31 October 2009

Cheerleaders of the Revolution

[The excerpt from "Commitments and Consequences: Leonardo Shapiro and The Shaliko Company" below recounts an episode from 40 years ago today. It was one of the very first performance events presented by my friend Leo Shapiro, whose work I have written about before, including an earlier post on ROT, “Song in the Blood (Hiroshima/Los Alamos)” (5 August 2009). Part of this excerpt, along with the account of a participant, Andrea Lord, was published on line in “Peace-Love: Halloween, 1969, Taos, New Mexico” on FountainofLight.net, 31 Oct. 2004, (http://www.fountainoflight.net/publish/article_1197.shtml#top).]

After Leonardo Shapiro finished his last project at New York University, Ecology Action West in Berkeley having invited the emerging avant-garde theater director to start a street theater for them, and he took off for California. In the summer of 1969, Shapiro left New York City on a meandering route that took him to the Woodstock rock festival and Ram Dass’s retreat in Millbrook, New York. On his way west, Shapiro drove to Minnesota to visit family; then he headed south and west through Pipestone, Minnesota; the Black Hills of South Dakota; and Denver. One day he stopped his “old green VW bus with a red flag stenciled with Che Guevara” for lunch in Taos, New Mexico. Propitiously, he had arrived on San Gerónimo Day, a bright, sunny Tuesday, 30 September, and happened to meet Fred Aronow, whom he knew from NYU and who was the assistant cameraman and sound recordist for a documentary film on ecology and the environment, The Water Is So Clear that a Blind Man Could See, the last half-hour of Our Vanishing Wilderness on National Educational Television (the predecessor to PBS), which was focusing on the Taos Indians.

Aronow recalled that he had been in the central plaza of Taos when he heard someone call his name. The plaza had been closed to traffic for a performance of “some colonial period Spanish dance music” by local singer-accordionist Jennie Vincent, part of the Fall Fiesta, the city’s parallel celebration to the San Gerónimo Festival at the pueblo, and Aronow was surprised to see an East Village acquaintance calling to him from the dirty, beat-up, hand-decorated bus. Aronow took his friend to Taos Pueblo where the film crew had been working daily for several weeks already and been given access to areas and aspects of the pueblo and the festival that tourists seldom see. Shapiro was stunned to encounter a living culture, unlike those of other Native American societies he had known in Minnesota and Florida, with “a live and lively oral tradition, unbroken for thousands of years and a rich ritual and dramatic ceremonial life.” He was 23, had a “few hundred dollars,” and was unfettered. He remained in New Mexico for two years.

Taos and its surrounding countryside holds attractions for many who come only to visit or pass through. Photographer William Davis was drawn to its beauty--“a result,” he believed, “of a rare combination of mystical and human elements.” As John Nichols--who moved to Taos not long before Shapiro came there, had written extensively about the area, and recorded one of Shapiro’s largest protest events--said of Taos Mountain, which physically, emotionally, and psychologically dominates the town, the pueblo, and all the villages of the valley: It “casts spells” to keep people from leaving and lure back those who try. It does seem to have cast a spell on Shapiro, who returned 20 years later. For those who came to escape establishment America, there was a spirit conjured up by the combination of the times, the land, and the people who gravitated there that generated ideas and ways of living in reaction to America’s consumerist society. In Shapiro’s view, “Everybody was making up social structures, cooperatives of various kinds, a newspaper,” and Andrea Lord, who had arrived in Taos from Los Angeles in the spring of 1969, saw the commune community as “a new way of being,” where “people were opening up their minds to new information . . . , new ways of relating to everything and everyone.” On Shapiro’s first night at The Family commune, Roger Sundell, who was working on a film about the commune (Peace, Love, 2 Hours--Taos, 1970), said to him, “Want to build a house, go ahead,” and Shapiro summed up, “Anybody could live there, it was like making it up as they went along, together.” “It was a very exciting time,” Lord concludes, “full of promise and hope,” and Shapiro decreed, “It was a scene, it was sort of astonishing, out in the middle of nowhere.”

Soon after arriving that fall, Shapiro presented The Second Coming, a music-theater piece based on William Butler Yeats’s 1921 poem exploring the polarities between the spiritual and the physical realms. He was drawn to Yeats’s poem because he responded viscerally to the sound of the verse, especially, he said, on recordings of Yeats reading it himself. (He paraphrased Yeats saying, “I want all my poetry to be spoken on a stage or sung.”) Much of the sentiment Shapiro would later put into his productions and his writings can be seen in lines of the poem which warn:

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Yeats was describing the state of civilization as he saw it following the destruction of World War I--impending civil war in his Irish homeland and the violent overthrow of the established regime in Russia that foretold the pall about to fall across the globe--but it was not much different from what Shapiro saw in 1969 during the war in Southeast Asia and the vehement resistance to desegregation and equal treatment for women and other disenfranchised citizens at home. (Yeats’s “rough beast” is, furthermore, slouching toward Jerusalem, foreshadowing, perhaps, the destructive forces descending on the Middle East.)

Andrea Lord reported that in the late summer of 1969 she was living at the Taos Community Information Center, a sort of clearing house for commune information run by The Family, when Shapiro came in “dressed like a traveling man, a troubadour, very excited, wanting to share his talents.” He began meeting at the Information Center with a handful of people, eventually drawing in Lord, until word of mouth attracted about 20 performers. “People came to Taos because they felt stifled and were looking for freedom to be,” Lord thought. “Acting in Leonardo’s play was a part of challenging the old way of looking at things. I know he was trying to take the lid off of some part of society. I guess that was why I became part of the play.”

The core group of performers was from The Family where Shapiro was doing a workshop. The little band, few with any theater experience beyond school performances, began to meet frequently, rehearsing at first at the Information Center as Shapiro guided them through exercises from Grotowski and other sources such as the theater-games classes he took at NYU. Lord described one session in which the performers lay on the floor with closed eyes and “pretend[ed] that you are coming alive for the first time blind and discover your environment.” Another time, Shapiro took the group to the Rio Grande River Gorge, where they would perform the piece, to practice tumbling. “It felt like a circus troupe,” Lord said. She remarked with some surprise, given the habitual casualness of the community at the time--“very in the moment, on the run, etc.”--on how hard the group worked under Shapiro’s supervision, rehearsing, making costumes, building the set. “This was part of Leonardo’s energy . . . ,” asserted Lord. “So, the fact that this production happened and was extremely successful was a tribute to his vision.”

Shapiro conceived the idea of doing something meaningful on Halloween, so The Second Coming was a kind of ceremony beginning with an invocation from British occultist, Satanist, and student of magic Aleister Crowley. Given Shapiro’s sentiments, not least that artists and poets are our oracles, Yeats’s bleak and apocalyptic vision of approaching chaos was a perfect matrix for such a spectacle. Yeats’s devotion to the occult and magic lent itself to the Crowley incantations and the poet’s rejection of Christianity was appropriate for a Halloween observance at midnight in the New Mexico desert. The way Shapiro saw his own time was surely reflected in Yeats’s prediction that an unknown and potentially destructive god was coming to rule over the Earth, perhaps to usher its ruination.

The performance of Second Coming started at midnight on a brisk, chilly Friday, 31 October 1969, in a canyon of the Rio Grande River Gorge about 15 miles outside of town. To get to the clearing in which the performance took place, which Shapiro dubbed “The Midnight Theater,” spectators had to come down a narrow path through dry waterfalls following a rope guideline and a succession of torch-bearing performers “wearing hopsack robes and hooded masks.” It was quite a trek in the pitch darkness, through the desert and down into the little box canyon from cars parked above. After the audience was seated on the ground, Shapiro recited the Crowley invocation from atop a rock outcropping, like a small mountaintop a couple of hundred feet above the clearing:

Magic is the science and art [of] causing change to occur in conformity with will.

Any required change may be affected by the application of the proper kind and degree of force in the proper manner through the proper medium to the proper object . . . .

Every man and every woman is a star.

He then lit a fireball formed of gasoline-soaked sagebrush which hurtled down an invisible wire and smashed into a six-foot-high, 30-foot-long crescent of briar that was also saturated with gasoline. When the bonfire ignited, the performance began--a ritualized dance that Shapiro developed from the Grotowski plastiques he had learned in New York. Lord described it as “a blending of movement, discovery and natural design,” backlit by the bonfire; she remembers the performers forming shapes such as pentagrams and speaking lines from Yeats’s poem as they moved among one another before the burning briar arc. Shapiro and Lord both recalled that Second Coming was quite successful, attracting about 100 spectators or so, and the director declared he was impressed that there was an audience in the Taos area for such a spectacle. Further, Lord believed, the performance gave “some kind of creative center and expression” to the nascent counterculture community, which was still “very untried and vulnerable.”

Out of this effort grew the Appleseed Circus, the “street theater without streets” Shapiro assembled. The origins of the troupe were in the invitations he issued at the end of a theater column he wrote for Fountain of Light, a Taos area commune newsletter; then he began inviting people to come west and join him. This notice attracted local interest and the messages he sent east brought friends from home starting early in 1970. This little “anarchist cell” began recruiting members by advertising in local newspapers--there were numerous counterculture publications circulating in the area--welcoming “everybody . . . if [you’re] a little crazy and willing to work.” People started coming “to help create a symbolic vocabulary and subtext in the community.”

