The Playgoer: August 2005

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Tuesday, August 30, 2005

William Niederkorn: Shakespeare Denier

or, Who is William Niederkorn and Why is He Saying Such Horrible Things About Shakespeare? (And Why is The New York Times Publishing Him!)

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to see me criticize the New York Times' coverage of the arts. However, my proverbial "goat" is never "gotten" so greatly as when they run a piece by a certain William Niederkorn. Who is William Niederkorn, you may ask, and why do I only see his byline next to articles questioning Shakespeare's authorship?

At the bottom of his surprise appearance on today's Books page (one never knows where or when the Times is going to unleash him) we finally get some identification: "William S. Niederkorn, a playwright and composer, is an editor in the culture department of The New York Times." Well, we knew he wasn't a journalist, at least. That much has been obvious. As a Times search will reveal, since 2000 Niederkorn has popped up 11 times in the Arts section always, exclusively, in oddly slanted pieces claiming some huge breakthrough in exposing the "fraud" that is Shakespeare. (Even a 6/20/2002 article reporting the withdrawal of an already questionable poem from the canon supposedly "opened up" larger questions.) I say "odd" because when you read Niederkorn, it is immediately apparent that the articles treat the "question" as "open" from the beginning. Is it the New York Times policy not to take the existence of Shakespeare for granted?

Niederkorn isn't just a reporter covering an intellectual sideshow. He has a dog in the fight himself--he is a committed "Oxfordian," that is one who backs the "candidacy" of Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford who--inconveniently--died in 1604, and whose only legacy of attributed writings so far consists of some pretty lame verses. He beats the de Vere drum in every single article so clearly--referring to fringe books and websites--going on and on about this obscure Earl like no other reporter. In the world of Niederkorn, people foolish enough to buy the Shakespeare line are just "Stratfordians" (as if it's the city we worship!) making life difficult for his Oxfordians. As Stephen Greenblatt has said, imagine the Times reporting on a debate between Ptolemaics and "Copernicans" when it comes to the solar system. It is all clearly a personal cause, especially when you realize this is all the man ever writes about! (Meanwhile, what kind of "cultural editing" is he really doing over there? I'm tempted to ask: whose nephew is the guy?)

Mind you, all these articles have appeared under the guise of objective arts reporting. (None have been an op-ed, for instance.) At least the Times has the sense to finally label today's piece an "Essay," whatever that means. So what is today's excuse for Niederkorn's soap box? Actually it's a book review of sorts, taking advantage of the release of a few Shakespeare-related books lately, some by actual professors (Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World, James Shapiro's 1599) and some...well, not (Shakespeare by Another Name, a de Vere biography by a supporter). To give Niederkorn credit, he does find something to criticize in the de Vere book, but only when he finds his logic as weak as that of the "traditionalists"! Thank god for a strawman like Clare Asquith's Shadowplay, which attempts to defend Shakespeare's name by use of "codes" in the plays. This gives Niederkorn his sneering title: "The Shakespeare Code, and Other Fanciful Ideas From the Traditionalist Camp." I wonder how many Times readers were surprised to wake up this morning to learn there was a "traditionalist camp"--and that they themselves probably had belonged to such a sorry thing all these years.

Here's some typical Niederkorn (again, seemingly endorsed by the New York Times):
The traditional theory that Shakespeare was Shakespeare has the passive to active acceptance of the vast majority of English professors and scholars, but it also has had its skeptics, including major authors, independent scholars, lawyers, Supreme Court justices, academics and even prominent Shakespearean actors. Those who see a likelihood that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him have grown from a handful to a thriving community with its own publications, organizations, lively online discussion groups and annual conferences.
Sounds legit, eh? (Niederkorn himself has spoken at at least one of the Oxfordian conferences.) Then you realize "major authors," probably refers to mystery novelists more than Elizabethan historians; "independent scholars" by definition are those without teaching positions, or usually degrees; "lawyers"--ahem. As for the "prominent Shakespearean actors," well I do admire Derek Jacobi's performances, but has he done the research? (Another "prominent" actor mentioned on the Oxfordian website is Keanu Reeves.)

You know, Holocaust deniers have "conferences," too. Not to mention "lively online discussion groups"...

I understand why some might enjoy Shakespeare authorship fantasies as a kind of parlor game. But there's a good reason no tenured professor gives them any credence. And no, it's not world conspiracy and Masonic domination. It's that there's really nothing wrong with the accepted Shakespearean biographical record, slim as it is. Not enough wrong, at least, to disprove the all the evidence that keeps telling us this is the man who wrote the plays that bear his name. I will be happy to argue this in full some other time, at length. For now, I refer you to Brian Vickers' excellent rebuttal in the TLS recently--which Niederkorn (derisively) references himself.

(And I do believe such rebuttals are now necessary. For years, Shakespeare scholars have made the mistake of "not dignifying" the "pretenders." But now--just like evolutionary biologists--they could lose the debate in the mass media, which rewards controversy for conrtoversy's sake and always rewards the loudest. My advice to Stephen Greenblatt and Stephen Jay Gould--were he alive--alike: play offense, not defense. Remind everyone that the fringe arguments are more full of holes than even the "traditional theories.")

Look: no matter where you stand or how much of this you want to take seriously, anti-Shakespeare activism is--by definition--a fringe theory. Why does the New York Times, who falls at the feet of famous professors any chance they get, think it's okay to dis such a titan as Stephen Greenblatt on just this particular issue? (Niederkorn's articles are notoriously short on giving the "traditional" side its say.) Isn't anyone there embarrassed to lend legitimacy--with the great, Grey Lady's ink--to something no one in the academy respects? Funny that they only just completed a huge series devoted to "Intelligent Design." I'd say "Oxfordian Design" carries about just as much weight in academic circles. (Now if the Times has decided to turn against the academy, that would be news...)

Niederkorn tries to end on a "reasonable" note, which points out the flaws in both sides. (How "equal time."):
On both sides of the authorship controversy, the arguments are conjectural. Each case rests on a story, and not on hard evidence. Either side, or both, might eventually be proved wrong.
Yeah, we're all just guessing. Forget that we have tons of scraps of paper (including--ahem--the First Folio) saying poor little Will wrote the plays--and none identifying anyone else. Forget the wealth of evidence we do have about Shakespeare's life (see Schoenbaum's Shakespeare: A Documentary Life), even if it does not satisfy romantic gossipmongers like the Oxfordians.

But who in the general readership has time to pay attention to such... facts. And sowing the seeds of doubt--in the pages of the nation's most important cultural newspaper, I don't mind repeating--is exactly Niederkorn's goal. He closes:
Meanwhile, and it could be a very long meanwhile, perhaps an eternal meanwhile, things will continue as they are. Or perhaps not. What if authorship studies were made part of the standard Shakespeare curriculum?
Hmm, "teach the controversy." Where have we heard that before? It is my nightmare that the most susceptible to these conspiracy theories will be high school English teachers, desperate to "spice up" their Shakespeare curriculum for their IPod-coma-induced charges. We must all be on the lookout for this in our already impoverished educational system.

