Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Delightful Dalliance

Love’s Labour’s Lost has never been on my short list of favorite Shakespeare plays, or even my long list. Is it even a play? A group of silly people share what passed for clever repartee at some point, and these barely connected and thoroughly unlikely scenes are eventually wrapped up at the end with a death and a promise. Sketch, revue, entertainment. A variety show? At any rate, I’ve seen it once or twice and remained unimpressed. Until Friday, December 11th.

Last night I fought the cold wind all the way to Pace University’s Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts to see the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London touring company perform Love’s Labour’s Lost. I’d been to Schimmel once before for a film showing during the Tribeca Film Festival (Fellini’s “Spirits of the Dead” in which Terence Stamp seemed to be playing Peter O’Toole, but perhaps it was really himself in a Poe-ish sort of way).

The performance space had been transformed, replicating, to the greatest extent possible on a standard proscenium stage, the Globe. The staging gave us Shakespeare’s play as it was intended, ­ not because Shakespeare wouldn’t like what we do now, but because the sort of space used last night was what the King’s Men (the theatre company of which Shakespeare was a ‘sharer,’ actor, and playwright) had played in, the standard theatrical architecture of Elizabethan England. The stage juts out roundly, goes up to a second level, and provides hiding places in the way of trees painted on curtains, a ladder climbed behind such a “tree” to the second level, a balcony for the musicians available to do double duty (but that would be another play), and of course the balcony of the theatre itself, generally reserved for spectators (“gallery” in the real Globe), was also used by the musicians. Actors entered from any aisle in the orchestra available to them, the small balcony on the stage, and two routes from either side of the stage, a door up left, a door up right, and a double door center. And, of course, two pillars afford the actors more space to play around as well as seating areas. At the actual Globe, the pillars would have held up the roof sheltering the stage from inclement weather. The groundlings, in what would now be the orchestra, would just get soaked.
This isn’t theSchimmel – this is the real (new) Globe Theatre stage in London.

The Schimmel does not have the best acoustics, so actors turned away from my area (house right) were a bit difficult to hear. Yes, no miking. Remember that? Just actors’ actual voices. I loved it. These actors played to the entire house, left, right, and center. They even played to the balcony although no one was seated there.

So that’s the layout, which was exciting in and of itself, knowing that this was how the plays were originally seen. The old Globe was noisier, of course, without our modern rules or expectations of people actually paying attention to the play instead of socializing. Those audiences were as raucous as the performers, not to mention the nut shells crunching on the floor of the groundlings’ area. Since I’m feeling particularly dorky, here’s a sketch of the 16th Century Swan:

Actors were not celebrities then. Actually the descriptions of actors at the time were pretty rude. And, of course, all those marvelous female parts were played by boys. Some changes are definitely for the better. (Yes, I’ve seen several all-male productions, and they work brilliantly, differently, quite excitingly. Still, I do like to see women playing women.)
For more on the new Shakespeare's Globe in London and this production, go here:
For more architectural details, go here:

Back to last night and LLL, when I realized I’d never seen it done well before. The players last night did it absolutely right, full of gambols and romps, singing and dancing, live music (not as background, the music was frequently cued and stopped by the characters themselves), raunchy sight gags and routines, and just plain fun.

The story – slight. The characters – rough sketches of later ones. This is young Shakespeare, brash, bold and bawdy, trying out his verbal skills, allowing his slight characters to be transformed into people by the company of actors.

It is said that the primary romance between Berowne and Rosaline in LLL is a precursor to, or just plain practice for the later, precisely drawn, bickering lovers Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. I like to think Berowne failed the challenge offered by Rosaline at the end of LLL, and it takes years to become Benedick to Rosaline’s Beatrice. Much Ado’s characters are more sophisticated, matured by life, but do bear some resemblance to these younger, sillier creatures, so I’ll go with that theory.

By the traditional labels, this play should not be called a comedy because the lovers do not end up together at the end. Years ago my friend Matthew posited that the moment those clever, witty, sassy, courageous women in Shakespeare’s plays are married or betrothed, they shut up. They stop speaking at all, or they only speak what their husbands ordain. The ladies in LLL say “no” to the young men and therefore ­-- not betrothed and still free --­ they keep on speaking wittily. Hmmm.

Pre show, the actors and musicians milled about the theatre, chatting with the audience in the half hour prior to the curtainless start. Some of the actors carried deer – a male deer and a female deer – and played a mute puppet show implying a bit of wooing. The female deer declined, but the male deer was persistent and flattering. Little did we know that the deer were Chekhov’s gun.

