Comedy of Errors.
King Lear Presented by the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre at the Charity Randall Theatre, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. April 9-26, 2008. Directed by James J. Christy. Scenic design by David P. Gordon. Costume Design by Pei-Chu Su. With Dakin Matthews (Lear), Larry John Meyers (Gloucester), David Whalen (Edgar), PaulTodaro (Edmund), Mat DeCaro (Kent), Simon Bradbury (The Fool), Dereck Walton (Burgundy, Oswald), Helena Ruoti (Goneril), Robin Walsh (Regan), Karen Baum (Cordelia), and others.
Cymbeline Presented by the Quantum Theatre in Mellon Park, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. July 31-August 24, 2008. Directed by Karla Boos. Scenic design by Tony Ferrieri. Costume design by Susan Tsu. With Mikelle Johnson (Imogen), Patrick Jordan (Pisanio, Guiderius), Rick Kemp (Lords, Belarius, Sicilius Leonatus), Joel Ripka (Lords, Dr. Cornelius, Arviragus), Mark D. Staley (Iachimo, Queen), Sam Turich (Posthumus Leonatus, Cloten), David Whalen (Cymbeline, Caius Lucius, Jupiter, Gaoler).
Pittsburgh flourished as a great American industrial city in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, suffered from postwar deindustrialization, and has become one of the rust belt's numerous shrinking cities in search of a new identity. Thanks to the culture of philanthropy and support for science and the arts established by the great industrialists, the city has been remaking itself as a center for technology, research, and the arts. Dozens of museums, libraries, and, institutes, universities, and foundations with names such as Carnegie, Frick, and Mellon provide the region with a rich cultural infrastructure. As a result, the supply of local theatrical talent and venues is great, creating a buyer's market for audiences in search of classical, contemporary, or experimental theater. At the same time, this environment has created an acute level of competition between theater companies. Rather than stage generic, traditional Shakespeare, professional companies in Pittsburgh struggle to communicate the unfamiliar elements of Shakespeare's plays and shape their productions toward specific groups, attempting to minimize the cannibalization of a limited audience base. This competition manifested itself in the 2007-8 season in a range of productions including a modernized Comedy of Errors, a postmodern King Lear, and a robotic Cymbeline. These productions distinguished themselves through their choice of materials, settings, and approaches to their texts. All three reported popular runs, and each labored both to acknowledge Pittsburgh as a site for Shakespeare and to represent effectively the on-stage violence inherent to these plays.
A non-profit resident theater in its thirty-third year, the Pittsburgh Public Theater (PPT) is one of the city's oldest functioning companies and was founded to provide high quality, varied theater to the Pittsburgh community. Appealing to as broad an audience as possible and distinguishing itself from other companies shaped the PPT's decision to stage Comedy of Errors in a modern, slapstick, cinematic fashion. Evidence of this interpretive decision was apparent upon entering the Michael Graves designed, 650-seat O'Reilly Theater, configured with a thrust stage. The house and stage lights were up, revealing a modern city streetscape. A roundabout covering the stage floor with a raised circle of pavement in the middle was pierced by a staircase descending into a subway entrance. Garish advertising, highway signs, and shop fronts surrounded the stage, establishing Ephesus as familiarly modern, urban, and commercial. In the backdrop stood The Phoenix Italian Restaurant, the C. Marlowe, Private Detective agency, and Dogberry's Hardware, which would go out of business and be replaced by Starcrossed Coffee after the interval. Road signs pointed the way to Sycorax Square, the Port of Ephesus, and Peasebottom Parkway. Dozens of billboards hung over the stage and from the theater wails advertising, among other things, Desdemona Linens, Fortin Bras and Lingerie, the Timon of Athens Diner, and the Falstaff Center for Substance Abuse. The clever signs, which delighted the playgoers, reached out to audiences in two ways. First, the modernization and the humor reassured those intimidated by Shakespeare or classical theater that the play would be accessible and enjoyable. Second, the sometimes gruesome inside jokes, such as Gloucester and Sons Opticians seemed to be aimed at playgoers familiar with Shakespeare.