Here is another fisking of a previous Niederkorn appearance, by Irvin Leigh Matus. Matus, a pro-Shakespeare independent scholar has put together a fine site, Willy Shakes. Ditto David Kathman and Terry Ross's Shakespeare Authorship Page. If Niederkorn's article still leaves you with nagging doubts about Shakespeare, these sites do an excellent job dispelling the myths, and exposing the dissenters.

Oskar Eustis speaks!

...in the Voice. An excellent little manifesto upon his assuming the big chair at the Public Theatre. He pays homage to his predecessors (even Akalaitis!), and looks to the future. A must-read, especially for those hungry for playwright advocacy. (And a noted advocate he has been.)

Money quote:

We live in a time of capitalist triumphalism, where any alternative to the commodity-fetishizing marketplace seems unthinkable, even laughable. The great nonprofit institutions must resist this. The theater is an event, not an object. It must not only remain accessible to the broad class of patrons who are vitally interested in it, but become accessible to the millions who don't know the theater has anything to offer them. We need to defend the non-commercial nature of our theater with muscle and vigor.

I think the Public's legacy--and it promise--continues to be the new work and new artists it has nurtured. This it has done better than the other half of its mission--that of the "New York Shakespeare Company." By all means, continue the Shakespeare. But I must say I don't get as misty-eyed as Eustis does here about the summer audiences in the Delacorte. If only Shakespeare in the Park inspired thousands who otherwise couldn't afford tickets. In my experience they tend to be those kind of people who show up for anything that's free. Also, people who aren't poor but also don't have jobs--hence freeing them up to spend all day on line! After camping out with the throngs to see the star-studded Seagull a few years back, I wondered if it things would be fairer if it wasn't free Shakespeare (or Chekhov, as the case may be) but 5 dollar Shakespeare. Charge something, just to weed out the wanderers and the loafers who have nothing better to do with their time.

Okay that's ornery. And I digress. Read Eustis, he'll make you feel good.

Jill Dolan blogs!

Welcome to the blogosphere--and to blogspot!--Jill Dolan. The feminist/performance theorist academic icon has unveiled her online venture The Feminist Spectator. She claims it's not going to be for "reviews" but for essays. But her first post is indeed a very insightful critique of TheFive Lesbian Brothers' Oedipus at Palm Springs. (I agree with it wholeheartedly, thus relieving me of having to write about it!)

And so the theatrical blogosphere continues expanding....

Monday, August 29, 2005

VHS, R.I.P.

Yes, the Washington Post is declaring the old video hardware of choice officially expired. What a shame for a die-hard "taper" like myself. It's sad to go through the bins of "previously viewed" tapes now for sale in every video store. Exhilarating when you find Anthony Hopkins in A Doll's House or Eisenstein's October. But then you wonder, will anyone be around to repair my VCR when it finally breaks down?... One lament umentioned here is: what about taping??? I speak not just as a movie buff, but as one of those theatre geeks who's built a collection of theatre miscellany taped off PBS, CUNY-tv, C-Span interviews.. stuff I don't expect ever to be released on DVD, nor adequately preserved for the ages by Tivo.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Arts & Leisure watch: 8/26

No reason to read the up close and personal with Jill Clayburgh. Unless you want to read about the apartment she's staying in! What can one say, when the Roundabout casts a "star" the Times dutifully fawns.

But a hearty and genuine kudos (really!) to Charles Isherwood--and his editors--for his exhaustive dispatch from Dublin on Garry Hynes's cycle of the complete Synge plays for her Druid Theatre Company. Some nice descriptive criticism here, making this Playgoer, at least, eager to delve beyond Playboy of the Western World... Prediction: if this event does ever come to New York, it won't be in some educational non-profit setting, with plentiful discounts and supplementary dramaturgical learning aids, but instead some maverick producer will see an opportunity to make a buck off the Irish and charge $150, or more with the corn beef & cabbage dinner package.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

daily Times bashing...

Yes, it's been a while since my latest fisking of the Times Arts page, and Sunday Arts & Leisure will have to wait till tomorrow...

So, to satisfy the urge, let me recommend an article from Tuesday, in case you missed it, on the upcoming novel Hunger's Brides. I urge clicking now before the free link expires and, with it, the above graphic. Yes, the organizing concept of this already shameless Publisher's dream of a puff-piece is: "Duh...book heavy. Reading hard." Notice especially the six-pack of beer--and not just beer, but Bud! Can you think of a brand name less associated with the Times deographic??? I can't make up my mind if this is sneering elitism, or actual pandering!

Oh, and if you wanted to know what the book is about and how good it might be, there's some on that, too. Meanwhile, the graphic provides enough to keep semioticians busy for a week. (The beer is just the beginning...)

the August Wilson story

In case you haven't heard yet, August Wilson has made the strange announcement that he's dying, basically. Apparently he has liver cancer, and it's gone undeteced for too long, and he says he has 3 months to live. If so, this is sad news. I must say, though, Wilson has been known to be an odd duck in interviews. (Or maybe this one just seems especially strange the way the Times almost tosses it away in their by-the-way "Arts Briefly" round-up column!) I don't mean to make light of it. Just another installment in a strange, yet brilliant man's always evolving biography. It also seems to come with the eerily perfect timing of the near completion of Radio Golf and the whole 10-play installment. Everyone, indeed, wondered what could Wilson do next.... On the other hand, this also calls to mind the great Stanley Kubirck's death, just days after completing a rough cut of Eyes Wide Shut, as if deliberately ignoring all warning signs of his health until he completed one last film.

Here's a more thorough piece on the Wilson announcement from his hometown Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (courtesy of my friend Norm Frisch).

Friday, August 26, 2005

the Vegas revolution, continued

The Vegas incarnation of Avenue Q is already in previews this week, and opens Saturday. Here's a good chock-full- o'-info survey on the burgeoning theatre biz there from USA Today. (Courtesy of the indispensible ArtsJournal, of course.)

How to explain Playgoer's almost giddy fascination with this story? Perhaps there's a secret fantasy I harbor: that Las Vegas will just suck up and overtake all commercial theatre properties, leaving New York to get on with the business of art. Perhaps such bifurcation will do "us" good? Leave the commercialism to the people that really do it best!...Look, if nothing else, Broadway (recent home of such sub-Vegas spectacles as Lennon, Good Vibrations, and Dance of the Vampires) could certainly use some competition. Not that I care about "fixing" Broadway, of course. (As covered here.) But for these producers's own sakes (and it's their personal well being I care about) they need to be shaken out of their insular complacency.

It's also astounding and just cool to me (as a self-styled theatre historian) that Las Vegas seems to be remaking Broadway anew, formulating a new business model for commercial theatre just as the one in Times Square is so obviously faltering. The USA Today piece makes a great point about what it means to be able to build new theatre spaces for these shows, instead of forcing new product into the quaint obsolete real estate we're familiar with. Huge stuff.

more Lennon "drama"

Sorry, can't resist. As long as Michael Riedel continues to delve into this morass, how can one look away. (The sight of another priceless production photo is worth this click, anyway.) The interesting news here is that the producers are now determined to keep running another couple of months--just to obtain international rights! So here's a lesson in some of the true arcana of the biz of theatre-as-investment.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Quote of the Day

"Classical music needs to be written and talked about in a normal, mainstream way, not as a freakshow or as culture's whipping boy."

