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S15: Shakespeare and the Rhetoric of Performance

TitusI’m excited for my S15 Shakespeare class, which starts tomorrow. I threw out my tried-and-true structure for writing analytical papers and am going to try something different: writing in response to contemporary performance. All the writing assignments — three short and one long paper — will be in dialogue with contemporary performances, in most cases things we’ve seen together, but perhaps inevitably some filmed performances also. Here’s the four-pack of shows we’ll see this spring in NYC. So excited!

Titus Andronicus: by the New York Shakespeare Exchange

Tuesday Feb 3, 8:30 pm. At the HERE theater, downtown Manhattan. 145 6th Ave (1 block south of Spring)

 The Winter’s Tale: at the Pearl Theater, 555 W. 42nd Street (between 10th and 11th Aves)

Tuesday Feb 17, 7 pm.  Winter's tale

Cry, Trojans: by The Wooster Group (an experimental version of Troilus & Cressida). At St. Ann’s Warehouse, DUMBO, Brooklyn

 Fri March 27, 8 pm. Cost TBA

Two Gentlemen of Verona: by Fiasco Theater at Theatre for a New Audience

Fri April 24 at the Tfana theatre in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

 I’m especially looking forward to seeing what different kinds of writing this course will generate. At the risk of over-sharing, I’m going to send my class (via this blog post) to my 2014 year-in-reviews compilation of the performances I wrote about last year, including an earlier version of Cry, Trojans. Here’s the list with links, and a few notes to help contextualize the shows(for anyone who missed this list in early Jan):

Cry, Trojans

Cry, Trojans

1. Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance (1/17): An all-male cast from the UK brought this production to Broadway from the reconstructed Globe Theater.

2. Cry, Trojans by the Wooster Group (1/31): A workshop building up to the production we’ll see in March.

3. Twelfth Night by Pig Iron (2/21): A brilliant, rowdy, musical version of the play.

4. Antony & Cleopatra at the Public (3/13): An Angl0-American cast, in a show also over from London.

5. Red Velvet at St Ann’s (4/4): Not Shakespeare but about the life and performance history of Ira Aldridge, the first great African-American actor to play Shakespeare in London.

6. Lear at Tfana (4/23): The second production at their new space in Fort Greene.

7. Rumstick Road by the Wooster Group (5/2): This one’s a film, and not Shakespeare at all.

8. Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh (6/6): Staged at the Armory uptown, this was Sir Kenneth’s NYC debut, apparently. The production had been previously staged in an unconsecrated church in the north of England.

9. Antony & Cleopatra at the Globe (6/28): I saw this one in London, standing room at the Globe.

10. Two Gents and The White Devil in Stratford (8/7): The first two of the four plays I saw at the International Shakespeare Conference in Shakespeare’s hometown.

11. 2 Henry IV and Roaring Girl in Stratford (8/9): The next two at Stratford-upon-Avon.

12. Gaia Global Circus (by Bruno Latour) 9/28: Another non-Shakespeare show; interesting for the eco-minded.

13. Tempest 1 at LaMaMa (10/6): First of three productions of The Tempest in the East Village this fall.

14. The Master and Margarita at Yale Drama (10/26): A great production of the modern Russian masterwork.

15. Tempest 2 at LaMaMa (11/22): The second production was in Korean!

16. Pericles at the Public (11/26): A great traveling show, to which I brought last semester’s class.

17. Tamburlaine at Tfana (12/7): John Douglas Thompson, fresh from playing Satchmo on Broadway, conquers world.

18. Inherent Vice (12/15): Another film, and non Shakespeare. Further thoughts here.

19. Tempest 3 at LaMaMa (12/20): An Italian company combines Shakespeare with activism, sci fi, and late 20c history.

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Further thoughts on Shasta Fay

Feeling a bit under the weather, I treated myself yesterday to a matinee second-helping of Paul Thomas Andersons’s film-homage to Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I wrote about after catching it last month during its limited opening in NYC. I went back to luxuriate in Pynchonomania, of course, but also to try to figure out what’s been bothering me a bit about the film. As I said last month, among a slew of great comic performances I thought the only one that rang false to me was Katherine Waterston’s Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s “ex-old lady.” Anderson’s film,  perhaps inevitably, focuses on the enigmatic romance core rather than the paranoid discursive rind of Pynchon’s novel. He treats Shasta as the story’s keystone, its visual ideal, and perhaps — as this very smart review-essay in Avidly by Evan Kindley shows — its excuse for indulging cinema’s semi-pornographic male gaze.

Inherent Vice Poster

Inherent Vice Poster

Kindley’s essay opens by showing one of the promotional images for the film (I reproduce Kindley’s close-up here), which shows a young woman’s, presumably Shasta’s, legs dominating the screen, with the good ship Golden Fang (aka Preserved, in a subplot the movie doesn’t really have time to explore) barely visible in the upper right of the screen. The primacy of female sex appeal in the image interprets itself, though if you think of the ship as a representation of the novel’s confusing paranoid conspiracy plot — what readers of Pynchon call “history” — then the relative size of the woman’s body v. maritime symbol indicates the desire of the publicist, at least, to sell more sex than paranoia. (A reasonable choice, perhaps.)

Like Kindley, I think Anderson’s decision to narrow the focus onto the Shasta Fay plot represents the film’s major reshaping of its source-novel. I’m not enough of a Andersonista or film historian to judge the movie through the visual history Kindley lays out in his review, but I think the sentimental shaping, in which the film coheres as a story of lost love, is worth thinking about. My sense is that it distorts Pynchon in two ways. Most obviously, as the poster’s asymmetrical split-screen shows, Anderson’s film squeezes out the novel’s paranoid vision of history, which really is the center of Pynchon’s project, around which sexual hi-jinks are mostly a particularly intense side-show. Secondly, the centrality of the love-plot sentimentalizes Shasta Fay herself, in ways that are worth exploring.

As you might expect from a figure who mysteriously vanishes early in the narrative only to just as mysteriously reappear — the novel’s storyline is more complex but not really clearer — Shasta appears in relatively few scenes. I count four main appearances in the film: 1) the opening scene, when she shows up unexpectedly at Doc’s place dressed in “flatland gear”, 2) the ouiji board flashback, which also includes a sentimental walk-on-the-beach scene of uncertain temporality (to me, at least), 3) the visually shocking reunion sex scene, which Kindley calls a “calculatedly unpleasant” example of “softcore sadomodernism,” and 4) the ambiguous final shot of the film.

