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Post-Nature in / as Transition (Newtown Creek 5-6: Dec 14-15)

Man’s foot in the snow

I’ve been thinking about transition: how one thing becomes something new. I brought my questions to post-Nature on two cold mid-December days.

Locked gate on Dec 14

On the 14th, the Nature Walk was closed, because the city crews had not yet cleared the steps. I took a picture of the locked gate, behind which you can catch the glint of snow amid industry.

On the 15th, after collecting the last of my fall exams, I ran into a crew clearing the steps. “We’re open every day,” the guy said, “Except I guess not yesterday.”

I rushed out to the Creek, eager to put my questions to the cold water.

I’ve been thinking about the old problem of revolution: what if reforming a corrupt system actually props up that system and thereby defers needed change? Remember the old pre-Soviet revolutionary slogan, “The worse, the better“?  Do we need gradual change or should we (in a phrase variously attributed to Marx, Rosa Luxemborg, and Lenin), heighten the contradictions?

In recent conversations, I’ve been thinking about the need for change in environmental policies, academic publishing, and US politics. Just to name a few things that need change for the better!

A wintry view

What wise words does the silent Creek speak about transition? What’s changing, in and under and near that toxic water?

I don’t look like much of a revolutionary, in my cozy suburban house with dogs & kids & tenure. But I know things are changing and must change. I know that change, even desired change, often comes abruptly and painfully. Responding to change is, it seems to me, the most difficult and essential thing humans do. It turns out that a lifetime of thinking with Shakespeare does teach something!

When I reached the Creek I saw no footprints on the inch of cold snow. It was low tide, with three muddy but dry steps visible below the snow line. I was the first to walk on that whiteness, after the storm the day before.

“How does change taste?” I whispered to the waters. “What smells like transition?”

I wanted the darkness beneath the surface to answer, but it did not.

Steps in snow

 

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Encounters by the Creek (Post-Nature 4: Dec 1)

The honey locust out of bloom

December 1, 2017, was a glorious spring afternoon in the anti-climate. For the first time since I brought some of my favorite people with me in October, I wasn’t alone in post-Nature. Coming back to Newtown Creek was like coming into community with entities that I don’t yet know well.

For this trip I walked with words, as I had not during my two November visits. I listened carefully during each stage of the walk to the audio tour recorded by the FSDE (Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies). I’ll use the thirteen tracks on the audio tour as a running narrative of the day’s encounters. (Here’s the NYC Parks flyer that also describes the space.)

TK1: The Rock

The tour starts with a boulder on the corner of Paidge and Provost Streets in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The voice asks you to put your hand on the ancient stone. “The boundary of human time can be porous,” the tour intones in the words of John McPhee.

TK2: Paige Avenue

Next you walk down Paidge toward the stairs that lead up into the Walk proper. “This neighborhood has harbored industry for almost two centuries,” the voice continues. “Nature has never been natural,” it explains, paraphrasing and idea from the philosopher Graham Harman.

Preparing yourself to enter the Walk, you feel “some mixture of expectancy and revulsion.” It’s a form of anticipation. I usually walk this part quickly.

TK3: The Vessel

The first section of the walk is shaped long and narrow like a boat, with portholes on the right side looking onto an industrial landscape.

TK4: The Creek

Even on my fourth trip this fall, my steps quicken as I near the edge. Here’s one of my favorite things: the honey locust tree that was ablaze in orange in early November.

No yellow leaves left in December. The honey locust marks the Creek’s edge, as the glacial erratic marks the edge of the Nature Walk itself. As winter nears, the tree seems as bare as the rock.

“Naming,” the tour continues, “has a Biblical power.” In my November blog, I forgot the name of the honey locust tree.

Fragments from a green waterworld?

At the water’s edge you can’t avoid thinking about things below the surface that you can’t see. “The shit will be here until we transform it again,” the voice intones, “or it transforms us.”

TK5: The Steps

“I’d like to tell you to enter the water here, but I won’t.”

“Consider the poetry of sewage water, in a city where you are one of the shitters.”

Submerged Floatable

Just then a change of light

My first companion on this not-wintry December day was a mostly submerged plastic floatable. I watched it swim just below the surface of the clear cold water I would not enter. It was gorgeous, fluid, florid. I stared at it for a long time. I took several pictures.

TK6: The Watershed Bollard

The table is shaped like a shipping bollard, “a cylindrical post used to secure ships in port.” On top of the stone surface is a map of the watershed as it was before European contact. “The etching has a slight gradient, so falling raindrops can replicate the journey of the Creek’s own, original waters, albeit on a much smaller scale. A small, brass pin on the shore indicates your position on the watershed map.”

Is it swimming away?

“A suggestion floats by,”  from the Floating Studio voice: “if we could name everything in this Creek, maybe we could master it.”

TK7: The Digester Eggs

“What do we do with the biosolids?” asks the audio tour, but I’ve already seen the answer, all 150-feet of steel simplicity: the Sludge Barge Rockaway.

She’s a big beauty, an industrial powerhouse that hauls away the biosolid cakes that are all that’s left after the Digester Eggs have done their work. I walk alongside the ship for around 20 minutes, taking pictures and marveling at the massive vessel. Big ships like these have small crews in the automated age, but I did see a crewmember come out on deck for a little while, to smoke a cigarette in the afternoon sun.

Sludge Barge Rockaway

Plastic in water

The sludge barge almost filled up Whale Creek; if I’d taken a running start, I might have been able to jump from shore to her deck rail. After that I could have walked across the deck to the far side. This afternoon, the Creek was almost crossable.

TK8: The Garden

This day, the garden space at the end of Whale Creek sits in the shadow of the big barge.”You might notice that it’s cooler here,” says the Floating Studio voice.

