Alan Cumming’s Macbeth

2013-05-20 17.26.55This One-Scot Show was my end-of-semester treat, and this poster gets it right, if hitting the spot means catching you between the eyes. The production interwove an inventive performance by Cumming that only occasionally slipped into caricature — mainly in his whining, petulant child-king Duncan — against a spare institutional backdrop. The performance opened in silence, as a female doctor and husky male orderly medicated Cumming and changed him into a hospital gown. He clutched a paper bag labelled “Evidence” that will eventually reveal a child’s sweater, later appropriated to play the part of Macduff’s doomed son. Concerned faces on the medical personnel implied that the patient might at any time explode, implode, or scatter his bloody fragments about the stage. (But we know that already from Shakespeare.) The first lines spoken were also the first lines in Macbeth, but they worked doubly, referring both to the Weird Sisters and to the institutional trio — patient, doctor, orderly — who are the only figures on stage:

When shall we three meet again?

Some reviewers found the constant shuttling among different characters distracting, and it clearly confused at least a few of the chattering people sitting near me in the theater. There were some over-flashy touches, like the rapid-towel shifting that switched from Lady Macbeth — torso covered — to Macbeth — naked to the waist — but in general Cumming gave an engaging performance and has a great, clear, Scottish voice. The shifts were disorienting enough to draw attention away from some powerful speechs, especially early in the performance, but others took on new force:

Is this a dagger which I see before me?

photo (1)The backdrop of mental illness made the hero somewhat less than awe-ful in both the ethical and purely theatrical senses. I can’t agree with Ron Rosenbaum that this production provided unique insight into the nature of evil, but by performing the play as a kind of auto-investigation, self-generated therapy or protest against therapeutic invasion, it does show off the paranoid closeness of perhaps Shakespeare’s most hero-centric play. The super-warrior who unseams his enemies from the nave to the chops isn’t much in evidence, but Cumming’s mad, obsessed figure, dragging himself from bed to bathtub to sink, always aware of the overlooking eyes of his attendants and their three video camera-witches, provided menace and danger. He also became, perhaps because he’s the only person to look at much of the time, powerfully sympathetic, in a slightly disjointed, almost Beckettian way.2013-05-20 17.26.41

It will have blood, they say. Blood will have blood.

The most powerful prop on stage was a large doll, dressed in pink, that stood for baby-prince Malcolm, named heir to boy-king Duncan. Without engaging over-much in extra-textual speculations of the sort mocked in the famous essay, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?” I kept thinking that the emotional core of this production wasn’t so much vaulting ambition or shared lust for power but a fundamental rage against the Child and the futurity that children represent. (Does Lee Edelman talk about Macbeth in No Future? He did recently write a great essay on Hamlet.)  When the doll gets propped up on the wheelchair-throne for the final tableau, it’s hard not to feel that Macbeth’s death — the conflict with Macduff ends with “him” drowned in the bathtub, where Macduff’s sweater-son had also been immersed — marks the triumph of an infant’s future over an adult’s present.

How does your patient, doctor?

Addressed to the female doctor who has returned to the stage, this line, like the performance’s opening line, works both within the theatrical frame and in Shakespeare’s play. It also edges toward the death of Lady Macbeth, often the emotional high point of the play. The last great Macbeth I saw, by Cheek by Jowl in 2011, had me wanting a production of just the love story, with no one on stage but Him and Her. Cumming’s performance of the marriage was quite strong — he did slightly overdo some of the sexual impersonation jokes when Lady Macbeth read her letter in the bath, and the inventive staging of her seducing her husband into the murder seemed to rely on a sophomoric reading of the line, “Screw your courage to the sticking point.” The central loss or crime or catastrophe in the ambiguous frame story seemed to involve a child, but Lady Macbeth, and the concerned, sympathetic female doctor, were somehow at the heart of it too.

…full of sound and fury, / Signifying…signifying…signifying…nothing.

Certain lines in Shakespeare are too over-familiar to be performed easily. At times Cumming’s soliloquies, in particular, suffered from their clear, direct enunciation: we know the words already, I wanted to say, what else can you do? (Sometimes I think I’m not the intended audience for Shakespeare on Broadway.) Probably the most interesting twist on a canonical phrase was Cumming’s triple-take on what follows sound and fury. He struggled and stopped three times before getting to “nothing,” as if he couldn’t quite get through it, couldn’t quite accept his wife’s off-stage death, his pronouncement of an absurdist universe, the rounding close of the play itself. What comes before nothing?