(It seems meaningful that of these four, only the first and third are in Pynchon’s novel, even though Anderson, by all reports, has tried to represent the book faithfully. His film gets Pynchon right to an amazing degree — but in this particular case, I think he gets Shasta wrong.)

The first scene is the worst of the four: Shasta dressed to fit into Micky Wolfmann’s “straight-world persuasion” appears too obviously a Hollywood fantasy of vulnerable beauty. Pynchon describes her as illegible to Doc: “she was laying some heavy combination of face ingredients on him that he couldn’t read at all. Maybe something she’d picked up at acting school” (3). But Waterston’s face is mostly too easy to read. Shasta’s little-mentioned Hollywood career, which Anderson’s film mostly omits, though Doc does tell Sortilege that he’d always assumed he’d next see Shasta “on the tube,” gets presented in Anderson’s opening as simple fear and a plea for help. Waterston mouths Pynchon’s sentimental dialogue — “You never did let me down, Doc” (5) — but with Anderson’s connivance, she makes Shasta Fay, for all her mystery and power, simply a damsel in distress. The independence and power, not to mention the sense of humor, of Pynchon’s opaque heroine gets lost in the shuffle. The novel’s Shasta is much more resourceful, variable, and less easily interpreted, than she is in the film.

(Incidentally, Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Assistant DA and Doc’s current semi-girlfriend Penny captures the force and independence that Waterston’s Shasta lacks. Perhaps b/c Penny remains, like all the characters in the story including Doc himself, a bit of a caricature? No space to consider this here, but I do think all the complaints about Pynchon’s characters not being “realistic” misses the point: he’s not a realist, but an allegorist. His characters, especially but not only his women characters, may be “paper-thin” (as Kindley observes), but they represent points in a system, not universes unto themselves. The disintegration of Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow is probably the signature example of Pynchon’s baseline anti-individualism: “he is being broken down…and scattered….no clear happiness or redeeming cataclysm” [738]. But perhaps that vision of the corrosive force of history is harder to film than the lure of sexuality!)

The second of Shasta’s scenes, an extended flashback dance-in-the-rain with Neil Young soundtrack that represents the once-happy couple’s past, is lovely to watch but entirely un-Pynchonian. The novel’s Shasta is never this easy to see. I understand why Anderson might have wanted such a scene, but it further puts Shasta’s legs in the foreground and the ship of conspiratorial history in the background. The whole things is pretty but misplaced.

The third and most striking of Shasta’s scenes brings her to Doc’s place for reunion sex, with dialogue almost entirely taken verbatim from Pynchon. The scene features extended nudity from Waterston and some SM role-playing, in which Shasta regales Doc with tales of her dominating lover Mickey Wolfmann. “Sometimes he could almost make you feel invisible,” she says, gliding naked across the room to descend upon Doc, who uncomfortably mutters, “Guys love to hear shit like this” (307). The scene’s sexual tension shocks, especially within the generally easy-flowing pace of the movie. The sound of the “half dozen sincere smacks” that Doc gives Shasta’s bare ass set up an ambiguity that Shasta’s immediately post-coital line, “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” (307), doesn’t dispel. (That line appears in the novel too, but notably after a second, less disturbing, sexual episode. Pynchon’s novel is also careful to specify Shasta’s “intentions” [307] in the scene, which are harder to parse on the screen.) Kindley’s review suggests, persuasively, that this scene is pure exploitative male fantasy, the beautiful helpless naked woman. It’s a hard point to dispute, as it’s shown visually, but in the novel the scene also includes an explanation of Shasta’s trip on the good ship Golden Fang, the two characters’ mutual lamentation of the complex fate of Mickey Wolfmann, and in general much more of Pynchon’s tangent-zooming than the sexualized gaze of the camera allows. The visual opulence of film overwhelms viewers in the way Mulvey theorized, so the ironic turnings of Pynchon’s signature method aren’t as available during this scene.

I don’t think Anderson could really have filmed all of the novel’s plot, nor am I sure that it would have been worth it to chase down all Pynchon’s blind alleys. I am sort of hoping for a Director’s Cut DVD that will serve up another 45 min or so of what got left on the floor, but the structure of Pynchon’s novels involves disorientation, not solutions.

No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into… (Gravity’s Rainbow 3)

During my first viewing, I slightly misread Shasta’s final scene, which I had thought was a pure addition. Based on the hazy back-lighting, I now recognize the scene as a version of the  driving in the fog vignette with which the novel ends. Doc, in Anderson’s version accompanied by Shasta, has been driving south down the 405 when a dense coastal fog brings everything to a halt. As the “third dimension grew less and less reliable” (367), the cars formed themselves into a “temporary commune to help each other home” (368).

In Anderson’s version, Shasta nestles into Doc’s shoulder, and he looks a little foggy himself. He repeats her line from the earlier scene — “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” — and she replies, as if hiding a secret, “Of course not.” The romance fantasy-plot has other ideas, of course, and we’re left with the hope of something like a happy ending.

Kindley suggests that the Shasta plot parallels Anderson’s own doomed romance with Fiona Apple, which suggests that the film “Inherent Vice” may represent Anderson’s coming to terms with a lost love (Apple) as well as a literary master (Pynchon). That seems plausible, though I don’t know the Hollywood history. As a Pynchonista, however, I’m not entirely pleased with the distortion of Shasta Fay, who gets transformed from a mysterious source of power — her name echoes Mt Shasta in Northern CA, where, according to hippie / New Age legend & lost Inherent Vice subplot, three Lemurian sages first set foot on sacred California after the inundation of their homeland — into a masculine fantasy about female beauty, vulnerability, and sexuality.

Even as I was working out these distortions in Waterston’s Shasta Fay, I found myself enjoying the film the second time through. I think by the end I was pleased to have found something on the screen that couldn’t quite touch the real Pynchon. It makes the moments of real contact between visions and artistic modes more striking.

I know the oversized masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon are impossible — but I’d love to see him try Bleeding Edge or Lot 49!

 

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Bookfish 2014

Two days into 2015 and I haven’t done my 2014-in-review post! I’m behind already.

In swimming as in blogging, 2014 was a year of constancy. No long swims, and several months with no water-miles logged — in Jan I was recovering from ear surgery, and in May I guess I got caught between pool and open water seasons — but a respectable total of 103.37 miles. On the blog, 12,500 page views, roughly the same as last year, and about 7k visitors to the site.