Documentary Filmmakers

I chatted for a few minutes with a pair of documentary filmmakers, who were working on a project for NYU Journalism school on industrial composting in New York City. They wanted to know if I could get them closer to the Digester Eggs. I didn’t have any good ideas, though we looked at the maps etched into stone tables. The maps made it look as if the Nature Walk may expand in the future, and the extended path might lead closer to the Eggs.

TK9: The Fountain

Rockaway in the sun

“Take a drink. Trust me,” says the voice. But the water fountain in the garden isn’t working right now.

TK10: A Return

Walking out of the Nature Walk and returning to the outside world means seeing a postcard view of the Empire State Building and also wondering if any part of that unsettling mixture of smell, toxic unease, and beauty will travel back out with you.

TK11: Everythingness

The Floating Studio asks us to leave with some questions. Here’s my favorite:

“How large would the placard need to be to include all the things you can name here?”

TK12: Exeunt

I’ll give the last two tracks over to the voice of the Floating Studio —

Stone and City
Photo 11/30/17

“If Newtown Creek had a voice, what would it say to you as you are leaving?…Will it miss you? And will you miss it?”

“Can you carry out some of the everythingness?”

“All roads lead back to Manhattan.”

Exiting the Nature Walk Photo 10/14/17

TK13: The Fragrance Garden

“Here is the end…the Nature Walk at its most awkward.”

“Imagination is vital to restoration.””We have to hold the refuse and the labor and the wildlife all together. Can you hear the pungent, salvageable poetry of Newtown Creek composed to a meter both human and nonhuman?”

More coming!

 

 

 

 

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Pericles: Born in a Tempest

[A delayed blog-review: I saw this show on Nov 17, just before the first round of holiday madness. It’s now long since closed, but the performance was inventive and moving enough for me to want to keep an eye on these two companies going forward.]

One good reason to keep seeing 400-year-old plays is because they speak to human needs. I don’t believe in timeless genius, but I like 21st-century productions of Shakespeare that eschew false authenticity in order to build something distinctive.

In a little upper West Side theater space upstairs in a church on W. 86th, Hunger & Thirst Theater and the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project played a wonderfully inverted and compressed Pericles, with a cast of only five and an elaborate frame narrative. I walked out of the small space abuzz with feeling, and humming the homeward bound shanty, Leave Her Johnny, traditionally sung by sailors being paid off after a long voyage:

For the voyage is done, and the winds don’t blow

Fishermen

And it’s time for us to leave her

The opening scene

The song’s melancholy doesn’t capture the same feeling of redemption that the reunions of Pericles with long-lost daughter and wife generate at the play’s end — but this production wasn’t really after redemption, at least not the wish-fulfillment part of it, and besides they cut the return of Thaisa. Instead, the modern-dress frame tale explored the death of an old sea captain named John Gower on the same stormy night when his grand-daughter was born. Going through the old man’s things, his daughter and son-in-law find a journal which provides them a script for the story of Pericles, “a song that old was sung.” The force of the inset performance of (most of) Shakespeare’s play reconciled the family to loss and birth, instead of substituting the miraculous return of “the voice of dead Thaisa” (5.3).

I liked the twist, and I liked the company: they were funny in the right places, a compelling mix of goofy and dramatic during the storms, and tender throughout.

My favorite staging-element was the repetition of the opening scene: old man John Gower opened the play in a wheelchair grumping at his daughter. That same scene was reprised in the inset narrative, when Marina found Pericles on board his ship. While the “real” daughter had not been able to reach her dying father in the opeing, the “fictional” Marina coaxed language out of Pericles with music.

I’ll keep an eye on these performers. And I’ll think more about how the fantasy-endings of romance, in which so many lost things return, might speak to human losses beyond the stage.

 

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Fiasco’s Twelfth Night (Classic Stage Co.)

Shakespeare and sea shanties are two of my favorite things, so when Fiasco Theater’s production of Twelfth Night opened with a rendition of the old clipper ship song “Marco Polo,” I was feeling pretty good about my evening. The cast sang all together as they staged the voyage interrupted by shipwreck that preceded the play’s opening scene. Crooning about “the fastest ship in all the world” — the Marco Polo was a three-masted clipper ship that sailed for the Black Ball Line in the 1850s and later wrecked off Prince Edward Island in 1883 — the cast sounded wonderfully cohesive. Sitting on one side of the thrust stage with a dozen St. John’s students, looking across at a dozen or so who’d made the trip downtown from Columbia U., we all felt in good hands.

For the first half of the production nearly every scene change was marked by a new shantey; I didn’t recognize all the songs, though I did catch the homeward bound capstan shantey, “Leave her, Johnny,” one of my favorites. Shanteys have a place in popular music today, but during the Age of Sail they were working songs, designed in their rhythm to help mariners bring their laboring bodies into unity. Certain songs matched certain tasks: a capstan shantey kept time while the crew hauled up a long anchor chain, and other songs were for furling, bunting, etc. Music served as a form of labor: a pretty good match for Twelfth Night, it seems to me, particularly in a production co-directed by Ben Steinfeld, the Fiasco regular who also played Feste and who in that role led the evening’s final song.

Ben-Steinfeld as Feste. Photo by Sheiva Rezvani

Fiasco Theater, one of several local companies made up in part of graduates of the fantastic MFA program at Brown / Trinity Rep in Providence, has been producing excellent Shakespearean and other plays since around 2012. I missed their much-praised Cymbeline, but enjoyed both Two Gentlemen of Verona and the uncharacteristically sympathetic Measure for Measure, both of which I saw in 2015.

