Archive for the ‘Theater’ Category

Antigone grieving over her brother’s body lying there in the sun, all exposed (Juliette Binoche, translator Anne Carson, director Ivo van Hove)

As the fourth soldier of the group endures what is done to his body by an exploding buried bomb, and fifth, a buddy administers morphine, the two begin to realize they are in minefield (Tom Williams and Paul Katis’s Kilo Two Bravo, the US title)

Dear friends and readers,

I had just been thinking to myself how egregiously pandering are most movies in theaters just now and (paradoxically) grateful for the development of HD broadcasts which could potentially make great plays done well available in my area, when this weekend I found myself caught up in two extraordinary productions. Both take up ultimate issues of life and death in terms the ceaseless war and impoverishment, immiseration inflicted on a huge percentage of people across the globe since the 1950s (Back to before WW2; Tactics, etc.).

Ivo van Hove, the director has shaped Anne Carson’s deeply meditative translation to produce an unusual trajectory for Antigone. I have seen the play in two different versions. One long ago on the stage, and a number of times as a film, part of three play series made by the BBC called the Theban plays (Paul Roche, the translator, Juliet Stevenson, Antigone). In these a traditional dramatization was presented. The first 3/4s of the play are done as highly dramatic clashes, characters talking using strongly rhetorical gestures and tones, all reaching a crisis, until the threatened death of Kreon’s son, Haiman, persuades Kreon he must compromise — but it is too late. The last quarter was done as a form of deep mourning, lyrical ritual grief played out as each character is found dead until we reach the body of Kreon’s wife, Eurdike. The emphasis was political: the right of a citizen to protest an unjust amoral law (using an inward knowledge of God’s ethics as criteria) versus the right of a leader to demand obedience on behalf of stability, order (or because he says so for everyone’s safety and his desire for power).

It was not done that way here. As I’ve seen before the stage-director used movie techniques: across a screen in the back we saw Antigone crossing a desert to where her sister, Ismene was waiting (as in Sophocles’s text whoever the translator) but then instead of this strong outward set of demands, anguished refusals, debates, the whole tone and the words chosen made the play into something inward, psychologically motivated: at first it’s just Antigone and Ismene who are grief-struck but as the play progresses and decisions are made, individual character after character is shattered by memories, by what happens when another character acts out of fear, horror, grief, love for self or another.

A scene from Antigone by Sophokles, directed by Ivo van Hove with Juliette Binoche, in a new translation by Anne Carson, at the BAM Harvey Theater on September 24, 2015. Actors: Juliette Binoche-Antigone Obi Abili_Black man Kirsty Bushell_Ismene_young women in skirt Samuel Edward-Cook_Haimon- Young bald man Finbar Lynch_Teiresias_Small thin wiry Patrick O'Kane_Kreon_bald man in suit Kathryn Pogson_Eurydike_older woman Nathaniel Jackson_dead body Credit: Stephanie Berger
Guard (Obi Abili) terrified he will be tortured reports to Kreon (Patrick O’Kane) that Antigone has buried her brother, Polyneices

The chorus’s lines were broken up and they spoke of their helplessness, they pleaded with Kreon to follow compromise, to give in, to forget, not to desecrate bodies, sweep across blood ties. They cannot accept what is happening and side with Antigone, even if it means forgiving, forgetting traitorous acts. They debate what is patriotism (in effect). Kreon’s way is utterly destructive. An interesting aspect of the direction is how often Kreon seems affectionate to Antigone (I’d never seen that before)

Kreon trying to appeal to Antigone’s ties to him (Patrick O’Kane was dressed as a modern dictator, bald, in a suit and tie)

Tiresias’s speech then reinforces this turn from a debate over how a state should be run: the cause is in Kreon. As Kreon folds and cracks, I had the distinct impression the director’s idea was Sophocles long ago was giving the Greek people a rare treat to see their tyrant brought low. It was as if someone would write a play today where we could all enjoy George W. Bush writhing on the ground. The point seemed to be to make this all=powerful politician a broken man.

Antigone’s appeals to Ismene (Kristy Bushell) and explanations to Haimon Samuel Edward-Cook) emerge as some kind of whistleblower who is surrounded by informers (Ismene) or people who will give in to whatever is the latest turning of the populace:


but Haimon is better than this. He tells his father despite his father’s incensed rage that the people are against him before fleeing before his father’s edict to join Antigone in her walled up grave.


Of course she is mad too. She will not let Ismene get any credit for dying. She makes the argument that a brother means more than a husband or father because you cannot get another.

Katharine Pogson who played Eurydice (and chorus) stood out for the power of her utterances. All the actors but Binoche and O’Kane doubled as choral voices.

A choral moment: there was above the players a moon or a sun on and off

Obviously the play was done in such a way as to speak home to us today, 2015. It was often very quiet: Antigone’s line: “I’m a strange new king of ‘inbetween thing, aren’t I?/Not at home with the dead or the living” seems to be about the plight of many people today hit hard by war or disease (cancer?) or just not sure what life is or about. The actors spoke their lines against a quiet backdrop of changing scenes evocative of the modern world, mostly in deserts, but by the end in a great metropolis at night. When the play ended each of the characters was back at a desk or structure, typing, looking at a computer, intent on some task. There was little overt movement throughout except at moments of high climax. And then they shouted. They were positioned in parallel ways.

Anne Carson is a great poet, a great translator — I’ve read her poems to her brother (who died alone and far from her) which she did as a kind of play upon Catullus’s love poems.

Through foreign seas and over foreign lands,
Brother, to your sad graveside I have come
To lay the gifts of death with my own hands
And speak, too late, some last words to your dumb,
Unanswering dust. Poor brother, who was torn
Brutally from me by ill fortune, take
All I can give you now-these few forlorn
Offerings made for ancient custom’s sake
And wet with a brother’s tears. There’ll be no other
Meeting; and so hail and farewell, my brother.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale is so famous. Literally it means “And forever, brother, farewell forever.” So Carson could be also writing about her relationship with her brother.