2013-05-20 17.27.10In the end Cumming’s production stayed, of necessity, within one head. It was propelled by rage of the present against the future, the desire never to cede the stage, not to be displaced —

If it ’twere done, when ’tis done, ’twere well

It were done quickly…

We watched on the video feed as the hero held himself underwater in the bath where young Macduff had been drowned. He couldn’t hold out, and emerged with a splash. Exhausted, avoiding the enthroned doll at center stage, he dragged himself back to his hospital bed. He looked up at the doctor.

When shall we three meet again?

A great performance of the theatrical “now,” packed into a scant 100 minutes. The sun was going down as I left the Barrymore Theater.


The Suit at BAM

Walking out of the theater after this brilliant, unsettling show last Tuesday night, I didn’t know exactly what had happened. Ben Brantly’s Times review had prepared me for a play that “breaks your heart” with a light and musical touch, but not for the pleasurable disorientation I felt.

The minimalist set, deftly managed by Peter Brook with clothes racks and hangers, as well as intricate lighting and inventive music, presented a semi-abstract vision of the South African township Sophiatown, which was soon bulldozed after the events of the play. With moving parts and jury-rigged partitions, it resembled a transparent, open closet, a window into confined lives and imaginations. Th Suit

The play had opened with husband and wife, Philomen and Matilda, slouching against each other on chairs arranged into a threadbare marital bed. It ended in precisely the same place, despite the intervening discovery of the wife’s adultery, the husband’s insistance that as penance for her infidelity she care for the suit her fleeing lover left behind, and the husband’s final public exposure of the suit’s secret after she has invited local guests, and a few lucky audience members, into their home to hear her sing.

During the play I kept thinking about how the meanings of adultery expanded and tumbled over themselves as the play went on, from the thin edge of disbelief that cracked open the love we’d seen on Philemon’s face in the opening scene, to a political allegory of life under apartheid, to the slow emergence of Matilda from frustration into art as she joins a “cultural club” and allows herself to learn to sing. None of these schemes quite captured the play’s rich ambivalence, the semi-Beckettian combination of abstraction and human desperation. It didn’t matter so much what the suit meant, which of the many meanings the play would finally settle upon. We were watching lives entwined with not-quite-knowable symbols, and never knowing, never settling, seemed perfectly fine.

suit-articleInlineSometimes one side of the meaning-whirlpool appeared to surface by itself, The peak moment of political allegory came when the play’s narrator, played by Jared McNeill, sang Billie Holiday’s  brutal song of lynching in the American South, “Strange Fruit.” His piercing, pure voice, unadorned, spoke to the entanglement of emotions and repression.

But that piercing protest, while perhaps the most stunning of the half-dozen songs performed, seemed to me to have been a sideways move away from the human center of the play. The transatlantic shift to pre-Civil Rights America globalized the story, but most of our attention remained on Philemon and Tilly, their see-through house, and his refusal or inability to let go of the suit and its explosive memory.

The ending mystified me — and not just me, I asked around and others were confused too — so much that I had to google the original story, by Can Themba, to be sure that the sleeping wife wasn’t going to wake up after the applause stopped. The story related a tragedy, though I wasn’t sure of that when I walked out of the theater. Philemon’s compulsion to remember, to expose, to force the suit back into view, had killed his wife.

Is is a problem that I wasn’t sure what had happened in the moment? Or might this ambiguity represent one of the stranger, fuller, more deeply integrated combinations of tragic loss and comic endurance that I’ve seen in a while? I do like a tragicomedy, if given my choice.

I’m glad I caught this one during its brief trip to Brooklyn.


King Lear by Wu Hsing-Kuo

I missed the Shakespeare Olympiad in London this summer, but saw  Wu Hsing-Kuo’s one-man Chinese opera version of King Lear last night — pretty amazing.

Wu, a trained master of Chinese opera who has broken with tradition by staging Western literary classics, made Lear into a vehicle for psychodrama, leaving much of the play’s action to the side and embracing the internal dilemma of Lear as character. As Alex Huang oberserves in an excellent essay on Wu’s career,

The tension between father and child in King Lear is turned into an allegory about Wu’s uneasy relationship with his jingju [Beijing opera] master.

