Paradoxical performances of Shakespeare.
Presented by The Public Theater at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, New York, New York. August 23-September 9, 2007. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. Set Design by Eugene Lee. Costumes by Ann Hould-Ward. Lighting by Michael Chybowski. Music by Dan Moses Schreier. Sound by Acme Sound Partners. Choreography by David Neumann. With Daniel Orsekes (Theseus), Opal Alladin (Hippolyta), George Morfogen (Egeus), Mireille Enos (Hermia), Elliot Villar (Demetrius), Austin Lysy (Lysander), Martha Plimpton (Helena), Tim Blake Nelson (Peter Quince), Jay O. Sanders (Nick Bottom), Jesse Tyler Ferguson (Francis Flute), Ken Cheeseman (Robin Straveling), Jason Antoon (Tom Snout), Keith Randolph Smith (Snug), Jon Michael Hill (Puck), Chelsea Bacon (First Fairy), Keith David (Oberon) Laila Robins (Titania), Herb Foster (Philostrate), and others.
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, New York, New York. December 2, 2007-January 6, 2008. Directed by Mark Lamos. Set by Michael Yeargan. Costumes by Jess Goldstein. Lighting by Brian MacDevitt. Original Music by Mel Marvin. Sound by Tony Smolenski IV and Walter Trarbach. With John Cullum (Cymbeline), Martha Plimpton (Princess Imogen), Gordana Rashovich (Ghost of Posthumus' Mother), Phylicia Rashad (Queen), Adam Dannheisser (Cloten), Michael Cerveris (Posthumous),John Pankow (Pisanio), Herb Foster (Cornefius, Ghost of Posthumus' Father), Daniel Oreskes (Philario, Jupiter),Jonathon Cake (Iachimo), Ezra Knight (Caius Lucius), Michael W. Howell (Philarmonus the Soothsayer), Paul O'Brien (Belarius), David Furr (Guiderius), Gregory Wooddell (Arviragus), and others.
Antony and Cleopatra
Presented by Theatre for a New Audience at The Duke on 42nd Street, New York, New York. April 3-May 2, 2008. Directed by Darko Tresnjak. Set by Alexander Dodge. Costumes by Linda Cho. Lighting by York Kennedy. Sound by Jane Shaw. Choreography by Peggy Hickey. Fight Direction by Rick Sordelet. With Marton Csokas (Antony), Jeffrey Carlson (Octavius Caesar), George Morfogen (Lepidus, Old Soldier), John Douglas Thompson (Enobarbus), Randy Harrison (Eros), Matthew Schneck (Dercetas, Menecrates), Gregory Derelian (Canidius, Dolobella, Varrius), James Knight (Scarus, Pompey), Grant Goodman (Agrippa), Nathan Blew (Maecenas), Christian Rummel (Thidias, Menas), Lisa Velten Smith (Octavia), Laila Robins (Cleopatra), Michael Rogers (Alexas), Christen Simon (Charmian, Dancer), Christine Corpuz (Iras, Dancer), Ryan Quinn (Diomedes, Dancer), and Erik Singer (Soothsayer, Mardian, Euphronius).
Presented by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel, Garrison, New York. June 12-August 18, 2007. Directed by Terrence O'Brien. Lighting by Dan Scully. Costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti. Sound by Bo Bell. Fight Choreography by Chris Edwards. Choreography by Lisa Rinehart. With Chris Edwards (King Richard III), Noel Velez (Duke of Clarence, Earl of Richmond), Paul Bates (Brackenbury, Stanley), Richard Ercole (Lord Hastings), Joey Parsons (Lady Anne, Queen Margaret), Clark Carmichael (Lord Rivers, Sir James Tyrrel, Bishop of Ely), Tom Hinman (Lord Grey),Julie Fain Lawrence (Queen Elizabeth), Ricardo Vazquez (Marquess of Dorset, Ghost of Clarence), Stephen Paul Johnson (Duke of Buckingham), Michael Borrelli (Sir William Catesby), Nance Williamson (Queen Margaret, Duchess of York), Wesley Mann (King Edward IV, Archbishop of York, Lord Mayor of London, Earl of Oxford), and others.
I attended performances at several popular Shakespearean venues in the New York area last year with no particular agenda in mind other than to get some free tickets, hoping that in the process of enjoying myself the shows would eventually cohere around a theme worthy of exposition. What I discovered was something of a paradox. The productions I saw were as advanced in their theatrical sophistication as they were regressive in their tacit attitudes towards race and gender.