Shapiro’s initial idea was for the troupe to travel in horse-drawn wagons but they soon discovered that there were too many fences across the countryside and so they were relegated to automobiles and roads. At the start, Shapiro‘s “cheerleaders of the revolution” had only his Volkswagen bus and a Ford panel van, but then, on the frame of a pick-up truck which the troupe got from the dump, they built the flat-bed stage they would use for their guerrilla performances. Within a year, the troupe began collecting vehicles and, thus, the Appleseed Circus traversed the countryside surrounding Taos County in two school busses, a bread van, the truck pulling a wagon, and Shapiro’s green minibus. The nomadic troupe, numbering at its peak about 20 people, roamed in this motley assortment of vehicles like an old-fashioned circus from its base in Dixon into Colorado, Utah, and Arizona doing guerrilla theater. For their performances, the Circus wore green overalls with big red felt apples on them and, Shapiro recalled, an ‘A’ created by one of the company members. “To me all these things were poetry, were theater,” he wrote. “I lived in a very pure world.” Appleseed may have returned to Second Coming--some of the new members recalled having worked on it--but none could remember specific performances. Appleseed turned its attention to other projects until Shapiro disbanded it in 1971 after an unsuccessful trip east to recruit new members. By October, Shapiro had launched The Shaliko Company, the radical theater company he ran for 21 years.

[I got to know Leo Shapiro when I first saw his company perform at the Theatre of Nations in Baltimore in 1986 and I began to follow his work after that. Leo remained in New Mexico, doing guerrilla theater in the Four Corners, until 1971, when he returned to New York City and started The Shaliko Company. He returned to New Mexico once again in 1993 to retire. Eighteen months after a diagnosis of terminal bladder cancer--“What . . . you get,” he joked, “when you’ve been pissed off all your life”--Leo died on 22 January 1997, 15 days after his 51st birthday. I continue to admire his work and his artistic integrity.]

27 October 2009

Psychological Gesture & Leading Center

When I first started to study acting professionally--I’d been a college and amateur actor for some years by then--I started with classes at the HB Studio. I didn’t know anything about the studio except Uta Hagen’s reputation as an actress and teacher, so I selected classes based solely on what sounded interesting and potentially useful. For the most part, I lucked out, and one of the classes I took that first term was Aaron Frankel’s How to Do Homework. It was a course Aaron devised that was intended to teach actors what to do to prepare for the first rehearsal, what acting homework on the script to do between getting the role and the first cast meeting. It was so valuable and interesting that I took the course twice and took careful and copious notes (which I still have). I eventually “stole” the course so I could teach the technique myself. (I’ve never told Aaron that, and I don’t know how he’d feel about my having absconded with his curriculum without his acquiescence. I’ve also wanted to write the technique up and publish it as an essay somewhere, but I haven’t finished the article yet.) Like most good acting programs, the homework course is a collection of practical techniques and practices from which actors can choose, selecting those that work for them, refining them, personalizing them, and practicing them until they’re part of the actors’ preparation processes. Among the techniques are two that proved especially fascinating and useful: Psychological Gesture and Leading Center. They are, in fact, Aaron Frankel’s takes on concepts of Michael Chekhov (1891-1955) and François Delsarte (1811-71), respectively.

Actors who’ve studied the Michael Chekhov technique or read his books on acting theory will know his Psychological Gesture, commonly known as the PG. (See Michael Chekhov, To the Actor: On the Technique of Acting [New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1953], 63-84.) Chekhov’s own description of the PG states:

Imagine that you are going to play a character which . . . has a strong and unbending will, is possessed by dominating, despotic desires, and is filled with hatred and disgust.

You look for a suitable over-all gesture which can express all this in the character, and perhaps after a few attempts you find it . . . .

It is strong and well shaped. When repeated several times it will tend to strengthen your will. The direction of each limb, the final position of the whole body as well as the inclination of the head are such that they are bound to call up a definite desire for dominating and despotic conduct. The qualities which fill and permeate each muscle of the entire body, will provoke within you feelings of hatred and disgust. Thus, through the gesture, you penetrate and stimulate the depths of your own psychology.

Michael Chekhov’s Technique (the word he used to distinguish his practice from Stanislavsky’s System and Strasberg’s Method) is often regarded as mystical, and the actor-director-teacher did have beliefs that are hard to understand or swallow, but the PG, particularly in Aaron Frankel’s application, is as practicable as anything in Stanislavsky or even Uta Hagen, one of the most utilitarian acting teachers I know of. While classic Stanislavskian actors rely on psychological manipulations to create their characters, and Chekhov’s earliest students worked through a physiological approach to acting, Chekhov felt that the PG united the realms of psychology and physicality. (Students of Uta Hagen might recognize the PG as related the principle of the “release” gesture that generates emotions and psychological reactions, but Hagen’s gesture is performed on stage while the PG isn’t.)

The OED defines gesture as “A movement expressive of thought or feeling.” A psychological gesture, then, is a movement that expresses the psychology, the state of mind, of the character, a symbolic representation of the character’s feelings. The gesture’s seldom actually performed on stage, though it may be. (In Realistic productions, it would be rare.) It’s merely an archetypal physicalization, a simple movement, that serves as a metaphor for the character’s psychology as the you see it. Underlying the character’s stage movements and gestures, it’s an image you hold onto during the scene to help shape your performance. It’s a secret for the actor; neither your fellow actors, your director, nor your audience should be aware of it, but they can sense that something’s working within the character that isn’t on the surface. (Aaron used to say, “You’re up to something.”)

Actors determine the PG pretty much the same way they make all their decisions about a character. If inspiration strikes as soon as you begin reading the script, then you may not need to search further. Otherwise, you analyze the character for objective, motivation, stakes, circumstances, and so on--all the acting homework you usually do. Then you devise a physical gesture or movement that embodies the character’s psyche for you. Let’s look at a few examples for illustration purposes. Here are some PG’s I chose for the characters in Waiting for Godot.

  • Estragon: Rubbing (or touching) some part of his body.
  • Vladimir: Looking to heaven (i.e., skyward).
  • Lucky: Carrying burdens.
  • Pozzo: Cracking a whip.
  • Messenger (Boy): Running away home.

These are only my own imaginary PG’s, of course, since I never played any of these characters. Actors clearly have to select PG’s that affect them and help them play their roles. Like any adjustments you make, PG’s must come from images that connect to you. Then, of course, the PG must be tested by experimenting and improvising during rehearsal. If one doesn’t work, you rethink the choice and devise another PG. You know you’ve found the right adjustment, the right PG in this case, when it works to your artistic satisfaction.

It’s also useful to invent more than one PG for your character, an outer gesture and an inner one. (Chekhov, in fact, taught that actors can find PG’s for individual scenes and even separate beats if necessary. I’m going to stick with the overall character PG for now. The smaller PG’s should all be related somehow to the overall one anyway.) Many characters have a persona with which they face the world (sometimes known as “mask”) and one that’s private (“face”) and the actor can have a PG for each of these facets of the character. For instance, Alan in Picnic: outer PG - casual salute; inner PG - hands clasped--or holding something--straight down. I once played the part of the Hessian colonel who opposed George Washington in the Battle of Trenton in a play by Bill Mastrosimone. For my outer PG, I chose a fist thrust into the air to symbolize my military prowess and drive for spectacular victory on the field. For my inner gesture, I chose the fist clenched at my stomach because I posited that I was really afraid, not of injury or death but of failure and ignominy.

Though the Leading Center, which I’ll describe next, is an actual physical adjustment the actor makes to portray the character, the PG is only internal. Furthermore, once you’ve found the correct PG and rehearsed with it for several weeks, you may never have to contact it again except when you need to refresh the image, say just before an entrance or at the start of a difficult scene. (A warning: It’s been my experience that this kind of adjustment becomes ineffective if you reveal it to anyone else. If the PG stops working for you, you need to devise a fresh one. Revealing it can also tempt other actors to watch your work to see the technique applied, distracting everyone from the job at hand. It’s best to keep the PG a secret at least until after closing night.)

The Leading Center device is based in part on the “Zones of the Body” and the “Realms of Space” which Delsarte defines. (See Ted Shawn, Every Little Movement [New York: Dance Horizons, 1974], 32, 35-47.) Delsarte divides the body into three general areas or centers: head, heart, and gut. These correspond to the regions of the body above the shoulders (“head”), from the stomach to the neck (“heart”), and the belly and groin area (“gut”), and are, respectively, the centers of intellectuality, sentimentality, and visceralness/appetites. One of these centers guides, or “leads,” each of us, and theoretically all our gestures and movements emanate from that center. (The LC shouldn’t be confused with the center of gravity of our bodies, which may be a related phenomenon but isn’t the same thing.) Michael Chekhov also takes up this notion: “Imagine that within your chest there is a center from which flows the actual impulse for all your movements.” The center, however, can be shifted--dancers learn to move theirs permanently through training and practice; injuries cause us to move our centers, and changes in body shape such as weight-gain or -loss can affect the placement of our centers. Although Chekhov puts his imaginary center in the chest, the placement of our LC determines how we move and therefore changing the center’s location will change our physicality.

Delsarte went on to subdivide the major centers into head-heart-gut, too. For instance, the hand is generally in the “heart” area, and the palm, which is soft and can be used to caress, is a “heart” region. The index finger, however, is a “head” part because it’s used for pointing; the fist is a “gut” part because it’s a weapon used in anger. All the centers can be subdivided this way: the cheek, for example, is the “heart” part of the head and the nose, a “gut” part because it’s used for sensory input. On rare occasions, both in life and in fiction, an LC can be placed within the body, and there’s also a fourth “center,” rarely seen in real life though possible in fiction: above the “head,” like a halo--a kind of “spiritual” center for saintly and other-worldly characters. (The LC can be allied with the PG for obvious reasons: a gesture that begins or ends--Delsarte maintained that gestures get meaning not only from the body zone from which they originate, but also the spatial zone in which they end--in a “head” area will help establish an intellectual character, say a Hamlet or a Portia; a “gut” PG might help create a Kate or an Othello; a “heart” PG might generate a Romeo or a Juliet.) An actor doesn’t have to subscribe to Delsarte’s pseudoscience to make valuable use of this technique for physical characterization on stage.

