28 May 2015

"What Were They Thinking?"

by John Kelley

[I’ve been visiting the Washington, D.C., area for a while lately.  As many ROTters know, I’m a native Washingtonian and my mother lives here.  It’s hard to avoid the many monuments and important buildings of the Nation’s Capital; even if you don’t drive around and see them up close and personal, they show up on TV as backdrops for news reports, commercials, and local programming.  Pictures of Washington’s historic and patriotic sites abound, of course.  (One year when I was in high school abroad—something else regular readers of ROT will probably know—I decorated my dorm room with photos of the District’s important sights out of . . . oh, I don’t know—chauvinism, nostalgia, homesickness, hometown pride.  Pick one: you’re bound to be right.)  A couple of years ago, the Washington Post Magazine ran the following article on projects that never came to be, some of them exceedingly whimsical.  (Who knew Washingtonians even had whimsy?)  “What Were They Thinking/” ran in the 15 September 2013 issue of the magazine.]

The could-have-beens, not the should-have-beens.

Washington would sure look different if ideas that flourished in the fevered imaginations of architects, artists, developers and inventors had made the leap from drawing board to construction site. Would it look better? You be the judge.

1911: BIG STADIUM
In 1911 an architect named Ward Brown decided Washington was lacking something: a massive stadium that could accommodate 100,000 people.

By the time Brown was finished sketching, he had created a structure reminiscent of Rome’s famed Colosseum but bigger in nearly every dimension. His masterpiece would be 650 feet long, 550 feet wide, 120 feet high, with two triumphal, marble-clad entrance arches, seven stories high.

Gushed The Washington Post about Brown’s idea: “The proposition is so stupendous as almost to stagger the mind with the greatness of the possibilities of the plan and the importance of the undertaking, a proposition which would make Washington the hub of the world, as the Colosseum made Rome the center of all interest and the goal of the whole human race seeking diversion.”

What better place for such diversions as pageants, expositions, drills, aviation exhibitions and horse shows? The stadium could be used for the annual Army-Navy game, play host to the Olympics and even be flooded for water events.

The stadium idea was said to have the support of key members of Congress. Two possible sites were mentioned: on the Ellipse behind the White House or on the banks of the Potomac, where the stadium could serve as a gargantuan monument to Abraham Lincoln. (A somewhat more modest memorial is located there today.)

“That Washington should have the greatest stadium in the history of the world seems fitting,” The Post wrote.

Instead, Washington’s modern gladiators play in a place called Landover, and our minds remain unstaggered.

1923: RACIST STATUE
The Civil War may have been over for 58 years, but in 1923 something still rankled certain white Southerners: Americans just didn’t understand the affection that flowed between slave owners and their slaves.

Nowhere was that truer, they thought, than with the loyal black women who lovingly raised white children. And so in 1923 the Washington, D.C., chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy persuaded the U.S. Senate to approve a resolution in favor of erecting a monument in memory of “the faithful slave mammies” of the South.

Several artists vied for the commission. Their designs were similar: an Aunt Jemima-like black woman holding a white infant.

“No class of any race of people held in bondage could be found anywhere who lived more free from care and distress,” said the North Carolina congressman who introduced similar legislation in the House.

Critics begged to differ. One African American artist suggested a different design: a black servant holding a white baby by a shirttail while standing atop a washtub. The legend read: “In grateful memory to one we never paid a cent of wages during a lifetime of service.”

Black newspapers decried the proposed memorial, as did scholar W. E. B. DuBois. Said Hallie Q. Brown, president of an association of African American women’s clubs: “One generation held the black mammy in abject slavery; the next would erect a monument to her fidelity.” A letter in the Washington Evening Star from an NAACP official described the idea as a “symbol of our servitude to remind white and black alike that the menial callings are our place.”

Condemned by blacks and Northern whites alike, legislation for the “faithful slave mammies” memorial never made it out of House committee.

1967: FLIGHT LINE
The next time you’re stuck in a taxi trying to get from your downtown D.C. office to Reagan National, imagine how easy your life would be if Samuel J. Solomon had been able to sell his dream: an airport on K Street NW, between 11th and 13th streets.

“Essentially, his project would mean the creation of a 130-foot building, topped by a roof that would contain an 800-foot landing strip,” wrote The Post in 1967, after Solomon announced his idea to the National Aviation Club. It would be serviced, he explained, by aircraft capable of short takeoffs and landings.

Solomon was an aviation pioneer. In 1933 he formed National Airways. One of his co-founders: Amelia Earhart. Before that, the native Washingtonian had run Washington Airport, an airfield situated where the Pentagon is today.

Washington Airport had a memorable feature: A road bisected the runway, necessitating a traffic light to keep planes and cars from colliding. Perhaps this is what inspired Solomon to create an airport high above traffic. He was granted a patent for a two-story airfield that would perch on top of a building that was basically a vertical airport, with baggage-handling facilities, airline offices, hotels and restaurants.

Solomon thought that air travel would not appeal to the masses unless it was as convenient to catch an airplane as it was to catch a train. What could be easier for time-pressed Washingtonians than an airport across from Franklin Park?

But as The Post pointed out: “The area in which Solomon’s airport would rise is now off limits to aircraft. Planes are not allowed to fly over that section of Washington because of its proximity to the White House. Therefore, among other things, he would need a variance.”

That variance never came.

1986: MAGIC ISLAND
Magicians are good at making things disappear. Alas, it can be harder to make things appear. Such was the case with impish illusionist Doug Henning, who in 1986 was enlisted to help create a magical theme park in the middle of the Anacostia River, across from RFK Stadium.

This odd piece of real estate had been created in 1916, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredged the silted-over Anacostia and used the spoils to make two islands: Kingman and Heritage. Over the ensuing decades, all sorts of plans were floated for the islands, from a home for the District’s first airport to a place to stash the city’s trash to a playground honoring the Bicentennial.

Then in the 1980s, the Contessa Bina Sella di Monteluce got involved. The daughter of an Indian metals magnate and wife of an Italian count, the contessa was prepared to sink part of her sizable fortune into what was now being called National Children’s Island. She described the manmade landmasses as “mystical.”

There was certainly something mystical about the contessa’s plans for the place: She envisioned an Enchanted Crystal Forest and a hall of mirrors, where light would seemingly pass through visitors’ bodies. Henning, who had become a proponent of transcendental meditation, promised to create “Doug Henning’s Island of Wonder” and hinted that he would perform 150 days a year. The land was transferred from the feds to the District government, with a promise to let the contessa take over.

But environmentalists and neighborhood groups opposed any large-scale development on the islands. Today they remain D.C. property and serve as a place for schoolchildren to learn about a different kind of magic: nature.

[John Kelly is a Washington Post staff writer who writes “John Kelly’s Washington,” a daily look at Washington’s less-famous side.  Born in Washington, Kelly started at the Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.  Since then, he’s edited Weekend, founded “KidsPost” and been a general assignment reporter in “Metro.”  Kelly is a graduate of Rockville (Maryland) High School and the University of Maryland and has done journalism fellowships at Harvard and Oxford.]



23 May 2015

Jumpers for Goalposts


The final play in my series at Washington, D.C.’s Studio Theatre was Tom Wells’s Jumpers for Goalposts, a U.S. première.  I caught the official opening performance in Studio’s Metheny Theatre, the matinee on Sunday, 17 May; the play started previews on 13 May and is scheduled to close on 21 June.  This was not only a play I didn’t know, but a playwright whose name I’d never heard before as well.  It was a delightful introduction to the work of an artist from whom I think we will hear more in the near future because he has an interesting and striking approach to theater and an eye and ear for human behavior which he portrays with a rare sensitivity.

Wells is a Britisher, born in East Yorkshire in 1985.  The son of a farmer, Wells won admission to Oxford University and graduated with a degree in English.  He returned to Yorkshire to study playwriting at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds; the company would début his first play, Me, As a Penguin, in 2009.  Though he’d wanted to be a writer, Wells wasn’t considering playwriting—but the WYP program was free, so, the young dramatist now says, “It was a happy accident that I got there and loved it.”  

Like Jumpers for Goalposts and many of his other plays, Penguin is set in the fishing town of Hull, a port city of a quarter million inhabitants where Wells grew up.  (“It’s about what happens when you’re outside your comfort zone,” said Wells in an interview five years ago.  “Obviously there’s a penguin involved . . . .”)  The WYP production toured Britain and ended up on the stage of London’s Arcola Theatre in 2010.  His next work, The Kitchen Sink, premièred at the Bush Theatre, London, in 2011, and was a break-out hit, garnering Wells the 2011 Critics’ Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright and the 2012 George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright.  Jumpers for Goalposts premièred at the Watford Palace Theatre in London in 2013, a co-production of the Watford, London’s Paines Plough Theatre Company, and the Hull Truck Theatre, then toured Britain in 2013 (stopping in Hull) and ended with a well-received run at the Bush in 2014.  Other plays by Tom Wells include Notes for First Time Astronauts (2009), About a Goth (2009), Spacewang (2011), and Cosmic (2013).  (Wells has also written for TV and radio.)  From what I have been able to discern, none of his work has been staged in the U.S. until now—but I predict that Studio’s Jumpers won’t be Wells’s last stateside outing.  He’s far too interesting to expire on a stage in the Logan Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C.  (As I write these words, no reviews of the U.S. preem of Jumpers have been published.  I guess we’ll see if I’m right about his critical reception in a day or two.)