Act 1, “The Play,” starts and ends in storm. I always think of these scenes as the heart of the play, but it was great to cut directly to it, to see the rest of the place as architecture surrounding this basic confrontation of human body with unfriendly elements. Wu’s Lear engages himself, his elaborate costume, his long white beard, and his world in an apparently vain attempt to connect. It’s Shakespeare as Beckett — interesting the Wu has also performed “Waiting for Godot” — and it’s both intense and moving.

Act 2, “Playing,” followed a 20 min intermission with manic energy: Wu starts as the Fool then becomes Lear’s dog (!), followed by Kent, Lear, Goneril, Regan, Cordelia, the blinded Gloucester, Edmund, and the “mad” Edgar, who calls himself, in one of a few English words spoken to comic effect, “Tom.” Particularly powerful as the evil sisters and as Gloucester seeking the cliffs of Dover, Wu’s physical inventiveness buoyed this longer act, constantly reinventing himself and his surroundings. His Gloucester climbed atop a large rock formation at the climax of this scene — the rocks had been half-broken human statues in Act 1 before they had fallen — and the roar of the ocean made this scene seem less invented, less acted, than it sometimes does on stage.

Act 3, “A Player,” features Wu playing himself, as the super-titles and program notes reveal. He’s still reconnizably King Lear, but filtered through Wu’s own struggles with his master, his artistic career, and perhaps — I’m not certain about this, or exactly what it amounts to– about the relationship between Chinese and English dramatic traditions. He performs no other characters, but when he walks on stage carrying the elaborate costume he wore in Act 1 in his arms, it’s hard not to thing of the old man bearing his daughter’s body.

I left thinking about Taiwan as an especially fraught cultural location, caught between China and a global world that has become increasingly, since Wu and  his colleagues started the Contemporary Legend Theater in 1986, Anglophone. Alex Huang reads Wu’s Lear — which apparently also goes under the title, Li Er zai ci [Lear Is Here], though the program last night, at New Haven’s Festival of Arts and Ideas, didn’t mention that — as a “local” rather than “global” production. I agree with his focus on the intimacy of the performance, the way Wu’s Lear burrows down into internal questions, so much that (for me at least) I felt the performance was richest in Acts 1 and 3, when he wasn’t switching between characters but was just the mad old king / Chinese Shakespearean actor, inviting the audience to see him try to work himself out.

The dialogue, spoken in Chinese but also projected with English translation on two screens flanking the stage, was largely — 2/3? — straight translations from the play, but an extended poetic riff on things that the self does to itself — I hate myself / I love myself / I forget myself / I imagine myself… — had the feeling of a strong distorting reading of the play rather than a production of it.

I’ll be thinking about Wu Hsing-Kuo the next time I see anyone else play this role.

This sort of thing isn’t for everyone, though the house was pretty full last night.  “I would never,” said Olivia when I told her where I was going, “see a play with only one Chinese character.” Then she smiled to make sure I understood her joke, about “characters” being units of Chinese writing as well as people. Clever girl.


Ethan Lipton’s “No Place to Go”

This tender love story between man and corporation won’t break your heart — we all know what happens when the company relocates to Mars, where office space is cheap — but the show gets down inside you and does its work.  It’s as sharp and funny a take on today as you’re likely to find.  If you’re in New York this weekend, get to Joe’s Pub to see it.  The Times likes it too.

Bandleader / playwright Ethan Lipton sings the small joys of the workplace — “I’ve got a place to go in the morning” — and unfurls the half-noticed pleasures of that temporary community, with its private languages — “information refining” — and particular characters, including a special vocal appearance by “the last sandwich in the conference room.”  He loves the place, but doesn’t want to leave Our Town.

(Side note #1: I’m blogging from Mars right now, on a sunny spring morning.  I commute from here to the outskirts of Our Town in pre-dawn dimness, but I’ve come to like Mars.  It’s not as dry as you might think.)

