OSF 2018 Part 2: How Do You Solve A Problem Like White Men?

(part one)

None of the program notes or publicity materials for this season’s shows use the phrase ‘toxic masculinity,’ but the concept saturates the season even so. Across the plays, the rage and resentment of white male characters is the corrosive force that causes communities to crumble. And always it is aimless, baseless violence, unmoored from any sense of proportion or logic– this season takes, in short, the opposite of Hollywood’s favored anti-hero tack, asking not what pain caused this anger, but instead whether there is any remedy for the free-floating rage of men who think the world should, by rights, be theirs.

Jud Fry (Michael Sharon), Oklahoma!‘s only true villain, is also the only (apparently) straight, white man amongst the named characters: the peddler Ali Hakim (here stripped of his clownishly racist trappings, not least through being played by Barzin Akhavan, who is actually Persian) is bisexual, Ado Andy’s father is now his mother, the local Federal Marshal and Will Parker are both black. His toxicity therefore becomes linked, just as it so often is today, with thwarted privilege: not merely that he cannot bear losing to or being thought less than Curly, but that he cannot bear losing to a black woman. He cannot conceive of the idea that he has caused Laurey’s fear of him by lurking outside her window at night. He is someone who has learned no outlet for his disappointment and frustration except violence– violence that will turn, as the noose he keeps in his shed implies, either against others or against himself. But by the end of his first full scene, it is clear he has chosen others. 

Oklahoma! ends with the frankly shocking implication that once they have made that decision– once they have decided that harming other people is the only way to soothe their own hurt– men like Jud must be permanently removed from the community one way or another if that community is to peacefully survive. It’s a radical and perhaps disturbing thought. Directors often want to resist the idea that Jud is irredeemable, and to see the ending as written as an awkward oversight in the rush to a happy ending. But it clearly seems to be what Rodgers and Hammerstein intended to suggest. Laurey’s kindness only made him feel entitled to her; Aunt Eller’s praise of his work can’t undo his past resentments. Curly mocks him, but mockery doesn’t justify threats of rape and violence. Recent productions (including, apparently, the one now bound for Broadway) have tried to play up sympathy for Jud and point a more skeptical finger at Curly and the eleventh-hour mock trial that acquits him. But that’s a reading Rauch’s production undercuts in part by casting Tatiana Wechsler as Curly. Just as contemporary political discourse makes Jud’s violent threat seem all the more urgent and frightening, who today (as I discussed in the previous post) is going to argue in favor of turning a black woman over to the police?

In Othello, it’s masculinity in all races that is, perhaps, too destructive to endure, which leaves the tragedy fittingly answerless. This production, also directed by Rauch, is not really one that has any answers for the suggestion that the play is racist and sexist as much as it is about those things, but set alongside Oklahoma!, it paints an intriguing picture of the ways the corrosive anger of white men eats away at communities that might otherwise remain whole. Unlike Oklahoma!, however, Iago’s power lies not only in his own toxicity, but in spreading it to others: Cassio (Derek Garza), drunk by Iago’s engineering, spews Islamophobic mumblings at Barzin Akhavan’s Muslim Montano and readily mocks Bianca (whom he otherwise seems to like) at Iago’s urging; Othello (Chris Butler), of course, murders his wife. The question that makes Othello so uneasy today is whether Iago is merely revealing the darkness that was already present in these men– in Othello’s case, a frankly racist implication, given the stereotypical associations between black men and violence– or if his power is to explode the niggling fears and petty weaknesses we all have into something strong and uncontrollable enough to destroy these men. But whether he engenders the spark of violence or only fans it, the seething envy and obsessive hatred of Danforth Comin’s disturbingly changeable Iago is the center from which the play’s darkness springs, the force that drags Othello, Desdemona, Cassio, Bianca, and Emilia– all of them, in Rauch’s production, people of color– into a spiral of destruction, the women just collateral damage in a crusade whose true purpose he refuses, at the last, to reveal.

In one of the more intriguing cases of cross-play casting this season, Comins also plays Jakob, a 17th century Dutch fur trader in Manahatta, a new play by Mary Kathryn Nagle. It’s not hard to imagine the destructive role white men play in a play partly about the Dutch settlement of New York and the native Lenape people who encounter them. Unlike The Way The Mountain Moved, the season’s other play to touch on interactions between Native Americans and white settlers, Manahatta doesn’t believe in good intentions. Jakob, like Iago, comes to represent how the most brutal betrayals come from the people you thought you could trust– from the white men who were supposed to be different than the rest. The play’s parallel plot takes place in 21st century New York City, and Comins’ character there is altogether more open, and might provide a spark of hope for a more harmonious future: he expresses a willingness to learn to be better, and actually follows through with it. But then again, it’s 2008, and he’s an executive at Lehman Brothers. There are all kinds of ways to ruin lives.