All of Wells’s scripts include at least one gay character.  (Jumpers has four—out of five.)  His plays, however, aren’t “gay” plays the way that descriptor usually signifies.  He’s gay and uses his experience of growing up and living as a gay man in Northern England as the material out of which he crafts his plays.  The plot and the dialogue reference gay events and topics—Jumpers’ story is about a gay pub soccer league, for instance—but what the play’s about is friendship, reaching out, looking for love, trust, and helping each other out.  It just happens that the people working all this out are mostly gay; but the issues are universal.  As David Muse, Studio’s artistic director, explains, Wells “writes a straightforward story with characters who happen to be gay, presenting their lives as varied, mainstream, and normal.  And he waits for a world where that act doesn’t feel so surprising.”  In other words, what Wells is doing is writing about ideas important to him (and, I believe, most of the rest of us) in a medium with which he’s intimately familiar.  Like any good, serious writer.  (Tennessee Williams wrote plays on important themes set in the American South; Neil Simon wrote his plays populated by Jews from New York; Marsha Norman and Wendy Wasserstein wrote about women; David Henry Hwang’s plays are mostly about Chinese-Americans.  ‘Write what you know,’ right?)

Muse says that Wells’s effort “to turn the assumptions of the ‘gay play’ on its head” is the second of the writer’s “two quietly subversive” intentions.  “The first,” writes Muse, is “upending the notion . . . that drama is conflict.”  The Studio head observes that Wells “is driven to write honestly about his experience of life, which seems to him to involve conflicted people trying to do right by each other far more frequently than people in direct conflict.”  ( I guess you could argue that the dramatist’s “conflict” is internal instead of external.)  Comparing Wells’s dramaturgy to that of Studio favorite Annie Baker, Muse concludes that the playwright “has a gift for making art out of the everyday.” 

Since I haven’t seen or read any of Wells’s other plays (some of his texts are published in British editions that are available at U.S. libraries and through Barnes & Noble or Amazon), I have to take Muse’s word that all of Wells’s work exhibits these characteristics.  I can attest to the fact that Jumpers does, and though some may find the writer’s dramaturgy sentimental or soft-hearted, I found the play charming and touching.  The characters are all likeable, even endearing, though hardly high-achievers, and I wanted them to succeed—if not at soccer, at least in their other, small (or, perhaps, not-so-small), personal desires.  (In tandem with Wells’s writing, of course, this effect is tremendously aided by the quality of the performances and the astuteness of Matt Torney’s direction.  I’ll get to these successes shortly.)

The 100-minute, intermissionless Jumpers for Goalposts, as I’ve already hinted, is set in the locker room of a public playing field in Hull where the five teammates of Barely Athletic, the pub soccer (they call it football, of course—silly Brits) team which makes up the cast, change after the five-a-side league games.  This is hardly World Cup soccer; it’s one step above pick-up or sand-lot games, and Barely Athletic easily measures up to its (intentionally) sarcastic name.  (A word about the title here: in street soccer, the popular equivalent I gather of stickball in New York City, the field is whatever empty space the players can find and the equipment is whatever they can improvise.  Often the goal is marked off with bits of clothing, such as jumpers, the common British word for sweaters or sweatshirts.  “Jumpers for goalposts” is a colloquial name for this kind of soccer game and is the title of a series of video games and at least one book on the sport, published in 2011, that has nothing to do with the play.)  Barely Athletic have the ignominious rep of losing all their games, so when 30-ish Viv is kicked off the Lesbian Rovers for being bossy, she appoints herself player-coach of Barely Athletic, a team made up principally of patrons of the pub she owns.  There’s 20-something Danny, her assistant coach who is trying to become a youth-soccer coach; Beardy Geoff, a stocky (and, I guess obviously, bearded) Falstaffian street busker, in his later 20’s; Viv’s widowed brother-in-law, Joe, turning 40 and the team’s token straight guy; and the new boy, 19-year-old Luke, an almost painfully shy library worker who still lives at home and dutifully returns after each game for dinner with the folks even as his new teammates gather at the pub. 

The five each have slightly different motives for wanting to be on the team.  Only Viv (Kimberly Gilbert) actually sees it as a sports outlet: she wants to beat the lesbians and hopes Barely Athletic will be her means—though she gets her coaching ideas from a Soccer Coaching for Dummies manual.  The others want to be part of the team for social purposes, the comradery and friendship: Danny (Zdenko Martin) has a crush on young Luke and wants Barely Athletic to be proof of his skill for the sports center’s manager.  Joe (Michael Glenn) is still grieving the loss of his wife and the team is a way to keep from sitting at home alone in despair.  Geoff (Jonathan Judge-Russo), unattached, isn’t beyond some serious flirting with members of the opposition; he’s also Danny’s best friend and confidant—for Danny has a secret which only Geoff knows.  Luke (Liam Forde), who has no friends of his own and confides the insignificant details of his ordinary life to his diary, was attracted to Danny the first time the older boy came into the library to hang a recruitment poster.  That’s just a nutshell summary, of course.  Wells’s characters and situation have a few quirks and curlicues I won’t disclose that prevent Jumpers from being simplistic or predictable.  Even the ending, which is a little pat and neat, isn’t inevitable—though the nature of the play suggests that it’ll be happy-ish or at least bitter-sweet.  Just as there are speed bumps along the way to the final scene, however, we can predict there’ll be more to come after the play’s over. 

Each scene of Jumpers begins as the lights come up on the thrust stage of the 200-seat Metheny with an unseen radio announcer (the voice of James Alexander Gordon, Scottish radio broadcaster famous for reading the soccer scores on BBC Radio) reeling off the scores of the matches played that Sunday.  (The sound design is by Kenny Neal.)  The five players file into the changing room and banter as they change out of their soccer uniforms and back into street clothes.  This is how we meet them; the backstories and exposition is excellently handled by Wells—even Danny’s secret comes out naturally.  Viv launches into her performance notes—but remarkably without recriminations or scolding.  Losing, in Wells’s world, is okay, as long as you try your hardest and take your best shot—even if it’s at the other team’s goal!   (Viv does try to get Beardy to lose his childish knit hat, his “good-luck” charm—not that it’s really working!—but he resists, revealing that he wears it to hide the scar on his forehead from a recent gay-bashing he suffered.)  As the play unfolds, and we learn more bits about each player, they actually manage to win one game (against Tranny United—Get it?  Like Manchester United—a team that played in leopard-print skirts and high heels on a muddy field!) and tie another.  The rest, Barely Athletic loses, so Viv doesn’t beat the lesbian team this season—but there’s always next year! 

The single set, a bare-bones changing room with a shower off-stage up left, designed with spot-on look by Studio’s house designer, Debra Booth, is the world of this play.  The five characters may have outside lives—the pub, their jobs, their homes—but this is where the people we get to know live.  The cast dwells here as if they’d been coming to this place for years, amid the left-overs of other teams, the dirt they track in from the field (which Danny sweeps up as the rest of the team filter out), the first-aid box on the wall, the folding chars stacked against a wall.  Shared with other players in other leagues, this is still their universe when we see them, and Michael Giannitti’s lighting brings the whole place to drab, harsh—but familiar—life as the players file in after the match.  The same’s true of Kathleen Geldard’s sports-kit costumes.  These folks live in them, for all their lack of athletic prowess, they’re as comfortable in the gear as they are in their own skins.  (Halfway through the play, Viv brings in new jerseys personalized for each team member: “Coach Viv,” “Assistant Coach Danny,” and even “Token Straight Joe.”  They’re all comfortable with who they are to one another.  This is not a fish-out-of-water play: these people are perfectly content with who and where they are.)

Torney’s staging is natural and straightforward, nothing fancy or showy; some of the actors even sit with their backs to us on occasion.  He’s created with his actors a sense that these five are comfortable with one another and with their surroundings—this is everyday life for them.  The movement, though minimal in the confined quarters of the locker room, is plenty for keeping the play from seeming static—horseplay, an occasional bit of practice (they try to make a goalie of Joe), changing, sweeping up, and so on.  The life on stage seems neither practiced nor gratuitous.  The play’s emotional life, too, is naturally modulated—no histrionic highs or depression lows.  As Studio dramaturg Adrien-Alice Hansel puts it, “The conflicts and triumphs are modest but potent—exactly life-sized,” and Torney’s company conveys this on stage superbly.

With the help of dialect coach Gary Logan, Torney’s cast masters the Yorkshire accent consistently and (to my ear) accurately enough to be convincing.  (My companions did mention that they sometimes had trouble understanding the dialect, and I did, too, but that didn’t detract from the point of the play, which doesn’t depend on foreknowledge of the Yorkshire idiom or British soccer culture.  The things that do matter come through loud and clear, trust me.)  Torney’s major directorial achievement, though, is to have melded the five actors, who don’t seem to have ever worked together or at Studio or for Torney before, into a perfect ensemble.  For 100 minutes, I had no trouble believing that these folks are buds.  Individual stage characters are the creations of the actor, guided, certainly, by the director—but a real acting ensemble is the accomplishment of the director.  It starts with the casting, but it’s not easy to manage.  Jumpers doesn’t work on stage if the five actors aren’t a team—just like Barely Athletic are supposed to be on the soccer field (. . . er, football pitch).

Creating the ensemble may have been Torney’s job, but those individual character portrayals are well seen-to as well.  (This is an actors’ play—the cast and their work must carry the production.)  I’m not familiar with any of this cast’s work, even the D.C.-area vets in the company, but they all give exemplary performances.  No one falls back on stereotypes or clichés—not that Wells’s writing leads in that direction anyway—and no one shies away from committing to the characters’ more unappealing traits.  Gilbert’s Viv, for instance, is bossy, but she’s no bitch dyke with a brush cut.  In fact, Gilbert plays her as almost maternal—a little brusque around the edges, but if Barely Athletic were the Lost Boys, Gilbert’s Viv would be Wendy.  If Wendy were a lesbian, that is. 

