28 August 2009

To Note, Or Not To Note

A theater program booklet is a useful thing. In its most basic form, a program tells you the names of the characters and the actors playing them. It may also tell you the locations and times of the story; in musicals, it often lists the songs by title. Programs generally also name the creative and administrative people. All this is useful for those of us who like to know whom to credit for what. The brief biographies of company members are also nice reminders of what else these folks have done and where they got their experience and training. I like that; it helps me keep track of people I know and learn about new people. It also helps me understand why some actors or directors or designers did what I just saw. It puts them all in perspective in a way. Beyond that, the program may also be a wonderfully instructive document about the play, playwright, director, or theater company. This usually emanates from a “program note” of some kind, often written for or by the play’s director or the company’s artistic director. The notes seem to fall into two basic categories: specific explications of the production and general background essays. In this country, the latter is rarer than the former, and more’s the pity.

European programs, in fact, may end up being small texts about the playwright’s artistic philosophy and life, the cultural history of her or his milieu, or theoretical discussions of art or political movements which inspired the director and designers. Rarely do such programs go into detail about the purposes or techniques of the staging itself. As audience, we are given some data that the artists used, and left to make our own interpretations and judgments. Essentially, the performance is expected to stand on its own. In the U.S., Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater’s and Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s have been excellent examples of this kind of program. The notes in the program of the recent Lincoln Center Festival production of the Théâtre du Soleil’s Les Éphémères contained several revealing and interesting articles, including excerpts of an interview with company director, Ariane Mnouchkine. The same was so of the Katona József Theatre’s program for Ivanov, which director Támas Ascher had moved from 19th-century Russia to mid-20th-century Hungary. (The Katona program also included a short essay about the company, with which I was unfamiliar. It provided some information about their approach to theater, especially the classics, as well as some company history.) The recently-departed Broadway production of Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County provided a family tree for the very large cast of characters (with photos of the actors playing the family members and others) so spectators could keep the relationships straight.

Usually in this country, however, when program notes are published, they are generally statements of what the director or playwright, or both, were trying to accomplish. This was the case with two Off-Off-Broadway productions I recall from some years ago of, first, Romeo and Juliet and, second, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both companies were attempting reinterpretations, and both felt it necessary to justify and explain their interpretations. My reaction, though, was dichotomous. If the ideas are well thought-out and the work is clear, the notes become superfluous. I don’t need to be told what I can plainly see. If the ideas are muddled and unfulfilled on stage, the note serves only to illuminate what might have happened, but didn’t. In the first instance, there is an implicit insult to the audience: we need help to see what’s right before our eyes. In the second, it suggests the company doesn’t have to worry about actuating its ideas: if they can’t get them on stage, they can write them in the program. Robert Brustein noted in an essay on “Reworking the Classics“ that this kind of production is “at best a platform for ideas.” He concluded, however, that it was “at worst an occasion for pranks,” and since what I saw on stage showed me nothing new about either play beyond the program notes, that’s all that the two productions seem to have been.

The R&J asserted a new approach. The production, with the Capulet party a backyard barbecue and the Tybalt-Mercutio duel fought with aluminum bats on a baseball diamond, was decked out as middle-class American suburbia. In “Notes From The Director” in the program, the director explained, “moral corruption masquerading as religious zeal is explored . . . tragically in Romeo and Juliet.” He believed that it “is a substantially different play thematically than traditional stagings and scholarship have rendered.” Invoking unspecified “dark forces,” the director saw Friar Laurence not as a “bumbling fool,” but “a dominant motivating force in the tragedy,” convinced that any sacrifice--even the lives of the two teenagers--is justified in order to heal the feud between the Capulets and Montagues.

The director based this interpretation on several “facts,” citing evidence from the text for his assertions, and the concept might well have worked at least theatrically, not to say intellectually, if he had followed through with it in his production. Only one of the proofs the director offered focused specifically on Friar Laurence: the priest’s opening speech makes no mention of God and refers to “a sophisticated moral view that is far more based in natural or pagan philosophies than in Christian teachings” such as that all things are equally good and bad and “that death is an essential component of the cycle of life.” His “other evidence” was that the lovers are called “star-crossed”--an astrological reference opposed to “the Christian concepts of . . . free will”; Juliet is 13--a magical number--and was weaned on the day of a great earthquake; Juliet describes the devil in 13 different ways when she learns Romeo has slain Tybalt. Except for the remarks regarding his first speech, none of this actually has nothing to do with the Friar--at least it didn’t in this staging.

