Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Relapse

The Red Bull Theater Company recently announced that they will be presenting a reading of The Relapse, John Vanbrugh's sequel to the Colley Cibber play I recently blogged about: Love's Last Shift.

I don't think I'll be able to make it to the reading on October 24th, but the cast sounds great. It includes Stephen DeRosa, Jacob Ming-Trent, and Reg Rogers, who were all wonderful in Red Bull's production of The Alchemist last year, Michael Urie, who headlined the company's production of The Government Inspector, and Amelia Pedlow, who is always a delight to see on stage.

Personally, I find Cibber's play to be superior, but I'm in the minority. Many people found the last-minute reformation of its rake-hero Ned Loveless to be unconvincing, Vanbrugh among them. Within weeks of seeing the play in 1696, he penned a sequel in which Loveless relapsed to his old ways, carrying on with his wife's cousin, Berinthia, who comes to live with the couple after she is widowed.

The scene in Act IV where Loveless sneaks into Berinitha's chamber is shocking even today for its sexual frankness. Though Berinitha has already expressed her desire for Loveless, he resolves to "attack her just when she comes to her prayers." When she sees him, she cries out, thinking she's seen a ghost. When her maid comes, however, she convinces Loveless to hide again and sends the maid away so they can be alone.

Berinitha pretends to have virtue, but Vanbrugh makes it clear she is more than willing to have an affair with her host. The stage direction "very softly" accompanies her line "Help, help, I'm ravished, ruined, undone! O Lord, I shall never be able to bear it." Actually, she appears to bear it quite well, and not content with committing adultery with her cousin's husband, she plans to get her cousin to have an affair as well, scheming to get her together with Mr. Worthy.

Cibber's original play features two brothers with the last name Worthy, but it's unclear which (if either) of them is supposed to be the Worthy in the sequel. George Powell, who originated the role in Vanbrugh's play, was not in the original cast of Love's Last Shift, so audiences would not have immediately recognized him as one of the previous characters. In any case, Mr. Worthy in The Relapse starts out as anything but his name, openly trying to seduce the heroine, Amanda Loveless, in spite of being married himself.

Upholding a sexual double standard, the play has Amanda find out about her husband's infidelity but remain faithful to her own marriage vows nonetheless. In an extraordinary scene in the fifth act, Amanda converts Worthy from his sinful intentions and guides him back toward the path of virtue. The scene is written in verse, which is unusual for Restoration comedy. It ends with Worthy expressing chaste admiration for Amanda and rejecting "the gross desires of flesh and blood." Amanda gets virtue to triumph with her admirer, but alas not with her own husband.

If that sounds like a downer to you, know that the play's other plot revolves around the character of Sir Novelty Fashion, played by Cibber himself in Love's Last Shift, and promoted by Vanbrugh to Lord Foppington in The Relapse. (Apparently, Sir Novelty Fashion wasn't on-the-nose enough for Vanbrugh, who also named a character Sir Tunbelly Clumsey.) Cibber reprised his role in the sequel, in spite of not writing it himself.

Cibber might have been open to someone else writing a sequel to his play since Love's Last Shift was the first piece he ever wrote. However, Vanbrugh wasn't any more experienced, and The Relapse was his first play, too. (Would we all could have such success with our first plays!) 

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Four Saints in Three Acts

Gertrude Stein is one of those authors whose work often seems difficult and dense, until one hears it performed, after which its playfulness can be downright delightful.

I remember hearing a recording of Stein herself reciting her poem "If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso." It was a revelation. "Oh," I suddenly realized, "it's supposed to be funny!"

Audience members who come see David Greenspan performing Stein's play Four Saints in Three Acts might be in for a similar revelation. Stein's script, which was famously used as the libretto for an opera by Virgil Thomson, can be puzzling to read, in part because it contains more than four saints and is longer than three acts.

The piece is not meant to be simply read, however, but performed, and Greenspan is a winning choice to interpret difficult materiel for a contemporary audience. Fans of experimental musicals might remember his portrayal of "Other Mother" in Stephin Merritt's stage adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel Coraline. More recently, he performed a solo-version of Eugene O'Neill's epic drama Strange Interlude.

Though Four Saints in Three Acts is being presented by the Lucille Lortel Theatre, it isn't performed at the Lortel's storied Off-Broadway theatre in Greenwich Village. Instead, Greenspan performs the work in a smaller, more industrial-feeling space, The Doxsee, recently opened by Target Margin in Brooklyn. Though the theatre's block on 52nd Street south of Sunset Park is mostly filled with warehouses and auto-repair shops, scenic and lighting designer Yuki Nakase Link has made the space feel as homey as possible with an enormous carpet and draping white curtains.