The New York Shakespeare Festival's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park was an entertaining romp through Shakespeare's most popular summertime play. There were no deep messages to be unearthed, no questing for the dark heart of comedy, just polished acting, clear blocking, smart stagecraft and design, and clever physical comedy. In short, it was everything a general theatre-going audience would expect in a production of free, public Shakespeare: a fun, uplifting, well performed, perfectly pitched comedy that made key, if unsurprising, thematic and dramatic connections.
The set's focal point was a blighted Hawthorne, the native British tree around which much fairy lore has grown. The lighting lent the Hawthorne different personas throughout the production, and, especially in the scenes where we found ourselves in the realm of the fairies, was hauntingly beautiful as it shimmered in artificial moonlight while the real thing rose in the sky behind the Delacorte stage. The cradle of the tree served as Titania's bower where the fairies, played by children, sang her to sleep on the eve of her awakening to find herself "enamored of an ass." She and Bottom cuddled together on one of the tree's stout branches. After intermission the bower was transformed into Oberon's throne, for he now had the upper hand in their power struggle. At play's end, a fresh green tree rose from a trap door in the stage, displacing the dead Hawthorne, to symbolize the regeneration brought about by the magic elixir of four days steeped in night. Throughout the play Puck, dressed as a magician with a satin cape, came and went from a similar trapdoor, allying him with the spirits of the underworld, and linking him to the natural forces of renewal, a connection that indicates one of the play's central questions, that of the relationship between the supernatural and natural realms.
The play's senior couples, Hippolyta and Theseus and Titania and Oberon are often double cast in order to point to their thematic parallels. Here these parallels were emphasized by coupling a black Hippolyta (Opal Alladin) with a white Theseus (Daniel Oreskes), and inverting the color mix for their supernatural counterparts: the land of the fairies was ruled by a white Titania (Laila Robins) and a black Oberon (Keith David). Hippolyta began the play garbed as an exotic, African queen, but by the time we saw her again with Theseus to hear the "music of the hounds," she appeared to have been tamed, for she had traded her colorful flowing robes for a corseted and bustled tan hunting dress and feathered cap. The two pairs of lovers were also dressed like Victorians, a costume choice so frequently made with this particular play that it has become commonplace, perhaps even an expectation on the part of most audiences. The young women were confections of pastel bustles, bloomers, and bonnets--Hermia in pink and Helena in blue--while the men were nattily dressed in pale trousers, white shirts, suspenders, plaid vests and topcoats with long tails, and tall top hats. These abundant layers of clothing became the medium for lively comedy in the woods. As the couples wrestled with one another, first outer skirts, then bustles, then petticoats, bonnets, and ribbons came off in the startled men's hands. The men similarly removed their own layers of clothes in order to accommodate themselves to the harsh conditions of the wood. Eventually they were left standing in rolled up shirt sleeves and trousers, while their partners had been uncovered down to their bloomers and bustiers. In a comic touch that elicited raucous laughter from the mosquito-plagued audience, the young lovers conspicuously swatted at their arms and legs. Like the real moon rising behind the artificial one, this was a gentle and humorous reminder that we were all participants in the dream.
Egeus was dressed like a Greek Orthodox priest, a choice that made an interesting contrast to the trinity formed by Oberon, Titania, and the baby at the end of the play. Since the Egeus of Shakespeare's text is an aristocratic father rather than a prelate, this detail was laden with implied criticism of orthodox religion in a play in which redemption and forgiveness are brought about by the release of human urges under the watchful eyes of benevolent fairies. The costumes for Oberon and Puck echoed those of Theseus, Demetrius and Lysander, except their suits were made of deep purple velvet with tails trimmed in silver. Their top hats were also shiny and dark. Titania's garments were a cornucopia of silks and stockings and gold embroidered robes appropriate for a Victorian Queen of Fairyland. In shades of brown with bowler hats and workmen's aprons, the Rude Mechanicals looked as earthy as their comic banter. Their scenes were a highlight of the show, exploring not only the exuberance and power of acting, but also the hard work and humility. "Wall" wore a toga with bricks painted on it, and sighed with boredom as he awaited the star-crossed lovers. There were numerous funny gags, including a mechanical dog that accidentally was crushed by Pyramus upon his entrance. At the end of the play, Thisbe raised her arms to bid her audience "Adieu," forgetting that she still had the sword in her hand, and it went clanking to the ground, startling and embarrassing her.