A way for an actor to create an instant physical characterization is to give your character an LC different from your own real one. My own LC, for instance, is the back of my knees. If I shift it to my arm pits, I become Stanley Kowalski. For that Hessian colonel, I put my LC on the end of my chin, which pulled my body up and my head a little forward. (I literally “led with my chin.”) You can imagine, say, an Inspector Hound with an LC on the tip of his nose: he would almost literally sniff out the truth. You can find a center that will make you limp or walk with some other impairment or one that makes you move like John Wayne; it will be different for each person. There are other ways, of course, to create a physical characterization, but developing an LC does it almost instantly and makes all your movements and gestures organic, coordinated, and harmonized with each other--all of one piece, as it were.

The LC is one of the most practical applications in Aaron Frankel’s homework system because it can be used immediately to transform an actor’s physicality. (Though Aaron derived the idea of the Leading Center from Delsarte’s theories and some of Michael Chekhov’s ideas, I’m not aware of anyone else who’s applies the concept this way. At least I’ve never come across any published description of Leading Center in this context.) In class, the teacher should guide the students to find their own centers by observation and trial and error. (You can do this alone by carefully noting which part of your body seems to be the generation point of your walk and other large movements such as sitting, bending, and so on.) To test this discovery in class, the students will use trial and error to move the center around until the one that most closely resembles their own natural movements is determined. Once the actors know their real centers, choosing ones that are different will instantly change all their physical movements and gestures. In some instances, choosing an LC that contradicts the character’s obvious traits can create a dramatic performance: Ophelia, for instance, can be seen as a “gut” person (her wantonness during her madness reveals her “gut”-ness) trying to behave as a “heart” person and is eventually destroyed because of the conflict. You can see, I think, that an actress who successfully develops this as part of her character work would make the audience feel, without knowing exactly why, that . . . She’s up to something.

A note of caution: I’ve found both of these techniques useful and very valuable, especially in rehearsal when I was still developing the character. Like any new technique, you need to give it a try before accepting or rejecting it. To appraise it effectively, you must commit to it fully when trying it out. The point for both, however, is that they are practical techniques and must be tried and discarded as the work on the role progresses. Aaron’s class was ostensibly for preparing for the very first rehearsal, so it’s all about doing work at home before you meet your castmates and director in a working environment. After that, decisions you make alone should be tested in rehearsal and only retained if they work the way you need them to. Slavishly sticking with a choice made on your own at the start of rehearsals is seldom a productive tactic. Neither the PG nor the Leading Center should be considered permanent and immutable.

22 October 2009

The Con Game (A True-Crime Story)

At about 9:15 a.m. on Tuesday, 29 August 1995, I was awakened by a phone call from a man who said he was "George Smalls" with the Detective Bureau. He asked for Mrs. or Mr. R*****d K****r and gave my phone number and address, including my ZIP code, but not my apartment number. He said that he had in custody someone who had given my name to call "and no one else." Smalls told me he could not tell me who was under arrest, but that if I identified the person he would confirm it. He did offer an explanation for this procedure, but in the ensuing confusion I'm afraid I’ve forgotten what excuse he made. When I said that I couldn't guess whom he could be talking about, he offered that the arrested person was a relative. I asked if it was my brother D*****s, although he lives in California and I hadn't seen him or heard from him in over a decade. Smalls "confirmed" that D*****s was being held because he was with another person who had a gun. He explained that my bother hadn’t had the gun.

I was immediately a little suspicious because, first, there is no Mrs. R*****d K****r and my brother would know that; second, Smalls wouldn't identify the arrested person before I gave him a name; and, third, my brother hadn’t communicated with me or any other member of our family for a very long time. I wouldn't have thought that he even knew my address and phone number, though, of course, I’m listed in the phone directory. In fact, all the identifying information Smalls used when he first called me was available from the telephone book as long as he had my name: residence address and ZIP code; my apartment number is not listed, and he didn't seem to have that. Still, I wasn't certain that there might not be some validity to the story, and I wasn't prepared to ignore the possibility that my brother was sitting in jail somewhere waiting for me, so I didn't question Smalls but let him give me instructions for bailing my brother out before he was transferred to Rikers Island.

Smalls told me that my brother had a checkbook and valid credit cards with him, but that if he didn't post bail in cash, it would take three days for a check to clear and he'd have to wait at Rikers Island. He kept emphasizing the fact that he could have my brother transferred to Rikers Island if I waited too long, an implied threat he used several times over this experience. If I wanted to get my brother released to my custody, I would have to pay bail in cash. Then I would be responsible for my brother until he appeared in court in three to four weeks. I asked Smalls how much the bail would be, and he put me on hold to "check"; I could hear him ask someone else apparently on another phone and he returned to say that I’d need $2,900.

Smalls provided me with various explanations and instructions regarding this putative situation in a very disjointed manner and I had to repeat some of what he said and ask several questions along the way. On several occasions he said he was putting me on hold, though the phone connection never was broken and I could hear him ask for information from other people. It all sounded very official and I could hear noises that sounded like a busy office, and the echo over the phone of other voices and the shuffling of people who sounded like they were in the same large room. Smalls elicited some information about me, such as where I was employed and whether I had ever been arrested myself. He took my New York driver's license number, put me on "hold," returned to the phone, and "confirmed" that I had no record.

In order to post the bail, Smalls specifically said I’d have to send the money by Mailgram. He asked me if I knew where the nearest Mailgram office to me was and when I said I didn't, he immediately provided me a phone number to call (1-800-666-394-7266) and told me that he'd hang up so I could call the number and get the location of the Mailgram office, then he’d call me back. He hung up and I called the number he gave me. I had trouble getting a dial tone at first because the connection from Smalls's call wasn't broken. It took me several minutes of trying before I could break the connection and call out but I finally got the address of the Mailgram location, Freeman Check Cashing, 94 Eighth Avenue at 14th Street. Smalls called me back as he said and asked if I had the address and phone number of the nearest Mailgram and I gave him the information. At the start of both Smalls's phone calls, after I picked up the receiver, a recorded voice came on the line saying, "Please hold," then Smalls picked up. This was the routine every time Smalls called me.

Smalls had explained that I must bring the $2,900 in cash to the Mailgram office and instructed me exactly how to fill out the transmission form. I was supposed to fill in my name, address including ZIP code, and phone number including area code. He stressed this because, he explained, this was how he’d bring up my brother's paperwork on the computer when I presented the Mailgram receipt for his release. Under "receiver," I was to list "Jeffrey Pacheco"--Smalls spelled the name for me--but I was to leave the receiver's address and phone number blank. I was supposed to omit this information in order to preserve the anonymity of my brother's arrest, otherwise, Smalls explained, it would be in the newspaper. I would have to pay the Mailgram fee of $110 or $120--Smalls wasn't sure--which I wouldn’t get back. Smalls was explicit that I would have to get this back from my brother directly whether he appeared in court or not.

This was the part of the story that conclusively convinced me that I probably was involved in a con game of some kind. I couldn't understand how the Mailgram office could wire money to someone without an address of some kind, and I doubted any government office would authorize receipt of money under an individual's name rather than an office or job title of some kind. I also was dubious that bail could be sent by wire directly to a city office this way without my having to appear in person with cash. The odd amount of the bail--$2,900, not $3,000--seemed questionable, too. Nonetheless, I was unsure enough to feel I'd better get the money from the bank just in case this all turned out to be true.

Smalls's instructions for the release of my brother were as follows: After I’d wired the money to "Jeffrey Pacheco," Smalls said he’d call me back again at 10:30 or 10:45 a.m. to see if I’d sent it. I’d need to present a receipt for the Mailgram and a phone or light bill with my name and address on it at Room 506, 100 Center Street, which Smalls identified as the Detective Bureau. (That’s the criminal courts building where I’ve done jury duty several times. The DA’s office is there, too, I believe. But I’m not aware that any police offices are in that building; they’re all at 1 PP, I think.) That's where my brother would be released to me. Smalls was going to send a "radio car" for me when the paper work was finished so I wouldn't have to come downtown and wait for several hours while my brother's release was processed. This, too, didn't sound plausible: cops don’t act as chauffeurs.

Before I left for the bank, I tried to call the Detective Bureau. I couldn't find a listing for this office in the phone book, and I tried to call the Police Department general information number but got no answer. I also called the Central Booking number for Manhattan, but the line was continuously busy and I didn't want to wait any longer. At the time, I didn't think to call my local precinct, though I did do that later.

While I was on the street, I tried several more times to reach the general information number from pay phones but I was unsuccessful. I then stopped a uniformed officer on 14th Street near the northwest corner with 6th Avenue to get his advice on what I should do. He agreed that this was some kind of extortion attempt and he asked me if I’d recently lost my wallet or had my credit cards stolen or anything like that. I hadn't, but the officer was still certain that this wasn’t a legitimate arrest situation. The officer asserted that if my brother had indeed been arrested, there was no reason he wouldn’t have been allowed to speak with me himself. Furthermore, if it was clear, as Smalls specified, that the gun wasn’t my brother's or in his possession, he wouldn’t even have been arrested at all.

I went back to my apartment at about 10:15 a.m. and called the 13th Precinct and described the situation to the desk officer. (I didn't note the names of either the officer on the street or the officer at the precinct to whom I spoke.) The officer at the 13th Precinct said he couldn’t confirm that my brother was in fact under arrest somewhere or that George Smalls was a real detective. This officer's advice was that I go down to 100 Center Street myself and check out what I'd been told.

While I’d been out of the apartment, I believe Smalls tried to reach me on the phone. There was a call on my answering machine, but no message. The tape didn't indicate the usual "hang-up," but sounded as if the caller had left the line open but didn't say anything after the machine picked up. I could hear the same "office noises" I’d heard when Smalls called me previously. Later I’d return home to find the same "blank" message on my machine after I’d been out pursuing this case. In none of the three such "messages" were any words spoken on the tape; there was just "dead air."

