30 October 2012

Time & Place; Concept & Style

[Back in 1988, I made a point for the fall to see as many different Shakespearean productions as I could find. Most were in small, often out-of-the-way spaces, frequently converted storefronts, by companies that didn’t last very long or had been formed just to present this one production. A few were major Off-Broadway productions, like the New York Shakespeare Festival, in the early months of its multi-year marathon of all 37 of the Bard’s plays (1987-97), and a couple were even out-of-town shows, such as an Antony and Cleopatra I saw at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger (the predecessor of today’s Shakespeare Theatre Company).

[The purpose of the exercise was to keep a journal of the impressions I got from the performances—not reviews or even the kinds of reports I’m now posting on
ROT, but little prose pieces, no more than 500 words long, discussing the treatment of Shakespeare in stage performances. Focusing on the directorial or production concept, I described the performances principally in terms of their visual design (i.e., set, costumes, and lighting) and acting style. I spotlighted one aspect of the production—or several productions together—that made some kind of impact on me, for good or ill. Some of my observations pertained only to Shakespearean productions, others applied to the classics in general, and a few were valid for all theater work. Nonetheless, they were all expressed in the journal as commentary on American (essentially New York) Shakespearean theater.

[I’ve used bits of the journal, occasionally whole entries, as the basis of
ROT articles over the 3½ years I’ve published the blog—a testimony, I think, to how fascinating the overall experience was in the end. Now I’m going to compile four separate entries with related themes and present them pretty much as I wrote them 24 years ago. I’ve included the original production information to give you an idea who I saw doing what, when I saw it, and where.]


[On Wednesday, 21 September 1988, in the first week of my Shakespeare theater project, I saw the RAPP Theater Company’s Romeo and Juliet at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street in Manhattan’s mid-town Theater District. On Saturday, 24 September, in the second week, I attended another Romeo and Juliet, this one presented by the Independent Theatre Company at the House of Candles (formerly an actual candle shop) at 99 Stanton Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I wrote this entry on Sunday.]

Both the Independent Theatre Company and the RAPP Theater Company attempted to transpose Romeo and Juliet to American milieus. The rationale for this seems to have been that the directors didn’t trust either the audiences to accept and understand the play or Shakespeare to communicate with modern American audiences unless the play is moved to immediately recognizable and accessible places and times. Neither company seemed to have relocated the story in order to say something unconventional about or through the play. (The RAPP Romeo and Juliet did present a new interpretation, but the change of venue didn’t bear on this.)

Not only is this reason patently mistaken—the play’s a classic precisely because it transcends its time and place to communicate to all cultures—but such transpositions, unless they’re very carefully thought through and combined with changes in the text, usually cause incongruities in the language and actions of the plays. Insignificant by themselves, together they can jolt the spectator out of the world of the play often enough to destroy the essential connection between the audience and the play. A few cases in point:

The RAPP company wanted so much to make Romeo and Juliet American that rock music played throughout, the Capulet party was a backyard barbecue and Benvolio and Mercutio played baseball. With such a strong American environment established, references to Verona and Mantua became disconcerting. So did the presence of a Prince, since American cities don’t have princes. Moreover, I couldn’t believe that a modern, middle-class, American girl like this Juliet could ever fear ghosts to the extent that her Act IV soliloquy requires. I also wondered why Friar Laurence didn’t just pick up a telephone and call Romeo instead of trusting his explanation of Juliet’s “death” to a hand-delivered letter.

The Independent Theatre Company Americanized its production by making the characters Italian-American in the Mafia vein. This inspired particularly those playing the lower-class characters to affect Hollywood hood accents. Somehow, “What light t’rough yonda winda breaks? It is de east, and Juliet is de sun!” just doesn’t ring right. I kept flashing on the hoods in Kiss Me Kate singing “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” There was also a good deal of knife fighting—a suitable substitute for sword play, certainly, except that the general impression of mobsters is that they tend to duel with guns, not knives.

Often such transportations of Shakespeare to another time or place can be illuminating as well as theatrically innovative. Half measures such as these, however, don’t usually accomplish much. When Orson Welles staged his striking fascist Julius Caesar in the ’30s, he was making a comment on the times. The same director’s production of Macbeth set in a Haitian voodoo world was a carefully worked-out adjustment to make the play accessible not to black audiences but to black actors. Arthur Laurent’s transposition of Romeo and Juliet to a ’50s urban jungle for West Side Story was, of course, a complete adaptation of both language and story. None of these simply recostumed the characters and plunked them down in an alien world. And none was conceived because the producers felt that American audiences couldn’t enter Shakespeare’s world without their help. We should resent the implication that we do.


[I saw two R&J’s during my Shakespearean journey, and two Midsummer Night’s Dream’s, but the one production of Macbeth was presented by the New Rude Mechanicals at the Pelican Studio, 750 Eighth Avenue, in the Theater District. I saw the show on Thursday, 3 November 1988, during Week 8 of my Shakespearean exploration, and wrote the journal entry on Thursday, 10 November.]

Because of his popularity and flexibility, Shakespeare may be the world’s most manipulated playwright. In addition, because of limited space, budget and technology, small companies producing him must make decisions which affect casting, too. Ideally, practicality marries art in a concept which accommodates the company’s needs while opening the play to new perceptions, uncovering buried ones, or strengthening neglected ones.

A wonderful example of this alliance occurred in the New Rude Mechanicals’ production of Macbeth. An all-around good production with strong acting and an obvious and deep respect for the material, its use and treatment of the witches was especially remarkable for its economy and sagacity.

You can’t do Macbeth without the witches, but you can do without some of its many messengers and servants. Since few Off-Off-Broadway companies can afford extras, directors simply cut these roles, give their lines to other characters, or send out actors playing other roles to perform their duties in disguise. Director John Pynchon Holms avoided all these and said something interesting at the same time. The witches—undisguised and unabashed, but unrecognized as witches by the others—were the messengers, servants, and extras.

There were three levels on which this scheme worked. First, as the messengers, the witches seeded and nurtured the plot. As the bleeding Captain, for instance, one witch reported Macbeth’s valor, putting the notion of the thane’s promotion in the King’s head. After Macbeth murders Duncan, a witch played the Old Man who relates the occult happenings surrounding the death, planting the idea that the events may not have been altogether natural.

The second level was less directly involved in the events of the play. As the various servants, such as the Porter who greets Macduff and Lennox when the murders are discovered and the waiters at the banquet where Banquo’s ghost appears, the witches’ presence suggested their control over Macbeth’s life and fate. They were always there, keeping an eye on things.

All this was simply well-planned doubling. In the third level, Holms put the witches “invisibly” on stage in portentous scenes. For instance, they watched as Lady Macbeth reads her husband’s letter about the predictions and Duncan’s arrival and when she soliloquizes while Macbeth is murdering Duncan. They hovered on the fringes of the action, staring at the focal character as if willing her or his actions. They didn’t enter into the action, though they sometimes echoed lines such as Malcolm’s “shift away” when he flees the castle after his father’s death is discovered, or made sound effects such as the knocking that unnerves Macbeth just as he’s about to murder his king.

This strategy implied that an external force had taken control of Macbeth’s life. Whether wittingly or unwittingly and whether the force was the Devil—whose putative servants witches are—or some abstract evil such as greed or ambition, we were left to choose. Still, the text, enhanced by a few unintrusive production decisions, can support this interpretation. Holms and his company didn’t merely solve some troublesome practical problems; they gave their audience something to ponder.


[I returned to the New Rude Mechanicals’ Macbeth for another journal entry in the ninth week of my Shakespearean excursion (I kind of liked this production), composing this observation on Sunday, 13 November.]

Shakespeare’s 400-year-old locales are inevitably remote from us, but some, like Caesar’s Rome, Cleopatra’s Egypt, and Lear’s ancient Britain, were “period” settings even in Elizabethan theaters. Historians know little about the performances of that era, but they believe that the costumes were mostly 16th- or 17th-century clothing, with a few antiquarian touches for the more exotic characters. Not until the 18th century did theaters attend to historical accuracy in clothing.

So what is “period dress” for Shakespeare? Ancient Greek or Roman, or Italian Renaissance? Elizabethan? Jacobean? Take your pick.

Bigger question: Is it even necessary? Clearly not, since revealing productions of Shakespeare in this century have been mounted in modern dress, 19th- and 18th-century costume and fantasy clothing of every description, including those of Peter Brook’s now-classic circus-inspired A Midsummer Night’s Dream. If Shakespeare’s own King’s Men put no great store in period accuracy, dressing the 14th-century Richard III as a 16th-century monarch, why should we? Clothes don’t make the man; costumes don’t make the show.

