McElroy Shakespeare Celebration

Me speaking before the show

Me speaking before the show

It’s been almost a month since the McElroy Shakespeare Celebration at Loyola University in Chicago, and I’ve still got it buzzing in my head. Seeing a brilliant cast of six students, two professional actors, student techs, and a faculty director bring my blue and green eco-theories about The Winter’s Tale to a live stage was the sort of thing that happens seldom in an academic career.


The bear


The cast takes a bow




Statue scene

This post is partly a photo gallery, featuring images taken by Loyola grad student Lydia Craig.


Sheep-shearing scene

In putting my contrast between green pastoral stasis and blue oceanic dynamism into practice, the actors reminded me how much stage choices get expressed through human bodies, rather than — or perhaps in addition to — language. We professors have a habit of digging down into words, while actors use bodies. It’s another reason we should work together sometimes.

I saw the difference performance makes most clearly in the staging of the famous “great creating Nature” exchange between Perdita and Florizel. In the second, “blue” and disruptive version of the scene, I asked the actors to look for ways to move past harmony into dynamism. They responded with two great performance choices that I’ll think about each time I return to this scene. When Perdita offered Polixenes “flowers of middle summer” (4.4.107) after he has bullied her into agreeing with his homily about Art and Nature, he refused to accept them. The visible lack of harmony between the two actors accented the lack of intellectual agreement in their argument. A few lines later, a leering Camillo grabbed Perdita’s arm and held her close to him when he spoke of leaving off “grazing” and living “only by gazing” (4.4.129-30), were he of her flock. I could feel the threat in my front-row seat.

The performed exchange emphasized the unsolved conflict between Perdita’s vision of youthful promise and the older aristocrats’ insistence on artistic and political control.

I’m left feeling unsettled about the core exchange itself. Perdita’s refusal to hybridize flowers seems like an intellectual mistake; Polixenes’s argument for an “art / Which does mend Nature — change it rather — but / The art itself is Nature” (4.4.95-97) makes a strong rational case. But the play’s sympathies are overwhelmingly with the young lovers. Polixenes uses logic and poetry, but the play casts its lot with Perdita’s feeling.

She’s the “Queen of curds and cream” (4.4.161), but perhaps also, as Florizel describes her, a blue creature of the Bohemian coast:

When you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’th’sea, that you might ever do

Nothing but that, move still, still on,

And own no other function. (4.4.140-43)


Cast takes a bow

At some point I’ll try to untangle this play’s engagement with blue and green, error and Nature, logic and love. When I do, I’ll credit the McElroy Shakespeare Celebration for helping me.

The Clown rescues Perdita

The Clown rescues Perdita


Tis Pity by Red Bull at the Duke

PosterThe bloody half of my semester’s-end theater treat was Red Bull’s Tis Pity last night, back in the company’s old haunts at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street. Nothing like a high-spirited incest tragedy to send me off onto dark highways heading home. I’m feeling a bit sentimental, not to mention tired, today. Classes are over, spring and all is here – heart on my sleeve, perhaps, or on a knife’s point, take your pick…

The Red Bull Theater, one of my favorite local NYC companies, is dedicated to bringing (mostly) non-Shakespearean 17c plays to modern stages. John Ford’s gruesome send-up of Romeo and Juliet — let’s see what happens if we make them brother and sister?! — plays to the company’s strengths: clarity, forcefulness, a dazzlingly consistent and brilliant cast.  It’s hard not to have a special appreciation for Everett Quinton, a stage veteran who was a mainstay at Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. In this show he played the oily Signor Donado, whose foppish son Bergetto, gleefully camped up by Ryan Garbayo, has no chance of getting the girl. But really the entire cast was fantastic. The assembled suitors of the lovely Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) were each distinct types: dashing Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), foolish Bergetto, the violent soldier Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman).

Brother and sister

Brother and sister

The bloody heart of any production of this play is the incestuous couple, and here I was struck by the difference between Red Bull’s show and an excellent version of the play by London-based Cheek by Jowl that I saw at BAM in 2012. In the 2012 version, the set was all interior: we spent the night in Annabella’s bedroom. In Red Bull’s version, we were outside on the street, surrounded by corruption. The bed appeared from behind a stage recess for only two scenes: the couple’s first night together, and the scene in which Giovanni kills his sister before cutting out her heart and carrying with him on a bloody dagger up to the play’s end. Red Bull always works in and as a company, distributing our attention almost evenly around the busy stage. Their focus wasn’t only on the lovers.