-Meurig Bowen, in The Guardian. Just substitute "theatre" for music here (and in the whole fine article) and your head will nod.

"Virginia Woolf" update

Interesting comments, so far, on my fisking of Isherwood's Sunday piece on the woes of Virginia Woolf. George Hunka points out that the box office is indeed really that bad, so there goes my argument about the tyranny of 90% capacity. (This is also confirmed by Playbill's weekly box office report: last week was up to 52%--from 46% the week before!) Hunka also maintains this is one of the most affordable tickets around, with many discounts. I hadn't heard of the $20 offer he cites, but I can say that if it's in the back of balcony, it's actually no bargain for this one. (That problem again...)

It also occured to me that a factor for the producers in deciding to close is Ms Turner's contract. I'm sure she wants out soon, so who would they find to replace her? Many great actresses around, of course, but to save these sagging sales, one fears something of the Ashley Judd variety...

In the end, to indulge in Isherwood's "mystery" guessing, I think any box office question obviously comes down to whether people really like the show or not. And let's face it: they don't. Maybe the play's too depressing, maybe the production lets it down. Whatever. But what keeps Doubt and Glengarry selling is people have a good time and tell their friends. (Nothing will ever sell tickets more than word of mouth.) Now what does that say about Doubt and Glengarry!

I return to, and stand by, my main point. Let's say it's only selling at 50%. That's 500 people a night expressing interest in this. Imagine how wonderful it would be if a little 500-seat theatre could sustain this play in a fine production. Ah, but of course, that wouldn't be too profitable, would it.

"Stuff Happens" update

According to Michael Riedel, new Public Theatre honcho Oscar Eustis is intent on making "Stuff" happen, finally, in New York. (Perhaps with enhancement money from ubiquitous Scott Rudin, according to Riedel.)... I do hope it does, if only to spur debate among all of you out there who are so displeased with it!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Arts & Leisure watch: 8/21

okay, so it's Tuesday already, sorry...

At least some food for thought this week. Though I question the premise of each major article.

Jesse McKinley's reporting on the apparently sudden relucatance of producers to put on revivals of big musicals says... what? First of all, wasn't it just yesterday respectable outlets like the Times were bemoaning the plethora of revivals? (There's no paragraph here investigating whether this could be a boon to new work.)... So why are musical revivals poison now? Who knows, and who cares! As long as a piece like this limits itself to the small parameters of Broadway then all we're getting is an article about...the biz. To try to make some artistic trend out of it all is silly. But, according to the Times, I guess the business of theatre is still business.

Which leads right into Charles Isherwood's lament for the "failure" of his beloved Virginia Woolf revival. Let's leave aside how good this production was in the first place. (See below for my review. Personally I felt it tried too hard to play in the commercial arena, and so we should hardly be surprised to see its tactics backfire.) The question he poses, as a problem, is simply: why didn't more people want to see this? He runs through all kinds of theories, but never mentioned are such factors as, uh, it cost over $50 to sit in bad nosebleed seats?...Also unconsidered are the economic factors going into what it takes for a show to run these days. I'm sure Virginia Woolf does just fine every night--but these days if you're selling under 90% capacity, you're in the red. So maybe we need to look more closely at our terms "success" and "failure" to begin with. (Isherwood, of course, provides no statistics here or much in the way of specific data of any kind.) Maybe it speaks well of the Broadway wasteland that the production has run as long as it has!

And by the way, let's not discount the fact that when you ask comfortable rich people to shell out that kind of money to watch a bourgeois marriage disintegrate... they may not leap to the occasion? Isherwood brushes past this issue, but isn't it central? Personally, I felt the production got watered down in this way, as if afraid to alienate its (target) audience. (Exhibit A: a radio advertisement featuring "The Broadway Sisters" two yenta aunties, reassuring us that the play "is funny! really!!!" Hat tip, PoetBabe.) Again, the ticket prices dictate your audience, so isn't it unseemly for Isherwood to lecture them on what they should want for their buck?

The bigger--and much more interesting-- question we hopelessly wait for the NYT to address, is namely: have the economics of Broadway finally made serious drama impossible there? (at least in any reliable way--i.e. Glengarry's success aside). As I, in fact, opened with in my Glengarry review, I feel it's increasingly, objectively clear that Broadway is less and less compatible with and hospitable to the aims of serious theatre. These clap-happy, star-fucking stagings of Mamet and Albee classics are typical of well-meaning producers' last-ditch efforts to give Great American Plays a home there. But if non-profits could put on better productions, at lower prices, would we even care how long it ran--i.e. how commercially successful it was?

Monday, August 22, 2005

Shaw Festival Journal III

More dispatches from Niagara-on-the-Lake...

(click on titles for full production info)

Journey’s End
This is the real “find” of the Festival this summer. Word has been circulating about the resurgence of this 1928 World War I drama since a successful London revival a couple of years ago. (Still, no New York appearance in sight, but hopefully this super production will give some people ideas.) Written by a young British vet, R.C. Sherriff (who had been toiling away in an insurance office since the armistice), the play was an immediate sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed around the world. (It has, apparently, remained active in British Rep companies, but disappeared from the greater English -speaking canon.) While on first glance it might seem today just another tired “Breakfast Club” set-up (a bunch of disparate types locked up in a room together), the sensitivity to character and the meticulous unvarnished details of life in the trenches transcend any genre trappings.

Whatever the play’s inherent virtues, the Shaw’s production mines them for all they’re worth and, in its understated devotion, makes Sheriff’s script feel utterly contemporary. There is nothing quaint or stuffy about Christopher Newton’s production at all—just genuine claustrophobia. Exploiting the 150-seat intimacy of the Festival’s Court House theatre (the smallest of the three venues), Cameron Porteous’s colorless, unadorned set of sandbags, cots, and dirt immediately places us in this pit-stop off of “no man’s land”, somewhere, we are told, in the middle of the British line in March of 1918. This one-time Broadway and West End hit has been reconceived as a chamber play of battlefield ennui. We witness the petty-officers of this small company negotiate the cramped, dark space in their heavy woolen uniforms, under the glow of the odd lantern, trying to carve out some semblance of normalcy amidst the fluctuations between boredom and homicidal madness going on above. They cling, most especially, to a makeshift dining table—in reality, just some crates topped with a faded red-and-white checkered cloth—where they relish their biscuits and their tea, even if it stinks of the onions cooked in the same pot. Among the most affecting details of behavior is the way their talk of the horrors of war (that is, when they’re not pointedly avoiding it) is constantly punctuated with such commonplace domestic interruptions as “some jam with that?” or “more coffee?”