So why worry? Because a bad decision can send the production down an unproductive track. Updating for the sake of superficial relevancy is a potentially fatal trap.

Other possibilities, however, can be liberating. This was the case with the recent New Rude Mechanicals’ Macbeth, whose costume design, credited simply to “deBolt,” included contemporary elements with allusions to “ancientness” and “Scottishness.” Though doubtlessly in part budgetary, the decision was made with at least a corner of an eye on artistic interpretation. Theater, after all, often makes virtues of necessity.

The basic costume for the mortal males—the witches were far more fanciful—was a foundation of modern attire draped with rough wool- or burlap-like tunics or sashes. The colors were muted, mostly charcoals, browns, or blacks, except for the almost blood-red royal sash worn first by King Duncan, then by Macbeth, and finally by Malcolm. The modern under-costume suggested general character: the more soldierly wore combat boots and bloused trousers; the more administrative, including Duncan, wore civvies. Other modern accouterments included contemporary haircuts, military field jackets, bayonets, turtlenecks, eyeglasses, and flashlights.

Because of their nondescript coloring, I paid little attention to the costumes after first remarking them. They did make their point at the outset, though. The lack of period specificity asserted that to Director John Pynchon Holms this play isn’t just about an 11th-century Scottish king; it’s relevant to today, not lost in some past era, and to all cultures, not only ancient Scotland or modern America. Simply transposing the play to contemporary America narrows it as much as some directors fear leaving it in its own period—whatever you think that is—would.


[On Tuesday, 6 December 1988, in my 15th week of seeing plays by the Bard, I caught the New York Shakespeare Festival’s presentation of Coriolanus, part of the company’s on-going Shakespeare Marathon. The play was staged at the Public Theater’s Anspacher Theater at 425 Lafayette Street in the East Village, and I composed the entry on Sunday, 11 December.]

Attempting the whole Shakespearean canon, some of which are overfamiliar and others not very good, probably necessitates occasionally straying from the conventional stagings of the plays. Steven Berkoff’s production of Coriolanus, New York Shakespeare Festival’s sixth in its Shakespeare Marathon, is its farthest stretch yet.

While I had mixed reactions overall, I found much of the highly stylized work theatrically very interesting. I was particularly taken with the combat scenes which seem emblematic of the overall production concept. There were three fight scenes, not counting Coriolanus’s murder at the end. One was the individual combat between Coriolanus and his Volscian adversary, Tullus Aufidius. This was followed by the victorious Roman assault on Corioli. While these were both interesting moments, the clearest example of Berkoff’s stylization came in the first battle, the initial Roman attack on the Volscian stronghold.

Berkoff’s ensemble, dressed in black shirts and trousers with high, black boots, were arrayed apparently at random around the playing area. Having been established as the Roman army, though the same nine men also played the Volscian army and the Roman citizens, the group fought an invisible enemy with mimed weapons. In moderate slow motion, much like the speed of T’ai Chi, the Chinese martial art-cum-exercise which it very closely resembles, the struggle was more like a dance than a choreographed battle in the usual sense. The movements, performed expressionlessly by the actors and different for each combatant, were repetitious and carefully controlled. They resembled fighting actions but abstracted, as if only the essence of each stroke or blow was performed. Each soldier, fighting his unseen opponent, moved very little from one spot on the stage, as if there were a nail through the sole of his boot. A few fighters did cover small amounts of space, but even this was mostly with the upper parts of their bodies; they didn’t move their feet very much except to keep their balance.

The battle was accompanied by drumming from the on-stage percussion group on a platform over the stage-right entrance. The drum for this fight was predominantly a snare-like instrument with a sharp, high-pitched thwack-thwack-thwack. The rhythmic beating, somewhat faster I think than the rhythm in which the fighters moved, not imitative of battle sounds, was also an abstraction. It might have recalled horses’ hoof beats or a volley of musket fire or even the beat of a battle drum—or perhaps a rapid, adrenaline-driven heartbeat.

The abstractness of the sound and movements, the lack of a personified enemy and the coolness of the execution created a fascinating theatrical moment. It was almost a brutal ballet, the kind of battle scene common in Kabuki or Beijing Opera whose aesthetic beauty belies the underlying violent and deadly reality. In line with the rest of Berkoff’s production, this depiction removed the heat and threat from the scene for me. There was no blood, not just because the production shunned its use, but because the warriors were bloodless. This was a true cold war, in the literal sense of the word.

25 October 2012

“The Writer in the Family”

by Roger Rosenblatt

[Roger Rosenblatt is the author, most recently, of Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats.  The article below was published in the New York Times Book Review of 13 May 2012.  The author used to deliver oral essays at the end of occasional NewsHour broadcasts on PBS when that program often presented compositions by contributing writers.  “The Writer in the Family” is very much in that vein and I found it both amusing and, as usual for Rosenblatt’s contemplations, accurate.  I hope readers of ROT will enjoy this rumination of the status of writers at home as much as I did.  ~Rick]

So there I stood at the front of my granddaughter Jessica’s fourth-grade classroom, still as a glazed dog, while Jessie introduced me to her classmates, to whom I was about to speak. “This is my grandfather, Boppo,” she said, invoking my grandpaternal nickname. “He lives in the basement and does nothing.”

Her description, if terse, was not inaccurate. My wife and I do live on the lower level of our son-in-law’s house with him and our three grandchildren. And, as far as anyone in the family can see, I do nothing, or next to it. This is the lot of the writer. You will hear someone referred to as “the writer in the family” — usually a quiet child who dresses strangely and shows inclinations to do nothing in the future. But when a supposedly grown-up writer is a member of the family, who knows what to make of him? A friend of my son-in-law’s asked me the other day, “You still writing?” — as if the profession were a new sport I’d picked up, like curling, or a disease I was trying to get rid of. Alexander Pope: “This long disease, my life.”

Writers cannot fairly object to being seen in this way. Since, in the nothing we do — the “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Wallace Stevens) — we do not live in the real world, or wish to, it is fruitless and dishonest to protest that we do. When family members introduce us to one of their friends, it is always with bewilderment camouflaged by hyperbole. “This is so-and-so,” they will say, too heartily. “He’s a great and esteemed writer.” To which their friend will reply, “Would I have read anything you’ve written?” To which I reply, “How should I know?”

At home, they will treat us like domesticated, dangerous animals, pet pandas or snow leopards, patting and feeding us, while eyeing our teeth. Or they will make touching attempts to associate us with comprehensible pursuits, such as commerce. When he was 3, my 5-year-old grandson, James, proposed that the two of us go into business together. “We will write things and we will sell things,” he said, thereby yoking two enterprises that are rarely yoked.

Much of our familial treatment as weirdos is not only merited, it is also sought. We deliberately cultivate a distance from normal experience, whatever that may be. We seek and relish anarchy. One day, another writer and I were standing on a hill overlooking the irritatingly civilized village of Williamstown, Mass. The sun was shining, the flowers flowering, the air had just been sterilized. I remarked, “What I would like to see now is a gang of thugs stripping that car over there.” My companion added, “With the church bells tolling.”

The world of orderly decency, harmless ceremonies and modest expectations, i.e., family life, is not the writer’s. One morning at breakfast, when she was in the first or second grade, E. L. Doctorow’s daughter, Caroline, asked her father to write a note explaining her absence from school, due to a cold, the previous day. Doctorow began, “My daughter, Caroline. . . . ” He stopped. “Of course she’s my daughter,” he said to himself. “Who else would be writing a note for her?” He began again. “Please excuse Caroline Doctorow. . . . ” He stopped again. “Why do I have to beg and plead for her?” he said. “She had a virus. She didn’t commit a crime!” On he went, note after failed note, until a pile of crumpled pages lay at his feet. Finally, his wife, Helen, said, “I can’t take this anymore,” penned a perfect note and sent Caroline off to school. Doctorow concluded: “Writing is very difficult, especially in the short form.”

If the sad truth be known, writers, being the misfits we are, probably ought not to belong to families in the first place. We simply are too self-interested, though we may excuse the flaw by calling it “focused.” As artists, writers hardly are alone in this failing. In Stephen Sondheim’s masterwork, “Sunday in the Park With George” (at least the first act was a masterwork), we are shown the gloriously self-involved Seurat dotting away at isolated trees and people in his all-consuming pursuit of the famous park painting. Among those consumed by his zeal is his mistress — not technically family, but in the family way. He ignores her, leaves her high and dry. He’s an artiste, after all. If one took a straw vote of the audience a few minutes before the first act ended, they gladly would have stoned the miserable son-of-a-bitch artiste to death. But then, in the very last scene, the separate parts of Seurat’s painting coalesce before our eyes. Everything magically comes together. And the audience gasps, weeps in wonder. So who is the superior character — the man who attends to the feelings of his loved ones, or the artist who affects eternity?