Month Total Distance
Feb 13.01 miles (=22,900 yards, =20,940 meters)
Mar 11.25 miles (=19,800 yards, =18,105 meters)
Apr 5.26 miles (=9,250 yards, =8,458 meters)
Jun 11.96 miles (=21,050 yards, =19,248 meters)
Jul 9.24 miles (=16,260 yards, =14,869 meters)
Aug 17.88 miles (=31,471 yards, =28,777 meters)
Sep 6.16 miles (=10,850 yards, =9,921 meters)
Oct 3.35 miles (=5,900 yards, =5,395 meters)
Nov 14.80 miles (=26,050 yards, =23,820 meters)
Dec 10.45 miles (=18,400 yards, =16,825 meters)
Total 103.37 miles (=181,931 yards, =166,358 meters)

 

Of my 55 blog posts — which I think may be a new high number for me —  19 were theater or film reviews. Here’s the list starting in January, an autobio in spectating:

1. Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance (1/17)

2. Cry, Trojans by the Wooster Group (1/31)

3. Twelfth Night by Pig Iron (2/21)

4. Antony & Cleopatra at the Public (3/13)

5. Red Velvet at St Ann’s (4/4)

6. Lear at Tfana (4/23)

7. Rumstick Road by the Wooster Group (5/2)

8. Macbeth with Kenneth Branagh (6/6)

9. Antony & Cleopatra at the Globe (6/28)

10. Two Gents and The White Devil in Stratford (8/7)

11. 2 Henry IV and Roaring Girl in Stratford (8/9)

12. Gaia Global Circus (by Bruno Latour) 9/28

13. Tempest 1 at LaMaMa (10/6)

14. The Master and Margarita at Yale Drama (10/26)

15. Tempest 2 at LaMaMa (11/22)

16. Pericles at the Public (11/26)

17. Tamburlaine at Tfana (12/7)

18. Inherent Vice (12/15)

19. Tempest 3 at LaMaMa (12/20)

Most blog posts in a month was 5, in June, October, and December; least was 1 in May (what was going on in May?), followed by 2 in July and September.

I estimate those 19 reviews amount to something over 15k words that I wrote about performances in 2014. Almost all of them were only published on this blog. I have promised an article-sized version of my response to “Cry, Trojans” to Shakespeare Survey next year, after the Woosters do a final full production in St. Ann’s this coming March. Other than that, though, I haven’t published any of these reviews, though I may still combine the three Tempests at LaMaMa this past fall into something larger. (I think my last published review was on the Julie Taymor *Midsummer Night’s Dream” that opened the new theater space for Tfana in Fort Greene in fall 2013; it appeared in Shakespeare Bulletin 32:2 [Summer 2014] 307-310. But I never blogged that one.)

This coming spring semester I’m going to mine this archive as well as recent issues of Shakespeare Bulletin, and maybe a few other early modernist blogs (like Holger Syme’s Dispositio) to think about how we respond critically and rhetorically to modern performances of early modern plays. There are a bunch of great upcoming shows in NYC this spring, as I’ve noted already, and I should be able to get almost all of my students to at least a couple of them. I’ve been wanting to shake up the writing that I assign in my Shakespeare class without reducing the intense focus on close analysis, and this might be a good way to do it.

I’m toying with a couple of other 2015-ish resolutions, but those will have to wait for a later post.

 

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Nella Tempesta: The Tide is Rising 3

Calderoni as Ariel

Silvia Calderoni as Ariel

The opening music was the haunting piano from Riders on the Storm, and the voice-over set the political stakes directly:

The storm is the people. The storm is the people.

This brilliant stripped-bare performance-gesture at The Tempest by Motus Theatre Company from Italy featured the joint direction and production of Daniela Nicolo and Enrico Casagrande, who came forward after the show to take a bow. The spectacle — part dance, part drama, part video, part light show —  featured five actors, alternately taking on the parts of Ariel, Caliban, Prospero, and Miranda, and occasionally playing toward other moments in Shakespeare’s play. At one point, when playing the confrontations between Prospero and his servants about labor, they shifted to Cesaire’s version of the play. The actors also played themselves as actors, worrying about how it could be possible to play Shakespeare’s characters in the modern world.

Like the Times and everybody else, I loved Nella Tempesta for its energy, its playfulness, and its insistence that experimental drama carries political power. I also loved the blankets.

Blankets, the Program Note reminds us, are the basic objects used to comfort displaced bodies after storms or other dislocations:

And what is the first shelter for a defenseless body after a hurricane, a shipwreck, or an armed conflict?

Calderoni as a Tiger rug

Calderoni as a Tiger rug

The action of the play moved from Shakespeare to numerous catastrophes, from the mass revolt in Tirana, Albania in 1990, which the actor Gleni Caci claims to have seen from his window as a ten-year old boy, to political demonstrations in support of migrants in Rome in 2013 and of black men unjustly slain in New York in 2014, to explicit discussion of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. If the storm is the people, as the opening voice insisted, then the people could also reply to storms, collectively and artistically.

Twice during the show the theatre went utterly dark, gesturing toward the week-long blackout in NYC after Sandy. The second time, just before the end, a bright flashlight appeared right next to me, spotting the face of Ilenia Caleo, who played Miranda. She closed the play with the famous line that Aldous Huxley, one of Motus’s inspirations, cribbed for the title of his most famous book:

O brave new world, that has such people in it!

The most innovative element of the play say the actor playing Ariel, Silvia Calderoni, tote a small tree over her shoulder and walk off of the stage and out through the back lobby. The story continued by way of a video screen, which followed her as she carted the tree down into the subway station, onto a train, across the city, and eventually to the “I Can’t Breathe” protests in Washington Square Park and elsewhere. The film also spliced in images of a demonstration for migrants’ rights in Rome in 2013, at which Calderoni toted the same tree and wore the same black jeans and jacket. The narrative was clear: the actor left the stage to seek the company of activists, before returning to us, green growing symbol still over her shoulder, with renewed knowledge. Or, as Motus says in its note:

Folding blankets

Folding blankets

The truest form of involvement (beyond political activism) is the one we live on the stage, with the audience members of every city in which we move…as we try to build temporary heterotopia.

Toward the latter half of rthe play, the actors collected blankets from the audience, folded them into noodles, and used them to spell out two phrases. The first was Shakespeare by way of Cesaire:

This island is mine!

