Thursday, October 21, 2021

Mrs. Warren's Profession

Last night, I saw Gingold Theatrical Group’s wonderful production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession, now playing on Theatre Row.
 
As a production note points out, when Bernard Shaw first wrote the play in 1893, prostitution was already a crowd-pleasing plot point in numerous plays, including The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, fils. The fact that Mrs. Warren’s profession turned out to involve the sex trade was hardly controversial. What was controversial was to see a woman defend so vigorously her right to engage in that profession.
 
As the titular character Kitty Warren, Karen Ziemba does an excellent job portraying an unapologetic, ambitious, and fleshly woman who takes enjoyment in life no matter what others might think of her. Ziemba, who was delightfully airy as Hesione Hushabye in GTG’s production of Heartbreak House, could not be more different as Kitty Warren, who is grounded in an earthy worldliness throughout the play. The audience thoroughly enjoys every moment she is on the stage.
 
In many ways the more difficult role in the play is Kitty’s daughter Vivie, who is portrayed in this production by Nicole King, making her Off-Broadway debut. Raised in material comfort while ignorant of her mother’s profession, Vivie excels at mathematics at Cambridge and longs to get a job working in her own chambers in London. When she discovers the business her mother has fallen into, she reacts with understanding, but when she realizes her mother has never left that business, and participates in the exploitation of other women, she closes herself off from those around her, plunging into her own profession as diligently and enthusiastically as her mother had engaged in hers.
 
Director David Staller helps to fill out Vivie’s inner life in a theatrical moment when the other cast members speak in turns a line she has in the play. In this way, we see how the young woman’s world view has been shaped by all those around her, emphasizing over and over the notions that she internalizes, for better or for worse. “I don’t believe in circumstances,” she says, “The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can’t find them, make them.” The fact that we hear these lines not just in Vivie’s voice, but in the voices of the rest of the cast, demonstrates that no matter what she may claim, Vivie is a product of her own circumstances, like it or not.
 
In addition to the two leading women, the supporting cast is excellent as well. Raphael Nash Thompson, the brilliant Captain Shotover in GTG’s Heartbreak House, plays the Rev. Samuel Gardner, and the relative newcomer David Lee Huynh is a delight as Gardner’s son (and Vivie’s love interest) Frank. Robert Cuccioli, who played Julius Caesar in GTG’s Caesar and Cleopatra, brings depth to the villainous baronet Sir George Crofts, and Alvin Keith is a breath of fresh spring air as the romantic and artistic architect Mr. Praed.
 
Mrs. Warren’s Profession is playing until November 20th, so get your tickets now! You won’t want to miss it.


Thursday, October 14, 2021

Chitra

The Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore is often remembered as the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (unless you count Rudyard Kipling, who was born in India, but was of British descent).

Tagore wrote in both Bengali and English. When he published his play Chitra in English in 1914 (the year after he received the Nobel Prize), Tagore wrote in the preface that it had been written "about twenty-five years ago" and been performed in India without any scenery, and with the actors surrounded by the audience.

The story of Chitra is taken from the Mahabharata. Chitra, the daughter of the King of Manipur, is an only child and has been raised by her father as a boy, wielding a bow and arrow and knowing very little about feminine beauty. When she comes across a young prince names Arjuna, she falls in love, but has no idea how to gain the attention of the man she desires.

Aided by Madana, the Hindu god of love and desire, and Vasanta, the personification of spring, Chitra gains the gift of supreme beauty for a period of one year. Arjuna naturally falls in love with her, not realizing that she is the same tomboy he once spurned. He describes her as "the perfect form of a woman" and is surprised she does not "melt in ecstasy into air." She warns him that her beauty is only an illusion, but he persists, and Chitra later tells Madana and Vasanta that the two spent a passionate night together.