Even when writers move to embrace the family, appearing to be one of the group, it is often in the interest of putting the group to use in their work. Alex Haley defined the family as a “link to our past,” another way of saying Roots. For the wolf of a writer, the family is a crowd of sitting ducks. There they assemble at the Thanksgiving table, poor dears — blithering uncles, drugged-out siblings, warring couples — posing for a painting, though they do not know it. The objects of the writer’s scrutiny may be as blameless as a day in Williamstown, but in the story he has in mind, the writer, being the freak he is, will infuse his family with warts and all, because defects make for better reading than virtues.

A few writers have expressed themselves on the matter of families, not always encouragingly. Reluctant high school students learn from Bacon that wife and children are “hostages to fortune.” John Cheever, recalling life in the family he grew up in, remembered their backs. “They were always indignantly leaving places,” he said. Margaret Drabble saw families as “dangerous.” On the sunnier side, André Maurois, George Bernard Shaw and Mark Twain lustily sang the praises of family life. George Santayana called the family “one of nature’s masterpieces.” Once you learn that line, you are not bound to repeat it.

See what I just did? I made a lame quip that only someone who knew Santayana’s adage about the mistakes of history being repeated would get, and even then, at best, the quip would produce an embittered smirk. And from whom? Another writer. Need I also mention the quotations from Pope and Stevens dropped into this essay earlier, just to show off? This is how precious, not to say annoying, we writers can be. By the way, as soon as Jessie introduced me as jobless and subterranean, I immediately thought of Ellison’s Invisible Man, thus displaying yet another of the writer’s antisocial features — Romantic self-aggrandizement. In fact, the writer in the family is so out of things, so socially inept, that it may require an institution as basically benign as the family to take him in. We writers may be unfit for human consumption, but something about the malleable, permeable family structure says to us, That’s O.K. Of course, to further indicate how unfit we can be, we are perfectly capable of abusing that tolerance and calling it boring.

Whatever. The writer may not be good for the family, but the family may do wonders for the writer simply by teaching him that “it takes all kinds,” including him. A generous view of the world may not be as artistically riveting as crazy acrimony, but it is a lot more pleasant to live with. (Who among us would choose Scott and Zelda as our folks?) Besides, “It takes all kinds” is what the best of art says anyway, albeit with finer brush strokes. When Jessie introduced me, I watched her classmates for a reaction, either laughter or horror. There was no reaction whatever, not one bat of one eye. A man who lives in the basement and does nothing? And his name is Boppo? They treated me like family.


20 October 2012

'Harper Regan'

I don't know what to make of Harper Regan, the new play by Simon Stephens being presented through Sunday, 4 November, by the Atlantic Theater Company.  I mean that literally: I don't know what to make of it because I can't figure it out.  I can't see why Stephens wrote it or why anyone would produce it.  My frequent theater companion Diana had the exact same response.  (The people sitting behind us at the Linda Gross Theater on the evening of Friday, 12 October, left at intermission and the guy sitting next to me kept falling asleep.)  I’d read Ben Brantley’s near-rave review in the New York Times on Thursday, but what he saw is a mystery.  Brantley wasn't just positive, he was enthusiastic, while I got nothing from the play at all—not even any especially compelling performances.  Now, I’ve often had disagreements with Brantley, enough so that I take his assessments with more than a grain of salt, but usually I can find some inkling of what he’d seen, good or bad, that differed with my estimation.  This time, though, we’re so far apart it’s unfathomable to me.

After a strange meeting with her boss, at which she asks for time off to visit her dying father and her boss refuses her request, 41-year-old Harper Regan walks away from the job she hates, her Uxbridge home in the suburbs of West London, and her husband and teenaged daughter.  She doesn’t tell anyone she’s going to Manchester to see her father, who’s slipped into a diabetic coma, in the hospital.  Harper and her family used to live near Manchester, in Stockport (playwright Stephens’s own hometown) where her mother, from whom she’s been estranged, still lives but from which the Regans had to move when husband Seth was accused of creating child porn.  Harper believes he’s innocent and the pictures he took of children in the park and stored on his computer were misconstrued; she also believes that her mother thinks Seth is guilty while her father supported her contention.  Harper no longer speaks to her mother, separated from Harper’s father and remarried now to a much younger man.  The visit to Manchester, where she’s arrived only to find that her father had died, will change that and a lot of what Harper thinks is settled family history.  While she’s away, Harper stabs a young man she meets in a bar in the neck with a broken wine glass and has nearly-anonymous sex with a stranger on the floor of a hotel duplex (she’s never seen a hotel room with two floors and a staircase).  When she gets back to London, she goes straight for a bridge where she earlier met a 17-year-old schoolmate of her daughter and reveals that she’s actually been stalking him for weeks.  The Atlantic’s press release concludes that “we are folded into an absorbing story about a woman who explores the limits of loyalty, morality, and the bonds of family.”

Harper Regan premiered under Marianne Elliott's direction at the Cottesloe Theatre of the National Theatre in April 2008 with Lesley Sharp as Harper Regan.  The play had its Israeli premiere at the Gesher Theater in Tel Aviv in November 2009 in Oded Kotler’s staging with Laura Rivlin in the title role and the U.S. premiere was at the Steep Theatre in Chicago in January 2010 with Robin Witt directing Kendra Thulin as Harper.  Staged by Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the director of Stephens’s first and only previous New York production, the New York première began at the Atlantic with previews on 20 September and the opening on 10 October.  On 15 October, the theater announced the production would be extended an additional week from its original closing on 28 October.

Simon Stephens, at 41 the author of two dozen plays, has won, among other honors, an Olivier Award for Best New Play, On the Shore of the Wide World at the Manchester Royal Exchange and the National Theatre in 2005.  He’s considered a writer in the “in-yer-face” theater movement, a confrontational style of playwriting that started in the 1990s.  According to coiner Aleks Sierz, a British theater critic, the term means theater that “grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. . . .  It implies being forced to see something close up, having your personal space invaded.  It suggests the crossing of normal boundaries.”  Stephens’s work includes Bluebird, the dramatist’s Off-Broadway début presented by ATC last year; in 1998, it was the writer’s maiden presentation at the Royal Court, which has since produced many of his works.  (His first play, which premièred at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997, was Bring Me Sunshine.)  Stephens’s work has often been seen abroad, including productions in Germany (Pornography at the Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hanover, 2007; The Trial of Ubu at the Schauspielhaus in Essen, 2010; Three Kingdoms at the Kammerspiele in Munich, 2011), Estonia (Three Kingdoms at the NO99 Theatre in Tallinn, 2011), Holland (The Trial of Ubu at the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, 2010), as well as diverse theaters around the U.K.  (Stephens is one of the two most-produced English playwrights in Germany.)  He’s also written for television (Dive for Granada TV and the BBC, and an adaptation of Pornography for Channel 4, both 2009).  His latest works include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel, at the National Theatre and Morning at the Traverse Theatre and Lyric Hammersmith, both this year.  Stephens is currently under commission to the Young Vic, Manchester Royal Exchange, and the National Theatre, where he was named the first Writer-in-Residence ever in 2005. 

The writer was born in 1971 in Stockport, a suburb of Manchester, and he’s set many of his plays there.  His father, with whom he had a strained relationship because of the older man’s conservative politics, died in 2001 at 59.  As in Harper Regan, Stephens’s family life included “fracturing and reconciling,” including a resolution of conflicts with his mother after his father’s death.  “I think writers have obsessions that they return to in play after play, and I certainly have mine around family and Stockport—whether it is possible to tell the truth, the consequences of lying and whether it’s possible to ever go home again,” the playwright has said.  He left Stockport, the small-town atmosphere of which he disliked, after graduating from the University of York and lived two years (1992-94) in Edinburgh (where he joined the punk-rock band Country Teasers) before moving to London where he now lives with his wife and young children. 

Harper Regan was originally going to be titled Seth Regan and focus on the husband.  Stephens originally planned to explore how sexual misconduct engenders emotional turmoil that arises when sexual appetites collide with moral principle.  Then he met at the National Theatre with Nicholas Hytner, who was looking for plays with important parts for actresses in their 40’s and 50’s.  At first Stephens resisted Hytner’s hints, but he began to ruminate on the shift of focus from Seth Regan to Harper.  He said he found the idea “[m]uch more interesting.”  Even though Seth’s problems are still at the center of the play, the perspective became Harper’s.  Most analysts say the play’s about Harper’s mid-life crisis, but that seems a piddly theme for the 21st century.  Even actress Mary McCann, who plays the role at ATC, spoke of having “gone through something of a midlife crisis too.”  McCann, though, adds, “This is a woman who finds herself finally facing up to truth in her life and dealing with that truth . . . .”  Even that dramatically richer point is wan for our times, I think—though I’ve noticed from the British TV shows we see here that their society is several decades behind ours when it comes to feminism and female empowerment, at least in fiction.  (Consider the great British TV series Prime Suspect which was driven by two forces: the prickly, often abrasive personality of the detective played by Helen Mirren and the overtly sexist environment of the still-heavily male police establishment in England even as women officers, even high-ranking ones, were common here, in fiction if not in real life.) 

