28 February 2011

TFANA’s 'Merchant of Venice' (2007)

[From 6 January to 11 March 2007, the Theatre for a New Audience presented a repertory of two classic plays at the Duke on 42nd Street starring F. Murray Abraham. The respected actor played Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Barabas in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. I saw both shows near the end of the run and reported on them later that month. Since TFANA’s scheduled a revival of Merchant with the same star and director (27 February-13 March, at Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center in lower Manhattan), I’m posting my original report of the 2007 production for readers of ROT.

[Contrasts with Abraham’s turn in Marlowe’s Jew as directed by David Herskovits were inevitable—even expected in 2007. But there could, of course, be no comparative discussion of Abraham and Darko Tresnjak's Shylock and the Al Pacino version of the current Broadway production; it hadn’t happened yet, of course.]

My friend Diana and I saw The Merchant of Venice on Friday, 2 March 2007, at TFANA's season’s abode (it's itinerant), the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street. (It's one of those theater spaces in a highrise that was either built or renovated during the revival of 42nd Street, right in the center of the honky-tonk.) I'd never been to anything here, and it’s a rather nice space. A little high-tech in decor, perhaps, but functional, with good sightlines—it's a thrust configuration—and no obstructions. It's a small enough theater that no seat’s far from the stage—even the little balconies that run around three sides of the auditorium. We were in the last row ('F,' mind you!) of the "orchestra," if that's what they call it there, and we had perfect views and no hearing problems.

I didn't know Serbian-born director Darko Tresnjak's work, though he had been the artistic director at San Diego's Old Globe and had directed in several theaters around the country. He'd done a lot of Shakespeare, which showed, but I didn't know if he'd approached them with a similar eye. In Merchant, he turned Venice into Wall Street 2007 (sets by John Lee Beatty, lighting by David Weiner, sound by Jane Shaw)—all high-tech (to fit nicely with the theater's atmosphere, fortuitously—or maybe not) and high fashion. (Costume designer Linda Cho must have had a ball shopping at all the high-end stores for her costumes—all at least resembling the top designers. Fashion Week at TFANA!) The set was minimal: a few slim tables (mostly for three laptops which took the places of Portia's three caskets—rather cleverly, too) were the only permanent pieces, then the occasional chair or such, all in a glass-and-steel shell like one of those postmodern office buildings of lower Manhattan and elsewhere. Three flat video screens hung over the stage on a balustrade across the back, serving as a stock ticker, the labels on Portia's caskets, and other varying visual images. (The atmosphere was partially set before the show started as the screens displayed the usual anti-cellphone warning in Italian, English, and Yiddish or Hebrew respectively.) Everyone on stage came equipped with a cellphone—one servant had an earpiece receiver permanently attached to his temple as if he’d just escaped from a Borg collective—and there were laptops, PDA's, cellphone and digital cameras (with which all Portia's suitors got their servants to take their pictures with the lady, as if they'd been stopped by paparazzi on the red carpet at some Hollywood event), and other gear all over the set. I felt that Tresnjak may have fallen a little too in love with the notion of the 21st-century update and it was really a gimmick, but it did no damage and was often kind of fun. Many of the messengers were enhanced (instead of standing in front of the other actor, they were in some other part of the set)—or replaced—with cellphone calls, and the casket bits worked rather nicely with a computer-animated image voicing the messages for each suitor—like the end of some computer game melded with one of those TV game shows like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. One of the best bits—a tiny one, but one that worked very well—happened during Portia and Nerissa's run-through of the prospective suitors they were awaiting. When Nerissa named the English baron and Portia ran him down until she said, "He is a proper man's picture," Nerissa had just showed her his photo on her cellphone! All in all, it was a tad precious, but it was no Hamlet on rollerskates. Strictly speaking, it wasn't really necessary for making new points about the play or its characters—but it did no harm. And the kind of mercenary soullessness of the Wall Street milieu worked well with Tresnjak's bleak vision.

At first I thought the attempt to marry a 21st-century look and behavior to the 16th-century language and situation wasn't working and the actors were self-conscious and forced, but I later decided it was just one actor who somehow just didn't ring true—John Lavelle's Gratiano. It was as if he was trying to play a poseur but couldn't pull it off credibly—a poseur poseur, you might say. Otherwise I thought the cast was all quite good, though there were no real standouts among the ensemble. (One possible exception would be Arnie Burton, who played Balthazar, Portia's servant-cum-personal assistant. As he ushered in the series of suitors, he eyed their posse for potential hook-ups—and silently signaled one to call him after the guy's master lost his marriage gamble. But even Burton's little characterization was more the result of amusing choices he and Tresnjak made than an extraordinary quality of his acting.)

The true exception was, as you might have guessed, Abraham. Everything he did on stage was solid, real, believable, anchored. This was a man who knew what he was up to, had total confidence in his choices and preparation, his art. Next to the rest of the cast, as good as they were, he was an adult working with adolescents. In terms of his character, he didn't apologize for Shylock or soften him. He demanded his "bond," a word he emphasized so often it became a litany—unabashedly, knowing what his insistence made him seem. He didn't care. Even when he was beaten in court, he simply acquiesced—even as he cowered beneath a table, his yarmulke having been snatched off his head in an act of humiliation. He knew where he stood in this society, and he was just not going to beg or play the fool for them. Abraham and Tresnjak's Shylock, though often moving and righteously defiant, wasn’t a pleasant man, not a tragic hero, not an undeserving victim, not a sympathetic figure. Circumstances (that is, casual, societal, and deliberate anti-Semitism) had made him what he was, but Shylock refused to play the game even when it would have been to his advantage. Abraham let the contradictions in Shylock show, as when Antonio (Tom Nelis) viciously spat at him in court, after having won his case, and Shylock unhesitantly spat right back. In the end, however defeated, this Shylock was the equal in savagery of his Christian abusers—not a positive character trait, but a worthy theatrical achievement.

Shylock's relentless pursuit of money (Did he care more about the loss of his daughter, Jessica, or the loss of the ducats she took when she left?) might have made him a stereotype, except that everyone in this play was out for money one way or another. Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. In fact, nothing in this play was given away: it was all bartered, sold, traded, leveraged, or gambled—even love (filial or romantic). Money did, indeed, make this world go 'round. And everyone suspected he was being (or about to be) cheated—even if only romantically, if not financially.

Abraham was stunning as Shylock, reaching down into his depths to find the force of his basest feelings while at the same time recognizing that that's what they are. I don't know if his hands are actually exceptionally large, but they seemed so here. When he raised his arms or extended a hand to shake Antonio's (who refused), Abraham's palms and fingers looked immense. They weren't long-fingered and bony, like the classic image of Fagin; and he didn't make ham-fists like some over-the-hill fighter. The image I kept having was of 1962's horror flick, Hands of a Stranger. In any case, for me, Abraham's hands, which he seemed to flourish often, consistently drew my focus. For the rest of his characterization, his Shylock was never overtly impassioned; with all the strong emotions swirling around him—hatred, love, greed, generosity, vengeance, loyalty, friendship, fear—even in Shakespeare’s words, Abraham is composed, as if it all meant little to him (until his daughter betrays him, that is). Other Shylocks may seem like Jewish Lears, blustering and blowing in anger and revenge (like, perhaps Al Pacino’s 2004 film rendition), but Abraham was cool. For me, this made him all the more powerful—he was a stealth avenger. The rattlesnake lets you know he’s preparing to strike. The copperhead gives no signal. The venom of the one may be as strong as that of the other—but consider which is the more sinister threat.

Tresnjak made sure we saw the anti-Semitism and other kinds of bigoted behavior—it wasn’t soft-pedaled or lightened; indeed, the program had three pages of notes on anti-Semitism to make sure we knew what his theme was. Antonio, otherwise the stalwart friend, made no bones about his unreasoning hatred of Shylock and Jews; Portia (Kate Forbes) made pointed racist remarks about a Moorish suitor—to the silent consternation of Nerissa, who was black (Christen Simon); Lancelot Gobbo, also played by a black actor (Kenajuan Bentley), left the wealthy Shylock's employment for that of the impoverished Bassanio with a torrent of anti-Semitic curses (raising, intentionally I'm sure, the specter of the black anti-Semitism of contemporary America). And Shylock wasn’t immune from vicious hatred, either: Rather than the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech, it’s his courtroom exegesis of the unreasonableness of human hate that was the key text in this production: "It is my humour." (Time Out New York’s review by Adam Feldman included a photo caption that read: “Trial by Jewry.”) Tresnjak’s Merchant stressed Shylock's equality in vehemence and bloodthirstiness with the Venetians who provoke him—no side was seen to better effect than the other—they’re all nasty pieces of work.