Smalls did call me back as he promised at about 10:45 a.m. He asked if I’d sent the Mailgram and if I had the receipt. I told him that I was having trouble getting the cash because my local bank account didn’t have enough in it to cover so large a withdrawal. I was having to arrange a transfer of funds from a bank in another state so I could write a check to cover the bail. I explained that my bank couldn't tell me how long this would take but it would certainly be several hours and there was no way of speeding up the procedure. I told Smalls that I’d tried to reach him by phone to tell him I was having trouble but that I hadn't been able to get a phone number for his office. I asked him for a number in case I needed to reach him again and he gave me 212-288-5551. I asked if I could speak to my brother, but Smalls said I couldn't do that until he had been booked and fingerprinted. He also asked if I wanted him to have D*****s transferred to Rikers Island. Of course, I told him I didn't want that, and that I was on my way downtown to see what I could do. After I said that, I realized that I probably shouldn't have, but it was too late. I assumed that if he knew that I was going to check him out at 100 Center Street, and if he wasn’t legitimate as I now suspected, he’d end the contacts with me. Oddly enough, after I left for lower Manhattan, I think Smalls called me anyway because there was the second of the "blank" messages on my answering machine when I got back to my apartment.

After I spoke to Smalls I tried to hang up the phone so I could call the number he gave me but I found that the connection again hadn't been broken and I couldn't get a dial tone just like the first time Smalls called me. This time, while I was tapping the reset button on my handset, another voice came on the line. It sounded like a woman, though it may have been a man disguising his voice, and it appeared to be an African-American from the speech pattern, but the conversation wasn't long enough for me to be sure. "She" said, "Detective Bureau," and asked me whom I was on hold for. I explained that I wasn't supposed to be on hold, that I was trying to hang up. I said I’d been talking to Mr. Smalls, and I was transferred to him again. This further suggests that there were several people in the "office," and that the telephone system is fairly complex, with extensions and possibly multiple lines. I finally broke the connection and tried to call the number Smalls gave me, but I kept getting a high-pitched electronic tone, like the sound you get if you call a fax machine or a modem on a voice line. I then went to 100 Center Street and found Room 506, but it wasn’t an open office of any kind. It was a locked door, marked 501-506; Room 501 was a large office but clearly not a police office. I’d asked the guard on the floor and she didn't seem to know anything about a detective office on the fifth floor and wasn't even sure there was any office in Room 506. I felt sure that if there were a detective office on or near the fifth floor or if people under arrest were processed near there, the guard would know where it was. She recommended that I check on the first floor in the Arraignment Clerk's office, Room 131, to see if D*****s K****r's name appeared on the list of arrested people. I checked at that office and was informed that no one named K****r was on the list. I asked if there was any other place where such information might be located, but the clerk didn't know of any. I asked the guard at the central desk at 100 Center Street if there was any detective or police office in that building or any of the other court buildings nearby where I might check. The guard on duty said there was none and suggested that I go to 1 Police Plaza.

I walked down to 1 PP to see if I could confirm once and for all both that my brother wasn’t in custody and that George Smalls wasn’t a real city agent of any kind. The officer at the desk in the lobby of 1 PP said that he couldn’t confirm any of this there, and that I had to call Central Booking and then make a report to my local precinct. At this time, I went back home to follow these recommendations.

I got home about 12:30 p.m., finding the second "blank" message on my machine, and called Central Booking in Manhattan. It took several attempts to get through, but when I was successful I determined that D*****s K****r hadn’t been arrested on the previous day, 28 August, or during the intervening night. It wasn’t conclusive that he hadn’t been arrested earlier on the morning of 29 August and a list of those names wouldn’t be available until after 3 p.m. Meanwhile, I called the 13th Precinct and repeated my story and the conclusions I had reached to this point. I was transferred to an Officer Brock in the Complaint Room and he instructed me to come in to the station to make a complaint. When I arrived at the 13th Precinct and reported to Officer Brock, he told me that detectives from the Internal Affairs Bureau had contacted him about me and were on the way to the precinct to speak to me. I never learned how they had heard of me or learned that I was going to be at the precinct at that time. Except at the Arraignment Clerk's office, I hadn't used my name until I called the 13th Precinct to make the complaint a few minutes earlier. Nevertheless, while in the precinct Complaint Room waiting to fill out the complaint, I received a phone call from a Detective Rendine of IAB and I related the details to him. I subsequently filed this complaint under criminal impersonation and attempted larceny and was in contact with Detective Rendine who instructed me to contact him or P.O. Myles if Smalls called me again. When I returned again to my apartment, at about 2:30 p.m., I found the third "blank" message on my answering machine with the same noises as before. I reported this attempted contact to Officer Myles, but after that time, there was no further contact from Smalls.

From the detectives I learned that Smalls was a prisoner on Rikers Island who had been using his phone privileges to run this con on lots of people right from jail. He culled random phone numbers from directories in the Rikers library and then used the pay phones to make the calls. He had accomplices on the outside, like “Jeffrey Pacheco,” who assisted him and picked up the “bail” and through whom Smalls set up three-way calls so that it sounded as if he was in an office somewhere with a receptionist who placed his calls and then connected the victim to the "detective." The con was always the same as the one Smalls--I didn’t learn his real identity until much later--tried to pull on me. The police had been on him before he called me that morning, which is how they knew my name and contact info even before I reported the call to my local precinct. He had pages torn from the phone directories and the cops were contacting the people whose names were on them.

In December, some time after this all unfolded, I was summoned to testify before a grand jury. I told the ADA who’d contacted me, and who later interviewed me in the DA’s office, that I didn’t know many details and couldn’t identify any of the people involved. The ADA explained that my testimony would be used to affirm that a crime had taken place and to establish the particulars of the con. I reported to the criminal courts building and duly answered questions about what had happened that morning of 29 August. The ADA explained to me that if further testimony was called for, such as for a trial, they’d call me, but that the DA’s office hoped that the evidence would preclude a trial altogether and force Smalls to cop a plea. It turns out, he did.

On 11 January 1996, the New York Times (and, I later discovered, the Daily News, too) published a brief report on the hoax. “Smalls’s” real name was Raymond Sanabria, then 31, and he’d been in Rikers since January 1995 for robbing a Bronx bodega in September 1992. He had pretended he was a cop, with a badge and a gun as props, and told the store-owners he had to inspect their cash register! He “inspected” the cash right into his own pocket. The jail-house con artist had also done a stint in a Louisiana pen for pulling the same scheme from a jail there. He was looking at up to 25 years in jail for the bodega job and was now facing charges of grand larceny and criminal impersonation which could cost him another 80 years if he went to trial and was convicted. There’s apparently no additional penalty for chutzpah.

Sanabria, according to the newspapers, scammed more than 10 people from May to September 1995 for a total of $23,000. The police had recovered only $4,000 of the money, which had included $1,700 from an 88-year-old mother who took the cash from her ATM to bail out her son--who, of course, had never been arrested in the first place. Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, retiring at the end of this year after 34 years in office, described Sanabria as “extremely ingenious” and remarked, “He could even have been a successful trial lawyer.” “If this guy had been a salesman,” suggested Patrick Kelleher, then chief of NYPD’s internal affairs bureau, “he’d be a millionaire a million times over.” Sanabria was such a smooth talker, in fact, that when he dialed a wrong number one time, he convinced the woman who answered the phone to begin a telephone romance with him. A year later, Sanabria and the young woman got married in the Rikers Island chapel. Evelyn, then 18, was looking at joining her bridegroom in jail because she was indicted as one of his accomplices. (I never learned the details of how Sanabria ran his con in jail, but Evelyn may have been the secretary whose voice I heard on the line that one time. I can only guess he had a recording of some office dialogue, including a receptionist, that he could play over the pay phones to juice up his con. It’s pretty elaborate, but I can’t figure out how else Sanabria could have pulled it off.)

And that was my brush with the criminal justice system, not counting jury duty. I have a friend who’s a criminal defense attorney, but I’ve never even met a DA before or been called upon to give testimony in a court for any reason. The only cops I ever dealt with, aside from traffic tickets, were army CID when I was an intel officer. So, this was my one and only so far.

18 October 2009

Davidson Fellowships

Last month, I traveled down to Washington to attend a ceremony at which a young cousin was being honored for her academic achievements. I didn’t really understand what the ceremony was for or what organization was holding it, but this young woman, Allison Ross, is the daughter of my cousin Nancy who moved away from New Jersey years ago and now lives in Seattle so we don’t see her or her family very often anymore. Even more, Nancy’s two brothers, Paul and Jim, who have also moved away from the Mid-Atlantic region, were going to attend the ceremony, so my mother was excited at the chance to see them all and and I was urged to come down, too. (These particular cousins are the children of my mom’s cousin Suzanne, part of a gang of four who grew up together when they were little, with whom she had remained close until Suzanne died a few years ago. Both my parents had always had a special feeling for Suzanne’s three children and Mom tries to keep in contact by telephone as much as she can. As you might imagine, this was an especially important family gathering for Mom.)

My “invitation” to the ceremony and reception, which was being held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall, came orally through my mother so I never really got the details of the award, the Davidson Fellowship, or the sponsoring organization, the Davidson Institute. In fact, I didn’t learn the name of the foundation until I arrived in Washington and saw Mother’s invitation. It wasn’t until after I returned home that I could learn anything about it beyond its own publicity. It seems to be a remarkable organization and the award 16-year-old Allison received on Wednesday, 30 September, is quite spectacular.