My problem is that I haven’t been able to come up with a better statement of what Stephens was writing about in Harper Regan.  (I don’t subscribe to the notion apparently advocated by playwright Sam Shepard, as I quoted him in my 10 September ROT report on Heartless, that we shouldn’t “ask what a play is about” or Village Voice reviewer Michael Feingold’s contention “those who pursue logical explanations” should be disparaged.)  A play that’s not about something holds no interest for me and is ultimately a waste of stage space.  It’s also hard to write about a play whose central idea I can’t uncover, so I’m left with a bit of a conundrum here.  All I have is little more than a flat statement that, in addition to a play that didn’t have anything to say to me, the characters are uninteresting, the situations contrived and inflated, the acting unengaging, the directing lifeless, and the physical production dreary.  When we were having a snack after the performance, I said to Diana that what confounded me most was that for ATC to have produced Harper Regan, someone not only had to have read the script, but probably would have seen the play on stage in London or perhaps Chicago.  How does a presumably theater-savvy pro see this script in production and still want to do it?  To me, it’s like having someone watch a guy get his tongue nailed to a post and then saying, ‘Gee, I’d like to try that.’  Why, for heaven’s sake?

As I was searching the ’Net for reviews of the New York staging after I saw it—I read the Times when it comes out because I subscribe to the paper, but I do a ’Net search for other notices after the performance—I came across a blog from the Theatre Development Fund, TDF Stages.  (TDF is the organization that operates the TKTS booth in Duffy Square.)  In his article “This Room Isn’t Real (But The Feelings Are),” Mark Blankenship argues that director Upchurch chose the production style for Harper Regan deliberately and with a lot of consideration.  Blankenship, the on-line newsletter’s editor, describes the style of the ATC production:

In her production at the Atlantic Theater Company, director Gaye Taylor Upchurch reminds us that Harper Regan hovers just above reality, that Harper’s on a symbolic journey like Odysseus or Everyman.  Actors keep their movements to a minimum, and the set (designed by Rachel Hauck) suggests locations instead of stating them.  When it’s time to change scenes, we even see the actors push walls into new configurations, reminding us we’re in the theatre.

Leaving aside the point that Odysseus’ and Everyman’s journeys are both mythic and universally momentous—Everyman’s is to the afterlife and Odysseus has given his name to signify an extended adventurous voyage, an intellectual or spiritual quest—which doesn’t seem to me to fit Harper’s “glum little journey” to Manchester, Blankenship appears to be about to try to justify Upchurch’s bland, soulless production on the basis that it’s symbolically minimalist.  He even quotes Upchurch herself in his apologia: “Simon’s dialogue always seems very naturalistic, but actually there’s a poetry to it that’s very deliberate and very spare . . . it doesn’t require a kitchen sink.” 

First, I’d have to dispute that there’s much poetry in Stephens’s dialogue, which Linda Winer characterizes as “long, bogus streams of consciousness”; at least I didn’t hear anything lyrical in the vein of, say, David Mamet or August Wilson whose prose often rises to the level of what Anna Deavere Smith calls “natural poetry.”  But whether it does or not, Harper Regan certainly doesn’t need kitchen-sink Naturalism.  The alternative, however, isn’t gray-carpeted platforms and partitions the actors flip up or down to reset each scene.  There’s surely a whole theatrical world in between those poles that isn’t drab and untheatrical.  Furthermore, when I saw that the actors were shifting all the scenery (including flipping the panels of the collapsible set or hauling the occasional hand prop and piece of furniture that Hauck has incorporated into the design), I didn’t see it as a Brechtian way to remind us “we’re in the theatre”; I thought it was just a way of eliminating stage hands. 

According to Upchurch, this is also the rationale for the static acting.  She wanted to make “sure we weren’t doing anything movement-wise that would take away from the tension.”  Accepting that there is tension, then, no, a director doesn’t want to dissipate it by gratuitous movement by the actors.  But, again, the alternative isn’t near immobility in an almost bare set.  Hauck explains that this strategy was also part of the design decisions: “What’s the bare minimum that we can do this scene with?” Upchurch would ask her designer.  This leads to some contrived and unlikely actions by the actors now and then, for instance in the fairly realistic scene between Harper and her mother, set in the older woman’s suburban kitchen.  Within the gray-walled space, Alison is chopping vegetables at a small teacart she’s using as a butcher-block table.  The cart’s crowded with objects for the task of making a salad plus a few other things like a pitcher of water with lime slices.  First, why in the kitchen everything would have to be piled onto the tiny cart when there’s certainly a counter and a sink, and so on, I can’t explain.  (Yes, I know English kitchens are smaller than American suburban ones—but this is a house, not a flat, and the kitchen is surely larger than the one in my Manhattan apartment and I have a couple of small counter tops.  Besides, when Alison’s husband and his apprentice join the two women briefly, they have plenty of room to walk around.  Two people, let alone four, couldn’t fit in my kitchen—forget about walking around in it.)  So when Harper has to put something down on the cart and it’s a tight squeeze, I wondered why she wouldn’t set it down on a counter or in the sink.  The business is illogical, not symbolic.  You want to pare down the naturalism of your set, then pare down the naturalism of the action, too.  When Grotowski mandated getting rid of all unnecessary spectacle in his theater, he didn’t then plan to stage the actual preparation of a meal on a wooden platform with a crate for a prop. 

What am I bitching about?  An awkward bit of staging?  Well, not exactly.  It’s emblematic of a kind of half-thought-out concept.  Upchurch directed ATC’s production of Stephens’s Bluebird last season but I didn’t see it so I don’t know if she used a similar approach.  Her program bio doesn’t list any other titles, so I don’t know anything about her previous work—though I assume she’s a relatively inexperienced director.  (Upchurch, who seems to be about 38 now, graduated from Wake Forest University in 1996 and, aside from staging ATC’s Bluebird, has an Off-Broadway assistant-director credit in 2007 and two assistant directorships on Broadway in 2007 and ’08, all for musicals.)  What it looks like to me is the work of an artist with some still-forming ideas that she hasn’t really integrated yet, applying them in one area without anticipating that they’ll have inapt repercussions somewhere else.  It also appears that she’s trying out ideas that seem right in the abstract, in a theoretical sense, but haven’t been tested on the ground before she committed to them.  Furthermore, Blankenship is arguing that Upchurch has wisely chosen this non-Naturalistic production style to strengthen Stephens's point theatrically.  A director can have an arguably valid concept and even execute it successfully, but end up with a bad show.  Even if all the director's ideas are correct and reasonable—and they might be under the right circumstances—she can still mount a dull and lackluster production by removing all the potential personality from the staging.  If Blankenship’s right—and given Upchurch’s own statements, I assume he is—I think that’s what’s happened in ATC’s Harper Regan.

In Blankenship’s article, Upchurch finishes up by stating that “it was important to establish why we should care about [Harper’s] journey and her family . . . .”  That’s a fairly obvious goal, dramatically speaking, but, yeah, that’s right.  We do have to care or there’s no effective drama.  The problem is, that’s what happens.  I started out by complaining that Ben Brantley seems to have reported on a different play than the one Diana and I saw.  But, ironically, Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post, seems to have seen the production I caught.  In fact, she puts her reply to Upchurch’s directorial objective quite succinctly:  whatever else we learn about Harper, “we still need to be invested in what happens to her, otherwise there’s no show”; yet, the reviewer laments, the title character ends up being “the least interesting . . . character ever invented.”  Vincentelli opens her review pretty bluntly:

Welcome to the most boring midlife crisis of the year.  No matter what happens to Harper Regan, the title character of Simon Stephens’ new drama, it’s hard to care.

Her supervisor snottily denies her time off to visit her ailing father: We don’t care.

She discovers her dad has died: don’t care.

She goes AWOL from her husband and daughter: still nothing.