The action, the violence in particular, was rendered in the style of a sound-effects-laden Warner Bros. cartoon. Every blow began with an extended wind up, the impact punctuated by a "whammo" sound effect, and once hit, the victim, hand to face, spun erratically in place. If the costumer had been able to figure out how to have the actor's nose spin around his head a la Daffy Duck, surely it would have happened. The actors were having fun with the production, employing grandiose gestures and inflated reactions. The gags were well-timed and well-rehearsed. The uncredited use of Raymond Scott's whimsical music fit perfectly with these jokes. And if laughter is an accurate measure, the matinee audience of mostly students and retirees enjoyed the production very much.
At first, the decision to communicate the farcical nature of Comedy of Errors through broad stereotypes and tropes from silent movies and animated shorts felt like a clever move. Shakespeare's audience would have understood and appreciated the play as a farce because they were familiar with Plautine conventions: the stock characters, mistaken identity, and lack of real danger. Similar to Plautus, a typical Warner Bros. animated short features stock characters and situations and humor derived from inversions such as the clever servant and foolish master or the clever prey and the foolish hunter. The modern audience recognized and enjoyed these same elements as farcical because of the cartoonish gags and pratfalls. In this regard, Scott's music was an inspired link between the two comic traditions.
As with any adaptation, however, some things are lost in the re-telling. Certain elements of Shakespeare's culture do not translate well to the modern stage and can potentially leave audiences offended or shocked. It might be the misogyny of Taming of the Shrew or the anti-Semitism of Merchant of Venice. Two general approaches tend to be used for these challenges. The first is to alter the play to reduce, redirect, disguise, or eliminate the potentially offensive elements. The second is to stage the play largely as written, allowing or forcing the audience to confront the cultural differences and decide for themselves how to react. Violence is Comedy of Errors' potentially provocative element. The beating of the two Dromii is an organic part of the play, central to the relationship between them and their masters, and to the culture of Shakespeare's Ephesus. Unlike the potential violence of Egeon's execution, the beatings occur on stage and the servants are supposed to carry the marks of that brutality. The Antipholi are frustrated and angry and they take these feelings out on their servants in a traditional class-based, patriarchal fashion that reaffirms the social structure. The play intensifies the frustration and violence until it is finally resolved. The consequent relief is all the greater because of the previous brutality and anger. Thus, if the violence is diminished, so is the resolution. In evacuating the violence of the play by rendering it cartoonish, the production drained much of the tension from the final scene. Though this approach to representing onstage violence may have flattened out the play's conclusion, it was key to the PPT's desire to attract a wide audience, especially those who might be put off by Shakespeare as boring or difficult.
The Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre (PICT) was founded in 1996 to provide high-quality, professional theater to the Pittsburgh area and to help establish conversations about contemporary political and social issues. Their 2008 King Lear was staged in the proscenium Charity Randall Theater, a space PICT has shared for the past five years with the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Theatre Arts. The stage design for King Lear contrasted well with this traditional setting. Center stage was a circular, raked platform covered in what looked like reddish rust and dirt. Lear's unadorned, high-backed, bare metal throne sat off center to stage right. Two ten-foot tall, curved rusty metal plates, looking very much like Richard Serra sculptures, served as a backdrop. Downstage right was a percussionist who provided most of the music, along with some Noh sound effects. Two ladders with spotlights flanked the performance space and were occasionally manipulated by costumed attendants. The feeling was primitive, but historically nonspecific. The metal and dirt hinted at a medieval (or earlier) setting.