That’s not to say that Amelia Pedlow’s Annabella and Matthew Amendt’s Giovanni weren’t compelling and disturbing. But for many scenes, especially early in the play, the central pair stood off to the side while Ford’s cartoonish Italy displayed its decadent wares. Giovanni especially seemed slightly less stage-filling than his rival suitors, though that’s perhaps because he only needed to woo for a few early scenes.

Cheek by Jowl’s production ended with Annabella’s ghost holding her brother’s hand, but that level of sentimental sympathy wasn’t the point in Red Bull’s version. A brilliant small-part turn by Rocco Sisto as the corrupt Cardinal who eagerly hoovered up money for the Pope’s coffers provided this production’s center. This  play’s theatrical Italy was a social maze of greed and predation that chewed up any and all lovers. The Cardinal gleefully closed the play by pronouncing judgment on Annabella’s corpse:

Annabella's marriage

Annabella’s marriage

Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,

Who could not say, ‘tis pity she’s a whore?

Listening to Ford’s language, I kept hearing the special charge on certain words: heart, fate, lust, love. I was even more impressed this time around by the play itself, a dark meditation on and extension of Romeo and Juliet.

My favorite line was from Bergetto, with just the right mix of philosophy and farce

Time’s a blockhead. (3.5)

Soranzo and Annabella

Soranzo and Annabella

Go see it before it closes on May 16!


Fiasco’s Two Gents at Tfana

2-gents-artwork-websiteThe first half of my classes-are-over theater treat was Fiasco Theater’s high-spirited romp of Two Gents, playing at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn. Perfect for a festive May Day!

If you love her, you cannot see her. (2.1)

Played with intriguing cross-casting — the true lover Valentine was also Crab the beloved but ill-mannered dog! — by just six actors with some judicious cuts, this production was fast, happy, and funny. Leaving Sir Eglamour on the cutting room floor, it presented the classic love parallelogram, in which Proteus loves Julia, Valentine loves Sylvia, then changeable Proteus mirrors his best friend’s affections by turning to Sylvia, etc, etc.

The full cast

The full cast

She woos you by a figure. (2.1)

Part of the charge of this early play is watching the young Shakespeare try out tricks he’ll later deepen, from sea voyages, which here inexplicably ferry the lovers from Verona to Milan, to wandering disguised lovers to sudden jealousy. Stage business involving torn letters, a glove, and the scene-stealing dog guide the paper-thin plot raft forward.

I am the dog. No, the dog is himself, and I am the dog. Oh! the dog is me, and I am myself. (2.3)

The servant Launce’s devotion to his dog, in whose stead he is whipped and beaten, set a high bar for the less constant human lovers. Having Crab played by a human actor, unlike the trained pooch I saw in Stratford last summer, focused this idealistic mirror. Are Launce and Crab the most devoted couple in all of Shakespeare?

I know him as myself. (2.4)

The two gents of the title lose themselves in a Rene Girard-esque tangle of emulation, love, and friendship. If I love my friend as myself and now he loves her, how can I not love her too? Proteus’s egotism tips him into betrayal, while Valentine’s constancy exiles him repeatedly, first to Milan and later to an unexpectedly hospitable forest. To know some other person, friend or lover, “as myself” may be to know only “slenderly,” as a daughter in a later play with a sharper view of human nature observes.

Andy Groteleuschen as Launce and Zachary Fine as Crab  (Photo NY Post)

Andy Groteleuschen as Launce and Zachary Fine as Crab
(Photo NY Post)

…discourse of disability (2.4)

Shakespeare’s only use of the word “disability” comes in this play, in reference to Proteus’s pleas to Sylvia that he is “too mean” for such a noble lady. The juxtaposition of discourse and disability suggests that the play probes the capacities and lacks of language in relation to emotion. What if we can never say just what we feel?

I cannot now prove constant to myself. (2.6)

The tangled plot of the first half of the play should have been easy to untie — every gent goes back to the first lady he loved — but it turned violent. The exiled bandits turned out to be friendly and Proteus’s last-minute attempt to rape Sylvia was interrupted, but the happy ease of the first half of the plays went into exile with Launce and Crab.

The hardest part to stage, I think, is Valentine’s offer of “all that was mine in Sylvia” to his treacherous and violent friend. In a rare miss of an on-stage connection, Zachary Fine’s Valentine did not look at Sylvia when he tried to give her away. This good-hearted production couldn’t bear to show it.