As for the notion that Harper’s spree has been a great journey of discovery, Vincentelli observes that while we learn the odd detail of her life, such as her favorite bands, “[b]igger issues . . . are pushed aside.”  Harper’s excursion is little more than “a series of more or less preposterous encounters,” hardly an odyssey.  The Post review-writer sums up her response to the performance, which she describes as “a mediocre play given a mediocre production,” by adding, “The most emotion this show creates is the joy of finally being able to leave the theater after two hours and 20 minutes of mind-numbing soul-searching.” 

As for the performances, even Vincentelli has praise for “some worthy supporting turns,” but by the time the production was under way, I’d lost interest so thoroughly that I had trouble focusing much on the cast’s work.  (I did note as the performance was unfolding that every member of the Harper Regan cast had problems with the various regional and class dialects of the characters.  The production’s dialect coach is Ben Furey.)  Mary McCann’s Harper is as bland and unengaging as the play, leaving the production without a center.  McCann is a founding member of ATC (and wife of artistic director Neil Pepe), but I’ve never seen any of her other work, so I don’t know how this performance compares.  (Most reviews say she’s immensely talented and appealing.)  Considering the other evidence on display here, I blame Upchurch, who previously directed McCann in the Stephens début, Bluebird, last season, for all the acting, including McCann’s.  (The script has to be blamed as well, of course.)  Stephens speaks of the actress’s emotional depth and others praise her talent for being both vulnerable and tough, intelligent and emotional, and so on, but I saw only suppressed and artificial, trying to put across the baseless actions in the calculated vignettes if not convincingly, then consistently. 

Those supporting performances vary from unpersuasive to downright annoying.  In that last category I put Madeleine Martin (who appears on cable TV’s Californication) as Harper’s daughter, Sarah.  Petulant is the operative word for the character, a stereotypically prickly teen, but Martin’s characterization is grating and studied, as if the character were asking herself at every turn, ‘What can I do to get under my parents’ skins?’  Martin’s performance is further undermined by her nasally and sharp voice, which Marilyn Stasio describes as “the metallic whine of an industrial saw” in Variety.  Gareth Saxe does a commendable job with a severely neglected role, ironic if it was originally intended to be the title part.  From what we learn of the character, he should be unlikeable, but Saxe neutralizes that even as he essentially disappears except as a plot point. 

Many of the reviewers like Jordan Lage’s portrayal of Elwood Barnes, Harper’s cold and creepy boss, and I’m forced to agree that the actor pulls this weird guy off while projecting enough humor to keep Barnes from becoming a total turn-off; in fact, his arguments almost seem reasonable—before he makes what sounds like a proxy pass at Harper’s teenaged daughter.  Of the people Harper meets in her jaunts outside the home and office, the most passable performance is turned in by Christopher Innvar (whom I saw do an ineffective and ineffectual Petruchio in a 2007 Washington staging of The Taming of the Shrew) as the married man Harper meets on the Internet and has a one-night stand with in the Manchester hotel room.  Like a lot of the supporting characters in this play, James Fortune should be thoroughly icky, but Innvar manages to make him actually kind.  Perhaps the flashiest role is Peter Scanavino’s Mickey Nestor, the self-proclaimed journalist with a violent and virulent anti-Semitic streak whom Harper stabs in the neck with a shattered glass.  The performance is all bluster and shouting, however, and the violence—both his and Harper’s—comes out of nowhere as if Stephens decided he needed something big to liven up the script.  (Well, he does, but this doesn’t cut it.)  As the teen Harper meets on the bridge near her home, Tobias Rich, Stephen Tyrone Williams (who appeared as the Xhosa student in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! at the Signature—where he also had accent problems—on which I reported on 11 June) barely pulls off the age (he’s in his mid-20’s) and, though he, too, is a favorite among the reviewers, I didn’t feel Williams came off as anything more than a cypher (though I think the actor was aiming for “enigma”). 

Finally, I need to say something about Mary Beth Peil as Harper’s mother, Alison Woolley.  (The actress also plays the meddling mother-in-law of Julianna Margulies’s character on TV’s The Good Wife.)  I’ll discount what must be one of the oddest hairdos on this decade’s stages—I can’t really describe it except to say that it’s a cascade of gray frizz that continually falls into Peil’s face—and say that I could well understand what might put Harper off her and Peil gets that across palpably.  I’m still not sure why Harper’s supposed to believe Alison’s version of events after believing for so long that her mother has been on the wrong side of family conflicts, but that’s Stephens’s responsibility, not Peil’s.  She’s still a control freak and a dragon lady as far as her daughter is concerned, and Peil intimates that she’s got something more up her sleeve that the play doesn’t reveal, and that makes the character at least fully rounded instead of the cardboard cut-outs presented by the other actors.  (Once again, I’m going to lay the blame for this on the director and the playwright.  Actors get fired if they defy their directors too openly—although I did once take over a production from which the cast had fired the director!)

I’ve already characterized Brantley’s Times review; he calls Harper Regan “beautiful, sharp and melancholy” and Upchurch’s staging a “geometrically precise production.”  The Timesman praises every choice Upchurch made, as well as every element of Stephens’s script (Harper’s get-away, which Brantley also dubs an odyssey, rises to the level of “a born-again epiphany”) and every performance from the cast (McCann is “stunning”); absolutely nothing in this production is wrong in Brantley’s estimation. 

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, is Vincentelli’s Post evaluation, which I’ve already quoted sufficiently.  In between lie all the rest of the published critical response.  Of the 11 other reviews I read, three are mostly positive, six are largely negative, and two are mixed but leaning positive.  (With the Times’s rave and the Post’s pan, that makes the tally 4 pos-7 neg-2 mixed.)  The issues on both sides of the divide were basically the same ones raised by Brantley, Vincentelli, and me.  In the Daily News, Joe Dziemianowicz writes, “Life is messy, and the British playwright Simon Stephens captures that fact,” though he does add that “the drone of willful eccentricity at times drowns out the ring of authenticity.”  Upchurch’s production is “thoughtful” and Hauck’s “canny convertible set” is “efficiently and intriguingly designed.”  Former New York Times reviewer Wilborn Hampton in the Huffington Post calls Harper Regan a “searing play” which “is full of surprises, though upon reflection they may not be all that surprising.”  “Stephens,” Hampton asserts, “is a subtle playwright whose delicately crafted scenes are deceptively dramatic.  Harper Regan is one of those plays that at first may seem as though nothing much is happening, but in which everything is happening.”  The ATC production is “studiously underplayed” by the “splendid” cast—McCann’s acting is “a quiet tour-de-force”—which makes “Harper's journey of self-discovery a small gem.”  The AP’s Jennifer Farrar says that Stephens’s “insightful drama” is “an uncannily honest portrait” in a “well-crafted production” at ATC.  The AP reviewer affirms that “McCann is luminous” in the title role and the ensemble exhibits “mindful restraint.”  “Upchurch creates a permanent sense of tension” with Stephens’s “masterful” dialogue which is “naturalistic, sometimes ambivalent.”  The playwright’s “an expert at conveying the defining moments that can occur in ordinary conversations,” concludes Ferrar. 

Coming down on the other side of the difference of opinion is Marilyn Stasio of Variety, who declares that the crisis of Harper Reganis wasted on an uninspiring character” whom Stasio calls a “bore.”  The play is “schematic” and, Stasio suggests, “episodic” and “artificial.”  The reviewer sums up: “It took some courage for Regan to leave this place.  Too bad she had to come back.”  The New Yorker’s Hilton Als, calling the play “nearly pointless” and “drivel,” sums it up by dubbing its premise “forced dramatic tension.”  (Als singles out Madeleine Martin as “the loudest actress . . . on the American stage.”)  In Newsday, Linda Winer seems to have a positive estimation of the play, offering several left-handed compliments until her last line when she observes that “there's something wrong when we care more about” one of the subsidiary characters “than about [Harper] or her journey.”  Back Stage’s Suzy Evans opens her notice by saying, “Rachel Hauck’s layered set beautifully illustrates what Simon Stephens’ ‘Harper Regan’ only attempts to achieve,” by which she meant “the many facets of Harper’s existence.”  Evans explains that “the script fails to grasp these layers” and asserts that “Upchurch’s stiff direction keeps Stephens’ dialogue from flowing and causes the interactions to feel calculated.”  The Back Stage review-writer concludes that “in trying to complicate the uncomplicated, ‘Harper Regan’ is far too muddled for its own good.”  In Entertainment Weekly, Thom Geier proclaims that Stephens’s “overly talky” play “does not always live up to the promise of its title character.”  Other than the family scenes, Geier feels that Harper’s encounters “have a tendency to drag” as the script “meanders into narrative cul-de-sacs.”  The scenes tend “ to falter in the authenticity department,” says Geier.  “They just don't always ring true.”  On the website TheaterMania, David Finkle maintains that Stephens has written some “striking” plays up to now, but proclaims, Harper Regan “simply doesn't impress as one of them.”  Finkle describes the play as “bland,” a “series of . . . relatively unedifying chats” whose premise is “a stale conceit that doesn't make for engaging drama.”  He calls the ATC production a “troubled work” in which the set design is “just one more miscalculation.” 