A few slight changes including punctuation closed the tableau on a more ambiguous note:

Is this land mine?

It was, at least for a little while. At least I hope it was. A blanket-spelled heterotopia in the East Village. The perfect ending to La MaMa’s great Tide is Rising project this fall.

At some point I’ll try to collect my thoughts on this autumnal tide of Tempests. I wrote about part 1 in early October, and part 2 in November.

A blanket tower

A blanket tower

 

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Storm and Fire: David Hadbawnik’s Aeneid 3 and 4

First present of the season!

First present of the season!

A year ago November I was walking around with the first bits of David Hadbawnik’s translation of Virgil in my pocket and thinking about what it means to be a lover of peotry and ambivalent creature of empire. Two more chapbooks arrived last month — the first wrapped gifts of my holiday season — and though I’m still swirling inside the postlapserian chaos of Inherent Vice – I’ve got about 4 hours to go on the audiobook and am plotting a return trip to the movie — the Aeneid remains the poem that won’t go away. I’m so happy that David’s continuing to work on these translations. Poetic stocking-stuffers for everyone!

This year’s installment is books 3 and 4, Aeneas telling the story of his post-Troy wanderings followed by his abandoning of Dido and her suicide. The two slim volumes with their small pages and short lines have a miniaturizing force, compressing the hero’s wanderings and queen’s erotic tragedy into sharply turned phrases and shocking revelations. Listen to Polydorus, Trojan refugee slain by the treacherous Thracian king after the great city’s fall. He’s been transformed into a bush, and when Aeneas tries to clear ground for his weary soldiers to settle, the bush bleeds and protests:

AENEAS

why must you tear at me?

I’m someone you know, a poor

bastard not worth dirtying

“let us yield / to this new prophecy”

those pious hands over (from III.04)

The human cost of empire is the core subject of the epic, and the millennia after Virgil first dedicated his poem to the emperor Augustus have seen major shifts in attitudes toward imperial unity. Hadbawnik’s lines capture the boredom and sudden terror of empire building, the pain of being a human being forced to uphold more-than-human values. Wandering with his fleet of refugees, Aeneas follows his mother Venus through the mysteries of the Med:

Day by day      the adventure

        the grind of it

till it’s as exciting as

       dragging the trash down to the curb –

my mother the ultimate

       performance enhancing drug

language to describe

       raging seas

the flash of metal

       and gods’ eyes

but what

       of the human heart

its dangers

       its moments of being

            becalmed (from III.22)

2014-12-18 07.52.23The dramatic climax of this section is Aeneas’s decision, prompted by divine call, to abandon Dido, Queen of Carthage, and sail for his destiny in Italy. Hadbawnik’s book 4 mostly inhabits the doomed Queen’s point of view, sympathizing with her desperate supernaturally-fueled love for the hero who will leave her. It’s hard not to see Aeneas as a monster, even if it’s Dido who, in her parting curse to the departing Trojan fleet, occupies the structural position of Homer’s Polyphemous cursing Odysseus and his escaping men.

Traditional and imperial readings insist that the hero must found Rome, and that Dido’s fantasy of an imperial Carthage — “With Trojan arms, there’s no telling what Carthage could do,” fantasizes Dido’s sister Anna (from IV.04) — represent world-historical revisionism, a binding-in of north Africa into what could only be the Roman empire. What I enjoy most about Hadbawnik’s stripped-bare versification of Dido’s tragedy is how the fragments humanize, as if the great Queen, model for so many tragic heroines of European literature, can only speak in bits.

“Where do you run to,” she says to Aeneas, “as I / run to death?” (from IV.16).

Her fate is fire, and its flames peek out from the start of book 4. It starts with love’s “hidden fire / in her veins” (from IV.01), moves from imagined bridal torch to an inner burning that “ate tender marrow / Wound turned silently inside her” (from IV.05) to the gods’ flickering flame in the couple’s hidden rendezvous in a secret cave:

Earth and Juno gave the sign

      flame flickered     heaven conspired

                 nymphs

wailed from the highest summit. (from IV.09)

Aeneas makes his lame excuse when Dido catches him — “Yes, I’m leaving / But not by choice” (from IV.18) — but it’s her rage and flames that dominate book 4. Her curse will follow him to Italian shores:2014-12-18 07.52.35

Once cold death yanks my soul

      from my limbs my ghost

will be everywhere. (from IV.22)

In a faux-theatrical dialogue between “V.” (Virgil?) and “D.” (Dido presumably, not Dante?), she describes her plot to upstage the imperial hero. At the end of this book, at least, our attention isn’t forced toward the future:

Blood, piss, shit

gush out of me staining

my dress. I life my eyes.

Three times I try to lift

my body, three times I fall […]

Iris clips a lock of my hair

with her right hand

and all at once the heat

eases and my life

flies away in the wind (from IV.30-31)

I’m looking forward to seeing what this translation does with the next two books, the funeral games for Anchises and visit to the Underworld.

Aeneas's lame excuse

Aeneas’s lame excuse

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Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”

poster2I drafted a review-response to this movie Saturday morning, after driving home late Friday night with surf tunes and sand visions gritting up my imagination. Before I could post it over the weekend, my site got hacked, & it took all day Sunday for my Thoreauvian web-maestro to get me back on line. As all Pynchonistas know, there’s no such thing as coincidence.

Oh, that was no found crab, Ace, no random octopus or girl, uh-uh. Structure and detail come later, but the conniving around him now he feels instantly, in his heart. (Gravity’s Rainbow 188)

I spent the noontime hour Friday sneaking across town to catch Paul Thomas Anderson’s joyous & brilliant film of Thomas Pynchon’s last-novel-but-one, Inherent Vice, an homage to the stoner sixties via hard-boiled detective novels and a generous helping of conspiracy. The film opens and almost-closes with a narrow view of Pacific surf down a side-street, the view from the hippie bungalow where private eye Doc Sportello hangs his many hats, cleans beach tar off his feet, and occasionally faux-Afros his hair. The repeated view of the beach, one of the few repetitions in a busy and sometimes disorienting narrative, captures the film and novel’s imagined Gordita Beach, a loosely adapted version of the Manhattan Beach neighborhood where Pynchon lived in the 60s. It’s Utopia, and it keeps Doc happy with its surfers, seers, dope, travelers, and — since it’s the spring of 1970 in the film, and the long decline out of the sacred decade has just started — rich helpings of nostalgia.

