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Ethan Lipton’s “Tumacho” at Clubbed Thumb

TumachoAs the US grapples with horrific evidence of our culture’s violent obsession with guns, Ethan Lipton’s hilarious and brilliant satirocomic Wild West musical, Tumacho, provides the perfect comic riposte. The show is closed now, after a super-short sold out run the Clubbed Thumb’s The Wild Project in the East Village. But I hope it re-opens someplace soon — it’s the play we need to see. I’m ready to go again!

A desolate sagebrush town has been depopulated by Big Bill Yardly, a black-dressed gunman played with an enthusiastic snarl by Danny Wolohan. Mayor Evans, played with equal parts sympathy and hypocrisy by John Ellison Conlee, can’t stop the violence and is thinking about skipping town. Doc Alonzo, played by Gibson Frazier, is tired of being covered in the blood of his town’s expiring citizens. Catalina, played by Celia Keenan-Bolger, has lost her parents to the gunman as a child and seeks “murderous bloody revenge.” So far, so archetypical.

Into this too-familiar landscape floats the demon Tumacho, a free-floating spirit of violence doomed to return to the town at uncertain intervals. Tumacho, who in his original human incarnation appears to have burned his true love alive after mistakenly thinking her false, represents the circularity of a culture built on violent retribution. Can the demon rid the town of gunslinger Bill? Would a town run by Tumacho — the name slyly insinuates both “too much” machismo and a culture in which you (“tu”) must always be macho — be better than Bill’s pueblo of horrors? Would anyone notice the difference?

Sara Krulwich / NY Times

Sara Krulwich / NY Times

My favorite scene was the early three-way standoff between gunman Bill, revenger Catalina, and Clem, the son of a rival gunman who’s arrived in town seeking to kill Big Bill in order to impress his now-retired father. All three listen to old man Sam’s doggerel prophecy:

When the streets run red with blood,

And the clouds are upside down,

Then the three-legged coyote howls,

For Tumacho’s back in town…

Each thinks: that could be me!

Has the gunman killed enough townspeople to merit the title Tumacho? Will newly-arrived Clem finally step into his daddy’s bloody shoes? Or will Catalina’s dedication to revenge her parents carry the day? Quien es mas tumacho?

I won’t spoil the gorgeously random twists and turns of the plot, except perhaps to say that Tumacho eventually occupies an unexpected body. And it will require all the town’s residents, including the halitosis-fueled Mayor, to send the demon packing.

On one side of the stage, Mike Brun plays guitar, electric bass, piano, and banjo, and the cast sings a series of original songs. The one I can’t get out of my head is “No Justice for the Dead,” sung as a duet between Catalina and the father of the gunslinger who challenged Big Bill in the opening scene. Part sentimental ballad and part comic tour-de-force (Catalina sings with a tongue swollen from waterless desert travel), the song gets at the hollow core of a culture of violence. What’s the point of shooting? What’s violence for?

Or, as a goofier send-up number near to the end has it, performed by a nearly full cast dressed as ramblin’ Saguaros —

Yes, it takes a little practice

To love a cactus…

Like Ben Brantlee in the Times, I loved this play. It’s a kind of hopalong Orestia, singing out the futility and injustice of our culture of violence. I hope it’ll appear again somewhere soon!

 

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Some of a Thousand Words by Wendy Whalen #Artsideas16

WendyAs this year’s Festival of Arts and Ideas heads into the home-stretch, we enjoyed the world premiere of ballerina Wendy Whalen’s new modern dance performance, “Some of a Thousand Words,” done in collaboration with choreographer Brian Brooks and music by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Once again, I’m at a loss for vocabulary.

Whalen is the former principal dancer for the New York City Ballet, and Brooks is a modern choreographer with whom she’s been working since 2012. Their Philip Glass-accompanied piece “Fall Falls” debuted in Vail in 2013; the show in New Haven contains that piece and four others, including a stunning silent dance.