[This report, originally written on 13 March 2007, was part of a longer discussion of both plays in the TFANA rep. It included a little comparison of the two plays and the two productions (which had the same casts and, mostly, design teams, but different directors). In fact, the plays were intended to be juxtaposed, and most of the published reviews contrasted both the scripts and lead characters and the productions and performances. In order to present the report on Merchant as a stand-alone article, I’ve had to excise the references to The Jew of Malta, and the resulting report’s been edited slightly for continuity. Otherwise, it’s essentially my evaluation of the experience I had four years ago.

[TFANA’s Merchant sold out in its original 2007 OB run and in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2006-7 Complete Works Festival at its home in Stratford-on-Avon, a year-long celebration of the Bard presenting all his works, including his poetry. After its return to New York, the TFANA production of Merchant will be embarking on the company's first national tour, stopping in Chicago (15-27 March, Bank of America Theatre), Boston (29 March–10 April, Majestic Theatre), and L.A. (14-24 April, Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center).]

23 February 2011

'Gruesome Playground Injuries'

My frequent theater companion, Diana, and I saw the new play by Rajiv Joseph, Gruesome Playground Injuries, at the Second Stage Theatre on Friday evening, 18 February. The 2ST production, directed by Scott Ellis and starring Jennifer Carpenter and Pablo Schreiber, was the New York première, but the play had been staged twice before: Houston’s Alley Theatre, 16 October-15 November 2009, and the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., 17 May-19 June 2010. (Everett Evans in the Houston Chronicle wrote, “GPI reveals an original voice with a knack for blending quirky humor and unexpected poignancy,” and in the Washington Post, Peter Marks said that Joseph takes a “jaunty, quirkily amusing tone” with the characters’ relationship.)

I’ve never seen any of Joseph’s work before, though this is his third show for 2ST (All This Intimacy, 2006; Animals Out of Paper, 2008) and his dark comedy Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer, will open on Broadway in March. Another new play, The North Pool, will première in Palo Alto, California, in March and the Alley will début The Monster at the Door in May. The playwright, who currently writes for the cable series Nurse Jackie, recounts that the play was inspired when he was in a bar talking with a friend who told Joseph about “terrifying and bizarre” childhood injuries he’d suffered. Later, while his friend went to replenish their drinks, Joseph wrote the title of his new play on a slip of paper. “I thought it would be an interesting way of charting one’s life—through one’s history of physical trauma,” said the playwright. “When I began to work on it, I figured a relationship could be measured the same way . . . .”

The 80-minute play’s structure is a little reminiscent of that oldie Same Time, Next Year, as the two characters, Kayleen and Doug, meet when they’re 8 and run into one another in the school nurse’s office. (In fact, the New York Times’s Ben Brantley quipped that the play could be renamed Same Time, Next Scar, though GPI’s vignettes aren’t in chronological order.) The two continue to meet at intervals for the next 30 years at the infirmary, a funeral parlor, and several hospitals. (The same actors, Carpenter, 31, and Schreiber, 32, play the two characters from childhood to adulthood.) Each time they meet, they compare wounds, scars, and hurts, finding that the injuries draw them together. Why and what it all means is the real subject under Joseph’s examination in GPI. The playwright confessed, “I’ve always been interested in . . . how primal forces like longing, or desire or a hunger for faith can take us to wild places,” and Patrick Healy of the New York Times reported that Joseph’s “wrestling with whether [Kayleen’s and Doug’s] continued pattern of—and attraction to—physical harm reflected brokenness in their souls.”

The reviews were mixed, both across the spectrum and within each notice. Almost all of them included elements of both intrigue and disappointment, mostly with Joseph’s script, which is episodic by design and jumps back and forth in time (15 years forward, then 10 years back); but there were comments placing some of the blame on the two actors for not being able to overcome the problems Joseph’s script hands them. (Both actors are currently working in cable TV series, Carpenter on Showtime’s Dexter as a serial killer’s sister, and Schreiber, who’s Liev Schreiber’s younger half-brother, on the FX show Lights Out as the brother and manager of a boxer. But both have also had considerable stage experience, including Schreiber’s Tony-nominated appearance in Lincoln Center’s Awake and Sing in 2006 and Carpenter’s turn in the Roundabout’s Crucible in 2002.) Some reviewers leaned more toward the positive (AP’s Jocelyn Noveck on ABCNews.com called the play a “strange but absorbing journey of pain” and Marilyn Stasio called it “wondrous strange” in Variety), others the negative (Elisabeth Vincentelli described GPI as “uneven” in the New York Post and Brantley called it “a blood-spattered twig of a play”), but they all suggested Gruesome Playground Injuries isn’t a play for the faint-hearted or squeamish. (Of course, the play’s title is a pretty clear warning.)

To be honest, the injuries, while ghastly enough in the abstract (a lost eye, a lightning strike), really end up seeming more cartoon-like than truly disturbing. Most, of course, are only described or named, often in the language of kids, and those that are visible . . . well, let’s just say we’re not in Sam Peckinpah territory here. I’m not going to catalogue the mishaps and damage (as most of the reviews did to some degree); I don’t want to give that much of the concept away. I won’t try to psychoanalyze the characters’ frequent encounters with harm, either, whether deliberate or accidental, as several of the published reviewers have done. I’m not qualified, in the first place, and Joseph has left too many possibilities open. In fact, this is emblematic of the whole play, as I’ll try to explain in a moment.

There are many shortcomings in GPI, some more significant than others. But first, let me outline what was good—even very good—about the 2ST production. First, and foremost, the acting was top-notch. There aren’t a lot of pyrotechnics called for in the script, but both Schreiber and Carpenter executed the shifts between ages nicely and believably. The trick is that they don’t get to age successively from eight to 38, which makes the transitions harder for them, I’d think; the scenes jump from eight to 23, then back to 13, up to 28, and so on, so the two actors must age up then drop back to a child or teen without being able to ease into the next scene. (Alexis Soloski of the Village Voice says the pattern is “elegant” in its contrast with the “messiness” of the characters’ lives, but I found it mostly a contrivance.) Okay, I’m twice Schreiber’s age now, so maybe I don’t remember what it was like to be eight or 13—or even 18; but I’ve taught teens within living memory and I’ve watched my cousins’ kids pass through those ages, and Carpenter and Schreiber were mighty convincing without being showy or clichéd. As adults, too, they embodied the kind of despair you might expect from people whose prospects are few and dispiriting—waiting tables and (ironically) claims-adjusting, for example. The emptiness increases as they get older, and since the actors don’t get simply to slide up the scale, the accomplishment was even more laudable. It was very nice work.

Schreiber’s Doug has more to do than Carpenter’s Kayleen, and he made the best of the possibilities. Doug’s an athlete as well as a daredevil. (In the first scene, where he’s “split his face open” from riding his bike off the school’s roof, he says he was emulating Evel Knievel.) So he’s more physical in the little set, giving Schreiber a chance to show the teenager’s gangly energy and the twenty-something’s careless physicality. Carpenter was more physically restrained, her arms often tight against her sides like those Irish dancers that were popular a couple of decades ago or so. (Both kids are products of Catholic parochial education, like Joseph himself—who in eighth grade was voted Most Likely to Become a Priest.) Carpenter was also more vocally restrained, though she let loose once or twice—but, again, her character isn’t boisterous or outwardly demonstrative. (As we’ll see, Kayleen has deep emotional problems; her turmoil is inner.) I will also venture that Schreiber, with his greater stage experience as well as the range of film and TV characters he’s played, may have more of a repertoire of physical and emotional behaviors on which to draw than Carpenter, but she was never false or hesitant, and I never felt as if the two were in different plays.

Scott Ellis’s direction on Neil Patel’s minimalist set was strong on character and pacing; the eight scenes moved along quickly and without fussy scene changes. Patel devised a unit set for all the scenes, basically a lucite runway (there were spectators on the opposite side—“upstage,” if you will—of the platform) with white, modular walls at each end. Vincentelli called it “antiseptic,” but I find that overstated; I’d agree, though, with Stasio’s characterization of “austere.” Neutral is most apt. The edges of the platform, which was lighted from beneath, were a line of clear plastic boxes illuminated and filled with water from which the actors washed off old makeup between scenes. Costume changes were performed, as Joseph’s script demands, on stage in dim light, but not dark. (Actually, I was thinking that it might be more fun—not to say dramatically more impactful—to see the actors make their changes, the way Salieri changes before us in Amadeus. It’s not in the least significant in terms of the play; it’s just a druther. The serviceable costumes were designed by Jeff Mashie and the stark lighting was by Donald Holder.) Patel set drawers and cabinets into the end walls for the new clothes to come out of and the old ones to go into. Carpenter and Schreiber helped one another make the changes if necessary, and the few set pieces—almost always including a hospital bed or gurney—were rolled on from the wings and the actors set them for the new scene. Then, when everything was ready, if one actor had an entrance in the new vignette, she or he exited while the other took the correct position on stage. The new scene was then announced by a lighted projection on the rear wall pronouncing the characters’ ages and the title of the scene (“Thirteen: Limbo”; “Eighteen: Pink Eye”; “Twenty-three: Tooth and Nail”) It's a gimmick, mostly intended to cover the scene breaks, since the actors would still have had to make the changes and we’d otherwise have been staring at an empty stage for several minutes since there was virtually no set to shift.