OSF 2018 Part 1: The Promise of the West

This year, several of the shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival begin by thanking not only the subscribers and members in the audience, but the Native American tribes who once lived on this land in Southern Oregon, the Shasta and the Takelma people. It’s fitting that the Festival’s commitment to inclusion has at last brought them closer to home, to considering the role of their home state in a long history of injustice. But onstage, this season’s plays that look westward propose a different, intriguing vision of what the American West can mean: they propose a lost, brief moment of promise. There was an instant, these plays suggest, when everything might have been different– when westward expansion might have been the beginning of something new, not the repetition of something brutal and as old as the idea of America itself.

This idea finds cheerful but surprisingly nuanced expression in Bill Rauch’s production of Oklahoma!, which changes the genders of two of the leads to turn Laurey and Curly into a lesbian couple (played by Royer Bockus and Tatiana Wechsler, respectively) and cowboy Will Parker’s (Jordan Barbour) beau into Ado Andy (Jonathan Luke Stevens), a boy who just can’t say no. Lyrics and pronouns are altered accordingly throughout, but nothing else is changed, including the other Oklahomans’ cheerful acceptance of these young couples– and of Aunt Eller (played by Bobbi Charlton and is not, according to Rauch, a trans performer playing a cis character, but a trans character). Wechsler and Barbour are both black, and the ensemble is diverse as well, including Native American actor Román Zaragoza (who, delightfully, also played a gay man in the early American West last season).

This idyllic setting is described by Rauch as “an alternate utopian community that reflects progress and acceptance for our time.” It is, obviously, a fantasy– though no more a fantasy than the original Oklahoma!, a vision of Western expansion that saw the fundamental conflict over the land as one between ranchers and farmers. Rauch’s fantasy of radical acceptance, however, lends a very different tenor to the show’s probing of the odd liminal space inhabited by people who will “soon be living in a brand-new state”– but aren’t yet. That in-between status that allows for Curly’s abrupt and highly dubious trial for murdering his rival Judd, a sense that they aren’t really, fully bound by the laws of the country they’re soon to be part of. For now, they can still handle things their own way– and when the crime they’re adjudicating is a black lesbian murdering a white man in self-defense, given what we know about the country they’ll be joining, it suddenly seems for the best that Curly isn’t hauled off to answer to an official United States judge and jury.

Idris Goodwin’s The Way The Mountain Moved, a gorgeously messy new play, does not tie off its threads so neatly. Exploring the intersection of various characters in the deserts of what will someday be Utah, Goodwin’s west is diverse and chaotic: Mormons, Mexicans, scientists, and soldiers collide and cross paths and force one another to question their purposes and desires. There is violence, and death: the play begins with a Native American man (Christopher Salazar) insisting he cannot continue to help guide the military forces of westward exploration despite his initial promise to do so, and ends with a woman (Shyla Lefner) clutching a rifle and insisting that only the weapons of the enemy can save them. And yet, as director May Adrales writes in the program, it is “a moment in history where America might have changed its course.” In the railroad he has been sent to help plan, a botanist (Rex Young) sees hope for a country united, for the triumph of the scientific rationality that argues that all races are equal, all cultures nuanced and worthy of study and respect. A pair of runaway slaves (Rodney Gardiner and Christiana Clark) steadfastly maintain their Mormon faith despite their church’s tacit tolerance of slavery, and use that faith as a bridge of understanding. A mother chooses loss rather than vengeance on the Native American tribe that may or may not have kidnapped her son. A soldier is transformed by an experience with the wilderness that he cannot explain. Suppose, Goodwin seems to ask, these people had shaped the future of the West?

Both of these plays primarily focus on white and black people– the play of the season that is centered on the Native American experience is partly set (fittingly) in Oklahoma, but partly tells the history of the Lenape in New York, and focuses on a much earlier stage of violent conquest. Perhaps the potential alternate future that these plays tentatively suggest is irresponsibly naive, and only able to be imagined when the Native American perspective is erased. Perhaps it’s impossible to do better the second time, once a country’s hands are stained with slavery and blood. I find myself thinking of the common liberal refrain these days, that this– (insert absurd and cruel action by our government)– isn’t who we are. Which can seem laughable: hasn’t xenophobic cruelty long been exactly who America is, exactly what it’s done? But maybe that statement is really a way of saying, this isn’t who we want to be. We can be better. And by that token, can it be a good thing to look backwards and say, we could have been better?