Though young Luke is the obvious shy guy in the bunch, Martin plays Danny with almost equal diffidence.  While Luke’s timidity comes from lack of worldly experience, Martin’s Danny is just a gentle person.  His awkwardness when he reveals his secret to Luke makes palpable Danny’s reluctance to tell his new friend what we can also see he knows he must.  Martin’s disappointment at the way Luke takes the news is almost too intense to watch (even though we can guess that a reversal must be coming).  If Martin could pass for a healthy young athlete, though, Forde is the classic geek—tall, gangly, skinny, beanpole-straight.  He could be a goalpost!  He absolutely looks like the kind of awkward kid who’d have trouble constantly trying to push on a “pull” door.  But Forde makes Luke so endearing, so in need of peer companionship, that his welcome into the group is self-justifying.  Of course, Forde’s portrayal of the long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs makes Luke’s quiet return to the locker room after a breach all the more powerful. 

If Viv is the mom in this ad hoc surrogate family, and Luke and Danny the little brothers, Judge-Russo’s Beardy is the older brother; though not always wise or even reliable—no Wally Cleaver or David Nelson, this big bro—his Beardy’s innately protective and present.  Judge-Russo’s a bear of a guy, roly-poly with a big, round face, but he’s a teddy, not a grizzly.  His Beardy is just as needy as any of the others, and as vulnerable, but he keeps putting himself out there, even when it’s not so advisable.  Beardy’s a busker, a street entertainer, but Judge-Russo (who has some operas on his résumé) doesn’t present him as someone who sings or plays his (hot pink) guitar like a pro—yet his aim throughout the play is to select and perform a song in the audition for a Pride celebration coming up.  (In the last scene, Beardy decides on a pop cover of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel that’s become a soccer anthem in the U.K.  Now there’s Wells’s message for this play.)

That leaves Joe—not a father figure despite being older than his mates, but more like the concerned uncle (he is Mom’s brother-in-law after all).  Glenn’s portrayal is a sad sack, as much in need of the team’s support as they might be in need of his.  His (lack of) facial expressions remind me some of Buster Keaton, “The Great Stone Face.”  Indeed, Glenn infuses Joe with some of Keaton’s warmth and sympathy.  Even though Joe’s the only straight member of the team and despite his total lack of athletic ability—less even perhaps than any of the rest (the scene in which Danny and Beardy try to teach Joe to be a goalie is priceless)—Glenn makes him an integral part of the group, a member in as good standing as Danny or Beardy, as welcome as newcomer Luke and leadership-usurper Viv.    

We don’t know what will become of Luke and Danny’s nascent relationship.  We never learn if Danny gets his job at the sports center.  We don’t know if Beardy even makes the audition, much less secures a spot on the program or gets the career boost he hopes for.  We’ll never hear if Barely Athletic ever beats the Lesbian Rovers (Viv turns over head-coaching to Danny at the end of Jumpers) or even wins another game.  But we can be sure that, as long as these five are together, they won’t ever walk alone.  And that’s what Tom Wells wants us to know.  I know some people who’ll see that as sappy.  That’s okay.  I’m a sap.

Now it’s time to see if any of the published critics agree with me or not and if, as I predicted, Tom Wells and Jumpers for Goalposts get their own career boosts on this side of the Atlantic.  So, starting with the Washington Post, Nelson Pressley, describing the play as “sweet and feather-light,” writes that “there’s a bashfulness to this tender play that makes you want to put your arm around it.”  “Wells’s script is decidedly offbeat,” Pressley continues: “You may be hard-pressed to name a recent play as ginger as this.”  The Postman sums up, “For a locker-room play, it’s astoundingly decent,” but he warns that all the characters’ lives are “gravely complicated” and the play “deepens” as it unfolds and that “the touching performances and graceful writing add up.”  (I cheated a bit: the Post published its notice on the morning before I wrote this part of the report.  I already knew that Pressley generally agrees with me.) 

In Metro Weekly, Washington’s LGBT magazine, Doug Rule also calls the play “touching” and “tender” (a trend, I think we’ll find) and “is as winsome as they come.”  Rule praises the quality of the cast Torney assembled to impart Wells’s “quietly powerful and eventually surprising tale.”  The Metro man, however, notes that Jumpers “tackles some big issues and aspects of modern-day life . . . in a remarkably realistic, restrained way.”  A “tart-but-tender romantic comedy” is how Chris Klimek characterizes Jumpers in Washington City Paper, but he quibbles that the play “would be even stronger if it ended 10 minutes earlier,” ultimately forgiving Wells because the acting is so good in the late scene he thinks we don’t need.

On DC Theatre Scene, Steven McKnight, noting that “Wells has the rare ability to find humor in ordinary people and here he mines the comedy in the real-life difficulties of his characters with wit and affection,” reports that Jumpers for Goalposts demonstrates “heartwarming humor and charm.”  McKnight does find that some of Jumpers’ “more serious turns feel a little forced or obvious” and that the plot “is wrapped up a bit too neatly,” but he adds that Torney’s direction “manages to minimize these difficulties.”  April Forrer dubs Studio’s staging of Jumpers for Goalposts “a hands-down terrific production of a charming script” on MD Theatre Guide, declaring, “Each character is completely lovable and layered in distinct ways, so getting to know each one is a joy.”  In the end, Forrer proclaims, “This play is a gem.”  Jumpers is “a sweet, side-splittingly funny, and subversive romantic comedy,” writes John Stoltenberg of DCMetroTheaterArts, in a production “that will knock your sweat socks off.”  Wells, says Stoltenberg, has “a wholly original angle of vision that, besides being laugh-out-loud hilarious, is heartwarming and liberating,” and dubs Jumpers “an incandescent comedy.” 

TheaterMania’s Barbara Mackay affirms that Wells has written such a “sensitive, intelligent” play that it manages “to reveal intense heartache and joy “ in Studio’s “excellent American premiere.”  The playwright “writes with a light touch,” says Mackay, “drawing his characters with a great deal of humor and an equal amount of serious emotion, without making them sound maudlin.”  While on Broadway World, Heather Nadolny describes Jumpers as “heartfelt, well balanced and does not try too hard,” and finds that in a theater where plays are overwritten and underdeveloped, “this one is a winner.”  Each of the familiar characters, Nadolny says, “connects with audience” and Wells’s “heartstring-tugging moments are balanced with hilarious jokes, quips and physical comedy.”  The Studio production, Nadolny reports, provides “romance, wit and empa[t]hy” and she emphatically advises, “See it, and enjoy.”



18 May 2015

"Decorum in the Digital Age"

by Philip Kennicott

[On 11 February 2014, I posted an article by ROT contributor Kirk Woodward called “Reflections On Theater Etiquette” in which my friend discussed some of the ways that performers should behave while they’re working.  On 3 May 2015, the Washington Post ran a collection of articles by arts journalists on proper behavior by patrons in public spaces, including the theater.  I’m posting the introductory article by Philip Kennicott and the theater article by Nelson Pressley as a sort of delayed companion to Kirk’s piece.  The articles originally ran in the “Arts & Style” section of the Washington Post.]

“Change in etiquette usually comes slowly, just as changes come slowly in the dictionary,” Amy Vanderbilt wrote in her book on manners, published more than half a century ago. Vanderbilt was wise not to qualify her statement. Change usually comes slowly. But look at the etiquette of public space today, and one finds everywhere great and rapid change.

Technology has scrambled the lines between public and private. Cellphones make our most intimate conversations available to anyone within earshot, while headphones create zones of pure solitude even in the midst of the liveliest crowd. Smartphones and tablets allow us to spend time with art without ever leaving the office, while sophisticated new robots enable the house-bound to participate in live events remotely. Last year, the National Symphony Orchestra invited a Beam “telepresence robot” into a side box, so that a disabled man in California could see, hear and interact with the musicians at a performance.

The democratization of art and the desire to make it more accessible also has fundamentally changed how we expect people to behave in social spaces once governed by sometimes elaborate rules. The nature of those rules — are they simply the arbitrary residue of class and snobbery, or are they pragmatic guidelines for ensuring everyone can hear, see and enjoy the experience? — continue unabated, but with a twist.

Perhaps we are entering a new age of radicalism individualism, in which the very idea of enjoying public space together is giving way to something more anarchic and carnivalesque. Silence was once prized as a mark of success in many public spaces, including libraries, museums and concert halls; the vibrancy of many of those spaces, today, is measured by noise, hubbub and laughter.

And yet etiquette also is remarkably resilient, reforming in new ways, often spontaneously. Taking a selfie in a museum may be disruptive to others, and antithetical to the experience of art, yet given the option, most people will avoid walking through the line of sight and ruining someone else’s photograph. If the power goes off in a nightclub, it’s astonishing how quickly audiences will tune in and scale down their conversations to hear the unamplified music. The silence in the Quiet Car on Amtrak is more strictly governed by ordinary passengers than the stereotypical librarian of old who rode herd on unruly students a century ago.

The two most significant forces shaping our planet today — rapid urbanization and the wholesale destruction of our environment — will only increase the rate of change in etiquette. For one thing is certain: We will live in more crowded spaces, and we will increasingly live indoors, cocooned in climate-controlled zones with a few billion of our closest friends. If etiquette is simply an elaboration of the Golden Rule, or Kant’s categorical imperative — always act in such a way that you’d be happy to have everyone do as you do — then it is certain to undergo as profound and as rapid a change as we have ever experienced.