Playwright Joseph has written some nicely speakable dialogue. Like Carpenter and Schreiber, he’s evoked the age progression credibly, capturing the awkwardness and bravado of youngsters as they test the sensitivities and pressure points of themselves and others. The actors were able to carry through their characterizations as well as they did because Joseph wrote actable dialogue. It’s not poetic, like Williams, or tough naturalism like Miller, but it sounded true and faithful to the characters. One on-line reviewer found this very attribute was a drawback because such “ineloquence, . . . though natural, lose[s] . . . potency as the play progresses.” I totally disagree: Joseph’s unaffected dialogue is one of the charms of the play. It’s also one of the characteristics of the script that underlies the aging of the characters—their speech grows up as they do. (Joseph is currently writing for a cable TV series, as I noted, and before he turned to playwriting, he was heading for a career as a screenwriter. TV and film writing may have informed this quality in his stage writing.) The playwright also has a nice way with a catch phrase: In the first scene, when Kayleen and Doug are eight, she keeps asking him, “Does it hurt?” and he replies perfunctorily, “A little,” as if he’d never say it did even if the pain were excruciating. Later, in many of the other vignettes, she asks him the same question, and gets a variation of his answer; in one scene, he asks the question. It is one way to remind us that these two have a connection—which, we’ll see, needs reinforcement.

All of this adds up to only half a show, though. The scenes are blackouts in that they have a beginning, but they have no end—they just stop. Nothing’s resolved, developed, or concluded. One scene doesn’t lead to another (even if you straighten them out chronologically) though previous history is acknowledged. (In the case of the only two scenes set in the same year, we get a bit of a flashback. The second of the vignettes actually takes place before the earlier one, so we see the set-up of the accident the results of which we’ve already witnessed. The first of the two scenes also makes mention of the circumstances we see played out in scene two. But these are only verbal links, not dramatic ones—and they’re pretty contrived to boot.) Joseph has said he’s looking at how a relationship might develop through shared disasters and hurts, but there’s no real relationship between Kayleen and Doug. They say there is one: they say they are each other’s “best friend” and Doug calls Kayleen his guardian angel who can “mend” his wounds—but they seldom really see each other outside the meetings every five years when one or the other—usually Doug—is injured. (Kind of ironically, Kayleen can’t heal Doug’s wounds, but the actress helps create them for her partner by doing his makeup for each new scene.) Doug says he looked for Kayleen when he came back from college, but he did see her father and they had friends or acquaintances in common, so how hard could it have been to find her? (We don’t know where the play is set, but the sense I got is that it’s a small city, not a huge metropolis—Joseph is from Cleveland—and both families had been lifelong residents.) Kayleen doesn’t seem to care much, between encounters, what Doug is up to. After one meeting in the hospital, after Doug had been hit by lightning, she says later she thought he’d died. She didn’t even bother to find out! Doug finds Kayleen as an 18-year-old holed up in her room at home and learns that she’s been cutting herself (and submitting to unwelcome sex because she thought it might stop her). He gets angry at her then, but then he doesn’t see her again for five more years. This is a developing relationship? These are people who care about one another?

Joseph recounted that his first intention for what became GPI was to write only a few scenes in which adult actors could work on playing children. I assume that he meant for them to be used in studios and classrooms, and not for public performance. (David Sheward of Back Stage, which calls itself “The Actor’s Resource,” directly identified the play as “material for scene-study class.”) The unfinished nature of the vignettes is perhaps the result of the playwright having never gone back when he changed his goal to complete the scenes by filling out the actual relationship between the two characters so that the actors would have somewhere to go. As they stand now, the episodes are much like technique exercises, the kind of thing Uta Hagen might have included in her Object Exercises which actors are meant to use to explore elements, what I used to call the building blocks, of a character or a scene (“Three Entrances”; “Immediacy”; “History”), but which alone aren’t stageworthy, any more than an artist’s exploratory brush strokes or media experiments are ready to be seen by viewers. In light of this acknowledgement, what I saw was sort of like one of those studies an artist does before working on a complete painting—a practice run of bits and pieces for the whole work. It’s tantalizing, maybe even promising—but unsatisfying.

There’s also no context for the quinquennial scenes we get to see. Joseph provides no information about the characters’ lives outside the medical facilities in which we meet them—at least not until near the end of the 80 minutes, and then only a few details. We don’t know why Doug and Kayleen behave the way they do or why Joseph tells us they need each other. Soloski precisely characterized the characters as “at once overdrawn and insufficiently inhabited” in the Voice and ascribed the fault largely to Joseph, but then added that “the actors can't quite overcome” the problem. I don’t see what Soloski could have expected Schreiber and Carpenter to have done with roles that end before they get anywhere. As a former actor myself, I can’t put any blame on them for that; not even Ellis can be answerable for not solving material that’s not in the script. As Back Stage’s Sheward attested, the production shows “what a strong director and cast can do with a skimpy play.”

The playwright’s theme, he says, is to explore how “primal forces” can drive us to extreme acts. Well, yes, if you get to arrange the actions and set up the forces at work! Joseph has made these two hurt themselves, either deliberately (Kayleen) or through reckless actions (Doug), and they keep repeating the behavior over and over. Then Joseph contrives to put them in each other’s paths at intervals even though there’s no dramatic reason for them to seek one another out. They hear about one another’s injuries, but they don’t seem to write each other during their separations, call one another, ask their friends about one another. There’s no contact for five years. (Like the location, we don’t know when the action takes place, but if the last scene is the year Joseph completed the play, it spans 1979 to 2009, mostly within the age of e-mail, Facebook, and Google.) I’m no psychologist, but my guess is that the way these two proceed untreated and without an intervention, one or both of them would have been dead before the end of the play. (In fact, I’d guess that if you really rode a bike off the roof of a school, even a two-story building, you’d more likely be killed or busted into a thousand pieces than merely get your face cut open. Then there’d have been no play at all!) Joseph got to make the characters come back each time and then repeat their behavior once again.

I can’t imagine what either of these two would be like—or how much of them would be left—after the last scene at 38. Could they even survive to 43? (Kayleen seems to have the more serious, deeper problem, and her troubles do increase in intensity—although it’s Doug who becomes more and more maimed as the years go by.) And that’s another failing here. The scenes have no ending, and neither does the play. (How could it? The last scene has no more of a conclusion than the first.) We learn little about Doug or Kayleen and they learn little about themselves. We know some factoids of their lives, but what do they want? What drives them to it? Of that we have no hint. Neither makes a move to resolve their own problems, much less the other’s. What do they take away? What do we take away? Do we assume they go on repeating their destructive behavior? Does anyone reach out to help them, to stop them? They don’t really help one another, despite what Doug believes—they feed off one another. It’s hardly a healthy association—or one with much of a future.

As I said, I don’t know Joseph’s work beyond GPI. Most of the reviewers praised his past writing and say they’re looking forward to the Broadway début of Bengal Tiger. I can say, from this one sample, that the dramatist has a quirky imagination—the only thing I know about Bengal Tiger is that the main character is the big cat!—and can write interesting and actable dialogue. As for whether he’s got real playwriting chops, I guess I’ll have to wait to find out. My dad used to say he disliked mixed grills because there were too many things on the plate and not enough of any of them. That’s what Gruesome Playground Injuries was like for me—a theatrical mixed grill, a tasting platter. It wasn’t unpleasant or distasteful—but it wasn’t filling.

[The 2ST run of Gruesome Playground Injuries, which started previews on 5 January and opened on 1 February, closed on 20 February. Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo will open on 31 March at the Richard Rogers Theatre with Robin Williams as the title character under Moisés Kaufman’s direction. It had its world première at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California, with Kevin Tighe, 10 May-7 June 2009; the production, also staged by Kaufman, moved to the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., 14 April -30 May 2010. The North Pool will première in a production of TheatreWorks at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto from 9 March to 3 April, and Houston’s Alley will début The Monster at the Door, 4-29 May. After a revival in January and February this year at the Public Theatre in Lewiston, Maine, Animals Out of Paper will be restaged by Amphibian Stage Productions at the Betty Sanders Theatre in Ft. Worth, Texas, 11-27 March.]