The men in the middle are Michael Feingold of the Village Voice and Scott Brown of New York magazine.  Feingold, describing Harper Regan as “intriguing,” reports, “It's indecisive but constantly alive.”  He adds that though Harper is “always believable,” her “late emergence from her shell of passivity makes the play problematic.”  In general, Feingold, who’s often a contrarian I’ve observed, asserts, “Along with the clearly intended moral ambiguities, Stephens proffers muddy dramaturgical uncertainties, presenting his heroine as a series of tentative hypotheses that don't equal a fully portrayed statement,” but continues, the playwright has “Upchurch's sharp, austerely clean-lined production to keep his vagaries from drifting away.”   In the New Yorker, Brown, who equivocates a lot in his review, starts off by saying, “Everything about Harper Regan—and everything about Harper Regan—feels dislocated . . . .  It’s a puzzling sensation, and sometimes Simon Stephens’s midlife-walkabout is merely that: puzzling.  Sometimes it approaches ghostly sublimity.”  Scott continues in this “on the one hand/on the other” vein:

The show’s a kind of comedy and Harper is a kind of clown, but the laughs, such as they are, reverberate inward, and they bruise.  And, occasionally, simply mystify.

Many of Harper’s run-ins and elliptical conversations have a stuttering, first-draft feel to them, and some simply seem extraneous—this might’ve been a one-act, were it not for the marginalia.  

Of Stephens’s “sequential but atomized vignettes,” Brown writes: “Some of these pas de deux are mesmerizing; others, eye-glazing; still others, strangely repetitive, as if looped.”  Upchurch’s staging, Brown adds, “often aggravates and underlines this agglomerative, ramblesome quality.”  In his ultimate analysis, however, Brown states that Harper Regan is “both probing and, yes, prurient.” 

[I don’t know if it says anything about this play or production, but I found that this crop of reviews contains a larger number of small factual errors (plus one grammar mistake) than I’ve seen before.  Maybe it has something to do with the review-writers’ having trouble focusing on the performance closely enough to catch the facts as they go by.  Two writers, for instance, misstated the age of Sarah, Harper’s daughter: Linda Winder in Long Island’s Newsday, who said the character was 14, and Jennifer Ferrar of the AP, who described her as “college-age.”  Sarah’s 17 (the same age as Tobias, the schoolmate Harper’s been stalking) but I can see where Ferrar’s misunderstanding might have come from.  Sarah goes to “college,” but it’s not an American-style post-high school institution; that’s what Europeans, including Brits, call “university.”  In the U.K. and the Commonwealth, “college” is a private secondary school, usually of high academic standing, for students 16 to 18 years old.  (In my junior year of high school, I went to the Collège du Léman near Geneva.)  And speaking of Tobias, two reviewers, New York’s Scott Brown and Suzy Evans of Back Stage, put his encounters with Harper on a “train” or “tube” (that’s the subway to Brits) platform.  In both scenes, they met at the Grand Union Canal, which Harper points out runs from London to Birmingham, making a bit of a deal of it.  Back Stage’s Evans also put the Regan’s suburban London home in “Oxbridge,” which isn’t actually a place at all.  (“Oxbridge” is the portmanteau name—think “Brangelina”—that refers to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.)  The Regans live in Uxbridge—just as the program states.  And Brown is the only reviewer to age poor Harper from 41 to 43.  Referring to a different meeting in the play, Marilyn Stasio wrote in Variety that Harper picked up James Fortune in an Internet café, but that skips a step.  Harper used a computer at the café to hook up with James; then they met in real life (at the hotel, I believe).  Stasio’s oddest slip, though, is her assertion that Harper has no reaction to Mickey’s vile anti-Semitic outburst” in the bar except to walk off with his leather jacket.  Really, Marilyn?  She busts a glass and stabs him in the neck, for Pete’s sake!   (Oh, and that grammatical error was committed by Joe Dziemianowicz in the Daily News when he wrote that Harper visited her mother “who she hasn’t talked to in years.”  Say it ain’t so, Joe!  Should be “whom she hasn’t talked to . . . .”  I hereby sentence you to stand in Times Square and apologize to the spirit of William Safire while receiving 20 lashes with a wet “On Language” column.)]


15 October 2012


In 1953, the world première of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot opened in Paris and Western theater changed forever.  It was the height of the popularity in the West of theatrical Realism, the 19th-century style of writing and staging that essentially took over the stages of Europe and America, and by the time Godot reached New York in 1956, critics, academics, and audiences were thoroughly confused for the most part about what to make of this new Absurdism (a term, of course, that didn’t really come into use until Martin Esslin used it as the title of his 1961 book The Theatre of the Absurd.)  Absurdist theater seemed to come largely out of France at first, as Beckett (who was Irish but lived in Paris and wrote in French) breached the dam for Eugène Ionesco, Boris Vian, Jean Genet, Jean Tardieu, and Arthur Adamov.  (Godot was not the earliest absurd play; others of these writers had had works staged earlier, but Beckett’s masterwork, especially with its staging in London and New York, brought the genre to mainstream attention.)  By the mid-1960s, Absurdist theater was, while still avant-garde, widely accepted as a legitimate expression of the state of civilization the in the post-World War II, nuclear, Cold War world.  I first saw Godot in 1965, my freshman year in college, and it mesmerized me, causing me to see theater as a whole new realm of possibilities.  My university theater went on to introduce me to Ionesco (Exit the King) and Vian (The Empire Builders), Edward Albee (The Sandbox, which I directed in my first-ever effort; I’d seen a reading of The American Dream when I was in high school, but I didn’t understand what I was witnessing), and Harold Pinter (The Homecoming).  In the years immediately following graduation, before I moved to New York City, I saw Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (which became one of my all-time favorite plays) and a French staging of Tardieu’s La Sonate et les trois Messieurs (The Sonata and the Three Gentlemen).  Needless to say, I’ve seen many more productions of Absurdist and Absurdist-influenced plays since then (see my recent reports earlier this year on Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot, 28 February, and Pinter’s The Caretaker, 14 May), but back in 1965, at that first exposure to Waiting for Godot, the Theater of the Absurd took up residence in a corner of my imagination which it has never relinquished.

So when I got the season brochure for this fall’s Next Wave Festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and saw that it would include a revival of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, I knew I had to try to catch it.  My usual theater partner, Diana, expressed no interest in this season’s offerings at BAM, and there weren’t enough other events in the Next Wave schedule for me to put together a subscription, so I had to wait until single tickets went on sale and hope that the production wouldn’t be sold out.  (The performances were being given in the vast, 2,100-seat Howard Gilman Opera House, so I had some hope that the short appearance would yield at least one single seat, and I was just barely correct.)  So on the evening of Saturday, 6 October, I headed over to BAM’s Peter Jay Sharp Building in Fort Greene for the 7:30 closing performance of Rhinoceros presented in French (with English supertitles) by Théâtre de la Ville of Paris. 

Ionesco’s best-known play was first presented on BBC radio on 20 August 1959 and first staged at the Schauspielhaus in Dusseldorf on 6 November of the same year, directed by Karl-Heinz Stroux.  Rhinoceros didn’t première in Paris until it opened, to excellent reviews, at the Odéon on 25 January 1960 under the direction of Jean-Louis Barrault, who also played Bérenger; on 28 April that year, its English-language stage début was directed by Orson Welles, with Laurence Olivier as Bérenger, at London’s Royal Court Theatre.  It was probably the 9 January-5 August 1961 Broadway production at the Longacre Theatre (with a return from 18-30 September), however, that gave Ionesco unexpected celebrity.  With Eli Wallach as Berrenger [sic] and Zero Mostel as John (for which he received his first Tony), it was directed by Joseph Anthony.  Multiple television versions (De rhinoceros directed in Dutch by Henk Rigters and the German Die Nashörner by director Gustav Rudolf Sellner, both in 1961; El rinoceronte for Spanish TV in 1966) and at least three film adaptations have also been made of Ionesco's best-known three-act play: a German animated short, Die Nashörner, by Jan Lenica in 1964; Næsehornet, directed in Danish by Søren Melson in 1972; and in 1974, an adaptation directed by Tom O'Horgan (best known for staging Hair) with Mostel again as John and Gene Wilder as Stanley (AKA, Bérenger).  There was an Off-Broadway revival in 1996 by the Valiant Theatre Company at Theatre Four on W. 55th Street, starring Zach Grenier, an actor I recently praised for his performance in  John Patrick Shanley’s Storefront Church (see my blog report of 16 June), as John.  Of the many regional revivals of Rhinoceros, I caught one at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in October 1986, directed by my friend Kazimierz Braun. 