The critics of The Washington Post spend much of their lives in theaters, museums, restaurants and nightclubs, but also on buses and trains, in airports and libraries, and all the myriad public spaces of ordinary life. What follows is a report from the field, an attempt to register the changes — or not — in etiquette from a cross section of the social world. Some have chosen to codify their own rules for an evolving social realm; others have taken a more sociological look at the forces underlying old arguments about rules and manners. Yet others have wrestled with their own internal conflicts about etiquette, about the “should” and “how” of passing down rules to new audiences.

And our conclusions? None at all. But a few themes emerge. Dance critic Sarah Kaufman sees a correlation between the intensity — and rarity — of the artistic experience and collective good behavior. Dance can’t be reproduced at home on the stereo or television, so when we encounter it in the flesh, we are completely absorbed. Film critic Ann Hornaday surveys a very different medium, where audiences often forget that they aren’t in their own living room. She also points out something fundamental about etiquette: We are better at practicing it than enforcing it, and confrontation is almost always counterproductive.

Food critic Tom Sietsema regularly patrols the unruly world of eating in public, where people can be astonishingly thoughtless. Among his observations is a basic insight about character, and behavior: “Think good thoughts,” he says. Because, in the end, empathy and a blithe spirit will always yield a better experience for everyone. Classical music critic Anne Midgette wrestles with her feelings about rules, in an environment that often feels to outsiders horribly rule-bound. There are no easy answers, she says, because the passionate desire to share music with others often leads music lovers to “lapse into a rhetoric that comes off as at once defensive and bossy.”

Theater critic Nelson Pressley provides a history lesson in rowdy behavior, and insight into what it’s like on the other side of the proscenium, where actors have their own passionate feelings about audience misbehavior. Pop music critic Chris Richards offers rules for the world of amplified music, crowded clubs and a naturally more freewheeling environment. But he sees the individual clubgoer just as much a part of a collective experience as anyone at the symphony hall. “Is your behavior helping the collective energy flow more freely, or is it clogging things up?” And thus we see the basic impulse to keep etiquette alive and well in an arena designed to be antipodal to the formal, hierarchical experience of art.

In the end, that is the fundamental paradox of art and public space: We go there both to be free and to submit (through the embodiment of experience in art) to the consciousness of others; to find and lose ourselves; to be out in the world yet to escape the crushing banality of so much of the culture we have created. Art often seems incidental to the larger world of commerce, politics and celebrity, but it teaches us the most essential lesson of living well together, how to modulate our own ego and desires in the face of something larger, more important and lasting.

“THE SHOW MUST GO ON, CIVILLY”
by Nelson Pressley

Our era’s curse is the cellphone, but theaters have a long tradition as rowdy places. In ­17th-century France, Molière had to tolerate cocky, talkative VIPs who insisted on sitting on the stage. That was common in London, too.

Food, especially fruits and nuts, used to be sold inside theaters, which meant audiences had something to throw at the stage whenever they felt like expressing a bit of ­high-velocity criticism.

And prostitutes! Let’s not forget the working women who used to drum up business in the stalls and galleries.

“Fifteen years ago our theaters were tumultuous places,” Denis Diderot wrote in 1758, fretting that guards — yes, it came to that — were turning unruly Paris stages into “resorts more peaceful and respectful than our churches.”

Our own mayhem is subtler — except, maybe, when an actor leaps from the stage to attack a heckler, which happened over the summer in California. Santa Clara’s Repertory East Company was performing Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” and someone in the audience began making homophobic comments about the repressed character Brick. The actor playing Big Daddy took after the heckler and was fired for it. The performer playing Brick quit in solidarity. The rest of the run was scrapped.

Then there was the notorious 2013 University of Mississippi incident with a largely student audience ridiculing the gay figures of the “The Laramie Project,” which chronicles the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. The jeering not only shattered etiquette but also challenged civil rights; the scandal quickly went national, with widespread backing for the actors.

“All of a sudden, there was a sense of empowerment in the cast, where they felt the support of the greater community,” the show’s director told the Jackson Free Press. “The performances were just electric.” Civility won.

“Performance is a time to think inwardly, not a time to share your thoughts aloud,” instructs the etiquette guide posted by the Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, in Indiana, and, for people who have paid good money and invested valuable time only to be irritated by chatterers (let alone snorers), this bedrock principle can’t be restated often enough.

Still, that’s just scratching the surface of potential distractions. The guides alert us:

“Come clean,” advises New York Show Tickets in a note to both the dirty tourist and the Manhattan gym rat. “Try to make time for a shower before arriving at the theater.”

From the Morris Performing Arts Center in South Bend, Ind.: “Please consider the people that will be seated behind you when choosing whether or not to wear a hat or what hair style you choose.” Also, with alarming grammar: “Take care of personal needs (drinks of water or restroom) because you should not leave your seat until the intermission or until the performance ends.”

Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company teaches audiences, “React to what’s happening on stage.”

They have yet to include this gentle guidance: Please do not throw up on Washington Post critics. (It happened there.)

Surely, everyone knows it’s rude to rattle wrappers during a show, yet a minor Twizzlers incident upstaged Al Pacino during a 2013 New York performance of David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” and prompted the breathless headline, “The Great Fight Way: Broadway Audiences Are Behaving Badly, and Someone Is Going to Get Hurt.”

But the particular bane of our age is the cellphone. In April, Madonna reportedly texted through the second act of the hit off-Broadway musical “Hamilton,” prompting the show’s star and writer Lin-Manuel Miranda to ban Madge from backstage. Hugh Jackman stopped one of his 2009 Broadway performances of “A Steady Rain” with Daniel Craig and stood hands on hips as he told an audience member to turn the bloomin’ thing off. Actress Laura Linney has said that casts now discuss ahead of time what to do when the inevitable cellphone incidents occur.

The most sensational option, of course, is to go ballistic, a la Patti LuPone.

“I have to say this: We have forgotten our public manners,” an inflamed LuPone told a crowd after stopping a performance of “Gypsy” to have a picture-taker thrown out. This was in 2009, when LuPone became the poster diva of “Don’t do that! Don’t make me stop this show!” Only months after “Gypsy” closed on Broadway, she interrupted another performance in Las Vegas to cross-examine an audience member using a phone. When the New York Times characterized the star’s behavior as a trifle touchy, LuPone fired back in a letter.

“This has been going on in my career for 30 years since I starred in ‘Evita,’ and, you’re surprised I stop shows now?” she wrote.

Thirty years predates the “smart” phone, which still hasn’t learned modern theater audience etiquette. (“People” appear to be a poor app for that.) That underscores the bigger point: We are an intuitively restless species. In a crowd, someone is always distracted or out of step. Theaters used to be raucous because they were public squares, places to display one’s privileged self sitting on the stage or to shout as you stood in the pit. The distractions are different now because we’ve evolved into electronic palmists anxious to instant-share and nervous about ever disconnecting.

LuPone’s “Gypsy” tirade is a masterpiece of performer’s pique. On YouTube, you can hear LuPone revving into “Rose’s Turn,” her energy in full throttle, when suddenly she shouts the orchestra to a halt. In a voice that could crack an ocean liner’s hull, she roars at a picture-taker in the audience, “How dare you! Who do you think you are? Get them out!”

The cheers are Olympian. The audience is fully behind her. It had to be said.

The irony that LuPone’s righteous tirade is preserved by an illicit recording? Priceless.

[The other opinion pieces on proper behavior in public places were “Poking Holes in Notion of Anything Goes,” a consideration of etiquette in museums by Philip Kennicott, the Post’s art and architecture critic; “Maintaining Sense of Harmony,” a discussion of correct behavior at a pop concert by Chris Richards, pop music review-writer; “A Blockbuster Idea for Citing Infractions,” an article on etiquette at the movies by Ann Hornaday, a Post movie reviewer; “Dining Out with Good Taste,” an examination of good manners in a restaurant by Tom Sietsema, the Post’s restaurant reviewer; “Caught up in the Performance,” an article on proper conduct at a ballet by dance critic Sarah Kaufman; “To Do and Not to Do,” a consideration of what’s proper at a classical music performance by Anne Midgette, the classical music critic for the paper.]


13 May 2015

Philip Pullman’s 'His Dark Materials'

by Kirk Woodward

[Frequent ROT contributor Kirk Woodward returns now with a slightly different piece of writing.  In “Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials,” he gives us a critical analysis of the fantasy series of his title, comparing it for illustrative purposes with J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, with which His Dark Materials shares some aspects.  Kirk’s not only a writer himself, but he was an English major in college and reads across the spectrum extensively, so he has a well-formed basis to make observations.  He’s also what he calls a “committed Christian,” so Pullman’s well-known opposition to organized religion and distrust of the Church—the writer’s said in an interview that he was raised in the Anglican Church and is as Christian as they come . . . except that he doesn’t believe in God—would be a natural subject for Kirk to examine.  I can assure ROTters that “Philip Pullman” will be worth the read and may well spark a few discussions.  (Don’t hesitate to comment, Readers.  Both Kirk and I will be interested to hear what you all find to say in response.)]

J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, is the Beatles of literature, and Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy series His Dark Materials, is her Rolling Stones. The comparison is apt in many ways. Rowling’s sales far exceed Pullman’s, and everyone else’s, but he has strong popularity. His work, like that of the Stones, is on the darker side. Supporters of each use the strengths of their champions to bash the other. And both Rowling and Pullman maintain good relations with each other, as did the Beatles and the Stones. Rowling has spoken with enthusiasm about Pullman’s work. Pullman is more reserved about Rowling – he says he’s only read the second (and weakest) Harry Potter book (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 1998 – U.K./1999 – U.S.), and that only because he had to, as a judge for an annual book contest, but he has also spoken positively of Rowling.