To support his interpretation, the director adjusted the script. Principally, he gave the Prologues and Prince Escalus’ epilogue to the Friar, thus lending him an air of prescience that isn’t born out in the rest of the text. Additionally, in consonance with the company’s advertising that there would be “magic” in the production, the Friar performed two brief parlor tricks. Before the first Prologue, with several pantomimed street fights behind him, the Friar, sitting at the front center of the playing area flanked by a hooded bride on one side and groom on the other, cut out two paper dolls--one male and one female. As he rose to utter the first Prologue, the two dolls, cut from flash paper, burst into flame in his hands. In the second magic trick, at the end of the marriage scene, Friar Laurence made a paper bouquet appear in his hands. Neither trick elicited any reaction from the company. Nor, for that matter, did any characters react to the Friar’s putative machinations. In fact, other than these changes, the play proceeded fairly traditionally for the most part (aside, of course, from the overlay of American suburbia).

None of this seemed to raise the possibility of Friar Laurence’s control above that of an intellectual curiosity. The Friar’s part itself is simply too small, and while he may not be a “bumbling fool,” other, non-Machiavellian interpretations, such as a sincerely involved friend, have been played successfully. To create the impression that Friar Laurence is a controlling force in this tragedy, the director needed to put him on stage more and make his presence more substantially felt. There are a great many supernatural references in all of Shakespeare; that there are several in Romeo and Juliet does not mean that the Friar is the source.

The “Director’s Note” in the program for Midsummer, the second example of staging that didn’t carry through on the promise of a program note, stated that the director was “treating the ‘Dream’ as a new play.” After 400 years, that may be a little presumptuous, but the production did contain several ideas that were, to say the least, curious. Most, such as giving Puck and Peaseblossom/Egeus each a set of drums upstage which they played at selected moments or providing Bottom with an immense, green phallus along with his donkey’s head, didn’t seem to add anything to “the grand humor of Shakespeare,” but one might have, had the director and cast followed through on it. The director promised to explore the animalism in us all. Unhappily, they seem to have relegated it to little more than a design element, “an occasion for pranks.”

The costumes in this Midsummer were essentially non-representational--mostly tights and leotards or other tops. Color and the style of the top, along with certain accouterments such as a bright red miniskirt or a studded belt or wristlet, indicated character, but there was no attempt to create a specific period or culture. The fairies, however, were given definite animal elements for their costumes. Oberon had a pelt strapped to his left thigh and a piece of leopard-skin cloth over his right shoulder; Titania wore a lizard-skin body stocking; Puck wore leopard-skin tights, and Cobweb had a small lizard appliquéd on the back of her leotard. In some cases, animal images were continued in make-up, such as the spider web on Titania’s left foot and the “warts” on Cobweb’s face. The male fairies--Oberon, Puck, and Peaseblossom--were bare-chested, an added suggestion of their feral nature.

Of these characters, only Cobweb behaved in any way like an animal. She walked about in a crouch, her arms dangling in front of her and her tongue flicking in and out. She usually entered with Peaseblossom, whose character I was unable to determine, her left arm curled around his right leg as if she were a lizard clinging to a tree branch. Except for a stomping dance twice performed by Oberon and Titania, none of the fairies’ other behavior was in any clear way animalistic. Director McDanal seems to have left it to the costumier, uncredited in the program, to fulfill the “sometimes bestial” part of his concept.

Now, unlike making drummers out of Puck and Peaseblossom/Egeus--the same actor plays both characters, and he drums in both guises--the view of the forest folk as animal-like, even “bestial,” could be useful to the production, particularly if the idea were carried over to the lovers as they go deeper and deeper into the woods--and fall deeper and deeper under its fairy spell. Passion--love, fear, jealousy, hatred--has an animal aspect: in the grip of passion, people can behave more like beasts than thinking humans. But for the play to make this point, the production must commit to the idea and go with it. Animal images can be a wonderful, useful, and liberating technique for an actor, but a few costume trappings don’t accomplish anything. An actor must develop the image and communicate it in behavior--speech and gesture--to the audience, otherwise it adds little to the production.

It’s too bad. Among the confusion of incongruous images in this production, here was a good idea that went astray. Bestial humans and animal spirits could go together nicely, and using a fantasy-comedy to explore our brutishness might make a strong point. It could certainly be a stunning theatrical premise. The cast, though, didn’t follow through with the visual images created in their costumes and, having devised this interpretation, the director couldn’t or wouldn’t commit to it as a real production concept. In both these reinterpretations, the productions and staging concepts that might have born them out on stage remained imprinted only in the program. As I warned, the presence of the program notes gave away the decent ideas these directors had and showed how poorly they realized them with live actors.

One of the best innovative productions I ever saw, a Macbeth also Off-Off-Broadway, had no notes to explain what I was seeing. I had to figure it out myself. This may have required a little astuteness, but it wasn’t really all that hard. It was also fun, and gave me a sense of accomplishment. Determining, for instance, that Macbeth was in the hold of evil forces, not just swayed by the power of suggestion or caught up in a tide of action--other possible interpretations--this company trebled the presence of the witches, the symbols and representatives of the evil forces. By being cast as the servants, messengers, and other occasional characters and being placed silently on stage during all the scenes of portent and moment, the witches seemed to be controlling events and guiding the fates of Macbeth and his wife. The director had a message for me, and I got it. And he never needed to explain it to me.

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