And yet, tellingly, both of these plays are set in a moment before the land they take place on was American land. It is, as Adrales and the characters of Oklahoma express, a mere instant of in-between– just a flash before, in becoming the United States, they become the worst of the United States, too. But first, maybe, there was a moment when it could have been otherwise.

What are we trying to censor in Shakespeare?

Between the Twitter discussion surrounding the Globe’s Shakespeare and Censorship event (which I fully recognize could not have captured the nuance of the speakers’ actual talks) and a conversation that came up during a plenary on teaching Shakespeare at this year’s BritGrad conference, I’ve been grappling with the question of what we’re talking about when we’re arguing for or against “censoring” Shakespeare (and that’s not even getting into the obviously biased moral weight of the use of that word). I’d like to try to define my take on this debate with a series of questions, because I think so many things are getting lumped under one umbrella, it’s almost impossible to actually discuss the problem.

What do we mean by censorship? 

First and foremost, two issues I think are actually completely separate have been lumped under one category. First, there’s the kind of censorship undertaken by the Bowdlers in The Family Shakespeare, which expurgated lines and passages that were deemed inappropriate for women or children by the standards of the day. Then, there is the kind advocated by Mark Rylance a few years ago: quietly removing out-of-context anti-Semitic remarks, in his specific example, or other instances of racism, sexism, ableism, or whatever else that were unremarkable in the period but have a different resonance now.

These are not, to my mind, the same issue, though I think the people who group them both under the banner of “censorship” would like them to be. The question comes down, for me, to one of harm: no one is going to be hurt by a bawdy joke, the word ‘damn,’ or a reference to suicide (all things the Bowdlers cut). Casually using “Jew” as a synonym for “a disgusting idiot,” or “Ethiope” as a synonym for “dark-haired and ugly” is startling and harmful, particularly because the text provides no space for unpacking, undermining, or lingering on these words: they just pass by.

But those who cry “censorship” would surely say that it’s essential we confront these ugly parts of Shakespeare.

Who are we asking to confront these things? 

Who is unaware that the past was sexist and racist and ableist and a bunch of other things? Who actually needs to be reminded that there were periods in history (including, you know, the present) where aspects of one’s identity were so hated that the words themselves were insults? Probably mostly people who don’t hold any of the identities that Shakespeare is casually demeaning. The assumed audience therefore becomes one that is white, able-bodied, not Jewish or Muslim, probably not poor, probably male, and many other intersections of privilege. People who don’t need to learn the lesson that they have been and still are often dehumanized by the dominant culture are doubly  alienated, both by the assumption that they too need to ‘confront’ something they already know, and by being forced to confront it for the benefit of the more privileged members of the audience.

Adults, at least, can decide they don’t want to put themselves in that position. I don’t have to go see The Merchant of Venice or The Taming of the Shrew. But what about educational Shakespeare, where this conversation often gets especially vehement? Maybe a school trip to Othello can be a learning experience about racism for white children. But what burden is being placed on the black children in that class, both to witness and then presumably have to discuss and become the emblem of a lesson they already know too well? How completely alienating, to be forced to publicly grapple with the fact that the writer you are going to see because he is The Greatest English Writer in fact casually but explicitly demeans you and your identity, to realize in front of all your classmates that apparently Shakespeare’s supposed universality doesn’t include you.

Maybe this is an important lesson to learn. But I argue that it’s a lesson to be learned on one’s own terms, not by surprise at a school matinee– and certainly not a lesson one learns before being forced to continue studying Shakespeare anyway.

What is this confrontation supposed to empower us to do, if not reject Shakespeare– or parts of Shakespeare– if we so choose? 

Every generation re-evaluates the art it has received and decides whether or not it is still worthy and relevant to their interests, but it feels like we’re in a moment of particularly intense scrutiny right now. Maybe it’s important to remind Shakespeare-lovers that much of Shakespeare’s work is deeply problematic. But if we’re going to force people to confront Shakespeare’s problems, then what is the point if we’re not allowed to then say, “Actually, you’re right, this is incredibly offensive, hopelessly out of date, and I want to walk out of this play/stop studying this subject/decide never to watch, read, or produce Shakespeare again.” I think that’s a legitimate response, but not the one, I suspect, that people who are most precious about censoring Shakespeare would support. And in the context of a school or even just being in the middle of a performance, it’s not actually one that’s allowed (at least, not without causing a scene).

I personally still think Shakespeare’s plays are worth doing (otherwise this degree would be a massive waste of time). But how can we negotiate the terms under which we do them in order to do more good than harm? If we have decided to do Shakespeare, how can we do the most welcoming Shakespeare possible?