His Dark Materials (Northern Lights, published in the U.S. as The Golden Compass, Scholastic, 1995; The Subtle Knife, 1997; and The Amber Spyglass, 2000) is the kind of fantasy a former schoolteacher like Pullman might be expected to write. It’s not only a work in three volumes, but it contains a number of “books” within those volumes. There’s a “book” on ecology and the environment, terribly appropriate for these times, involving the changes in climate and their effect on animals (the polar bears). There’s a “book” on scientific procedures, centering on Dr. Mary Malone, formerly a nun, now a physicist; this is the least exciting material in the series, but it is full of respect for the patient work that researchers do. There’s a “book” on the nature of animals that has value for anyone who thinks about the subject, because Pullman makes it clear that animals have their own ways of being conscious. There’s a “book” on string theory. And so on.

There’s also a book on religion. Obviously this is the most controversial part of the series, since Pullman has stated a number of times that he is an atheist, and his dislike of organized religion is both well known and evident. I have a problem with Pullman on this aspect of his series, but not because of his attack on religion.  I don’t think that it goes remotely far enough. A writer in the New York Times Book Review called his position “closely reasoned.” The reader may judge from the following:

All the history of human life has been a struggle between wisdom and stupidity. The rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.

I used to be a nun you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn't any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that's all.

These passages do not strike me as “closely reasoned.” They are essentially insults, although I suspect that many “religious” people would without hesitation agree that organized religion has been responsible for much slaughter, torturing, and mental dictatorship. Institutions have a way of defending themselves, and religion is no exception. The Church has often behaved the way Pullman says it does, perhaps without so much melodramatic twirling of moustaches, but nevertheless indefensibly.

And a “religious” person would not necessarily object to Pullman’s presentation of the Authority (the name in the books for the Church, or possibly for the Roman Catholic Church); as someone said to me, “It’s nothing like the God I believe in.” I suspect this may be why the former Archbishop of Canterbury recommended the books, suggesting that they might be useful in religious education classes. Undoubtedly the Archbishop has firsthand knowledge of the weaknesses of organized religion, especially the fanatical kind. (Pullman’s denunciation of religion appears to deal specifically with Christians; one wonders whether he would include the Jews, the Buddhists, and the Muslims in his indictment.)

But if religion is so bad, what’s the alternative? I’m afraid that the only principle I can find in the books, besides the idea that the church is bad, is that very young teens should be allowed to have unprotected sex with each other. I can imagine screams from Pullman’s defenders objecting that he never says that his young characters Lyra Belacqua, a twelve-year-old girl fated to bring about a massive correction to the world she lives in, and Will Parry, whom Lyra encounters along the course of her adventures, have sex, and Pullman has said the same thing. Literally he is correct: he doesn’t explicitly say the two characters have been sexually active. But I doubt that few readers would take these passages any other way:

I heard, . . . I was awake and I wanted to tell you the same and now I know what I must have felt all the time: I love you, Will, I love you –

The word love set his nerves ablaze. All his body thrilled with it, and he answered her in the same words, kissing her hot face over and over again, drinking in with adoration the scent of her body and her warm, honey-fragrant hair and her sweet, moist mouth that tasted of the little red fruit.

Around them there was nothing but silence, as if all the world were holding its breath.

. . . .

They looked dazed, as if some happy accident had robbed them of their wits; they moved slowly; their eyes were not focused on what they looked at.

They spent all day on the wide hills, and in the heat of the afternoon, they visited their gold-and-silver grove. They talked, they bathed, they ate, they kissed, they lay in a trance of happiness murmuring words whose sound was as confused as their sense, and they felt they were melting with love.

. . . .

He felt her tremble, and then under his hands the delicate bones of her back began to rise and fall, and he heard her sob quietly. He stroked her warm hair, her tender shoulders, and then he kissed her face again and again, and presently she gave a deep, shuddering sigh and fell still.

Now calm down, everyone. . . . This is the language of the bodice-rippers. At a minimum, Pullman has given himself “plausible deniability.” If he is merely suggesting that teenagers should be free to hug and kiss, well, the church has never had much luck preventing that. And the encounter of the two tweens is presented in the books as a world-transforming event, one toward which all history has been moving. It’s hard to imagine that a night of mere snuggling could accomplish so great a goal, or that the church would seriously bother to oppose it.

The truth is that as a writer Pullman tends to pull his punches.  He wants to have things both ways; for example, he doesn’t want to say that the kids in his story make love, but he certainly wants us to feel not only that they do, but that they ought to, as a liberated and liberating activity.  Even in his presentation of death, he is able to give those who would like to believe in immortality the feeling that in some sense such a thing just might exist. To quote:

I’ll be looking for you, Will, every moment, every single moment. And when we do find each other again, we’ll cling together so tight that nothing and no one’ll ever tear us apart. Every atom of me and every atom of you. . . . We’ll live in birds and flowers and dragonflies and pine trees and in clouds and in those little specks of light you see floating in sunbeams. . . . And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won’t just be able to take one, they’ll have to take two, one of you and one of me, we’ll be joined so tight. . . .

At one level Pullman in his writing will compromise to keep his readers happy. What he really feels in private, of course, is unknowable.

Frequently fantasy (as opposed to imagination) visualizes a world without God, a fact that in my opinion – my own biases show here – can explain why fantasy books such as Pullman’s, and other creations such as electronic fantasy games, tend to be so consistently gloomy. Pullman’s materials are indeed dark. Why not? One would think that if we could invent a world without that repressive old God telling us what to do, we’d be a great deal happier. The reverse appears to me to be true: without a God to provide lasting consequences for behavior, there are no consequences, so anything goes (cf. Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire). Much fantasy conceives of the “natural” world as a world of deterministic forces, in which nothing lasts. As a result, it seems to me, contemporary fantasy is frequently morose and full of foreboding. (This is not the case with the Potter books, which clearly point to the survival in another world of those who have died, for example, Harry’s parents. Similarly, the fantasies of the Star Wars films offer The Force, another indicator of a reality greater than the everyday.)

We may now ask whether Pullman’s or J. K. Rowling’s books are “better.” This is clearly an apples-and-oranges question. However, some things can be said. Open a book by Pullman and one by Rowling at random, and the differences immediately become clear. The two are working two different sides of the street. Rowling is by far the more contemporary and “realistic” writer, and her specialty is dialogue, which is consistent with and characteristic of the characters it reveals. Her school kids sound like real school kids talking.

Pullman’s specialty is epic and the well-turned narrative phrase. His dialogue slips in and out of credibility along with his characterizations – his heroine, Lyra, in particular is often simply unbelievable for her age. But as a prose stylist he is magnificent, and his Homeric similes are particularly impressive. The kind of writing Pullman does is the kind more likely to win critical praise and prizes, since anyone can see that it’s Literature, but that is not the last word in a value judgment.

In the matter of plotting, it seems to me that Rowling is simply superior to Pullman. He invents and piles on incidents with determination, throwing in everything he can think of, but an accumulation of detail is no cure for a story that is not particularly dynamic. The plot of His Dark Materials tends to rely on the search for certain objects, thrust into the story at arbitrary times. The Potter books, interestingly, also involve the search for objects, but those searches are required by the overall narrative, while other objects could be substituted for the Golden Compass or the Subtle Knife, both of which exist to make the plot possible, not to embody it.

One may compare Pullman’s plotting to the forward thrust of the Harry Potter stories on all levels, from subplot to book to series. The enthusiasm to see what happens in the next Potter book comes from the fact that there is a “next” that is required by the story, and not simply more incidents to come. The war against heaven and Lyra’s coming of age are not sufficiently differentiated from other events to be more than hooks to hang a story on. The result is that the reader can simply be worn out by the accumulation of incident from time to time – at least this reader was.

Similarly, there is no question in what way Lord Voldemort, in the Potter books, is evil. Pullman doesn’t make much of an effort to distinguish between the forces of the Church and the forces of (in Pullman’s terms) good, except to tell us that the Church and its minions are evil and repressive and the people fighting it are on the side of the good. Where this distinction of good and evil comes from, if there is no God, is hard for me to see, but are there no other differences between the Church and its opponents, besides the banner each is fighting under? The differences between the sides are largely matters of weaponry – Zeppelins, gyrocopters, so what? Lord Asriel, the leader of the rebellion against the Church, is as unattractive a figure as Metatron, the archangel fighting to maintain the Church’s supremacy – both are remote and ruthless. Is there really a reason to pick sides?

We often talk about “good writing” as though it were one kind of thing that can be identified in anyone’s work. Clearly this is not the case. We need to ask what the writer is trying to achieve, and whether or not the writer achieves it. Accurate answers to these questions will bring us closer to a fair evaluation of the author’s work. In his recent book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (Canongate Books, 2012), having engaged in a great deal of public dispute on matters of religion, Pullman may present his case more clearly. It seems to me, in the cases discussed here, however, that Rowling is able to achieve her objectives, and Pullman is not. If His Dark Materials really is a stick to beat religion with, one wishes it were a better stick.


08 May 2015

Appropriation in the Theater


A quick check with the Dramatists Guild in New York confirms that the magpie culture of borrowing and re-appropriation that drives current pop music is largely alien to playwrights, even when one work is in creative conversation with another.  Unlike Hollywood screenwriters who get paid but lose copyright control to the studios, playwrights—usually poorly paid—at least retain copyright.  If a playwright were to try a freewheeling, blurry-lined adaptation of, say, Tony Kushner’s early 1990s “Angels in America” or Ntzoke Shange’s 1975 “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” without first licensing the rights, odds are pretty good that would be stealing.