The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not. (Inherent Vice 314)

Shasta in flatland gear

Shasta in flatland gear

I have trouble writing critically about this film, especially now that the holiday cyber-nappers virus’d away the first draft of this post. (I kept a hard copy. Proverbs for Paranoids #6.) I loved watching it so much. I’m sure many old Pynchon hands will enjoy it too — the mid-day show at Lincoln Center was filled with grey hair, or little of it, as in my case — though I wonder a little about how friendly it might be to non-initiates. If you’ve not read the novel, you might want to start with this trailer first.

I can’t resist mentioning what we all knew going into the movie theater: the movie can’t dive all the way into the wild exhuberance of Pynchon’s imagination, any more than it can replicate his just-past-the-edge-of-control beautiful sentences. But it comes closer that I really dared to hope. It helps that Inherent Vice is Pynchon’s most linear novel, which isn’t to say it’s very linear, even in Anderson’s stripped-down version. The trimming was smart, though I missed some potentially distracting riffs: the road trip to Vegas that clarifies the real estate plot, and (as Anthony Lane also notes) the surf-saint with his piece of the True Board.

But the genius of the movie was that it got so much in, despite having to leave other things out. Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc played a perfect combo of confusion, generosity, and “paranoid skills” (318). Josh Bronlin’s Detective Bigfoot Bjornson was if anything better, eating up the screen with intensity, rage, and — particularly in a denouement that Anderson added to Pynchon’s ending-less novel — a sympathy for Doc to which he would never cop. Perhaps Anderson’s shrewdest narrative gambit was making Sortilege, Doc’s ex-receptionist turned full-time surf prophetess whose name refers to a Roman practice of divination, into a voice-over narrater who helped the film smuggle in lots of Tommy P’s prose:

…before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, to shore and safety. (Inherent Vice 5)

Doc and Bigfoot

Doc and Bigfoot

Anderson’s film does a good job jump-cutting Doc’s mostly-stoned “operational paranoia” into a fast-paced cinematic style. He briefly kicks into a higher gear during the action-movie semi-climax, when Doc, drugged on PCP by an Aryan Brotherhood baddie, fights a confusing three-way shoot out with Puck Beaverton the skinhead, Detective Bigfoot, and hit-man Adrian Prussia, who appears, in a partly-opaque backstory, to have killed Bigfoot’s partners some years ago. It’s a good scene, but I’m not sure that it’s the heart of the matter.

Some of my favorite bit-pieces in the novel, St. Flip of Lawndale who surfs a sacred & perhaps imaginary offshore break, Sortilege’s visions of the drowned Pacific continent of Lemuria, and especially the fog-frozen final tableau on the San Diego Freedway, couldn’t fit into Anderson’s crowded vision. That seems a pretty reasonable choice: he stuck instead with characters. He got great performances from Owen Wilson as semi-zombie surf sax player Coy Harlington, Martin Short as mad dentist Rudy Blatenoyd, Benecio del Toro as Doc’s (maritime) lawyer Sauncho Smilax, Reese Witherspoon as Assistant DA and Doc’s sometime girlfriend Penny Kimball, and many others. I missed the Lemurian riffs, but my favorite snatch of sentimental poetry from the novel got prominent voice-over treatment as Doc and Sauncho gazed out into the LA harbor:

 …yet there is no avoiding time, the sea of time, the sea of memory and forgetfulness, the years of promise, gone and unrecoverable, of the land almost allowed to claim its better destiny, only to have that claim jumped by evildoers known all to well, and taken instead and held hostage to the future we must live in now forever. May we trust that this blessed ship is bound for some better shore, some undrowned Lemuria, risen and redeemed, where the American fate, mercifully, failed to transpire… (Inherent Vice 341)

Doc and Penny

Doc and Penny

(I wrote about that passage, plus Lemuria and the foggy ending, along with Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, James Cameron, in a recent essay in Jeffrey Cohen’s collection, Inhuman Nature. Read it all here, and support Punctum Books while you’re at it!)

But the true thing about this film, and this novel, is that more than any other one of Pynchon’s eight, it plays up the love story. You can feel the emotion in the opening sentences:

She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to. Doc hadn’t seen her for over a year. Nobody had. Back then it was always sandals, bottom half of a flower-print bikini, faded Country Joe & the Fish T-shirt. Tonight she was all in flatland gear, hair a lot shorter than he remembered, looking just like she swore she’d never look. (Inherent Vice 1)

Shasta Fay Hepworth, Doc’s ex-old lady and from these opening sentences a hazy allegory of paradise lost, passes between both sides of the historical fence in film and novel, from Doc to real estate mogul Micky Wolfmann and (perhaps) back. Anderson sprinkles his film with flashbacks to the flower-bikini era, including a lovely sequence of Doc and Shasta dancing in the rain to Neil Young. Pynchon’s novel keeps that 60s Shasta just out of sight. She’s on Micky’s side when she comes to Doc’s place looking for help, entangled along with everyone else, even Doc, in rising tides of greed, ambition, and willingness to abandon the past.

Hollywood likes its women gorgeous and vulnerable, and to me Katherine Waterson’s Shasta — the Muse of the film — was the only actor who didn’t quite ace it. Pynchon’s heroines, from Oedipa Mass in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) to New York-based PI Maxine Tarlow in Bleeding Edge (2013), aren’t immune to the charms of Bad Men like Micky, but they don’t feel quite as doe-eyed as Waterson’s Shasta, especially in the opening scene. Anderson is reasonably faithful to the novel’s strange reunion sex scene, which the irreplaceable maniacs over at the Pynchon wiki have calculated takes places during an extra non-calendared day between May 4 and May 5, 1970, within the otherwise-precisely datable narrative of Inherent Vice, which incidentally ends on Thomas Pynchon’s 33rd birthday. Doc and Shasta’s sexual reunion occupies that gap outside time, — and the implication, once we unravel the chronology, is that such a reunion is only possible outside of the fast-falling arc of history. Anderson doesn’t quite show it that way.