The problem here, I think, was the dramatic insufficiency of the transformation that preceded the misogynistic offer. Proteus mouthed the pieties of repentance, albeit in the conditional: “if hearty sorrow / Be a sufficient ransom for offense, / I tender’t here” (5.4). I didn’t feel it in the first row, and I’m not convinced Shakespeare did either.

Zachary Fine and Noah Brody as the Two Gents

Zachary Fine and Noah Brody as the Two Gents

Repentance was a central trope of late sixteenth-century English theology, and also a key narrative feature of the Elizabethan prose romances that Shakespeare drew on in many plays. (I wrote a book about those romances in 2006, with special attention to the king of repentance, Robert Greene.) I think Shakespeare recognized in the awkward ending of Two Gents that simple repentance was undramatic. His plays present change perhaps more than any other thing — but the simple pieties of repentance tend to be relegated to off stage moments, as with Oliver and Duke Frederick in As You Like It, another play directly tied to Elizabethan prose fiction.

I might say more about repentance on stage at some point — I’ve got a proposal in to Blackfriars 2015 about the faux-conversion of Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale  – but in this play it gives a slightly bitter twist to a wonderful romp. The sour taste doesn’t last, but it’s noticeable.

Get down to Fort Greene to catch this one before May 24!

Photo Sara Krulwich New York Times

Photo Sara Krulwich
New York Times


Othello by Titan Theatre Company

2015-04-24 19.00.06 copyRoughly seven hours before the curtain went up on the Titan Theatre’s all-female Othello, I was talking with my brilliant graduate student Tara Bradway about how she prepares to play male roles, including most recently Shakespeare’s King Richard II. (Check out her fabulous Adirondack Shakespeare Company & go see their plays if you’re upstate!) She insisted that female bodies should and can play male parts, and although she talked about a few physical tricks that she used — changing her walk, the way she held her arms, etc — basically her claim was that women can play all the parts, just as men (and boys) did in Shakespeare’s own company.

I didn’t know that conversation would be such good preparation for seeing Titan’s Othello later that night at the lovely Queens Theatre in the middle of Corona Park, in the shadow of the historic New York State Pavilion, built for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. 2015-04-24 18.58.10 copy

In Lenny Banovez’s production, women played all the roles as women. Instead of insisting, as most same-sex productions do, that any body can play any part as written, this production dug into the language and feminized (almost) everything: Brabantio became Desdemona’s “mother,” all pronouns were “she” and “her,” and in a few cases the language was re-structured to avoid sex-specific terms. (No “circumcised dog” in this version of Othello’s last speech.) They kept “Lord” as a term of rank, and a few sirs, and I heard one (perhaps mistaken?) reference to Othello’s father, who gave his mother the “antique token” of the handkerchief (5.2). While they did not feminize any of the Italian names — it remained Othello and Cassio, as opposed to Emilia and Desdemona — the single-gender fiction seemed determined and almost complete. There were two different kinds of female performers on stage, some in boots and pants and carrying swords, the others unarmed,  in dresses, wearing sandals or soft shoes. But they were all women.

Laura Fray as Iago and Leah Gabriel as Roderigo. (Photo Queens Gazette)

Laura Fray as Iago and Leah Gabriel as Roderigo. (Photo Queens Gazette)

The result was strange, more disorienting that I would have thought, and a powerful reminder of how thoroughly gendered English speech and stage conventions are. I’m not quite sure what I think about it — I remember disliking Helen Mirren’s performance as “Prospera,” the maternal mage at the center of Julie Taymor’s film The Tempest, though I think not because of the gender gambit. In places the shift felt awkward, though perhaps a good reminder of how thoroughly we’ve naturalized English’s gender conventions. I spent much of the show thinking about a world without men, and about how the play’s mix of jealousy, violence, and attachment changes in an all-female world.

The night’s revelation was Laura Frye’s Iago. Especially in the first half of the play, she charmed with stage presence and charisma. The motive hunting soliloquies were playful, inviting, even flirtatious —

I know not if’t be true

But I for mere suspicion in that kind

Will do as if for surety. (1.3.87-89).