I don’t have words for the gorgeous abstraction of the dances, the impossible length and reach of the dancers’ arms and legs, or the clever playfulness of especially the dance that involved two chairs, off of which each dancer would slouch and impinge upon the other’s space.

I’ll remember two moments especially. The first is Whalen repeatedly and gently falling onto Brooks’s back during “Fall Falls,” with her body remaining perfectly still until he caught her weight on his shoulders. For a moment she remained perfectly straight, as if weightless. Isn’t weightlessness — flight — the dream of dance?

The other moment I’ll remember was watching her walk slowly across the stage, after an astounding series of solo moves and turns. She’d taught the audience to expect miracles, but she was now just walking across the stage, not flying or turning or jumping. Not yet.

Just two more days of Festival 2016!

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The Square Root of Three Sisters (Dmitry Krymov Lab) #Artsideas16

Shaunette Wilson as Olga

Shaunette Wilson as Olga

I almost didn’t make it to this one. Alinor was in NYC, having gotten last-minute tickets to some Ham- play (not the one playing right now at Shakespeare on the Sound), and Olivia wanted a night off with Harry Potter. But I’ve seen a little bit of Dmitry Krymov before — the bizarre mash-up of ballet, puppetry, and pantomime that he called A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), which I saw in Stratford in 2012 — so I flew solo to this world premiere riff on Chekov’s “Three Sisters.” It’s true that I’ve never seen that play and haven’t read it since college. But how often do you get a chance to see something like this?

The show started with the lights on and the cast working together to “lay the scene” with flat rectangles of cardboard held in place by masking tape. Assembling the set together was an important part of the staging, and perhaps the first quarter of the show consisted of Aubie Merrylees stage-managing the assembly of all the elements of a Chekov setting: the father’s grave, the houses of the sisters, the lake, the bar, the soldier’s barracks, a birch grove, a train. Some of the elements, including Merrylees’s eventual part of the writer Trigorin, appear from other Chekov plays, in his case The Seagull.

The cast is students and recent graduates from Yale Drama School, which institution co-produced the show. The actors were directed by Krymov and his Lab. The young Americans couldn’t quite do everything that the Russian cast did in 2012, though they were strong and worked well together.

One highlight was a solo scene by Shaunette Wilson, playing Olga the unmarried schoolteacher and eldest sister. She circled a table that had been used for a dinner scene earlier. Picking up each item from the table, she would name it: “This is a cup. This is a spoon. This is a saucer.” In the same matter-of-fact tone, she’d say, “I don’t need love. People marry for duty only. This is a knife.” As the scene swelled, she started mis-naming the cutlery. “This is a cup,” she’d say, holding the knife. “I don’t need love.” The subtext smashed the dishes and cleared the table in short order.

I suspect if I knew Chekov better I’d have seen more. Like Krymov’s Midsummer, the performance seemed animated by its commentary on the classical dramatic canon. The booming voice of an unseen director intruded at times, at one point telling Wilson to leave the stage because he wanted “another Olga,” who turned out to be Merrylees in drag. Wilson resisted going, and plead her case to the audience that “I was good, right?” She was, we all agreed. In another memorable moment, audience members were brought up on stage to waltz with the cast. (Alas, I hadn’t paid extra to sit in front!)

The title of the play takes the square root of three. This operation transforms the classic dramatic triangle into an irrational number. That strikes me as a pretty good metaphor for Krymov’s method.

 

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The Bookbinder at #Artsideas16

bookbinder-1_webAfter an ambitious, difficult, near-miss Friday night in Steel Hammer, it was a real pleasure to see The Bookbinder yesterday afternoon at the recently refurbished Yale Center for British Art. An inventive one-man-plus-one-book show that’s traveled all the way from New Zealand’s Trick of the Light Theatre Company to New Haven, The Bookbinder serves up its pleasures easily and generously. A mysterious book-binder needs an apprentice! An old woman arrives with an old and illegible book, a page of which our hero damages in the act of repair! A fantasy world inside the book into which our hero falls after burning the missing page so that his crime can’t be found out!