Théâtre de la Ville’s Rhinoceros was first staged by Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, the company’s artistic director, in 2004.  Revived in 2012 principally for a U.S. tour, this production had its American première in Los Angeles at Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, 21 and 22 September, with subsequent performances at UC-Berkeley on 27, 28, and 29 September and, following Théâtre de la Ville’s BAM début, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at the University Musical Society on 11, 12, and 13 October.  Part of the 30th Next Wave Festival, Théâtre de la Ville’s Rhinoceros played at the Gilman from 4 to 6 October.  

Théâtre de la Ville, an entirely new company to me, was started in 1968 under the auspices of the City of Paris.  Dedicated to “art in the diversity of its theatrical, choreographic, and musical forms” in the words of founder Jean Mercure, Théâtre de la Ville has since become one of the major cultural outlets in Paris, due largely to the company’s multidisciplinary and multi-national productions in dance and music.  Théâtre de la Ville is funded by the City of Paris and, with its two theaters, a 1,000-seat hall in the heart of Paris and the more intimate 400-seat house in Montmartre, presents about 100 different programs each season.  Emmanuel Demarcy-Mota, who became the company’s youngest director at 38 in 2008, has continued to broaden the audience by introducing productions in foreign languages, educational events, and programs for young people.  In 2011, the theater’s attendance was over 280,000. 

Born Eugen Ionescu in 1909 in Slatina, Romania, Eugène Ionesco has become one of the most significant figures in modern theater alongside Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter.  (The playwright shaved three years off his age and claimed 1912 as his birth year, an inaccuracy reflected in many reference sources.)  Though he insisted he preferred the phrase “theater of derision,” coined by writer Emmanuel Jacquart, the playwright is sometimes dubbed the Shakespeare of the Absurd.  Ionesco’s father was Romanian, but his mother was French and his parents moved to Paris a year after his birth (his first language was French), but he returned to live in Romania when he was 13.  A precocious boy, he’d already written his first play that same year, a patriotic drama called Pro Patria.  (He’d previously written a film script at the request of his classmates who wanted to make a movie.)  In 1938, the writer left his home country again, this time principally because he was appalled by the fascism to which many of his countrymen were flocking.  “I hated Bucharest,” said Ionesco in a 1984 Paris Review interview, “its society, and its mores—its anti-Semitism for example. . . .  It was the time of the rise of Nazism and everyone was becoming pro-Nazi—writers, teachers, biologists, historians . . . .  It was a plague!” 

Rhinoceros was largely inspired by the political atmosphere in the writer’s native country which had effectively become a dictatorial monarchy, later joining the Axis in 1940 under the control of the fascist Iron Guard.  The play’s leading character, Bérenger, whom Ionesco declared “represents the modern man,” has many parallels to the real life of Ionesco, who from 1948 to 1955 worked, much like his Everyman, as a proofreader at a legal publisher.  Bérenger, observed the author, “is a victim of totalitarianism—of both kinds of totalitarianism, of the Right and of the Left”; and, as the dramatist acknowledged in the Paris Review, “I have never been to the Right, nor have I been a Communist, because I have experienced, personally, both forms of totalitarianism.” Having begun with an attraction to theater, Ionesco became discouraged with the state of both dramatic writing and performance in Europe, so he concentrated on prose and poetry.  He returned to playwriting after World War II, composing The Bald Soprano in 1948, and became one of the most prolific writers for the modern stage.  His famous works, beginning with the one-act plays The Bald Soprano (La Cantatrice chauve, premièred 1950), The Lesson (La Leçon, premièred 1951), and The Chairs (Les Chaises, premièred 1952), are too numerous to list.  Rhinoceros, Ionesco’s third full-length work, was first published as a short story (in Les Lettres nouvelles) in September 1957, before being adapted into a three-act play (published—incorrectly under the title Le Rhinocéros when the publisher erroneously added the definite article—in 1959). In 1970, Eugène Ionesco was made a member of the Académie Française; Ionesco died in 1994 and is buried in Paris’s Montparnasse Cemetery.

Over the course of three acts, the inhabitants of a small, provincial French town turn into rhinoceroses as one by one the citizens are caught in the transformation.  Ultimately, only one hold-out refuses to succumb to this mass metamorphosis.  Defying the mass hysteria is the central character, Bérenger, a flustered everyman figure who is often criticized throughout the play for his drinking and tardiness.  “I’m the last man left, and I’m staying that way until the end,” declares Ionesco’s protagonist at the end of the play.  Rhinoceros is often considered a response to and criticism of the sudden upsurge of fascism, Nazism, and communism in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.  I know what’s involved,” the playwright insisted, explaining the phenomenon as he has seen it unfold.  “All my anti-Fascist friends have become absolute, fantastic Fascists because in the beginning they gave in on one little detail.  I am well acquainted with this phenomenon . . . .”  Ionesco, however, also explores conformity, mass movements, crowd mentality, and the tyranny of the mob: Rhinoceros is . . . mainly an attack on collective hysteria and the epidemic that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas but are nonetheless serious collective diseases passed off as ideologies. . . .”  The playwright had explained in more expansive terms in 1960:

As usual, I went back to my personal obsessions.  I remembered that in the course of my life I have been very much struck by what one might call the current of opinion, by its rapid evolution, its power of contagion, which is that of a real epidemic.  People allow themselves suddenly to be invaded by a new religion, a doctrine, a fanaticism. . . .  At such moments we witness a veritable mental mutation.  I don’t know if you have noticed it, but when people no longer share your opinions, when you can no longer make yourself understood by them, one has the impression of being confronted with monsters—rhinos, for example.  They have that mixture of candour and ferocity.  They would kill you with the best of consciences.  And history has shown us during the last quarter of a century that people thus transformed not only resemble rhinos, but really become rhinoceroses. 

As Kaz Braun, the director of the 1986 Minneapolis production and himself a refugee from communist Poland in 1985, noted in the Guthrie program: “Beware of all collective hysteria.  Do not trust too much in fashion—widespread common beliefs and common convictions.  Try to find your own belief, attitude, life which you like to follow.  Defend your individuality.  Be free.” 

Staged without intermission over an hour and 45 minutes, the Théâtre de la Ville revival was spread out along the full width of the 46-foot stage to create an outdoor café, the publishing firm where Bérenger works, and the apartment building where Jean lives.  Yves Collet’s set was a sort of minimalist design—the town-square café in the opening act was just a bunch of molded-plastic chairs, for instance, and the office was a sort of two-level box with movable platforms for the second floor.  As the rhinos destroyed the office building, the upper levels started to slant, the two ends lifting up at the outer edges sliding everything and everybody towards the center platform.  Jean’s apartment building in the last act was a smaller version of the office block, without the moving platforms.  The cast of 13 balanced precariously on the sloping platforms like passengers on a listing ship, clinging to the set and one another to keep from slipping off.  The sets were generally lit (also by Collet) dimly with spots of brighter illumination and at moments of turmoil as the rhinos rampage, the lights flickered and shifted like symbolic lightning.  There wasn’t any color anywhere on stage, including Corinne Baudelot’s costumes, which were essentially shades of gray—charcoal business suits for the men, for example, and the equivalent office wear for the women.  The rhinoceroses are often described by the characters as green-skinned, but this vision of Ionesco’s world is gray.  Jefferson Lembeye’s music, which combined electronic sounds and instruments according to the publicity material, approximated the soundtrack of a slasher film, raising the intensity level of the performances. 

In ’86, Kaz Braun actually built full-sized, realistic-looking prop rhinos because, as I recall, he wanted the threat and fear to be real, not imaginary or psychological.  In Théâtre de la Ville’s staging, aside from Jean's transformation in front of us (nicely performed by Hugues Quester, but much less detailed than I think Mostel's Tony-winning turn was on Broadway in ’61, judging from the photos) and shadows from behind a scrim, all the rhinos were invisible.  If the play's about the destructiveness of joining mass movements and going along with the mob, we have to consider that Braun had only escaped from communist Poland a year before.  Ionesco was supposed to have been inspired to write the play by the rise of the fascist Iron Guard in Romania before he left in 1938 and the complicity of Romanians in following its authoritarian leadership when the country joined the Axis.  So Braun escaped a communist dictatorship and Ionesco a fascist one—I don't think either artist was dealing in theoretical situations.  But in today’s France, indeed all of Western Europe, those threats are no longer imminent: Franco’s gone, Portugal’s Antonio Salazar is gone, European communism is all but gone (though there are local tyrants in the east).  Perhaps director Demarcy-Mota has in mind the threat of radical Islamism—or the West’s response to it (France has some of Europe’s most repressive defensive laws such as the banning of the hijab, a Muslim woman’s head scarf), but even that actual danger isn’t as palpable as fascism was for Ionesco or communism was for Braun, so a fear that might be hypothetical or general is a plausible target for a modern mounting of Rhinoceros.  Theatrically, however, the imaginary rhinos put the entire burden on the cast to create the image of the charging beasts (aided, one hopes, by the active imaginations of the audience).  That wasn’t a burden for this company, as you’ll hear.