With a nearly bare stage inside a bare-bones theatre, the focus is all on the performer. Greenspan, working together with director Ken Rus Schmoll and dramaturg Jay Stull, has clearly gone over every inch of Stein's text to try to make it as accessible as possible. How accessible can one make lines like "Four saints it makes it well fish"? Well, I'm not sure, but it's fun to watch someone at least try, especially an actor as warm and good-humored as Greenspan.

When I saw the play last night, the audience seemed hesitant to laugh at parts. After all, Stein is a serious writer, isn't she? Being serious doesn't mean one can't have a sense of humor, though, and I imagine Stein would encourage us to embrace her play's sheer silliness.

And that, I think, would definitely make it well fish.

Photo credit: Steven Pisano

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Love's Last Shift

The actor Colley Cibber made his debut as a dramatist in 1696 with a play called Love's Last Shift, which while rooted in Restoration comedy of manners, looks forward to the sentimental comedies of the 18th century.

A shift is a lady's undergarment, so being down to one's last shift is an indication that this is the very last chance at something--in this case the last chance for Amanda Loveless to reclaim her rake husband who previously abandoned her for a life of dissipation abroad. (A shift, of course, can also be a trick or gambit, so the play's title has multiple levels of meaning.)

In the first act, Ned Loveless returns to London, where he hears the false rumor that his wife has died. Young William Worthy, learning that Loveless believes himself to be a widower, resolves to tell Amanda and scheme for a way she can reclaim him from his life of debauchery.

Their plan is to get Loveless to make love to his own wife, thinking she is only his mistress. At first, Amanda is reluctant. "To me the Rules of Virtue have been ever sacred;" she says, "and I am loth to break 'em by an unadvised Undertaking." After all, if she were to seduce her own husband, would she not become accessary to him violating his marriage vows?

Amanda overcomes these scruples and pursues her own husband in disguise, much to the delight of Worthy, who is pursuing his own plan to honorably marry a woman he loves. In earlier Restoration comedies, rakes were the heroes, but with the accession of William and Mary as co-monarchs during the Glorious Revolution, attitudes began to change. In the couplet that ends the third act, Worthy expresses his support for Amanda's reformation of Loveless and the rakish values he represents:

          'Twere Pity now thy Hopes shou'd not succeed;
          This new Attempt is Love's Last Shift indeed.

The fourth act shows Amanda seducing her husband and claiming that he has won her over to being a Libertine. The scene is reminiscent of the bed trick in Jacobean plays by William Shakespeare, including All's Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure. However, its sexual frankness that deals so lightly with matters of adultery reflects a change that occurred after the Restoration. At the same time, the seduction is not adulterous, so the audience can revel in the faux immorality while actually cheering on morality.

This is why the play looks forward to the sentimental comedies of the eighteenth century. Characters are placed in difficult positions, but they get out of them through a reliance on virtue. Granted, virtue is forced to be deceptive, but this only presents new opportunities to discuss virtue's merits. When Amanda tries to undeceive her husband, she dramatically swoons, and only tells him the truth after she recovers. All ends happily, and virtue is at last rewarded.

That doesn't mean the play isn't funny, though, in spite of Oliver Goldsmith's later contrasts between sentimental comedy and the "laughing comedy" he preferred. The character of Sir Novelty Fashion (originally played by Cibber himself) provides plenty of comic relief through his foppish antics. That character reappeared in later plays as well, including John Vanbrugh's The Relapse, an unauthorized sequel that might well be more famous than the original.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Nothing but Thunder

Last night, I saw Duncan Pflaster's new play Nothing but Thunder, which is currently showing at Theater for the New City as a part of the Dream Up Festival.

Much like The Frogs by Aristophanes, the play depicts a descent into the underworld by the Greek god Dionysus. Like in The Frogs, the god is accompanied by his slave, Xanthias, and in fact some of the dialogue is taken word-for-word from Aristophanes (though translated into English, of course).

In his biography in the program, Pflaster states that the piece is a tribute to playwright Charles Ludlam, whose Ridiculous Theatrical Company used many of the same methods, blending high and low culture, and frequently stealing whole scenes from dead writers and inserting them into new plays to the bemusement of audience members who recognized the gag.

What I found most interesting about Nothing but Thunder is that in spite of having all of the materials for a farce like the Frogs, Pflaster tends to avoid the ridiculous at times, and creates moments of genuine pathos amidst a sea of absurdity. (This is something Ludlam tended to do as well.) Spencer Gonzalez, who plays Dionysus, has an emotional journey as he undertakes his literal journey down to the underworld and back.