I admit I noticed this was a Barbican play. I was not so envious of those who saw Bernard Cumberbatch as Hamlet there these past weeks. London productions do occasionally come to the Kennedy Center. I was aware that a couple of people nearby fell asleep; one of them I spoke to briefly; he was puzzled by the whole play, didn’t know anything about these characters to start with. The program notes provided full explanations but he had not read them.


It’s even harder to do justice to Kajaki: as this site shows, there will be a tendency to present the film as an action-adventure war movie, heroism everywhere, sacrifice, apocalyptic violence. It’s anything but that sort of thing. The thing to take notice of is the producer/distributor who was at the Cinema Art theater with Gary Arnold this past Sunday where I saw the film, with its US title, Kilo Two Bravo (the code name of the unit used in electronic communication), knows very well that he has not made a stupid glorification of war or death.


The film opens with a British soldier swimming in the sea; he is shot at and frantically begins to swim for shore; he makes it, and jumps onto the sand to find himself confronted by two young Afghan boys and an older man; they have powerful rifles but it was not they who shot at him. His ferocity of anger at them shows how terrified he was — rightly — to lose his life. He begins to walk back to his unit and two men like him with even bigger weapons than the Afghans had join him. They are all part of a unit of British soldiers establishing itself on a mountain top in Afghanistan. They walk off and he tries to hitch a ride, but is laughed at by other soldiers from other units riding past him.


When he reaches where his group is settled, we watch the different men adjusting to life there; settling their places, taking on their jobs, receiving mail, and get to know them. A couple are more intelligent or educated and reading books; most of them have these sex-magazines; they curse a lot, kid a lot, eat and drink. There are officers who can be distinguished only because they tell the others what to do. There is medic (a doctor) who is given respect. They survey the landscape, and see Afghan people driving by; watch one set of Afghan people extort money from another, women and children are seen. The next day they are to go on some kind of mission. One problem the film has is the dialects of the Brits are so thick that I for one couldn’t get all the details of what exactly was being said, but since no one was especially subtley articulate this didn’t matter much. Still subtitles would help as they were bitter and ironic references to leaders like Blair, to lies told they now are aware of, to their own lives intimately.

So the next day they walk down to wherever they are going and what happens is in a flat circle area one of them steps on a bomb. It explodes and it is deeply terrifying as the computerized cameras, sound and other equipment make you feel the shock and instead of just showing the person at a distance we see him writhing and his body deeply maimed — it’s horrible and distressing. Then someone else steps on a bomb, same result.

They begin to realize they have inadvertently stepped into a minefield left by the Soviets perhaps in 1980s, perhaps in 1950. The men do not desert one another: they follow a protocol for saving one another’s lives. They walk on the same line others have walked to try to avoid bombs, they use techniques of looking at the sand. Several gather around each man – by how there are four lying in profound pain. A couple of people have morphine, the medic is sent for, and the drama ensues. Insofar as this can be done in real time it is. In huddled groups they try to help one another, but before the episode is over, about half the group is lying out there half-destroyed, bleeding, screaming, moaning and then turning quiet as the others try to help.


They sent word through their electronic equipment and people from other units begin to show up – they do not walk in that area where the men are. American accents are heard, Australian. A heliocopter gunship comes within ten minutes but frantically the medic forbids it to land. We feel its power by the strong noise, the sand moving over everything. It has no equipment but itself and if it lands it can blow itself and them up. They must have an evacuation helicopter. Some of the men who are not hurt clearly would like to leave but dare not; they are angry at the medic for insisting on the evacuation vehicle. In the film time this takes over 40 minutes, representative of about 3 hours. We see them talk and realities of their lives emerge. For some their bodies begin to rot before our eyes; they begin to sink. They need more morphine and run out. They are running out of water. are variously desperate, brave, self-harrowed, pitying, mocking. The script is brilliant, deeply involving. We see little domestic dramas. There is humor as they joke, a kind of parody of making the best of things which continually breaks down.

It reminded me of Danger UXB which I’ve now watched twice through. In the 1970s this 13 part mini-series (written by the best writers of BBC dramas at the time, the best directors doing them) follows the adventures and lives of a bomb disposal unit in World War Two: it is as profoundly an anti-war film as I’ve ever seen. The way tension is built up is in each episode at least one bomb is disposed of and it’s done in as real time as they dare. The tension and fear and difficulty of the task are enacted and sometimes the man is killed. Unlike this new film, when death occurs, the camera moves away and we only see the explosion from far, and then we only see the body under a blanket with only the face shown, and sometimes it’s been cleaned up (supposed) by the time we see it. They didn’t dare or couldn’t for TV programs for the BBC show the realities of what we mean when we say someone’s body and mind is wounded.


In Danger UXB the soldiers are clearing out bombs inside the UK, so we see no overt war. In Kilo Two Bravo what we are being shown is how war is conducted in the year 2015. The opening scenes, what they see by their binoculars as they watch for the 2 hours (they could be killed by a sudden assault) tell us war in Afghanistan is not open battles. It is competition through technology in slow motion but when the action happens you are as hideously or partly wounded and killed as you were in open battle.

6th July 2007 Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistan A Chinook helicopter brings much needs supplies of food, spares and mail to the soldiers at a remote base in Kajaki, Helmand province, Afghanistan on the 6th of July 2007.
Above is a photo of a real helicopter arriving in Kajaki, Helmand Province, Afghanistank, bringing food, spares of all sorts and mail to the soldiers at a remote base (6 July 2007)

Finally the evacuation helicopter arrives and with it two specially equipped trucks with long range platforms they are stick out over the ground. All of this clearly built with mines and bombs in mind. One at a time a powerful man on a chain is let down from the helicopter and either brings an iron long basket into which the other soldiers put the wounded man, or he himself somehow puts his arms about the man and hugs him tight and the chain is pulled up again. This is done for each of the wounded. For those who are still whole they are helped to make it into the trucks. Everyone flies or drives away; no one is left behind. The medic is seen in a kind of catatonic prayer body posture for a moment when all are gone; then he is seen in the helicopter too. He was obeyed throughout and his self-control saved them all — insofar as he could.