All of the performances were strong, but a few stand out. Martha Plimpton was a wonderfully outraged Helena. She was outraged when humiliating herself, and outraged when she thought Demetrius and Lysander were humiliating her by pretending to desire her. Laila Robins was rapturous fun as Titania. With her cascade of gorgeous red hair tumbling down, she was the embodiment of uninhibited passion when Oberon set her up to become "enamored of an ass." She was aggressive--she took off her clothes clown to her bloomers and bustier; operatic--she sang; and playful--she danced with Bottom, put him in the baby carriage, and pushed him around. Then she acted like a barfly, laughing at everything he said, however inane. In contrast to Helena and Hermia, whose clothing was inadvertently removed by Lysander and Demetrius as they wrangled in the woods, Titania removed her own clothing as she courted Bottom. These comic gags were adept counterpoints, for Titania's strip tease corresponded to the repressed, natural urges of the young girls who are encased by corsets and social mores. Keith David found depths of feeling in Oberon. When he said he pitied Titantia, as he looked at her suspended in the throes of his trickery, his voice expressed shades of remorse, as well as compassion and love. This nexus of feeling was repeated in Theseus's response to the players' performance. In contrast to his aristocratic remove at the beginning of the play, he now took an active role in guiding the mood of his court to a generous reception of the players' performance, reminding us that we were all part of the community of the performance, actors and audience alike.
At the conclusion of the Rude Mechanicals' performance, Bottom crowned Hippolyta with the laurel wreath he acquired in fairyland, thus indicating a physical synthesis of realms that were divided at the beginning of the play. At this signal, the fairies reappeared. Puck sang from the tree as the child faeries circled the stage in white capes honoring Titania and Oberon who were also in white. To the lively, folksy beat of Klezmer music, a green tree emerged from the stage, in front of which Titania, Oberon, and the child formed a trinity. Oberon gave his peace to the audience before turning to Puck, who sang a musical version of "If these shadows have offended," which ended with a hymn sung by the entire cast, and in which the children's voices figured prominently. As it should be, it was a perfectly dreamlike entertainment for a midsummer's eve.
Under Mark Lamos' direction, Cymbeline became a dignified exploration of the capacity of human beings for treachery, betrayal, forgiveness, and atonement. This production was more serious, less sprightly than Theatre for a New Audience's 2000 rendition and Declan Donellan's Production of 2006. The tragic elements were lofty rather than melodramatic while the comic elements were moments of respite rather than humor.
The set was minimal yet sophisticated. An indigo silk backdrop inside an ornate, gilt frame supported enormous baroque screens that formed an intricate series of frames and doors to facilitate entrances and exits and frame the action. With the skillful use of lighting and scrims, the backdrop changed color to set the mood for the scene, becoming blood red during the wicked queen's machinations with the physician, and transforming into the Milky Way, complete with stars and frescoes of bodies of constellations as Imogen ponders traveling to Medway in search of her husband. Trapdoors in the stage enabled Iachimo to come and go like the devil he is. In all, the design of the show was a brilliant transformation of key aspects of what we know about original Shakespearean staging.
The blend of costume styles leant an appropriately mythic and Renaissance aura to Cymbeline's court, suggesting the mix of costumes used in Shakespeare's day. The Romans were attired in armor that made them look like ancient Romans, while the British, with their horned helmets, looked like Vikings. At various times the men switched to Renaissance style costumes, with jerkins and vest, sans tights and codpieces, which were replaced by loose leggings. All of them sported long hair, making them look a bit like Celts. Iachimo's costume was especially gorgeous. The women graced the stage in beautifully embroidered waisted gowns with wide skirts that swished dramatically as they moved. The two choruses looked North African in their turbans and long white tunics under rustically woven robes. Belarius and the two princes were, of course, dressed like rustics in coarsely woven brown cloth. Cymbeline was regal in a deep wine and brown velvet fur-lined coat.
The play opened with grand ceremony in apparent homage to the RSC production of King Lear. As mournful music thrummed, mist rose above the people of the court who lay prostrate, awaiting Cymbeline's entrance. As in King Lear, we were treated to a dumb show, which in this case enacted the opening exposition by the two gentlemen. Martha Plimpton as Imogen appeared in a sweeping red gown, Posthumous was in purple, while Cloten wore green over purple (perhaps suggesting envious impulses overtaking his royal ones).