18 February 2011

Theatrical Structure II

[I return to the description of Michael Kirby’s system of structural analysis with part two. The first part of the discussion ended with a demonstration of various types of Action Structure; we start now with Information Structure.]

The piecing together of the clues evident in the Character Action of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also a mechanism of the play as a whole. There are several of these Information Structures operating in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. (Don’t confuse Kirby’s term “informational structure,” which I used earlier and which refers to elements that affect a work’s meaning or interpretation, and “Information Structure,” the particular structural device described here. Like all the names of the devices, Information Structure will always be capitalized in this discussion.) They are, in a way, integral to the “superobjective” of the main characters since they deal with piecing together details of the situation surrounding the courtiers and why they’ve come to Elsinore at all. The smallest Information Structure is the Hamlet history—that is, the background of Shakespeare’s plot. Presuming a spectator who doesn’t already know Hamlet, all the information regarding King Hamlet’s murder, Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius, Claudius’s usurpation of the throne, and Hamlet’s return from abroad is missing. The story of the usurpation and marriage is provided in a role-play in which Guildenstern answers for Hamlet while Rosencrantz “gleans what afflicts him.” The earlier part of the story, the murder and hasty courtship, is related in the Tragedians’ dumbshow rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago, which more directly parallels the court intrigue in Stoppard than it does in Shakespeare. Even to a naïve spectator, enough of this mime is a recognizable portrayal of events already witnessed that the connection’s unshakable.

In Act Three, another piece of information is put together in a similar fashion. The audience discovers that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bear “a letter from one king to another.”. Subsequently it learns that the letter’s for the King of England and that it “explains everything.” Finally, the letter’s contents are revealed. It may be considered part of this same structure that Hamlet subsequently switches letters with his sleeping companions and it’s eventually revealed that they are carrying orders for their own deaths. In this extended case, the structure isn’t determining the contents and import of the letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying, but how they end up with their own death warrant, which the spectator’s learned from the dumbshow. I prefer, however, to look at the latter part as the fulfillment of an Expectancy Structure and treat the first letter separately as an Information Structure.

Both the Hamlet history and the England letter are surrounded by a larger, more pervasive Information Structure. Early in the play, the viewer learns that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “were sent for” by “a messenger.” Little by little, throughout the rest of the play, the spectator learns more about the messenger, his message, how he delivered it, and who sent him. Some of these details are unimportant to the plot, but they function as Information Structure, and the audience accumulates the data across the whole piece, reinforcing its structural unity.

Usually, Information Structure is discontinuous, with the bits of information pieced together by the spectator coming at isolated moments of the performance. In these cases, clearly the dynamic is retrospective, since the spectator thinks back to the part of the puzzle already assembled as each new piece is revealed and adds the new data to the information he’s accumulated. Occasionally, such as in a mystery story, the search for information becomes such an ongoing process that it’s continuous, working forward as the audience anticipates the discovery of each new clue. Since they don’t know what the next bit of information will be, however, the audience isn’t awaiting a specific event, unlike in a true Expectancy. Kirby made a distinction between generalized expectancy—a feeling that something unspecified’s going to happen—and Structural Expectancy which creates the anticipation that something specific will happen (even if it doesn’t).

I’ve referred to the Tragedians’ performance of The Murder of Gonzago as a Parallel Structure. With a prior knowledge of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, this is immediately obvious, since Stoppard’s expanded the play-within-the-play by inserting much of the Hamlet background and plot. However, since I’m assuming an audience with no such familiarity, this Parallelism may not be so immediately striking. Certain elements in the mime are portrayals of things which the spectator’s already seen, or which are in front of her as the mime’s being presented. The accumulation of these bits will make a reasonably astute audience connect the events and characters of the dumbshow to the events and characters in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern. Among the most salient of these elements are the hasty courtship of the King’s widow by his brother/murderer and the fact that he subsequently appears as the King, which parallel the story related by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern during their role-play. An unmistakable Parallel occurs at the end of the mime, when the Spies are uncloaked, revealing that they are costumed in “coats identical to those worn by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” I believe that an audience would likely expand the Parallel in retrospect to include the whole mime, which in fact does predict the remaining plot of Stoppard’s play.

In addition to this structural Parallel, two incidents of physical Parallelism also occur. At the end of the play-within-the-play, the Spies’ bodies are lying on stage covered by their cloaks as the lights go out. When the lights come back on, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are lying, also covered, in the same positions. Later, just before the end of Stoppard’s play, the Tragedians demonstrate their skill at “dying,” and each player portrays a different death (out of Shakespeare’s last scene). When the play itself is over, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have “disappeared,” the stage lights reveal “arranged in the approximate positions last held by the dead Tragedians, the tableau of court and corpses which is the last scene of Hamlet.”

The existence of these Parallels suggests another structural force at work in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern—that of various Levels. Kirby drew the analogy with a painting in which the foreground, Level A, is painted in front of the background, Level B. Everything in one Level relates to everything else in the same Level. There are, by my count, four Levels on which the characters relate to each other and the audience differently from the established style of the play. The briefest of these, occurring only in one extended scene, is the above-mentioned rehearsal/performance of The Murder of Gonzago in which the Tragedians perform as mime-actors. According to the stage directions, the style of performance within Gonzago is different from that outside it, and the Tragedians relate to one another as characters (that is, “The King,” “The Queen”) rather than as colleagues and companions. Furthermore, while they are performing they don’t relate to those outside Gonzago at all.

In a somewhat similar situation, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern role-play with one another (as a method of finding out what’s happening around them). I’ve already mentioned the occasion on which Rosencrantz questions Guildenstern, who answers for Hamlet. Later in the play, first Rosencrantz then Guildenstern play the King of England as they explore what would happen when they arrive with the letter. In all three cases, the two men deal with each other differently from their usual relationship. There’s unquestionably a different dynamic during the role-plays which sets them on a different Level.

A third Level occurs in small moments scattered throughout the performance. It’s the least substantial Level, but nonetheless distinctive when it occurs. When Rosencrantz or Guildenstern quote or paraphrase Shakespeare (outside those whole Shakespearean scenes which are a fourth Level), they display a certain self-consciousness. In some cases, the borrowings are recognizable from scenes within the play, but a number belong to Hamlet scenes Stoppard doesn’t use. Even without knowing that the words or phrases are borrowed from Shakespeare, a spectator can “hear” the quotation marks. The language doesn’t quite fit with the usual dialogue, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to know it.

The fourth Level, as I mentioned, is the easiest to recognize. These are the scenes which Stoppard’s lifted from Shakespeare and in which the characters all use Shakespeare’s dialogue. Some are quite extensive, while others are very brief. Some even have no dialogue, such as Hamlet’s “words, words, words” scene. Only Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and, rarely, the Tragedians cross over from Shakespeare to Stoppard—Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia never enter the Stoppard world, and Hamlet does so only briefly in the very end. Undeniably, this creates another Level in the performance since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern relate to these characters in a way different from their relationship to each other and to the Tragedians.

A by-product of the Parallelism in the Gonzago performance is a series of Expectancies set up in the spectator’s mind. If the Parallels are recognized, the viewer’s led to expect that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will accompany Hamlet to England on a boat with a letter to the English king and that this letter will order their deaths. The final scene of Gonzago, in which the Spies, dressed like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are killed, leads the audience to expect the courtiers to die. Gonzago also predicts that Hamlet will kill Polonius. All these Expectancies are fulfilled by the end of the play, though for this structure to work it’s not necessary for the specific event anticipated to happen—as long as the spectator keeps waiting for it.

Expectancy Structure is evident in a great variety of other examples, including the Tragedians’ entrances, which are always preceded by their music from off stage; Hamlet’s entrances, which are frequently preceded by Guildenstern ordering Rosencrantz to “go and see if he’s there,” followed by a conversation which always includes the phrase “What’s he doing?”; Rosencrantz’s disappearance, predicting Guildenstern’s, and the Player’s repeated statement that his play could hardly end “with practically everyone on his feet,” which suggests that Stoppard’s play will end with nearly everyone dead.

There are dozens of other examples, but one more that’s most interesting is really three nested Expectancies. It starts with Rosencrantz’s announcement that Hamlet’s met with the Tragedians and “they have already order/This night to play before him” (play expectancy established). Shortly afterwards, Claudius explains to Gertrude that he’s “closely sent for Hamlet hither,/That he . . . may here/Affront Ophelia” (Hamlet-Ophelia meeting anticipated). Hamlet’s arrival is expected when Rosencrantz announces, “He’s coming” (Hamlet arrival anticipated), whereupon Hamlet arrives (Hamlet arrival resolved), leaving the spectator to expect Ophelia and the “affrontation.” This occurs in the Hamlet, Act Three, scene one cutting (Hamlet-Ophelia meeting resolved), and the spectator now awaits the performance of the play (play performed).