The film’s version of the scene is powerful and shocking, with a bit of erotic role-playing making the middle part of the encounter ambivalent, and Shasta’s “This doesn’t mean we’re back together” (307) making sure we don’t miss the point. The film is too knowing, and too committed to Pynchon’s tragic view of American history as a narrative of the Fall, to give much more than that. Poster

What if it was a deliberate insurance hustle? Maybe Shasta could still get ashore in time, onto some island where maybe even now she’d be pulling small perfect fish out of the lagoon and cooking them with mangoes and hot peppers and shredded coconut. Maybe she was sleeping out on the beach and looking at stars nobody here under the smoglit L.A. sky even knew existed. (Inherent Vice 120)

Except that, in the movie’s end, it can’t resist giving just a bit more. After stopping back through the opening shot of the surf down Doc’s alley — at which point I was hoping that would be the last shot, thumbing its nose at narrative closure, what we want is the surf, man — Anderson added two short scenes about the two key relationships. Bigfoot bigfoots his way into Doc’s place by stomping through the glass door. They share a joint, the munchies, and — almost! — recognition. Then bright light shines down on Doc and Shasta snuggled together, him looking up behind dark shades and her looking slightly away and down. Together, more or less.

It’s hard to avoid closing with the love story, and Anderson probably resists it as much as he could. Though maybe I’m being over-picky: if there’s one thing the post-Gravity’s Rainbow run of “new” Pynchon novels, especially the most recent two, Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge, has shown, it’s that the greatest American postmodern novelist has a soft heart. After crowing in Gravity’s Rainbow  that “There’s nothing so loathsome as a sentimental surrealist,” (696), Pynchon since the 90s has seemed determined to embrace this self-caricature. Maybe Anderson’s semi-happy ending is almost true to that spirit? (Pynchon’s novels tend not to end in romantic clinches, but there’s plenty of sentiment among friends in Mason & Dixon and towards growing children in Bleeding Edge.) My sense is that Pynchon’s novels are less committed to choice in love than our pop culture wants to believe — sex in Pynchon is as much overwhelming force as life-defining alliance — but in stripping away so much of the centrifugal debris from the novel, has Anderson found, at its core, a simple love story?

I’m wondering now whether that final shot is Anderson’s attempt to capture Pynchon’s skeptically-redoubled version of human sentiment inside tragic history. Can we see in Shasta’s not-looking-at-us eyes “some heavy combination of face ingredients …that [Doc] couldn’t read at all” (3)? Or maybe also evidence of her claim that she was “never the sweetest girl in the business” (312)? In Doc’s confusion can we read both love and anticipated loss, a kind of postlapserian sense of History and human weakness, “back to his old wised-up self, short on optimism, ready to be played for a patsy again. Normal” (303). It’s a lot to get into one shot, and I’m not sure Anderson gets it all in.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie again (and again) to try to figure it out.

For those not in New York or LA, it opens nationwide January 9! 2014-12-12 11.48.04

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Tamburlaine by Theatre for a New Audience

tamburlaineAfter watching a great buckets-of-blood play with the news of violent injustice from Ferguson and Staten Island ringing in my ears, I spent a good part of last Friday’s slow and rainy drive home thinking about Simone Weil. I’ve been mulling her quasi-mystical writings on attention for a little while, but the subtext for Theatre for a New Audience’s Tamburlaine was her great essay on the Iliad, in which she describes Homer’s epic as a poem of force:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.

Many of the literature professors flocking to Fort Greene to see this rare production of both parts of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great will be listening for the hero’s “high astounding terms” and “winning words.” John Douglas Thompson’s exhausting and exhilarating performance hurled Marlowe’s verse high up toward heaven, and Michael Boyd’s fast and violent direction emphasized the harsh charisma of force. On stage, the Scythian shepherd was a hard monster not to love.JDT

He had a good supporting cast, most of whom played multiple roles. Chukwuki Iwuji played Bajazeth in Part 1 and the King of Trebizon in part 2 with wonderful style and flair. My friend Ivan Lupic, who I bumped into during the intermission’s inevitable professors-in-line-for-wine-in-pastic-cups chat session, said of Iwulji’s Bajazeth, “he was good in the cage,” referring to the mighty emperor’s captivity as Tamburlaine’s footstool. The loyal Scythians Usumcasane and Techelles were played with brio by Carlo Alban and Keith Randolph Smith, and their soon-allay — the first of Tamburlaine’s many civilized converts — Theridamas with heartfelt passion by Andrew Holvenson. Patrice Johnson Chevannes’s brilliant turn as Zabina, empress of Turkey, nearly stole the show as she bewailed her own and her husband’s captivity. Morphing into the King of Syria in part 2, Chevannes carried the frustrated regal bearing of her imperial role with her.

The trickiest part in the ensemble to judge was Merritt Janson as Zenocrate, the princess of Egypt Tamburlaine captures, woos as his wife, and keeps by his side even while sacking her father’s city of Damascus. Like Theridamas, Zenocrate demonstrates to the audience that Tamburlaine cannot be resisted; both characters begin by opposing him but are swept forward by his power. Marriage to the hero, and mothering three male heirs in part 2, proves less straightforward for Zenocrate than military allegiance does for Theridamas. In part 2, after Tamburlaine hurls curses at heaven over the death of Zenocrate, Janson shifted to the role of Callapine, Bajazeth’s son who escapes from Tamburlaine’s prison to unite the eastern powers against the usurper. As the mighty warrior struggled toward his final trap, dragging Zenocrate’s monument to Babylon for the last of many battles, Callapine stared down at his adversary with Zenocrate’s face, and her sadness. It was a powerful theatrical effect, overlaying the adversary’s stubborn defiance with the  dead wife’s sorrow. The moment recalled Zenocrate’s unsuccessful attempts to get Tamburlaine to spare the virgins of Damascus and the city of her people. As Callapine, she faced him down but still could not persuade him.

My blood-spattered notes, taken during the show

My blood-spattered notes, taken during the show

In the end, though, it was a one-hero show. Riding onto the stage atop a cage filled with the crowns of kingdoms he has conquered, drawn by defeated kings, the “pampared jades of Asia” who can “draw but twenty miles a day” (Part 2 4.3), Thompson’s Tamburlaine filled up the stage with ambition, dancing physicality, and rich, incessant pleasure. He wasn’t a frightening tyrant so much as a happy warrior, joyously casting defiance to the stars and to mighty kingdoms. I’ve seen John Douglas Thompson in several roles — as Enobarbus, Mark Antony, and most recently as Satchmo at the Waldorf (I saw it in New Haven before it went to Broadway) — and he’s one of my favorite performers. He grabbed this over-wrought part into one of the enthusiastic bear hugs he deployed liberally among his allies, and also sidled up to it with the passion he displayed most nakedly on Zenocrate’s deathbed. Some of the wine-drinking professors thought he handled the verse about beauty (1.2, 3.3) less powerfully than the verse about conquest, which I think is pretty much true — but I also think that during the face-off of Bajazeth and Zabina v. Tamburlaine and Zenocrate (3.3), no one could out-speak Patrice Chevaness’s Zabina.