Lavish costumes, a magnificent set, and a throbbing soundtrack did not magnify performances that were unable to fill the Vivian Beaumont Theatre's cavernous space, despite, or perhaps because, they were so obviously miked. Martha Plimpton seemed to be stuck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, for her Imogen seemed strangely like her Helena, except in this production it wasn't funny--or moving. Her performance was flat and disconnected. As Charles Isherwood put it in a line I wish were mine, "she always sounds admirably Shakespearean, but only intermittently human" (New York Times, 3 December 2007). Posthumous was similarly one-dimensional. Michael Cerveris was unable to manifest the dark aspects of this uxorious and misogynistic husband. As Linda Woodbridge observed long ago, the stage misogynist and the slanderer are a team; they work together against the virtuous women in Renaissance plays (Women and the English Renaissance, 275-99). In Shakespeare's text, Posthumous, the misogynistic husband, and Iachimo the slanderer both bring about Imogen's predicament. But in this production Iachimo was made to bear the weight of the blame. In many respects Jonathan Cake played the stereotypical lothario, but with a twist. In the closet scene his admiration of Imogen was tender and awestruck rather than lascivious. His reaction suggested that her virtue had the power of conversion, like Marina's in Pericles. Upon feeling this pang as he looked on her, he initially had to force himself to continue with his plot until he was once again caught up in the game of it. This subtle interpretation nicely foreshadowed his later confession and penance. The result was that this Iachimo came off much more sympathetically than Posthumous, for Cerveris seemed reluctant to take on the character's necessary darkness. Neither Posthumous nor Cymbeline had enough heat. The imperious king lacked gravitas and range, and seemed rather worn out by it all. While Cymbeline seemed enervated, Phylicia Rashad was every bit the conniving, wicked queen.
Several scenes were beautifully staged. The scene in which Iachimo and Posthumous make their bet was set in a Turkish bath. As the bare-chested men postured in the steam, there was an erotic, narcissistic undertone to their agreement to test Imogen's virtue. Yet again, it was the staging rather than the acting that implied the sinister alignment between the two men.
The battle scene between the Romans and Brits was executed with imagination. In a repetition of the way in which the dumb show was staged, the two gentlemen narrated, accompanied by a bass chord that throbbed with tension and anticipation. The two armies moved in slow-motion upstage along the dark backdrop while Posthumous and Iachimo engaged downstage center.
And then there were the enormous, frightening ghosts of Posthumous' parents. Resembling something out of Grimm's Fairy tales or a nightmare, they looked like distorted puppets with tragic masks. Another awe-inspiring stage effect was Jupiter's descent on a huge brass eagle. The audience was delighted with these spectacles, laughing with pleasure as each revelation piled up during the final, recognition scene, which played out against a backdrop of colorful, cottony clouds. Thankfully, there was real chemistry between Posthumous and Imogen during their reconciliation, and even I was inclined to forgive them. The play ended with Iachimo apart on the stair as the rest of the cast knelt in a circle holding hands, their reconciliation accompanied by the familiar sound of a throbbing chord.
Admittedly, the Vivian Beaumont is an enormous space whose acoustics were designed for microphones. But the problem with using microphones for classical plays is that they encourage actors, especially the ones that Lincoln Center favors--T.V, and film stars--to perform with their heads severed from their bodies. (I'm reminded of Helen Hunt's excruciatingly bad performance in Lincoln Center's Twelfth Night, hard-on-the-heels of her academy award for As Good as it Gets and shortly after the ending of her hit T.V. series). A microphone tempts you to cheat with Shakespeare, because you don't have to use your entire body to project an emotion. You can shade the words in a verisimilitude of passion, and force your body to that conceit, so that you are almost convincing, but you don't have to be connected to the language, body and soul. The result is a performance, like this one, that can be heard, but lacks emotional truth.
There were several moments I appreciated in this production, and the ambition and magnitude of its spectacle and movie-like sound effects could only be carried off by a seasoned director like Mark Lamos. But I disliked the formula that seems to be characteristic of Lincoln Center productions because it provides too many supports for sub-par performances. And I keep mulling over Ian McKellen's remark that "directors can do worse than devise their productions with a clarity which will engage a bright fourteen year old rather than trying to titillate those who know the plays backward" (Interview published with BAM press release for King Lear). I think the terms of his assertion are exaggerated and depend upon a false opposition. What if the productions engage bright young people new to Shakespearean performance by means of titillation? Whatever the case, the formula worked for the undergraduate I took with me as a way to celebrate her completion of a successful honors thesis on Shakespeare. She liked it. The clarity of direction, together with the striking set design, sumptuous costumes, incessant sound effects, and recognizable actors made the evening one that she will remember. Yet, I wonder how much more memorable her first encounter with live Shakespeare might have been if it had demanded a more complex response from the audience while at the same time requiring actors to be rooted in their bodies instead of relying on external props.