The converse of Expectancy Structure, where the spectator’s attention’s continuously directed forward to a specific event in the future of the performance, is Memory Structure, where her attention’s directed back to an earlier incident in the performance. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern provides a great number of such structural connections—far too many to list here. One of the more interesting ones occurs when Rosencrantz, replying to Gertrude’s questions about their encounter with Hamlet, says Hamlet was “Niggard of question, but of our demands most free in reply.” This is an outright lie, and the spectator will remember that Rosencrantz had said earlier, just after the scene with Hamlet, “Twenty-seven questions he got out in ten minutes, and answered three.” Another interesting Memory Structure deals with a description of Hamlet’s appearance. Guildenstern describes him as “. . . appearing hatless in public—knock-kneed, droop-stockinged and sighing like a love-sick schoolboy.” Hamlet’s first appearance in the play is described by the stage directions this way: “Hamlet [enters], . . . no hat upon his head, his stockings fouled, ungartered and down-gyved to his ankles, . . . his knees knocking each other . . . and . . . he raises a sigh so piteous and profound that it does seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being.” When the Tragedians show up on the boat carrying Hamlet and his friends to England in Act Three, the Player explains that “Our play offended the King.” This will remind the spectator that the performance of Gonzago was ended by “Shouts . . . ‘The King rises!’ . . . ‘Give o’er the play!’”

Each of these mechanisms, and the many others, work to connect moments in the performance to earlier ones, reinforcing for the spectator that all the elements are interconnected. Another common connective force that binds the play together in a similar way, this time continually moving forward, is Thematic Structure, or repetitions. I identified over two dozen Thematic repetitions in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, a number of them structurally very significant. The two courtiers, for instance, are constantly playing games. They flip coins, bet that double the year of someone’s birth is even, guess which fist hides a coin, and play at “questions.” Rosencrantz’s failing memory recurs as does the reference to or discussion of death. One repeated joke is the inability of anyone, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves, to tell the two courtiers apart. There’s also a blocking Theme in which several characters break the “fourth wall” by crossing front and staring out at the audience. And there’s a literary Theme in the form of rhymed nonsense couplets:

ROSENCRANTZ: Consistency is all I ask!
GUILDENSTERN: Give us this day our daily mask.

ROSENCRANTZ: Immortality is all I seek . . . .
GUILDENSTERN: Give us this day our daily week . . . .

ROSENCRANTZ: All I ask is our common due!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
GUILDENSTERN: Give us this day our daily cue.

ROSENCRANTZ: Plausibility is all I presume!
GUILDENSTERN: Call us this day our daily tune . . . .

A mechanism that’s related to Thematic Structure is Echoes—repetitions which occur only once. Again, there were a large number of these in the play; here are a few examples from the dialogue:

GUILDENSTERN: I mean you wouldn’t bet on it. I mean I would, but you wouldn’t.
PLAYER: . . . if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.

ROSENCRANTZ: We haven’t got there yet.
PLAYER: Of course, we haven’t got there yet.

ROSENCRANTZ: You made me look ridiculous.
ROSENCRANTZ: I think we can say he made us look ridiculous.

PLAYER: There’s nothing more unconvincing than an unconvincing death.
PLAYER: . . . he just wasn’t convincing.

Several Echoes are physical: After trying to get Guildenstern to guess which fist hides the coin, “Rosencrantz inadvertently shows that both are empty,” then, after the same game, “Rosencrantz inadvertently reveals that he has a coin in both fists.” While speculating about being alive in a box, Rosencrantz bangs the floor with his fists; on the boat, “Rosencrantz considers the floor: slaps it.”

There’s one extraordinary situation which echoes a Theme. When Rosencrantz asks, “We didn’t harm anyone. Did we?” Guildenstern replies, “I can’t remember”—Guildenstern has echoed Rosencrantz’s memory Theme.

The last unifying agent in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Present Reference, connects the characters on stage with their immediate surroundings by acknowledging people, objects, or actions on stage with them. With frequent greetings and introductions, characters are often referring to each other on stage; other references to the Present Moment include:

References to people:

PLAYER: An audience.

ROSENCRANTZ: Tumblers, are you?

HAMLET enters upstage . . . .
ROS and GUIL watch him.

GUILDENSTERN: Are you there?

References to the setting or props:

ROSENCRANTZ: It’s coming up through the floor.

ROSENCRANTZ: We’re on a boat.

GUILDENSTERN: . . . Tie up the letter—there—neatly—like that.

References to action:

PLAYER: Get your skirt off, Alfred.

GUILDENSTERN: . . . aren’t you going to change into your costume?

PLAYER: I beg your pardon.
GUILDENSTERN: What did he do?
PLAYER: I put my foot down.
ROSENCRANTZ: My hand was on the floor!
GUILDENSTERN: You put your hand under his foot?

GUILDENSTERN: . . . a pipe is heard.

With thirteen of fifteen structural forces operating, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern is unquestionably tightly laced together. The fact that a number of the structural connections overlap or operate in tandem only strengthens the unity. Perhaps a play as logically absurd as Stoppard’s requires a stronger structure than more conventional plays. Certainly, all this added to the stylistically unified set and whatever other stylistic unity the director, designers, and actors contribute in production would make a firmly structured performance.

[If Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead can be so well described using Structural Theory, the usefulness of the system to playwrights, directors, designers, and teachers of theater and drama, not to mention other disciplines, seems clear. As a theater teacher and sometime director and dramaturg, I can affirm that Michael’s ideas have provided me with insights and solutions I’d never otherwise have found. I’m confident, too, that he’d be pleased to see his Structural Analysis more widely applied.

[I remonstrated with Michael about calling his course “Theatrical” Structure, since his theory applies equally to dance (indeed, one class assignment was to analyze a dance performance) and other performance forms such as opera, vaudeville, and, even, circus. I suggested it should be more accurately called “Performance” Structure, a more inclusive term. He insisted simply that in his use, “theater” wasn’t restricted to “drama,” but included all these other genres as well. I hope that readers will all note that anything useful revealed here can be applied, either in analysis or in creation, elsewhere than plays.]

15 February 2011

Theatrical Structure I

[In the fall of 1983, I took a course called Theatrical Structure from the late Michael Kirby, who died in 1997, at NYU’s Department of Performance Studies. Michael was a Structuralist; his own definition of Structuralism, which he capitalized as an aesthetic movement to distinguish it from a general philosophical concept, is an “esthetic theory that emphasizes and gives primary importance to Structure.” He described the Structuralist philosophy in detail in his essay “Manifesto of Structuralism” (Drama Review 19.4 [Dec. 1975]) and several Structuralist plays by him and by other formalists in “Structural Analysis/Structural Theory” (Drama Review 20.4 [Dec. 1976]). As far as I can determine, no one, including Michael, ever explained his system in print; it was transmitted only orally to his NYU students. I’m going to try to present a model of Michael’s structural analysis here, divided into two sections, using Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Grove Press, 1967). The names of the structural devices Michael identified are from his NYU class; they don’t appear in “Structural Analysis,” though several are defined or described there. My definitions are derived from Michael’s explanations in class as I understood and learned to apply them when I took the course.]

“Nothing exists without structure,” Michael Kirby admonished. “There are only people who are not aware of perceiving structure.” Kirby had been a Professor of Performance Studies at New York University and wrote extensively about such genres as Happenings and Futurist theater, but he was also a sculptor—and, therefore, something of a formalist. He was also the composer of Structuralist plays which he directed or oversaw worldwide. As a Structuralist, he developed a unique method of analyzing performances from the perspective of the way they’re held together across time in the mind of the spectator. Since Kirby, aside from writing Structuralist plays based on his theory, could describe non-Structuralist performances using his analytical system, directors and designers of even non-formalist scripts should find much in it to use in production work. Despite Kirby’s insistence that structural theory “relegates any and all other aspects of a performance”—including meaning or interpretation—”to lesser positions,” there’s nothing to prevent directors or designers from applying it to create or enhance their narrative or dramatic points at the same time as they strengthen their productions’ theatrical unity. Even non-Structuralist authors can find useful application of Structural Theory to strengthen the unity of a diffuse or discursive text. Furthermore, that the analysis that follows is based on a text rather than a performance indicates that it’s also a useful tool for textual analysis alongside Aristotelian dramatic structure. In fact, I submit that this analytical method can be revealing even when applied to non-dramatic texts such as poetry and novels.

“Analysis,” according to Webster, is “a separation or breaking up of any whole into its parts so as to find out their nature, proportion, function, relationship, etc.” Theatrical structure, in Kirby’s terms, is “the way the parts of a work relate to each other, how they ‘fit together’ in the mind to form a particular configuration.” The structural analysis of a performance, then, is the identification of those elements which make it appear a unified whole in the mind of the spectator, often despite the disparate elements that compose it. This isn’t the same as traditional dramatic structure, which is usually a literary analysis of a text, though it may be seen as a companion to such analysis. Structural analysis is entirely subjective and will necessarily vary from spectator to spectator, even at the same performance.