Journey’s End is a relatively quiet play and, despite the inevitable climactic battle scene, relies less on sensationalism than on the intricacies of grace under pressure. It is a “backstage drama” to the more epic proceedings on the battlefield above, and Newton’s production is subdued naturalism at its best. His ensemble all-male cast just eases into these roles, bringing to life the public-school camaraderie of Sherriff’s officers. (The battle lines of the class system feature just as prominently in the play, of course. When one of the new officers abandons the table to go eat with “the men” it is not met with approval.) Evan Buliung shines in the choice role of commanding officer Stanhope (a part originated by a young Olivier back in ’28), whose increasing mental instability forms the engine of what refreshingly little there is of a “plot” to the play. You can just see Buliung as the young rugby star Stanhope is reputed to have been in school; but now he’s a jock who is past it, prematurely aged by the strain of supervising men who may be abler and better soldiers than he in a war no one understands. Trained as a barrister or bureaucrat, he is out of his league and knows it, yet tries to do right while fighting his demons.

Journey’s End plays until October 8. If you’re looking for just one reason to pay a visit up north, this is it. A small Off-Broadway company (Atlantic? Second Stage?) should really look into importing this production whole, right away.

The Autumn Garden
Will it ever be possible for Lillian Hellman to get a hearing as a playwright again? Since her reputation has been destroyed by biographers and right-wingers, no one in the American theatre seems to take an interest anymore. The Little Foxes, I suppose, will live on. The Children’s Hour will continue to be either embraced as an early call for homosexual tolerance or derided as a patronizing attempt thereunto. But for all her assumed flaws, surely there must be room to re-explore this very serious female political playwright possessed of such interesting biography and influences. The Autumn Garden (1951) at first appears to be Williams-esque also-ran, with its sultry Louisiana setting and overt sexual desperation. But when we realize Hellman knew this territory from her own youth and had been writing about sexual transgression since the 30s, we might sit up and take notice. The play is indeed—as publicity materials describe it—“Chekhovian” in its ensemble dynamics and snail’s-pace narrative. But that only helps describe the form. In content it is uniquely American and uniquely of that postwar moment when Americans who once looked abroad to Europe and elsewhere in the dreams of their youth, had to turn around and face the home situation in their disillusioned middle age. Accordingly, this is at times a sour and even morose play, but almost fascinating to watch for its emotional nakedness.

And it is a dream project for a classic “rep” company like the Shaw—juicy roles for all ages where everyone gets to shine. Shine they do, all in that restrained Shaw Festival way, of course, but the dividends pay off in their sensitive attention to text over the bigger emotional sensations. The gentle portrait of disaffected cynicism served up by Jim Mezon’s Ned, for instance, is both ingratiating and pitiful, pointing toward the emotional complexity Hellman surprisingly offers here. And, as the presiding landlady of the play’s summer house, Sharry Flett (another one of those Festival veterans) is a radiant center, a bottled-up and humbled Blanche DuBois. Director Martha Henry seems to tease out of the cast all the right notes in this delicate balance of odd characters; this is clearly a difficult text, so it’s a testament to her that it plays so smoothly. And how the designers William Schmuck and Louise Guinand evoke in the tiny Court House space the textures of postwar New Orleans is a quiet marvel.

Perhaps the saddest response this melancholy play provokes here is the realization that no American company (let alone in New York) would dare attempt such a problematic little script—at least without a glaringly miscast star who would throw off the ensemble balance. But taking another look at such neglected works by substantial writers is what makes a rep company so necessary. Without it, you have no theatrical tradition. And it was humbling to exit the theatre feeling I had taken a lesson from the Canadians on a little corner of our own heritage.

Something on the Side
One especially fun feature at the Shaw these days is the addition of a “lunchtime matinee” play, a one-act performed at 11:30am of usually lighter fare. This year’s is a Feydeau adaptation by director Neil Munro. (The original, C’est une femme du monde, was an 1890 collaboration between Feydeau and Maurice Desvallieres.) Great idea. But I have to say this was the one real disappointment of the Festival for me. Put simply, Munro’s production and conceiving of the whole piece violated three basic rules of French farce: 1) it’s not about sex, but rather the hypocrisy of the square bougeoisie; 2) all the characters must take everything deathly seriously; and 3) the action should only gradually descend into chaos, not start out at sixes and sevens. Instead, Munro over-choreographs his actors from the word go, milking and mugging every line—in short, having too much fun, when Feydeau intended nothing less than torment for his characters. Between the exaggerated physical comedy and an added coda (a shamelessly crowd pleasing tango number) Munro manages to both coarsen and sentimentalize his source. (Feydeau seems to have intended the curtain to come down on a picture of his two would-be philanderers humiliated into dining only with each other. No downbeat endings, though, for this lunchtime matinee, and its audience-vacationers!)

Having said all that, the idea of a beautifully produced one-act for just 22 Canadian Dollars, just between breakfast and lunch is inspired, and hopefully Feydeau won’t have to be sacrificed to it next year.

In our next installment: thoughts on the Shaw Festival as a model for a National Theatre...

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Shaw Festival Journal II (Bus Stop & Barbara)

or, What I Saw at Shaw

Some reviews from playgoing at Niagara-on-the-Lake. More to come--on Journey's End, Autumn Garden, and Something on the Side. For more info on all productions, go to ShawFest.com

Bus Stop
Gritty naturalism is not the Shaw Festival’s forte. So that is not the aspect one expects to be emphasized in their presentation of this William Inge chestnut (from 1955, stretching the Shaw timeline just a bit). Instead, director Jackie Maxwell (also the Festival Artistic Director) gives us a fable, which is perhaps even more in keeping with the Inge spirit anyway. The set seems like a nice two-star diner instead of the no-star rest stop I imagine encountering on a blizzard-stricken night on the roads of rural Kansas. The roughness and brutality of the Bo-Cherie relationship is totally played for comedy. Maxwell doesn’t make any clear directorial choice on how to stage the play’s multiple private conversations among the diner-customers without them overhearing each other. (That’s when the “fable” frame is supposed to kick in, I suppose.)

But some of Inge’s poignant more melancholy notes do sound, especially in the performance of Norman Browning as the wayward, quasi-pedophilic professor (a role unsurprisingly cut from the 1956 Marilyn Monroe movie version). Browning is funny and pathetic in just the right degrees, bringing to bear the best of the Shaw tradition (he’s a 20-year veteran of the festival) as this fish out of water in rural Americana. Maxwell also ends the play perfectly, fading out on the loneliness of Peter Krantz’s Virgil, Bo’s gentle giant of a buddy. “Someone always gets left out in the cold” the play leaves us with, a relief for cynics after two hours of golly-gee romantic comedy. But Krantz’s stoic bearing and baritone, mustachioed presence provide something even more—a much needed Jacques amid all the revelry of the young lovers. (We finally feel the presence of Inge the outsider, the one who escaped small town life, the closet homosexual who submitted himself to “curative” therapy). The Shakespearean ambitions for this little comedy of eros finally become clear.