He tells us that his master plan is a life in which there’s “time to make up stories while also eating,” and this brilliant, funny show performs in the wide gulf between economic reality and artistic imagination.  The fantasies keep on coming.  “When we move in with my aging middle-class parents” leads to “I’m gonna incorporate,” a nostalgic lefty hymn, “Did you hear what they did at the WPA?” — even artists, this song tells us, have to eat — and then the title song, “No Place to Go.”

My favorite parts evoke the NYC office culture I’ve not worked in since I left Random House back in ’92.  The dark guttural of the last sandwich in the conference room growls, “Somebody wants me!”  The center fullback of the soccer team keeps everyone organized.  “Do they still make men in Brooklyn?” asks a strong sentimental ballad.

(Side note #2: The competitive spirit in the soccer song made me think back to the last time I saw Ethan Lipton in person, playing ultimate frisbee at UCLA with the Buffalo Nights gang.  I remember he was pissed at me for not throwing the disk his way.)

The closer was “Nothing but a comeback in my wallet,” with supporting vocals from the brilliant three-piece “orchestra,” the highlight of which, from where I was sitting anyway, was Vito Dieterle’s gorgeous saxophone.

We might not be able to believe that saxophones and songs can break corporate power.  But somewhere above Oklahoma, Woody Guthrie smiles down on this one.

Again, if you’re in New York this weekend, get thee to Joe’s Pub. 



‘Tis Pity at BAM

All sorts of horrible things invade a teenage girl’s bedroom in Cheek by Jowl’s great new production of John Ford’s incest tragedy, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, currently at BAM.

An over-ripe world of corruption and decadence lingers and leers from two backstage doors, but we the audience occupy Annabella’s bedroom for the full duration.  A bed with red sheets sits at  center stage, making an impromptu altar as well as serving more predictable purposes.  Posters on the back wall resemble a pre-digital Facebook page, charting the heroine’s emerging sense of self.  True Blood.  Kabaret.  Breakfast at Tiffany’s.  Gone with the Wind.  At stage right, apart from the other posters, an image of the Virgin Mary.

The trouble starts when she’s playing sock puppets across the bed with brother Giovanni, and things devolve quickly.  As they consummate their mutual love under the red comforter, a group of men, waiting on stage during most of the play, gather round to negotiate the bride’s price.  Soranzo, a nobleman who sloughes off the widow Hippolyta in the sub-plot, wins her hand — but the muffled forms under the blanket remind us that bad things are coming.

What I love about Cheek by Jowl is their breakneck packing and headlong intensity.  As with last year’s Macbeth, they played straight through without intermission.  No place to run, no  civilizing cocktails to assert distance between us and them.  The strong ensemble cast pushed the metaphors hard — Giovanni drew a lipstick heart on his chest in the first scene, then cut out his sister’s bleeding heart in the last.  The chorus of adult men chanted the couple’s lines back to them in an inverted religious rite as they first kissed.  Giovanni turns up at his sister’s wedding to Soranzo taking close-up pictures of the bride.  The widow Hippolita, played by Suzanne Burden, mocked Annabella’s sexy dancing with disturbing gyrations of her own.

Like Ben Brantley in the Times, I thought Lydia Wilson’s Annabella was the star around which this production rotated, though I like the supporting case more than he does.  Annabella, of course, gets the most play, and the most variety: child, sex goddess, coy mistress, penitent, even briefly mother-to-be.  In changing she touches everyone else onstage, from his love-idolotrous Byronic brother to her nurse, Putana — the play is full of dark send-ups of Romeo and Juliet, and this Nurse is one of the best — to her finally sympathetic husband, who appears readier to forgive incest and adultery here than in Ford’s script, perhaps because his accusations to his wife after he’s discovered her pre-marriage adultery — “Come, strumpet, famous whore!” — are played, oddly but movingly, as part of a love scene.  The kissing stops once he finds out that she’s pregnant.

As in their Macbeth, which Cheek by Jowl transformed into a tale of doomed love, this production ends on a sentimental note.  Giovanni, bare-chested as usual, sits on the edge of the bed with Annabella’s bleeding heart in his hand.  Their father lies dead beside him, and the Cardinal who in Ford speaks the titular couplet that ends the play (“Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store, / Who could not say, ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?”) mills around with the remaining chorus of men.  Rather than giving this corrupt authority his chance to moralize, director Declan Donnellan brings on a ghostly Annabella, dressed in girlish tights and t-shirt instead of the sexy panties and wedding dresses of the previous scenes.  She walks silently up to the crying Giovanni and places her hand on his bloody hand, which contains her heart.  He doesn’t move or seem to see her — but it’s a tender moment.  Pity, I suppose, is what we’re left with.