So wrote Washington Post theater reviewer Nelson Pressley in a comment about the repercussions from the Gaye v. Thicke and Williams copyright-infringement verdict on 10 March.  I just posted an article about plagiarism in the arts, “What Constitutes Theft in the Arts?,” which focused on pop music (see 5 May on ROT).  That seems to be where most of the copyright-infringement charges turn up and, as Pressley remarks, there aren’t many cases of alleged plagiarism in the theater.  Derivation, yes; actual theft, not so much.

I imagine that there have been instances of charges of plagiarism and copyright infringement levied against playwrights in the past, but I can’t recall reading of any in recent memory (and, trust me, I’ve been around and about for a fair number of years).  There’s a related case, but not of copyright infringement, in the film industry from 1989.  Chris Costner Sizemore, the woman on whose story the 1957 movie The Three Faces of Eve was based, sued 20th Century Fox when she learned that she’d signed over the rights to her whole life story when she agreed to the making of the film.  Fox insisted that she couldn’t sell the motion picture rights to a memoir she’d written (A Mind of My Own; Morrow, 1989) because the studio owned the rights to Sizemore’s entire life, not just the period covered by Three Faces.  Fox lost the suit, but this wasn’t about theater and it wasn’t a copyright-infringement case.

In a case a little like Sizemore’s, but this time in the stage world, David Hampton sued playwright John Guare for $100 million in 1992 with the claim that Guare’s play Six Degrees of Separation had infringed on Hampton’s copyright on his personality and his life story.  Though Hampton’s criminal activities were, in fact, the basis for Guare’s successful 1990 play (it was nominated for 1991 Drama Desk and Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prize; it won the 1990-91 OBIE Award, the 1991 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the 1993 Laurence Olivier Award), the case was dismissed.  The charge against Guare was copyright infringement (although I’m not sure anyone can copyright a personality or a life story), but this wasn’t a case of plagiarism since Hampton didn’t have anything written that Guare could have stolen.  Further, the suit was clearly frivolous, intended merely to pressure Guare and his producers and publishers to avoid the expense of a trial.  Hampton had previously been convicted of harassing Guare with threats and phone calls demanding money.  Fox had been serious in its suit against Sizemore—serious though arrogant; Hampton was just audacious.

This dearth of litigation among playwrights and stage producers (who, since they don’t own the copyrights to the scripts they produce, unlike film producers, don’t have much standing to sue anyone anyway) doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of borrowing, adapting, and appropriating in the theater.  It’s ubiquitous and goes back to pretty ancient times.  I doubt a season just in New York City alone doesn’t pass without at least one adapted or derived play on the boards; nationwide, I can’t imagine that there isn’t at least one in production somewhere at any given time.  Many of our greatest and most popular plays are versions of something else that came before and even if you eliminate non-theatrical sources—movies, novels, even TV shows nowadays—the list would be endless.

The traditional American musical has mostly been an adaptation of a straight play.  In fact, in its earliest incarnation, the musical theater was almost always the result of the musicalization of a straight drama or, more likely, comedy.  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (1943) was based on the play Green Grow The Lilacs by Lynn Riggs (1931); Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady (1956) was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (1913); A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962) by Burt Shevelove, Larry Gelbart, and Stephen Sondheim was based on several classic Roman comedies by Plautus; Purlie (1970) by Gary Geld, Ossie Davis, Peter Udell, and Philip Rose was a musicalization of Davis’s Purlie Victorious (1961); and Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein’s La Cage Aux Folles (1983) was based on the French play of the same title by Jean Poiret (1973).  Add in shows adapted from films (Carnival!, 1961; Woman of the Year, 1981), novels (South Pacific, 1949; Camelot, 1961), TV shows (The Addams Family, 2010; Cinderella, 2013), and even newspaper and magazine features (Pal Joey, 1940; Guys and Dolls, 1950), and the list is endless.  But none of these, regardless of quality or ultimate critical evaluation, are copies—derivative, perhaps, but all of them are original works of theater.

She Loves Me (1963) is a perfect case in point which even comes with an expanded web of connections.  The musical with book by Joe Masteroff, music by Jerry Bock, and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick is, first, adapted from the 1937 Hungarian play by Miklós László that’s known in English as Parfumerie.  (Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, of course, had been previously responsible for Fiorello! (1959)—my very first Broadway play—and would ultimately create Fiddler on the Roof (1964).  Joe Masteroff would go on to write the book for Cabaret in 1966—itself an adaptation of John van Druten’s 1951 I Am a Camera, which was adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s 1945 collection, The Berlin Stories.)  Parfumerie wasn’t produced on a U.S. stage until 2009 when it was presented as The Perfume Shop by the Asolo Repertory Theatre in Sarasota, Florida, in an English adaptation by E. P. Dowdall, László’s nephew.  (A Toronto staging of an adaptation from Canadian writers Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins was also produced that year at the Soulpepper Theatre Company.)  As far as I can learn, the play’s never been presented in New York City.  (I'm not sure the script is even available in English.) 

Before the musical adaption, Parfumerie was the source for a still-popular romantic film comedy starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, entitled The Shop Around the Corner (1940), directed by Ernst Lubitsch.  That movie was itself musicalized as In the Good Old Summertime (1949), directed by Robert Z. Leonard and starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson, with the setting shifted from 1930s Budapest to turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago.  That film adaptation was followed several decades later by the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan 1998 romcom You’ve Got Mail, directed by Nora Ephron from her own script which reset the tale in contemporary New York City and turned the letters the secret lovers send each other into e-mails.  (The shop also changed in each incarnation: in Parfumerie, it’s obviously a perfume shop; in Shop Around the Corner, it’s a gift shop; in Summertime, it’s a music store; in Mail, Hanks and Ryan run rival book stores on the Upper West Side.) 

Finally, at least so far, the MGM straight motion picture, whose script was by Samson Raphaelson and Ben Hecht, was re-adapted (and translated into French!) by Jean-Jacques Zilbermann and Evelyne Fallot in 2001, when it was staged by Zilbermann as a non-musical play, La boutique au coin de la rue (“The shop at the corner of the street”), at Paris’s Théâtre Montparnasse, where it won five Molière Awards (the French equivalent to New York’s Tonys). 

On New Year’s Eve in 2006, I saw a performance of She Loves Me at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.  (I also saw the Broadway revival in May 1994, produced by the Roundabout Theatre Company at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, directed by Scott Ellis and starring Boyd Gaines, but I never wrote a report on the performance.)  Directed by Kyle Donnelly, the Arena production of what executive director Stephen Richard characterized as “an endearing story of letters and love” starred Kevin Kraft as Georg Nowack and Brynn O’Malley as Amalia Balash (the characters called Alfred Kralik and Klara Novak in Shop), and was, of course, staged in the round.  She Loves Me, which Arena artistic director Molly Smith called “a nearly perfect musical,” is old-fashioned in the vein of My Fair Lady or The King and I (getting a major revival right now at New York’s Lincoln Center).  An “homage to one of the greatest romantic ideals, finding a soulmate,” as production dramaturg Michelle T. Hall put it, She Loves Me “courts all the different facets of love: boyish crushes, erotic affairs, married love, broken hearts, and the most elusive of all, true love.”  It’s charming and fun, even if the songs, which Smith described as “completely character-driven” and “expressions of the characters’ feelings and situations,” are not especially memorable (I no longer remember them, a scant nine years later). 

Alluding to the letters of poets Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the love sonnets of Shakespeare, and the fictionalized proxy love correspondence in Cyrano de Bergerac, Hall positioned the musical “in the tradition of epistolary love affairs.”  She also quoted director Donnelly in an oblique comment on the up-dated e-correspondence of You’ve Got Mail: “There is something so tangible, visceral and immediate about a letter.  It can be tucked away and pulled out to read at a moment’s notice.  You hold something that the other person touched, created, and e-mail just doesn’t compare.”  Like the play’s format and structure, the romance at its center is also old-fashioned; outside of the exchange of letters, Georg and Amalia clash like Much Ado About Nothing’s Benedick and Beatrice.

Arena’s production of She Loves Me, which included no stars or actors whom I knew, was even, solid, and much more than just competent, though no performance stood out in the ensemble.  Director Donnelly made good use of the Fichandler’s arena platform—I always feel that staging a musical in the round is particularly hard—and everyone’s voice was strong (they were miked, as usual these days) and vibrant.  I especially liked Arpad’s one solo number, “Try Me,” his self-promotion.  Clifton Guterman, the young actor playing the delivery boy-who-would-be-a-clerk, may have looked a tad older than a teenager, but his tenor was youthful and his enthusiasm in selling himself (and the song) was delightful.  But in the end, this was an ensemble production (though its past includes stars: Barbara Cook as Amalia Balash in the original Broadway run along with Jack Cassidy, who won a Tony as the self-serving Steven Kodaly; and near-stars: Boyd Gaines, who won a Tony as Georg Nowack in the 1993 Roundabout/Broadway revival, and Louis Zorich, “Mr. Olympia Dukakis,” as Mr. Maraczek); the cast as a whole did a very nice job.  (By coincidence, one of the cable channels ran both The Shop Around the Corner and then In the Good Old Summertime the week before I saw the stage musical.  That was kind of fun, though the station unhappily didn’t run You’ve Got Mail as well, and it illustrated many of the aspects of theatrical adaptation.)

Alongside musicalization, the most common form of adaptation in theater is probably translation.  Every translation of a play, usually accomplished by another playwright or other theater professional or a writer from another genre, is a form of adaptation, even when the translator’s intent is to render the original author’s text as directly as possible.  Many translations are also deliberate adaptations, from simply transferring the setting from the original one to one based in the culture of the new language or an up-dating of the play’s time period to even more extensive changes.  A case in point is Nora, a new German version of Henrik Ibsen’s Doll House by Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, a Berlin company, which I saw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theatre in November 2004. 