Returning to Arjuna, Chitra warns him that their love cannot last, but they should enjoy their moments together while they still have them. On the last night she has of still being beautiful, Chitra prays to the gods that her beauty will burn brightest as it is dying. The gods grant this wish, but then we hear from villagers that robbers are attacking, and they are frightened since their usual protectress Chitra is nowhere to be found. Arjuna is fascinated by the tales of this female warrior, but the beautiful woman with him (Chitra herself, of course) invites him to forget the robbers and return to lovemaking.

In the final scene, Chitra returns to Arjuna wrapped in a cloak. When she drops the cloak, she is again dressed in male attire. "I am not beautifully perfect," she says, but instead has "many flaws and blemishes." Still, she possesses the heart of a woman who has known both pain and joy. Arjuna, being no fool, accepts her, and finds in her not only a companion but the mother of his future son.

Chitra doesn't get too many productions these days, but the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in Canada will be producing it as a lunchtime show next summer under the direction of Kimberley Rampersad.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Peg Woffington's Lothario

Nicholas Rowe's play The Fair Penitent, based loosely on Philip Massinger and Nathan Field's The Fatal Dowry, contains an excellent role for actors specializing in villains: Lothario!

But what if the actor who played the villain was... an actress! Well, the most recent issue of Theatre Notebook contains an excellent article by Annette Rubery on the 18th-century actress Peg Woffington playing the role.

Woffington had a long and productive artistic partnership with David Garrick, primarily appearing in comic roles, but she also played Lady Randolph in the London premiere of John Home's tragedy Douglas. It was in 1753, however, four years before she excited audiences in Douglas, that Woffington appeared at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin as Lothario, the villain of Rowe's tragedy.

Though Woffington's performance as Lothario was not considered a success, it was famous enough to be recorded in paint by the artist John Lewis, whose depiction of her in the role is now owned by the National Portrait Gallery in London. She also was not the first woman to play Lothario, as that distinction belongs to Charlotte Clarke, the eccentric daughter of the actor and dramatist Colley Cibber.

Rubery argues that Woffington played Lothario in an effort to seriously show off her talents as a performer. Women who appeared as men in comedies were not expected to act entirely realistically, and part of the fun for the audience was to see a person they knew to be female in a male role. This could actually reinforce gender binaries rather than fight against them, since a woman playing a man was being held up as something inherently comic.

When a woman played a man in a tragedy, however, which was thought of as more realistic, she was expected to make the audience forget her sex and enter more fully into the illusion of the play. This, Rubery argues, made Woffington's appearance as Lothario a bit scandalous. She quotes a rather interesting poem that commemorated the performance:

     All adroit, each taper Thigh enclos'd
     In manly Vestments, with Parisian step;
     Light as the bounding Doe she tripp'd along,
     The gay LOTHARIO, in his Age of Joy.
     Venus surpriz'd, thus whisper'd 'Let me die,
     If dear ADONIS wore a lovelier Form.'
     Then clasp'd the Youth-dres'd Damsel to her Breast,
     And sighing, murmur'd, O that for my Sake
     Thou wert this Instant what thou represents.

Perhaps the realism of Woffington's Lothario was a bit too much for audiences to take. In the play, Lothario is a heartless seducer of women. How much worse it might have been in the minds of some audience members if that heartless seducer of women was another woman!

Friday, October 1, 2021

Blackbird Revisited

When I first saw David Harrower's play Blackbird on Broadway in 2016, it quite impressed me, so when I heard that Kim Sharp would be directing a revival of the piece, I knew I wanted to see it.

Sharp's direction is spot on, and actors Francesca Ravera and Lenny Grossman deliver compelling performances. I had seen Ravera before in a production Sharp directed of Neil LaBute's The Way We Get By at Urban Stages. Originally from Italy, she speaks with a slight accent, but this worked for the character of Una, giving her the feeling of someone slightly different, someone the character of Ray might have found exotically attractive when he had an affair with her fifteen years ago.