Leah Dutchin as Othello and Laura Frye as Iago. (Photo Queens Gazette)

Leah Dutchin as Othello and Laura Frye as Iago. (Photo Queens Gazette)

As the play grew more violent and entangled in its plots — the direction was fast, the cuts numerous, and the action sudden, with actors waiting in chairs onstage ready to re-enter as fast as they could — Iago turned. I thought of Tamora, Queen of the Goths in Titus, which I saw with my students this past winter. I wondered about the gendered conventions of stage villainy. Is it sexist to find a female Iago less empathetic than the hearty soldier we’re used to? Did Frye’s blazing smile, and her barely contained loathing of the more typically feminine Emilia and Desdemona, collude with a deep misogynist fantasy that wants to keep women away from certain kinds of power even in our supposedly feminist age?

As I watched this Iago I worried about Hillary Clinton and what our culture feels when we see powerful women.

Perhaps the female Othello should have occupied this thought more directly, but I didn’t find Leah Dutchin’s performance quite as compelling as did the Queens Gazette. She spoke the Othello music with authority, and the romance-inflected “story of my life” passage to Brabantio was gorgeous, but she could not really compete for center stage with Iago. Dutchin’s Moor seemed a bit over-matched, as I suppose Othello always does when faced with Iago. I don’t think it was the gender switch that diminished the general — though it is true that her rage does not fit easily into the Medea-frame through which we tend to read murderous female jealousy.

Publicity Poster

Publicity Poster

Sierra Tothero as Desdemona (Photo Queens Gazette)

Emily Trask as Desdemona (Photo Queens Gazette)

The text was chopped and compressed, including moving the great exchange of vows between Othello and Iago from the play’s middle (3.3) to quite a bit later during the second half of the action. One striking change that I did not like was treating Othello’s wounding of Iago in the final scene as a death-wound, so that the villain’s “I bleed, sir, but not killed” (5.2.285) seemed false bravado. At the final curtain the fatal bed held four bodies: smothered Desdemona, stabbed Emilia, self-stabbed Othello, but also Iago, clinging to her last breaths. Iago’s final lines are among the most chilling in all of Shakespeare —

Demand me nothing. What you know, you know.

From this time forth I never will speak word (5.2.300-01)

I missed the violent independence that I think those lines demand.

But I was pleased to make the acquaintance of the Titans in their new home at the Queens Theatre. Get into Corona Park before the run ends on May 2!


“Cry, Trojans” by The Wooster Group

PosterThinking about this play today, I hear the first word in the gravel-mouthed syllables of Martin Prochazka, a great Czech Shakespearean who I first met at a bar in Prague about four years ago:


That’s what it’s all about. Or at least that’s what I thought about after seeing this show at St. Ann’s on March 27 with an eager dozen or so of my students.

Without digging too deeply in Deluezian & Guattarian weeds, the deterratorializing impulse in The Wooster’s Group’s latest (and third) iteration of Troilus and Cressida, now entitled “Cry, Trojans,” organizes this still-bizarre but unexpectedly streamlined version of their Red Indian take on the Trojan half of Shakespeare’s Trojan war play. Casting Trojans as Native Americans, whose costumes and stage dancing inhabited visual cliches made manifest in the “spirit guide” video monitors arranged on the four corners of the stage, relocated classical heroism into a landscape at once prehistoric and celluloid. Ben Brantley didn’t like it, but he didn’t try very hard to figure it out.

I’ve been thinking and writing about this production for several years. I saw it first in Stratford in 2012, at the International Shakespeare Conference, and then a second time in the bitter cold in January 2013, downtown at the Performing Garage. That was a workshop production, in preparation for the current run at St Ann’s in Brooklyn.2015-03-27 20.00.23

You’d think after three evenings with these Woosters I’d have a pretty good sense of what’s happening. But the strangeness lingers.

Deterratorialization works to unsettle, even unmoor familiar associations. What are we left with when we watch a story of the Trojan War with no Greeks and Trojans who spend their time starting a video screens we the audience can’t see very well?

My experience of this Wooster production makes me hyper-aware of how theater requires us to parse out attention, looking now as Scott Shepard’s stoic Troilus, now at Kate Valk’s erotic and playful Cressida, sometimes at the video monitors showing Splendor in the Grass or The Fast Runner. Where’s the right place to put your attention? Watching this play means deterratorializing your eyes.