Nora is the standard German title for Doll House (1879), but this was more than just a new translation by Hinrich Schmidt-Henkel—and less than a full adaptation.  The pay was reset in the 21st century, both in look and in language (some of the music in the production was by Pharrell Williams), but everything from the original was still in this version—the Helmers were still Norwegians (that is, they weren’t transported to Berlin or something); Torvald was still a banker; Nora was still a stay-at-home wife; they still had three kids; Rank (still a doctor), Krogstad, and Kristine were all still there in the same relationships as Ibsen put them in; and, most significant, Nora had still secretly forged her father’s signature on the loan agreement with which she had borrowed money to pay for her and Torvald’s trip to Italy when he was ill.  There were a few minor changes—there was no nurse in this version, and Helene, the maid, had become Monika, an au pair from Africa. 

The Schaubühne did make some more significant changes to the text/story to make it seem more current, however, and some of them seemed to have diluted the original dramatic impact.  One wasn’t very large—though the meaning was more significant than it might seem: Rank wasn’t dying of cancer; he’d gotten AIDS from having been omni-sexual in his youth.  Now this may not seem like much of an alteration, but it struck me as weakening Ibsen’s point—which is, itself, a little hard to buy today also.  Ibsen believed, as did many in his day, that moral corruption is manifested later in physical illness—and could be passed on, like a hereditary disease, to the children.  This was a pseudo-scientific belief in the late 19th century, and Ibsen used it in a more prominent way in Ghosts, of course—where Osvald’s father’s sexual profligacy is inherited by Osvald as syphilis.  What’s the difference between this and the new version?  Well, as I see it, cancer isn’t a disease we generally blame on willfully unhealthy behavior—especially in the 19th century when no one knew about the connection to smoking and other carcinogenic activities.  So, if Rank has cancer and he blames it on his corrupt youth, then it must be some kind of moral retribution since the youthful behavior didn’t directly cause the cancer.  However, if he has AIDS because he had unprotected sex with infected men and women, his illness is a direct result of his willful behavior.  (Because the adaptation was set in the 2000’s, he can’t even use the excuse that no one knew what caused AIDS when he engaged in the behavior.)  Unless you subscribe to the notion that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality or promiscuity, the moral element was erased from the situation.  (As I said, this aspect of the play is hard to play today, but it only works at all if the play remains set in the 19th century when people actually believed this theory.)  This was somewhat more significant than just as an element in the Rank-Nora subplot—the same theory was applied to Krogstad, who was considered to be morally corrupt and therefore a danger to his family, especially his children.  It was this moral corruption that permitted Torvald to reject Krogstad and forced Krogstad to blackmail Nora with the letter and loan document he left for Torvald at the end of the play.  It was also this belief, which Krogstad explained to Nora, that impelled her to leave her children when her transgression had been revealed—she couldn’t stay in the house with them for fear that she’d infect them with her corruption.  Without this motivation, she didn’t have to leave, and the play’s ending became a purely selfish act and had no dramatic strength.

Now, if all that’s true, then the other, really big change in this version had even greater repercussions.  According to the New York Times review, the company wanted to restore the shock Ibsen’s original audience felt at the end of the play.  (According to theater history, there were even riots in Europe when Doll House opened and Nora leaves, it was such a unheard-of action.)  Without reading the review, you’d never guess what Schmidt-Henkel had done.  He had Nora shoot Torvald before she left.  And it wasn’t just one quick shot—she unloaded an automatic pistol into him, even as he was writhing on the ground, half in the giant fish tank that was a prominent part of the starkly modern apartment set.  Okay, this was shocking, but it changed the whole dynamic of the ending, and made Nora into a straight-out murderer rather than a distraught but enlightened woman who acted out of what she believed was selflessness.  First, for her departure to be justified, she still had to believe that by staying, she endangered her children.  That’s hard to do in the 21st century, but with the “evidence” of the physical manifestations of mortal corruption no longer as clear as it was in Ibsen’s original, it’s even harder.  Second, since Torvald’s only real fault was still that he didn’t leap to Nora’s defense when he learned of her forgery on the loan document—just like in the original, he feared for his position at the bank and that Krogstad would now be able to manipulate him.  Perhaps even more today than in Ibsen’s time, this came off as a supremely egocentric posture, and that made him a chauvinistic pig, as we used to say—but it was hardly a capital crime.  It justified leaving him—maybe enough today not to need the matter of corrupting the kids—but hardly shooting him.  So, instead of being a brave and selfless woman, Nora was a fugitive from a murder charge—and maybe even nuts.  This alone changed the entire meaning of the play.  The shock may have been restored, but it was shock for its own sake, as a theatrical effect, not based on dramatic necessity. 

I suppose that was enough to make the translation/adaptation questionable, but there were other problems I had with this show.  I know that Europe is behind the U.S. in enfranchising women, especially in the marketplace, but they’re not 50 years behind.  (After all, Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and England have all already elected female heads of government—we haven’t yet.)  It’s hard for me to accept that a woman as self-consciously modern as Nora here—the costume she wore to the Christmas party wasn’t some peasant outfit so she could dance a tarantella; she went in complete punk get-up, blood smears and all, and did a techno dance (of which the Germans were fond, I believe)—could be so bereft of options that a) she had to forge her father’s signature for a loan and b) she couldn’t resolve the problem by some more rational means than either leaving or, even more drastically, shooting Torvald.  The whole idea of the “doll-wife” (and that expression was still in the German text, by the way) was a throw-back, even in Europe today.  In fact, moving the whole thing up to the 2000s seemed to make everything a little incredible—contrived, I guess.  Instead of an indictment of a social problem that the playwright saw as universal, this version made the whole thing a play about a seriously dysfunctional couple and their dysfunctional friends.  (I ought to add, too, that the very idea today that a sick man had to go to Italy to recover—and that this was his only remedy—was hard to buy also.  Germans still believed in “taking the cure”—going to a health spa for mineral baths—at least when I was living there a half-century ago, but needing to go south for one’s health was still pretty much an anachronism—more like Death in Venice in 1912 than 21st century.  It was another aspect that really had to remain in Ibsen’s own time to work.)

There was some problem with the acting—I presume Thomas Ostermeier’s direction, really—too.  The actors were good, and I didn’t have any problem believing them in their roles/situations most of the time (outside of the problems of the script above), except that every so often they went off their rockers emotionally for no apparent reason or motivation.  One character might all of a sudden shout (or bark) at another, or another character would behave as if he were in the grips of an epileptic fit or some other odd physical condition and throw himself about the stage violently.  (The final shooting was sort of like this.  Nora had the gun—she was contemplating suicide—but she’d put it away and had even gone off into her room off stage.  Then she came out, pointed the gun at Torvald for a few seconds, and started pulling the trigger again and again.)  Now, maybe I missed something in the German text or in the translation (titles), but I don’t think so.  (I really wished my German were good enough not to have had to refer to the surtitles as much as I did—even though I knew the play fairly well, having taught it.  I did want to see what the translator did with the text.)  It didn’t help matters that the performance was two hours and ten minutes without an intermission—and the Harvey Theatre’s seats are not soft!

Anyway, it was disappointing, but not actually bad.  I pretty much concluded that updating Doll House isn’t profitable—you lose too much that isn’t made up in the modernization—but it was interesting to see the attempt.  It also made me reconsider the original—and how good Ibsen was at constructing plays to say what he wanted, such that trying to make them say something else in part destroys them.  (I saw a 1997 production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Arena in which Liviu Ciulei turned the dramatist’s famously realistic play into a symbolistic staging.  It simply didn’t work.)  Ironically, I also concluded that though Ibsen must remain in his own period for the plot to work, the drama—the point, the message, the theme—still communicates to a modern audience.  I mean, we may no longer believe in the nonsense of moral corruption = physical decay, but if we accept that they did, we can still see Ibsen’s point about trust and respect and honesty within a marriage.

We know that Shakespeare borrowed most of his plots from other writers.  Copyright protection didn’t exist in the 16th century, so he and the many other writers who used someone else’s ideas for their own works were on safe legal ground, and because Shakespeare’s final products (leaving aside, please, any argument that he wasn’t the true playwright) were so magnificent most of the time, no one has much cared in the centuries since.  But appropriation was nevertheless common even in the Renaissance (and long before as well: consider how may versions of Oedipus exist in Greek and Roman theater).  Shakespeare composed The Taming of the Shrew between 1590 and 1592 and there were almost immediately adaptations and derivatives on the stages of England and western Europe.  (Probably the best known stage adaptation is Cole Porter’s 1948 musical version, Kiss Me, Kate, which I’ll mention shortly.  The most radical was probably 1973’s The Shew by Charles Marowitz whose Hamlet collage, a 1964 deconstruction, became an international theater phenomenon; his Shrew was composed in much the same way.)

Probably the oldest Shrew variation is The Woman’s Prize, or The Tamer Tamed, a sequel written by John Fletcher (1579-1625) in about 1611.  (The script was first published in 1647, 22 years after Fletcher’s death.)  Characterized by Matt Wolf, a London theater reviewer for Variety, as a play “that virtually no one knows,” The Tamer Tamed (as it’s commonly called) was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries after the Restoration, often more so than its source, but dropped off the stage for about 200 years until 2003 when the Royal Shakespeare Company revived it; I saw it when the RSC came to Washington’s Kennedy Center later that same year with a repertoire that comprised both the Fletcher and its Shakespearean basis.  (I didn’t see the RSC production of Shrew, but I have seen it many times, including one at Shenandoah Shakespeare in Staunton, Virginia, in May 2003, staged in the troupe’s reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Blackfriars theater—see “Blackfriars Playhouse in Virginia,” 18 November 2009 on ROT and “Shenandoah Shakespeare,” 21 November 2009—and then again at Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre in November 2007.)

