18 September 2009

Similes, Metaphors—And The Stage

In a New York Times essay about two decades ago, Robert Brustein took on the issue of “the reinterpretation . . . of celebrated classical plays” (“Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?,” New York Times 6 Nov. 1988, sec. 2 [“Arts and Leisure”]: 5, 16). Brustein divided this “deconstruction” into two categories: “the prosaic simile and the poetic metaphor.” A simile production, he asserted, simply shifts the time or location to an analogous one nearer our own, while a metaphorical one examines the play from the inside, “generating provocative theatrical images . . . that are suggestive of the play rather than specific, reverberant rather than concrete.”

Brustein cited world-famous examples of both types, like Orson Welles’s totalitarian Julius Caesar, a simile, and Peter Brook’s circus-oriented Midsummer Night’s Dream, a metaphor. I’ve recently seen prominent examples of what Brustein was describing: the Théâtre du Soleil’s 1992 Kathakali revisioning of Greek cycle of plays which recount the story of the House of Atreus, Les Atrides, a metaphor; this year’s resetting by the Katona József Theatre of Chekhov’s Ivanov to mid-20th-century Hungary, a simile; Nora, an up-dated Doll House by Berlin’s Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (2004), a simile; and John Jesurun's FAUST/How I Rose, a 2004 deconstruction of Goethe’s classic, a metaphor. As you might expect, some were more successful (Les Atrides, Ivanov) than others (Nora, FAUST). Do the more modest and lesser-known productions avail themselves of these tactics, and are the results similar? I think so, and some Off-Off-Broadway productions I saw some time back, when I made a concerted effort to see a broad sampling of Shakespeare productions on New York City stages, indicate that I may be right.

In two of the similes I saw, there were no profound reinterpretations, and, in a third, one given only lip-service. The first two--an Italian-American Romeo and Juliet with Paris as a Mafia godfather and the servants as musical-comedy gunsels, and a yuppie Midsummer Night’s Dream with the lovers romping through the forest in designer shorts and warm-ups--carried their reworking through mostly by costuming. In fact, the company seemed to have fallen into a trap they laid themselves (however unwittingly): by giving the play a soap-opera setting and look, the actors all exhibited soap-opera acting, the superficial, shallow, and hollow performance style necessitated by the fast-moving production process of a daytime drama. The R&J included several “dese and dose” accents among the servants, but for the rest, nothing was reinterpreted to further a new approach or shift my attention from the traditional focus. The director didn’t seem to have relocated the story in order to say something unconventional about or through the play.

A second R&J, which I discussed not long ago, did assert a new interpretation. The director’s program note explained that he saw Friar Laurence as the witting catalyst of the tragedy, and ascribed to him an un-Christian reliance on the occult. The note provided some evidence from the text for this notion, and it might well have worked theatrically, not to say intellectually, if he’d followed through with it in his production. Alas, he went no further than giving the friar the prologue and the epilogue, having him do two parlor-magic tricks, and using a violet light when the Nurse describes the natural phenomena on the night Juliet was weaned. Beyond the program note, the production, tricked up as middle-class American suburbia, showed me nothing new about this play. While Brustein notes that this kind of simile directing is “at best a platform for ideas,” with the Capulet party a backyard barbecue and the Tybalt-Mercutio duel fought with aluminum bats on a baseball diamond, this R&J was nothing more than “an occasion for pranks.”

Though a comparison of the two kinds of reworkings will have to wait until after we take a look at metaphorical directing, on the basis of this small sampling, it’s fair to draw a few simple conclusions. First, simile directors seem to strive for familiarity, all three of these choosing contemporary America for their settings or costuming. (Nora and the Hungarian Ivanov, too, were transferred to locales and times that would have been immediately familiar to their original audiences.) Second, there was a similar approach to acting, with all three casts treating Shakespeare’s language as conversational Realism. Third, either because of this or along with it, all the actors endowed their characters with a minimal emotional life. (This was not true of the two international examples.) Fourth, these directors seemed to believe that modern American playgoers can’t understand productions remote from us in time or place; that the common, human problems the classics treat can’t be communicated unless they are portrayed by people just like us.