The second word is mediation. This term has become my Wooster-watchword, first pronounced in 2012 to a pint-quaffing gathering of mostly hostile Shakespeare professors at The Dirty Duck, the Stratford pub where we gathered after seeing the 2012 production of this play, in which the Woosters’ Trojans stage-fought against the heroic stalwarts of the Royal Shakespeare Company. “It’s extreme mediation,” I said to the skeptics. “That’s what the screens do. It’s how we live today. What do we all look at when we stare at our tiny beloved screens?”

After the workshop in the Garage last winter, I managed to get Liz Lecompte, the play’s director and co-founder of the Wooster Group, on the phone. I spun her my theory that their production sliced most of the epic warfare off this love-and/as-war play, so that the alienating moves almost but not quite prevented our access to the core melodrama. I said I thought Pandarus’s song was the key thing: “Love, love, Nothing but love…”

(It turns out the the love-and-violence subplot of the play extended to the original cast back in 2012, according to the Times.)

They cut most of that song in the new version, and in a few ways that streamlining unsettled the emotional reading I gave the play in 2013. The 2015 version was a clearer, more foreceful Cry, Trojans than what we saw in the Garage — the playbill is, especially for the Woosters, a model of clarity — but perhaps also a darker one.

Kate Valk as Cressida (Photo from NY Times)

Kate Valk as Cressida (Photo from NY Times)

My students were shocked that the love scene pantomimed rape, with Troilus scooping Cressida over his shoulder and running in circles while she flailed with her fists and wailed — not with full emotional force, perhaps, but in a kind of symbolic dance. After he put her back on her feet, she pronounced the invitation that scandalized the play’s Victorian editors:

Will you walk in, my lord?

In Valk’s pouty delivery, this line does to Troilus what he’s just done to her by carrying her across his shoulder: embarrasses with raw eroticism. Her sexuality unnerves him, assails him, and the two, like the gorgeous doomed lovers played by Warren Beaty and Natalie wood on the monitors, have their once-separate selves over-written by the roaring waterfall of eros. There seems no more choice in their passion than in Cressida’s later ambivalent yielding to Diomedes in the Greek camp. Love is not choice but submission to a story that writes the self, not a story we can write ourselves.

(Speaking a story we can’t write ourselves, the Woosters invited me to do a short dialogue about the play earlier this spring — but when my train ran late, they went on without me. Oh well. I have answers for those questions, if the occasion ever re-arises…)

Greg Mehrten as Pandarus

Greg Mehrton as Pandarus

This darker and more entangled extrapolation of the love plot makes the central figure of the play not so much either of the lovers but the go-between, Pandarus. As played by Greg Mehrten, who also plays King Priam and, briefly, the satiric Greek Thersites, the “sleazy uncle” (as my students called him) occupied the uncomfortable heart of the drama. In an atypical move for Shakespeare, this figure of moderate rank gets the last word at play’s end, and bequeaths that audience his “diseases.”

When I teach that moment I like to talk about Troilus as satire, exposing the elite martial codes and the plays that celebrate them, including among others Shakespeare’s Henry V. But this time through I also felt Pandarus spoke for the lost lovers and the meet cute during wartime plot he’d almost smuggled past the epic censors. What if his sleazy love-plot is the disease, and we’ve all caught it? They may have mostly cut his song but I still heard it when I was driving home on midnight highways —


Scott Shepherd as Troilus

“Love, love, nothing but love…”

Running through April 19th in DUMBO!


Transition, Scale, and Catastrophe @ GW MEMSI 3/20/15

transition poster w correct dateThe walls didn’t fall. No flood, nor fire. The AV worked smoothly for everyone, and we even had time to luxuriate twice in Lynn Tomlinson’s gorgeous animated short film, The Ballad of Holland Island House. The bar did run out of dark rum, but by that time of night it was hard to call that a catastrophe.

So what about last Friday’s symposium makes me feel stretched, exhausted, exhilarated but also vulnerable like an oyster without a shell?

In the middle of my talk I quoted Primo Levi on almost but not quite getting right to the heart of the matter, unlocking impossible questions — what are transition, scale, and catastrophe, really? — with no working tools other than words:

Perhaps, despite the wan translation and the pedestrian, rushed commentary, he has received the message, he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all of us who toil, and with we two in particular, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for soup on our shoulders (114).

His story of Dante and the whirlpool ends the same place as Lynn’s film —

And over our heads the hollow seas closed up (114).

 We went there, but not to stay.