Major Barbara
As you might expect, this warhorse typifies the Festival’s work—short on the emotions and imagination, but very strong on text and clarity. This was not the most stirring, or comical, Major Barbara you’ll ever see, but it was good, clean rhetorical playing. The actors seem to just breeze through those long Shavian diatribes without missing a beat (or a joke, for that matter) as concert pianists running through scales. It’s certainly good listening Shaw, if not always watching. (And, as some might say, what other kind is there.) Diana Donnelly makes for a refreshingly rosy-faced and young Barbara (in contrast to Cherry Jones recently on Broadway); not a mountain of authority, but the priggish energy of the prematurely righteous. The production’s casting was marred, though, by a milquetoast of an Undershaft (a late-season replacement—one of the perils of rep, alas); even this actor was thoroughly competent at this titanic part’s difficulties—we just missed the bulliness and bravado needed for his face-offs with Barbara. Without that spark of personality, the play does indeed become just debate and not theatre.

Seeing this play upon its centenary (yes, it’s a 1905 play) does give occasion for some sobering thoughts, all reinforcing its power, and a testament to the Festival’s careful attention to it. If it seems today too weighted and less witty a play than the Shaw plays we actually like, it’s for good reason. This is a thoroughly depressing, thoroughly cynical piece of work. In Barbara and Cusins, Shaw presents us with two young optimists searching for solutions. By the end their idealism is dashed. Cusins (whose eccentric classicism and outsider non-conformism seem to mirror Shaw’s) has the most pronounced journey. After spending his life so far groping for meaning in the ancients and in the “Salvation” Army, he totally capitulates in the end to Undershaft’s “guns and money” preaching. The “prince of darkness” convinces him he must play ball with the world on its new terms. The war of ideas and beliefs is over, and the contest of sheer brute force has begun. Shaw, through Undershaft, appears shockingly (to today’s ears) comfortable with the idea of selling guns to all—a level playing field for empires and insurgencies alike. I think he means it. Shaw (about to turn 50 at the time of the play) seems to renounce all his previous idealism to prepare for a 20th century he expects will care little for such niceties.

It’s always unsettling to watch someone renounce their ideals, and the dramatic power of Barbara may be in dramatizing that very act—in both its characters and its author. In that vein, director Joseph Ziegler in this production leaves us with a particularly haunting tableau: on the parapet of Undershaft’s munitions factory, the characters all gaze out, off right, into the beyond, some with binoculars, as if peering into the century awaiting them. Cusins, by himself down left, stares with them for a moment, then turns to the pile of black iron materiel at his feet, a harbinger for what we know is to come. Did Shaw know, too?

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Shaw Festival journal

Greetings from Niagara-on-the-Lake, a country idyll of wineries, antique shops, and Edwardian social drama. Okay, mostly Edwardian. Like "Mostly Mozart" and other imperfectly named summer festivals, the Shaw Fest cashes in on its eponymous hero (an appropriately knicker-ed statue hovers over the cafe I frequent here) while allowing itself a very broad mission--the plays of Shaw and his "contemporaries". When you define "contemporary" as they do here, those that existed at any point in SHaw's lifetime, you get quite a broad repertory since the man lived 100 years! (or almost: 1856-1950) So the festival, as of late, especially, has been able to have their "Widower's Houses" and eat their Noel Coward and Rogers & Hart as well. This year they've even pushed that end date to allow such modern Broadway "classics" as "Bus Stop" (1955) and "Gypsy" (1959).

I will get into the specific plays I have seen later (still on the run, alas, and dependent on faulty dial up. Also need to run to get on a 9am waitlist for the lunchtim Feydeau farce!) But the headline, on this my first Shaw Fest, is this: here is the best possible realization of that amorphous style known as "straightforward" or "let the text speak for itself." It's instinct for critics and thetare practitioners to say there's no such thing. Every staging is an "interpretation." Yes. But the "house style" here--admirably, I'll add-does achieve a seeming "neutrality" and respect for the word, which is gratifying, given the plays in their repertoire (key point, more on that anon).

Otherwise, all I'll add now is that the acting is consistently strong--impressive given a company of about 50, it seems, all doing doube & triple duty in a repertory of 8 plays. (All 8 are performed all summer long, mind you).

So check soon for mini-reviews of such titles as, yes, "Major Barbara", but also "Journey's End", "Autumn Garden" and even "Bus Stop".

Monday, August 15, 2005

on the road

Join Playgoer "on location" this week at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Will try to blog, depending the dial-up and/or internet cafe situation. Haven't committed to a theatrgoing itinerary yet, but especially looking forward to catching the rare Journey's End, that once-popular British WWI drama. There's also a rival production of The Constant Wife, which might make a sobering comparison to the Roundabout travesty. (More on that, hopefully, upon my return.)

"Lennon": Judgment Day

Let the pile-on begin. Mr Brantley has spoken:

In the immortal words of Yoko Ono, "Aieeeee!" A fierce primal scream - of the
kind Ms. Ono is famous for as a performance and recording artist - is surely the
healthiest response to the agony of "Lennon," the jerry-built musical shrine
that opened last night at the Broadhurst Theater.

Helen Shaw in the NY Sun (pay only) provides this frightening detail:
Her [Yoko's] presence overwhelms the man himself--by the end, a 25-foot-hight
cutout of her head literally looms in the background, pobably scaring the heck
out of the band.

I haven't bothered surveying the rest of the dailies. But, please, if you find any positive ones, post a link!

Prediction, and you heard it from Playgoer first: Yoko will pull one of those "Damn the Critics" campaigns and try to keep it running no matter what, in the great nutball tradition of David Merrick and Rosie O'Donnell. (Taboo, anyone?) Ticket & merchandise giveaways, a relentless pr offensive. Maybe Yoko will go into the show!

Barring any other developments, though, Playgoer is happy to cease his indulgence in the schadenfreude. (How can one resist.) In retrospect, this whole endeavor was probably not even worth the attention--especially again the actual respectful pre-show promotion from the Times. I think a Theatre page with taste has a right to say, "You know, this is a vanity project and we will not cover it as theatre, no matter what their press agent says. Let's use our ink for something more worthwhile." (But hey, I'm a blog, so I have all the ink I want.)

I leave the whole sad episode with just one final admonition: who ever thought anyone would want to listen to John Lennon's songs played by a Broadway pit orchestra? The truly sad thing is, we will surely see this kind of mistake again, in our lifetimes...

Laughter and Theatre Architecture

...no, not laughing at theatre architecture.
Contrapositive has a thought-provoking little byte on some observations from, of all sources, the director of "The 40-Year Old Virgin" on how his movie almost tanked in huge "stadium style" movie plexes.... Implications for live theatre?

Sunday, August 14, 2005

"Arts & Leisure" Watch: 8/14

Let it be noted: Week Two of Porn as Art. Yes, another pr promotion of a porn film on highly valuable pages. (This time a midnight kitsch showing of "Deep Throat"--as if it wasn't whitewashed



Lennon: "Help!!!"

enough in the recent "documentary".) Last week it was the "Directions" blurbs up front. This week it's "The Week Ahead" in the back--this is what used to be the big listings, which the "new" Times arts regime removed (too democratic, I suppose) and replaced with this highly "selective" critics picks. Yeah, like we need "experts" to draw our attention to "Deep Throat" and Lennon: The Musical. Speaking of which--why does the Times continue to slobber over this turkey? What does Yoko have over them??? Especially when you contemplate this "publicity" shot above.