In the opening of the play, four young men with nothing better to do make a vow to live together for three years, abjuring all contact with the feminine sex (and naturally making laws to punish women if they come anywhere near them during that time – including cutting out their tongues! Hmmm again.) in order to devote themselves to “study.” Berowne (delightfully if not altogether articulately played by Trystan Gravelle, with an often indecipherable accent, but a marvelous wit and soaring vocal range) is the outlier; he recognizes how absurd and impossible is the pledge required by the King of Navarre (a little dorky and a little clever, sweetly played by Philip Cumbus). Nonetheless, peer pressure wins out, and all four friends sign the pledge – the other two were physically and verbally similar, almost indistinguishable, and they would have been utterly so had I been farther away from them. Both, however, were extremely funny, so cheers to Jack Farthing’s “Dumaine” and Will Mannering’s “Longaville.” Cheers to their fabulous names as well.

That’s the set-up.

Main plot line: the imminent arrival of an embassage from the King of France led by said King’s extremely marriageable daughter, the Princess of France (sharply played by Michelle Terry). The Princess is accompanied by three ladies, Rosaline (Thomasin Rand), Katherine (Siân Robins-Grace), and Maria (Jade Anouka). By the King’s new rules, these ladies cannot enter his court, so he houses them in a field, like cattle. Naturally each of the young men falls in love with each of the women, but they must be mum on this or break their vow.

Second plot line: Don Adriano De Armado is a lilting bumbling Spaniard, hilariously played to the rafters by Paul Ready. It was his entrance that really made the production kick in for me. His body and voice bounce about uncertainly, he’s sweetly absurd, with a pose he copied from an aristocratic portrait. He’s in love with the “country wench,” Jacquenetta (a hilarious Rhiannon Oliver with a voice in sweet counterpoint to her rough character), which is also against the King’s edict – no one gets to consort with females for the three years of the King’s pledge. Meanwhile, Costard the clown (played to the vulgar hilt by Fergal McElherron) is found guilty of treason for “being with a woman” (yes, that same Jacquenetta) and is left in Armado’s custody for punishment. Armado frees Costard to deliver a love letter to Jacquenetta.

Plot lines entangled: Berowne uses Costard to send a love letter to Rosaline. Costard mis-delivers the letters. This is the catalyst for confusion on which this play resides.

It’s all terribly silly. What makes this production work is the way in which the silliness is performed. From lewd jokes, hiding in plain sight, dancing and cavorting, leaping, spying, disguises and deceptions, even hunting the stag. The ladies hunt:

and that charming deer we saw in the pre-show is the victim. Not to mention the four young men. Of course, the young men break their vows, break each other’s balls over it all, woo the young ladies, who consider them untrustworthy, having witnessed them breaking vows. Oh what a tangled web.

The spell is broken by the arrival of a messenger informing the Princess of France that her father is dead. The Princess and her entourage instruct the King and each of their wooers that a betrothal, while presently impossible, may be wrung from the ladies if the gentlemen perform certain stallion-breaking duties over the next twelve months and a day.

And then everyone dances and sings!

The costumes are period and perfect, the use of the stage – nay, the whole theatre – is engaging. At the end of the interval, during which the ladies picnicked onstage, each of the four came into the audience offering slices of fruit on metal plates. Sweet. And I do believe this is the first time I’ve laughed at Holofernes’ (Christopher Godwin) manipulation of the English and/or Latin language(s), or at the performance of the Not-Quite-Nine Worthies. Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director for Shakespeare's Globe, directed this production, and although I doubt I can pronounce it correctly, I will remember that name and go see whatever else he offers.

So what if it’s not a play. It’s a frolic, a mere dalliance, a trifle, and a delightful one.

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre of London at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts, Pace University, NYC. 11 December 2009.
~ Molly Matera, dancing off. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, December 11, 2009

This isn't your parents' Streetcar

Wednesday night we saw the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the BAM Harvey Theatre. Liv Ullman (a Norwegian) directs Australian actors in this very American play, creating a celestial evening Tennessee Williams would have swooned over. It is nothing short of brilliant. In the ladies’ room after the performance, I heard one of the ushers say that they change it up a bit every night. Unlike the Hamlet presently running on Broadway, this production is apparently not set in stone, but insists on living on the edge. No wonder it sold out long before it opened.

Cate Blanchett’s Blanche is ethereal and earthy. Not ethereal like early Kate Hepburn and not earthy like Anna Magnani. This Blanche is ethereal and earthy at the same time, in gradations, moment to moment. The voice of Blanche Dubois flows from deep modulated tones to breathy metaphor; she rumbles gruffly in lust or anger, then lightens her voice to gossamer. Her body, imprisoning her fragile spirit, is grounded on the earth whether she likes it there or not. Blanche flirts, she flaunts, she cowers and cringes, she floats, she flees.