Aside from stylistic variations, well within the purview of the director, Demarcy-Mota also made a textual insertion.  He added a prologue, delivered by Hugues Quester, the actor who plays Jean.  A passage from Ionesco’s one novel, The Solitary (Le Solitaire, 1973), Demarcy-Mota feels it ”can be read as an intuition of the rhinoceros world to come,” according to the company.  While cutting scripts occasionally makes sense in production, I generally feel that when a director takes it upon himself to add to one, it’s usually at least extraneous.  If Ionesco’d wanted a prologue, he’d have written one.  Demarcy-Mota’s said reading the novel helped him understand the importance of Ionesco’s “conception of solitude.”  Maybe I’m obtuse, but I don’t see that the idea, especially as expressed in Rhinoceros, is that complex.  If the director needs the additional help, fine—but slapping it onto the beginning of the play is unnecessary: the play’s pretty straightforward with its internal symbolism.  (A general note to all directors: we theatergoers don’t need to see all your homework.)  Besides, and perhaps more importantly, prologues delivered by an actor in front of the empty set is about as anti-theatrical as anything I can imagine—and Rhinoceros is nothing if not theatrical.  So, Demarcy-Mota has this spirited, frisky dog who’s ready to run and frolic and he holds him back so he can explain to us what the frolicking to come is going to be about.  Yeah, that makes sense.

Don’t let me get too far ahead of myself.  This is an excellent company, young and energetic and more than up to the task Ionesco’s set.  (All the more reason to let them get right to it.)  The performances were outstanding, and though my French is out of practice, I had no trouble getting Ionesco’s point.  (I did learn that my rusty French isn’t up to Ionesco's absurdist dialogue.  I watched the supertitles—a synopsis is also provided in the program—and they went by so fast, they were practically a blur.  You needed to be a speed-reader to keep up and watch the actors below.)  Aside from the prologue, Demarcy-Mota’s one bad choice in my opinion was that the energy level of the performance was very high.  That isn't necessarily a good thing because, first, it's exhausting (for the spectators, I mean, not just the actors) and, more significantly, it leaves nowhere for the performance to go since it’s so intense from the start.  By the time Bérenger watches Daisy leave to join the rhinos, the last human among his fellow townsfolk, he’s off the meter.  Furthermore, part of the point Ionesco’s making—or part of the way he makes his point about conformity and conceptions of normalcy—is that many of the townspeople, particularly those in Bérenger’s office, accept the potential threat of rhinoceritis with complacency until it literally assaults them in their office building.  When some of Bérenger’s colleagues join the transformed rhinos, they do so relatively calmly.  (I don’t imagine that Ionesco’s friends back in Bucharest ran off in a tizzy when they became fascists.  His alarm was that they followed the Iron Guard as if it was the local book club.)  When Demarcy-Mota has the actors all running at high revs, this shocking acquiescence is diminished.

On the other hand, the director’s focus on the human, rather than the political, point in Ionesco’s play assured that the 2012 revival wasn’t mired in 50-year-old history.  Rhinoceros isn’t a political statement, a warning against totalitarian forces like fascism or communism, irrespective of its inspiration; it’s a cautionary declaration against any kind of monolithic ideology, whether political, religious, or social.  Demarcy-Mota’s stripped-down approach, removed as it was from either Ionesco’s origins or Kaz Braun’s personal history, kept the play alive for us today.  It also meant that the actors could concentrate totally on their roles and not have to portray political stereotypes. 

Rhinoceros is a peculiar kind of ensemble play.  The roles of Bérenger (Serge Maggiani), Jean (Quester), and Daisy (Céline Carrière) stand out because Ionesco’s script throws a spotlight on them, but in performance, all the townspeople have to work together with equal effort and effectiveness, both to establish the performance style and to make the dramatic point.  The Théâtre de la Ville production enhanced the need for that style because Demarcy-Mota depersonalized the characters so much.  As the director wrote in a program note: “Individualism is not considered positively.”  (This is apparently where his absorption of The Solitary came into play, either as inspiration or reinforcement.)  The company came through magnificently, demonstrably controlled and disciplined even as the characters descend into chaos.  You might have an argument with the interpretation—I don’t—but not with the execution.  The cast worked like a single entity or, if you’ll pardon the constructivistic allusion, like parts of a flesh-and-blood engine.  The progress (and especially the end) of the opening scene, the appearance of the first rhino in the town square, was illustrative.  Remember that the rhinos were invisible—no one played them on stage—and that the café was just a collection of white plastic chairs set before a non-descript abstract background.  When the rhino careered through the café, the chairs went flying as the actors knocked them about—but it wasn’t the people wrecking the restaurant, it was the beast, and it was never a question because the actors’ focus wasn’t on the flying chairs, but the animal in their midst.  This split attention established clearly that the devastation was being caused by a rampaging rhino and that the people were all concerned with dodging it and saving their own lives.  It was masterly misdirection, the kind magicians and three-card Monte dealers use but on a mass scale.  While all this physical work was going on, the actors were also speaking their lines in a kind of unnatural rationality—there was a logician present who was being entirely pedantic about what kind of rhino it was, Asian or African, and whether there’d been one or two of them.  This company can walk and chew gum even while they’re spinning a yo-yo.

As Bérenger, Maggiani, was thoroughly enveloped in the ensemble, but it wouldn’t be right to ignore him individually as well.  Now, Bérenger isn’t a hero—he’s not even really an anti-hero.  He’s more like the odd man out, responding individualistically not because he’s Gary Cooper or Clint Eastwood, but because his programming’s incomplete.  He looks like everyone else, except he’s a little unkempt, and he drinks, and he behaves badly.  Maggiani played him as a sort of blank slate who didn’t know any better than to buck the crowd.  He wasn’t strong: he loved Daisy but couldn’t say anything to her; he was tormented by office colleagues, but couldn’t fight back.  When he and Daisy were the only humans left in town, he proposed they repopulate the species like Adam and Eve, but Daisy didn’t react positively and left to join the rhinos.  When he finally defied the attraction of rhinoceritis, I was left with the suspicion that it might not be an entirely triumphant act and Maggiani didn’t do it out of nobility or fortitude.  It was the act of a man who didn’t know what else to do.  Maggiani’s Bérenger was so much a misfit that he didn’t even fit in with mass hysteria!

It seems that most of the press decided not to cover this brief visit.  (There were a few reviews on the Internet of performances at previous stops on the U.S. tour.)  The only local reviews I found were in the New York Times, Back Stage, and the website TheaterMania.  (The other New York dailies would have been out by the time I published this report, but it’s possible—though unlikely at this point—that the weeklies hadn’t come out by then.)  In the Times, Charles Isherwood called the Théâtre de la Ville’s Rhinoceros a “grandly scaled production” sporting a “superb cast” which “marshals a host of stylish theatrical effects.” Andy Propst of Back Stage described Demarcy-Mota’s “tautly choreographed production” as a “viscerally charged new staging . . . that’s both emotionally compelling and intellectually gripping. . . .”  When all the elements are combined, Propst concluded, “the effect is spine-tingling.”  On TheaterMania, David Finkle, characterizing the staging as “abundantly theatrical” which “never loses sight of the need for humor,” dubbed the company “exceptional artists . . . who make the work consistently vital.” 

Though the troupe’s been around for almost 45 years, this was Théâtre de la Ville’s first trip to the U.S. and New York City.  Over the years, we’ve gotten to see a fair number of German, Russian, Japanese, Swedish, and Spanish companies bringing their best and most interesting work here.  Aside from a couple of visits of the Comédie Française, we don’t get to see a lot of French theater.  (I’m not counting those translated megamusicals like Les Misérables and Miss Saigon that were staples of Broadway for a few years.)  I hope Théâtre de la Ville felt its visit here was gratifying and will be coming back often.  The company’s work in Rhinoceros was estimable, and I’d really like to see how they handle some other scripts from the French canon.  I don’t doubt it’d be a worthy addition to New York cultural scene.