Back in 1982, the dawn of the home-computer era, Jan and Bob Davidson bought one of the first PC’s. They were disappointed, however, because they wondered why all they could do with it was play games. "There was supposed to be some educational software,” says Jan, then a teacher in Los Angeles, “but it was terrible, I mean, it just didn't work well, and it wasn't accurate. It was horrible." So she and Bob began to fool around with the computer and Jan eventually came up with a teaching program that worked like a game. They named it Math Blaster and in 1989, Jan and Bob Davidson launched Davidson & Associates in Torrance, California, to produce and market the new software. Along the way, they also developed Reading Blaster and the company made millions for the couple. In 1996, the Davidsons sold the company for “more than we knew what to do with, let's put it that way," as Bob Davidson describes it. (Several sources reported that the purchaser paid $1.6 billion in stock; the New York Times reported that the figure was $1.8 billion for Davidson & Associates and another software company together. Either way, it was a pile of dough!) What’s interesting is what the Davidsons decided to do with their profits.

Looking around for a way to do some good, they saw that there were programs in schools for average students, for underachieving students, and for children with special needs--but there were few programs anywhere for gifted and talented students. "Intelligence is a gift,” says Jan Davidson. “But you have to develop it if you're going to keep it. You have to nurture it like any other talent." So that’s where the couple determined to put their efforts. In 1998, they developed the Young Scholars program “to provide support services for profoundly intelligent young people” and in 1999 they formed the Davidson Institute for Talent Development in Reno. In 2001, the Institute awarded the first Davidson Fellowships. Jan and Bob Davidson published Genius Denied: How to Stop Wasting Our Brightest Young Minds (Simon & Schuster), written with freelancer Laura Vanderkam, in 2004. In 2006, the Davidson Academy of Nevada, a free public school specializing in “profoundly intelligent” students from middle school through high school, opened on the campus of the University of Nevada in Reno. The Institute has many additional programs to provide financial and other assistance for gifted students, but it is the fellowships on which I want to focus. (Interested readers can find out more about the Davidson Institute on its website, www.DavidsonGifted.org. There are many other sites and further sources, including press coverage of Institute activities.)

I guess it’s obvious, just by the fact that I’m writing this, that I’m impressed with this organization and its work. It’s hard not to be, if only on the evidence of the work the Davidson Fellows have done to earn the awards. Here are a few of the titles of the award-winning projects from this year’s Fellows:

  • Music: “Harping Around the World: Cultural Leadership for the 21st Century” (Melody Lindsay, 17, Honolulu)
  • Literature: “The Dictionary of Distance” (Nicole Rhodes, 17, Vancouver, Washington)
  • Science: “Computer Analysis of the HLA Histocompatibility Complex: Identification of Bone Marrow Donor Matches” (Eric Sherman, 15, Ephrata, Pennsylvania)
  • Outside the Box: “African and Western Heroes’ Journeys in Literature: An Exemplification” (Allison Ross, 16, Mercer Island, Washington)
  • Philosophy: “The Roots of Evil” (Duolin (Doreen) Xu, 16, Indianapolis)
  • Technology: “A Heterogeneous Mixture Model for Unsupervised Pattern Classification” (Aditya Palepu, 17, Oakton, Virginia)

To hear the young students describe their work is like attending a grad school conference in a field that’s not your own. I wouldn’t even know how to unpack the titles, much less the projects. Even my cousin’s work was really beyond me, and it began in my own area of . . . well, expertise, if I can call it that. She began with the plays of August Wilson, to which she was introduced in 2005 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and explored hero myths through the prism of Joseph Campbell’s work, Carl Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, and pre-colonial African mythology. The resulting study was over 200 pages and took Allison two years to complete. Allison finished 10th grade last spring but won’t be returning to high school because this year she started in the Honors Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Several of the music laureates were already enrolled in programs at Juilliard; Fellows in the sciences and technology were already working in university labs on projects that sound to me like graduate level and above with senior academics and professionals as mentors. At least one of the 2009 Fellows, 15-year old Anshul Samar from Cupertino, California, is already the CEO of his own company.

The Davidson Fellowships, which come with scholarships of $50,000, $25,000, and $10,000, among other benefits, are not easy to get, as you can probably guess. Applicants must be under 18 years old on 1 October of the application year (currently 2010), though there is no minimum age. (This year’s youngest Fellow is a 13-year-old pianist, Sarina Zhang from San Diego--who’s already studying at Juilliard. Some past Fellows have been even younger, including an 11-year-old in 2001, and a 6-year-old and another 11-year-old in 2005, all pianists.) Fellowships are awarded in the fields of science, math, technology, music, literature, and philosophy. For work that doesn’t fit into these categories or spans two or more of them, there is a fellowship awarded for work “outside the box,” the category in which my cousin competed. (There was one other outside-the-box laureate this year, and no one was awarded a fellowship for mathematics in 2009.) No fellowships are offered in sports, performing or fine arts (except music), or other fields, nor does work in these disciplines qualify for an outside-the-box submission. Each fellowship category has its own criteria but they all must meet the same standard, a level of “accomplishment that experts in the field recognize as significant and has the potential to make a positive contribution to society.” Each applicant must be nominated by three people familiar with the applicant’s project: “a mentor or supervising scientist”; “a teacher, tutor or school administrator”; and “a professional in the field related to the work.” The mentor, of course, guides and oversees the applicant’s work on the submitted project.

The Davidson criteria demand that the projects submitted “should reflect prodigious development of talents focused on creating something of significance” in the estimation of judges specifically chosen to evaluate the work in each category. (Outside-the-box applications, which have to be submitted three weeks earlier than the others, must be sent in before judges for each submission are selected for their expertise in the disciplines applied in the work.) The standards the submissions must meet sound very much like those demanded of doctoral dissertations. According to DavidsonGifted.org:

To qualify for consideration as a Davidson Fellow, an applicant must contribute a work that is recognized as an outstanding accomplishment by experts in the field and has the potential to benefit society. A qualified work may be an exceptionally creative application of existing knowledge; a new idea with high impact; a unique application; an innovative solution with broad-range implications; an important advancement that can be replicated and built upon; an interdisciplinary discovery with the potential to effect positive change; or other demonstration of extraordinary accomplishment.

The judges, who are independent, though anonymous, professionals in the pertinent fields, consider each entry on the basis of its “quality and scope”; “the level of significance of the work”; and “the applicant's depth of knowledge and understanding of the work and the related domain area.” The website describes the selection procedure:

Each application is examined for completeness and accuracy. Qualified entries are sorted and evaluated by category and reviewed by an independent team of judges comprised of professionals with expertise in related domain areas. The judges may, at their sole discretion, consult with additional experts to assist in evaluating the merits of any of the submissions. Based on the criteria specified, the independent team of judges selects the most extraordinary applicants to be named Davidson Fellows and determines the level of scholarship to be awarded.

You can see, I think, that the Davidson Institute expects the Fellows to be performing at a level far above the traditional high school science fair and even above undergraduate college work. The fellowship is an award not for being smart or taking tests well, but for actual, and hard-won, achievement. The evaluation criteria also appear to be pitched at a high level, commensurate, I’d say, with the amount of the scholarship awards.

The submission requirements are pretty arduous as well. They’re slightly different for each category but they all demand a great deal of effort and an accomplishment that is substantial and carefully presented within the parameters for the field. For instance, the areas of science, technology, and mathematics all require “a Formal Research Report with a works cited page and an annotated bibliography formatted according to the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual or any other widely recognized style guide” and “a computer model or physical model” of the project. (All parts of each submission must be in triplicate. There are guidelines for the formats of each submission and other provisions.) The philosophy applicant must submit “a portfolio presenting analyses of fundamental assumptions or beliefs relating to human thought or culture” which includes “three to five unique, written pieces,” each no more than 3,000 words.

The literature submission must consist of “a portfolio displaying a number of literary styles and genres.” The requirement has two components. The first is a collection totaling 60-75 pages representing three of four genres of writing (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama or screenplay). The applicant is free to decide how to allot the pages for each genre which may be exemplified by one or more individual pieces. The second component of the literature submission is “a 500-word reflective essay about the works in the portfolio.” As we shall see, doing something extraordinary isn’t sufficient for the Davidson Fellowship: successful Fellows must also analyze the significance of what they’ve accomplished.

Music nominees may apply in four areas: composer, vocalist, classical instrumentalist, and “other instrumentalist.” Composing applicants submit at least three scores with recordings (recording formats are specified in the application materials). Vocalists and instrumentalists must submit videos “demonstrating your breadth and depth” of talent in the field, meeting specified requirements for each category, and video recordings of public performances of their work, also meeting specific criteria.

The outside-the-box submission is the most complex, combining elements of the science-math-tech applications and the lit application. The submission requires either a formal research report or a portfolio of the applicant’s work, both demonstrating the “breadth and depth of knowledge in a specific subject area at university graduate level or beyond.” The applicant determines the appropriate length of the submission, but it obviously must be substantial to fulfill the requirements and describe a project of the scope demanded. (My cousin’s submission, as I noted, was over 200 pages in length. My incomplete doctoral dissertation is only 500 pages. My master’s thesis was less than 25 pages--plus a performance--and that was considered long.)

All applications must include the same four attachments in addition to the individual projects. Attachment one is the “Significance Essay” explaining “why your submission qualifies as a significant piece of work.” The second attachment is the “Benefit to Society Essay” describing “how your work may make a positive contribution to society or has social relevance.” Attachment three, the “Process Essay,” answers a series of detailed questions concerning how the work was conducted. The final attachment is the “Videotape Describing Prodigious Work” on which the applicant talks “from the heart” about “a topic not addressed in the essays or to expand upon a point the essays touched on only briefly.” (A suggested structure for the 15-minute video presentation is included on the application forms. The lengths of the three essays is up to the applicant.)

