Archive for July 21st, 2010

Medea (Melissa Fenton), Euripides’s Medea, Englished

Annabella (Jessica Shearer Wilson), ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Dear Friends and Readers,

We know it’s summer. Weeks of 90 plus degree heat, many days “feeling like” over 100 (because of high humidity), a glaring sun that burns my skin if I am so foolish as to get into my non-air-conditioned car between 11 and 4, sweat trickling down from my breasts to my waist under my ever-so-thin or halter-like tops. So we didn’t need the Capitol Fringe to make it official; nonetheless, its revival for a sixth year marks the season as high summer.

This year we bought for 7 events and have thus far gone to 5. Two have been outstanding. John Ford’s <‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore was acted with intense bravura and the terrific energy needed to carry this wild tragedy into half-hysterical farce, the mode of many a Jacobean play. I’ve taught 3 not Shakespearean ones, Middleton’s Women Beware Women and The Changeling (there’s a film! with Hugh Grant before he was type-cast as comic), Webster’s Duchess of Malfi; and seen (in NY) Women Beware Women (with Patti Lapone in the frighteningly evil woman’s role, now featuring Harriet Walter in London), Tourner’s Revenger’s Tragedy (by our own local Washington Shakespeare Company at Clarke theater) and gone to dramatic readings (Webster’s White Devil) and watched others on TV. So I have some knowledge and a comparative basis.

What distinguished this one was some strong acting (top performances by Wilson as Annabella, Evan Crump as Giovanni, Terence Ashelford as Vasques and Prairie Griffith as the Nurse):

Nurse and Vasques

As Annabella’s nurse, Griffiths really spoke the lines naturally and she was very very funny; as the man ready at the drop of a coin to kill anyone especially for his boss (a typical Jacobean type), Ashelford combined cynicism and loyalty in the right amounts.

Also high brutal savagery with short swords, clever symbolic costumes & stage business.

Here’s the story. And the point: this is the one play in the whole of the utter transgressive, taboo-breaking corpus that makes incest central. It’s there in a number of plays: Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy where a brother sells his sister’s sexual services to the king and then goes mad with jealousy; in The Duchess of Malfi where a brother cannot bear for his sister to marry; in Hamlet, but Laurence Olivier has been unusual in stressing that. It opens with atheism, carries on with adulterous betrayals between male friends.

What made this one unexpected was how it dwelt on the abuse of Annabella. She is really drawn in by Giovanni, then subject to a coerced marriage, then beat up continually and ferociously by her husband, it feels far in excess of his jealous rage over her pregnancy. It became a study in wife, daughter, sister abuse. The nurse too: when she hears her eyes are to be gouged out after she has faithfully meant to help her mistress by telling some truths, she gets a Lear-like look. It’s the immediate betrayal in the scene that gets you.

They also seemed to realize Giovanni was a sort of Hamlet figure breaking through oppression if half-crazed, not caring enough for his sister, only his sexual appetite:

Ere I’d endure this sight, to see my love
Clipped by another[marriage], I would dare confusion,
And stand by the horror of ten thousand deaths.

Giovanni with Annabella

They got Annabella’s guilt right:

Brother, dear brother, know what I have been,
And know that now ther’s but a dining-time
‘Twixt us and our confusion . . .

[Remember the atheistic doubt as this line longs for death]

Perhaps they might have gone a little slower and allowed us to savour Annabella’s final soliloquy:

Pleasures, farewell, and all ye thriftless minutes Wherein false joys have spun a weary life!
To these my fortunes now 1 take my leave.
Thou, precious Time, that swiftly rid’st in post
Over the world, to finish up the race
Of my last fate, here stay thy restless course,
And bear to ages that are yet unborn
A wretched, woeful woman’s tragedy.

The other woman’s tragedy we saw was one whose central story everyone knows some version of, Euripides’ Medea (in an uncredited English translation). I really thought Michael Burke’s production (he did lights, staging, directing) near perfect.