You may remember, there was some controversy last year over this move to dump the more complete, less glossy old listings, with several readers complaining (including Playgoer, who even got a letter published!---albeit on the rarely read Public Editor page). There was some announcement lately they were going to abandon the change. Could have fooled me.

On the Theatre page itself, though, hats off to Jason Zinoman for sneaking in a good little item on Richard Foreman. And it's not even a promotion for anything! Imagine, an arts article written out of genuine interest. It's been common knowledge for a while in the theatre community Foreman offers a lot of free access to his work over the web. But certainly worth raising consciousness of Foreman among the increasingly un-theatre-friendly, Broadway-only Times (implied)readers--if only to balance the Lennon and nudity articles.

And to even further improve their downtown cred all of a sudden, there's also this long meandering piece on this "Howl!" festival--something I've never even heard of for two years. Okay, looks interesting. But not much about "theatre" here. The only interesting context given here is about reclaiming downtown from gentrification and corporatization. (But, hey, how about the Metro section?) The same "Two Boots" venue talked about here, by the way, is the one doing the "Deep Throat" showing. Playgoer doesn't mean to come off so prudish, really. Study porn all you want, really. Take it seriously, by all means. But the thought of a bunch of East Village hipsters gathering in a basement screening room to watch grainy 30-yr-old footage of the abused Linda Lovelace giving head, while tossing back a beer and trading ironic comments....kinda doesn't sit right.

But, hey, I have no moral qualms at all about that Two Boots pizza. Even though that may not always sit right either.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

the LaChiusa bruhaha

Okay, I'm probably the last to weigh on in Michael John LaChiusa's invective against current musicals. But blame Opera News for not opening up their site! (And as much as I love opera, I ain't paying them for it. I'll save it for my one standing room stall a year at the Met.) But now apparently you can access it here, at least via the Times article on it, here.

Well, what to say. I personally had a blast reading it. And, basically, I "agree" with much--although I can't really say what his "argument" or thesis is. I do find his categories (faux musical, parody musical, etc) very helpful in understanding and sorting out all the things out there now that call themselves "musicals." Where he's gotten in trouble now (see Times piece) is in calling his own peers on the carpet, particularly Marc Shaiman, whose Hairspray he calls a "faux musical." Personally I think Shaiman's one of the most talented tune smiths around (South Park movie, anyone?), and Hairspray is a lot better a show than it ought to be. (Thanks to his, and Jack O'Brien's professionalism.) But LaChiusa's right! It's not an original musical, or even a viable work of theatre--it's an exercise in nostalgia. The audience I saw was bopping to the numbers as if they were listening to the Ronnettes, etc. (So expert is Shaiman's imitative/pastiche skills.) In other words, the difference between the experience of Hairspray and that of a very good revival of Bye, Bye, Birdie is, I believe, negligible. As LaChiusa says:

There's plenty of theatricality to be found in a faux-musical, but no
theatre. It's a theme-park ride copied from an original and authentic
ride.... It looks like a musical. It sounds like a musical. But it's
synthetic. The only organic feature to be found is the performances of its
original stars--Nathan Lane in The Producers, Harvey Fierstein in
Hairspray. Once their replacements take over, the shows reveal
themselves for what they are: machines.

Incidentally, I think this is the best explanation I've heard yet for "the curse of The Producers" and the inability for the show to find any acceptable replacements (from coast to coast to London) for Lane & Broderick. They (their combination of personal warmth and charm plus star quality) suppplied the human interest on stage.

The other aspect I especially appreciated (unnoted in the Times) is this is really a rtract against Broadway. No surprise coming from the B'way-burned LaChiusa, but so what. I'm not sure I even like LaChiusa's work (what I know of it, at least). Musicals don't need to be more humorless, for example. (not that he says that in the essay)... But notice echoes of The Playgoer in this complaint:
What prompts all this eulogizing...? [i.e. "the death of the musical"].
Collectively, the authors of these books and television shows seem to be
canvassing only one place in their search for life: Broadway. What if they've
limited their search to too small an area? What if, instead of dead, the
American Musical is simply missing from the surveyed landscape?...Simply because the real thing isn't on Broadway--except for a very few examples--why presume
it's dead?

Well put, Michael John. Welcome to the fight.

Typically, producer Margo Lion (in the Times piece) takes offense to an attack from this angle on her beloved Hairspray:
What makes my blood boil is the notion that Hairspray was some kind of
contrivance and that the impulse behind it and dedication to creating it was
somehow lesser than things that may be more--I don't even want to use the word
serious--that have a more limited audience, to be honest.

I love that. Let's not say "serious". Let's just call it, even worse, for a "limited audience." Naturally, if you're in the line of work Lion is, limited audience=no good. But for the rest of us who aren't "playing the market" with theatre... thank god for (discerning) limited audiences!

Just a thought: is the point of the Times piece just to give these folks their say? A defense of the B'way Behemoths? (who pay their advertising rates, who put on the shows those coveted "national" Times readers count on seeing their next trip...) Interesting no one was quoted defending LaChiusa.

Anyway, there's lots else going on in his essay. I urge you read it, and not just to agree or disagree about whether certain shows are good or bad. (Don't start yelling at your computer screen that Producers is better than Avenue Q!) Criticism of particular shows is not the point.

And one thing I do agree with the Times on--nothing better than a good spat.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fringe NYC

Speaking of Fringes... Here's a roundup from the Voice that's probably the best you're likely to see. (Three articles total--here, here, and here.) You can also check out NYTheatre.com for a pretty good, and convenient listing.

And then there's FringeNYC itself, for up to date schedule info and ticket purchases.

Enjoy. And bring a fan.

(I don't have plans to see anything in particular. Any recommendations?)

Edinburgh, post 7/7

A quick little Reuters piece (via NY Times) about how terrorism is being addressed by artists at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival....Memories of late 2001 here in NY, of course. I wonder if any of those enterprising theatre folk back then who hawked their wares by claiming their little two- hander about a bad relationship was really "about loss, at a time like this" would like to take that back. I hope so. (The Edinburgh folk seem more tasteful so far.)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

"Lennon" watch

Lennon is just the gift that keeps on giving to Michael Riedel. Now Yoko has hired--and fired-- superstar director David Leveaux.

It all brings back memories of Paul Simon's Capeman, of course--which I gather was at least of much better (potential) quality. I'm so intrigued by these ageing rock stars, clinging to some outdated notion of The Broadway Musical as the ultimate stamp of cultural status. How antithetical to everything they once rocked on about--and how irrelevant to today!

The "Cheap" Seats

Howard Kissel had a nice idea for a column this week--what it's like to actually sit through a Broadway show from the last rows of the balcony. About time someone talked about this. Problem is, he leaves out one thing: seeing a show from the balcony often, um, sucks. And still costs over $50!

Howard will have none of that, though. The last row at Phantom (admittedly $20) is "one of New York’s great theater values." (I'm still trying to figure out what the word "value" can mean in relation to Phantom.) Sightlines for Lion King and Chicago are perfectly fine, so why complain. (Are you noticing yet he only talks about musicals here?) Plus all that wonderful souped up miking lets you hear everything!

