Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Lost Shakespeare?

Shakespeare was always a working professional man of the theater in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.  I seriously doubt that he ever gave any consideration to his legacy.  In fact, he seems to have made little effort to maintain any kind of collection of his own plays.  Had it not been for friends and colleagues we would not have some of his most beautiful and treasured plays.  As a working professional he created works often on the fly and frequently worked alongside of other writers to complete works, especially as he got older.  One of his close collaborators was John Fletcher with whom he co-authored “Henry VIII,” “Two Noble Kinsmen” and “Cardenio,” the lost play.

The history of “Cardenio” is really quite interesting.  The story is taken, more or less, from the first part of Don Quixote by Cervantes. Fletcher and Shakespeare, it is assumed, re-worked the story and created this play.  It was lost probably to fire, but seems to have mostly survived in a work entitled “The Double Falsehood” by Lewis Theobald.  There are a lot of ins and outs to this story, but the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gregory Doran with his own group of collaborators took the Theobald play and re-worked it, adding a couple scenes in order to fill out the plot.  This play they present then as “Cardenio” the re-imagined lost play of Shakespeare and Fletcher. 

It is this work by Fletcher/Shakespeare/Theobald and Doran (and others) that was presented by St. Louis Shakespeare.  It is a very interesting work, especially if you know your Shakespeare. I have to say that in reading an interview with Doran he acknowledges that he felt the play sounded more like Fletcher’s work than Shakespeare’s and I have to concur.  The use of the language is not as colorful and evocative as is mature Shakespeare.  This work is also one of the last plays Shakespeare himself is supposed to have worked on and I think it is most probable that most of the work is Fletcher with Shakespeare serving as mentor/editor.  For me, the dialog just didn’t sound like Shakespeare.  However there were moments that did feel like the master.  Consider this: by this time in his career Shakespeare had mastered the ability to evoke deep emotion, and he himself seems to have been dealing with his own personal grief, loss and a sense of deep guilt over his virtual abandonment of his family for all those years.  This I think is reflected beautifully in both the final scenes of “Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” but I caught glimpses of it here in the speeches by Dorotea and also in some of the sections that included Luscinda’s father Don Bernardo.  Those scenes were heart wrenching and I could hear Shakespeare himself expressing his own guilt and regret for his neglect and selfishness as Colin Nichols expressed these words as Don Bernardo.  He was easily my favorite character, and perhaps because the character and I are both about the same age, I could really relate to him.  Colin Nichols  did a beautiful job with this role.  The abused, actually raped Dorotea was also movingly portrayed by Lexie Baker.  She was able to bring us all into her grief at her horrible betrayal.

One thing I found curious about the play was that there was a parade of references to other plays in the canon.  Certainly Dorotea’s plight and her subsequent escape from her father’s house and the dressing as a boy reminded me of “As You Like It.”  Rosalind’s situation is less heart-rending, and she is an aristocrat where Dorotea is a peasant who, it is clear, has little to no recourse.  Gregory Doran added the abduction scene that felt like he took right out of “Cymbeline,” and of course, despite the fact that Cardenio’s taking up the garb of Tom O’Bedlam is directly from Cervantes, one can’t help but notice the strong similarity between Cardenio and Edgar in “King Lear.”  This is another reason I felt that the play was more Fletcher than Shakespeare.  The master I feel would not be so obvious with these devices that he used to such brilliant effect in earlier plays.  But for Fletcher, they are devices that worked so why not include them.

I am thankful that I live in the St. Louis area where we have such excellent and outstanding theater and opera companies.  St. Louis Shakespeare was founded by Donna Northcott and is dedicated to Shakespeare and classical plays.  They have performed the entire canon – no mean feat!  Bravo to them!  I have enjoyed a few of their performances in the past including a well done, albeit long evening of Henry VI.  This production of “Cardenio” is really well done on a variety of levels.  First, that the company would find and be able to adapt this “lost” play is worth celebrating.  The performance of this play gives others and me the opportunity to deepen our experience of Shakespeare. So, Brava to Donna Northcott for doing whatever needed to be done to secure the scripts and the rights to do this work in St. Louis.  I was actually shocked that opening night was not sold out.  It should be!  All of St. Louis should be packing this theater for this play.