You can fill in the rest, maybe, if I tell you that it involves a voyage across a strange land, a nest of hungry eagle chicks and their soon returning mother, a girl who oddly resembles the old woman who brought the book to the store, a ship, a storm, and a desperate act of book-and-landscape repair involving a linen thread, a knife made from human bone, and the handkerchief that our hero’s gruff father gave him at the start of the story.

An elaborate pop-up book guides us through the story, supported by several dolls, some shadow puppets, and a few other props and light tricks. Ralph McCubbin Howell’s performance of a script that he co-wrote with director Hannah Smith is delightful, funny, and spooky.

The show left me thinking about how, in an age of digital media, we are rediscovering to the book as object and technological marvel — though really The Bookbinder’s interest in the craft of binding wasn’t all that technical. I also thought about the difference between the kind of socially contextualized critical perspectives that theater for adults wants to create — the raunchy high-spirits of Our Ladies, the graceful and forceful protest of Abraham.in.Motion, the inchoate rage and longing that suffused Steel Hammer — and the more abstract darkness, which perhaps really just emerges out of a child’s fear of the dark, of a play designed for younger audiences.

I value difficult and experimental work, but there’s something powerfully cleansing about a deep plunge into a child’s imagination. I spend lots of time in my own work historicizing and contextualizing the notion of being “lost in a book,” but sometimes that immersive experience really is what we most enjoy.

 

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Steel Hammer at #Artsideas16

steel_hammer_0In the middle of Steel Hammer, an occasionally brilliant but also wayward show with music written by Julia Wolfe and performed by the Bang on a Can All Stars and SITI Company, Patrice Chevannes, playing the role of John Henry’s wife Polly Anne, sat still in center stage and told her story. She met a strong man named John in an overcrowded shack filled with migrant laborers during Reconstruction, and she knew — maybe before anyone else did — that John Henry was special. The joy and wonder of her solo tall tale lingered at the center of a busy performance that featured six actors, at least eight musicians, and the not always integrated writing of four playwrights.

I’ve seen Chevannes a few other times recently, in Tamburlaine and Pericles, both at Theater for a New AudienceHer infectious smile, powerful presence, and dazzling stage charisma tend to steal the show, as she did again last night. I was also intrigued by Steel Hammer’s layered engagement with the folk tale and musical history of John Henry, who — according to research one of the characters presented early in the show — appears to have been either very short or very tall, from Alabama or Kentucky or Georgia or Elizabeth, NJ, or perhaps someplace else. Possibly a criminal, or maybe not. But we are sure that he’s the most famous American folk hero who’s African-American — and possibly the only folk hero who dies on the job.

At a certain point, when the actors were exhausting themselves running circles around the center stage for what seemed a very long time, I wondered if the performance might be trying to represent the experience of painful and tedious work — which is a tricky thing to perform. (My daughter, alas, just thought it was dull.)

I love the John Henry song, and its ambivalent celebration of the human heart struggling against the machine. I also enjoyed the music in this show, especially the inventive clarinet playing and percussion by the Bang on a Can All Stars, featuring Ken Thomson on clarinet. This show feels like a work in progress, though I guess it was at BAM last fall. It’s hard to stage painful work!

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Abraham.in.Motion at #Artsideas16

I wish I had a richer vocabulary to describe dance — because the gorgeous, playful, and fierce show last night by Kyle Abraham’sabrahaminmotion_web company deserves more than I can write. The company of seven dancers combined moves from classical ballet with hip hop and other dances in front of an alternately blazing and soulful jazz quartet. The things the human body can do!

The Time’s dance critic Gia Kourlas didn’t love it as much as I did when the four pieces played in New York last fall, but I think she missed the point. What she calls “sketches” or half-finished dances were part, it seemed to my much less trained eye, of Abraham’s aesthetic of play. The dances unfurled as if they were spontaneous eruptions of feeling, things that might just happen, in the rush of emotion and public protest. The middle performance, “Absent Matter, which was performed in front of video projections of Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, MO, rolled over us like a freight train. What if everything we feel and think becomes physical? What if our bodies can move in every possible way, so that the full complexity of lived experience — anger, rage, risk, play, improvisational discovery — jumps out from each impossibly long dancing leg or arm?