The costumes and props provided something of a contrast. Most characters wore simple, Japanese-influenced robes of coarse gray or brown fabric with leather and metal belts and buckles. Some wore sandals and others were barefoot, picking up the dirt from the surface of the stage. Lear's crown was dull metal, and his throne and most of the other furniture were unfinished, rusted steel. The swords were rudimentary steel rods with simple handguards. Other elements, such as Kent's stocks, were wooden. This straightforward ahistoricism was disrupted by scattered higher tech props such as an electric lamp lowered from the flies for the trial scene and a flashlight used by Gloucester when searching for Lear. According to dramaturg Kristen L. Olson's program notes, the production eschewed a specific historical setting as a means of exploring the language and imagery of the text. The play's pun on the words mettle and metal (1.1.69) inspired the backdrop, the furniture, the swords, and the thunder-sheets used in the storm scene. Resonating beyond the play, the word also evoked steel's importance to Pittsburgh's history. The wooden elements contrasted, suggesting a less durable but more natural state of existence predating the industrial, but enduring along with it. The use of mixed materials, historical periods, and technologies was intended to suggest a cyclical sense of time. Like Lear, steel is durable but not permanent. It rusts just as the King loses his physical strength and mental prowess. Wood is linked to Kent. They share steel's reliability and toughness, but theirs is closer to nature than steel.
Although similarly pervasive, but largely unlike Comedy of Errors, the violence in King Lear was darker and graver. In keeping with the postmodern approach, the sword fights were metatheatrical, stylized, and jarring. When a blow was landed, an attendant would step up with a cup of stage blood and splash it on the victim. In the context of the postmodern approach to the play, this may have seemed like a cogent decision. But in practice, like the electric lamp and the flashlight, it consistently generated disruptive laughter from the audience. If the PPT accommodated its audience by presenting Shakespeare in a modern, recognizable form, PICT pitched its production higher, expecting its audience to be familiar with King Lear and tolerant of an unfamiliar, thought-provoking though not disjointed, postmodern collection of metatheatrical, Noh, and minimalist influences. The approach had its flaws, but the focus on Lear, Kent, and Gloucester as aging, irredeemable former leaders, linked with an idea of Pittsburgh as an aging, former industrial leader, invited the audience to think about their own role as witnesses to, and perhaps participants in, their city's decline. The ending was thus not violent as much as dark, offering little hope for the future of Lear's England, or for Pittsburgh.
Quantum Theater, founded in 1990, characterizes itself as a laboratory, its productions as experiments, and audience members as active participants. Among the company's goals is the use of unconventional spaces and approaches to link Pittsburgh with the rest of the world. Quantum's 2008 Shakespeare offering, Cymbeline was an admixture of the old and the new. Shakespeare in a city park with the ambient noise of birds and cicadas is by now a familiar summertime event, and for Cymbeline it created an appropriately sylvan atmosphere. But the production was not wholly natural. Partially funded by Seagate Technology and designed in collaboration with the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University as part of Pittsburgh's Robot 250 celebration of local history and technology, it featured several robotic effects and other incorporations of modern technology.
Arriving patrons were encouraged to give their cell phone numbers to a company member, but not told why. Before the performance began artistic director Karla Boos welcomed the audience and asked that they turn their phones to vibrate, as they would be part of the performance. The initial impression of the performance space, the rose garden of Mellon Park was of technology at its simplest. A thrust stage of unfinished plywood lead straight back between two tall cypress trees and off into the park. Two platforms split off either side of the stage and encircled the trees. With no backstage space, the trees provided two small areas hidden from the west-facing audience. The pitched seats surrounding the stage created the feeling of an amphitheater. The play began when a printer, hidden in the stage right cypress, began printing a series of words onto a long continuous roll of paper, large enough for the audience to read: water, peace, money, justice, and other abstract terms. A character pulled down the long printouts, while later in the play they were left hanging or sometimes used as props. Just as the sun dipped below the trees, the cast began walking toward the stage. Framed by the trees, faintly backlit with white costumes glowing, they approached the audience as an ethereal ensemble. Recorded fifteenth-century Italian polyphony played over the speakers, reestablishing the Renaissance context.