I completely understand the impulse to say that it’s equally problematic to whitewash Shakespeare and pretend he never wrote anything bad. But I have to ask again: who exactly are you trying to educate that in that instance? People who experience some form of oppression already know they are and have been oppressed. I can assure you that anyone who loves Shakespeare and is a member of a group he demeans has already grappled with that fact. Maybe they want to come to the theatre and watch a playwright they generally like and also not hear their identities casually derided in order to shock and educate others.

I can’t help but feel that an insistence on retaining the most casually bigoted parts of Shakespeare, feelings be damned, is an insistence on maintaining Shakespeare’s air of exclusivity. Such a producer doesn’t care who he is alienating or insulting: Shakespeare, a dead guy, matters more than the living people who might encounter this play. The privileged audience members who need to learn a lesson matter more than the less privileged audience members, the ones whose actual, lived identities are being treated as no more than a thought experiment.

Plays like Othello, The Merchant of Venice, and The Taming of the Shrew raise their own sets of problems in this respect. Their offensiveness is baked into their story and structure, and while I think we should ask more questions than we do about why we not only continue to produce them, but continue to produce them a lot, there are cases that are so much simpler. Despite all the furor that followed his comments, Mark Rylance was talking about quietly amending individual words. It’s not that hard. It makes a big difference.

Yes, We Need Critics (A Predictable Reply)

The city of Chicago now only has one full-time theatre critic. In the wake of this news, the Chicago Reader published a piece with the (presumably) intentionally click-baity title “Do we really need theater critics?” (yes, I am taking the bait). Though the column ends on a tentative yes, it spends a lot more time in the middle arguing for no. For one thing, artists don’t care: “From their perspective, critics are unreliable, arts reporters are unreliable, and they’ve found that they can drive ticket sales on social media.”

Even the concluding rallying cry in favor of critics is depressingly pragmatic: “They’re an historical record; they have value for advancing the careers of playwrights, directors, and actors, and for theater companies applying for grants.”

If all people think theatre reviews are for is generating ad copy and pull quotes for grants, no wonder they don’t mind if critics disappear. Social media’s better at both of those things, anyway. But that’s also not actually why theatre criticism matters.

If theatre artists aren’t scared of losing critics, they are scared of losing relevance. Does theatre matter anymore? Why are audience numbers falling? Is there anything live performance can do in the face of endless entertainment options you can access from the comfort of your own home? If theatre wants to reclaim a place in the mainstream of American culture, critics are how that will happen. They are the people who articulate the relevance of the work the theatre does to what is going on in the world, who explain why these local, unscaleable pieces of art are part of a bigger, broader conversation.

In 2016, after the Chicago Reader revealed years of systematic abuse of young actresses by the leadership of the local Profiles Theatre, Christopher Piatt, one of the co-authors of the exposé, wrote a mea culpa. An actress he contact for the story said she assumed the press must have known what was going on, given the subject matter the company continually presented. Yes, Piatt agrees in the column, they should have. He writes, “The city’s theater press corps salivated for a nonstop cavalcade of brooding antiheroes, vacant serial killers, misogynist dickheads, Lolita-chasing lotharios, and literally somehow almost the entire canon of Neil LaBute protagonists—often opposite a scantily clad, nubile female acting pupil—while never directly or strongly questioning what [predatory artistic director] Cox might be telegraphing about his worldview in a completely nonsubliminal way.” This is another potential power of the full-time critic, though one that was not used in this instance. And it is a power that depends on full-time, or close to full-time work: the ability to see a company or an artist’s shows consistently enough over a long enough period of time to notice patterns– and, of course, to have a recognition from their editors that their job is not just consumer reviews, but to report, in a sense, on the state of the local industry.

This sense of continuity is what smaller markets in particular need, and what they are least likely to have. There’s plenty of coverage of Broadway and London. Critics will swoop into the regions if there’s a show that seems destined for the commercial pipeline. But smaller cities are having their own conversations. Artists in smaller markets know this already, obviously. But a strong local critical corps is how that conversation gets lifted beyond individual shows or groups of friends talking amongst each other.

So let the bloggers do it, you may say. I love bloggers– I am a blogger and have been a blogger, after all. And I’ve been a freelance critic. And so I know that it’s very difficult to do this kind of broad-scope work without the time and resources to see a whole lot of shows. Like all the time. Like as if it’s your job, say. And it is a job, one that’s fundamentally based in the belief that theatre is good and wonderful and important, and thus worth thinking deeply about.

If you want theatre to matter, critics have to matter, too.