Because structural analysis deals with the perception of someone watching the performance, elements determined to unify the production may or may not be intentionally put there by the writer, director, designers, or performers. Their significance isn’t less because a single spectator identifies them, or because two spectators identify them differently. In short, if you see a unifying device, then it’s there, whether or not anyone else sees it. Even accidents, if they can be seen to unite a performance over time, are legitimate structural devices. “[S]tructure,” Kirby asserted, “becomes manifest in the workings of the mind” because “time is crossed by mental connections.” Indeed, structure needn’t even be consciously noted to be present. Audiences need only sense “certain reflections, certain echoes, certain premonitions, certain answers, certain frustrations, certain fulfillments.” Since we’re talking here about psychological connections, it’s also true that even unrecognized structures will serve to unite moments of the performance.

Kirby identified 15 structural devices, each of which works to connect parts of a performance in a different way. Not all fifteen need appear in any given work and, of those that do, not all will appear with equal frequency or force. Of course, which devices appear and their significance is entirely in the perception of the spectator. It’s of no consequence whether a structure’s seen as weak or strong, useful or trivial. Structural analysis doesn’t imply a value judgment and the quality of a perceived structure’s entirely a matter of the spectator’s individual assessment. Certainly, not all will be equally significant to the meaning or interpretation of the play; however, for our purposes, structural analysis isn’t concerned with meaning, which Kirby referred to as “informational” or “semantic” structures, but deals exclusively with form, that is, the “formal” or “non-semantic” structures.

To see what could be learned both about the analytical system and about a conventional, albeit logically diffuse, play, I analyzed Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead structurally. In my analysis of Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play, I’ve made two assumptions. The first is that the text’s a fair representation of a performance and, thus, that the stage directions are true indications of performance behavior. This assumption, however, necessitates omitting those structural elements that can be added in production by designers, directors, and actors, though these will considerably enhance the unity of the performance. Since most, if not all, of these structural devices are applicable to sound, movement, set and props, and costumes, as well as text, there are a great many ways these artists can increase the occurrence and impact of the devices. The second assumption is that the model spectator’s totally naïve with regard to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in that he’s never seen a production before and doesn’t know Shakespeare’s Hamlet, from which Stoppard’s play is derived.

The analysis of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead which follows is my own interpretation of the structural devices and how they function in the play. It’s offered as a model for the application of Kirby’s analysis technique, not a definitive structural analysis of Stoppard’s play. Other observers will certainly see different structures and will attribute different significance to them. Additionally, as I’ve noted, I’ve used the text for this analysis, not a performance. A spectator doesn’t have the ability to “reread” parts of a production that have passed by in time and will necessarily miss many structures or note them only subliminally. This doesn’t invalidate the system or my model.

The 15 devices considered in analyzing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Progression, Framing, Character Structure, Contrast, Patterns, Action, Episodic Structure, Information Structure, Parallelism, Levels, Expectancy, Memory, Thematic Structure, Echoes, and Present Reference. Of these, I find no evidence in the play of Progression or Framing. The most vivid illustration of Progression—where something’s accumulated or stripped away by degrees throughout the play—occurs in the film Little Big Man in which Allardyce T. Merriweather, the snake-oil salesman played by Martin Balsam, keeps appearing with fewer and fewer body parts.

Framing—where a distinctive performance element brackets the play, a scene, or a series of scenes at the beginning and the end—may be exemplified by the simple mechanism of raising the curtain at the beginning of a performance and lowering it at the end, joining together everything that happens in between. This is, of course, useful in vaudeville and music hall performances whose components have no narrative or logical link. Peter Shaffer employs a more dramatic instance of Framing in Amadeus. Most of the play takes place in the eighteenth century, but Act One opens with accusatory whispering voices, then shifts to Antonio Salieri’s apartment in 1823 and Act Two ends with the reverse of this sequence.

The remaining 13 structural devices in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern provide a great number of examples of psychological connections. Perhaps the most obvious unifying force is the omnipresence of the two title characters. Except for an exit at the end of Act Two and their “disappearance” at the end of the play, these two characters are always on stage. Thus Character Structure holds the performance together by the constant presence of the two main figures, regardless of who else may enter and exit, or what locations or settings may be employed. Reinforcing this structure, the Tragedians reappear at regular and extensive intervals, further tying the play together by the presence of key characters.

Character Structure can have variants, particularly in contemporary performance. For instance, a character’s presence may be felt throughout the performance even though no actor portrays him. Godot comes to mind, of course, though Vladimir and Estragon are always on stage themselves. In Horton Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta, the title figure never appears but he’s nevertheless a constant presence. In some performances no single character remains on stage, but one actor does, as in the stage works of Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, and Anna Deavere Smith. In still other performances, many actors may come and go on the stage, all representing a single character, say at different ages or stages of life. In The Yellow House, a play about Vincent van Gogh by Leonardo Shapiro and The Shaliko Company, four actors (including a woman) portrayed various avatars of the artist, at least one of whom was always on stage.

If Character Structure is reinterpreted more generally as Continuity Structure, aspects of performance other than characters or actors can function as unifying devices. Setting—”a place without any visible character” in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern; Waiting for Godot’s “A country road. A tree. Evening”—or other design elements can operate structurally. (Ironically, the 1990 film version of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern lost this unifying structure by the cinematic technique of “opening up” the text, depicting realistically and literally the locations only suggested in the stage script.) In Brecht’s The Measures Taken, different members of a group portray one of their number who was killed. In a 1974 production by The Shaliko Company, each actor in turn donned a red bandana as a distinguishing emblem so that a costume element formed a connective thread through the scenes.

Another device, Contrast, highlights the Character Structure in the constant presence of the two courtiers. The juxtaposition of two elements can create an effect that wouldn’t exist if either element were absent as in Vincent van Gogh’s belief that one painting shows up more vividly when hung next to another in a complimentary color, say a blue one beside an orange one or a red one beside a green one. In performance, a comic scene may make surrounding tragic ones seem graver; a brightly lit scene emphasizes the darkness of dimly lit ones before or after it. As mentioned, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do make an exit at the end of Act Two just as the stage blacks out. This is their only exit in view of the audience, and it points up the fact that they’ve never been out of the spectator’s sight for two acts. Additionally, at the end of the play, first Rosencrantz then Guildenstern “dies” by disappearing from view. (They don’t actually exit, but are blacked out by the stage lights.) The only occasion on which dialogue and action take place without Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being present, this Contrast makes the preceding Character Structure appear stronger in retrospect.

This is an opportune juncture to point out that many structural mechanisms work “backwards.” When a spectator recognizes a structural element, she usually recalls something earlier in the performance. Structures that connect moments distant in time—always retrospectively—are “discontinuous.” A Frame, for example, is clearly discontinuous: each instance exists discretely. Framing only emerges as a structural element with the second instance, when the spectator’s reminded of the first occurrence, connecting the two and integrating in her mind everything that happened in between. Structures that steadily carry the spectator forward as they flow through the performance, such as Character Structure, are “continuous” structures.

In addition to its function as a subsidiary Character Structure, the Tragedians’ reappearances are so regular that they form a discernible Pattern of entrances and exits. After the first appearance—and certainly after the second—the spectator can predict when they’ll appear again. The Pattern of off-stage and on-stage time is as follows:

  • Act I: 11 pages off – 14 pages on – 19 pages off.
  • Act II: 7 pages off – 8 pages on – 6 pages off – 9 pages on – 11 pages off.
  • Act III: 17 pages off – 12 pages on – 2 pages off.

Taking into consideration that the time it takes to perform a page of script will vary, only the last, very short scene would be noticeably different in stage time. (The longer passages include a good deal of short dialogue and long stage directions.) This predictability psychologically connects the passing events of the performance for the spectator and engenders an Expectancy that the elements of the Pattern will reappear.

Like the presence of characters, their Actions and the Action of the play itself also unite the performance into a whole. Aristotle considered Action to be Physical Action, such as “bringing a murderer to justice” or “ascending the throne,” within which each scene causes the next to happen in a chain that inevitably results in the play’s climax. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, there’s certainly a physical act toward which the play’s tending: the courtiers’ deaths. That’s where the path the title characters are following leads, but neither they nor the spectator (if he’s truly naïve as I’ve assumed) knows this—at least until the broad hint’s dropped during the Tragedians’ dress rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago late in Act Two. There’s certainly no cause-and-effect relationship among most of the scenes. The games Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play aren’t caused by any Action that comes before, nor do they cause any subsequent Actions. The Tragedians, whom the courtiers encounter first on the road to Elsinore, don’t further the Action, nor are they propelled by it in any way. Yet there’s a feeling of continuity; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are headed toward some fate which they don’t know and can’t escape. This Reflexive Action—one the spectator doesn’t recognize until it’s nearly been fulfilled—is, however non-Aristotelian, a continuous presence holding the performance together. In fact, the spectator needn’t be able to name the Action for it to be structurally effective. He need only sense that something’s going on and be pulled along with this unspecified Action.

