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.

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