 

“I defy you, [script]!” (or, changing Shakespeare)

There is (and has been for a while) a tendency in Shakespeare performance which implies that the more miserable your female characters end up, the more feminist your production is. To wit, Hero should be all but dragged to the altar at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, Jessica in The Merchant of Venice should seem like she’s made a terrible mistake, and no one in Twelfth Night should want the partner they’ve got. And, of course, we must keep on physically and psychologically abusing poor old Katherine Minola, just in case.

The opposite pattern– to try and smooth over the endings that are more obviously unsettling, like Measure for Measure and The Two Gentlemen of Verona, feels much less common these days. But that’s the angle I found myself thinking of while watching the Globe’s current production of Two Noble Kinsmen, which does its best to make the bizarre subplot of the Jailer’s Daughter, who goes mad for love of one of the titular kinsmen, as sweet and palatable as possible. As with so much in that play, the intended tone of her plot’s resolution is difficult to discern: a local doctor commands a local boy to pretend to be Palamon, who she loves, and have sex with her, at which point she’ll either be cured and they can marry, or she can just think she’s marrying Palamon. There are certainly some disturbing seeds there, particularly in a play that is overall so skeptical as to whether heterosexual marriage is really all it’s cracked up to be anyway. But in director Barrie Rutter’s version, there are no such concerns. Though there’s much joking about the Jailer’s horror at the doctor’s casual suggestion of extramarital sex, the fact of having sex with a girl under false pretenses is not really given much weight. The Jailer’s Daughter is eager enough, but as her final scene progresses, the softness and sweetness with which she and her faux-Palamon address each other seems to suggest either that her delusion is lifting and she is seeing and loving him for who he really is– or that we as audience are meant to set aside any concerns and accept that this lie-based love might be a kind of real anyway.

From a contemporary performance perspective, brightening up this subplot makes some sense, as the central plot’s resolution is murky and not particularly happy or satisfying. I’m not inherently opposed to this approach. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2014 production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which I loved, took a similar tack, reassigning some of Valentine’s ending lines to Julia, so that she, too, had the opportunity to openly and explicitly forgive Proteus. Despite our tendency to devalue the power of forgiveness, this was an empowering and moving gesture. It was a choice that made the play better, from my perspective as a contemporary audience member, but they did have to change the play in order to make it.

Is changing Shakespeare in this way sort of like taking the n-word out of Mark Twain– censoring the past and attempting to turn a blind eye to the many shortcomings of the most iconic English-language playwright? If we are going to continue to produce Shakespeare, do we have a moral duty to then grapple with all the most troubling elements of his work and lay them bare– and to say, if we find certain elements too troubling to retain, then maybe we shouldn’t be performing the play at all? Or is it better to say that replicating offensive 16th and 17th century patterns is unnecessary, especially when it is often relatively simple to find an angle that allows for more hopeful and empowering readings?

I don’t have an answer, obviously. As you can probably tell, I was a little unsettled by Rutter’s take (though Francesca Mills, who plays the Jailer’s Daughter, is herself one of the highlights of the production), but I loved OSF’s very similar changes to Two Gentlemen. In general, I think in fact it’s more empowering to find ways for female characters to be happy than otherwise, particularly because subverting apparent happy endings often has the unfortunate side-effect of suggesting that even though these characters have told us what they want, we are not to believe them. Perhaps this is the difference between the cases of Julia and the Jailer’s Daughter: Julia is given new words, a new way to consent to what is otherwise unnervingly done on her behalf. The Jailer’s Daughter, on the other hand, has only her old words used a new way– but this new way requires that we take at face value what we know to be a lie.

It’s a trickier question, in other words, than ‘is it okay to change Shakespeare?’– and for now, it’s interesting to see the results of both approaches.

Quiz and Sympathy

My last year studying dramaturgy, we were all assigned to lead a class during our final seminar, and I attempted to lead a session about casting and dramaturgy. I did a terrible job– I think I’d do better now– but it also seemed to me that most of my classmates didn’t seem to agree with my central premise that casting is a feature of dramaturgy, and that it can and should be part of a dramaturg’s job to concern themselves with casting.

One element of this is more in the news now than it was even then: the possibilities and pitfalls of changing the gender or race or other identifiers of the character or actor playing the character, and whether this change is reflected in the text or is “blind,” and whether good intentions for diversity outweigh the potential for important implications if the casting choices aren’t considered important enough.

But after seeing James Graham’s Quiz on the West End yesterday, I found myself thinking about the more basic type of casting I attempted to lead a discussion about in that class: the simple ways in which the actor you choose to embody a character changes how an audience feels about them. My thesis at Columbia was ultimately about the ways this can change when a character’s gender changes, but this is true even when the basics of the character remain and only the actor changes.