Matt Biagini, who plays Xanthias, tends to keep the tone of the show light and comic, but he, too, has moments of emotional insight. As he oils up his master and some maenads for a steamy orgy, we think we're in for one sort of play, but when Dionysus must get aid from the shepherd Prosymnus (played by Kenny Wade Marshall), we appear to be in very different territory. This mirrors the situation of Dionysus himself, who doesn't know how to act when people don't immediately fall down and worship him.

There are few surviving texts that give a complete, flushed-out story of Prosymnus, so Pflaster provides some details of his own, giving him a dear sister named Adelpha, played by Katrina Dykstra. We first see Adelpha carrying a cute stuffed sheep named Tasso, a clear reference to the Italian poet who wrote what many people consider to be the definitive pastoral drama about shepherds. As you can see, the play rarely passes up an opportunity to make a clever literary reference.

After a rather... interesting bargain with Prosymnus... Dionysus gets to the underworld, and specifically to Tartarus, a land of eternal torment and suffering. There he meets Sisyphus (played by Eric Hedlund) eternally pushing a rock up a hill. He also runs into his own dead ex-wife, Ariadne. Olivia Kinter, who plays Ariadne, delivers one of the more nuanced performances in the show, in spite of the relatively small size of her role. Dionysus, it turns out, went to the underworld not to rescue his ex, but his mother Semele, played by Alyssa Simon.

Aliza Shane directed the production, which--be warned--contains no small amount of nudity. For this reason, everyone entering the theatre must turn off their cell phones and place them in special pouches provided by Yondr. The pouches ensure that the phones stay locked up and unable to take photographs until the audience leaves the theatre and has their pouches unlocked by the staff. Sadly, this is what we have to do when certain irresponsible people continue to take photos during plays.

If you do want to be a horrible person and take a nude photograph of an un-consenting individual, though, I recommend you not try to photograph any Greek gods. If you do, pushing rocks for eternity might be the least of your problems.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Alice in Toytheatreland

When I was last abroad, I was thrilled to see an exhibit of gothic toy theatres at Strawberry Hill, the former home of Horace Walpole.

I'd previously built a toy theatre version of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, but the gift shop had a kit for building a toy theatre for Alice in Wonderland.

As readers of this blog know, I wrote my own stage adaptation of the Alice books, so it will come as no surprise that I bought the kit. It came as a printed book with cardstock pieces that can be cut out and glued together into a miniature theatre.

When you assemble the toy theatre, it looks like this:

The audience gets the full experience: the orchestra in the pit, spectators in the side boxes, and a full proscenium. Then the curtain goes up, and as the show begins, we see Alice out in the woods:

What's that? A white rabbit with a pocket watch? Alice tries to follow him and falls down, down, down the rabbit hole. The white rabbit is nowhere to be seen, but she spies a little door with a tiny keyhole...

Finding a bottle with the label "Drink Me" Alice decides to take a sip. Remember, though, kids, you shouldn't drink strange things when you don't know where they come from, especially if they're labeled "POISON" because if you drink poison, it is almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later.

And look at what happened to Alice! She drank from the bottle and shrank down to a teeny tiny size. There was also a very small cake with the words "Eat Me" on it, and Alice, being Alice, decided to give it a try.

Wouldn't you know it? After eating a bit of cake, Alice began to grow. Pretty soon, she was back to her normal size. The only problem was, she didn't stop growing. Alice grew and grew until...

...she could hardly fit inside the theatre! Distraught by this turn of events, Alice began to cry, until she realized she could just take a swig from the bottle and shrink again. The only problem was, when Alice shrank, she was washed away by a sea of her own tears until she arrived in Wonderland...

The first creature Alice came across was a Caterpillar, sitting on a magic mushroom, and smoking something nasty-smelling out of a hookah. Fortunately, Alice had learned in school to Just Say No to Drugs, so she passed the Caterpillar right by...

Alice came across a Duchess holding a baby. Alice had never met a Duchess before (though she had met many babies). The Duchess offered to give the baby to Alice to nurse for a bit, since she had to go play croquet with the Queen.

As soon as Alice took the baby, however, it promptly turned into a pig! (Don't you hate it when they do that?) Alice decided to put the pig down beside a tree, but as the little pig ran away, she heard something purring up in the tree...

It was a Cheshire Cat, grinning from ear to ear. "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?" asked Alice. "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to," said the Cat. "In that direction, lives a Hatter, and in that direction lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad."

Alice didn't want to go among mad people. She'd seen Hatters before, but none quite like this one. He asked funny riddles and sang a silly song. It ended up being the stupidest tea party she ever was at in all her life!

Alice left the tea party and saw little men who looked like cards painting white roses red in order to please the Queen of Hearts. She thought this queen sounded like a rather unpleasant person, but she did love to play croquet...