The Justice Project at St. John’s

It’s nice to have great students!  Here’s a link about some new productions featuring St John’s doctoral student Tara Bradway, and her theater company, the Adirondack Shakespeare Co.

With the “Justice Project,” the company will bring two plays to the St. John’s campus, Measure for Measure and Merchant of Venice, playing in rep the next Fri and Sat nights, first on the Manhattan campus (Feb 10-11) and then at the Law School in Queens (Feb 17-18).  They are also putting on a panel about law and performance on Fri Feb 17 around noon.

More details can be found via Tara’s blog.

Please come!  I’ll be there at least next Sat night for Merchant with my daughter Olivia, who loved their production of The  Tempest last winter.


Sleep No More

SNM maskAlone, masked, and silent: that’s the way to see a play.  For a couple hours last night, while wandering through six stories of a Chelsea warehouse on W. 27th that had been transformed by Punchdrunk into a Macbeth/Hitchcock noir horror fantasy, I was thinking about how elusive the theatrical transaction can be.

The place was full of great stuff, a candy shop, hospital wing, detective’s office/taxidery shop in which a fatal (stuffed) raven was disembowled to reveal a tickertape with one of the few Shakespearean lines I heard all night:

It will have blood, they say.  Blood will have blood.

There were three distinct sets of people inside: audience members like me, wearing white masks; theater staff wearing black masks and blocking access to certain rooms and stairwells; and maybe 8 or 9 actors, without masks, doing various things.

Audiences want stories, so when we saw actors doing things — dancing, packing suitcases, trying to wash their bloody hands and faces in one of many bath-tubs, or smothering King Duncan with a pile of pillows — we gathered to watch.  The scenes were brief, often powerful, and always fast: when the actors hurried on to the next room, they trailed clouds of awkwardly jostling masked audience members in their wakes.

SNMThe set was really the star, because you could play with it.  I picked up pieces of paper, sometimes founds line from Macbeth on them, examined bird skeletons, ate hard candy, played a card game with one of the actors, though he did not choose me to give a shot of (apple juice?) whiskey at the end of the game.  The soundtrack, from old Hitchcock thrillers, was gorgeous.

Some rooms were full of matter, overflowing with detail and debris.  Oothers were airy and empty.  One was a maze of leafless trees, another a spare half-grid of collapsing brick walls, thigh-high, with fake Baroque sculpture.

We wanted to see things happen, all of us in the white masks, & we hustled and wandered and sometimes broke into a jog as we tried to catch up to whatever was going on.  We saw highlight scenes from the play  — mine were the banquet, which I saw twice, the murder, the uncovering of the raven’s prophecy.  We also saw lots of not-very-Shakespearean stuff: men fighting, couples dancing, a strobe-lit orgy featuring nudity and lots of stage blood, card games, and letters being written.

Diffuse and sometimes disorienting, the performance didn’t feel like a performance.  The cast spoke little and seemed more dancers than anything — balletic, physical, intense.  When I think back to this performance I feel certain I’ll remember the McKittrick Hotel more than any of the humans inside it.6-sleep-no-more-2-430x320



Titus at PublicLab

An intense, high-spirited night last night at the Public.  Michael Sexton’s production of “Titus” was bloody bloody and lots of fun.  They really nailed the play’s strange combination of hyper-melodrama and almost-playfulness, leading up to an over-the-top finale at the final banquet, complete with (actual) buckets of blood, cartoon post-it notes, and a food-fight between Titus and Tamora with mushy pieces of pie.

In the chaos, Titus’s recipe almost sounded simple, a straightforward and literal way of making sense out of disorder —

Let me grind their bones to powder small,

And with this hateful liquor temper it,

And in that paste let their vile heads be bak’d.  (5.2.197-200)

Several performances stood out in a strong cast.  Jacob Fishel as Saturninus and Jennifer Ikeda as Lavina were both veterans of Red Bull’s brilliant Women beware Women in 2009, a production that gets better each time I remember it.  (I think about the old joke about Juan Rulfo, author of Pedro Paramo, whose reputation supposedly grew with each new novel he didn’t write.)  Fishe’ls fey Saturninus made me want a bigger part for him next time. Ikeda’s mute presence during Marcus’s interminable Ovidian lament upon discovering her maimed (“Alas, a crimson river of warm blood, / Like to a bubbling fountain…” 2.4.11-57) made a devastating critique of poetic fancies.