Again I have some knowledge: I’ve taught the play several times in Paul Roche’s excellent translation, read enough on Euripides to understand what a radical and woman-sympathizer he can be, and recently on WWTTA we read and discussed Liz Lochhead’s translation, from a production of which this photo of Fiona Shaw as Medea and Jonathan Cake as Jason comes:

One of the “interpretations” by Burke of the Euripides play was to put the accent on tenderness (yes) and love. Medea loves her children passionately and kills them out of madness and a desire to protect them and keep them to herself as much as revenge. In the original she also wants to strike hard at Jason and (the line in Euripides runs) and in Paul Roche’s translation (which I’ve taught three times) it is Englished: “now you’ll take me seriously.”

It’s hard to get people to take things seriously. In this production the line is “now you’ll not mock me.” Not as good I think :).

Jason was also played as a man still in love with Medea, at least wanting to go to bed with her. There’s a scene where they come close to kissing and that would be a prelude to love-making but both suddenly draw back. I’ve never seen it done that way before. If you will look at our groupsite page, you will see that there is something of this in Shaw’s posture.

It’s a kind of motif I’m seeing in films recently: the crashingly arguing couple get close and nearly fall to love-making (Joe Wright’s 2002 P&P does it for the famous rejected proposal between Darcy and Elizabeth, in this one in the rain).

In Burke’s production, Jason was also doing this marriage as the socially networking thing to do for him and her, if she’d only see it this way. At one point (funny) she says to him, so you’re saying you can now give me references. I laughed aloud at that one. The play became contemporary; I could see Jason nagging her to get her interview act together, find “headhunter” and smooch and crony away.

He was despicable, contemptible and the final scene of her maddened with grief, and him enraged at her, full of pity for himself was just right. The feathers are the blood she’s spilt for him:

The chorus was dressed terrifically: like nightmare comedia d’art figures, also in crazy feathers. They wore details suggestive of animals, of weird madness in asylums, of kupie dolls:

Izzy felt it became too noisy at points and missed hearing some of the lines. She had some justice there, but the use of colorful electricity and wild lights had an electrifying effect when the noises (musical effects on a tape) became savage:

I wish I could speak as highly about the other 3 events we’ve seen. The audience for Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Roadside Review was large (crowded in), testimony to how good they were last year.

The problem is it’s very hard to come up with a brilliant new show inside a year, especially when you are working for money or going to school elsewhere and underfunded. For me and some of the people around me they worked hard but they were mostly noise and antics signifying not much. The applause was very mild.

On the other hand, maybe my lack of responsiveness came from my being older, and not getting the references. Have a look at what Izzy wrote

. . . it was still loads of fun, even if I had to explain to mom afterwards that the druidess had been reciting a Beatles song-which pretty much sums of the spirit of the show right there. In the end, the hero even triumphed through the Power of Rock, combined with a healthy dose of the Power . . . actually, on second though, I won’t give it away. We were even invited the sing along with the group number. I recognized several of the performers from the previous year, especially Felicia Curry, who, armed with the sad number, really brought the tent down this time. They’ll be doing another one of their revues in the Signature, but sadly I’ll be in New York by then.

Likewise, Lysistrata: The Musical had all the actors working so hard, meaning so well, and there the politics were just so humane meaning (ultimately), but to me it was crude (constant shouting about penises, vaginas) and filled with humiliations for the men by leeringly Amazonian women. Jim said what I wasn’t liking was Aristophanes: his play is in bad taste. Several of the scenes, one where a wife jumps on top of her husband, he frantic to have sex, and she keeps stopping to add a pillow or blanket is straight from Aristophanes. The audience seemed to like the performance though — they laughed and cheered at different stunts. To me what they were doing to one another on the stage enacted the same norms as the war they were all decrying.