Stanley is indeed brutish. He’s of the earth, and therefore he’s actually appealing to Blanche on one of her repressed levels – except, of course, that he’s a grown man and not a 17-year-old boy. Boys are Blanche’s weakness. Boys like and unlike her romantic and tragically deceased husband, Allan.

Look, I circled right back to celestial Cate’s Blanche. Everything about this production does that, but not in the way that “Jude Law’s Hamlet” or “Ian McKellan’s Richard III” did. No one is stepping back to let Ms. Blanchett have all the focus; they’re all not just on the mark − they’re active, right there in our faces, right there in Blanchett’s face, challenging her for the stage. Ullman fills the stage with hearty, solid, not-in-the-slightest-bit-ethereal actors from Blanchett’s home theatre company (of which she is co-Artistic Director), the Sydney Theatre Company (a.k.a. STC). And what a company it is.

“Stella for Star” is embodied by Robin McLeary. She didn’t act for a moment. She just was Stella. She’s the polar opposite to Blanche, smaller but not petite, she moves with grace but not delicacy, she thrives on the new surroundings, the brutish husband. Blanche needs to be waited on and Stella needs to wait on … someone. At the end of the play her choice is clear. She will mourn for her sister, but she will wait upon her husband.

Across the board, we do not compare any of the actors on stage for those we have associated with the roles for multiple decades. Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Kim Hunter – no matter how riveting they were (and they were), they do not haunt the stage, the theatre, the cast.

Joel Edgerton is Stanley Kowalski, a working man, and proud of it. All American. Blanche keeps referring to his “officer’s” uniform, but Stanley Kowalski was a Master Sergeant, not an officer. Sergeants take offense at being called “officers.” Blanche would have dated officers, “gentlemen.” Stella married the Master Sergeant and entered an entirely different world. Blanche’s caste system is rigid; Stella, with her husband, is all-American in her belief in a classless society. Blanche would snicker at the term and wave her fragile, graceful hands.

Joel Edgerton is rude, crude, brutish, and perfectly reasonable. The man should be able to use the sole toilet in his home when he gets home from work. I always felt that Napoleonic Code would keep me away from Louisiana for all time, but it makes common sense when Edgerton’s Stanley says it. Practically like equality of the sexes.

Mitch, as played by Tim Richards, is physically solid and psychically delicate, like the soul-mate he will doubtless remember Blanche as in his romanticized reminiscences in years to come. Mitch, who lives with his invalid mother, no longer in the first blush of youth, shy around ladies, is softer than the men in his immediate social circle. Blanche may wish to appear as the belle, the butterfly, light as a feather, but she is socially masculine in her relationships with the opposite sex. The Mitch Blanche meets, if not virginal, would only make love when in love. The Mitch she leaves behind veers toward cynicism but breaks down in tears as his and Blanche’s dreams are broken.

Tim Richards’ Mitch is solid, fit, dresses much better than the other men in his social circle, as if he wishes to be or imagines himself above it. Stanley, Mitch’s co-worker and fellow survivor of the 241str division, is at the center of that social circle. Stanley is captain of the bowling team, his home is where the poker game is, Stanley is the Alpha Male. Tennessee Williams may never have heard that term, but he wrote the epitome of the Alpha Male in Stanley Kowalski. Kudos galore to Joel Edgerton for personifying both.

As in another production of Streetcar, the opening is alive with secondary characters – in this production, Sara Zwangobami as Rosetta and Mandy McElhinney as Eunice Hubbell start the play on a high note with their raucous laughter. We don’t know what they’re laughing about, but we’re sure it’s juicy. We don't see much more of Rosetta, but Mandy's Eunice is another earthy Williams woman, living a full life in that upstairs room.

The last production I saw that started at such a high point as this one went downhill quickly. In this production, though, Cate Blanchett walks across the stage, classy, sensitive, desperate, and opens up reality to include more than one dimension. Two or three, maybe more. The woman is sheer lithe power while appearing light as a feather, fragile as an eggshell. And, she beats out every man or woman I’ve ever seen in the sheer perfection of appearing drunk on stage. I mean really drunk, fighting that losing battle to remain upright, to enunciate (and she enunciated perfectly, mind you, not a syllable lost), to keep her head level atop her neck. Blanchett was as Sisyphus toiling against the rock. The beautifully, rationally, truthfully staged scene preceding the penultimate scene of the play was terrifying because we all knew what was coming, even if this was our first Streetcar. The fencing, physical and verbal, between Stanley and Blanche is blatantly sexual. Who’s the cat, who’s the mouse? Both are drunk, unkempt, feline in their movements. You know you’re going to see someone’s bare bum eventually.