Ron Cephas Jones, who I thought did a decidedly mixed job as Caliban and Charles the wrestler in the Bridge Project’s As You Like It / Tempest double bill a few years ago, was a great Aaron: smart, sexy, charismatic , and powerful.  Strung up by Lucius and awaiting execution, he rained brags down on his captors’ heads —

Even now I curse the day — and yet I think

Few come within compass of my curse —

Wherein I did not do some notorious ill… (5.1.125-7)

Rob Campbell’s Lucius and Stephanie Roth Haberle’s Tamora were also strong, but I’m ambivalent about Jay O. Sanders as Titus.  He’s big and imposing, with a bear-ish presence that filled up the stage in army camo during the first scene — but too often, esp in the opening parts of the play, his bear was more teddy than grizzly.    He hit his stride after losing his mind, and in some ways the part felt more Lear-like and aged than I might have liked.  He made a compelling mad father, but less of a conquering general.  “I am the sea,” he claims when trumpeting his grief — but he didn’t quite get there, at least not for me.  The bad guys — Aaron, Saturninus, Tamora — had the flash in this production.

The lab-budget staging was great: a stack of maybe 3 dozen 8 x 4 plyboard sheets were moved, illustrated, and shuffled around to create almost everything — late in the action they were tables, kitchen counters, and an executioner’s board, earlier they had been thrones and gravestones and pits and caves.  I especially loved watching Frank Dolce, who played the boys’ parts, draw symbolic cartoons — birds, crowns, swords — on wood and on post-it notes, and Lavina’s mouth-held drawings in act 5 extended this conceit.

I also had the strange experience of slightly mis-hearing Aaron’s line about surprising Lavinia in the woods — I heard “The woods are roofless, dreadful, deaf, and dull,” but the line reads “ruthless” — and thinking Robert Frost.  Not sure what to make of that.


Two Theatrical Moments

I just sent off to Shakespeare Bulletin two mini-reviews of my favorite moments in Shakespearean performance of the past decade.  The first was of the opening scene of a Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC from 2009, and the second the closing scene of the Propeller Winter’s Tale at BAM in 2005.  Here’s the first —

We don’t usually picture big, powerful, ponderous, regal old men dancing in public.  Perhaps it’s imaginable as a careful, discreet display.  But when Stacy Keach as Lear high-stepped his way onto the stage in the opening moments of this production, accompanied by a brass band and hurriedly-assembling dance line, he gave a shocking display of theatrical power and audacity.  The old King’s body staked its claim to center stage physically, forcing his way through the party-goers who crowded around in the decadent, faux-Balkan nightclub setting.  This was a Lear who could still dance, who still wanted to display physical power and virtuosity – the legs kicking up well over waist-high – and who still wanted to play the part of youth.  For that moment, as the King came onto the stage, I saw something renewed in this familiar play: a sharper contrast between age and youth, and a new the irony in the purported desire to “unburthened crawl toward death.”  The reviews at the time mostly talked about the Balkan setting and post-Yugoslav mafia staging in Robert Falls’s violent production, including a long abstract scene in which cloth-wrapped bodies of the victims of the kingdom’s wars were slowly lowered into an on-stage pit.  For me the defining moment was at the start, when the King showed off his still-powerful body, his flair, and his belief that he still owned the world.  The bad daughters and courtiers fawned on him, and the good girl, played in black as Goth hipster, retreated in horror at his poor taste.  More than anything, Keach’s body made palpable the King’s protest against time.  We in the audience knew that his dancing body will be buffeted by inner and outer storms for the next three agonizing hours.  But the high, physical, lusty steps managed to create a power beyond age, at least for a stage instant.