I noticed as I watched that some of the audience began to leave; when the film was over, I’d say half the audience left. I don’t know what that meant: did they not want to hear any talk about this movie; they had sat through it. They were mostly older people so I don’t think boredom was the problem. Don’t go to it if you are expecting fast action (see this Hollywood reporter). I was a rare person in my section to scream and writhe (I couldn’t control it) each time someone stepped on a bomb and it exploded. It came home to me that violence should be distressing; there is something morally deeply wrong when violence is not distressing. I had a hard time staying about 3/4s of the way as I began to worry whether the evacuation ship would make it, or if they’d be shot to death or what. Apparently this is a well-known incident in the UK so UK watchers might know that the group was rescued.

I said “insofar as he could.” As the plane took off and the film was coming to an end, you got a five minute or so series of inter-titles telling you what happened to each man. Most of them lived — not all, two died. The photos of the real people the actors played were displayedAlas, there was an emphasis on how they returned to fighting (!) for those who did, but if you counted, many did not return; some we were told went to work for charitable organizations. We were not told if any began to work against these wars. This reminded me of the ending of Danger UXB where our hero who is badly wounded comes back to duty at this same bomb disposal unit and we are to cheer over this. He now feels useful — though for most of the hour he has been talking of the waste of the men who died, of the uselessness of all the destruction in Britain he has seen, all the terror. That is not forgotten nor in this film is the central hour and 3 minutes.

The whole unit (or cast) of Danger UXB: within the film they all pose for a group of local people to take a photograph of them as “heroes”

I admit that in the discussion time afterward when I instanced Danger UXB as a precursor, I was pleased when Gary Arnold replied that Danger UXB was one of his favorite films. He said he agreed with all I said of it. Do we ever get over liking to have the “authority” figure praise us?


Anthony Ashe after a bomb has exploded and someone has been killed (Danger UXB)

Speaking for myself since Vietnam I have regarded helicopters as fearful machines which can drop napalm bombs and destroy people from the air with the people helpless to defend themselves or strike back in any way. Groups of these machines flying over the Pentagon or anywhere else are ominous. I know that the way they can land makes them hospitals or supermarkets coming to anywhere in the world where they will not be shot down. The helicopter gunship is the first helicopter to arrive and we can see it’s a weapon with guns to protect and kill any “enemy.”

This is an important film because it shows the person watching what this war is like for the people fighting and the people near them. Of course these men volunteered, and if they had not volunteered to fight (which means they are trained to kill and do kill) for whatever delusion, they would not be in danger. Maybe they fell for the thrill of adventure and war. Let’s not forget that. They are not innocents. I taught for many years in senior colleges and over half my students by the end of my time there had been in the military, many had also volunteered because they said that was the best or only job they could find. Or the military offered to school and train them. The US gov’t will not put money into much else — so we see soldiers used in first aid crises. The soldiers in this movie were not shown to know much about this war they were fighting

To see Kilo Two Bravo as an expose of the horrors of using bombs would be absurdly narrow (one way Danger UXB has been marketed). To talk about it as about sacrifices turns it into a kind of senseless religious propaganda, a modern Kreon play. I did find one apposite review in the Guardian.

Kilo Two Bravo is a film that may be said to show why the UK should not go to war — for no reason that helps anyone but arms manufacturers and the powerful and wealthy. It is a semi-documentary intended to make people see, experience, realize, think, and perhaps like Antigone draw back and say no, we are not going to do this or do it to others, or allow these things to be done to us.

I did love Binoche as the nurse in The English Patient


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Sonya Yoncheva (as Desdemona, she played the scene as a woman facing death)

Dear friend and readers,

This was my first opera for this HD Metropolitan opera season, and on the whole I was glad I went. I learned that Otello is not a popular opera when it has not got spectacular stars: all around me seats were empty; the auditorium was less than half full.

It was a revelatory experience in an important way too. For the first time of any production of Otello I’ve seen (and I’ve seen a few) the key singer-actors were directed to act out the meaning of the words of their songs. I had never before realized how different is Verdi’s inward conception of Desdemona from Shakespeare’s: Verdi’s heroine is not an odd (improbable) combination of sophisticated teasing Venetian lady who rouses Othello’s jealousy with her playful ways and yet a poignantly puzzled innocent when called a whore; this Desdemona’s soliloquies in the third and fourth act are that of a woman who knows she holds a high place and is being abused by a man crazed with hatred for her; violent and murderous. In the last two songs, her song and then the final wild erotic disaster she expects death, she is waiting for it, facing it. Yoncheva was brilliant in this part of the opera. She sang beautifully too. I was very moved by the willow song and final acting out of death, grief, anguish (which words were in English subtitles).

Aleksandro Antonenko is however not a subtle actor and it was a great loss choosing a white Italian man instead of a black non-Italian so that central themes and happenings are unexplained (beyond the jealousy, why Cassio is chosen over him and he is recalled). People doing this opera must make it their business to find a black male singer for the part; look about for non-stars if their are no stars available. Perhaps you’ll find someone new and great. Or don’t do it. Blackface on a white man is an insult to black people when they are thus excluded from a part dependent on the whole penumbra he must endure as a black and old man (Othello is much older than Desdemona). But someone had instructed Antonenko to enact the meaning of his lines. There was no dignity, but there was no ludicrousness; he was scary: this was an exploration of male sexual insecurity and murderous violation.

Aleksandro Antonenko as seething within

Both he and Zeljko Lucie were acting out ruthless misogyny together, and in 2015 the allusion was to honor-killing and its milder varieties of female destruction in non-Muslim countries. The sense of Iago as this site of malignant evil, all envy, resentment did not come out, nor did anything homoerotic between them.

Zeljko Lucie as a man in a leather coat against glass boxes

It was two men in sheer destructive wrath — with a woman as their joint target. So this was another of these 21st century interpretations of an opera at the Met as about violence against women. This became and is an opera about a version of honor-killing. “It is the cause.”


When the men duel, women standing nearby are hurt by their daggers and the women gather about the wounded woman.