Stanley the Alpha Male takes what he wants at the moment, regretting nothing. We sit and watch helplessly, knowing Blanche should leave now, leave, go upstairs to Eunice, don’t be alone with Stanley. Just the fact that she’s in Stanley’s bedroom (not the more public, presumably ‘safer’ kitchen) when Stanley comes home begins the ugly dance that ends as fated, followed with an incredibly beautiful stage picture after the act: Stanley face down on the bed, naked but for his brown socks; Blanche sitting on the edge of the bed, her back to us, her head and shoulders hanging down, perfectly sober now, and broken. This moment appears after a fade to black, then back up, as gradual as the sunrise. The scene disappears in the same sad tempo. It is devastating.

Sound, lighting, musical choices, costumes: All clicked, were mostly seamless and potentially unnoticed. The lighting design by Nick Schlieper had the quality of a black and white film through a rain-soaked window – nothing was crisp in this un-air-conditioned New Orleans, everything was just a little soggy. Set design by Ralph Myers was all that was needed, the smidge more provided by the direction and acting in the space. The fire escape (a necessity in a Tennessee Williams play), the upstairs window, the bathroom at stage center. Osborne may have been the original ‘kitchen sink’ playwright, but Tennessee made magic with a bathroom. Happily we do not see Blanche bathing not ten feet from the audience and buck naked. We only saw Stanley in that tub on poker night, given a cold shower by his buddies before the infamous scene of Stanley crying “Stella!” toward that upstairs window where we see a silhouette on the shade. Kazan and those who came after him made that scene about Stanley. But Wednesday night the scene, like the rest of this production, was not about Stanley. The figure we see on the shade is not Stella. It is a sagging Blanche. Her silhouette is more emotive than most actors’ faces.

And oh my, that young man. Any woman who’s ever taken an acting class (OK, any woman of my generation) has tried to do that scene between Blanche and the young man collecting for the newspaper. Wednesday night, for the first time, I saw Blanche’s dead husband Allan, not in the boy, but in Blanche. He was in the room of Blanche’s mind, and I was an eavesdropping peeping Tom, and I am ashamed. I’ve never seen that scene as beautifully and heartbreakingly rendered.

I hear tell that a certain New York magazine complained that Liv Ullman’s production cut the closing line about “7-card stud.” Semi-purist as I am, I so do not care. That line was Stanley’s story. This production belonged to Blanche. I want to be unable to speak at the end of this play. I want my breathing to be affected, I want to be unable to hoot or holler or even cry ‘Brava.” The final scene closed on Blanche going to her next visit, not on Stanley. This production was Blanche’s story. The light focuses on her face in her view of her world, and the moon, then softens to darkness.

Cate Blanchett is Artistic Director with Andrew Upton of the Sydney theatre Company. Helluva company. Every performance was sterling. There were no echoes of some company who appear to have sent their second string to Brooklyn. Each character was fully realized and would have made Tennessee weep for joy. He wrote poetry as prose and waits for actors to understand that. Everyone in the STC got it, and gifted it to us. Thank you.

[I’m only slightly bothered that a bunch of Aussies totally entered into and inhabited and embodied what I have always considered uniquely American characters in a play by a uniquely American playwright. Olivier tried it but failed. These actors that no one in the U.S. has ever heard of (besides, Blanchett, and even she is not as much a ‘star’ to American audiences as, say, Jennifer Love Hewitt) have accomplished what many an American actor has not. It’s kind of embarrassing, from the American POV. From an audience POV, however, frabjous frakking day!]

In the BAMbill (BAM’s playbill), Liv Ullman wrote a lovely “Letter to the cast, designers, and crew” (as opposed to Directors Notes that so frequently do not resemble the production they allegedly describe) in which she gave a little history (without dates) and some praise to Tennessee Williams. But there’s something lacking.

The cast and crew have bios. All of the people who created this production are there, and they deserve goodly space for their professional bios. I searched and searched looking for “Tennessee, for “Williams.” Nothing. The playwright did not rate a bio? So that’s the flaw in this production: the missing bio of the brilliant tragic dramatic funny melodramatic playwright, the man who created the greatest women in the American theatre of his generation and probably many more. I am appalled. Tennessee Williams graciously gave us extraordinary ordinary people, magical language, great stories. Reading Tennessee Williams' plays, I fell in love with his voice, his lyricism, his truth (which is not reflected in film versions of his plays, and often wasn’t even reflected in the performance scripts from the Broadway productions, to the shame of American society as it was – I have no doubt rightly – understood and interpreted by Elia Kazan). Give the man a bio.

That’s my negative. Not the production. A post-production issue. As for the play, I’d say, “Swim the East River to BAM” to see this if I didn’t know it was sold out. Instead, find out what city they play next and go there.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, Directed by Liv Ullman, from the Sydney Theatre Company to BAM, Wednesday December 9, 2009.

~ Molly Matera, signing off. Thanks for stopping by.