Stand out performances in Twelfth Night included Andy Grotelueschen as a wonderfully disordered Sir Toby and Ben Steinfeld’s empathetic Feste. Especially in the comic sub-plot, I was struck by how affectionate the characters were with each other: in this version, Maria and Toby in particular seemed very much in accord and planning their marriage from their first scene together. The revelation of that marriage at the play’s end, which in Shakespeare’s text is given to Fabian, was re-assigned to Maria herself, and her evident pleasure in the announcement suggested that matrimony had been their plan all along. Malvolio’s torment felt excessive, but not haunting or mean-spirited. Even Feste’s melancholy songs, “Come away, death” and “The rain it raineth every day,” created a happy choral unity.

The most striking note of suffering in the play came early: Emily Young’s Viola spit out a mouthful of water as the “Marco Polo” chorus broke down into shipwreck. The brief emission of water from her mouth, just a splash really, lingered in my mind as she waited for time, not her, to untangle the complex plot of loss and reunification. The physical cost of salt water on human flesh?

Lots of other fun things in the production, including Paul Coffey’s intense Malvolio, which reminded me of his earlier portrayal of the Duke in Measure, and co-director Noah Brody’s winningly self-regarding Orsino.

Go see this one at the Classic Stage Company before it closes on Jan 6!

Andy Grostelueschen’s Sir Toby chasing Paul Coffey’s Malvolio

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Back to Post-Nature: Nov 7 and Nov 17

A new sign (Nov 17)

After my first visit to Newtown Creek on Oct 14, I walked through Post-Nature again twice in November.

On a cold rainy afternoon on Election Day no one else walked with me.

On a crisp sunny Friday ten days later, I saw two boats zip through the Creek’s still water. The first was a fast outboard cruiser, with its pilot snug inside a small cabin. The second was an open zodiac with two men in dark winter body-suits, put-putting along slowly. Neither looked toward me as I stood on the concrete steps with my iphone taking their picture.

7 November: The most striking thing on that wet early November day was the fire-orange of the first tree I encountered on the way in. It sits by itself surrounded by stones when you first emerge near the water’s edge. Its year-end colors blazed amid the granite like a promise that you suspect won’t be kept. I spent a little while looking closely at the veins on its leaves as the rain fell on my shoulders and wool hat.

The picture doesn’t really capture the color (Nov 7)

17 November: When I came back to that spot ten days later, most of the leaves were down in the water. I gave in to my occupation’s hazard and mumbled a few favorite lines of poetry —

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs that shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where yet the sweet birds sang. (Sonnet #73)

Nature catches human emotions. The poet’s words snare those reflected feelings in an effort to peer back into himself. What happens when we stare at yellow leaves inside a Nature that echoes with humming freeways rather than sweet birdsong? Can we sing verses to the invisible black mayonnaise beneath the water?

7 November: During my first November visit, it was wet and cold on the slippery epochal steps. I could imagine falling into time and toxicity. In October, on a warm dry day, I had felt tempted to wet my fingers, but not this time. I stopped two steps above the waterline.

17 November: On a cold dry day, the water found its beauty again. It became crowded, with the two boats but also with the last leaves of fall and more floatables (to borrow Marina Zurkow’s term for surface trash) than I’d seen the last time. But even with these things in it, the water was still, clear, transparent, alluring.

Water with colors (17 Nov)

7 November: Election Day has cast an anxious shadow most of my adult life, all the more so now, this close to the horror of 2016. Walking through post-Nature and the ravages of industrialization while our national and local democratic wills walked into election booths made me think about the Anthropos in Anthropocene. Who is the debilitated old Man whose century-old excess made all this mess? How can we find him, touch him, hold him to account? Will he listen to us?

Steps leading down (Nov 7)

17 November: Plastic debris hugged the shoreline of Whale Creek like a vision of our shared future. In the company of plastic — that’s the world we’re moving into. In chilly sunshine, the bright colors looked just a bit inviting.

7 November: On this visit I read the description of the Nature Walk on a sign that presumably had been written by George Trakas, who designed the space  in 2007. The area was meant to represent a “vibrant intersection where multiple histories, cultural identities, and geologic epochs coexist.” I like that capacious vision  in which multiplicity and uneasiness together create ecological art. Shivering a little on this wet afternoon, I wondered about coexistence and its difficult durations.

17 November: The creek boasted a new sign today, from DEP: “No swimming or wading.” Good advice.

I’ll be back on December 1 and again on January 2. At least those two days.

Signs of speed (Nov 17)

 

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Another Measure, in the storm

See what the Public printed on our group tix!

[I started this post on 11/8 and left it unfinished for a week or so. As the news continues from Weinstein to Moore to Franken, Measure seems more and more the play of our moment.]

On a stormy election night in downtown Manhattan, I watched Elevator Repair Services Measure for Measure for a second time, in the company of the few straggling students who made it out in the rain. The first time I saw the show it was at the end of its previews on Sept 29, almost six weeks earlier. I blogged then about experimental acting and textualizing the stage, about the intermission-less breakneck pace, about time and emotion, and about clowning. Six weeks later — after the six weeks that began with this Times story about Harvey Weinstein — all I could see on stage was sexual aggression.

The word consent appears three times in the play. The last of the three echoed in my head as I piloted the good ship Subaru north through rainy highways. “I will not consent to die this day,” says the murderer Barnadine. His jailers listen to him. White male privilege works even among condemned criminals. Why can’t anyone else withhold consent in Barnadine’s imperious and impervious way?

Angelo had previously sexualized the word in order to sharpen his assault on Isabella. “Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite,” he commands. She resists — but the Duke-Friar, and the play, require that she collude with and eventually reward his aggression.

The word’s third appearance comes in the mouth of the Duke-Friar, asking and manipulating Mariana into taking Isabella’s place in Angelo’s bed: “It is not my consent, but my entreaty too.”