I found Gavin Spokes, who plays Major Charles Ingram in Quiz, to be immensely appealing. I voted him in both the first and second acts, and immediately had to hurry home to Google what had become of him. But then something funny happened: looking at pictures of the actual Ingram, reading some of his quotes, I found I liked him less. I didn’t find the real Ingram as endearing as Spokes’s version at all, and it set me to wondering how I would have voted if someone more like the real Ingram had been cast. My parents and I were shocked by the results of the final audience vote, but they pointed out that people who actually remember the whole scandal were probably more biased against Ingram than we were as totally neutral outsiders, who knew nothing of the story going in. But maybe a more unappealing Ingram– or the memory of the actual one superimposed over Spokes’s sweeter version– would have swayed us another way.

This got me thinking of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, which I first saw during its off-Broadway run at Ars Nova, then again when it was in its midtown Kazino location, and for a final time on Broadway. After seeing it at Kazino, I found myself feeling some sympathy for Anatole, the amoral antagonist who jilts Natasha, the heroine. Maybe he really did love her, I thought, and his crime was not heartlessness, but weakness, an inability to own up to his circumstances and responsibilities. But then, between the Kazino and Broadway runs, I listened to the cast recording a lot. And the more I listened, the more repulsive Anatole seemed. He was a cowardly, heartless, thoughtless creep (and an emblem of the kind of unthinking privilege that makes the show much more relevant to our current moment than I think even the critics who liked it gave it credit for, but nevermind).

It should be noted that Lucas Steele, who played Anatole, is– as the show puts it– hot. Extremely hot. Distractingly hot. Like, sufficiently so to distract you, maybe, from how awful Anatole is because he’s just so freaking attractive. But just hearing his voice on the recording– though he also has an amazing voice– grants enough distance from his physical beauty to focus on the ugliness of his behavior. This is, of course, exactly what happens to Natasha in the show, so maybe it was intentional.

This is all, of course, absurdly subjective. There are actors who will make me hate a character simply because they are the one playing the role, and there’s nothing a director can do about that. But it’s so easy to lose track of the ways in which the simplest of casting choices– not even dramatic ones like race or gender, but straightforward ones like whether it’s White Guy A or White Guy B, can completely change the audience’s experience of the character and story– and thus, actually change the story itself.

Starring Hamilton

When Lin-Manuel Miranda enters as Alexander Hamilton, introducing himself as such in song, he is greeted with rapturous applause. This moment seems written into the music itself– that space to pause between “Alexander Hamilton… my name is Alexander Hamilton,” and to wait for a moment or two (or several more) after.

When Jamael Westman enters as Alexander Hamilton, introduces himself as such, he’s greeted with dead silence. The name hangs in the air, and into that silence he speaks the assurance that suddenly feels electrically charged: “Just you wait.”

Westman is tall and slim as a knife blade, and he always but always stands perfectly erect. With his long, long frame, his hands folded behind his back, even as he towers over absolutely everyone he meets, there is no one who will make him stoop. He is still and controlled. He is going to take up all the damn space he needs. When he smiles (not often– smile more), it’s sharp and often smug.

Whether the London cast of Hamilton should be seen as a kind of replacement or tour cast, or a whole new original, is a vexed question. The glossy souvenir brochures in the lobby feature pictures of the Broadway cast, and everyone here has been mainlining the original soundtrack. In either case, it’s rare– at least in my experience– to see a leading actor transform a role. Javier Muñoz, who I didn’t see, apparently uncovered many of Hamilton’s spikier edges. But Muñoz is a known quantity with Broadway experience and a long association with Miranda. This is Westman’s first musical.

I expected him to be cheered when he announced himself as “Alexander Hamilton” anyway– I assume the touring Hamiltons are, an expression of delight to be meeting the title character, no matter who he’s played by. Like I said, the music itself practically invites it. But that silence was immensely moving– that reminder that this young actor, stepping into the shadow of the beloved Lin-Manuel, would had to prove himself to an expectant audience just as his character is proving himself to a skeptical onstage world.

And it is, as it turns out, a slow unfolding. This makes sense in a role written for the show’s creator and a well-established star, who has no need to win the audience’s loyalty, but it takes a while before Hamilton is really asked to display the full range of his abilities. Like the characters, we have to wait for his talents to unfold: gosh, he’s good with that high-speed rap– oh, he can sing, too– oh, he can act. He has arrogance and menace and charm and relentless drive. It’s so obvious why everyone hates him, but we love him anyway. He and Jefferson, a pair of gaudily-dressed egomaniacs, seem like a newly equal match. Burr (played, fittingly, by the established West End star Giles Terera, who did get entrance applause) and his envy and irritation with Hamilton’s striving makes a whole new kind of sense. It strengthens his opponents as characters when their disdain for Hamilton doesn’t seem to be based only in envy and class prejudice (and possibly weakens Eliza a little bit, but that’s a separate essay). A more flawed Hamilton makes for a stronger overall show.