The seated crowd and partying lackeys weren’t the only audience to whom the King was playing in this moment.  Above his head, in a massive gold frame, was a portrait of himself, in full royal regalia, at a younger age.  The contrast between the benevolent, happy monarch who stares down from on high and the charismatic performer strutting below provided a visual touchstone for the play: this old King can never live up to his younger self.  We usually have to wait for Cordelia’s “nothing” to split Lear apart.  In this production, his internal divisions get shown immediately and viscerally.

There were lots of things that didn’t quite work in this high-concept production, and I don’t quite rank Keach among the very top performers of this Lear-filled decade.  But it was probably the best stage entrance I’ve ever seen.

And here’s the second —

What follows resurrection?  The statue has come back to life, the King and Queen reconciled, the two kingdoms resumed their amity, and royal authority even re-constituted so far as to make up a final faux-comic resolution via the marriage of Camillo and Paulina. What’s left?  An awkward pause, perhaps, as the wave of comic unity floats everyone ashore, before Leontes leads away and we can start clapping.

Not this time.  Propeller’s version of “The Winter’s Tale” featured the company’s usual high-jinx, including full brass band numbers for Autolycus’s songs and men in all the female roles, among them the brilliant Simon Scardifield, whose work I’ve greatly missed in Propeller’s recent productions, as Hermione.  This production greatly increased the visibility of Mamillius, who, played by Tam Williams, who later doubled as Perdita, provided a visual through-line in the convoluted story.  In the Sicilian half, he’s everywhere, starting the play alone onstage, listening at doors, playing in corners, watching his father rage and his mother sent to prison.  His toy ship got used to represent his sister’s voyage to coastal Bohemia, and his toy bear eats Antigonus.  The boy who told his mother and her ladies that “a sad tale’s best for winter” became in this production the central figure of narrative continuity within ever-shifting terrain.

He came back, finally, as a ghost.  In a shocking, wordless coda to the performance, the boy Mamillius re-appeared holding a candle after the royal parties cleared the stage for the last time.  His father saw him and returned, his face fractured into disbelief and unlooked-for hope.  As the lights started to dim, Leontes circled across the stage toward the boy, slowly opening his arms for a redemptive embrace.  The King cast a grotesque, large shadow onto the empty stage behind him, looking from where I sat in the balcony like a gigantic bird, spreading wings and opening talons.  Mamillius had his back to the audience, and we could not see his face.  He kept staring at the candle cupped in his hand as his father awkwardly moved downstage toward him.  At the last minute, he looked up at the twisted face straining down at him, and blew out the candle.

Some might think that we shouldn’t cry at the end of this play, but we did.  The play’s loss and disruption flooded out over the shocked audience.  I’ve never felt more palpably the cost of this play’s wayward tale of reunification.  It’s always hard to trust Leontes, who’s too eager to sweep his earlier transgressions under the rug, but it took this stage gambit to make visible the tragic undercurrent for all to see.


Rupert Goold’s Romeo & Juliet (via the Times)

Lacking world enough and time, I won’t get to see any of the RSC productions in New York this summer.  But I just read Charles Isherwood’s review in today’s Times, and I can’t resist commenting on the sentimental vision of the play that the paper provides.

I know that the Times reviews dream of a mass audience, not just snarky intellectuals or Bardo-o-philes or even well-heeled Lincoln Center regulars.  But surely we can do better than bromides about Juliet’s “fundamental innocence” or the arrival of “something deeper and purer in her soul”?  Isn’t Juliet more radical, more urgent, more human than familiar platitudes about “transcendent love”?

I’m not a big Rupert Goold fan, and Isherwood’s descriptions suggest a production that shares some of the distractions of his Macbeth, with Patrick Stewart.  I did like Goold’s Arctic Tempest, also with Stewart as the lead, though that one sadly never made it to NYC.  Sometimes the high concept direction preempts strong performances.

If we take Isherwood to represent the Times market, a mass educated audience, I wonder if it’s a failure of modern theater productions or of contemporary Shakespeare culture that he’s stuck in such a Hallmark card-ish view of this play.  He should listen to Juliet commanding darkness and the stars on her wedding night —

Come, night, come Romeo, come thou day in night,

For thou wilt lie upon the wings of night

Whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back.

Come, gentle night, come loving, black-brow’d night

Give me my Romeo, and when I shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

Transcendence, perhaps, but not much purity or innocence.  Shakespeare’s plays always seems less sentimental than his reviewers.