Action can also be psychological—what Stanislavsky called the “superobjective.” This is the principle goal or aim toward which the characters strive—what they want. It may not be the same as the Physical Action of the play and, indeed, in modern theater, both may not even exist in the script—though either may be created by the director and cast. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, there’s a clear Psychological Action that both the title characters have in common. They both want to know what’s happening around them, and they actively seek out clues and piece together information to figure this out. That they never succeed is inconsequential in terms of the validity of the Action; it’s still what drives them through the play and keeps the spectator connected to the performance. Success or failure in accomplishing an Action within the bounds of the play has no bearing on the effectiveness of Action as a structural device since, as long as the characters pursue it, the audience is drawn along with that pursuit.

Either Physical Action or Psychological Action may be a reflection of Plot Action, a semantic function of the work’s narrative if it has one. Plot Action is certainly a component of the text, but it can still serve as a powerful unifying performance force as spectators follow the story and anticipate events down the road. In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, the Plot Action is related to the courtiers’ Character Actions. The play’s the story of two lost men trying to figure out what’s going on around them. As long as the audience watches them gather clues and try to put information together, even if the information’s misleading and the clues never add up, the play holds together both as text and as performance. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the audience will want to know what’s going on and what’ll happen next.

(Stoppard’s later play, Arcadia, also tells a story of piecing together information. We watch as the characters gather clues about what happened in the house 150 years ago and we add up the pieces with them. At the end of the play, we discover that their conclusions are entirely wrong—but the cohesive function of the Action carries us along nonetheless.)

Despite the strong Psychological Action evident in the play, the physical act toward which the play tends has no cause-and-effect connection in the scenes. They stand apart as separate episodes, each with its own small Action. Though some of the scenes have causal ties—Claudius and Gertrude’s instructions that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find out what afflicts Hamlet cause the courtiers to play at questioning Hamlet—most don’t have such obvious links. Not only are their games not causally bound to the scenes surrounding them, neither are the scenes with the Tragedians. Each of these scenes also has its own brief Action—to win the game, to see a play, to find the coin—which somehow relates to the overall Action, but neither causes it nor is caused by it. In fact, it seems that only the Shakespearean scenes cause subsequent scenes to happen. Scenes which propel Rosencrantz and Guildenstern toward their deaths are principally these. This Episodic Structure, which presents Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as wanderers through life, reinforces the strength of their omnipresence and their search for answers. The courtiers are inexorably impelled toward their fate, regardless of the fact that the scenes themselves aren’t causally connected. Episodic Structure—the classic “string of beads” configuration best exemplified by Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, Büchner’s Woyzeck, or Brecht’s Mother Courage—depends heavily on a strong “string” to unite the “beads.” In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the uninterrupted presence of the two main characters forms the string, reinforced by their pursuit of their Action, to understand what’s happening around them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s Action in each scene’s a manifestation of their overall Action. The regular arrivals of the Tragedians also helps bond the episodes.

[This is the first part of my discussion of Michael Kirby’s structural analysis technique. I’ll pick up with part two in a few days, starting with the next structural device, Information Structure.]

10 February 2011

The Scottsboro Brecht

by Kirk Woodward

[Last 8 December, shortly before The Scottsboro Boys closed on Broadway, my friend Kirk Woodward, a frequent contributor to ROT, saw the play, the victim of mixed reception and the bad economy. Reaction to this play and its production were often confused (and confusing) and ranged from near adoration to abject rejection. Kirk, who’s response falls at the positive end of the spectrum, has analyzed the play and his reaction to it. I’m very pleased to share with ROT readers Kirk’s explanation of why he liked what he saw and what he made of it. ~Rick]

I don’t believe I’ve ever had as many people I respect tell me that I had to see a show, as occurred with The Scottsboro Boys, a musical with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by David Thompson that opened on Broadway on October 31, 2010. People told me that the show was brilliant, a classic, magnificently well done, with an ending that remained in the mind long after it was over.

They were correct. When I saw The Scottsboro Boys I was overwhelmed by both its style and its content. Susan Stroman, who directed, brought a coherent, evocative, and powerful look and feel to the entire production, in the service of the theme of the show – the dismal race relations in the United States in the 1930s and later, and the transmission of the story of segregation from event to book to person until it exploded in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and beyond.

Briefly, the musical recounts – with historical accuracy, retold through vividly theatrical means – an incident in Alabama in 1931. A false accusation of rape made by two white women sent nine black train-hopping teenagers (who didn’t even know each other) to jail, to trial, to death sentences, and to a number of retrials, at each of which they were found guilty, despite a lack of physical evidence and the recanting of testimony by one of the accusing witnesses.

Through the entire incident, the musical dramatizes the dismal state of race relations in the United States as a whole in the first half of the twentieth century, the frequent bias at that time of the justice system against the poor and particularly against blacks, the rabid impact of segregation in the South, and the misuse of power by law enforcement personnel, in a picture powerfully presented in song and dance.

I left the show thinking intensely about my own attitudes and convictions about race, and in a larger sense about the way I treat other human beings. I also left the theater thinking about Bertolt Brecht (1896-1956), the German playwright and theoretician. Why did Scottsboro make me think about Brecht? For at least three reasons. The musical reminded me that:

Brecht wants audiences to observe, rather than to immerse themselves in, the story of the play.

In order to accomplish this goal, Brecht championed what he called Epic, as opposed to Dramatic, Theater. Brecht says that dramatic theater exists for the sake of its ending; audiences wait for the payoff, which Aristotle calls the “catharsis.” Both sex films and the kind of drama Brecht dislikes reach toward what both call a climax. Epic theater, on the other hand, is supposed to be as interesting in its separate parts as in the whole.

Brecht described his approach in a number of ways. One of the most interesting is that theater, he says, ought to resemble a sporting event – specifically he’s thinking of boxing. Audiences, he says, ought to assume the attitude of a stadium crowd, drinking and smoking and coolly watching what happens in the arena.

Brecht’s view is a tonic against sentimentality and drivel, but how practical is it? Sports audiences become enormously involved with home teams, school teams, and popular sports personalities. Joe Lewis inspired passionate feelings in his day. Millions of American men watch football more avidly, perhaps, than they would ever watch a play.

Brecht also suggests that an audience might take an objective stance when the elements of an art work act independently, rather than together. A famous contemporary example is the choreography of the late Merce Cunningham, whose dancers sometimes didn’t even rehearse with the music that accompanied them. The music, then, doesn’t add A to A, but B to A, or perhaps it doesn’t add anything at all, but merely exists at the same time. However, the degree to which this technique keeps the audience on its toes surely varies from piece to piece, and often an audience likely would not be aware of it at all.

Brecht expanded his techniques for encouraging an audience’s objectivity by such strategies as: the extensive use of a narrator, often a character who ironically comments on the action of the play; using signs to announce the content of scenes; interrupting plays with song; multimedia elements like projections and film; replacing tinted stage lights with bare white glare; leaving lighting instruments visible; minimal or suggestive set pieces; placing musicians on stage; and most importantly, an acting style that tries to report rather than to involve.

Many of these staging ideas can be seen in some form in The Scottsboro Boys. Some of the events of the play are narrated; signs like those in a vaudeville show announce the change of the years. Since the show is a musical, songs definitely interrupt the action. Projections are used; the lighting instruments are visible; the set is primarily a number of chairs arranged in various configurations; and the actors are narrators of the story, as well as participants in it.

A word frequently used to describe Brecht’s intentions is the German word Verfremdung, which doesn’t have an exact English equivalent (Brecht coined the word, actually) but is frequently translated as “alienation.” The term may indicate more of a distance between audience and play, and even more hostility, than Brecht really intended, and I only refer to it here because it’s a word that is routinely used in discussions of Brecht’s dramaturgy, not, I think, terribly helpfully.

However, there is no question that some of Scottsboro’s features disturbed members of its audience, or so I would judge from several conversations with people who did not approve of the show (although no one advised me not to see it). One genuinely controversial element in Scottsboro was its use of the minstrel show, a form of performance deeply associated with racism, a jarring association that forces the audience to observe the action rather than immersing itself in it. Another example was a particularly vivid dance about being executed in an electric chair. People I talked to who disliked the show uniformly cited these two examples.