All three times consent appears in male mouths, voicing Barnadine’s resistance, Angelo’s assault, and the Duke machinations. Isabella never offers her consent, though the men in the play do nothing but ask her to comply with their various desires. It’s not just bad men like Angelo or ambivalent ones like Lucio who bully her; the Duke does too, and so does her condemned brother. “Sweet sister, let me live,” Claudio implores. I’ve never heard so clearly as during this performance that her reply is a response to yet another attempt to dominate her: “Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame?”

Isabella’s silence after the Duke’s last-minute proposal is a famous theatrical crux; I’ve seen it played with a full range of emotions, from ecstasy to defiance to horror. In Elevator Repair Service’s rendition, Isabella seemed mystified as the Duke ran off stage alone.

Is there a legible resistance in her silence? If not, can we build or imagine one? We need resisting Isabellas. Not to mention morally conscious Dukes.

 

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Richard III @ Queens Theatre

This play is always a star vehicle, and Lloyd Mulvey’s Richard put everyone else into shadow. He smiled, limped, cringed, and gamboled his way across center stage. A faint conspiratorial grin shadowed his face throughout the whole play, even lingering when he bellowed for his horse in the final battle. He hooked his audience early and reeled us in all night. More comic than terrible and more devious than tyrannous, he played the evil king as nihilistic trickster. No, it didn’t remind me of anyone. Besides we saw the show several days before Indictment Monday.

One of the textual changes Titan Theatre made was opening with a few lines from Queen Margaret’s curse before shifting to Richard’s winter of discontent. The curses, growled out with power, dignity, and supporting stage lighting by Angela Iannone as Margaret, formed a narrative backbone around which Richard twined his plots, speeches, and assassinations. By foregrounding Iannone’s Margaret, and later emphasizing that nearly every one of Richard’s victims remembered her curse before dying, the production emphasized a battle of the sexes topos, in which victimized women resisted Richard, at first ineffectively but finally decisively.

Lloyd Mulvey as Richard

The most powerful scene of the production for me was the seduction of Lady Anne (1.2). Watching Richard bully and cajole her is always painful, but in post-Weinstein America certain elements of the scene stood out. Maggie Wetzel’s Anne emphasized youth, beauty, and a kind of naiveté, so that her line, “I would I knew thy heart,” felt oddly moving and revealing of her vulnerability. She started fierce, defending a casket that in this production contained the body of her dead husband (killed by Richard) instead of her father-in-law and former monarch (also killed by Richard). In addition to offering her his breast to stab, Richard in this staging grabbed Anne hard by the wrist and held her, thus performing a physical domination that was shocking and, in my memory of past productions, not always so explicit. Richard would repeat the grab later (4.4) when negotiating with Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he had just murdered, for the hand of her daughter. In the latter scene, Richard punctuated his not-seduction with a forceful and painfully non-consensual kiss on Elizabeth’s lips. I often read the second attempted seduction as a failure and an index that Richard in act 4 has lost some of the sinister charisma the drove his schemes in act 1. The forced kiss in this production suggested otherwise, at least in terms of his aggression.

Richard grabs Anne

After the brutal wooing of Anne, Richard in soliloquy solicited the audience for approval. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” he cackled to the front row of the small theater. “Was ever woman in this humor won?” The audience laughed with him, as he wanted us to. I felt ashamed that we did. The patriarchal culture that values “winning” over consent isn’t just a matter of Hollywood studios or, let’s say, New York real estate moguls with politics in their futures. It’s part of our literary and dramatic heritage, and Shakespeare knew well how hard it is to resist.

Last year in early November, just before the world turned orange, I saw a brilliant and searing performance of Richard by the Dutch actor Hans Kesting that showed how irresistible narcissism and unbounded need can be. On our way out of the BAM opera house that night, my buddy Erik turned to me in admiration and said, “Well, I guess I don’t ever need to see Richard III again.” I felt the same way at that moment, that Kesting had hit the part so hard that it felt like a definitive Richard for the looming Age of Trump. (Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker later called that show “The First Great Theatrical Work of the Trump Era.“)

But of course I eagerly took students to this much less Trump-centered production by Titan at the Queens Theatre last Friday. There can be no final or absolute Richard, only a spool of performances of the iconic villain of Shakespearean politics, who fascinates by betraying his family and his audiences with painful pleasure.

King Edward and doomed family

In the Titan production, each time Richard killed someone or had someone killed, he painted a red vertical stripe on the back wall of the stage. Three vertical red strips present at the opening also marked the “III” of his royal name. The wall grew messy and full of red paint over the two hours traffic of the stage, bearing witness to the bodies that sit behind the theatrical pain we love to watch.

Especially in a world in which fairy-tale Richmond / Henry VII’s are hard to discern on the horizon, Richard III feels like a hard but necessary play. 

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Dark Ecology of Newtown Creek (visit 10/14/17)

Steps into creek

There seem to me two essential questions about what to do with this post-Nature nature:

  1. Will it hurt us?
  2. Can we love it?

The answer to both questions seems to be yes.

Walking the Newtown Creek Nature Walk on the border of Queens and Brooklyn with the Field Guide provided by the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies reminds you that moving past “nature” will be disorienting. We need to do it, but it won’t be easy. Some parts of post-naturing seem clear enough: I’m ready to move beyond the pure Romantic green that constructs the nonhuman environment as passive background to human striving and a resource to be exploited. But what are we supposed to do about the brown post-industrial spaces left behind after the end of the green? How do they make us feel? Might they still participate in the great goddess Natura’s creating magic?

Toxic Water

The image that’s stuck with me after my first walk through non-Nature nature was the water. On a warm October afternoon, standing on stone steps that dropped down into the edge of the creek so that the bottom step was covered by three inches of water, I stared down and saw — nothing. The water, famously toxic, lapped the granite steps in transparent placidness. It didn’t look like anything at all. Nothing unnatural to see here.