It’s hard to reassemble it all now, the “fierce joy” and collective willingness to play and imagine together. I remember some stray lines, rushed into coherence with a borrowed pen. I’ll stick them here like the petroleum-based clay Lynn used to build her animated house: shapes brought together into structure. A series of alternatives to the catastrophic turns that fell to the ground outside as over-large flakes of wet, late-season snow:

Karl Steel: “as optimistically as possible” “post-agentic optimism” (the latter is my phrase but Karl’s insight)

Stephanie LeManager:  “an archive of sensory knowledge” “calling out witnesses” “weathering” (I wanted to ask more about the last term)

Lynn Tomlinson: “animate art” “jellyfish feel nostalgia for the age of humans”

Anne Harris: “every work of art is a remembered ecological crisis”

Stacy Alaimo: “thinking the Anthropocene at sea”

Me: “Something always washes up on the beach”

Those words don’t get it. Not quite. Lynn’s film comes closer, from its seagull opening to the flash of the yellow perch entering the flooded house near the end: finding home in a post-catastrophic world.

Lynn's Perch

These things depend on so much that I can’t write down: on gesture, tone, community, a shared willingness to imagine. Oysters are allegories, and also exposed asymmetrical flesh, salt and patient. We all depended on Jeffrey Cohen‘s ring-master timing, bringing us forward, two by two. On the generosity of the audience. On asking ourselves to change in response to others.

The running gag during the lead-up to the symposium was that we were courting Catastrophe: that was the subject line of weeks of emails. Catastrophe is coming to DC! But for me the best things about this too-soon-over event weren’t the sudden turns of insight or brilliance, though those will linger and inform my thinking for days and years to come. Best of all were the unexpected transitions, the “anamorphic breaks” laid bare by Anne’s brilliant discussion of The Ambassadors, the possibility that an entire other thing might be there, waiting for us, visible if we only allow our eyes to turn, just so, a little more, close one eye to focus: there it is!

What we glimpsed wasn’t Holbein’s allegorical skull. Something else. Something better?

Such a pleasure to gather at GW MEMSI to reason of these things! Holbein


What is Ecocriticism?

Screenshot 2015-03-12 15.45.03On April 14, I’ll give the McElroy Shakespeare Lecture at Loyola U. in Chicago, working with local actors to present “green” (pastoral) and “blue” (oceanic) ecological threads through some scenes from the second half of The Winter’s Tale. The actors are rehearsing now in Chicago, and they’ve asked for a short paragraph defining “ecocriticism” to help them think about the project and the notes I’ve sent them about the play.

It’s an interesting challenge: describe your favorite over-flowing sub-field in 150 words or less.

With help from some books that sit within a few feet of my desk — Glotfelty and Fromm’s Ecocriticism Reader, Gerrard’s Ecocriticism, Lynne Bruckner and Dan Brayton’s Ecocritical Shakespeare were quickest to hand — here’s what I’ve come up with to send on the Loyola.

What is Ecocriticism?

A thriving and contentious academic field, ecocriticism defines itself through a shared interest in examining the relationship between human beings and the non-human environment. These investigations range from cultural histories of human ecological entanglements to critical analyses of the meanings of such terms as “human” and “nature.” With its origins paralleling the birth of modern environmentalist politics, ecocriticism produces historical and theoretical models that engage the rising tide of ecological awareness. Diverse strains within the field explore matters such as environmental justice, gender, ethics, economic development and the global south, various articulations of critical theory, the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, and multiple strains of activist politics. Ecocritics collectively bring the tools and methods of the humanities to bear on urgent questions for today’s age of global ecological crisis. The discourse represents an attempt by humanities scholarship to come to terms with a fractured world.

It all sounds very presentist for a scholar of 17c literature like me, though I do believe, as Sharon O’Dair has argued, that presentist energy drives ecocritical thinking.

I’d love feedback from the many ecocritics who can help me see what I’m omitting!