The sets were very well done.  Functional set pieces that could be easily moved into position worked very well.  I think they might have cut the falling leaves.  But the use of a simple set piece here and there was all that was needed to evoke the location of the scene.  The acting was very good.  All of the principals embodied their roles and drew me into the story.  I have already mentioned two members of the cast whose work struck me as particularly outstanding.  I also want to commend Jason J. Little on his portrayal of the Don Giovanni-like Don Fernando. (That is, by the way, Tirso de Molina’s Don Juan Tenorio and not Da Ponte, I actually found a number of resonances with the Molina in this play and think it is possible that Fletcher might have been familiar with it).   Little’s Don Fernando was suave, seductive and innocent but capable of becoming horribly ruthless and violent when crossed.  Erik Kuhn played the betrayed Cardenio effectively.  His naïve trust in his aristocratic superior Don Fernando leads to him to set himself up for a terrible fall. Kuhn was effective in giving his blind and undeserved trust and was beautifully convincing as the lover in his scenes with Luscinda.  Shannon Lampkin was also deeply moving in her portrayal of a young woman who simply has no options and to whom no one will listen.  Overruled and having her feelings insensitively rejected by her father, her Cardenio is the only one whom she can reach out to but she is locked away from him.  Her Isabella (Measure for Measure) like refuge into a convent was convincing as an act of desperation. Fernando’s brother Pedro was portrayed by Kevin O’Brian who was excellent making us think in one moment that he is the good guy and then in the next frustrating that impression with the realization that he is also rather selfish and myopic.  Despite his sense of right and wrong pushing him, he seems to run up against this brick wall of his aristocratic privilege.  The remainder of the cast was excellent, I have to mention Shane Signorino whose odious Master of the Flock made that brief scene one of the most riveting in the performance.

If I have one complaint it is this: throughout the evening the music used was mostly taken from the album Los Ministriles: Spanish Renaissance Wind Music. This is an older album by the Philadelphia based early music band Piffaro.  I feel that since so much of the music was taken from this album that they should have been acknowledged in the program.  If it had been only one or two cuts then fine, but it seems to me that over half of the album was played during the production and consequently Piffaro deserved a shout out!

Finally – SPOILER ALERT – I have to conclude with a little reflection on the ending of this play.  The denouement is well, oh so Elizabethan/Jacobean but not necessarily Shakespearean.  And this is another yet clue to Fletcher’s dominance in the writing of the play.  Even in the problem play “Measure for Measure” Shakespeare doesn’t really tie up all of the loose ends in such a forced manner.  Isabella’s silence speaks volumes after the long final scene during which the entire play unravels and Duke Vincencio is seen to be the complete creep he is.  The final scene of this play, “Cardenio,” was similar to “Measure for Measure” in that all of the plot lines were unraveled and tied up in this long final scene.  And, Duke Vincencio like, Don Pedro manages to string it out one painful secret at a time.  When we reach the end and Don Fernando is chastened and agrees (tacitly) to behave like a good aristocrat from now on and everyone lives happily ever after, it is just is rather completely unsatisfying.  And I don’t think it will really cut it for a modern audience.  After all Dorotea was raped! Whether or not she was in love with her rapist is irrelevant – he wooed her with lies and manipulation and then dumped her when he got what he wanted.  Luscinda fought off her rapist on multiple occasions and even was abducted by him as her father further essentially sold her off to the highest bidder. Even Cardenio experienced moments of mistrust of her. That this is a typical Elizabethan ending (though not all that typical of Shakespeare himself) is worthy of comment.  The fact is that even today with more modern works we audience members like to nurse the fantasy of “happily ever after.”  There is none here.  This is a male world of dominance and abuse of women where the men in power – whether they are an aristocratic son, a father or even the Master of the Sheep – can sexually abuse the women they encounter with impunity.  Maybe we still live in this world – but this world is coming to an end.  Despite powerful leaders who brag about women who “will (supposedly) let you do it” and other powerful men who use their power to dominate and objectify women this world is coming to an end and the sooner the better.  This “lost” play mostly by John Fletcher reminds us that there is work to do here. And that this kind of male behavior towards women, while certainly old historically, is still as odious today as it was then in that it ruins lives and destroys relationships.