But most remarkable, to my eyes at least, was the fact that the various staging devices in Scottsboro “worked” the way I believe Brecht would have wanted them to. I found myself both involved in the story of the accused men, and removed from it – thinking about race relations, justice and the fallible people who are responsible for maintaining it, and the government structures that contribute to justice or harm it.

The point is that I was thinking – which would cheer up Brecht no end. In talking with other audience members, I found that they felt the same way, even those who disliked the show.

The fact is that the American musical is the genre of theater that most uses the theatrical approaches that Brecht developed. We’re so used to musical comedy that we hardly even notice when a scene location is changed just by bringing a sign onstage, much less when an actor bursts into song. Brecht’s staging techniques have been assimilated by the mainstream commercial musical theater, clearly demonstrated by the success of Bob Fosse’s production of Pippin on Broadway in 1972, a musical that is practically a living textbook on Brecht’s theatrical techniques.

Today musicals frequently use projections and film; actors play musical instruments in some productions of Stephen Sondheim musicals, and sit on stage in Cabaret; directors stage scenes for ironic distancing.

Does the musical in general, then, represent the triumph of Brecht’s approach to theater? Not at all, for two reasons. First of all, Brecht intended for his theatrical techniques to keep the audience “distanced” from productions, to keep the audience, in effect, on the edge of its seats, startled and alert. But in a remarkably short time (Brecht died not sixty years ago), Brecht’s techniques have become clichés, and today they don’t surprise anybody.

Richard Kramer, the proprietor of this blog, illustrates how techniques do in fact become conventions through repeated use when he writes, “You can only use a tea-bag so many times, then it stops making tea and just makes tan water.” A “convention” – a stylization – in theater is first impenetrable; then fascinating; then old hat. That progression can take almost no time at all. Today’s daring cultural borrowing is almost literally tomorrow’s cliché.

So what looks like the triumph of Brecht’s ideas of staging is actually their defeat – they’ve become acceptable, and they’re no longer remarkable. (Scottsboro, I will claim, is an exception for important reasons.)

But there’s an even more fundamental reason that the musical does not represent the triumph of Brecht’s kind of theater:

Brecht wants plays to accomplish important social purposes.

Brecht insisted that any worthwhile art has to have a social – one could almost say a political or an economic – purpose. Brecht’s idea of just what social purposes the theater should serve is very specific. He was a communist, and proclaimed that theater should lay bare the oppressive structures of capitalist society and offer alternatives.

However, few Broadway-scale productions today use Brecht’s techniques for reasons other than for entertainment; their ability to alter the behavior of audiences is by definition nil, since they don’t attempt to alter behavior in the first place. And, ironically, there is close to universal agreement among the writers with whom I’m familiar that the plays of Brecht that come closest to his political and economic aims are his worst, and the ones that present the most contradictions and difficulties are his best.

However, the main point is that . . .

Brecht wants plays to effect change.

It’s worth considering whether theater itself can actually do anything much to change society. The theater once was a center of the world of entertainment and culture, but as Brecht was beginning to write and stage his plays, movies were elbowing theater out of its dominant position. Nowadays, to many people, theater is marginal and elitist.

But even if we grant supreme status to theater for the sake of argument, we still have to ask if it can get people to do much of anything. At certain times it does seem to have had some practical effect on the affairs of the world. The agitprop drama of the thirties (for example, Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets) may have encouraged the labor movement, and it confirmed sentiments that already existed among the Left. Ibsen’s later dramas, like A Doll’s House, do seem to have raised awareness of social issues, although they certainly were not his sole concerns. Henry Fielding’s plays in the first half of the eighteenth century in England threatened Robert Walpole’s ministry enough to lead to the creation of the Licensing Act of 1737, which instituted the censorship of the English stage. The Irish National Theater seems to have spiritually, if not practically, nourished the fight for independence against England, and in fact William Butler Yeats, who led and wrote for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, speculates:

Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?

although at this remove it’s hard to picture how his plays really had that effect.

On the other hand, Aristophanes’ attacks on Cleon and the Peloponnesian War seem to have affected neither the dictator nor the fighting; it’s possible that the biggest impact of his plays was to make it easier for the state to execute Socrates. Shaw lamented that his plays didn’t have any effect on the world at all. The satirist Tom Lehrer, quoting comedian Peter Cook, points out how those wild cabarets of the ‘30’s sure did stop that fellow Hitler!

How could the theater change people, then? First of all, people would have to be induced to see the production somehow. They would need to want to go; it would be pointless to force them. Then they would need to pay attention, and they would need to be open enough to be changed by the content of the play. All in all, that’s a big order, and by some standards, at least, Scottsboro didn’t meet them: it ran on Broadway for only forty-nine performances and closed on December 12, 2010, so at least by the standard of how many people came to see it, it failed by Broadway’s typical standard of measurement.

What was Scottsboro’s “natural” audience? I can think of two groups of people who could be expected to flock to the show: people with an interest in first-class theatrical work, and people with a serious interest in race relations. Considering those limitations, perhaps we should be glad the musical ran as long as it did.

Of course one kind of audience will always be roused to accept the point of view of a play, namely, the audience that already accepts what the play is saying. Brecht on occasion wrote for an explicitly Communist audience, and the irony is that those plays essentially confirm an audience’s preexisting opinions, and, as such, take advantage of an audience’s passive state. But although Brecht wrote a few such plays, for the most part he was after bigger game, namely, the audience that makes its own decisions.

What kind of change did Scottsboro make? It made a change in my heart, not because I was previously a virulent racist, but because it brought home to me more than ever before the terrible thing we do when we classify people as members of a group and then discriminate against them on that basis. Scottsboro also gave me an increased awareness of the brutally discriminatory nature of the United States until very recent years – an experience which we know has left scars everywhere. And it gave me new faith in the power of change, even when change may seem unlikely.

Would Brecht regard that as enough? Probably not, in one sense – racism still exists! The poor are still exploited! On the other hand, he might be pleased to see that his intentions were carried out in such an imaginative and creative way, even if not in the ways he’d envisioned, and that the results justified his ambitions – theater can get under our skins, stir us awake, and give us a new sense of purpose, if it’s done as well as Scottsboro was done.

In a way we’re back to the age-old question of whether art should instruct or entertain. An alternative to this hoary dilemma is that the purpose of drama is to fill our human need to be conscious of ourselves (whether by instructing or entertaining or some other means) – to present ourselves to ourselves, to observe ourselves in action. The result may teach, entertain, distract, amuse – whatever the case, it will increase our consciousness of ourselves.

[The Scottsboro Boys, which opened for previews at the Lyceum Theatre on 7 October 2010, ran from 31 October to 12 December on Broadway; it played 29 previews and 49 regular performances. After a series of workshops and readings at the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in 2008 and ’09, it began its stage life in New York City Off-Broadway with its world première at the Vineyard on East 15th Street with previews starting on 12 February 2010 and continued in a run that lasted from 10 March to 18 April. It received a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor (Brandon Victor Johnson); Outer Critic Award nominations for Outstanding New Score, Outstanding Director of a Musical (Susan Stroman), Outstanding Choreographer (Stroman), Outstanding Lighting Design (Kevin Adams), and Outstanding Actor in a Musical (Dixon); and Drama Desk Award nominations for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Actor in the Musical (Dixon), Outstanding Director of a Musical (Stroman), Outstanding Choreography (Stroman), Outstanding Music (John Kander and Fred Ebb), Outstanding Book of a Musical (David Thompson), Outstanding Orchestrations (Larry Hochman), Outstanding Sound Design in a Musical (Peter Hylenski). The Off-Broadway production won Lortel Awards for Outstanding Musical and Outstanding Choreographer (Stroman); the Outer Critics Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Musical (in a tie with Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson); and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Lyrics (Kander and Ebb). (There were numerous other nominations and awards as well.)

[Scottsboro was the last play on which John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman) collaborated as Ebb died on 11 September 2004, while the team was still working on the script. Susan Stroman (The Producers, Contact) first met with David Thompson (Steel Pier), Kander, and Ebb in 2002 to "research the famous American trials." When they read about the notorious Scottsboro Boys case, the team decided it was "a story that needed to be told." The work was put on hold after Ebb died but in 2008, Kander reapproached Stroman and Thompson, and they picked up the project again with Kander writing the lyrics Ebb had been unable to complete. After the Off-Broadway production in New York City, Scottsboro Boys moved to Minneapolis and ran at the Guthrie Theatre; previews there began on 31 July 2010 and had an official run from 6 August to 25 September. Since the precipitous closing at the Lyceum, a revival on Broadway has been rumored (for Spring 2011) in addition to a national tour. There is also talk in Hollywood of possible musical film of Scottsboro Boys. The original cast ablum was released by Jay Records on 23 April 2010.]