"Who is this? What's your name, child?" the Queen asked her. "My name is Alice, so please your Majesty," said Alice, with a curtsy. "And why are you not bowing before me?" thundered the Queen. "Off with her head!"

Instead of executing Alice, the Queen handed her a croquet mallet. Imagine Alice's surprise when the croquet mallet turned out to be... a flamingo!

"Oh my fur and whiskers! She'll get me executed, as sure as ferrets are ferrets!" Alice turned and saw the White Rabbit. He was dressed in livery and blowing a trumpet to announce a new trial. Someone had stolen the Queen's tarts...

The first witness at the trial was the Mad Hatter. He hadn't stolen the tarts, he said, and even if he had, he was not guilty by reason of insanity.

Next, the Queen called for the Cheshire Cat to appear. The Cat was about as cooperative of a witness as you would expect a Cat to be. The Queen was irate, and yelled, "Off with his head!"

Then, the Cheshire Cat disappeared... except for his head! "They'll never be able to cut off a head unless there is a body to cut it off from," said the White Rabbit. "Nonsense!" roared the Queen. "Anything that has a head can be beheaded."

Unable to execute the Cat, the Queen ordered that Alice be executed instead. "You can't hurt me," said Alice. "You're all just a pack of cards!" With that, all of the cards shrank smaller and smaller. Either that, or Alice grew larger and larger, until...

She could hardly fit in the theatre again!

Alice then awoke to find herself back where the whole story began. Perhaps the whole thing had been a dream!

That's the show, folks. I hope you enjoyed it!

Sunday, September 4, 2022

After Dark

The Irish playwright Dion Boucicault was a master of melodrama. He is perhaps most famous for his American-set plays The Poor of New York and The Octoroon, but he placed the London underworld on stage (literally) in his 1868 drama After Dark.

Boucicault's plays were frequently freely adapted from French melodramas, and he credited Eugene Grange and Adolphe Philippe Dennery's Birds of Prey as the source for After Dark. The play it more closely resembles in terms of staging, though, is Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight.

That play featured an on-stage train hurtling toward a man tied to the tracks. Boucicault decided to go one better, and have the train be a part of the rapidly developing London Underground. The city had opened an underground train between Paddington and Farringdon in 1863, and in 1868, the year the play premiered, a new line debuted running from South Kensington to Westminster.

Not surprisingly, the play was adapted for film in 1915 by the Canadian-born director Frederick A. Thomson. I mean, come on--how can you pass up a train scene, and one underground at that!?!

Friday, September 2, 2022

As She Likes It

Last night, I saw Shaina Taub and Laurie Woolery's musical adaptation of William Shakespeare's As You Like It performed in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

First of all, I have to give a shout out to the understudies. Amar Atkins stepped in to perform the normally thankless role of Duke Senior, but provided such warm charisma that he was the center of attention whenever he was on stage.

Another understudy, Trevor McGhie, played the male lead of Orlando, who usually takes a back seat to his love interest, Rosalind. At one point, a character in this adaptation refers to Orlando as "Romeo's understudy," which seems about right. McGhie was wonderful, though, and he even managed to make Orlando's unlikely win in a wrestling match believable.

The shepherd Silvius got gender-swapped to Silvia, played last night by understudy Claudia Yanez. I was initially unsure of how the reversal in gender would work, but the adaptation pulled it off just fine, and Yanez was delightful. Honestly, these three understudies might have been my favorite performers in the whole cast. Whatever events brought them to the stage, the audience benefited.

Taub, who previously wrote the songs for a similar production by The Public Theater of Twelfth Night, played a role as well, just as she took on the motley of Feste in Twelfth Night back in 2018. She didn't play the fool Touchstone, though. (That role was filled hilariously by Christopher M. Ramirez.) Instead, Taub appeared as the melancholy Jacques, who has some of the best speeches in the original play.

Some of those speeches are musicalized by Taub, often quite wonderfully. On the whole, I enjoyed her adaptation of Twelfth Night much more, but I've always considered it a better play than As You Like It, which can get downright silly at times. This adaptation leans into the absurdity of the play though, and the songs help with that. I would love for a cast recording of the show to be released, as it has some of the best music by Taub that I've heard yet.

Director Laurie Woolery took a heavy hand in reducing the script to a lightening-quick 90 minutes without an intermission. She previously directed a 90-minute version of The Tempest I saw pre-pandemic (which I rather enjoyed). The Tempest is a much shorter play, though, and with the addition of extensive song-and-dance numbers, this adaptation leaves very little of Shakespeare's poetry intact. (We probably get more of Shaina and Laurie in this adaptation than we get of Bill.) With the joyful spirit of the outdoor production, however, you won't mind one bit.