Will and shall best fitteth Tamburlaine” (3.1),  insisted the conqueror, and Thompson’s striding, leaping, laughing, crowing, blood-covered performance drove the play for more than three hours stage time. Would you not like to be a king?, he teased the audience. It cost him everything by the end, but his drive for the visible triumph, the “sweet fruition of an earthly crown” (2.7), rolled over all of us like a breaking wave.

The warriors played on a bloody stage, filled with puddles of stage-blood mopped up with sawdust. Ceremonial buckets splashing on heads marked numerous deaths. The slain virgins of Damascus stood mute and blood-stained behind dripping clear plastic curtains, which we clever professors called Psycho-shower curtains. A repeated motif of the tragic second part of the play involved parents killing their own children: Olympia killed her son to keep him from the torments of Tamburlaine’s army (Part 2 3.3); the hybrid figure of Callapine, played by the same actor as Zenocrate, assailed Tamburlaine and the sons of Zenocrate; and finally, horrifically, after yet another high rhetorical flourish, Tamburlaine stabbed the one of his three sons who eschewed combat. I thought of Derrida’s excruciating reading of the sacrifice of Isaac as yet another body fell on stage: this slaughter of the weak, Derrida insists, has not ended and continues each day. To embody the “scourge and wrath of God” (3.3), as Tamburlaine claims he does: isn’t that to insist on always wielding Abraham’s knife? On seeing all the world’s bodies as sons to be sacrificed?

At Zenocrate's deathbed

At Zenocrate’s deathbed

Tamburlaine’s hubristic climax included burning the Koran in Babylon, which finally turned the stars against him — though perhaps it was just sheer exhaustion at the end of a long night. He passed his crown to his bloody-minded son Amyras and died after a last long blank-verse rage in which he imagines “all the earth, like Etna, breathing fire” (5.3). After three-plus hour of relentless theatrical force, the ending felt oddly abrupt: after so much action, stillness?

Of course the night didn’t end in silence; we applauded the full cast in their blood-stained costumes, stood for John Douglas Thompson, and marveled at his endurance. Driving home in the rain, I thought about force, how it lasts, how much it mars, and how we humans love it.

I heard this weekend that the play’s run has been extended through January 4. Maybe I’ll go back.

Cleaning up the stage

Cleaning up the stage

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Winter 2014 – Spring 2015 Shakespeare in NYC

I was asked recently for a list of Shakespeare and other early modern plays that I’m planning to see this upcoming season in New York. I decided to do a blog post in case other people would like to see what’s on my radar. I’m sure there are other things that I’m missing, and I welcome suggestions. Stay tuned for blog reviews!

Dec 2014

Tamburlaine (by Christopher Marlowe) at Theater for a New Audience, with John Douglas Thompson, one of our best young Shakespearean actors.

I’m going this coming Fri, 12/5.tamburlaine

The Tempest (Nella Tempesta), a multi-lingual & multicultural adaptation that includes assorted other writers besides Shakespeare at LaMaMa Experimental Theater Club in the East Village.
Run is 12/11-21; I’m going Fri 12/19.

Tempest at La MaMa

Tempest at La MaMa

Jan 2015

Titus Andronicus at the Shakespeare Exchange (a small new Shakespeare company)
Jan 22 – Feb 7; I’m going to take students around Jan 27.

Feb 2015

The Winter’s Tale at the Pearl Theater
Feb 10 – March 15. Probably take students on Feb 17 or 24.Winter's Tale

March 2015

Cry, Trojans (Troilus & Cressida) by the Wooster Group at St Ann’s Warehouse
March 24 – April 18. I’m taking students on March 27.

The Wooster Group's "Cry, Trojans"

The Wooster Group’s “Cry, TrojansI’m taking students March 27.

Hamlet by Classic Stage Co
March 25 –

April 2015

April 14 – May 16, 2015 Tis Pity She’s a Whore (John Ford) Red Bull Theater

 

downloadApril 17 – May 2, 2015 Othello Titan Theatre Company (Queens)

April 24 – May 24 Two Gentlemen of Verona by Theater for a New Audience

 

May 2015

Dr Faustus by Christopher Marlowe, Classic Stage Co
May 29 –

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Pericles: The Public’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit

Being in prison means the loss of many precious things, but Pericles encourages us to believe that all losses are not final… — Taconic Correctional Facility in Westchester

Scenes from the Mobile Shakespeare Unit

Scenes from the Mobile Shakespeare Unit’s run

Along with students, colleagues, and friends, I braved the pre-Thanksgiving press and the crowds protesting Mike Brown’s killing last night to see Rob Melrose’s fast, brilliant, emotionally powerful production of Pericles at the Public Theater. Inside of two hours we had it all: riddles, incest, shipwrecks (two!), starvation, cannibalism, pirates, brothels, music, magic. The actors played multiple parts and navigated exotic geographies, transitioning from Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Ephesus to Mytilene with the spin of a table. The traveling show had just completed a tour of the five boroughs with a minimal set: a table, a book, a pillow, a few three-legged stools (useful in the jousting scene), eight actors. Out of these things grew an emotional urgency and force that stayed with me as I waited on my way home, watching a “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” protest march surge around my stationary car on E. 14th Street, wishing I had spoken to my students as clearly about this week’s injustice as Karl Steel did to his.

By the end of the night I was right there with Pericles, needing help to feel what I was feeling. How can a story I’ve read and taught dozens of times still choke me up?

Pericles and Marina

Pericles and Marina

Give me a gash, put me to present pain,

Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me

O’erbear the shores of my mortality.

The play opened with Flor de Liz Perez, who would go on to play Marina in the second half, singing Gower’s opening lines. The song was a great way to enliven the four-beat couplets that pound out the play’s narrative interludes. The show’s a-cappella music was one of the particular joys of the evening; actors not currently onstage provided beats, and several scenes, in particular the jousting and dancing at Pentapolis, were wonderfully festive. Often many voices collaborated on Gower’s long speeches, adding speed and variety to the dizzying geographical movement of the play.