Even if I’m not going to swim, I like to put my fingers into bodies of water, to get the touch, the smell, sometimes a little taste, especially in a brackish estuary like Newtown Creek. I was careful not to do that this time.

Epochal step

Black mayonnaise

I’m not sure how deep Newtown Creek is at the junction of Whale Creek near the “digester eggs” that process New York’s sewage. But everyone knows what’s on the bottom of these creeks. “Black mayonnaise.” The sludgy remains of decades of coal and oil-fired industry, including in this case the discharge of the 1978 Greenpoint Oil spill, which released into the confined waters of the creek three times as much oil as was released in the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Back in the summer of ’89 I was a vagabond college graduate who traveled to Alaska to shovel tar and oil off a beach about 400 miles southwest of the initial site of the spill. In Greenpoint, three times as much oil as would later foul 1300 miles of Alaskan coastline was contained inside two tiny sluggish creeks Little Leaguers could play catch over. There’s a lotta mayo down beneath. The Field Guide says there is a “15-25 feet layer lining Newtown Creek’s bottom…a toxic admixture the consistency of mayonnaise. Oil, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, and incinerated ash are some of the organic and inorganic pollutants that the EPA is quantifying in their Superfund assessment” (5).

I remember the gas station smell of the beach in Windy Bay, Alaska, when we shoveled oil residue into industrial plastic bags in the summer of ’89. I couldn’t smell anything like that on the steps in Newtown Creek. Just a faint salt tinge, carried by a breeze that barely made the surface flutter.

Epochal steps

The steps leading down to the creek fan out like a small amphitheater, asking you to face the creek as if to watch a performance whose dark center you can’t see. Each step has a name inscribed on it. Some are geological epochs: “Jurassic.” Others name local plant species: “Angiosperm.” “Tracheophyta.” These names were inscribed according to the design of environmental sculptor George Trakas when the Nature Walk was built in 2007. Walking down to the water feels like walking down into time, though I suppose it’s more like walking into a post-nature future. What would have happened if I had taken one more wet step?

Looking toward midtown

Hellmouth 

The audio tour calls it the hellmouth. The sign above the opening reads: “CAUTION. Wet weather discharge point.” The smell made it clear what was coming out of that mouth into the creek, even though we visited on a dry afternoon.

Fishing

One of the questions the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies asks of people who have walked through the Creek with their audio tour is, “What did you not expect to see?” There was plenty of life in the post-Nature, including spartina grass and many other healthy-looking plant species. There was plenty of post-natural debris, what the Floating Studio calls “floatables.” We joked that at one point that we thought we saw a dog swimming, but it turned out to be plastic. But the thing we didn’t expect, certainly, was a fisherman.

He was a young hipster-ish local presumably from Greenpoint, casting his line for the same striped bass that my neighbors fish for off the CT shoreline in mid-October. He said he often caught bass in Whale Creek. We watched him cast a few times, with the sci-fi digester eggs visible over his shoulder. I didn’t get a good picture. He didn’t get a fish.

Underwater step

Plastic you can see through

My favorite bit of floating debris was a sheet of semi-translucent plastic that floated on Whale Creek’s still water like a pane of fragile glass. I watched it slowly revolve, an undegradable petrochemical solid resting atop ten or fifteen feet of toxic water, both of them perched above a thick, invisible, omnipresent swamp of oil mayo. Floating is a bit like flying, in that it holds a body just at the top of a larger fluid body. The plastic was doing the thing that I wanted to do but could not do — that is, swimming in post-Nature.

Floating plastic

Digester eggs

Installed in 2010 as part of the Wastewater Treatment Plant renovation, these eight “shiny spaceships” light up in the North Brooklyn night. Watching them from across Whale Creek they appeared fantastical. All of us wanted to come back at night to see the purple glow.

These eggs display the techo-aesthetic of industrial environmentalism, a new post-Nature system that takes in about 1.5 million gallons of sludge each day from New York City, processes it with heat, time, and “burping,” and generates carbon dioxide, water, methane, and biosolids. Garbage goes in, and sustenance comes out. Long Island City locals call the array “shit tits.”

Fragrance Garden

The last stop on the audio tour, underneath the stairs that lead up into the path to the water, was a fragrance garden. On our way out of the Nature Walk, we turned beneath the steps and followed a low path through to the garden beneath. We’d seen flowers already on our walk; a Virginia Rose back across from the digester eggs had even quoted Juliet: “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” A pretty good joke, I thought, given how close the flowers were to the smellmouth.

But the garden beneath the steps was a bizarre under-metal smellword and antidote to the occasional toxic whiff the creek had given off. Shaded by the steps, the fragrance garden provided a respite and conceptual bridge back into Greenpoint.

Twenty minutes later we were at a rooftop bar drinking overpriced cocktails.

Exiting the Nature Walk

Post-natural thoughts —

I went there looking for toxins but found multiplicity.

I was trying to unsee Nature as a unitary object and find post-Nature in networks.

One strange thing: I kept thinking about beauty, and about design. I always think clear water is beautiful, no matter what’s beneath the surface. The plastic floatable bears a semi-translucent charm. What do we want beauty to do for us?

I also thought about one of Marina Zurkow’s phrases about urban ecology and design, that I first heard her describe at the Oceanic New York event at St. John’s in 2013. “Soft edges” are what we need, especially when it’s hard to fit things together. I was thinking about that when looking at the locking-gear design of the creek’s shoreline, the graceful curves of the digester eggs, and the step that was submerged in creek water. Where exactly are the edges?