The simile production, which Brustein saw as an update, “depends largely on external physical changes.” On the other hand, the metaphorical production “changes our whole notion of the play” by probing “the mystery of a play in order to devise a poetic stage equivalent--a process considerably more radical in its interpretive risks, since the director ‘authors’ the production much as the author writes the text.” While acknowledging that “not all examples of this process have the same integrity of purpose,” Brustein nonetheless “champion[s] a more radical auteurism in directing.” Having examined the simile, let’s look at two metaphors.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream I saw (and discussed recently in another context) promised to explore the violence and animalism in all of us. Attired in tights and tee-shirts or leotards overlain with identifying character accessories--red shorts, a studded wristband--the mortals entered in pairs with martial-arts shouts and struck combat poses. During their opening lines, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta rolled on the ground in rough sex. “Tough guy” Demetrius, who, like Lysander, wore leather costume pieces over his tights, later rapes Helena to punish her for following him into the forest and dissuade her from interfering further. In the face of this, however, the acting was flat and unengaged.

The animal imagery was invoked by the fairy characters, all but one of whom had costume additions of pelts and skins and, for the men, went bare-chested. Except for one fairy, however, none exhibited any animal-like behavior.

Now humans with bestial characteristics and spirits with animal traits make a likely combination, and to explore human brutishness through the medium of a fantasy-comedy could be a very effective tactic. Theatrically, at least, it has promise. The director and actors, however, merely let the visual imagery of their costumes and blocking carry the whole exploration without developing any deeper performative aspects. The director conceived the idea but was either unwilling or unable to carry it over into performance.

Finally, in a metaphorical Macbeth, the cast and director made some decisions and ran with them. 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 approaches--this company tripled the the witches’ appearances on stage. By acting as servants, messengers, and others and standing silently on stage during all the portentous scenes, the witches, symbols of evil, seemed to control events and guide Macbeth’s and his wife’s fates. There were three levels on which this scheme worked. First, as the messengers, the witches seeded and nurtured the plot. The second level was less directly involved in the events of the play: as the various servants, the witches’ presence suggested their control over Macbeth’s life and fate; they were always there, keeping an eye on things. In the third level, the director put the witches invisibly on stage in momentous scenes. They didn’t enter into the action, though they might echo lines or make sound effects such as the knocking that unnerves Macbeth just as he’s about to murder his king.

Further, the costumes were selected elements of modern dress draped with rough fabric to camouflage their silhouettes and allude to “ancientness” and “Scottishness.” The basic costume for the mortal males--the witches were far more fanciful--was a foundation of modern attire draped with rough, wool- or burlap-like tunics or sashes. The colors were muted, mostly charcoals, browns, or blacks, except for the almost blood-red royal sash worn first by King Duncan, then by Macbeth and finally by Malcolm. The modern under-costume suggested general character: the more soldierly wore combat boots and bloused trousers; the more administrative, including Duncan, wore civvies. Other modern accouterments included contemporary haircuts, military field jackets, bayonets, turtlenecks, eyeglasses, and flashlights. The lack of period specificity asserted that this play is not just about an 11th-century Scottish king; it is relevant to today, not lost in some past era, and to all cultures, not only ancient Scotland or modern America.

As Brustein suggests, directors who have an attraction for similes settle for an updated environment and may load their productions with tricks and gimmicks. Metaphorical directors, however, try to “capture the imaginative life of a classic.” A simile staging can be effective and even thought-provoking (the Hungarian Ivanov, which I have described in another post, was extremely compelling, for instance), but even when it misses, the metaphor production can be more powerful and exciting, particularly when the simile is used merely for “ornamental” purposes.

[Much of my discussion above was based on the Robert Brustein essay cited in the first paragraph. After publishing this article on ROT, I’ve decided to reprint Brustein’s original New York Times column; see “Reworking the Classics: Homage or Ego Trip?,” 3 February 2011.]

1 comment:

  1. In his review of the Globe Theatre's all-male repertoire productions of 'Twelfth Night' and 'Richard II' (New York Times, 11 Nov. 2013), Ben Brantley included a comment that supports a point I made above--that some directors of classic plays distrust modern audiences so much that they feel they have to contemporize the play's setting to make it comprehensible to us. Brantley seems to have the same opinion of this tactic that I do, so I'm going to append his remark about the visiting London shows to further illustrate my contention:

    "These productions are suffused with that most fundamental of Shakespearean virtues, faith. The performers here trust wholly in Shakespeare’s words and in the ability of the audience to understand them. So many interpretations of the canon now are tricked out in the condescending, high-concept garb of anachronistic settings, with comedy that exaggerates the (yuck, yuck) bawdy parts with broad, illustrative gestures."