I do want to put in a good word for the one-woman Dorothy Parker evening at Bus Boys and Poets Corner (a large lively restaurant with a large room where poetry readings often take place). Abrams chose her material from Dorothy Parker’s life as well as works. It should have been much better, it was meant to be much better. Abrams was led astray by sticking too closely to the outward (conventionalized) biography and chose her passages to exemplify that. It’s understandable; she wanted the audience to follow the trains of thought.

Alas, that meant she didn’t chose the very best; maybe it was that she didn’t choose her passages bravely enough: no “Big Blonde” for example – Parker’s one undisputed prose fiction mastepiece. By the end of the hour she was posturing energetic grief over what seemed to have been not such a bad life. On the other hand, I know how brave it is for an older woman to get up in front of a crowd and perform. Abrams is at least 50, and until the show started she stood at the back of the large room, a fairly dumpy woman in a dark-colored cocktail dress, mid-height pumps, choker-pearl necklace. She was keeping the fuller memory of Parker alive.

Parker’s poems show a disillusion and weariness Abrams meant to project, as in this one:

A Certain Lady

Oh, I can smile for you, and tilt my head,
And drink your rushing words with eager lips,
I’d paint my mouth for you a fragrant red,
And trace your brows with tutored finger-tips.
When you rehearse your list of loves to me,
Oh, I can laugh and marvel, rapturous-eyed.
And you laugh back, nor can you ever see
The thousand little deaths my heart has died.
And you believe, so well I know my part,
That I am gay as morning, light as snow,
And all the straining things within my heart
You’ll never know.

Oh, I can laugh and listen, when we meet,
And you bring tales of fresh adventurings
Of ladies delicately indiscreet,
Of lingering hands, and gently whispered things.
And you are pleased with me, and strive anew
To sing me sagas of your late delights.
Thus do you want me — marveling, gay, and true —
Nor do you see my staring eyes of nights.
And when, in search of novelty, you stray,
Oh, I can kiss you blithely as you go …
And what goes on, my love, while you’re away,
You’ll never know.

I like Parker’s self-mocking ones. She wants to write epigrams (in the Martial tradition):

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you’re his
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying —
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.

I wanted to hear more of the lesser known axioms. “Constant Weader fwowed up” is great. But “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force” needs to be heard too. And which novel or what kind of novel it was.

I do not want to cavil. This is a chance scattered choice of 7 out of so many. Apparently we should have gone to the H.M.S. Pinafore or Gilbert and Sullivan this year. Each year there seems to be one Gilbert and Sullivan. One year we saw one done by junior high school students.

It’s wonderful to see a great deal of fine talent, intelligently-meant art, and groups of people just getting together to enjoy themselves in DC over the course of 3 weeks and to join in. I’m told the NYC Fringe has become commercialized: a place for try-outs for commercial groups. In DC we do have our repertoire companies contributing and trying to widen their audience. There was nothing from what we could see in the lineup as original as last year’s Fifth Musketeer But then a couple of festivals ago, we saw a truly great Marat/Sade.

It’s all to the good. The people doing these plays have to resort to condemned buildings, run-down warehouses. We traipse up long stone narrow stairwells and since the air-conditioning isn’t adequate, there are fan going strong placed strategically (and it’s hoped not intrusively) about.

One night Jim, I, and Izzy went out to a good Chinese restaurant near the old warehouse theater where ‘Tis Pity was done. Another night he and I splurged and ate out in a restaurant in Old Town Alexandria, elegant, fine-cooked food, wines (free champagne to get us to spend more) where we were treated with respect and consideration.

If only the people I see at these events, doing them, running them, volunteering were running our society, I know it’d be a better place for us all. They have provided Jim, I and Izzy with nights out we can participate in at a price we can afford.

And when we get home we sometimes have great and enthusiastic talk, exhilarating. We did over Dorothy Parker, Medea and somehow or other got into Catullus and Robert Graves on myths over our spaghetti dinners with wine when we get home too.


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