Bravi to the company for performing this play and for their excellent production.  And good luck with all remaining performances.
 Dorotea (Lexie Baker) and Fernando (Jason J. Little) - Photo by Ron James
Bernardo (Colin Nichols), Luscinda (Shannon Lampkin), Friar (Shane Signorino) and Gerardo (Karl Hawkins) - Photo by John Lamb

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Chicago Shakespeare – Taming of the Shrew

I will confess that in the entire Shakespearean canon there are two plays that I do not like: 1. Titus Andronicus (too much gratuitous violence); and 2. Taming of the Shrew. I understand of course that TotS reflects its times to a large extent and that the play is actually more complex than the impression of misogyny that most folks tend to assume is at the heart of the play.  In fact, few realize that Shakespeare himself put the play in a kind of frame, the Christopher Sly frame which turns the play into a practical joke on this particular character.  But the character all but disappears, though there is an ending where he wakes up from his drunken stupor having had “the best dream” ever and has learned how to deal with his “shrewish wife." This of course is comedic tongue in cheek as this guy will never learn to deal with women at all.  But the major problem is that most productions of the play completely eliminate this framing device, leaving the play within the play (TotS) to stand on its own, which it doesn’t do very well (IMHO).  For without the framing device we might actually think Shakespeare is serious in advocating for spousal abuse, when he really isn’t. But since this is the way the play is usually performed it does make the play a hard one to take. From the marriage negotiations to the wedding to the after the wedding “training” to the final “contest” to Kate’s final speech - this play is downright offensive.
So initially when I saw that Chicago Shakespeare would be performing TotS I figured I would skip it.  It wasn’t that long ago that I saw a fine production of the play in Washington D.C. with an all male cast, and while it would be interesting to see with an all female cast, especially as directed by the brilliant Barbara Gaines, it is such a long trip I just figured that I would pass.  That is, until I realized that this production would include a framing device.  Not the original “Christopher Sly” one, but rather one created by the writer Ron West along with Gaines.  Now, back about 10 years ago I had one of the most amazing theater experiences of my life at Chicago Shakespeare when I attended a production of “Comedy of Errors” with a framing device by Ron West.  That one set the filming of the play within the context of the bombing of London during World War II and without going into so much detail that it would completely take me away from the focus on TofS let me just say, it was outstanding!
So for this production West and Gaines set the production of the play within the context of a Chicago Women’s Club in 1919.  These clubs actually existed and were popular places for women to come together for social and educational experiences.  The producing of Shakespeare was, in fact, a popular activity undertaken by some of these clubs.  At the same time the women’s suffrage movement was heating up.  This becomes a major point in this production.  The women who are members of this club, and who will take on the roles in TofS, are all affected in some way by the suffrage movement.  Some are supportive, some are not and some are ambivalent – at least at the beginning of the play.  But as the “dress rehearsal” progresses – in the parlor because the rains have flooded their theater – the riots and demonstrations in support of women's suffrage become a major part of the context and have a profound impact on the women involved.
I do not want to spoil things, so I will refrain from any detailed discussion of the production, except for this one example.  At the end of act one (Act 3.2) Petruchio has this terrible speech in which he tells the group in Baptista's house that his new wife Kate: … is my goods, my chattels, she is my house, my household stuff, my field, my barn, my horse, my ox, my ass, my anything… Following this speech Petruchio picks up the hostile Kate (in the traditional manner) and slings her over his shoulder and takes her out and off stage.  They did that here too, but because they are in the parlor they have no place to go except out the front door of the clubhouse.  And so as they walk out onto the street there is a suffrage riot taking place into which the two characters walk.  At that moment we hear a male voice from the street yell “Get back to the kitchen!”  This pretty much clears the parlor as all of the women then rush out to join the protest.  End of act 1.  I have to say, I found this exceptionally profound and effective.  It is so easy to dismiss Petruchio as somehow unique in the lists of wife abusers, or of the scene and speech as being only a “reflection” of the times and not really relevant anymore.  But this isn’t true.  It may well be a reflection of the times in which it was composed, but anyone who thinks it isn’t also a reflection of our own times has their head in the sand.  Women have made some progress – but not enough and they are still subject to abuse, both emotional and physical (See my discussion of the musical "Carousel" immediately below).  This production does not shy away from these issues at all and through this device confronted all of us with them.  And throughout the remainder of the play there was commentary and the women themselves undergo a transformation.  It is a terrific way of doing this play.  And lest I give the wrong impression, it is highly entertaining and very funny in places as well.
The cast is simply terrific.  Casting was colorblind and there was not a weak link in the cast at all! By the way, each member of the cast played a member of the club who also played a character in the club’s production of TotS.  And so the Magnificent E. Faye Butler played Dr. Fannie Emmanuel who played the girl's father Baptista.  Other standouts for me were Tina Gluschenko who played the wavering and cautious chairwoman Mrs. Beatrice Welles who played Hotensio; Cindy Gold who played the rather stuck up and put upon Mrs. Sarah Willoughby who played a hilarious Vincentio; Alexandra Henrickson who played a very self-centered, insensitive and rather weak willed Mrs. Louise Harrison who was absolutely magnificent as the shrew Kate; Heidi Kettering who played one of the leaders of the club and was particularly good at mediating conflicts between the women as Mrs. Dorothy Mercer and was excellent as the scheming and manipulative Tranio; Crystal Lucas-Perry as a quiet but deeply committed Mrs. Victoria Van Dyne who as incredibly affective as the harsh and abusive Petruchio; Rita Rehn as the Senator’s wife who is the social center of the club as Mrs. Mildred Sherman who is also very domineering and judgmental, and who is also the mother of Mrs. Emily Ingersol - Bianca (played by Olivia Washington) who is the rather dutiful and submissive daughter of Mrs. Sherman, who in the play takes on the role of Grumio and the Widow (Interesting to note that Mrs. Sherman serves as kind of the director of the play, in the same way that the character playing one of the twin servants in the previous West frame for “Comedy of Errors” also was the director – I smell a pattern).  Then there was the outstanding Kate Marie Smith who played the young, somewhat naïve and progressive Miss Olivia Twist who played the role of Lucentio (magnificently by the way); and finally I cannot leave out Hollis Resnik as the club’s caustic and cynical custodian Miss Judith Smith who took on the role of Gremio.  The remaining ensemble included Faith Servant, Ann James and Lillian Castillo.  This is a really interesting mix of women of differing ages, races and experience and Barbara Gaines molded them into a terrific ensemble.  For ultimately this work is even more of an ensemble piece than it would be otherwise.