Finally, the casting choices nettled me, and once I started thinking about it, I realized that the casting choices of A Midsummer Night's Dream bothered me for the same reason. In both productions nearly all of the roles in which actors of color were cast are in Shakespeare's text associated with an otherness that has historically been associated with people of color: magic powers, wicked potions, a special alignment with the natural and supernatural realms. In Midsummer Night's Dream actors of color played Oberon, Hippolyta, and Puck, and in Cymbeline they played the wicked queen, the Roman commander, and the soothsayer. I'm divided as to whether or not I think it's a sign of progress that none of the local reviews of these productions noticed these casting choices. I noticed, and, I think it's important to point them out, not only because we are presently in the midst of a political campaign in which race has taken center stage, but also because I agree with Celia R. Daileader's argument that "no one involved in the visual aspect of theatre can afford to be 'blind' to anything" ("The Cleopatra Complex," in Colorblind, ed. Ayanna Thompson, 214).
The Public Theater has a proud history of paving the way for actors of color. As Ayanna Thompson explains in the introduction to her edited collection, Colorblind, when Joseph Papp started the Festival in 1955 "colorblind casting was part of his naturalistic approach" (5). It promoted his belief that "Shakespeare's language became natural and living in the mouths of people of color" (5). In the first twenty years of the Festival, this approach gave an impressive array of actors their start: "Gloria Foster, Ruby Dee, James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Browne, Raul Julia, Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington, and Michell Shay" (5). Yet, as Lisa M. Anderson argues in the same collection, colorblindness is a myth that "requires that we ignore three hundred years of history, or if not ignore them, render them meaningless" (91). As she further explains, audiences, whether consciously or not, will look for meaning in casting choices, and it is here, in "this audience practice ... that the good intentions of colorblind casting slip from the director's control, and where the use of colorblind casting can reinscribe racist images even while attempting to present a nonracist perspective" (94). I wonder as well if colorblind casting has unwittingly enabled the unconscious reinscription of race on the part of directors in that certain Shakespearean roles for certain types of productions have become tacitly marked as acceptable choices for people of color. I'm thinking specifically of productions like these, which are intended to entertain rather than enlighten large mainstream audiences. Nothing in the program notes or the semiotics of the productions suggested that the directors made conscious choices about race, but that doesn't mean that these choices were racially innocent.
More baffling with respect to this question of race was the casting of Theatre for a New Audience's Antony and Cleopatra. In its "Statement of Purpose," Theatre for a New Audience says that it seeks to manifest the "contemporary heart of the classics" in its productions by demonstrating "a reverence for language, spirit of adventure and visual boldness." To that end, each year it develops a particular theme for the season. It juxtaposes contemporary plays with the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and while it is always enlightening to see all of the plays in sequence, each production is also designed to stand on its own. Adrienne Kennedy's The Ohio State Murders, a theatrical adaptation of Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra were the productions for 2007-08 on the sweeping theme of "Africa, Europe, America: Exploring the Connections." In support of this theme, Darko Tresnjak, the director of Antony and Cleopatra, set the play in the late nineteenth century during the historic event known as "the scramble for Africa," when England and other European colonizing powers competed for economic and military control over the newly discovered continent. The Romans of Shakespeare's text thus became Brits in khaki uniforms and pith helmets. Here was a perfect opportunity to enlighten audiences with a production that drew attention to the racial implications of Shakespeare's play, extending and deepening the exploration of race presented in the first two productions of the series. Oddly, though, beyond alluding to the time period in the program notes and costumes, race was virtually ignored. Or was it? Enobarbus was played by John Douglas Thompson, one of the best classical actors working today. I have no doubt that he was cast as Enorbarbus because he was perfect for the role. That he happens to be an actor of color did not carry any racial meaning in the context of the production. Thus, the production seemed to be at odds with itself, raising the issue with its historical frame only to avoid a conscious engagement with the semiotics of race in performance.
The casting of a white Cleopatra with black attendants exemplifies this problem, for, as Celia R. Daileader shows, it is a casting pattern repeated so often in productions of Antony and Cleopatra that it has become legible as racially motivated, however unconscious it may be: "[p]roductions wherein Cleopatra's attendants are people of color both eroticize white female aristocratic decadence and expose this decadence, this sensuality, as racially parasitic" (208). There were no indications that this production was critiquing rather than participating in this phenomenon. I don't have an answer to this conundrum. But, for a start, I think it's important to examine whether or not it's possible or even desirable for Shakespearean productions of any ilk to pretend to be colorblind at this moment in time.