Drawbacks? Sure. With the amplification actors just don't project like they used to, he admits. And after faulting Hutton Foster's lack of depth in The Producers he concedes, "Perhaps more nuances are observable downstairs. " As that great critic George Bernard Shaw once said: "Duh."

Of course, Kissel's piece is not an exposee, but a consumer guide. What else should I expect from a daily newspaper. (Though the Sun arts page continues to show another way...) The Daily News wants to help sell those seats. Ok, the more complimentary way to put it could be: they want to encourage their readers who might think theatre is too expensive for them to give it a try. But as you and I know, there's nothing like a bad balcony experience to knock the curiosity right out of someone. And rightly so. I often take college students to shows, and I know that the surest way to get someone hooked on the theatre is to plant them down front, in an intimate space, in front of a great actor. Marching them up to "Row Z" from where they stare at the leading man's baldspot all night, makes all your preaching about the "immediacy" of theatre so much hypocrisy.

If this is something of a necessary eveil, then anyone who truly cares about "reform" on Broadway should get behind one cause: Subsidize the Balcony! And I don't just mean those stratospheric two rows way above the stage of the Kerr (where Doubt is now). I mean anything above the orchestra. We hear over and over again from old timers how when they were starving young artists or students, they could always rely on the balcony. Now? Well, look up the prices yourself.

The implications of this are worse, of course, for plays. (Which Kissel never bothers to mention.)
Yes, maybe for a big loud Miss Saigon being miles away is perfectly fine. But the experience of seeing an intimate drama like Doubt or Virginia Woolf from upstairs as opposed to downstairs is not just a question of degree. It could be the difference between getting a play or not. I remember seeing The Weir on Broadway from "up there" along with a row of my fellow TKTS buyers. While the downstairs crowd was enraptured by the intimate storytelling, all I heard next to me afterwards was "I wish they didn't have to use such thick accents." Never mind that this was the original Irish cast, so this was hardly a choice. What I took from that was not that our modern actors mumble too much or we have lost the art of "big" staging. But we as an audience may have lost the art of active listening (especially with music blasted directly into our ears all day via those little white IV's called IPods), so that reception of drama from that distance has become impossible. This has been a problem ever since we started demanding our drama be "real" and "naturalistic." In civilized theatre cultures, the theatres got smaller to accomodate the new aesthetic. We still play in barns. (On Broadway, at least-- the definition of which, after all is "that which seats greater than 499.")

What am I saying? Get the wrecking ball out and demolish the balconies? (Hey, maybe make them separate mini-theatres! Like the movie multiplexes did with those big theatres.) Of course not. Perhaps these are notes toward a later, expanded post about the increasing inhospitability of Broadway to serious drama. (Or at least it's lost on those who can't pay $100 or even $50.) Again, maybe for musicals this is not an issue. But when something is produced in one of these behemoth theatres that features human beings on stage, speaking words, we have to question the appropriateness of the venue. I know many of you could tell me you saw such-and-such a drama from the last row and were still blown away. Yes, great acting still reaches. (Redgrave in Long Day's Journey, for example.) But the exceptions today, I feel, are ever more exceptional.

Meanwhile--Hear ye, hear ye, all would-be reformers of Broadway: Subsidize the Balcony!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Death of the Playwright?

One has to go all the way across the pond, to the Guardian (again, courtesy ArtsJournal), to a little side piece here on the current Edinburgh Fringe, to finally find someone writing about what could be the most drastic evolutionary shift in theatre today: the disappearance of the playwright. Yes, this is old. "Devised theatre" as such (contrary to the Guardian's cluelessness here) has been a downtown mainstay since the 60s; then there was the rise of "documentary" theatre in the 70s (preceeded by experiments as far back as the 20s); and now you could even put in this context the proliferation of movie adaptations on Broadway. (Does anyone care who wrote the book to Urban Cowboy or even Dirty Rotten Scoundrels?)

I predict theatre historians will look back on this as one of the most seismic shifts of our era. Has the deconstructed Death-of-the-Author finally come to the theatre? It wouldn't be so notable if, like in painting, individual artists only became valued in the Renaissance and now the pendulum is swinging back. With a lineage that goes back to Aeschylus, we have a 4,000 year-old legacy of individual playwrights going here....Do I decry? Let's just say something big is going on. And it's about time theatre writers caught onto it.

Product Placement

A piece in the Toronto Star about--heavens forfend--commercial "product placement" in the commercial theatre! (courtesy ArtsJournal) This is something I really can't get that worked up over. I just don't see how dropping a line about a brand-name drink into Neil Simon's already sell-out book for Sweet Charity compromises anything. What else is a Broadway musical other than one big product placement?... Typical complaint, from the piece, addressing one eagerly expected Toronto try-out:

But relax. Mirvish's The Lord of the Rings will not feature a new
Frodofone from Fido, or a prominently displayed Birk's box to house Gollum's
"precious."

Yeah, thank god. That would make such a musical ridiculous.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

"Arts & Leisure" watch

Yes, today the New York Times "Arts & Leisure" section--for years the last refuge of those who cling to culture in this crass, unfeeling world--has a piece promoting a porn film. No judgement. Just let it be noted this is how they're using the very valuable print real estate that is their "arts" coverage.

In other news, let me give due credit to a good Margo Jefferson article, on LA Theatre. This may be what Jefferson does best--advocacy journalism, rather than aesthetic criticism. Her story of the Taper's abandonment of developing minority work is distressing on many levels, including the implications for the future of new plays in general.
(For more context on this problem, check out this on the National Black Theatre Festival, in case you missed Saturday's paper.)

Don't waste your time with the "Omigod, there are naked people on stage" article. Once again, this is something out of 1975 here. New York Behind-the-Times, indeed.
Update 8/10: Ah, now we see the reason for this piece. An excuse for another colorful "slide-show" on the Times theatre website. (Sorry, I refuse to link) Yes, they are shocked, shocked there is nudity going on on stage...

And for Orson's Shadow fans, a new actor joins the cast, apparently casting an even bigger shadow.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

NEA update

Two informative links today, courtesy of ArtsJournal:

- Backstage has the skinny on Congress's new proposed NEA budget. The bottom line:
the action still leaves the NEA better off than it was a year ago, with a net budget increase of $4.4 million, to $125.7 million, for the 2006 fiscal year.
Surprisingly, it was the House committee that voted for an additional $5 million in funding, which was rejeted in conference. (Even Republicans have finally embraced arts spending as good ol' pork!)
To put things in perspective: $4.4 million is about the size of a mid-size LORT regional theatre's annual budget. Of course, the NEA doesn't support one theatre, but several. And not just theatre but the other arts as well. When you realize how thin $4 million can be spread... well, we should be grateful just not to be slashed I suppose. (They have us where they want us, that's for sure.)