What I always want in nature is to be porous, to let some bit of the not-human seep into me. To be porous in Newtown Creek, that painfully apt representation of our Anthropocene future, requires us to be both toxic and digesting. We can’t get too close. But we must get close.

I’m going back next week. Maybe at night.

In the fragrance garden

Looking toward the LIE

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Measure at the Public (Elevator Repair Service)

Time’s the thing. The moving thing.

On the long drive back to Connecticut last night I was thinking about time in performance. The brilliant and occasionally bizarre performance of Measure for Measure I’d just seen had lasted pretty close to the canonical “two hours traffic of our stage.” I clocked the show at 2:10, with no intermission and relentless narrative drive — but those two hours contained as varied and variable an experience of theatrical time as I’ve encountered. Rushing and lingering, goofy and intense, unpredictable but also submerged in high concept: so much inside two short hours!

The most emotionally intense scene of the night, the slowest, and one of the most moving Shakespeare scenes I’ve seen in a while, was Isabella’s interview with Claudio in prison (3.1) On opposite sides of a set filled with tables, speaking to each other via old-school rotary phones, Rinne Groff’s emotionally contained Isabella faced off against Greig Sargeant’s empathetic Claudio, who’s just been instructed by the Duke that he should “Be absolute for death.” He was not buying the fatalism: his stillness and contemplative intensity oozed life. His voice demanded his sister’s (and the audience’s) attention. Why not, he seemed to say, just sleep with the prenzie Angelo in order to save my life? I’ve seen quite a few productions of this play, but I’ve not heard his lines before with such human urgency: “Ay, but to die, and go we know not where; / To lie in cold obstruction and to rot…” The Program Note from John Collins, Artistic Director of Elevator Repair Service, says that the company realized they wanted to play Measure after doing a reading of this scene. It showed.

Pete Simpson as Angelo, and the text

My second and contrasting takeaway from the show was its technical innovation and varied fast-and-slow pacing, which worked in an almost perfect inversion of the emotional clarity of the prison scene. With “teleprompter software” designed by Scott Shepherd, the Wooster Group and ERS regular who also played the Duke, the company projected Shakespeare’s words on a screen on the back wall of the theater. The actors often spoke their lines with their eyes fixed in that distance. Sometimes the projected lines also appeared on stage. In a gambit that echoed Shepherd’s quite amazing performance in the Wooster Group Hamlet (2007), the company spoke its Shakespeare in visible dialogue with an onscreen and on-stage text.

I find Shepherd a fascinating and sometimes frustrating performer. He played the Duke in multiple over-broad accents, some English and some southern American, and often ran his lines so fast that even I couldn’t follow them — and I’m a Shakespearean who just finished teaching this play for the umpteenth time two weeks ago. He’s technically brilliant as an actor, but he also willfully refuses audience engagement. I’ve seen him quite a few times: back in 2007 in Wooster Group’s wonderfully bizarre Hamlet, and more recently in three different versions of his Wooster Troilus, between 2012 and 2015. In the middle performance of the three, in the group’s downtown Performing Garage space at 33 Wooster Street on a bitterly cold January night, Shepherd’s complex in-ear microphone arrangement broke mid-performance, and we all waited for 15 min with the house lights on for them to re-cue the technology. He’s clearly committed to a cyber-practice, in which human engagement with machines must be paramount. It can be alienating, but also dazzling. In this Measure it’s both.

Scott Shepherd in rehearsal

The Duke is an ambivalent figure, and a good match for Shepherd’s own ambivalence. He’s the beneficent manipulator in contrast to his deputy Angelo’s tyrant, but he also remains shadowy, a “fantastical Duke of dark corners” (4.3) in Lucio’s apt slander. Shepherd’s performance maximized the Duke’s elusive nature. He is hard to follow and never quite available to his followers, including the audience. His exchanges with Mike Iveson’s Lucio showed a regal annoyance that was perhaps his most straightforward human reaction. His intentions toward Claudio, Escalus, and Isabella were harder to read. By the end, Shepherd’s concealing mania, tangible as the Duke rounded up his subjects for the final reversals and rewards, hinted at a depth that wasn’t quite legible as emotion but was moving nonetheless.

Speaking of divided selves, Pete Simpson’s Angelo combined comic egotism with violence and desire. He enjoyed swinging the medallion of authority around his neck in a circle, and he also gargled ostentatiously and spritzed himself with cologne before seeing Isabella, He also performed, in some moments, a looming and often silent menace. The physical breaks he performed became easier for me to understand after a quick morning google showed me that he’s a member of the Blue Man Group, and he has logged over 4,000 (!) performances for the long-running show whose home base is across the street from the Public. He wasn’t always a frightening Angelo, nor perhaps an entirely sympathetic one — but he was fun to watch. I’ve never seen this part played as a half-clown before. It perhaps unduly minimized his threat to Isabella, and perhaps also his super-hero of virtue self-conception, but it led to some interesting stage comedy.

Given a Duke so off-kilter and an Angelo so goofy, the center-around-which-we-revolved became Isabella. Rinne Groff provided the human heart inside the technological and performative hijinks. Most powerful when facing off with her brother Claudio, Groff’s Isabella humanized almost everyone she touched: the Provost, Mariana, Lucio, even Escalus. The staging emphasized one on one conversations, and in those situations Groff’s empathetic performance shone. Her separation from the underworld figures of Pompey and Mistress Overdone allowed their comic play to entertain without great consequence, because we could tell they were there mostly for fun.

I’m going again to see this production with my students on Nov 7, and in the interest of avoiding spoilers I’ll not describe the quite brilliant solution director John Collins devised for the puzzling final moment of this play, except to say that it very neatly located both Shepherd’s Duke and Groff’s Isabella in their social and human contexts.