There are 19 Davidson Fellows for 2009 and a similar number of laureates in past years. The recipients come from all across the U.S. (Nominees must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents of the United States and its territories. Dependents of U.S. service personnel serving abroad are also eligible.) As this year, over $3.6 million has been awarded to 146 young students in scholarships. “With nurturing,” says Bob Davidson, “gifted students will be among those who will solve the world's most vexing problems, now and in the future." According to the Institute’s estimation, some of the contributions past and current Fellows have made to society include:

  • Developing a system to identify bone marrow donors in a fraction of the time and cost than previous methods; potential for use with organ transplants
  • Designing computer simulations to determine how various patterns affect an epidemic’s spread across a social network
  • Designing a computer model to aid physicians in patient diagnosis
  • Performed advanced musical compositions for piano, cello and violin at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center
  • Created a literary portfolio focused on deepening our understanding of human responses to grief

Several of the Fellows made the same remark when they received their awards at the reception. They all thanked their nominators, mentors, teachers, and families, of course, and they each described their projects (most of which went right over my head), but a number also said one other thing, too. In addition to expressing how honored they felt to have been recognized with the fellowship, they described how gratified they were to have spent several days among the other laureates. It was one of the few times, they explained, when they were able to talk with contemporaries who understood them. That feeling, in large part, is the rationale the Davidsons give for launching their efforts to support our brightest students: they often feel isolated and neglected, bored and misunderstood by both their peers and their teachers. Studies have shown that top students often languish in schools that ignore their special needs and that as many as 20% of drop-outs from high school are gifted students forced into underachievement and boredom by being under-challenged.

Of course, it wouldn’t be unusual for someone from the outside, a spectator like me, to assume these young scholars are all classic nerds and grinds with narrow focus and little in the way of other interests. I’m sure that might be true of some of the students in this group, but it’s not true of all of them--or, I daresay, most of them. First, I was impressed with how well they all presented themselves and their work before an audience of strangers. Of course, these students are used to being among adults and being in a spotlight, but academic excellence, even at their level, is not necessarily linked to the ability to perform, as it were. They’re not analogous talents: speaking well and presenting yourself well is not the same as being smart. I also took notice in the Fellows’ biographies in the program booklet of how many had other strong interests in unrelated fields--musicians who also studied science or scientists who began in music, for instance. Once again, if I may use my cousin Allison, who’s fairly typical of this atypical group, as an illustration: Leaving aside the complementary focuses in her fellowship project, Western classical mythology and pre-colonial African mythology, not to mention the modern literature--the plays of Wilson and Wole Soyinka and the novels of Toni Morrison--Allison says she hasn’t decided on a concentration for her studies at UW because she’s interested in both science and the humanities. (The scholarships need not be applied only to the fields of the Fellows’ projects and can be used at any accredited institution of learning over a period of 10 years.) Allison, who volunteers with several community-service organizations, earned a black belt in karate when she was 12 and, in high school, studied Latin and ran cross country. She also likes to cook and played the trumpet in the marching band. Other 2009 Fellows are involved in similarly varied activities. The difference with the rest of us may be that they’re more involved with what they do: tenacity is a hallmark of advanced intelligence. Allison, for instance, says she likes “staying in one place and really digging into a subject.” That’s essentially how her fellowship project was born: she saw her first performance of a Wilson play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, in Ashland four years ago. Last year, after a matinee of Fences, Allison heard one of the actors, G. Valmont Thomas (who played Gabriel Maxson), speak at a post-performance discussion and introduced herself to him. For her English class, she read Wilson’s 10-play cycle and spoke again with Thomas, talking with him about the parallels between Wilson’s themes and Campbell’s theories. That, of course, is how scholarship is supposed to work--but most people don’t get to pursue that kind of inquiry until graduate school and post-grad research.

One reason most students don’t get to follow this kind of pursuit as early as high school is, certainly, that few adolescents are really intellectually ready to do it. According to researchers such as William G. Perry, most early and middle adolescent brains haven’t reached the stage yet where this kind of intellectual inquiry is possible; it takes until late adolescence, the early college years, for the human mind to develop the capacity to mange this level of learning. Obviously, that’s why it’s rare for a high-schooler to want to go this deeply into a subject, much less be able to. That’s also why few high schools make allowances for students who are interested and capable of this kind of work, and why few teachers and administrators know how to handle them when they come along. But Perry and other educational theorists also recognize that everyone’s mind develops at a different rate and some young teenagers and pre-teens are ready to understand more complex concepts than even their older peers. Another of the Davidson Institute’s programs is training and support for educators to prepare them to work with gifted students, especially when resources are minimal or unavailable. Many of the Davidson Fellows have had to assemble for themselves the support and resources they needed to achieve their successes. There are, however, strategies for the motivated and resourceful teacher to encourage and guide these enormously curious students with the means that are on hand. More and better resources are always desirable, but the worst thing is to stifle the impulse to inquire. "There shouldn't be a ceiling," insists Bob Davidson, "particularly in school.” If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then wasting a bright mind is a loss to all of us as a nation.

13 October 2009


Last February, after the Washington Post had announced that Helen Mirren, star of the PBS series Prime Suspect, the HBO miniseries Elizabeth I, and the films Calendar Girls and The Queen (for which she won an Oscar), would bring her National Theatre production of Jean Racine’s Phèdre to the Shakespeare Theatre Company in the fall, I asked my mom to try to score tix when they went on sale to the general public. (STC was offering the show as a bonus to its subscribers, though the production was outside the regular season. Mother had been a subscriber in the past, but hadn’t renewed for several years.) As you might guess, considering that this 9-day visit by the London troupe, Mirren’s Washington début, was going to be the only one in the U.S., the available seats were all booked by the time Mom got through to the STC box office on the day the tix went on sale last April. The papers reported that the production sold out in four hours, though that turned out not to be precisely true. STC was making a notification list for returned tix, however, and since my mother has no computer, she gave the theater my name and e-mail address. All summer long, I kept looking through the spam and personal messages in hopes that some couple had decided to go to Florida or something and had given up their seats for the play, but all I got from STC were announcements of their season’s offerings, solicitations for subscriptions (which included tix to Phèdre), and the notice that a video of the performance would be screened for anyone who didn’t get seats. (Look for this video on TV sometime next year, I would say.) As September neared, I despaired that tix would ever be available, but all of a sudden there was an e-mail from STC that some seats had opened up, including an additional performance on Wednesday, 16 September, the day before the scheduled opening.

I got the message in the early afternoon of Friday, 11 September, and immediately called my mom, hoping she hadn’t gone out that day and could get on to the box office right away. I was afraid that however many new tix STC was offering would go the way of the original sale and sell out before Mom could make the call. She was out, but called me back shortly and was able to call the STC box office before the end of the business day. Seats were available all across the performance schedule, and mom took the best she could arrange for her preferences. What appears to have happened was that, aside from adding the preview on the 16th, STC had released all the seats they were reserving for new subscribers, probably figuring that with only six days left before opening, not enough new subscribers would be signing up to fill the seats being held back. (The production closed on Saturday, 26 September.) Our good fortune, I guess. So now we had matinee seats for the performance on Wednesday, 23 September, at STC’s still-new Sidney Harman Hall, its second theater on F Street, N.W., up the street and around the corner from the main space, the Lansburgh Theatre on N.W. 7th Street.

I had really wanted to see this show for several reasons. First, I’ve never seen Phèdre on stage. (I saw Jules Dassin’s 1962 film version of the myth, Phaedra, starring Melina Mercouri and Anthony Perkins, back when I was in college, but that’s a different adaptation, modernized, of Euripides’ Hippolytus, not based on Racine’s 18th-century play. Seneca also has a Phaedra, but I’ve never read it.) I read the play in French in college and I’ve read Hippolytus in English translation, but I’ve never had an opportunity to see Racine’s play performed. Furthermore, like most theater people, seeing performances by leading actors is always a special draw, irrespective of the role or the play. Mirren doing Phèdre is akin to Redgrave doing Hecuba, McKellen doing Lear, or Harriet Walter as Elizabeth I and Janet McTeer as Mary of Scotland in Mary Stuart. (I don’t mean to make it seem that only British actors interest me, so I’ll quickly add in F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in Merchant and Barabas in The Jew of Malta.) Finally, this was the only U.S. stop for this production, so it felt like a sort of coup to get to see it.

I don’t imagine I need to summarize the plot of Phèdre for any of you, but just for the sake of simplifying this report, I’ll remind everyone that it’s the story of Theseus’ second wife who conceives an uncontrollable passion for her stepson, Hippolytus. (Shakespeare followers will recognize that the wedding of Theseus and his first wife, Hippolyta, was the cause for the enchanted merriment of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. At Stratford, Ontario, this year, the same actor, Tom McCamus, played Theseus in both plays.) Racine added a few elements, most notably the romance between Hippolytus and Aricia, whom Theseus has held under house arrest because her family, the House of Erechtheus, had attempted to dethrone him in a coup. At the beginning of the play, Athens erroneously hears that Theseus, who has been abroad for six months, had been killed in captivity. Hippolytus ought to be the heir to his father’s kingdom, but his mother was an Amazon and Athens has a law that no foreigner could rule the city. This leaves his half-brother, Phèdre’s son by Theseus, as the heir-apparent. Hippolytus, declaring his love for Aricia, frees her, but Phèdre confesses her passion for Hippolytus, who spurns her in disgust. Though they aren’t related by blood, Phèdre’s marriage to his father makes her desire for Hippolytus tantamount to incest. (Racine’s contemporary and rival, Jacques Pradon, wrote his own version of the myth and, to avoid the incest--and hence the dramatic center of the play--he made Phèdre merely Theseus’ fiancée rather than his wife. Pradon and his plays have largely been forgotten for just this sort of tactic.) The rivalries having been established, Theseus unexpectedly returns. Before Hippolytus can reveal the truth, Oenone, the queen’s loyal, but sly, nurse who had exhorted the queen to confess her love for Hippolytus in order to preserve Athens for her son against the claim of Aricia, accuses Hippolytus of the attempted rape of his stepmother and Theseus banishes him from Athens and calls on Neptune, the god of the sea, to punish him. (Racine used the Roman name for the sea god and Hughes remains faithful to the original here.) On his way to marry Aricia at a temple among the royal tombs, Hippolytus, his horses spooked by a sea monster, is dragged to his death behind his chariot. (Neptune was also god of horses. Note that Hippolytus’ name means ‘horse liberator.’) Oenone throws herself off the cliff upon which the villa stands and Phèdre kills herself with poison. Theseus is left to grieve in guilt for his distrust of Hippolytus’ honesty and virtue. Alone now, he reaches out to Aricia, who has brought Hippolytus’ mangled body home, as his daughter.

