September 3, 2013 § Leave a Comment
We Are Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On
Although Shakespeare’s texts are so ubiquitous as to be said to have a kind of permanence, productions are ephemeral – things of the moment. In saying so, we usually concentrate on their overall transience, without noticing that it also gives them amazing malleability to immediately respond to their specific (and frequently changing) context while they are running.
This weekend I saw Shakespeare Santa Cruz’ penultimate performance of its production of Henry V, which reminded me again of this astonishing quality of live theater. Before I take up that context, a few words of praise for the production itself.
Director Paul Mullins*’ staging of the production was the most beautiful of any Shakespeare play I have seen in years. His extraordinarily dynamic choreography of cast movement, and composition of contrasting still moments, was often breathtaking. He and his design team (Michael Ganio, scenic; B. Modern, costume; Peter West, lighting) created an extraordinary visual experience on the recently rebuilt outdoor stage in Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, amidst the towering redwoods that surround and back the thrust.
Using as many as a dozen access points to the stage, armies appeared and disappeared in seconds. In his best stage picture, while awaiting the decisive battle at Agincourt, the ragged and dirty English army huddled fearfully on the stage while their French opponents (dressed in what looked suspiciously, and wittily anachronistically, like polo whites) hovered above them on the second story of the set open to the sky. Once the battle was fully engaged, and the tables had turned, the fierce English combatants froze in tableau while the stunned French noblemen bled out under them onto the forestage to perform. The reversal from their towering power to being literally trod underfoot was all we needed to know about what had happened in the battle, and how suddenly it had all come about.
During the presentation there were many bravura performances, some of which might have seemed more powerful to those of us who had already seen the other production in the summer’s repertoire, The Taming of The Shrew. (My review here.) The rock solid team of Fred Arsenault as Captain Gower and Conan McCarty as Captain Fluellen (Petruchio and his servant Grumio in Shrew) demonstrated what repertory performance is all about in incisively-realized supporting roles. Kit Wilder’s turn as Pistol provided expert comic relief. William Elsman’s over-the-top (in the best possible way) portrait of the Dauphin in the seldom-performed scene about a sonnet written to his horse could easily have been interpolated from a production of Equus for all its sensual intensity.
The hard-working actors playing multiple roles were especially effective. Marion Adler as Mistress Quickly and the French lady-in-waiting Alice, V Craig Heidenreich as The Archbishop of Canterbury, The King of France, and Sir Thomas Erpingham, and Robert Nelson as Nym and the scene-stealing Monsieur Le Fer were all models of versatility. The company’s artistic director, Marco Barricelli, as the play’s famous narrating Chorus and the Duke of Burgundy was the charismatic anchor for the evening.
A production of Henry V ultimately rests on the shoulders of its title character, who speaks a third of the total lines in the play. Charles Pasternak returns after having previously played Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part II for the company. Narrative continuity possibly contributes to his compelling, confident performance of Henry as fully-redeemed prodigal. Pasternak has a powerful presence, and a great theatrical voice, that fills the space to create the illusion of an heroic icon.
Interpretively, I must say, that performance was surprising, as was the overall vision of the play that surrounded it. I have never seen a more unrelentingly positive interpretation of Henry. How, and why exactly, that might be, is the main subject of essay.
Henry Light and Dark
Henry V is an ambiguous play, even by Shakespearean standards. Henry’s motivations are often hard to read, but from his first scene in the play when considering a declaration of war it is not clear whether he is more manipulating or manipulated. Post-Weapons-of-Mass-Destruction debacle of the Bush Era, it is hard to see either as entirely admirable, however.
Such careful balancing is so thoroughly ingrained into the text, that in a famous essay (which I discussed at length in this previous review) the play is used as an example of conflicting and irresolvable perceptions.
Of course, its best-known incarnation is still Olivier’s 1944 film, produced as pro-British propaganda during World War II. As is often the case in the more visual medium of film, the text was heavily edited both to streamline and simplify it. One of the main thrusts of that editing was to remove all the incidents from the play that complicate the picture of Henry as anything but noble. By the time of Kenneth Branaugh’s 1989 remake, both the world and critical fashion has shifted. The latter film is far darker, and it does not begin to enter into the bleak negativity of many theatrical productions that now directly comment on current politics.