The rest of the experience was disconnected. Antony Tomassin (New York Times) explained this as a function of the odd sets, flat lack of activity, a lack of any original thought in the physical directing of the actor-singers; and David Salazar (Latin Post) wrote the problem came from how the actors were let to wander about, stand in crowds or mostly avoid one another. I’d add Roderigo was not acted out; he was a dull nothing, not a thug, not low class, just there; Dimitri Pittas as Cassio looked the part (gay, elegant) but he was given hardly anything to do. Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano)had a moment where she is abused (hit) by Iago when he snatches the handkerchief and will not return it; she is loyal and loving to Desdemona but beyond that and her beautiful dark blue outfit and lovely sonorous voice, she too was a cypher. Ditto with all the Venetians.


The sets were explained during the intermission by Es Devlin (set designer): in Boito’s letters he told Verdi that Otello was a prison in a glass-house. I’m not sure what Boito meant by that: easily shattered? an egoistic nightmare of his own making? But Devlin determined to have glass houses sliding on and off the stage against a dark stormy sky, red blood universe (matched by one of Desdemona’s 19th century style flouncy stiff dresses). I’m not sure they added anything; indeed they seemed to distract attention when the characters slinked about. Perhaps a bare stage with indications of tempest and then a few pieces of symbolic furniture would have been as effective.

I was on my own as I have now been for several of these operas. Since the audience was so sparse and people near by unfriendly. This is increasingly true in these movie-houses with HD operas or plays as the newness of the experience wears off; people have ceased applauding for the most part too. I was free to feel Jim’s absence — the silence around me — and experience Yoncheva’s scene about facing death and enduring it as what he did and what I will do in turn when my time comes.

I grieved too. Jim died with my arms around him, loving him, I will die alone. Recently I’ve had strains in my chest and my right arm grows weaker and weaker. I sometimes find a coffee cup heavy to pick up. I will not let the hospital and medical people attack me with their surgeries and then treat me with an indifference which depends on shaming me into compliance. Instead like him once he saw what the surgery was and recognized this medical establishment’s small behavior, he brought death on, faced it on his own terms. In Verdi Desdemona does not beg for life, for another moment more the way Shakespeare’s Desdemona does.

I thought had the opera just had the opening dark blue sky with its wisps of cloud (computer generated) all around that bed the scene would have scenically more meaningful. This version of Verdi’s opera when it’s most alive is about love as death. The last part is about facing and doing death.

Susan Herbert, a salutary woman’s mockery on the nonetheless deadly Othello


There was something beyond the opera worth going to see: one of the intermission films for the first time (finally) explained the role of the man whose name has appeared as HD director for every HD Met opera I’ve seen and never heard mentioned at all: Gary Halvorson. The film was presented as “celebrating” (the mode on these broadcasts is over-speak) ten years of HD broadcast: well according to him, he marshals all the cameras and computer controllers together to photograph or film the opera from the most effective angles possible; it takes weeks of synchronizing themselves and their equipment with the slightest changes of beat, or movement or sound, several people working at once with several screens going at once. Each time a live broadcast is actually done, he begins work at 6:30 am with some of his crew there already and as the day progresses with this or that different group, during the broadcast alert at every second with the others round this tables of computer until the moment the HD broadcast ceases. The implication was that this movie-director is just an overlay; the opera itself has not been plotted so as to be cinema-shaped. I doubt that, but I don’t doubt that this is what the man literally does, what I doubt is the lack of cooperation from the “real” director implied.

THE ADVENTURES OF ELMO IN GROUCHLAND, director Gary Halvorson, on set, 1999. (c)Columbia Pictures
Gary Halvorson, previously a TV film director — very much a promotional shot

It was a cold day in Alexandria today, the first real cold this fall. I had bought myself a new soft light blue wool sweater and a woolly yet light weight jacket-coat, high neck, long sleeves. I needed them both and pulled them tight against me. I wore a light purple scarf wrapped around my head with its ends twirled about my neck, and my usual thin violet gloves. I got into my car, started it and turned on Simon Vance reading aloud Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.

In the silence.
Now again.
Typing this.
sharing my chair.


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The whole cast: Carolyn Burke, Jordan De Bona, Harry Lester, Katie McManus, Carli Smith

Dear friends and readers,

Would you believe in the wilds of Falls Church (driving back you pass streets where there are no lights and sidewalks are unwanted for vast stretches), a New York song fest. In the case of the Folger Theater, one can hope the production will go elsewhere, but in this Creative Cauldron (as the stage theater produced and directed by Laura Connors Hull calls it), there is little chance precisely these five people will get together again to sing and enact this set of songs. There was no money for any fancy stage furniture, the set was a minimum. As one reviewer of the program/stage event says, this production of “The World Goes Round,” is intimate cabaret at its best — dependent on the individuals, their capacity to sing or talk a song through, a few props, a piano and saxophone and the costumes.

I thought the actor-singers conveyed a deep sense of the underlying romance of several of the songs as well at the same time as scepticism and disillusion. A wry tone colored the most upbeat songs, a sense of the necessity of putting on pizzazz. Individual numbers: “Money, money,” “cabaret,” “A Quiet Thing,” and the whimsical New York ones, “Coffee in a Cardboard Cup,” “Sara Lee” (cakes). Carolyn did “colored lights” so touchingly, Jordan as a dancing body (flexible, graceful) and can enact ironies. He does the pathos of “I don’t remember you” and its jokes (he disappears) my friend recognized “Mr Cellophane.” I never heard of it before. They do numbers as pairs, trios, women with women:


They don’t quite get the New York accents right in “Class” (“How lucky can you get”) and when they ended on “New York, New York,” they did right not to imitate Sinatra too closely. Songs from Chicago. Cabaret. Katie McManus belts out numbers Ethel Merman style; the group does exhilaration too.