(A word about the characters’ names. I don’t know why, but in Ted Hughes’s translation, some names retain their French spellings, accent marks and all--Phèdre, Théramène, Ismène--and others have reverted to their Anglo-Greek equivalents--Hippolytus, Theseus, Aricia. I’m following the program, so get used to the jumbled orthography.)

Aside from the obvious, there are some huge challenges to staging Phèdre (1677). The most demanding, arguably, is the fact that Jean Racine (1639-99) was the most loyal practitioner of French Neoclassicism, the dramatic application of the Age of Reason. The myth of Phèdre is fraught with violence and bloody acts, but all of them take place off stage. Momentous events follow on one another like elephants in a circus parade because the rules require that the play take place within one day so Racine starts his plays near the climax. (The other two of the three unities, an invention of the Neoclassicists, are actually advantages: the play takes place in one place and has a single, unified plot. Racine’s contemporary, Pierre Corneille, liked to violate these sanctions.) Beginning near the story’s peak, of course, means that the actors all start at a high emotional pitch and the tension only rises from there. Everyone has long speeches, the juiciest of which go to the messengers and servants who relate all that violence that happens in the wings. There’s almost no plain dialogue and no stichomythia. Because Racine made Phèdre the principal character (Euripides and Seneca focused on Hippolytus), the men and the other women, except possibly Oenone, come off as flat figures with little personality or force. Further, the tension is psychological--Racine, who’s considered avant-garde for his time, was one of the first classical playwrights to create psychologically realistic characters--which makes the action mostly internal and individual. People struggle with themselves more than with each other. This is all inherent in Racine’s dramaturgy and there’s nothing the translator, director, or actors can do to change it so they all have to work with it. There is also the impediment that French plays generally don’t go over well on American stages; even Molière doesn’t play as well as Schiller. (Something to do with the translation, apparently. German is closer to English than French, so rendering German plays into the English idiom works more colloquially than it does for all those Gallicisms. Go know!)

For the National Theatre production (11 June-27 August, Lyttleton Theatre, London), director Nicholas Hytner, the company’s artistic director, chose the translation by poet Ted Hughes which premièred with Diana Rigg in the title role at the Festival Theatre Malverne just before Hughes’s death in 1998. (There’s a new translation by playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker that preemed at the Ontario Shakespeare Festival earlier this year, but I don’t know any more about it than that.) The Hughes rendering’s a very actable free-verse version that sounds neither stiffly academic nor anachronistically contemporary. (Racine’s original French text is in rhymed alexandrine couplets, very much in line with the formality and intellectuality of Neoclassicism.) Since I’m a theater person, not a lit person, my inclination is always to go with the playable script over the verbatim translation. I’ve dared to do a little retranslating of Chekhov and Anouilh myself now and then because I didn’t like the English text of a speech as published. Now, original texts can be treasure troves of useful information that’s been lost in the English versions, but I don’t see any reason it all has to be shoehorned into the translations. My final criterion for a translation for the stage is actability, not literary faithfulness to the original, and I think Hughes’s rendition is much more actable than, say, Richard Wilbur’s rhyming verses for Molière. As Shaw wrote (alluding to his own work): Some people’s plays read well, but they don’t act well.

(I once retranslated a verse of an aria my character sang in Chekhov’s Wood Demon because the lyrics provided didn’t fit the melody from the opera. I had identified the opera--with the help of the original Russian text and a Russian book and record store in my neighborhood--found the sheet music and a recording of it in the library, and tried to fit the words in the translation to the notes, but they didn’t match, so I rewrote them. Neither Chekhov nor the translator ever complained to me! As an acting teacher of mine would say, We don’t have their phone numbers--to which I’d add, And they don’t have ours.)

The first thing that greeted us when the curtain rose for Phèdre was the set by Bob Crowley (who also designed the costumes). The sun was shining brightly--lighting was by Paule Constable--invoking the Aegean locale (the play takes place in Troezen, a Peloponnesian coastal town southwest of Athens), and the sky was bright turquoise. As the play progressed though its dawn-to-dusk arc, the sun intensified, then set and the sky brightened, then darkened until it was evening by the final scene of mourning and grief. (There’s a mythological rationale for the prominence of the sun here: Phèdre was descended from Apollo, the sun god, whom, she says in the play, sees everything and is watching her actions.) The set, which served for both Theseus’ villa and Alicia’s home prison, was a kind of terrace, a stone platform with the entrance to the house at the stage right edge and a large boulder upstage, serving as one of the main entrances and exits. At the left was a sandy patch leading to a low wall, beyond which appeared to be a drop to the sea below. There was a spigot set into the stage right wall near the downstage edge of the platform where the characters often drew water to wash with or drink. The upstage end of the terrace was raised with stairs leading up to the rear platform several feet higher than the main acting area; it was around the boulder upstage that entrances from outside the villa were made. Below the main terrace, down a few steps, was a rough, gravelly strip of terrain that suggested the landscape was rather barren and stony. There were a few metal patio chairs scattered around the terrace. Suspended above all this, a kind of roof, was a swath of concrete that looked to me exactly like the underside of the FDR Drive as it winds along the East River--the way you view the southbound roadway from the northbound side as you’re driving along. It was as if the play were set under the highway! (I can’t imagine that Crowley intended this to be his design image, and probably no one but me saw it this way, but I swear that’s exactly what it looked like.) Except for the costumes, there was no color anywhere; except for the characters, there were no living things. The overall effect was one of barren, bleached, lifeless immensity, boxed in and baked by a merciless sun.

I started with the set because, besides being the first image of the production, it literally envelops the events of the play. I almost felt a sense of release when Hippolytus steps down off the terrace onto the stony strip along the apron because he’s come out from under that overhang. (The actors entering from upstage, around that immense boulder, made me feel they almost had to duck down until they came down the stairs onto the terrace.) Having started with the design, I guess now’s a good point to mention the costumes, Crowley’s other contribution to the stage world. Just as the terrace was essentially modern--the spigot, the concrete construction, the patio chairs--so were the costumes, but without any reference to a specific period or culture. Mirren wore a sheath dress, often purple but also off-white, that was both slinky-sexy and severe. Mirren’s no young chick, of course, but even at 64 she projects a lithe sensuality that is only enhanced by the gracefully mature face. When she was on stage with Dominic Cooper, who, at 31, played Hippolytus, she made him look like the callow student he played in The History Boys (London stage, 2004; Broadway and film, 2006). Mirren’s dresses sometimes had a cowl which she occasionally wore up, and the other women’s costumes were variations of the same sheath: Oenone’s in black with more volume and a shawl; Aricia’s white with pleats across the abdomen. The men wore varying degrees of military dress, from a pair of guards in full army regalia to Theseus and Hippolytus in commando drag, with combat boots and bloused trousers. The men’s sidearms, however, were short swords rather than pistols. It was a curious little anachronism, but it worked well enough.

I guess it’s time now to get to what most of you want to know: How did Helen Mirren do? Short answer: she did fine. The British press was mixed on her performance (and the production in general), some critics saying the movie star was more than equal to the role, “spellbinding,” “filling” the stage, and “riveting” the audience. “You knew that she was Phèdre as Racine meant Phèdre to be," wrote Benedict Nightingale of the London Times. Others complained that Mirren “played Phèdre last night, and lost” (Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph, paraphrasing a John Mason Brown remark) and suggested that Phèdre’s “passion is best implied not spoken” (Michael Coveney, Independent). But Peter Marks of the Washington Post decided that “whatever bumps existed must have been smoothed over” by the time the production opened here, and I think he must have been right because the problems I had with the performances weren’t about Mirren (and were at least partly inherent in the script).

My friend Diana said she couldn’t see Mirren as Phèdre because the actress was too strong for the part. I didn’t understand that observation unless Diana misunderstands the character somehow. (Neither Diana Rigg nor Melina Mercouri portray weak women as a rule. I doubt if they could. I mean, two words, ladies and gentlemen: Emma Peel. ‘Nuff said.) As Mirren showed on stage at the Harman, Phèdre is a woman who has been caught up in her own emotions despite her efforts to fight them. (In the myth, and Euripides’ version of the play, the gods, especially Venus and Diana, are at the bottom of the queen’s passion for Hippolytus--it’s out of her hands. Racine doesn’t depend so much on divine caprice, but puts the emphasis on Phèdre’s emotions and psyche.) No matter how much she fights the attraction--and she had had Hippolytus banished from Athens before the play began--she can’t free herself. (Troezen is actually Hippolytus’ residence; it’s where he’s been living in exile. It’s Theseus’ fault that his wife has been sent into his son’s company again: he sent his family to Troezen while he was abroad on one of his adventures.) So distraught is Phèdre at her inability to throw off the lust she feels, that she is willing herself to die even as the play opens. When Mirren entered, she was at such a psychological low, she was literally bent over. Her emotional pitch, however, was sky-high. It was Oenone, in Margaret Tyzack’s powerful portrayal, who took control of her mistress. When Mirren confessed to Tyzack, it was with such reluctance and fear of the consequences that it was like watching someone rip her own heart out. As I mentioned earlier, Racine starts his plays at the moment just before the climax so that the arc of tension rises precipitously. Mirren’s Phèdre pushed forward in a headlong race to her own destruction even as we watched her try to put on the brakes. Once having confessed to Oenone her love for Hippolytus, she is compelled to confront her stepson in person. (Cooper ran to the faucet and feverishly washed his face and hands to rid himself of Phèdre’s contaminating touch.) When Theseus’ return is announced and she’s caught in the trap (Oenone has told Theseus the lie of Hippolytus assault on Phèdre), she has no choice now but to back the false story. When Theseus curses his own son and calls down Neptune’s punishment, Phèdre is forced now to end the crisis with her own death. It’s all an out-of-control snowball and as much as Mirren showed us Phèdre’s fight against her internal demons, she was also beyond her own ability to stop. Weakness would never work in this role, even as Phèdre fails.