Mullins’ production does not cut the complicating incidents, such as Henry’s order to massacre the prisoners-of-war, nor his “discovery” of a plot against his life by Lord Scroop (who historically had as strong of a claim to the throne as Henry) and the subsequent execution of the conspirators, but at least in the performance I saw all of these incidents were treated as fleeting and absolutely justified under the circumstances. Even when momentarily highlighted, as when we heard the shots executing the conspirators, one flinch and it was forgotten.
The most fearsome speech in the play, in which Henry threatens:
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.
If [you will] not [surrender], why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.
…to force the surrender of Harfleur, was delivered with neither pity nor remorse as if it were exemplary leadership.
At least superficially, Santa Cruz would seem to be about the last place on earth you would see such an interpretation. (For far-flung readers not in the know, the city and the university have a reputation for leftist politics even among nearby San Franciscans, which is saying something.)
A Hawk in the Forest
Two things might account for this unexpected hawkishness. The first is that Shakespeare Santa Cruz is a “theater” in the fullest sense of the word, not just an institution offering a product, but a community. The audience is very much part of the equation, and they are a very educated and savvy one. The Festival’s bookstore offers not just the usual knick-knacks and sweatshirts, but a full shelf of used books that might well come from the English faculty’s cast-offs. I’ve seen less erudite reading lists in graduate courses. In performance they are so quick that they can get ahead of the performance. The Hostess (Mistress Quickly) has a famous speech about Falstaff’s last moments that innocently undercuts its own point with unintentional double-entendre, punning on the Elizabethan euphemism “stones” for testicles:
Hostess: So [he] bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
In the Santa Cruz performance, Marion Adler’s delivery began to get laughs as soon as she began, long before she even said the word “stone.” (I experienced a sudden wave of nostalgia remembering my high school years. While my classmates were chuckling at the schoolyard classics like, “Give us a light there, ho,” I could point out where the real “dirty” stuff was. Nerd popularity.)
More to the point, I realized by about the middle of the second act that this was an audience that did not need to moral ambiguities to be spelled out for them. Murmurs swept through the crowd at each of the critically-fetishized ambiguous moments, nearly to the point of distraction. Just behind me, a patron loudly whispered, “That is what Cheney said,” in the middle of Canterbury’s great speech justifying going to war.
Most scholars agree that in Shakespeare’s own time this was a popular hit because of what we would now call “jingoism,” even if twentieth century experience has greatly complicated it. It is interesting to see the play performed so nationalistically, but it takes confidence in the audience to do so without fearing that you will be seen as advocating that position. Only when the performers and the audience have great faith in each other can the ambiguity of the text be in the audience’s understanding instead of the company’s spin.
An even more specific, and sad, circumstance is that earlier in the week in which I saw the play, the host university announced that they could no longer subsidize the company and were closing it. (See my longer post here.) The performance I saw was given in the last two days of the company’s existence – at least in its current form. I wondered, without having any way to know, if the heroic Henry might be due to the embattled circumstance in which the company found itself, and the natural inclination to coalesce around a charismatic leader in a time of crisis. In other words, I wonder if the production became less ambiguous, and more about a tough underdog fighting against a larger enemy in response to the circumstance under which the play was being performed. There was a talk-back after the performance I saw, which included a lot of talking back, but little of it about the play, which would indicate that the closing was on the audience’s collective mind. I speculate that Pasternak may have been taking on some of Henry’s challenge to serve as figurehead for a fight against overwhelming odds.
Of course, I hope for the company’s survival, and mourn the loss of its university subsidy, but my point here is not to rehash quarrels to which I am not an insider and about which I have too little knowledge. It is to wonder if the very effective (if surprising) nature of this performance might have been a response to the conditions of the moment. I had actually expected the opposite reading, the bigger picture being the crisis in Syria, the bombing of which seemed imminent on the day of the play, but as they say, “all politics is local.” I cannot prove my thesis, not having seen the production before the university’s announcement, but if it is right I celebrate the instant adaptability of theater to respond to the needs and attitudes of its audience. It is part of the reason that, despite eternal signs of its decline, the theater is as perennial as the grass.
*By way of disclosure, I should I should mention that I attended theater school with Mullins, whose acting I much admired, although I have not been in communication with him since. His work as a director post-dates our acquaintance.