The second shipwreck

The 2nd shipwreck

The double casting choices were intriguing. I’ve often seen Marina cross-cast with Antiochus’s daughter, so that the virtuous savior of the play’s second half trumps the incestuous temptress of the first scene. Melrose’s cast, by contrast, cast the charismatic Tiffany Rachelle Stewart as Antiochus’s daughter and as Thaisa, eager suitor to Pericles at her father’s court in Pentapolis. Bringing these two parts together allowed Stewart to play two different visions of female sexuality: enticing and dangerous as the incestuous daughter, forthright but still powerful as Thaisa. The lingering echo of Antiochus’s daughter clung faintly to rediscovered Thaisa in the play’s final scene in Ephesus, so that her play-closing lines to husband and daughter — she calls them “mine” and “mine own” — reunite the family while also granting dramatic power to the sexuality she has presented in multiple guises.

Instead of cross-casting Marina with the evil daughter, the play’s second-half heroine matched up with ancient Gower, the medieval poet-ghost who narrates the complex comings and goings of the play in the eastern Mediterranean. I love this choice, which renovates the ghostly narrator and also gently reminds us that it’s the young girl, not any of the kings, queens, or priests in the play, who controls the plot after its mid-way break. Marina confronts a murderer, pirates, customers and overseers of a brothel, a sexually eager governor, and finally her own melancholic and silent father. “Virginal fencing” is the phrase that lord Lysimachus, played with stately grace by Christopher Kelly, uses to describe her dialogue, and I was struck last night by the connection between her rhetorical combat and the chivalric jousting and dancing at which her father excelled earlier in the play. Marina is one of my favorite figures in Shakespeare because of her oceanic connections — I’ve called her Shakespeare’s Aquawoman — but in thinking about her crossed with Gower last night, it seemed to me that more could be said about how she bears the power of a literary tradition — the virtuous saint who cannot be corrupted — and also about how her varied and strategic rhetorical modes structure the second half of the play.

Simonides and Thaisa

Simonides and Thaisa

There were some other interesting cross-casting choices, including David Ryan Smith as Antiochus and Simonides, and also great comic work by Ben Mehl as the criminal trio of Boult, Leonine, and Thalliard. Raffi Barsoumian’s Pericles was wonderfully naive in the early scenes, and I was pleased to see him, after he has married Thaisa and reasserted his aristocratic idenity, find the fishermen who rescued him to give them their due reward.

Redemptive theater makes a nice pre-holiday treat, though the contrast with bitter realities was stark when I encountered the protest march after the show. The juxtaposition between Shakespeare and 21c politics reminds me that the Mobile Shakespeare Unit represents the furthest out-reaching effort of the Public Theater’s democratic vision, taking free Shakespeare to prisons and mental institutions and the outmost fringes of boroughs that don’t always feed at Manhattan’s cultural buffet. The poster from last night’s program shows pictures of the cast and audience members during the Mobile part of the run. “We are One Public,” proclaims the headline, and the page is filled with smiling faces and testimonials from places like the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility and the Park Ave Armory Women’s Mental Health Shelter. Whenever I’m tempted to think that Shakespeare is too canonical, or too white-male, or too whatever, I’m reminded by outreach like this of the positive value of literary culture. One thing we as teachers and Shakespeareans like to show show is how our rage for justice and love and redemption share space inside a cultural heritage that is also, then and now, encrusted with violence and injustice. (Rick Godden and David Perry have written eloquently about this subject today.) There is plenty of violence legible in that inheritance — last night the comic bluster of Marina’s near-rape had me thinking uncomfortably about the recent news from college campuses — but Shakespeare and literary culture remain places to teach awareness and to imagine responses. I was struck last night by the joy and awareness of this production.

Antiochus and his daughter

Antiochus and his daughter

Director Rob Melrose and the cast

Director Rob Melrose and the cast

I’d feel sentimental if I said this in my professorial persona, so I’ll let another New Yorker who saw this great Mobile Pericles this month have the last word:

You brought light to a dark place. — Riker’s Island Women’s Facility

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The Tempest (2 of 3): Mokwha Repertory Company

Miranda finds her Prince

Miranda finds her Prince

My kids make fun of me when I say that I love seeing Shakespeare in other languages — some of my recent favorites have been in Dutch, Czech, and French, but I’m up for whatever I can find. I think it has to do with being released from cliche into experiment. In The Tempest last night, when that old saw about what dreams are made on gets translated into Korean, you can be pretty sure it’s not going to be the same as any of the other times you’ve heard it.

The Mokwha Repertory Company’s production of The Tempest, part two ofThe Tide is Rising, La MaMa’s three-part collection of fall Tempests, starts with a wonderful swirl of linen and music, a drum-structured storm-dance that presents the shipwreck as a collective performance of disorientation, with actors rising, staggering, falling, and dancing their way around a crowded stage. I loved the way the company’s minimal props — a drum on the balcony and white sheets flowing through everyone’s hands —  generated so much fluid motion and confusion. I think this scene is one of the hardest to perform, and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a production that really hits it just right, but the Mokwha company were pretty close.

Caliban catches Miranda in a net

Miranda and Caliban

I didn’t know anything about the company when I sat down in the Ellen Stewert Theater on East 4th St last night. The program notes say that they were founded in 1984 and employ traditional Korean techniques, which clearly include music, dance, and something quite close to martial arts. I found a little more about them online this morning, courtesy (of course!) of the brilliant Professor Huang, who brought students to see the company in DC in 2011.

I especially loved Youngkwang Song’s angry Prospero, who raged his way through several scenes that often, in more traditional versions (including part 1 of La MaMa’s grou, which I saw in the same theater earlier this fall), can be a bit flat or expositional. This was a Prospero who wanted to eat his enemies raw, and who only calmed himself slowly over the course of the play.

Prospero

Prospero

The task of reducing the magician’s rage fell to Wonjun Jo’s dancing Ariel, to a wonderfully goofy two-bodied Caliban, performed by Seungyeol Lee and Minji Lim as a conjoined twin, finally liberated at the end of the play when freedom became in style, and most of all (I thought) to Yeonju Jung’s wide-eyed, emotionally compelling Miranda, who I thought was the real heart of the play. Bantering with her father, oogling the lovely form of the sleeping Prince, playing with the spirit-animals, who roamed the stage with heads like ducks, mice, or pigs, this Miranda wormed herself wide-eyed into the play’s core. I’ve never seen a better performance of this difficult part.

Spirits

Spirits

Poster

From a previous tour

That’s what you get for changing things up!