In her program notes, Boos characterized the production as "a feminist act" that emphasizes the "silliest aspects" of the play but is also about how "after many trials, one improves." The doubling (seven actors portrayed seventeen parts) and the female characters were the loci for these ideas. The Queen, played in semi-drag by Mark D. Staley, wore a white tunic and trousers set off by long black opera gloves and a silver hook on her right index finger. She was not just a wicked stepmother, but a camp one, tossing her shoulder-length gray hair, laughing into the back of her hand, and literally patting herself on the back for her machinations. It was little wonder that Dr. Cornelius was suspicious of her. In contrast, Imogen appeared guileless, natural, and nonplussed by her unnatural stepmother. She appeared bridal with long dark hair and a long cream dress with a cloud of lace at the right cuff. Played as a spoiled, puellile young woman with a squeaky voice, Imogen delighted the audience by jumping up and down and squirming around on the ground in response to Pisanio's description of Posthumous' departure in 1.3. This characterization was not always effective, however. The conversation in the following scene between Posthumous and his colleagues felt incongruous, if only because Imogen's behavior made the audience wonder how Posthumous could be so smitten with her and have such great faith in her loyalty. Though by the end of the play Imogen did demonstrate that she was commensurate with the challenges she faced, she never quite escaped the strong first impression of a childish young woman.
The violence was staged in a mechanical, unrealistic fashion that fit well with the play's jocular mood. Cloten was killed behind a tree and Guiderius carried his head on stage in a torn bag. Rather than blood and tissue, glowing red string lights hung from the neck. Similar lights protruded from the corpse when it was dragged out. The effect fit with the stylized violence but it also intriguingly stripped Cloten of his humanity, incongruously suggesting that he had been a cyborg. The swords were short lengths of narrow pipe and the climactic battle occurred in slow motion under red light. It was skillfully choreographed and conveyed the changes of the tide of battle as waves moving back and forth across the stage.
Not all the technology functioned as it should have, however. Not having brought a phone to the performance, I was unable to receive or reply to any of the text messages during the play. My email query to Boos about the messages was quickly answered, providing a full description. The first message was supposed to arrive at the beginning while the actors were walking toward the stage: "What do you know now that you wish you knew then?" At intermission, the audience was supposed to receive and reply to: "Tell us the name of one you lost" and "What's worth fighting for?" The answers to the first were printed out during 4.2 when Guiderius and Arviragus sang over Fidele's body. The answers to the last question were supposed to be printed by both machines during the battle (though this did not happen during the performance I saw) and Posthumous was to have pulled them down as he sorted out what had occurred.
The production worked hard to adapt Cymbeline to a simultaneously natural and technological setting. It was most effective when it emphasized the artificial, such as the doubling, the drag Queen, and the choreographed violence. The simple setting and costumes and the engaging humor prepared the audience to accept robots and cell phone messages. If PICT suggested Pittsburgh's grimy, ferrous past with a dirt stage and iron backdrop in a traditional theater, Quantum engaged its present and future by exploring the contrasts of nature and robotics in a (relatively) nontraditional park setting. Ironically, the engagement with the past was more effective and functional. The present and the future were less reliable and more mercurial.
On the one hand, with such a variety of theater companies and rich supply of talent, it is not surprising that all three productions should be so resolutely nontraditional. Yet, if these modernizations and postmodernizations are read once more against the backdrop of a city struggling with a deep pride in its industrial past and the harsh realities of its postindustrial future, the productions do work together. Rather than attempting to bring audiences to a simulated, idealized early modern past, these productions attempted to bring Shakespeare to audiences who live in a flawed and inconsistent present but have one eye toward the future.
M. G. AUNE, California University of Pennsylvania
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|Title Annotation:||'King Lear', and 'Cymbeline'|
|Article Type:||Theater review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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