The hook here is that fifteen years ago Una was only twelve years old. She tells us right from the beginning that this was abuse--he abused her--no doubt about it. Once we establish that Ray was an abuser, the interest in the play hinges on what being an abuser really means. Grossman does an excellent job of exploring the nuances of his character, not charming us into finding him attractive and likable, but not making Ray into a slimy monster, either.

As a playwright, I enjoyed watching the play a second time around and seeing all of the twists and turns in the script. Harrower certainly knows what he's doing in the piece, and crafts the shifts and surprises quite deftly. If you've never seen it before, you're in for a treat.

Act quickly, though, because the play closes on Sunday, October 3rd. Performances are at the New Ohio on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village.


Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Wags

The composer Charles Dibdin provided a great deal of the music for late Georgian theatre, and now his one-man comic opera, The Wags, is available for listening once again.

Dibdin originally performed the piece 108 times during the 1790-91 season, standing behind a piano and impersonating a variety of comic gentlemen. Now Retrospect Opera, which researches and records overlooked British theatrical music, has come out with a new album of The Wags featuring the versatile performer Simon Butteriss and pianist Stephen Higgins.

You can purchase the CD through Retrospect Opera's shop, and access the show online with visuals supplied by video artist Maria Anthony. It's worth checking out, not for its plot, which is slight to non-existent, but for Dibdin's delightful songs. Each song is sung by one of the group of wags in the play who gather at a house in town to swap stories and indulge their appetites.

My favorite song in the show is "The Joys of the Country" sung by the Irish character Mr. O'Gig. Jane Austen was apparently a fan, too, since the song was one of several of Dibdin's works in her personal collection of sheet music. The chorus proclaims:

          Oh the mountains, and vallies, and bushes,
          The pigs, and the screech-owls, and thrushes,
          Let bloods and let bucks to praise London agree,
          Oh the joys of the country, my jewel, for me!

Another Dibdin song, "My Poll and my Partner Joe," later got turned into a melodrama by John Thomas Haines. Incidentally, Dibdin's son, Thomas Dibdin, ended up writing some of his own melodramas, including Valentine and Orson, which is referenced frequently by Charles Dickens.

In any case, The Wags can be delightful at times. I'm glad Retrospect Opera is keeping this wonderful music alive!

Monday, September 27, 2021

The Greater Labyrinth

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was one of the more interesting writers of the Hispanic Golden Age in the 17th century, and I was greatly pleased to learn that Red Bull Theater would be presenting an online benefit reading of her play Love is the Greater Labyrinth.

The livestream premiere was tonight, but if you missed it, a recording of the reading is still available for a limited time. Sor Juana originally wrote the play for the viceregal court of "New Spain" which is now Mexico. She actually co-wrote it with a priest, Juan de Guevara.

Though a collaboration between a nun and a priest, the play is concerned with romantic and sexual issues. It takes the story of Theseus and the Minotaur as a jumping off point to explore not the hero's journey into the frightening labyrinth on Crete, but his journey into the greater labyrinth of love, which can seem even more dangerous and confusing.

Theseus, or Teseo as he is called in the play, is set to be sacrificed to the Minotaur as a tribute from Athens to the King of Crete, Minos. Both of Minos's daughters, Ariadna and Fedra, fall in love with him. Teseo is in love with Fedra, but it is Ariadna who provides him with a thread that allows him to track his way through the labyrinth. Comic relief is added by Teseo's servant, Tuna, who was my favorite part of the play.

In Greek mythology, Theseus abandoned the Cretan princess Ariadne on the island of Naxos, where she met the god Dionysus or Bacchus and subsequently married him. Love is the Greater Labyrinth transforms this deity into Baco, a prince of Thebes, who is apparently fond of wine, but not actually the god of it. Everyone comes together for a masked ball, and there are plenty of opportunities for mistaken identities and wacky antics.

This virtual presentation is the debut of a new translation by the collective Diversifying the Classics. It deserves to be published, and I hope it will be available soon to theaters and students of drama alike.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

The Clouds

The Athenian philosopher Socrates shows up in the dialogues of Plato, but he also appears in dialogues of Xenophon, and in the play The Clouds by Aristophanes.