Despite this caveat, the production was energetic and vivid. A thrust stage in the intimate (200-seat) Duke Theatre on 42nd street contained the action, and the set design by Alexander Dodge created an illusion of infinite space and time reaching beyond the walls of the theatre. Along the upstage wall were eleven panels that opened and closed to allow for exits and entrances, and frame the action as necessary. When closed they formed a solid backdrop that magically looked like the Mediterranean itself as it reached out to an endless horizon. The panels opened to reveal a long hallway with an orange backdrop and a window running the length of it. Above the panels was an upper level that would be occupied at various times in the course of the production by the seer, Enobarus, and the old man, all of whom stood above in judgment. Other precise details included four oil lamps at each corner which descended when we were in Egypt, and a Chandelier that descended, center-stage, when we were in Rome. Over the course of the play, the Egyptian lamps varied in number depending upon the fluctuations of the ongoing power struggle--sometimes there were two and sometimes only one.
Downstage center was a rectangular spa-like pool with turquoise tiles that coordinated with the sashes on the uniforms of the Brits. The pool, like the backdrop, assumed various personas in the course of the play, accumulating symbolic meaning. Antony and Cleopatra frolicked in and fought around the pool in their many scenes. To signal the opening of the first battle scene, the seer raised his cane to the sky and then plunged it into the pool, as a toy sailboat floated pathetically in the ruffled water. During the second battle the seer stood in the pool holding the sands of time, after which a blood-spattered Antony stumbled out to wash his hands in its waters. Later, when presented with Antony's bloody sword, the agent of his suicide, Octavius washed it in the pool. Finally, after Cleopatra and her women had their joy of the worm, the Seer entered, gazed at Cleopatra, and then stepped into the pool, using his staff like an oar, transporting her barge into the afterlife.
In his review of the production, Charles Isherwood felt that, "as the defining image of the production, this seascape is oddly pacific for a story of martial conflict and scorching sex in the ancient world," and that the updating of the production to the 1880s "sap[ped] a little more of the story's legendary resonance" (New York Times, 4 April 2008, 3). I disagree. I think the set illuminated one of the play's important, if latent themes. As Frank Kermode explains in his introduction to the play in the Riverside Shakespeare, "[t]hese events are thought of as in some way predetermined, or even as providential; their outcome must be 'the time of universal peace' which Caesar prophesies." The constant image of the tranquil, indifferent sea was an ever present reminder that the events before us, however epic and tumultuous, were part of the larger, inexorable march of history. To my mind this humbling effect was all the more powerful because of the way it created a palpable sense of the expanse of time: how this particular struggle for love and empire was a variation on those that had gone before and would come after. As for the costuming of Romans in British khakis--I have already suggested that I disagree with Isherwood, who writes that they "look rather softened by the khaki uniforms, pith helmets, and pretty sky-blue sashes across their chests." I thought the costume design was effective in mapping the stereotype of a sexually repressed Victorian England onto ancient Rome, thereby contrasting it with the Orientalism of Egypt. The problem was that the Cleopatra of this production was set apart from that Orientalism. She seemed more like a British Officer's wife who was playing at being exotic by fetishizing the natives rather than being one of them. Thus the problem wasn't really with the costumes per se, for they were visually meaningful as well as practical: the pants could be rolled up, the shirts unbuttoned and adorned with turquoise necklaces, the boots removed, showing how Antony's army in Egypt was gradually "going native." Clever details communicated important character differences and power relationships: Anthony's black boots rose only to mid-calf, while both Cleopatra and Octavius wore much taller boots that reached their knees. While Cleopatra's boots were appropriately sexy, lace-up affairs, Octavius's were riding boots--a trenchant detail taken from the Renaissance commonplace that a skilled horseman is an effective ruler. Laila Robins looked great in her tight jodhpurs, unbuttoned white shirt, and tall boots, but it was an odd choice to dress Cleopatra like a Brit rather than an Egyptian for the battle scenes.
Robbins is gorgeous: statuesque, svelte, pale, and of a certain age. With her tangle of long sultry dark hair she seemed, as Isherwood writes, a fit match for "the famous panegyric to Cleopatra's allure delivered by Enobarbus," but she only occasionally inhabited the role, as in her quicksilver switch from taunt to sorrow when she tells Antony at his first departure, "Sir you and I have lov'd, but that's not it / That you know well / Something it is I would--/ O, my oblivion is a very Antony" (1.3.88-90). A consistent problem was her inability to project her voice in the small theatre space. She was inaudible when speaking softly, while her rages sounded strained rather than impassioned. I had the urge to dash onto the stage and slip her a throat lozenge.