Greig Sargeat as Claudio, Pete Simpson as Angelo, Vin Knight as Escalus, Maggie Hoffman as Provost

I’m not sure how my seats are still available between now and Nov 12 — but go see it if you can!

 

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Nashe’s Voices in Shakespeare’s House

Our man Thom (in leg irons)

A bunch of academics talking in a windowless underground room don’t amount to anyone’s idea of a revolution. But as we Nashers gnashed at the Folger’s weekend symposium on the works and contexts of the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe, I kept thinking about sudden, violent, unexpected change. Maybe it was the hurricane roaring through Cuba on its way to Florida. Maybe it was Nashe’s incandescent, maddening, dizzying prose style. Maybe my own years-ago joke-and-fantasy that The Age of Thomas Nashe might displace those other proper names we assign to the late sixteenth century (Elizabeth, some guy named Will). Something was in the air this past weekend.

The #NasheBash represented a collaboration between the Folger and the Thomas Nashe Project, a mostly UK-based effort spear-headed by Jennifer Richards, Andrew Hadfield, Cathy Shrank, and (in Amherst, MA) Joe Black. It was a treat to have the four lead editors and other members of the Nsshe tem in DC this past weekend, so that the particular challenges of editing Nashe — in addition to reading him, writing about him, and teaching his works — structured our conversation. Jenny and Andrew’s opening talk oscillated between a desire to materialize or oralize this figure — I’m still mulling Jenny’s fascinating thoughts about how to conceptualize and make tangible “Nashe’s voice” — and also to respond adequately to Nashe’s breathtaking range of reference and allusion. In some ways these are opposite projects: to write good notes for Nashe means building an intellectual superstructure to support and contain his wayward prose, but to attend to Nashe’s voice might include feeling lost at sea.

Gabriel Harvey

The two-voicedness of the opening talk that Jenny and Andrew gave us on Thursday night also set a great example of exchange and dialogue. We talked a lot this weekend about insults — Nashe was a brilliant writer of invective, and his pamphlet war with Gabriel Harvey generated some extraordinary invented works and bafflingly ornate sentences. All weekend I kept hearing Nashe in two voices — as in Kate De Rycker’s performance script for Terrors of the Night, which I sadly missed this past May at the Globe’s indoor theater — and sometimes those voices were Jenny’s and Andrew’s, though of course there were may others of us speaking, some thirty-odd in total.

I won’t try to re-cap the dozen short talks, each presented in groups of two, or David Scott Kasten’s eloquent closing remarks, including an intriguing turn to the “Englishing” ambitions of late sixteenth-century English authors. Instead I’ll reimagine the discussions through some keywords that percolated through our discussion. Apologies in advance for elements of our conversations that I won’t get to, not to mention failing to cite all the brilliant things said by so many people. I’m writing on the 6 am northbound Amtrak, bouncing through Maryland just now, and not every book of memory is perfectly clear.

A possible signatur?

Energy

Might energy — intensity, power, force — be a defining characteristic of Nashe’s prose? We gestured several times toward enargia as a classical rhetorical trope (though without citing Puttenham I don’t think), and many of us in different ways — Bob Hornback discussing Nashe’s debt to post-Tarlton extemporaneity in prose, Reid Barbour on a preacherly style, Joan Pong Linton on performance, Adam Zucker on pedantry as anti-model and, oddly, also ideal — responded to the coiled-spring quality of Nashe’s prose. Perhaps my favorite moments in the many talks, and the wonderfully capacious hour-plus of conversation that followed each pair of talks, happened when we let Nashe’s phrases and coinages and glorious insane sentences wash over us. It’s an old idea — C.S. Lewis’s idea, in fact — that Nashe is best understood as a “pure” stylist. I’d resist Lewis’s somewhat disembodied or abstract Nashe, but he’s not entirely wrong about style.

Referentiality

Poop jokes are the best jokes, and an early morning trip through Nashe’s scatological obsessiveness by way of Alan Stewart’s editing of the letter to William Cotton and its attacks on Gabriel Harvey showed everyone, with almost uncomfortable physicality, how deep into the shit Nashe dove. Alan’s notion, which Adam Zucker later suggested might plausibly represent a foundational claim in Nashe studies since McKerrow’s early 20c edition, that Nashe is somehow the heart or quintessence of “the Elizabethan” (or maybe the 1590s?) emerges from the breadth of reference in his short career. I learned about many new and utterly convincing Nashean intertexts, from patristic writings to London sermons, clown prose in print, almanacks, commonplace books, Aretino’s varied career (he’s not just a pornographer!) and even Apuleius’s Latin “Greek romance,” The Golden Ass. Nashe is a maze, a plurality, sometimes an editorial nightmare — the melancholy in Andrew’s voice describing the baffling nature of some sentences in Have With You to Saffron-Walden was palpable — but always a step or three ahead of conceptual pursuit.

Nashe had a way with titles

Orality

Jenny’s efforts to unpack the oral/aural nature of Nashe’s prose, and to connect his works to Elizabethan and later traditions of performance made a valuable through-line over the weekend. Joan Pong LInton and Adam explored Nashe’s connections to Elizabethan drama, Heidi Brayman guideed our attention to reading practices including oral reading, via a lovely manuscript compression of Greene’s Menaphon, in the paratextual margins of which Nashe first entered print. Andy Fleck’s survey of routes into Nashe, from EEBO to the old Penguin paperback edition to the in-progress OUP set and the Broadview teaching edition of The Unfortunate Travleler he’s currently editing also emphasized the variety of the ways into this career.