I have trouble with Shrew to start with.  Okay, I know we’re not supposed to judge a work from the past by current standards, but I’ve never really been able to get around Petruchio’s treatment of Kate in order to “tame” her.  (The STC production piled on because director Rebecca Bayla Taichman posited the idea that Shrew is all about marriage as commerce.  Baptista auctioned off his daughters.)  I’m not sure this analogy will go over real well, but I’ll float it anyway: I once had a dog who got uncontrollably violent when he met another dog.  I spoke to a trainer and her analysis was that I had two choices.  She could break him entirely of his hostility, but he’d be spiritually crushed.  Or she could make him manageable; he wouldn’t be out of control but he could never be let alone with another dog off his leash.  We decided that the second option would be best for the dog (and for me)—but Petruchio seems to have gone for option one.  And for far less cause.  (Now, I’m not really comparing a woman to a dog—please don’t start that—though Petruchio does use animal-training techniques to tame Kate.)  I also understand that Shrew is a comedy—but if you play it entirely for laughs, then you make fun of what amounts to domestic violence.  If you make Kate so shrewish that she seems to need taming, in order to try to justify Petruchio’s behavior, then she ends up not just a strong-willed and independent woman but a truly insane one.  If you play her as a sort of protofeminist (which I maintain is what Shakespeare wrote, though she, of course, is way out of her time in the Renaissance), then Petruchio’s actions are all unwarranted (and even, by our standards, criminal).  Those aren’t really funny situations.  So, maybe I’m just a stick-in-the-mud, but I’ve never been able to reconcile this dilemma.  I don’t have the same problem with the racism of Othello or the anti-Semitism of Merchant, but the sexism of Shrew defeats me. 

As for Tamer Tamed, think Lysistrata meets Shrew—20 years on.  Katherine has died—RSC director Gregory Doran suggested that she’d died “from exhaustion”—and Petruchio has fallen in love again.  His new bride, Maria, refuses to consummate their marriage unless Petruchio changes his ways.  That’s enough to relate . . . because it’s awful.  (I’ve never seen a Jacobean play that was remotely enjoyable: The Duchess of Malfi, ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Venice Preserv’d—they’re all grim.  Yech!)  There’s a word often used to describe bad theater, and it’s very apt for Tamer: leaden.  It just lay there lifeless.  The RSC tried so hard to animate it—the reviews all focused on the performances—that they ended up just looking manic, as if they were trying desperately to bring a dead body back to life.  There’s not a single line of poetry or even memorable prose; not one attractive, or even sympathetic, character; and a one-joke plot (all the women are denying all the men sex) that reduces everyone to a cipher.  I couldn’t even keep most of the characters straight—but that was mostly because I didn’t really care.  Not only wasn’t it funny, it wasn’t even clever.  I repeat a caveat I’ve used numerous times: often an unknown or neglected play is unknown and neglected because it’s bad!!!  This adaptation didn’t improve on the original; why RSC decided to dredge it up is a mystery to me. 

In 1999, a Broadway production of Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (with book by Samuel and Bella Spewack) opened at Broadway’s Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld), directed by  Michael Blakemore and starring Marin Mazzie as Lilli Vanessi/Kate and Brian Stokes Mitchell as Fred Graham/Petruchio.  The revival, the first since the 1948 début, went on tour after it closed in New York and I saw it with Rachel York and Rex Smith at the Kennedy Center in Washington in July 2001.  Kate is a backstage story about a touring troupe putting on a production of Shakespeare’s Shrew; it’s supposed to have been based on the off-stage lives of the husband-and-wife acting duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who were said to have had a tempestuous relationship when they weren’t on stage.  

Unfortunately, I never wrote up any notes on this show and the only comment I remember making was that Rex Smith was just not a powerful stage persona, leaving a rather large hole in the center of the production where he’s called upon to portray two notoriously chauvinistic males: Petruchio from Shrew and Fred Graham, the director and lead actor of the touring company.  (To soften Fred’s benighted sexism, director Blakemore and uncredited play doctor John Guare made Harrison Howell, Lilli’s new beau since she and Fred separated, into a true MCP of an army general, with a nod to Douglas MacArthur—sunglasses and all—instead of the mere stuffed-shirt politico of the original script.) 

Unlike the Petruchio of Shrew, however, Fred’s far less a problem for me since, first of all, Kate is a musical comedy of the old school and no one is seriously endangered—the comic mobsters notwithstanding—and second, he’s hardly as hard-core as Petruchio and all he’s really up to is winning Lilli back—in his (ahem) fashion.  (Kate is, after all, not just a musical comedy, it’s a romantic comedy.  People don’t get hurt in a romcom!)  Of course, irrespective of production styles and individual performances, Kate is still the very first winner of the Tony for Best Musical and contains Porter’s most beloved stage score, with such perennial faves as “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “So In Love,” “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” and “Wunderbar.”  (There are even several wonderful tunes from Shakespeare’s text, like “Where Is the Life That Late I Led” and “I Am Ashamed That Women Are So Simple.”) 

One of the most peculiar theatrical derivatives I’ve seen in my theatergoing life was Richard Schechner’s The Prometheus Project in December 1985.  Of course, anything Schechner, one of the founders of the 1960s avant-garde theater scene in New York and around the country, does is decidedly . . . well, unconventional.  Prometheus was a work performed in four movements plus a coda, conceived and directed by Schechner and presented by the Wooster Group Visiting Artist Series at the Performing Garage (previously the workspace of Schechner’s Performance Group, Wooster Group’s predecessor). 

Schechner, whose work hadn’t been seen in New York for five years, returned with his version of the Greek classic tragedy Prometheus Bound, attributed to Aeschylus (c. 525/524-c. 456/455 BCE).  The Prometheus Project expounded Schechner’s belief that nuclear firepower is Prometheus’ gift gone awry, and that nuclear destruction is the epitome of man’s violence, which also includes torture and sexual abuse.  The performance attempted to tie all this together and make us recognize our victims. 

To create visions of destruction and brutality, Schechner (who was one of my professors at NYU) and his performers combined movement, gesture, light, speech, and music.  These images were woven into the stories of Prometheus, chained to a mountain for stealing fire, and Io, turned into a cow and forced to wander the earth for rejecting Zeus.  The movement and gesture images were more affecting than the language images, which were unexciting and unconvincing.

Most striking was “Tomoko,” the opening movement, starting with slides from Renzo Kinoshita’s Pica Don depicting Hiroshima before, during, and after the bombing.  When the lights came up, the actors performed every-day tasks in slow motion while cellist Mollie Glazer played Bach’s Kol Nidre.  This segued into Becke Wilenski singing Bach’s oratorio, “Hear Ye, Israel.  O, how hast thou heeded my commandments.”  The scene was compelling, and drew attention to each action, each gesture.      

The succeeding segments were less focused and depended heavily on language and speech.  “Annie” gave us a very excisable porn show by veteran sex educator, former prostitute, stripper, and porno actor Annie Sprinkle, whom we were supposed to see as a victim.  It was during this scene that Schechner’s manipulative inclinations showed themselves.  Two actors dressed in trench coats, slouch hats, and dark glasses—the kind that stereotypical viewers of porn movies or strip shows are supposed to wear—took positions facing the audience, seated on bleacher-like risers at one end of the performance space.  The idea seemed to be that these “men” were there to witness our attendance at a porn show.  But, of course, we didn’t know the scene would take place and there was no way any of us could actually have left if we’d wanted to without disturbing all the rest of the audience and walking across the performance area.  So Schechner was trying to have it both ways—make us captive and unwitting spectators at a sex show and at the same time essentially point at us accusingly for being there.  The conceit actually pissed me off—it seemed dishonest.

In “Io,” while female performers ran back and forth imitating Io’s flight, two women told apparently true stories of abuse by men.  The last movement was “Prometheus” in which a nude Mahmood Karimi-Hakak was ritualistically bound and then recounted the story of his own torture.  Following a moment borrowed from Endgame during which Prometheus was released, the coda presented the entire company looking at us as two readers described a post-holocaustal world.      

Somehow, none of this came together.  Whenever the language began, the performance dragged and paled.  Schechner’s not partial to words, and his mostly novice performers were incapable of making them sound genuine.  After the stirring first movement, The Prometheus Project slackened disappointingly.  (I don’t know if Schechner took this show on a tour—it began in a workshop of college students, who made up most of the cast, and the director-creator may have presented it to other student audiences around the country—but I’m unaware of any revivals of The Prometheus Project in New York City since 1985.)

[Many of my remarks above were taken from past performance reports that predate ROT and even some of the e-mail reports that inspired the blog.  My comments on the Arena Stage revival of She Loves Me were drawn from a report I wrote on 17 January 2007 covering a visit to Washington over the year-end holidays that year, and the section on Nora was based on a 15 November 2004 report.  My brief remarks on The Taming of the Shrew at STC were taken from my 29 November 2007 report, and the comments on The Tamer Tamed were from a report written on 13 January 2004.  (You remember that I had no archived remarks on the Kennedy Center revival of Kiss Me, Kate.)  The discussion of Schechner’s Prometheus Project was actually a short review I wrote for Stages after seeing the performance but which was never published; Stages reduced my remarks to a brief mention in a general survey article in the March 1986 issue.]