In contrast, John Douglas Thompson was magnificent as Enobarbus, he had enough voice and heart for a whole cast, rendering a performance that was perfectly-pitched. Jeffrey Carlson's Octavius initially bothered me. He kept rubbing his face and nose like a coke addict. But over the course of the production, his performance grew on me. His Octavius was a young, repressed, English aristocrat. The fidgeting was a manifestation of this young man's struggle for control over his passions. In the end I found it very effective, especially because the subtlety of his performance revealed a depth of admiration and love for Antony as he reverentially washed Antony's sword in the pool after Antony died. Caesar's youth made Antony's lack of control seem all the worse.
Marton Csokas gave us an Antony who had little of the soldier left in him, and who seemed to be susceptible to feminine charm in general rather than Cleopatra's in particular. We saw him indulge in a moment of lascivious fun with one of the party girls at the drunken celebration after the pact with Pompey, but he also showed genuine tenderness and affection in his scenes with Octavia. Here was a man who had love enough to go around. A similar moment, also lending itself to this line of interpretation, occurred early in the play, when Eros suggestively spanked Antony on the buttocks with a stick while Antony toyed with the miniature sailboat in the pool. This Antony seemed solely responsible for his lust; he didn't need Cleopatra to set him on. Thus, in a telling twist, he impregnated both Octavia and Cleopatra within a short span of stage time: Cleopatra was pregnant for the famous scene in which the messenger tells her of Antony's marriage, a clever choice that gave her all the more reason for outrage and grief.
The production thus combined strong performances with smart set and costume design, and choreography. But in every other way, it seemed bent on whitewashing the racially charged thematics of the play by transforming Cleopatra into a nineteenth-century Englishwoman.
I began this article with a review of Shakespeare in New York's Central Park--a festival that boasts a venerable history of star power and huge audiences in an outdoor amphitheatre. Now I'd like to turn to a consideration of a different kind of outdoor summer Shakespeare, that of the regional Shakespeare Festival in which we find a core of actors returning every year to play major parts as both actors and directors. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, located at Boscobel, 50 miles north of New York City, and easily accessible by train for New Yorkers wanting to escape the city for a day or a weekend, also draws audiences from the immediate area, which includes the United States Military Academy and the prosperous, artist-studded towns of Garrison and Cold Spring. Now in their twenty-first season, the festival produces two plays, each from a different genre, in repertory in a large tent on the grounds of the Boscobel mansion. Last season they performed Richard III in repertory with As You Like It. Richard III is not an obvious choice for summertime Shakespeare in a pastoral setting, but, the HVSF admirably continues its march though the cannon rather than reprising A Midsummer Night's Dream every third year or so.
The production opened with thunder and rhythmic music as Richard, decked out in red leather with a prominent hunchback and blasted arm, staggered across the shimmering field in the evening light. As he approached the performance tent apart from the rest of the court a voice over gave a brief history of the circumstances of his birth and childhood--he was sent into the world before his time, only haft made up. The Duchess of York and her court moved past him, oblivious, in rhythm to the music. The costumes looked like an amalgam of Middle Eastern and Celtic hippie chic, an effect that succeeded in giving a mythic ambience to the performance.
The actors performed with energy and clarity, projecting their voices effectively inside the tent. Nance Williamson's Queen Margaret was haunting and powerful, spewing her asides to the members of the court on stage rather than directing them to the audience. I especially liked the way she moved on crutches in a way that mirrored Richard III, manifesting the thematic and dramatic connection between the two characters.
The courtship scenes between Richard and Lady Anne, and subsequently Richard and Queen Elizabeth were played with aplomb. Lady Anne was strong and powerful, bursting with wrath and vengeance, while Richard grinned at her as though enjoying the attention. In an apparent homage to Ian McKellan's film and stage performance as Richard, Chris Edwards removed the ring from his finger with his mouth before proffering it to Lady Anne. She looked at the ring for a long moment, seemingly considering the offer, before he grabbed her and forced her into an embrace to which she silently acquiesced. Queen Elizabeth was smart, savvy, and quick, engaging in rapid-fire wordplay, but the end of her scene with Richard echoed the earlier one with Lady Anne, as Richard forced her into an embrace.