Of the four pieces, I thought “Absent Matter” hit the highest heights, but I also loved the final number, “The Gettin’,” which brought the band up on stage to perform the Freedom Suite from Max Roach’s “We Insist!” (1960) in front of images from apartheid South Africa. “The Quiet Dance,” the second piece after a short solo prelude, began without any music at all. My daughter Olivia, who’s 13 and didn’t follow all the political references in the videos, loved this one the most – pure beauty of humans in motion. abrahaminmotion_web2

One of the best things about #Artsideas16 is seeing things I’d never find otherwise!

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“Our Ladies” at #ArtsIdeas16

Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Photo credit Manuel Harlan

A great opening night last night for New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas. After an celebratory banquet in the faux-Scottish castle / Harry Potter set that is Yale’s Jonathan Edwards College, we headed across to street to see the Festival’s lead event, last year’s prize-winning play from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succor.” Think “Pitch Perfect,” but with a half-dozen potty-mouthed Scottish Catholic schoolgirls on a one-day trip to the big city for a choral competition that ends up being not the point of the trip at all.

The quest instead seeks booze, sailors, and adventure — plus perhaps a little self-discovery. Rumor has it that a party of sub-mariners are on leave in town, though neither they nor any other male bodies appear on stage; the ladies play all the male parts as well as the female ones. Their adventures get increasingly derailed by spontaneous eruptions into Electric Light Orchestra covers, including brilliant versions of  “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Shine a Little Love”  in a string of increasingly dodgy locations. My favorite was a rendition of ELO’s lovely “Wild West Hero,” a song I must have missed back in the ’70s when I was in middle school.

Photo Manuel Harlan

Photo Manuel Harlan

The play opens with a played-straight version of the group in their soon-to-be-ditched choir-girl uniforms singing Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes,” presumably the hymn to divine beauty they are bringing to the competition. The show’s central conceit asks us to find the hymn’s celebratory spirit elsewhere, as the girl’s adventures grow more and more wayward, including encounters with assorted sleazy men and grungy locales.

The contrast between the glory of their voices and their too-cool-for-school desire to swap out music for smoking, drinking, and sex animates the first half of the show. I thought the second half, with its deeper engagement with the human stories of the six, especially a miracle cancer survivor who’s been “cured” on a trip to Lourdes and a university-bound rich girl who’s not what she seems, was stronger.

I won’t spoil the ending except to highlight the final number, a version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” that shows up on their soundtrack courtesy of a sympathetic manager at the train depot cafeteria who switches the juke box to “classic reggae.” It was transcendently gorgeous, recalling but eclipsing the Mendelssohn opening.

I remember when we used to sit,

In the government yard, in Trenchtown,

Observing the hypocrites

As they would mingle with the good people we’d meet…

I’ve never heard that old song sound more poignant or moving.

Lift thine eyes! This great show will be at Yale Rep for the rest of June. Don’t miss it!

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How I Spent Shakespeare’s 400th Deathaversary

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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

Flipping Borges, this lively academic pastiche by David Greig imagines Hell as an infinite library, containing “every book every written…and every book never written.” That endlessness might sound pretty good to academics, but when the Devil is your only librarian, it’s hard to get home.

Prudencia Hart in the snow (Photos Peter Dibdin / Arts & Ideas)

Prudencia Hart is a Scottish academic traveling to a border ballads conference on a snowy midwinter’s eve. She believes in beauty, truth, and the snow tires that get her safely through the storm. Her bete noir is Colin Syme, a motorcycle-riding spouter of laddish quips and theoretical bon mots. He says that the literary tradition to which Prudencia has dedicated her life and career contains neither “borders” nor “ballads.” He thinks post-panel Karaoke is the real point of the conference anyway.

It’s a love story, as you might have imagined. But the male lead isn’t only the bloke in support of whom the audience joined in on a rousing football chant of, “there’s only one…Colin..Syme!”