We do “all that jazz” at the Dance Fusion workshop most days. One night in the 1980s Jim and I woke around 2 in the morning, put the TV on and watched the movie. Here’s a montage of Fosse:

So rush out if you live within range (October 1-25), go and see and hear them, we need more of this kind of thing in the remote outposts of Fairfax county (Falls Church is alongside Fairfax county — I know it’s all confusing, but then I’m told it’s one of the richest counties in the US so why should they want anyone to know how to get about in it?). It was I who suggested to my friend, Phyllis, we go to this particular show: afterward we went back to her flat and drank wine, talked and looked at her art work — she’s a painter. I drove home by myself near midnight — the first time I’ve been out at that time of night and by myself for years, now listening to Simon Vance reading aloud mesmerizingly Mantel’s riveting Bring Up the Babies.

Jim delighted in Kander and Ebb songs at Signature and would talk of the effective voicing in their lyrics whenever they were threaded in.


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Monique Barbee, Cristina Spina, Ayeje Feamster, Juliana Francis-Kelly

Dear friends and readers,

Today Izzy and I saw another text or set of texts performed which come out of Tudor Matter: the writings and what was said Elizabeth Tudor said in the form of a monologue play acted out by form women playing the Elizabeth. It lasted only an hour but it was intently mesmerizing: the way the texts were chosen and woven together, how the actresses did the parts (intensely, iconically, prosaically, wryly, emotionally, fearfully by turns). The play is part of year long festival of plays by women going on around the DC area: the music was composed by a woman, production design, costumes: and it was l’ecriture-femme; the organization was not at all chronological; motifs kept coming back cyclically; you could say we were in Elizabeth’s mind.

It’s probably too late for most people to put everything planned for tomorrow away and hurry to the Folger Shakespeare Theater to see this four-woman dramatic monologue, conceived, put together, written and directed by Karin Coonrod, with a sixth woman, Gina Lesihman, composing the music, Oana Botez designing costumes, as a production from the Compagnia de’ Colombari (originally a festival group from Orvieto, Italy, 2004). But maybe not too late to see and hear re-incarnations of this script elsewhere. And certainly not too late to go to the Folger for this year’s season. It began with the remarkably candid and brilliant production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, via their HD screening capabilities. Now they’ve moved onto a highly original adaptation of Tudor matter to the stage.

Only recently has Elizabeth R been forgiven her ability to live more successfully than most men as leader of a country she cared about, as head of an army. As Sabrina Baron says,

with a few parts of some series as exceptions (most notably the six-part Elizabeth I in 1971), the depiction of Elizabeth, a woman who was a powerful and effective leader in her day (lived long, stayed in power, overcame a number of attempts to when she was young kill her and older overturn her throne), is as a frigid jealous or humiliated sex object. Her icon in her era was manipulated to present an transcendent female figure effectively doing what men did; in the 20th century she was at first a sexualized female stereotype who failed at love and motherhood and did little of consequence. Recently she has taken over Mary Stuart’s role as an enthralled woman (by Leicester, Essex) deeply unhappy because of this. Says Baron, quite a revenge and erasure by a male hegemonic point of view and from women compensatory victimhood for them to cling to.

Not so here. Using Elizabeth R’s own words and words about her spoken or written by people close to her, Koonrod moves back and forth across the iconic and everyday events of the reign to show how she was beset from the time her mother was beheaded (by keepers, by authority figures, by what men she did discreetly involve herself with, and yet emerges, survived and knew several triumphs (the Spanish Armada). While she did not write as much as the foolhardy passionate Mary Queen of Scots, and hid her religion as Margaret of Navarre did not, Elizabeth R wrote in all the forms these two other early modern women did: poetry, speeches, letters.

These are woven in with what others reported and what scholars have unearthed. The script assumes a good knowledge of the phases of Elizabeth’s life (who she lived with during what period and what she had to adhere to to stay alive), which are divided into four movements and four games. Iconic moments include her at the tower, when her stepmother, Elizabeth Parr and her husband, Thomas Seymour (later beheaded) are said to have cut Elizabeth’s mourning dress for Anne Boleyn to shreds while they were in a garden. This one shows how little Elizabeth was regarded until she became queen; she was a woman, not entitled to her own space; the first thing that parliament did when she became queen was to ask her to marry, which they repeated periodically no matter how often Elizabeth said she was wed to England and England was better off with a single queen (like her). there was material from the death of Leicester’s wife. The Armada. The Earl of Essex’s revolt. Parliamentary conflicts. And her frivolous moments with ordinary people.

All four Elizabeths were there at the same time. They began by sitting on uncomfortable high backed narrow lattice-like chairs (thrones as imprisoning). They catch each line up in turn, like a monody by four. Their silvery-grey dresses have features which suggest different eras (Elizabethan, the devil’s, the legacy left Elizabeth by her mother.) As the script veers round in time, first enacting how Elizabeth held off the demand she marry and have children, you grasp how each place is explicated or dramatized to see its relationship to Elizabeth or those close to her at that time (her sister, Anna, cousin, Mary, various male courtiers). Four movements within each a game. First up the nagging and pressuring her to marry and have children (the French Anjou and Leicester eras). Second there was an amoral actor-soldier and city life and court (anecdotes). The third movement was made up from Elizabeth’s prayers and laments, her few witty self-revealing poems. Last her last years as queen. I found the whole experience mesmerizing and stirring.

By pre-conceived scheme this blog should go on Austen reveries as being about and by women, one of more than 50 plays by women which will be staged in the DC area over the next year (until July say). I put it here so it will have more circulation. It belongs to the inexhaustible Turdor matter which I’ve been dealing with in my blogs on Anne and Mary Boleyn and Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, and which I hope to add to on the 2003 Boleyn Girl by Philippa Lowthorpe (with a little help from Andrew Davies), Anne Boleyn and other early modern women destroyed, sustained over a life-time, hitherto taken out of history.


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Kim and her child, poster for Miss Saigon

Mark Rylance
Mark Rylance as the king in a contemplative nervous moment

Dear friends and readers,

As with New York City, it seems to me to be in London and not go to the theater to miss out on what’s unique and deeply appealing about the city. So since during our 10 days and night travel last week, Izzy and I had three nights in London, two free, we saw two plays.