Shipwreck Modernity: coming next Fall

Just got the cover image from University of Minnesota Press. It’ll be out next fall…

MentzBits and pieces of this book have been filtering through this blog for years, but now it’s time to start a fuller rollout. Starting with the table of contents:

Two Prefaces:

Epochal Claims and the Age of Shipwreck

Ulysses and the Global Ecology

1: The Wet and the Dry: Shipwreck Hermeneutics

2: Angry Gods: Theologies of the Ocean

3; Isle of Tempests: Bermuda in the Early Modern Imagination

Interchapter: Pearls that were his eyes

4: Metis: Jeremy Roch

5. Metis: Edward Barlow

Interchapter: Philosopher on the Mast-Head

6. “We Split”: Sea Poetry and Maritime Crisis

7. Castaways: Surviving Disaster

Three Short Epilogues

The Bright Light of Shipwreck

The Bookfish

Seven Shipwrecked Ecological Truths


Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat Theatre (Teatr Piesn Kozla)

Yale Rep poster

Yale Rep poster

About a third of the way through this riveting, devastating performance, director/conductor Grzegorz Bral introduced the next song or “painting” by saying that Cordelia’s experience in the love test had been nothing new. The king had been betraying his daughter for years. An actor came forward and sat in a chair, surrounded by the other nine actors dressed in black. She sang the same lines three different times: as a four year old, a twelve-year old, and the seventeen year old princess who opens the play:

The jewels of our father, with wash’d eyes

Cordelia leaves you.[…]

Love well our father

To your professed bosoms I commit him

But yet, alas, stood I within his grace

I would prefer him to a better place. (1.1.268-74)

Cordelia and the Fool

Cordelia and the Fool

Rich harmonies swelled up behind the seated singer from the chanting cast. Tears glistened on her face. Words hung in the air, deepened and changed through repetition: “jewels” “love” “commit” “grace.” Fear and love became anger and — perhaps? — resignation.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a more moving five minutes of theater. I am sure I’ll never hear those lines the same way again. See better, Lear!

This production, which won all the awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2012 and, as its own website notes, “has already passed into legend,” wasn’t a version of King Lear so much as a series of song-paintings that engage some primary moments. Gloucester got a brilliant drum solo but kept his eyes, and the parts of Lear, Cordelia, and the Fool occupied center stage. The twelve sections included lyrics based on Gregorian chants as well as Shakespeare’s play.

Lear’s curse to Goneril was another highlight, with some interesting overlap between Cordelia and her evil sister.

I’m listening to the CD over and over right now, wishing the next two nights weren’t sold out so that I could go again. I also like this You Tube trailer.

Some friends of mine in San Francisco have been telling me for a while that Poland has the best avant-garde theater in the world. Now I know what they’re talking about.images

To the list of companies who I’d pay to see do anything, anywhere, any time, I’ll now add Song of the Goat.



The Winter’s Tale at the Pearl Theater

Winter's taleLast Tuesday, chatting with a friend about going to see The Winter’s Tale with my students, I let my professional demeanor slip and admitted that I think this play is “maybe the best of Shakespeare’s plays, not counting the ones that make you want to jump off a bridge.” Excluding the canonical joys of high nihilism, it’s hard to beat The Winter’s Tale‘s combination of paranoia, emotional intensity, music, festive comedy, and — eventually — artistic transcendence. I know as a Shakespeare prof I’m not supposed to have favorites but…

The Pearl Theater production on W. 42nd Street comes straight at you, with clarity and emotional intensity. If live theater is on some fundamental level a machine for concentrating emotions — and I think that’s a fair definition, though maybe not an exclusive one — what’s distinctive here is the directness of the production. In a small theater with a non-fussy modern set, the show dives directly in. Directed by Michael Sexton, Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Society, who directed a lively Titus at the PublicLab back in 2011, this production leveraged the play’s waywardness, its self-conscious resemblance to an “old tale,” for emotional power. Parts of it felt like opera, and not just during the music.

The strongest performance of the night was Jolly Abraham as Hermione, with a Bohemian turn as sexy country lass Dorcas in act 4. Her commanding presence was strong enough that for her final appearance as statue she didn’t ascend a pedestal, but instead stood still at center stage, drawing the audience’s eyes to her.  While the audience gazed at the statue, the actors stared out over our heads, searching for what they couldn’t see. Once she started moving, they turned to see Hermione with wonder. Both both during and before her trial, the Queen ruled the stage while her husband cowered to one side.

Photo by Richard Termine. Tom Nelis as Camillo and Peter Francis James as Leontes

Photo by Richard Termine. Tom Nelis as Camillo and Peter Francis James as Leontes

Peter Francis James’s Leontes reminded me of the desperately child-like version of Lear that Derek Jacobi brought to Brooklyn in 2011. The king was needy as an infant, spewing his emotional desperation out into the theater. The force of that emotion made his jealousy explicable, because we all know that children can’t control themselves, but at the cost — as in the case of Jacobi’s Lear — of leeching away some of his monarchial majesty. The Sicilian king’s need to occupy the center wasn’t matched by his capacity to hold himself there.

