The original statues are now housed in a nearby museum, but you can see copies of the statues in their original locations. Right in the center is a statue of the Empress Livia in the guise of the goddess Ceres. To the side is a Muse, though some people think she might represent another goddess, Proserpina.

And the stage still gets used today! The annual Festival of Classical Theatre is held there in June and July, presenting works in that amazing venue. This year, they will be presenting William Shakespeare's Julio César, Menander's El misántropo, and Miles Gloriosus by Plautus, among other plays. The festival will also be presenting dramas at an indoor venue, including work by Miguel de Cervantes.

I wish I could see some of the plays there this summer. Perhaps I'll be able to return sometime in the future. I sure would like to see the theatre being used the way it was meant to be!