First a play I knew might seem slow or staid to her but whose content she would be sure to take an interest in, indeed know more about than me, but which I thought I’d like. All that was true of her reaction to Claire van Kampen’s play with much Baroque music, Farinelli and the King, about the mutually fulfilling relationship of an 18th century castrato, Carlo Boschi called Farinelli, and an apparently depressive and ill (he died relatively young) Spanish King, Philip V. Farinelli gave up a promising lucrative career in London to be this king’s musician-companion. Much of the barebones outline of the story is historically accurate; the queen’s love of her husband and an implicit affair with his castrato was added as audience pleaser.

Farinelli (both actor and singe, Sam Crane, Iestyn Davies)), King and Isabella his wife (Mark Rylance and Melody Grove)

I longed to see Mark Rylance live and was not disappointed by his performance. As Rachel Halliburton writes, the text is weak, there are too many resorts to easy jokes (jocularity) and creeky comic courtiers (who lose their tempers). It’s a vehicle by a husband-and-wife team (Kampen is Rylance’s wife and both worked together at the Globe as chief composer and director). Clever staging ideas livened it up. Audience members were given seats on the stage, the actors interacted with them and were here, there and everywhere in the auditorium. The characters pour over maps, astrological charts, medicines; there is much playing of 18th century instruments on stage. The king dies off-stage and the queen in the last scenes is a widow.

It’s the radiant idea at the center, that delicate beauty and mutual generosity exist and can sustain people, especially as enacted by Rylance — he was tenderly joyful — that makes it, and it’s touching, really conveyed persuasively. No small feat in such a large playhouse (the Duke of York brought back to look 19th century on the stage too), with just outside the curtained doors all the elements of a rough hard competitive commercialized city and social drinking nightlife. A little oasis of fleeting delicate happiness.


Afterwards Izzy and I talked about opera in London in the 18th century — she did her BA thesis on Handel. Jim would have enjoyed this play.

Our other choice was a famous musical which we had missed out on when Eric Schaeffer did it in our local Signature Theater and Laura went and said she thought of Jim while watching it because he would have liked Schaeffer’s sardonic production. The musical as done in London by Cameron Mackintosh (an expert in making hits) is a brassy, blaring concoction by the people who wrote Les Miserables, Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonerg. Miss Saigon had music that reminded me of Les Mis, and its over political content, a semi-cynical take on American soldiers in Vietnam. A long way from Rogers and Hammerstein’s sacarin South Pacific. As is common knowledge, it’s Madame Butterfly story where our Asian heroine, Kim, ends up giving her child by an American soldier she fell in love with and married, to him and his American wife. She kills herself and the final scene has him grieving over her body, with the wife clutching the child, and the Engineer again deprived of an opportunity to get a VISA. This coming spring she and I will go to an HD performance from the Met of Madame Butterfly — which each time I’ve seen has made me weep copiously — how they will cope with the self-effacement of Butterfly I know not.

Kim (Eva Noblezada) and Chris (Chris Peluso) — hero and heroine

The problem with Miss Saigon is the music is not beautiful or thrilling as was Les Mis. It’s also hopelessly corny at the opening, presents American soldiers as boys at play, exhorts you to see the US as having meant well (absurd), doing what it can afterward to compensate (as if this were even in thought possible). But it also has strong satiric moments (especially over this shibboleth referred to by the words the American dream). The most effective songs and acting were by the Engineer, a pimp and nightclub owner who longs for a VISA to go to the US to make a million, performed with outstanding energy by Jon Jon Brighes (he does not do it every night, he could not).


Charles Spencer conveys the piece accurately: it even has a helicopter at the back of the stage for the iconic scene of the fall of Saigon (soldiers jumping in, leaving the Vietnam complicit people behind). It had an unexpected new resonance with the audience, as its central leads and songs are about an immigrant child and his mother. The songs on this issue drew more applause than the rest.

Both auditoriums were overflowing with people, both provided bars open at least an hour before performance with rooms for socializing. Outside the twisty turning streets (several were no cars are allowed) too were filled with people drinking, eating, talking, spilling out of restaurants and pubs.

There were other plays I wished we could have seen: at the Globe Measure for Measure alternating with a play about Nell Gwynne; not far from the Prince Edward Theater, Branagh’s A Winter’s Tale. Just before this Farinelli Hattie Morahan had stunned all with her daring perceptive performance of Beatrice-Joanna in The duchess of Malfi. but these were the two that we could get tickets for, fit into our schedule, and I could imagine Jim at with us. The playbill booklet I bought for Farinelli actually has real information about the era so I’m saving it to remember.

Photos from the production of Farinelli


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The cast at the end

Laurence Gobbo (Tim Samuels), who transitions from being Shylock’s to Lorenzo’s servant — the world as dark masquerade seen in this facial make-up

Dear all,

This is the third HD film of a production of the RSC Shakespeare company that I’ve seen at the Folger Shakespeare library theater. Their Love’s Labor’s Lost was excellent as one of the first genuine attempts I’ve seen to present the play’s content seriously, but when it came to the play within a play, their concept couldn’t take in the humor or irony; unexpectedly their Love’s Labor’s Won (a retitled Much Ado About Nothing) was a disappointment: I had watched a Future Learn which focused on this production and it lead me to think it must be marvelous: it was very good but its dark or pessimistic interpretation was unable to make sense of the play’s supposed happy ending. Still both productions persuaded me that at every opportunity where a film of a live production (HD screening or encore) existed within my reach, I should go.

I am now convinced the latest phase of the RSC company is as deeply rewarding as any phase that has gone before it. For the very first time in all the productions of The Merchant of Venice that I’ve seen, in this one directed by Polly Findlay, the character of Antonio and his relationship to Bassanio makes sense. As the play opens, Antonio (Jamie Ballard) is on stage in a deep depression: the cause emerges as his love for Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) who loves Antonio in return but longs to marry Portia (Patsy Ferran), a wealthy beautiful Venetian — because Bassanio is capable of bisexuality, because he finds her attractive and compelling and to get her money. It is the deep betrayal of Antonio that this means that causes Antonio’s melancholy. Nonetheless, because he is an abject lonely man in his heart, he agrees to the bond with Shylock in order to supply Bassanio with the wherewithal to woo the rich lady of Belmont. The words of the last act which indicate intense quarreling as well as the poeticisms of heterosexual romance at the opening suddenly made ironic sense. At the close of the play Bassanio must go off to bed with his wife, and leave Antonio alone again.