Most experts will tell you that the real Socrates is the Socrates of Plato, on the basis of... well, okay, there really isn't much basis for that. Both Xenophon and Aristophanes appear to have been closer in age to Socrates than Plato, so they might very well have known him better. However, it's Plato's version of the philosopher that shows him as the tragic martyr we want him to have been.

The Socrates of The Clouds isn't admirable in the slightest. He's just another fast-talking shyster who takes money to teach people how to argue that right is wrong and wrong is right. The play's protagonist Strepsiades (the name means "twister") wants to get his racehorse-loving son Pheidippides (whose name means "shy horse") to learn the new style of reasoning so he can finally get out of debt.

Socrates appears in a basket suspended in the air, and contrary to his depiction by Plato, seems more interested in science than moral philosophy. "I tread the air, contemplating the sun," Socrates says. "Sublime in air, / Sublime in thought I carry my mind with me, / Its cogitations all assimilated / To the pure atmosphere..." A fair depiction? Probably not, but the impractical man of thought trying to literally put his head in the clouds is a great metaphorical image.

Speaking of clouds, they form the chorus, and though the choral members were originally played by male Athenian citizens, the clouds are supposed to appear as female. Strepsiades asks how clouds have been transformed into women. "Clouds can assume what shapes they will," Socrates reassures him. For instance, if they see some young upstart like Xenophantes, they might "kick at him for vengeance." (Xenophantes was one of those crazy guys who thought there was only one God, and not a whole slew of deities atop Olympus.)

Apparently, the clouds have just gotten a look at Cleisthenes, a politician known for his womanizing, so they've transformed into ladies in order to mock him. Socrates claims that these clouds are the only divinities, and that Zeus and his crew are just a bunch of fables. Strepsiades objects that it's Zeus who makes the rain fall, but Socrates counters that it's really just the clouds who do that, and provide thunder and lightning as well. If Zeus really used lightning to strike down perjurers, why are there still so many lying politicians around, while innocent trees get blasted? (Actually, he's got a point there...)

The action really heats up with an on-stage battle between Dicaeologos (the name means "good reason") and Adicaeologos ("bad reason"). Since this is a school for shyster philosophers, Bad Reason kicks Good Reason's butt, making fun of the entire audience in the process. It's then that the chorus of clouds steps forward for the parabasis and address the audience the play just insulted.

In ancient comedy, the parabasis was the playwright's chance to appeal directly to the audience for votes. Since comedies were presented as part of a competition, and the winning dramatist won a prize, the parabasis was a bald-faced begging for votes. In The Clouds, the chorus does this by promising good things for anyone who votes for the play:

               Now to our candid judges we shall tell
               What recompense they may expect from us,
               If they indeed are studious to deserve it:
               First, on your new-sown grounds in kindly showers,
               Postponing other calls, we will descend.
               The bearing branches of your vines shall sprout,
               Nor scorch'd with summer heats not chill'd with rain.
               This to our friends who serve us,—but to him,
               Who dares to slight us...

Yup, that's followed by threats for anyone who votes for a different play. Their fields will never produce wine or olive oil again! Don't mess with clouds. They will hail on your house and send a deluge on your wedding day. (Anyone who got married the weekend of Superstorm Sandy knows this part is actually true.)

Anyway, after much back and forth, Pheidippides does get his lessons in lying from the school of Socrates. Unfortunately, things don't go the way his father intended. While Pheidippides is successful in getting out of paying his debts, he then turns the tables on Strepsiades and argues he has a right to beat his own parents.

Aristophanes's point here is that while new-fangled ideas might be fun and even useful at times, if you abandon tradition, you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Whether the historical Socrates was trying to do that or not, many of his successors have certainly attempted to overturn long-established traditions in favor of trendy intellectual fads, and The Clouds stands as a lasting warning against the overturning of the foundations upon which our society rests.