I don’t want to ruin this for anyone who might be planning to see it – as it runs into November.  So I won’t say anything more.  Except, I loved the end.  I found it deeply moving and I, as a privileged white male, did not leave the theater feeling judged, but rather even more committed to justice and equality than I was before.  My last comment is this – to Barbara Gaines and Ron West: Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your incredible work.  Please, please, please make it available to other companies so that these frames can be used and experienced more widely.  I would like to see this Taming frame adopted on a regular basis personally.  And 2ndly – please tape this production and make it available.  I will personally buy multiple copies to give to my friends!

 The Set

Front and center in this photo are the three principals: (left to right) Crystal Lucas-Perry as Mrs. Victoria Van Dyne (Petruchio), Alexandra Henrickson as Mrs. Louise Harrison (Katherine or Kate), and Rita Rehn as Mrs. Mildred Sherman (Grumio/Widow)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Carousel and Domestic Violence

I need to write about this for this issue has bothered me ever since I attended a performance of the Rogers and Hammerstein “Carousel” at Union Ave. Opera at the end of July.  I am not going to talk about the production (much).  Frankly, I felt there were lots of problems with it but particular production is not really relevant to my concern.  The issue is deeply embedded in the “book.”

First preliminary comment: I love the musical.  I was in it as a child as one of the bratty “Snow” children.  I have very, very happy memories of that show.  My dad was in it – in the chorus and he was the police officer in the crucial scene where Billy and Jigger’s plan goes awry.  So, I got to do this with my dad and it was really fun.  And then there was Longwood Gardens outside of Philadelphia that is a wonderful place.  And then there was the incredible carousel itself used most prominently in the opening prologue. And I got to ride on it!  And then there is the music.  I can hardly get through any production of Carousel without crying during some of the songs – “If I Loved You,” “When You Walk Through A Storm,” “When I Marry Mr. Snow,” “When the Children Are Asleep!”  Wonderful songs all of them and the instrumental prologue and ballet sequences are musically brilliant – perhaps among Roger’s best compositions!

Second preliminary comment: I work as a Lutheran Pastor in a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and I have been a Pastor for 30+ years.  In my role as pastor I often – far too often - encounter women (and children at times) who have been or who are the subject of domestic abuse.  Sometimes this takes the form of verbal or emotional abuse; sometimes neglect and sometimes actual physical abuse.  I have seen the effect it has.  How it destroys everyone who is involved, but especially the victim.  I have absolutely no sympathy for abusers.  It is wrong!  It is evil!  You have no right to abuse your wife or children in any way!  Marriage must be based on respect and trust.  There can be no respect and trust when there is any kind of abuse. Period!  Sometimes an abused wife will ask me: “But what about my vows before God?”  The first time he hit you – the first time he verbally abused you, put you down, called you names - HE broke HIS vows and broke the bonds of trust and respect! A woman who is abused needs to get out.  And getting out is simply accepting the break that has already occurred through HIS action. And to that end I support any number of shelters and agencies for women who need a safe place.