Most of all, though– in the early scenes especially– the double layers of a relatively untried newcomer, both Hamilton and Westman himself, forcing his way with confidence onto the stage he knows he deserves is captivating and touching and beautiful. Before long, I suspect he’ll be a star, too, greeted with the same rapturous applause as the American Hamiltons. But for now, there’s that silence, that breath of uncertainty: just you wait. 

Back to the Source

I’ve finally started reading some of the older Elizabethan history plays I probably should have read a long time ago. I’ve read some Holinshed and the other chronicle sources that have been identified as Shakespeare’s source material, but it’s instructive to see that some of his strongest influences were really earlier plays.

The case that has intrigued me most– in large part because it’s one I’ve barely seen discussed– is Shakespeare’s King John and its predecessor/maybe-source, The Troublesome Reign of King John. 

I fully recognize that this has almost certainly been discussed at length in scholarly literature I haven’t yet read, but I’m equally interested in the fact that while Shakespeare’s relationship to predecessor plays like The Famous Victories of Henry V and The True Tragedy of Richard III is common knowledge, this one doesn’t seem to be. Which is particularly interesting because some of the most famous features of the play– ones that Shakespeare gets a lot of credit for– actually derive from this earlier play.

Mostly, I’m talking about the Bastard.

He’s frequently correctly credited as Shakespeare’s only wholly fictional main character, but in such a way that also tends to give Shakespeare credit for making him up. But The Troublesome Reign of King John makes it plain that, fictional or not, he was an established aspect of the King John story that Shakespeare was adapting. So is the prominence of Queen Eleanor and Constance, and their sudden disappearance partway through the play, a structural feature I’ve seen frequently puzzled over.

While it’s not quite an answer just to say “it happens because he was copying his source play,” it does shed some light. We can’t fully understand what Shakespeare is doing in a play if we incorrectly believe he has originated characters and ideas that in fact he has borrowed from others. And it obscures what Shakespeare did innovate– in this case, for example, the deep ambivalence of the Bastard character, or Constance’s effusive mourning. And what he didn’t: the abrupt disappearance of Elinor and Constance.

It highlights the problems with only considering Shakespeare in isolation. Not only can it paint an inaccurate picture of the theatrical scene as a whole, it can create misleading assumptions about the plays themselves.

 

 

Thoughts: King Lear & Much Ado

Over the weekend, over the course of two productions, I had my first chance to see the Globe Theatre’s controversial new lighting rig and sound system, which it has been all but confirmed will be departing the space along with artistic director Emma Rice. The shows were King Lear, directed by Nancy Meckler, and Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Matthew Dunster. Both were matinees, which turned out to be a key element of my experience.

I could tell that both Lear and Much Ado had a lighting design because I could see the bulbs flashing on and off, see them changing colors, but I couldn’t actually see the effects of the lighting onstage. Because of course, in the daytime, the Globe’s only possible lighting plot is… the sun. You can’t see lighting design without darkness to contrast against. Neither show was noticeably harmed by this omission. If there was something important or particularly interesting that I missed because of the daylight, then frankly, that’s bad design. Because nearly half the performances at the Globe are matinees, and if nearly half your performances are missing an essential element, that’s a problem. And on the other hand, if the lighting matters so little that matinees aren’t materially harmed by not having it… then why have it? Why should the full experience of a show only be possible in half the performances?

This is an element of the controversy I haven’t seen discussed, and which hadn’t occurred to me before I experienced it firsthand. But having seen it, it feels essential. In many respects, the Globe is best approached not as a normal theatre, but a site specific performance space. If a show isn’t going to work with the physical conditions that the Globe imposes, then there’s not really any point in performing that show there. Similarly, if a design is just going to attempt to erase or fight against the facts of the space, then it doesn’t belong. A fact of the space is that matinees will take place in natural daylight, mostly during the summer. Yes, it’s England, and I was blessed with two particularly sunny days, but there aren’t that many summer afternoons where it’s going to be as dark as nighttime at 2pm.

Theatre is unpredictable, and every performance is different. But a design that demands such a fundamental difference between daytime and evening shows can’t really be waved off as merely a quirk of live performance. I don’t think any lighting designer would accept an argument that their work matters so little that it’s just fine if a large percentage of audiences just don’t see it. Setting aside questions of authenticity or historical accuracy or popularity, the simplest fact is that the lighting rig at the Globe Theatre, in the very literal sense of functioning correctly in order to perform its intended artistic role in a production, actually doesn’t work.