- also check out this short Economist piece (of all places) on "Why People Laugh." For those who take their comedy seriously, it's a thought-provoking (and even funny) read.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Playgoer sells out

Yes, those are indeed ads you see today to your right. But thanks to the steadily increasing readership, perhaps it is time for Playgoer to move into the realm of potential self-sustainability. Hence these little "Google Ads" which are suppsedly programmed to be "content specific" and will hopefully offer useful theatre-related services. ("Noh masks," anyone?) Also, note the Amazon box at top right, where I can recommend thematically linked books, videos, etc. I'll try to update that often. (This week's, as you can see, is Paul Schrader's fine and forgotten film Mishima, exploring the man's life and work. Not a documentary, and lavishly filmed and scored--by Philip Glass.)

Who knows, perhaps with these ads Playgoer won't have to review from the cheap seats anymore! Thanks for your visits, everyone.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

PLAYGOER REVIEW: MISHIMA "MODERN NOH PLAYS"










above left, "Sotoba Komachi"; right, "Yoroboshi" (click on either for enlargement
)

Just quick impressions of Yukio Ninagawa's visiting production of two Mishima "Modern Noh Plays", perhaps the quietest stunner of the Lincoln Center Festival. (I say "quiet" because it ran only three nights and was reviewed only in Saturday's Times, albeit a rave.) But how rare an opportunity! First, because when was the last time you saw or read anything by Mishima lately? (I fondly remember Bergman's production of Madame de Sade a few years back--a Japanese play starring Swedes playing French aristos.) Second, because this was an evening, finally, as visually exciting as it was thought-provoking.

Ninagawa's pairing of these two particular "Noh" plays, both starring angry young men of postwar Japan, seems to reflect a concern with Mishima's own biography, appropriate for an artist who made his life into his most famous and weirdest work of art. A generation after his controversial death (he committed public sepiku as part of a failed military coup in 1970) he is treated here by Ninagawa as already a "classic" author fit for "reinterpretation."

In each of the plays, Mishima takes inspiration (and the title) from an actual Noh work from the form's golden age, the 14th-17th centuries. And so part of what made the evening so fascinating was experiencing the three-tiered storytelling going on: the original Noh play, Mishima's "adaptation,"and then Ninagawa's re-interpretation of Mishima. The first work, Sotoba Komachi (c.1955), was originally a dialogue at a Buddhist shrine between a priest and Komachi, a 99-yr old woman over her mistreatment of a suitor long ago. Mishima reset the action in a 1950s urban park, replete with young lovers making out on the benches as a foil to the hag, and made her interlocutor a budding poet. As in almost all Noh plays, ghosts appear--but here they are ridiculously Westernized Japanese society folk from the 1880s, Komachi's youth. And just as the traditional Noh climaxes in a dance, here it is a ball of Strauss waltzes. (Mishima's love/hate relationship with the West is a major tension in his work. These "Noh" plays themselves are a deliberately uneasy mixing of native and European dramaturgies.) Ninagawa's bold strokes included Kaoru Kanamori's spooky, night-lit, forrest of a set (far from a walk in the park) on which red flowers constantly rained down, with ungraceful little thuds--a breathtaking and unsettling image of beauty's decay.

The follow-up play was Yoroboshi (1960). The original title character in the Noh classic is a blind boy, expelled from his home, who wins forgiveness of his father after a rain of blessings, in the form of plum blossoms, fall upon him. Mishima's "update" is less comforting. In a cold stately courtroom in postwar Tokyo (another jaw-dropping Kanamori design) it is the parents who must beg Yoroboshi's forgiveness, for abandoning him. His adoptive family is there, too, all Westernized and slickly dressed. Yoroboshi, now a twenty-year-old with attitude, decries both sides, in this bitter custody battle where the family is clearly implied to be the dysfunctional family of 1960 Japan itself. The wounds of past servitude, current capitulation, and the scars of war are all there. Yoroboshi's blindness, as he reveals in a searing climactic monologue, struck him fifteen years earlier, at the age of five, as he witnessed, in an air-raid, "the end of the world." (Whether it is Hiroshima or the "fire bombing" of Tokyo that is being referenced becomes beside the point--the impact of each is felt.)

It is at the end of this piece that Ninagawa attempts his boldest interpolation--closing with the audio from Mishima's real-life suicide speech. Bringing this sublime evening to a close with a dose of "snuff" might have crossed the line for many people. But the connection he was making between writer and protagonist was clear to me. ("Everyone loves me" is the eerie last line--indeed Mishima was the darling of the West--until he turned on them with ugly militarism.) No doubt about it, Mishima was a messed up writer and apparently a horrible person. But his struggle with his own violent and self-aggrandizing impulses (and between his super-macho Samurai posing and his culturally transgressive homosexuality) make for fascinating art, along the lines of the kind of darkly post-Romantic poets such as Baudelaire and Verlaine (or even, in a more personal similarity, Pound) who Mishima emulated.

Let me be clear: this success of this production was not in making Mishima any more "accessible" or "palatable" to a Western audience. (The implied condemnation of us by Yoroboshi, for instance, was particularly unvarnished.) Instead, a foreign writer became somehow clearer to us by a Japanese director embracing what may be most culturally particular about him. And these are certainly "strange" plays by any cultural standard. Mishima did not followed not one tradition, but several--in addition to inventing his own.

Other reviews: NYTimes (Brantley); V.Voice (Feingold). Interestingly, no one seems to be able to agree on what music Ninigawa was using in the first act. Brantley asks if it's Faure's "Dolly"; Feingold (whose musical expertise matches his theatrical) insists it was Rachmaninoff's "Vocalise". To Playgoer it was obviously's Ravel's "Pavane for a Dead Princess", if for no other reason than the poetic aptness of the title for the olf Kamachi of Mishima's play. What gives?
UPDATE: None other than Terry Teachout says I'm right about the music!

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

that National Theatre debate...

Playgoer is delighted with the wide response to a recent post on Time Out New York's proposal for a US "National Theatre". Some great responses so far. Please join the fray!

In short, my position is that I do believe in the ideal of a national theatre, but only as a non-profit commercial-free zone. Any proposal for such an institution strikes me as senseless, unrealistic, and even undesirable. Let Broadway be Broadway, I say, and let the rest of "us" focus on the art in a supported environment. This is, in fact, the model of most national theatres in world--i.e. outside of the commercial zone. (Again, Britain's RNT is on the other side of the Thames!)

And I completely agree with a recent reader-comment that in this country we really need "National" to truly mean national. First, it's a big country, this is. Second, New York already has behemoth, healthy non-profit companies. (I believe any newcomer national theatre would lose any bidding wars with them for stars, directors, etc anyway.) So why not build a National in the actual capital, DC--or in Boston, Chicago, LA. Or in that new capital of live entertainment, Vegas, even! OR--more daringly--lay down a foundation in a smaller city, conveniently located for tourism, that could really use the business.

So please continue to post your thoughts on this. This issue really seems to spark automatic debate among theatre folk, so let's hear some!

A Genre is Born?

It had to happen--a play based on a blog.

The new "Women Center Stage" festival downtown includes "Girl Blog from Iraq: Baghdad Burning", an "adaptation" of an actual Iraqi woman's online journal (under the name "Riverbend") of the war and after.

A first? Theatrical "adapters," take note.

(A blog, commenting on a theatre piece, based on a blog. Hmm...)