The stage was a wall and floor made of golden metallic substance, all smooth and glittering. All the characters who are active in choosing their fate (servants or hangers-on like Gratiano imitate) are out for money every time. Lorenzo (James Corrigan) wants Jessica (Scarlett Brooks) for her body but were the money not here he’d not be seeking to elope with her. She has to tell him about (Shakespeare’s words are there) the jewels, the casket and money to come to excite him to act. It’s clear from words that she is regarded as inferior. The production added an enactment which made Jessica feel bad that she had deserted her father (Makram J. Khoury) and was the abject person subject to Lorenzo as we see them exit the stage.

Shylock (Makram J. Khoury)

Those (Portia in disguise) appealing to him

The production put the anti-semitism of the text in your face. Makram J. Khoury looked like a caricature of a Jew, though what was brought out was that despite Shakespeare’s clear empathy for the man, Shakespeare’s presentation of the Christians as just as mean and amoral, greedy, hard as Shylock. This the first production I’ve seen that brought out how Shylock points out to the Duke were he to ask the Venetians to treat their slaves humanely they would laugh or just ignore him. Nonetheless, this Jewish man is a hate-filled figure; he says bitingly, bitterly of Antonio that Antonio is himself getting money by his trading and why should he the Jew not do likewise where he can, and says it seethingly. Shylock’s reaction to Antonio who openly despises and actually spits on his face (which the actor does twice!), is natural but this sort of human reaction is rarely shown so clearly. We see humanity as it is, the thing in itself on both sides. Still the Christians seem more forgiving: they have one another to comfort them. Shylock had only Jessica and she fled; Tubal (Gwilym Lloyd) is a confidant but there is little emotional relation between them felt and Tubal is not there for very long.

The scene where Antonio bares his chest to be cut up functions as a trope of torture. Shylock prepares to torture Antonio before our very eyes.

The production add an enactments (gesture as well as Shakespeare’s words) which insisted on Shylock’s hurt at the loss of this daughter and her betrayal of him (as well as the loss of the ducats and jewels), but the bare cruelty and greed of the man was undeniable. The play’s text exposes him when he turns to ask for his money when he can’t have his pound of flesh without blood. When it is required of him by Antonio that in return from keeping one-half of his money until he dies and it goes to Lorenzo, he become a Christian, he grovels. This is the play. In the 21st century the gov’t of Israel has acted according to Shakespeare’s conception of how an ostracized alienated person, a Jew, would act.

Lorenzo and the (rightly) insecure Jessica

The money angle of the play is important. In Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell tells Henry Percy, the Earl of Northumberland, the world is not run from war sites or by swords but from Antwerp and by money transactions of bankers. In his mesmerizing series of lectures for Future Learn on Shakespeare’s plays, Jonathan Bate included a long section on the function of interest (usury) in making the Renaissance happen and talked of money and usury and Venice in his comments on this play. Love & friendship and money are the focuses of this play.

I was not surprized to hear a number of audience members talking during the intermission as if in shock; and while the theater was packed as the film began, after the intermission, sufficient numbers of people had left to reconfigure the way people were seated so new people were sitting up front (where I was). Those who left couldn’t take it, didn’t like it? Not only was the Shylock too hard, but perhaps when Antonio and Bassanio kissed so passionately and made it clear they were the true lovers, audience members were also turned off. None of Shakespeare’s words were changed and I heard no one say that what was being shown was not in the play. I love when art is hard and candid in this way, shows you what you are or could be, shows what people hide because of socially acceptable pious norms. Were the production not equally hard on the Christians, I would castigate it, but it is as hard on them. I have not mentioned that Gobbo impregnates Portia’s servant (as Shakespeare’s words imply) but does not want to marry her – she has no money. The first two suitors, Morocco (Ken Nwosu) and Aragon (Brian Protheroe) are jackasses. The male cronies of Antonio and Bassanio unscrupulous roughs. Gratiano (Ken Nwosu again) is funny because he is so unguarded.

The RSC has turned The Merchant of Venice into the unsentimental tragedy it is, and demonstrated to me why 18th and 19th century critics and readers kept saying how real much real human nature Shakespeare’s plays enact. They came out on stage as a group but they did not (as is so common nowadays) break into a happy dance at the end. Even enactments of the tragedies sometimes end this way. I was glad they did not.

People seem to want to forget that Shakespeare’s plays are plays meant to be read. Reading plays have existed since there were written down plays and exist still. The text also offers profound meditative material on law, justice, mercy, pardon (forgiveness) and (just as important) learning to turn a blind eye on what’s in front of you in order to carry on. Patsy Ferran carries or pulls off this difficult content superbly well. The business of “the ring” at the end of the play shows Portia that Antonio is Bassanio’s preferred love. It inheres especially of course in her fully-emotive and eloquent treatment of the several phases of Portia’s appeal to Shylock (the famous speech about mercy). When he will not yield, she turns on him to show him how words may be interpreted against him so easily. Never depend on your bond, your contract. Who has the hegemonic powe is the person who wins out in public life — public life shapes the private. And as a Christian male (who hides his homosexuality from everyone but Bassanio) it’s Antonio who holds public trumps. The point of the first scene where Antonio refuses to say why he is sad is to show him hiding what he knows is the reason for his sadness from his male buddies. He does not win in private life, but then Shylock does not either. I’ve wondered before if the title refers to both Antonio and Shylock, making them parallel. Both outsiders.