It turns out, in fact, that introverted Pru finds another love, to whom she’s finally able to croon a song at the play’s end after having previously run away from the Karaoke mic into the snow and inadvertently fallen into Hell. She found her lover there, where he was her jailor-librarian for four millennia. All their years together vanished when she later escaped back into the present day with the help of Colin’s chivalric strip-tease and iron grip.

The full cast (Photo Peter Dibdin / Arts & Ideas)

The full cast

Like some of the ballads Prudencia studies, the play spins around the Devil loving a mortal woman. But in this case, Pru becomes the wooer. It turns out that the Devil can be brought into love only if you teach him to speak in rhyme. Even the immortal Enemy, it seems, can’t resist a good couplet.

The near-constant rhyming patter — much of the play’s dialogue is in ballad meter — gave the show a delightful energy, as did the setting among the tables and patrons of the GYPSY bar I used to go to in grad school.

As satire, it was pretty straightforward: Pru loves beauty, Colin just wants to start an orgy. Stop me if you’ve heard the one about academic careerism before! The dazzling Master-and Margarita-esque turn to Hell roughly halfway through the action, however, led to a deeply felt exploration of love, rhyme, and the allure of literary and nonliterary things. Pru finally chooses Colin’s fleshy world over the Devil’s library — but not until her 4,000-year Hades fellowship has run its course.

Prudencia and her songs will be in New Haven only two more afternoons, but there’s a US tour just starting now, with visits to New York, Burlington, Santa Ana CA, and a few other places before returning to Scotland and the UK in the summer. See her if you can!

The play is a perfect antidote for the exhaustion that follows on conference season!

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Communities of #shakeass16 in NOLA

My head’s still spinning from a glorious NOLA SAA, which finished early on Easter Sunday with a turbulent flight back to JFK that gave me one last unsettling tap on the shoulder. Who’s there?

Will head

Totems of SAA

Not…this big & bald guy who wrote some old plays?

I love pagan rituals and jazz funerals, but my SAA this year was about all about community — which means many things at our annual gathering, but for me especially this year it meant Seminar #51, the last one in your program. “Shared Practices and Shakespearean Communities,” was co-chaired by me and Matt Kozusco, with expert responding by Ayanna Thompson, Peter Holland, and Rick Godden. What a ride it was! Still bumping along in the jet stream of my thoughts.

Despite the thrills of seminar-ing, the culinary and biblious pleasures of New Orleans, a blazing set of paper sessions, and some positive steps toward completing the labors of the #shakeass17 Program Committee (marching into Atlanta next year!), my SAA’s undersong wasn’t all smooth. News from back home in CT undercut my contentment. While I was away, my daughter’s year-old injury flared back up. (Last year her foot was run over by her baby-sitter’s car when pulling out of our driveway, generating a long-running paroxysm of parental guilt I suspect many will recognize.) Alinor, solo parenting while I feasted, got sick. My son had his first week back to school after break. I was unhappily part of the community of fathers who weren’t there for their families on Easter morning.

Jazz funeral

Jazz funeral

Thesis #1 (which I didn’t quite spit out in the seminar): Communities are groups to which we can never fully belong, because we always fail them, some of the time.

We had a diverse bunch of papers: four historicist studies, three new media analyses, and three portraits of contemporary performance groups. After plenty of detailed textual responses before the conference, we wanted our two hours in NOLA to start something new. So we invented a party game:

Name two communities in which you are an active member, and one from which you are barred from membership.

Unprofessional mourners

Unprofessional mourners

Mine were straightforward, though also impermanent: I’m a parent of teenagers and an early modern ecocritic. I was amazed at the multiplicity of the different groups in which people claimed membership: Notre Dame football fans, black Shakespeareans, surfers, non-tenure track faculty, actors, St Louis Cardinal fans, hikers, people who speak more than three languages, atheists, soccer coaches, curlers. Shakespeareans was the unspoken common referent, though I’d intentionally spiked our punch with two brilliant medievalists, Jonathan Hsy and Rick Godden, who spoke eloquently about being near but not of Big Will.