My impression of Mirren as an actor is that she is always in control of what she’s doing. To assume that because she played a hyper-controlled dame in The Queen, reserved to the point of catatonia, she’s an emotionless actor is to overlook the raw nerve ends that she exposed as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect over a period of years. I don’t know if she’s a technical performer--many top British actors are, Stanislavsky not having penetrated the British craft the way it dominated here--but she selects the kind of behavior and psychology her characters need and then thoroughly embodies them. In Phèdre, neither Mirren nor any of the other actors shouted, screamed, or chewed the scenery, but there was passion beneath her every move and utterance. This queen was lovesick in the most literal sense of the word. I often repeat an expression one of my acting teachers liked to use to describe an actor who’s working with carefully selected adjustments which remain secret and unrevealed: She’s up to something. We may not have been able to diagnose Mirren’s technique--but she was up to something all the time. We didn’t know what Phèdre was feeling or thinking, but we could always see what the outcome was.

Tyzack, a veteran and venerated character performer, was the second-strongest actor on the stage--principally because Oenone is the second-strongest character in the play. The nurse/mother-surrogate is cunning and resourceful, but she’s zealously loyal to her mistress (who brought her to Athens from Minos so she predates Phèdre’s marriage to Theseus). When Phèdre is literally wasting away, Oenone fights to keep her alive. After the queen reveals her lust for Hippolytus and then Theseus is rumored to be dead, Oenone begs Phèdre to tell Hippolytus of her passion and align with him to protect the throne for her son. It is this single act that precipitates the tragedy and it’s at Oenone’s insistence that Phèdre takes the step. It’s also Oenone who tells Theseus the lie that condemns Hippolytus and springs the trap on Phèdre. But in Tyzack’s portrayal, these weren’t the acts of an evil woman, a Lady Macbeth-manqué or a gender-reversed Iago. The Washington Times’s Jane Blanchard described Oenone as “self-serving,” but she was wrong: it wasn’t herself Tyzack’s nurse served, it was Mirren’s queen. Tyzack’s Oenone truly believed she was protecting her mistress, first from her own distress, then from the potential usurpation of Hippolytus and Aricia, and finally from the accusation Hippolytus would surely make against her if the nurse didn’t speak out first. While Mirren was careening from pillar to post emotionally and psychologically, Tyzack was all coolness and guile--single-minded and misguided, to be sure, but firm. Tyzack’s Oenone was a mother--a bent mother, but a mother still.

The production’s weak points are in the rest of the supporting cast. Or, perhaps I should say supporting roles because, as I suggested, the fault was to a large extent Racine’s. I’m not even sure that Hytner could have overcome the innate difficulties short of getting a rewrite. Both Theseus (Stanley Townsend ) and Hippolytus came off weak, especially considering the parts they play in the myth. Theseus is one of Greece’s great heroes but this king dithers and behaves indecisively--except when he takes Oenone’s tale as true without even listening to Hippolytus’ account. Then he behaves entirely precipitously. (Why Townsend spoke in a north-country accent--he’s the only actor who did--I didn’t understand. It made the King of Athens into a Yorkshire ruffian. Peter Marks described him as “less a king than a pirate,” which isn’t half wrong.) Townsend’s a big guy, but his Theseus was not the man I’d have imagined had killed the Minotaur--but the odd accent aside, it wasn’t his acting that caused this.

Hippolytus, the young stallion who turns not only Phèdre’s head but Aricia’s, too, is a boy here. (Most reviews, both in Washington and London, praised Cooper’s work. I demur.) As I said, Cooper’s 31, which is no kid, and he’s a budding screen heartthrob they say (whoever “they” are). A great deal of this came from the contrast of Mirren’s Phèdre opposite him because Mirren not only blew him off the stage, but Phèdre, as I pointed out, is a far more powerful role than Hippolytus in Racine’s version of the myth. But Cooper didn’t put much life into the role, either. The only other classical play in his bio is Midsummer (it doesn’t say what part he played, but I’ll guess one of the two young loverboys--he doesn’t strike me as a Puck-type). Perhaps he just doesn’t have the chops yet for this kind of work, especially if he has to go up against Helen Mirren or some other powerhouse actress. Unfortunately, with a namby-pamby Hippolytus, it wasn’t as easy to believe that Phèdre would conceive so unconquerable a passion as she must have; it placed the burden much more on Phèdre’s mental state than on anything the object of her desire might have offered.

Cooper was just a little dull on stage, but the actor with whom I had the most trouble was John Shrapnel as Théramène, Hippolytus’ tutor. The character has several scenes, but only two really big moments. One opens the play, when he tries to shake Hippolytus out of his lassitude and learns that his student has fallen in love with his father’s great enemy, Aricia of the House of Erechtheus. The second is the gruesome description of Hippolytus’ death at the end of the play. Shrapnel seems to have trouble coordinating his body movements with his words. No matter what he’s saying, whether the comradely advice he gives the young prince in the first scene or the bloody speech of the last act, his physical actions were jerky and artificial, as if Hytner had told him a few performances ago to add some gestures and movement to the part and he hadn’t gotten beyond the technical stage yet. In that big speech, with all its emotional content--the man’s describing the mutilation and dismemberment of his student, friend, and long-time companion to the boy’s own father, for God’s sake--Shrapnel never seemed to connect to the horrible event at all. It was a little like the actor were recounting a particularly complex rugby play or something. From an acting point of view, it’s the best speech in the play, and he just wasn’t that into it. When I was an actor, I’d have killed for a moment like that on stage! (Of course, I was a bit of a ham, which may be why I didn’t last very long.)

Finally, poor Aricia. What a nebbish role--poor dear. She’s tacked on, of course: the character isn’t in Hippolytus--she exists in mythology and may even have married Hippolytus in one version of the story in which he’s brought back to life by Asclepius, the healing god--so Racine added her to give Hippolytus, who renounced love before the play begins, a reason for rejecting Phèdre aside from her marriage to his father. (Theseus, after all, is reported dead, nullifying any ethical problem.) It is this love that sends Phèdre off on her ultimate rant, since she learns that the object of her passion hasn’t rejected her because he won’t love anyone: he can love, just not her. The final scene in which the grief-stricken Theseus turns to Aricia as his daughter is an invention of Racine’s. For all this, the role is the skimpiest in the play and though young Ruth Negga made a pretty princess and did her best to project a determined scion of her family standing up to the tyrant who deposed and executed them years before, she had little opportunity to do much but look resolute.

Directorily, Hytner kept everyone under control: there was minimal movement or gesticulation. The actors were often separated by several feet of empty stage, as if they are being restrained by an invisible force, so that the times that they came into physical contact, such as Phèdre’s declaration of love to Hippolytus or Theseus embrace of Aricia at the end of the play, were almost shocking. Racine and the Neoclassicists can seem cool, even cold, and the restraint of the alexandrine poetry can lead readers into thinking the plays are intellectual rather than emotional. (On stage, I gather that the plays have often been emoted with histrionics and bombast in contrast.) Hytner held his cast to a stillness that wasn’t calm or remoteness but intensity barely under control. Some of the actors pulled this off more convincingly that others, as I’ve noted, but the director had it right, I think, given what I know of Racine, Neoclassicism (I was a French major), and the need to interpret the style for a contemporary audience. (From what I understand of other translations, Hughes’s handles this approach best, too. The old standard, by John Cairncross, is far more literary than theatrical, and Charles Isherwood of the New York Times characterized the Wertenbaker rendering as lacking Hughes’s “thrust and potency.”) Keeping the color palate limited, too, made the appearances of color, such as Phèdre’s purple gown, more expressive as well. When Theseus crossed left to the sand patch, calling down Neptune’s wrath on his son, he knelt and poured a goblet of red wine onto the sand, a blood-red offering to secure a blood curse.

When you come down to it, the play’s about Phèdre so it’s no susprise theat the production is, too. Objections about Townsend and Cooper, and even Shrapnel, are mostly quibbles under the circumstances because in Racine’s script their participation is almost negligible. With a powerful and dynamic Phèdre, the play charges along under its own steam regardless, and Mirren drove a pretty decent engine. At two hours, I entirely forgot that the performance had no intermission, which I’d say is a pretty good indication that I didn’t feel unsatisfied. (I’ve had trouble at intermissionless shows that ran 90-minute and even less; this time I never missed the break.) STC got premium prices for the special event, not even making allowances for matinees--and I can’t say I feel at all cheated. Nor do I regret the four-hour bus ride down and the extra week away from home.

I haven’t read anywhere that the National Theatre production of Phèdre is playing in other cities beyond Washington, except one: it went to Epidaurus last July. As I suggested, though, the video of the performance that was shown at theaters around the U.S. last July will almost certainly be broadcast either on PBS or cable sometime soon, and it will also probably be made avialable on DVD as well. In either eventuality, it’s worth a look.