The Merchant of Venice Royal Shakespeare Company 2015 handout ....
Portia and Nerissa — note how intwined they are, how they need one another’s support

Perhaps the production sought to disquiet and disturb complacencies beyond what is in Shakespeare’s text. The actress playing Nerissa, Portia’s servant, Rina Mahoney has had one of her arms amputated or it was lost in some dreadful accident above the elbow. She did not wear a prosthetic so that again and again the audience was confronted with the stub of an arm. Mahoney is small in comparison to Nwosu (Gratiano) and he swung her around in ways that suggested when out of sight of Portia, Nerissa would not be able to enact an imitation of Portia’s power. Samuels’ behavior as Gobbo put me in mind of Roy Kinnear as the bizarrely heartless theatrical Common Man in Robert Bolt’s play of A Man for all Seasons (as filmed in the Charleton Heston production).

There is a new style of acting or delivery of Shakespeare’s lines afoot in all 3 productions I’ve seen: at top speed which imitates psychological reality and yet each word or phrase super-clearly heard so as to try to reach 21st century audiences who may never have read any Shakespeare play; there are editions of Shakespeare’s plays for students where on one side is Shakespeare’s English and the other a modern paraphrase, as if this were a dual-language text. I find this style acceptable to working well — though it must be said the mode relies on artifice of delivery which takes away from in-depth psychological presences. The only actor performing in the old style somehow more naturalistic way (stylized but differently, in this case wittily) was Protheroe, an older man playing Aragon, the second suitor who chooses the silver casket. Protheroe spoke more slowly, and it was a sort of relief to have this less demanding kind of projection.

This is a courageous and intelligent production of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, demonstrating again (as if we needed to be taught this) that William Shakespeare’s almost preternatural intelligence left us plays audiences and readers have not yet been able to come to terms with. The RSC is trying to lead the way.


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Poster for Happy Few The Winter’s Tale

Dear friends and readers,

I went for a third year to a We Happy Few production: 3 years ago they managed to present a remarkable take on Hamlet in 90 minutes; last year a sophisticated modern-feeling Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. I can’t say that this year’s The Winter’s Tale is memorable for a uniquely perceptive view of the play. The play’s two parts (as cut), joyfully lightly transgressive comedy (Act 4 in Shakespeare) sandwiched between wild (Acts 1 & 2) tragedy and redemptive (Act 5) fairy tale does not leave a lot of room for psychological nuance (see Morgan Halvorsen’s review). Hannah Todd’s director’s notes in the pamphlet that serves a ticket and program showed she only came up with the idea this play is faery tale material we are supposed to believe in. An opportunity lost.

Still, they held the audience’s attention — it was a small area, they were very close to us, and they cleverly handed people sitting in the first seats props to make us all part of play. I held a tambourine for a while. The actors all had strong moments, but Nathan Bennett as Leontes, Raven Bonniwell as Hermione, Katy Carkuff as Paulina, Kerry McGee as Autolyclus (trying hard to be amoral but since she was also Perdita, not quite distinguishing the role clearly), and Kiernan McGowen Antigonus, with William Vaughn as Clown and Florizel provided the most effective ones.

MGowan as Antigonus having brought the baby in a basket to a far away seashore feels the coming tempest and hears the hungry bear

What was most striking was how six people jumped in and out of at least 18 different roles, but while in each maintained strongly projected full-blooded acting. They also had such minimal costumes, the same scarves and capes were whisked about doing duty for several garments in tandem. Laughter came easier, and the actors played for laughs where they could; it therefore seemed more spontaneous than pity, which we were not given much time for. If you were listening to what Leontes and Polixenes threatened to do to others at the turn of a coin, and remembered that monarchs could torture, kill, starve, and make a life excruciating if they pleased and sometimes did so in Shakespeare’s period, there was more to the content than manipulative metamorphorsis. There is real terror in Shakespeare’s words, real anguish and now and again this came out, especially I think from Raven Bonniwell as Hermione.

Bonnwell as Juliet in the final moments of Happy Few’s Romeo and Juliet (I could not find any photos of her in this Winter’s Tale; she doubled as Camillo and there were none of her as Camillo either)

Since I’ve been reading and listening to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, I was again struck by the parallels between Henry and Leontes and Hermione and both Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, especially his sexual anxiety and distrust towards the latter precisely because she held him off (humiliatingly) and then showed she knew sexual acts that he could not believe a virgin would figure out herself. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is a bold portrait of the tyrant Tudor in old age and nowadays I’m thinking that instead of placing WT with the dramatic romances from Greek stories, chronicles, and poetry (Pericles, Cymbeline, The Tempest), we ought to see it done as a pair with Henry VIII the second half. Have the same actor play Leontes and Henry, the same Hermione and Catherine.

Nathaniel Bennett in one of Leontes’s wild murderous moods

Unfortunately, there is only one performance left but (sadly) unlike the previous two years, it seemed half the seats were empty. In the previous years, there was not one empty seat both times. I felt the actors felt this lack of people, especially given how hard they were working to make too few props and costumes go very far. So if you read this tonight and live in the DC area, consider this one. Unlike too many of this year’s events, it is located in a place in the city close to a Metro stop so you really can get there by public transportation and on foot! There was no hope of my reaching Gallaudet College I now know. I would have seen the Guillotine Theater do an adaptation of Middleton’s Second Maiden’s Tragedy as Cold as Death, but (like It’s What We Do A Play about the Occupation), it appears to have been under-rehearsed.

The move of the festival to real fringe areas of DC, with venues where there is no nearby Metro stop or frequent bus, and more scattered hurts the festival feel that a center with people selling tickets, socializing, late night cabarets gives. Maybe for those going to the cabarets and musical events on Florida Avenue (in the Brookland area of DC) the experience is as good

Fringe Preview Party at the Baldacchino Tent 6/28/2013 Capital Fringe Festival 2013
Two years ago (2013) on a preview party was held in Baldacchino Tent on H Street

Two of the plays I went to and a third and fourth I couldn’t manage but was told about as awkwardly performed by a friend (Shakespeare’s The Life of King John, done as goofy comedy) seemed more minimally staged and costumed than previous years. In early years the venues were in condemned spaces with no air-conditioning; I hope I am wrong but this year has seemed more strapped for funds than the previous couple.

So for me ends my second year of going to the Fringe Festival on my own. I enjoyed this play and Ellouise Schoettler’s The Hello Girls.


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