 

 

Artemisia Gentileschi and Historical Fictions

One of my pet peeve posts is back in circulation– this tumblr thread, which, despite the correct attribution of date and artist in the original post, excitedly seizes onto the idea that an x-ray scan has revealed that 16th century painter Artemisia Gentileschi ‘originally’ painted a much more anguished and angry portrait of the Biblical Susanna than the one patriarchal forces ultimately permitted her to reveal.

Perhaps this did indeed happen, but that image isn’t proof of it: it’s an original work created in 1998 (by Kathleen Gilje— let’s not erase one female artist in favor of another).

If you don’t feel like reading it, the gist of the thread is that this x-ray is important because of course Gentileschi, a rape survivor, would have wanted to portray a more realistic version of Susanna (who, in the Bible story in question, is harassed and assaulted by two elders, who threaten to falsely accuse her of adultery if she won’t have sex with them). That Gentileschi’s original concept was evidently suppressed and forced to be altered is just another example of the ways in which the patriarchy has suppressed the voices of women– especially rape victims– throughout history.

Now, the latter is certainly true, at least in general. Whether or not it’s true of Gentileschi and this painting is a question we can’t answer.

One of the subsequent posters praises the x-ray version for being “real,” and points out that Gentileschi’s paintings are of particular interest today (particularly from a feminist perspective) for generally portraying less sanitized, idealized versions of Biblical heroines than those that were popular at the time. Just not quite as much so as the x-ray.

Annoyingly, there are several posts floating around that attempt to correct this post and identify the actual artist of the x-ray painting, but they never seem to catch on the way the original, incorrect post has.

Working with Shakespeare– especially Shakespeare in performance– means working in a field where these kinds of historical myths proliferate. I’ve always been fascinated in what causes certain historical fictions to take hold rather than others (or rather than the truth), and as annoyed as this post makes me, it does point to a couple assumptions that I think often apply in these cases.

First, that a historical artist’s idea of “real” would look exactly like ours. The x-ray photo is indeed more realistic than Gentileschi’s painting to a contemporary eye– both in the sense that the figure is less idealized than we are used to seeing in Renaissance art, and that (as the poster reinforces) this is what we imagine a woman being assaulted would or should look like.

Next, that Gentileschi would naturally express her understanding of a woman’s place in the world and a woman’s experience of sexual trauma in ways we find immediately recognizable. It’s related to the first idea– this is how a woman who had experienced trauma would express herself. Because it’s how we’d expect a female painter to do so today.

All of these assumptions stem from an ignorance or rejection of Gentileschi’s historical artistic milieu. We can’t seek to interpret the style and content of her work simply by glancing at a few paintings of the same Biblical scenes and declaring hers more “real.” We have to understand the breadth of the movement she was working within– and understand that the ways bodies, emotions, and trauma were depicted within that style may have looked just as “real” to the people seeing them as film and television look to us, because that was their familiar artistic language.

It’s like the way CGI can look perfectly realistic, or at least acceptable, in the moment– but when you return to that movie five years later, you suddenly can see how distractingly bad it looks. We become accustomed to the tropes and techniques that are presented to us– the development of new fashions or technologies makes the old ways look strange.

This also plays into the idea, so common with Shakespeare too, of the solitary artistic genius, who is not working within or expanding upon, but in constant, active defiance of their surrounding artistic landscape. Such people existed, of course, but not every artist we admire is or has to be one of them. (And again, Gentileschi may secretly have been, but this painting is not proof of that.)

The problem is basically a lack of historical context (though in this specific instance, also a failure to actually read the original poster’s caption). The assumption that artists would work exactly as we do today, in styles and shorthands that are identical to ours– and that we, from our own context, can look at a historical work and read it as clearly and easily as we do contemporary art. The historical myths that catch on seem to be the ones that reinforce these ideas.

The appeal is obvious: it says that your personal response to and understanding of a work is not only valid (which it is) but also objectively true (probably not). I don’t think it’s elitist or gatekeeping to say that all art is borne of its historical moment, and you need to have some understanding of that historical moment to attempt to interpret what a work was trying to do and say in its own time, rather than what it seems to say now.

That’s what makes historical art so fascinating to me: the reminder that, while some things do seem to come down to human nature, so much of what we take as objective truth about humanity and the way we see the world– both good and bad– is really just a product of our time and place. Fundamentally different perspectives have existed, and can and will.