August 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment
The Green World
A recurrent pattern in Shakespeare’s comedies, what Northrop Frye called the “Green World” comedies, is “a journey from the “normal world,” into an alternate (often somewhat mystical) place engendering a metamorphosis. . . and then a return to a now renewed original location. We see this pattern in As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and, especially, in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I’ve never thought of The Taming of the Shrew as a “Green World” comedy, but Edward Morgan’s production for Shakespeare Santa Cruz treats it as one and by doing so reveals interesting new aspects of the play, while taming its great, central challenge.
Shrew as a Problem Play, (or really just a problem)
The genre designation of Shrew is now, notoriously, unstable. It is structurally a comedy, but we no longer find the spectacle of a high-spirited woman being humiliated and starved into subjugation as funny. It is hard to produce it in a satisfactory way.
Contemporary productions attempt to get around this problem in a number of ways. The least satisfactory, but extremely common, solution is to treat the play as a combination of fairytale and farce, with no more real world implications than Roadrunner vs. Coyote.
A more sophisticated one is to undercut the message ironically, often changing the relationship of the principle couple from adversaries to secret co-conspirators. That can be very interesting, although it is accomplished by undercutting the text with contradictory behavior and line readings for a great deal of the show. I reviewed a production earlier this summer that took the latter approach successfully.
More than a few modern productions simply throw in the towel and abandon any pretense to comedy. They explore the dark underbelly of the play and let the resolution be the tragic destruction of its heroine.
The Santa Cruz Solution
Morgan’s production restores the comedic resolution in quite a novel, but quite complex, way. It is set up from the very first moments of the play, or before actually, when the cast wanders freely about the audience and onto the stage improvising around material excerpted from Shakespeare’s “induction” scene. Rarely seen in the modern theater, the “induction,” or introduction, is a sub-plot involving a town drunk named Christopher Sly. In the Folio text, he is fooled by an elaborate charade into believing he is a great lord, for whom the main play is being presented, and then – once it is underway – mysteriously disappears never to return.
The Santa Cruz production borrowed only a few lines and a bit of this subplot, but retained the detail that Sly sinks into a dreamlike stupor as the main action is beginning, in this case, downstage center on the suddenly abandoned stage.* This was related to, if not caused by, the surreal arrival of a harlequin-esque servant, Biondello (played by Andrew P. Quick), apparently kayaking – sans kayak – through the air. Sly watched a short bit of the ensuing action in which Biondello’s master, a wealthy, young Lucentio (amiably personated by Elvin McRae) arrived in town to study and have some fun. Upon realizing that the newcomers didn’t see or react to him, Sly turned to the front rows through which he was stumbling away and asked pointedly, “Am I dreaming?”
Confirmation that he was dreaming came quickly, when the same actor (the brilliant Fred Arsenault) arrived back onstage as the play’s protagonist, Petruchio. As is implied by the now common doubling of Theseus/Oberon as dream doppelgangers in Midsummer, this Petruchio was still in Sly’s clothes, but was a more powerful, successful, and confident version of him – his dream self.
Look and Feel
For much of the ensuing action, while Petruchio first woos, then weds, and finally tames the fiery Kate, the production seemed rather conventional – even old-fashioned. A director’s note tells us that the production is set, not in Padua, but in 15th Century Galacia (now a part of Spain), but it was hard to see a sharp distinction from the prototypical setting of Renaissance Italy in anything more than a bit of local color in B. Modern’s costumes. It looked and sounded like the broad comedy the play was once held to be.
The antagonist/female lead, Kate, played by Gretchen Hall, was a great deal meaner and more unsympathetic than most – the logic of which eventually became clear, as will be explored below. V Craig Heidenreich, playing Baptista, father to both Kate and a much-sought-after, mild-mannered daughter named Bianca (played by Victoria Nassif), not only looked a great deal like John Lithgow, but openly imitated his famous dead-pan, falling delivery. Petruchio’s servant, Grumio, (Conan McCarthy) was kilted and hard-drinking. Gremio, one of Bianca’s suitors, was played very broadly by local staple Kit Wilder, earning most of his laughs through funny sounds added to the ends of his lines. William Elsman played Hortensio as a more plausible third suitor for Bianca than is typical, but none of these characterizations were particularly nuanced or dimensional. Generally speaking, then, it seemed it was to be a thoroughly conventional, if lightweight, production.