From what were we excluded? Playing baseball, tenure, teaching Shakespeare classes (some of us teach other things), living less than 2,000 miles (!) from family, the Catholic church. We talked about exclusion by choice or by fiat, which leads me to my second not-quite-expressed thesis/conclusion:

Thesis #2: We have less choice in communal identities than we like to claim. When we speak of choice, we are engaged in hiding community’s costs.

Maybe my theses and their mostly invisible sources in domestic unease make me sound churlish? My main role in the seminar room, as I remember it, was to insist on the productive laboring force of communities, which can create things that individuals cannot. The constant chorus of our session was thinking about the SAA: we compared it (favorably!) to RSA; thought about its differential points of access, including for medievalists and working-class academics; even discussed a controversial lunchtime speech of a few years ago. Maybe it was being on the Program Committee and so seeing the full spread of next year’s options, but I was struck this year more than usually by the swirl of SAA, its vectors and diversities.

Communities are of necessity both inclusive and exclusive. Barriers to entry can be structured with clear routes of access but always remain visible, if only to facilitate the “shorthand” of shared knowledge that Peter Holland described in our seminar. That shorthand is also unevenly accessible, as our medievalists, scholars of color, and non-tt faculty emphasized. How much, I wonder, does open recognition counter barriers to access?

One answer appeared in the great moment at the Scholars of Color social in which Ayanna stood on a chair (or table, I couldn’t really see) and made visible the community of scholars of color in order to introduce them — or encourage them to introduce themselves — to other named communities, including SAA officers, Folger Library staff, and editors of journals. It felt like an implicit answer to some of the seminar’s questions, as well as a hopeful sign for the future of the SAA.dancing

Two hours of conversation seldom leads to tidy conclusions, but I feel as if the seminar showed at least one new thing to me, and perhaps also to others: thinking explicitly about community both inside and beyond our scholarly work makes its shapes and contours visible. That visibility puts us in a position to create positive change.

Which leads me to my last unstated thesis, a partial rebuttal of the second:

Thesis #3: Communities are tools for creating new knowledge. Like language or the iphone in my pocket, these tools afford some forms of knowing and discourage others. The best purpose of communities is to extend the power and range of our knowing.

That’s a practical claim, and it omits the real & tangible pleasures of communal belonging in favor of an outward-directed interest in making new things. I love belonging as much as the next SAA addict, and I suspect my focus on knowledge creation is a partial shield for more selfish pleasures.

One feature of SAA as a community that received garish exaggeration this year is our cultish devotion to a single individual, White and Male and Old and Bald (like me). Shakespeare’s “deathaversary” (to borrow Miriam Jacobson’s nice formulation in the introduction to her stunning paper) saw us dancing around his effigy in the company of professional mourners and a jazz funeral. It was silly & fun & allegorical — surely we can all admit that much? One tension in community-making remains that it’s hard to stay individuated within large groups — it’s not easy to be, in Coriolanus’s terms, “author of myself,” while dancing around Shakespeare’s head to New Orleans jazz rhythms with our once-a-year conference besties. Might we Shakespeareans be less authorial and authoritative than we like to claim? Might the face of our collectivity — that grimly famous but still opaque visage — speak us as much as we attempt to distinguish ourselves?

I’m home now, and I think mostly forgiven my treacherous absence in a time of need. But I’m still thinking (and blogging!) about SAA, including the many things that, despite my 5-day stay in NOLA (a conference record I aim not to repeat soon), I missed. Wendell Pierce’s talk, the paper session with Amanda Bailey, Julian Yates, & Ben Robinson (I went to its chronological rival, with Kim Coles, Drew Daniel, and Katherine Eggert: choices!), Erika Lin’s session on Mardi Gras Shakespeare. One can’t be everywhere, as this past week has re-taught me. Belonging is aspirational, impossible, costly. To recap my contradictory theses: we can’t join, joining costs, we must join to build and change.

See everyone in Atlanta next year!