To the issue at hand – the “book” of Carousel: 
Louise Bigelow: But is it possible, Mother, for someone to hit you hard like that - real loud and hard, and it not hurt you at all?
Julie Jordan: It is possible dear, for someone to hit youhit you hard, and it not hurt at all. (See Footnote #1)
 Julie is wrong - NO it is not possible! Love never makes abuse ok!  Julie spends all of her married life as an abused woman.  No matter what his issues, or whether we might want to agree with Carrie and Julie’s other friends that Billy is bad news and that she shouldn’t have married him and she ought to leave him, nevertheless, the heart wants what the heart wants and Julie loves Billy.  But he treats her like crap! And by the middle of the first act everyone knows that Billy’s verbal and emotional abuse has turned to physical abuse. 
Starcatcher: … So then why did you beat her?
Billy: I didn’t beat her.  I hit her once!
Typical excuse.  “I only hit her once.  It wasn’t hard.  She deserved it.  She was nagging me!” Billy has lots of excuses. He actually admits at one point that he gets angry because Julie is right!  But none of those excuses hold a drop of water.  He hit her! He is guilty of physical abuse!  And physical abuse is never ok!  But I find the act 2 exchange between the 16-year-old troubled Louise and her mother Julie to be the most troubling in the musical. Julie, in this exchange, is passing on her victimhood to her daughter Louise. Julie’s answer sets up her young daughter to continue the cycle of abuse into the next generation and beyond. This is what I find so disturbing about this “book.” (See footnote number #2)
(Footnote #1 – To be fair, Hammerstein essentially lifted this exchange from Molnár’s play “Lilliom” – in the play Louise tells her mother that the man (the dead Lillion, her father she never met) hit her hard and it felt like a kiss.  Is that possible?  Julie responds that yes it is possible.  The play is from 1909.)
 (Footnote #2 - By the way, in case you are not familiar with the plot - Louise is the daughter with whom Julie is pregnant at the end of act 1 and to whom Billy has come back from the dead to visit – the visit doesn’t go well, he scares her and he gets angry and hits her! – The role of Louise, by the way, was shared and beautifully performed at UAO by dancer Emma Gassett and actor Caylee McGlasson)  

So what is the answer? I am not advocating the shelving of this beautiful musical.  Not in the least!  I believe that is the wrong thing to do. Do I think that Oscar Hammerstein or Richard Rogers for that matter were somehow glorifying domestic abuse? Actually, I don’t. I think Hammerstein in particular was a very astute and keen observer of culture and frankly the domestic abuse is an essential part of the story, which he takes almost directly from Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár’s “Lilliom” (Except for the ending). There is simply no way to excise it from the show. But, bear in mind that Rogers and Hammerstein were not afraid to deal with controversial subject matter – for example, racism in “South Pacific,” or cultural imperialism in “King and I.”

A couple years ago I attended a performance of “King and I” at the Lincoln Center Theater. They did not shy away from the issues of cultural imperialism, but rather they addressed these issues in an upfront and proactive manner. This is, I believe at least one solution.  When a company chooses to mount the musical “Carousel” I believe they should take it upon themselves to address this issue in the same manner. Don’t ignore it, or treat it like it is, well, unremarkable, just a part of the show.  The director or company manager or conductor could write an article for the program addressing the issue.  Or the company could raise funds for a local shelter, sponsor discussions at intermission or before the show about the serious epidemic of domestic abuse.  Now, I’m don’t mean to single out Union Ave Opera, who generally do great productions, because, frankly, I attended a beautiful production of this “Carousel” at Lyric Opera of Chicago a couple years ago and they didn’t do anything either.  In both cases these were missed opportunities to perhaps save someone from the cycle of abuse, and maybe even to save a life. 

In closing, great art like opera, theater, musicals address the experience of being human in all its beauty and ugliness.  Maybe it is time for companies to be just a little more proactive in confronting some of these serious issues.

If you know someone who is being abused or if you need help:
Crisis Hotline Numbers in Southern Illinois:
St. Clair County – 618-235-0892
Monroe County – 618-939-8114
East St. Louis – 618-875-7970

Randolph County – 618-826-5959