At the break, one of my students confessed that she was really looking forward to getting to Bohemia. Since I’ve just written a Shakespeare Association of America conference paper that springboards off of the first couplet in Time’s speech — “terror” rhymes with “error” — I was also anticipating Time’s transitional speech in 4.1. The full cast returned to the stage with the house lights still on, some not all the way back into character — Polixenes was doing the Times crossword, and I think Leontes had a script in his hand. They started back in by playing an actors’ game: one nodded to the next and said “I” (Ay?), and then each in turn passed the hot-potato of attention around the stage. Hermione, not looking very dead, started the speaking with the couplet that (I would argue) focuses the play’s interest in transforming errancy into productive change —

I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror

Of good and bad, that makes and unfolds error…

The rest of Time’s thirty-two lines were parceled out among the full cast, a couplet or so at a time. Of the production’s scattered meta-theatrical gestures — a glance back at the audience before opening the dinner party in 1.1, the complex staging of the statue scene, Autolycus’s asides and soliloquies — this one seemed to me the strongest and most original, drawing the audience into the conspiracy and insisting on the need for everyone in the room to help re-order the fractured kingdoms.

Photo by Richard Termine. New York Times. Steve Cuiffo as Autolycus.

Richard Termine. New York Times

I’m always a sucker for an Autolycus who channels Bob Dylan, and Steve Cuiffo, whose card tricks had entertained Mamillius in Sicilia, burst on the scene with guitar, guitar case, “pack,” and as many sheets as he could stuff into his pockets or drape over himself. He was great fun, though perhaps not sufficiently threatening to seem a true outlaw. His “Come buy” song during the sheep-shearing scene was less exploitation of the gulls whose purses he would later pick than simple celebration: no anxieties about capitalism or the money-print nexus in this production, though I think there are some in the play.

My long-ago student Alexis Soloski’s review in the New York Times thought the air went out of the balloon in Bohemia, or at least that the bitter winds of the West Side somehow snuck under the Pearl Theater’s door. It was hard to keep the energy up for the full three hours, but for me the only flagging came during the return to Sicilia, before the statue scene, when a final encounter between Autolycus and the Clown and Shepherd, newly “Gentlemen born,” did not yield many sparks. Perhaps if the thief had been more of a threat before, his final taming might have seemed more urgent?

The final moments on stage are everybody’s favorite image of theatrical magic, the last stop on a long road of show-stoppers. The text is somewhat ambiguous about the resumption of the marriage after sixteen years: “She hangs upon his neck” (5.3.112) says Camillo, played expertly by Tom Nelis, but when she speaks it’s only to her daughter. Three women take center stage and Leontes, as he had for much of his madness in the first half of the play, slinks over to one side. Hermione claims her daughter and her power:

Tell me, mine own ,

Where hast thou been preserved? Where lived? how found

Thy father’s court? For thou shalt hear that I,

Knowing by Paulina that the oracle

Gave hope thou wast in being, have preserved

Myself to see the issue. (5.3.123-28)

Leontes makes on last grab at the reins after this speech, marrying off Camillo and Paulina, insisting the Hermione and Polixenes look on each other, asking that Paulina lead everyone offstage. But I’m not sure — in this production, at least, it seemed pretty clear that Hermione hadn’t come back for him.

UPDATE: Bear thinking…

Since tweets once tweeted are lost forever (I think), I’m going to add some “Pursued by a Bear” thoughts that emerged from a twitter chat with @BoydaJosa. The famous bear of 3.3 was performed by the whose cast except Antigonus, who plays the part of the bear’s dinner. I enjoyed the collectivist implication of a six-person bear-train in fur coats: as with Time, the cast performs the key transitional parts as a group. I also thought it was an interesting choice to have Hermione carrying the bear’s head and open jaws. She remained powerful even when supposedly dead; she also also came on stage to speak the lines her “ghost” says to Antigonus during his relation of the dream of shipwreck. My students and I also talked about the great visual moment in which the bear-collective surrounded Antigonus, tearing him to shreds and pulling out his intestines in long white sheets, which would become the sheets that transformed the set from arid Sicilia to festive Bohemia. The price of spring’s arrival? It also made a striking contrast to the several funny bears I’ve seen, including Propeller’s use of Mamilius’s teddy bear in the part.