Velocity

I tried, in my talk on “Nashe’s geographies,” to build off Kristen Bennett’s great discussion of cosmological disorientation to get at Nashe’s peculiar charm.. I’m not sure I got all the way there, and at times over the weekend I worried just a little bit that our collective love for our guy Tom might slightly obscure his less attractive habits, including violent rhetorical excess and a studied misogyny that extends to quasi-feminine genres such as romance. But I do still like a formulation I uncovered early in my talk: Nahse chooses “velocity over identity.” That seems to me to start to account for both his attraction, for Nashers like us, and also his off-putting qualities, for readers from Gabriel Harvey to at least some of the students on whom we have foisted, and will continue to foist, our favorite Elizabethan proser.

Parody

A book written against Nashe

Sam Fallon, one of many early-career scholars who I was delighted to meet this weekend, gave a smart talk on Nashe’s plural and unstable genre practices. He suggested that parody as a “characteristic mode” more than a generic kind might be a useful organizing principle. I very much agree, and I think the “para” in “parody” might be useful to think with in making sense of Nashe’s dense referentiality and also his violent energy. As with early texts such as the Anatomy of Absurdity and the prefaces to Sidney and Greene, Nashe performs a quasi-critical and partially parasitical engagement with 1590s literary culture. Maybe that’s why we lit crit types love him?

I especially value the sense in Sam’s talk of how parody, and other of our shared terms such as referentiality and even energy, flow from Nashe’s engaging with heterogeneity. I was struck by how many non-London landscapes got evoked in our conversation, from Great Yarmouth to the Isle of Wight to (in Kristen’s talk) the cosmological spheres. There’s an old tradition, that I suspect McKerrow’s early and bibliographically important edition helped motivate, of reading Nashe through terms such as “singularity” (as in Stephen Hilliard’s book) or “the scandal of authorship” (Jonathan Crewe’s term). There’s something to that reading, certainly,but I also like to think about Nashe in and through collectives — including the collective body of Nashe scholars, some of whom assembled in the Folger this weekend. “My people,” as quite a few people said over the course of the weekend.

Ephemerality and Extemporaneity

Jenny Anderson’s paper on the pamphlet as material format and discursive type dove-tailed wonderfully with Ian Moulton’s provocative talk on the “bad career move” of Nashe’s unremarked death and his failure to consolidate a laureate career like his sometime collaborator Ben Jonson. I think the ephemeral is a great term to think Nashe with, both because of its material connection to his printed output and also because the material fragility of the pamphlet echoes or resonates with his obsession with the extemporal. Bob’s quite stunning talk had already powerfully connected Nashe to extemporal post-Tarlton clowning  in print, and also with Falstaff. I also think Nashe associates the “extemporal vein” with his sometime friend, mentor, and semi-rival, Robert Greene. I suspect more could be said about Nashe and Greene in the first few years of the 1590s: Greene’s prose romances had in the 1580s the popular success that Nashe never quite managed to achieve, but the final turns of Greene’s career before (and shortly after) his death in 1592 indicate a Nashean restlessness. Nashe’s genre experiments in the mid-90s respond  to the genre-scatterplot of Greene’s his final turns to crime pamphlets, repentance tracts, and anti-Harvey invective – but given Greene’s penniless death, one wonders what Nashe thought he was following.

Partial Belonging

#NasheBash-ing

In trying to make sense of Nashe’s waywardness across several levels, including  geographic ideas, generic variety, and syntactic complexity, I suggested the term “partial belonging” as a kind of analytical hedge: it signals Nashe’s double-facedness, his desire to be both “in” and “out,” plural and singular, knowing and unknowable. It’s also a term that for me speaks to the nature of early modern genre in theory and practice, which both operate as modes of categorization and appeal to hybrid contamination and the building of new kinds.

I’m left, after an “exhilarating” weekend (to repurpose one of David Scott Kasten’s closing descriptions of Nashe) thinking about the paradox of how a microscopic exploration of a single idiosyncratic figure can open up vistas. Alan’s notion that Nashe, if we could understand him (which we can’t), could explain all of Elizabethan culture points in one direction, and Ian’s provocative connections between Nashean invective and the vitriol of internet troll culture in another. I want to go both ways, and all the other ways too. Symposia such as this one are always about addition — I’ve come away with a long list of things I want to read, and projects I can’t wait to see emerge into print — and even more about engagement and entanglement. I’m not sure what I’ll next write about Nashe, but I’m so happy to see his works driving so many conversations.

Two last things, in a Nashean spirit of excess: first, one element of the joke of The Age of Thomas Nashe, which had its origins in a Shakespeare Association of America seminar co-run by Joan Pong Linton and Stephen Guy-Bray, was that we’d plan a hostile takeover and rebrand the SAA as the Nashe Association. Nashe might have chafed at being cooped up in the bottom floor of Shakespeare’s house, or even at sharing space at our wine-reception with a First Folio yesterday evening. But Nashe, who never found the patron he desperately wanted in his lifetime, was housed so well beneath the Folger’s capacious umbrella, under which premodern culture thrives and flourishes. We only talked a little Shakespeare this weekend, and didn’t really take up the question of how closely Moth in Love’s Labors Lost is meant to represent Nashe, but the old guy felt more beneficent than he sometimes can.

Lastly — the pleasures of the weekend were also made possible by all the other symposium participants whose names I’ve not mentioned and whose contributions came by way of after-talk discussion, not to mention hallway banter and around the bar extrapolation. There are some great projects-in-process that involve Nashe, and I look forward to seeing them move forward. It was a pleasure to meet new people and hear new voices.

Among with rare books (with Jenny Richards)

After-lastly, in hasty postscript: thanks to the Folger itself, especially Kathleen, Owen, and Elyse. I didn’t have time to sneak into the Reading Room on this trip, but I’ll be back in DC in March or April. As always, I’m Amtrak-ing northward this morning with an eye on my next southbound train.

Happy travels to all Nashers and (to borrow one last phrase from our weekend) Nashe-adjacents!