While the women's performances were especially strong, the production never made good on the implication made by Margaret's crutches that they would ultimately be the catalysts for Richard's downfall. The force of their mourning was diminished in power by systematic cuts in the text that drained their famous scene of its ritualistic potential. The invocations were cut; the Duchess of York's line cueing them to sit on the ground was cut ("Rest thy unrest on England's lawful earth" [3.4.29]); and instead of three women, we got only two, picturesquely hugging and comforting each other. The hugging distracted from the emotional power of the women's words and resulted in a stereotypical scene of hysterical female grief, thereby depriving the audience of experiencing the strange mystery and power of the women's ritual anger and sorrow. This was a lost opportunity, especially because the production called attention to Margaret's thematic and dramatic connections with Richard by putting her on crutches that echoed his. The subsequent scene in which the Duchess of York and Queen Elizabeth curse Richard in front of his army was also drastically altered. Instead of being backed by his army and attempting to drown out the women's laments with his trumpets and drums, Richard was alone when confronted by his mother and Queen Elizabeth. Thus instead of being portrayed as courageous for intercepting an entire military expedition, the women came across as bullies. Nearly all the lines in the scene were cut except for the Duchess' cursing of her son: her lament about the grievousness of Richard's birth and upbringing was obliterated. Also cut were Queen Elizabeth's fines reprising Richard's butcheries. The effect of these cuts was to remove the scene's immediate justification for the curse, making Richard look sympathetic because his mother was a monster who cursed her son while holding his face in her hands.
The staging of the ghosts was imaginative and compelling. But unfortunately it contributed to the diminution of the women's dramatic power. In the scene in which the ghosts appear to Richard and Richmond on the eve of battle, they went beyond simply delivering their curses and blessings: they wrestled with Richard and cradled Richmond. Later, after the battle when Richard lay dead, they emerged again, encircling, as if imprisoning him in death as he had imprisoned them in fife. Finally, they formed a circle of community and support through which Richmond, dressed all in white, exited with his new bride at the end of the play. This use of the ghosts suggested that it is they alone who conquered Richard. But, as I have argued elsewhere, the ghosts are poetically and dramatically tied to the laments of the mourning mothers. As Ron Daniels remarked in an after-show talkback when he directed the play for Theatre For a New Audience in 1998, if you reduce the power of the women, you also diminish Richard.
In his review for The Poughkeepsie Journal, Vinny Alexander felt sympathy for Chris Edwards's Richard, seeing in him shades of torment that I did not: "Edwards plays Richard with a slight, satisfied smile that masks the hidden turmoil of a plotting killer. What makes the performance truly interesting is that despite Richard's overt desire for revenge and death, Edwards is able to generate sympathy for the character and reveal his pain" (Poughkeepsie Journal, 18 July 2007). In The Journal News, Peter D. Kramer observed that Edwards "can be downright charming, a man we love to hate" (The Journal News, 19 July 2007). As both reviewers noted, the buoyant physicality of Edwards's Richard was mesmerizing. He circled the performing space inside the tent with admirable dexterity, spinning on his crutch as if it were own of his own limbs, turning lameness into ballet.
But, beyond this physical prowess, I found Edwards's performance to be one-dimensional. The smirk never left his face, and the audience was given too much license for delight in his machinations. There were no shades of torment coming from within, only the external supports given the character by the voice-over narrative at the opening, and the severe cutting of the encounter with his mother, which made her less sympathetic while making him seem more so. His solitude in the encounter with his mother repeated that of the opening procession when the cast marched across the field toward the tent with Richard set apart from the rest. The insistence on Richard's isolation gave the production a clarity that probably helped audience members who might have difficulty with the language; at the same time, this characterization was misleading because Richard did not seem in any way responsible for his own isolation.
Edwards's performance reminded me of the comic stage villains of medieval drama rather than the tortured soul that presages Macbeth. Every scene, with the exception of those of the mourning women, was played for laughs. There is certainly this aspect to the character of Richard III: he entices and seduces the audience into collusion with him as though it is all a game. In his review, Kramer compared Edwards's Richard to Tony Soprano, and the aptness of this comparison is to my mind precisely the heart of the problem.
The company performs in the round with few props, focusing "its energy and resources on script, actor, and audience" in order to "communicate the stories with energy clarity and invention" (Statement of Purpose). Certainly this goal was achieved in their production of Richard III, but I couldn't help musing as I left the tent and strolled through the lush gardens and grounds of the Boscobel estate in the warm evening air, at what cost? I have mixed emotions when witnessing a production like this one, which is so obviously great fun for the audience, but at the same time doesn't do justice to the complexity of the text, or invite a more thoughtful response. I am always grateful for performances of Shakespeare, and recognize the value in the booming Shakespearean Festival business: it employs gifted artists and interns while getting people out of air-conditioned homes and movie theatres to experience live performances at a relatively low cost. Nevertheless I continue to wrestle with the problem of Shakespeare productions that clarify at the expense of depth, for it is possible to be clear without being simple.
KATHARINE GOODLAND, The College of Staten Island
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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