Always Watch Out for the Bits that Don’t Fit
Only a couple of features truly stood out from the overall tone. First, the Puck-like Biondello was unusually prominent, and stood outside the world of the play. His actions were undertaken with literal winks and nods to the audience, and frequent deliveries of messages seemed less like missives conveyed, as assigned in the plot, than as mystical, perhaps magical, interventions to move Petruchio’s fortunes forward.
More importantly, Petruchio was a more mythic than comedic hero. He was thoroughly mercenary in pursuit of his marriage, but what was most striking was how easily successful he was at everything. A telling detail, for example, was that during a short bit of his first scene when someone else had the floor, he knocked at the window of a nearby house which opened and he was handed a drink without even having to request it. His status was made explicit when he arrived at his wedding dressed as a folk version of Piccasso’s Bull-man awaiting the maiden sacrifice. Both Petruchio’s soliloquies were beautifully rendered as confessions that he did not know if what he was doing was the right thing, but fate seemed to be pulling him forward. He seemed no less amazed than anyone else at his wife’s complete transformation in the final scene of the play where he has bet on her obedience, against Lucentio, who won Bianca, and his friend Hortensio, who lost Bianca, but married a rich widow as a consolation prize. Her heartfelt delivery of Kate’s famous monologue admonishing women to be subservient to their husbands (their lords, kings, and governors – as she says) was every man’s dream, especially considering that she had been his – apparently literal – nightmare for most of the play.
A Dream with No Bottom
Well, maybe not every man’s – but it was specifically Christopher Sly’s dream. In an ending that appears to have been suggested by a play called The Taming of A (as opposed to THE) Shrew – a play with a complicated, ambiguous relationship to Shakespeare’s play – when the stage cleared for what we thought might be the final time, instead we watched Petruchio transform back into a drunken Sly. (In A Shrew, the precise action is that Sly awakes, in a manner very reminiscent of Bottom in Midsummer, to the realization that he has been dreaming, and that his dream was a revelation. He heads home determined to tame his wife.)
In Santa Cruz’ simpler, cleaner rendering, suddenly it was clear that the play had, literally, been a male fantasy – presided over by a trickster Biondello, – and that Sly must now interpret it.
Biondello, reversing the opening, air-kayaked off into the wings. Sly was left alone – drunk, dazed and confused when (in an entirely invented scene, although pieced together out of dialogue from the induction materials in
both THE and A Shrew) his wife, played by the same actress who had played Kate, arrived to fetch him home. The pitiful reality that she must pay his bill, and half-carry him home, seemed humiliating. Sly would not be moved, however, and instead (repeating a scene from the play between Petruchio and Kate) demanded to be kissed. As Kate did, his wife demurely rejected a public display of affection. As Petruchio did, Sly boldly asked, “What? Art thou ashamed of me?”
We know that the answer should be yes, but something was transformed in Sly because of his dream, and his wife saw in him a spark (of self-respect? of desire? of understanding?) that had not been there for a long time. She kissed him, her anger dissipating, and gently escorted him from the stage.
It was a genuinely affecting ending, reversing the power structure of the main play, but repeating its thematic exploration of how couples find, or create, compassionate marriages. Afterwards, I overheard a comment to the effect “that was not Shakespeare’s Shrew.” Knowing where his writing would soon go in his Green World comedies, I say, maybe not, but it sure was Shakespearean.
*Because the program notes do not discuss the textual decisions, it is impossible to tell whose ideas are at work, but the production’s textual consultant and dramaturg is the brilliant Shakespearean scholar, Michael Warren.
It is a good guess that his insight might lie behind this highly original arrangement of the text. (It may have been a good guess, but turned out to be wrong. See note below.)
UPDATE: Director Edward Morgan has responded to this review to clarify that the final scene, although in the location and serving the purpose of the induction materials from A SHREW, was entirely drawn from the text of Shakespeare’s THE SHREW. He also clarified that the concept for this final scene was his, not Warren’s. I appreciate his taking the time to read and respond, and am hereby clarifying my own review. I have also made minor changes to the earlier text.