Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The space that embraces Shakespeare

The new season has opened at Shakespeare's Globe theatre in London with Hamlet, As You Like It, All's Well that Ends Well and Much Ado About Nothing. This year, the Globe is also celebrating the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible - the work that, along with the plays of William Shakespeare - profoundly influenced English language and culture. And anything that affects language, of course, affects theater, as the Globe shows with the title of its season brochure: The Word Is God.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London

Last summer, I saw a spectacular production of the two parts of Henry IV, but my first encounter with the Globe was in 2005. Before curtain time (which really is a metaphorical phrase, as the proscenium stage was a later development), I walked around that miraculous building, a testament to one man's vision and mused as to how few could have predicted the meshing of man, vision and place. Sam Wanamaker worked steadily as an actor, director and producer in stage, films and television and once played Iago to Paul Robeson's Othello (no small change), but he wasn't Laurence Olivier or John Gielgud. Not only that, he was an American ... from Chicago ... son of a Jewish tailor with the family name of Watmacher. And he wanted to recreate Shakespeare's theater on the site where it once stood on the South Bank of London, now a bustling urban center. He began the project in 1970 and the theater was opened in 1997 - four years after his death. You go there now, it seems as if it's always been there.

On that first encounter, the play was The Winter's Tale. I hadn't read it in awhile, so I boned up on the plane and brought the text to the theater, since the performance was in daylight. A lifetime of theatergoing seemed to coalesce as the story of the jealous king Leontes and his wise wife Hermione began. The production was perfectly accessible, the acting engaging, the action clear, the words understandable.

I had the text open in my lap and at intermission, the man seated next to me asked me a question about the play's action. It was apparent he wasn't an experienced theatergoer and he said this was the first time he'd seen a Shakespeare play. "What do you think?" I asked. He looked around the theater a second - the thatched roof, the people in the balconies, the groundlings standing in front of the stage - then looked down at the stage. "It's very powerful, isn't it?" he answered.

Thank you, Sam. Thank you, unlikely dreamers, for letting two people sit in the air in their balcony seats 400 years later and be enthralled by the God-inspired words of William Shakespeare.         

Friday, May 20, 2011

When theater is an education

President Bill Clinton about to speak to New York University's commencement
Amidst New York University's 15,000 graduates yesterday at Yankee Stadium were several dozen candidates for bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in Educational Theater, a program of the university's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. I was one of them, now a newly-minted Master of Arts in Educational Theater.

A new master
The ceremony, held at a giant venue for the performance of baseball, featured as speaker a master of political theater - Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States. We wore special costumes: purple gowns of subtly varying styles, bearing different markings according to degree or honor; long Harry Potter-esque academic hoods with the color of our discipline (white for the arts), and the headgear: mortarboard and tassel.

This journalist, who has been writing about theater since the first college go-round at Barnard and Columbia, performed Shakespeare, directed actors, created wordless movement pieces and wrote scenes. But I also learned about theater as learning, both classic drama teaching (the kids put on a play) as well as something called process drama, an area completely new to me.

In process drama, the participants, through various exercises, create the story and move it along in dramatic terms. The teacher has a purpose in mind and guides the action. For instance, a class may become immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, each with a story to tell to the officials. At suggestions from the teacher, the characters may interact in various ways -- deciding whether to expose a poor stowaway, petitioning the ship captain for better treatment, choosing what few family treasures to take on the voyage to America. Living and breathing the story in this way gets it "into the bones," as I like to say, more emphatically than reading a text.

Educational theater transforms lives, as I wrote in an earlier blog post here about a theater project featuring seniors and children. In the course of my year and a-half at NYU, I witnessed one of many transformative experiences in a summer course in Ireland. A group of teenagers in Drogheda, north of Dublin, performed an original play about marauding British soldiers in the 18th century. They played it in and around a Martello tower, a stone fortification that was actually in use at the time the play's events took place. In a talkback afterward, the kids said that drama "was the best, innit?" because it "builds up your confidence." Ordinary kids, transformed.

I'm proud and excited to be working in this wonderful field.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Where do you find a "normal heart?"

Larry Kramer's 1985 play, "The Normal Heart," now having its first Broadway production, has become both an elegy for the past and a kicking, screaming, yelling wake-up call for the future. It's an account of the beginning of the AIDS crisis from 1981 to 1984, when initially the new disease didn't even have a name. 

Kramer, a gay New York writer, railed at just about every institution - government, medical - that failed to take AIDS seriously because it "only" affected gay men, and at his own community for being fixated on promiscuous, sometimes dangerous, sex as a liberating lifestyle.

Co-directors George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey and designer David Rockwell have set the play within a white box set embossed with such key phrases as "Patient Zero" (the designation for one of the first known AIDS cases). Set elements such as desks and chairs are carried on and off, but the spare staging doesn't feel empty as the performances seem to fill up the room.

As Ned Weeks, Kramer's alter ego, Joe Mantello is a rumpled, wiry, intense presence, exasperated with the world's dysfunctions in general and afflicted with a bad case of only-I-can-see-the-truth. The kicker is, this is Kramer writing about himself, laying bare the lovely and not-so-lovely aspects of his own character. In the end, this is what prophets are like - impossible to deal with up close and essential for humanity's survival.

Looking back on that time, I remember nights in the incredibly decadent atmosphere of Studio 54, with its waiter boys in tight white satin shorts, socks and tennis shoes, and little else. Disco felt like sex on the dance floor, with the scent of poppers heating up the action. We were dancing on the rim of a cliff, in the innocent time before the plague.

This production won a Drama Desk award for ensemble acting and it was well-deserved. Ellen Barkin, playing another prophet, Dr. Emma Brookner (based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein), bites off her words as she desperately tries to figure out what is killing so many of her patients. Jim Parsons, of TV's "The Big Bang Theory" plays a character based on Rodger McFarlane, one of the founders of Gay Men's Health Crisis, the first organization to help people with AIDS. I knew Rodger - a fantastically tall (6' 7") sweet Southern man with a sharp sense of humor. He and I belonged to a choral group in the late 1970s. Then in 1981, I moved out of New York for a while, lost touch with him and noticed via a mailing that he'd become involved with GMHC.

One of the most affecting touches of this production is the use of video projection to list names of the dead on the walls of the set - just a few at first at the beginning of the epidemic. Then, at the end of the play, the names cover the set and walls of the theater. My seat mate, a man named Joseph Obermayer, who gave me permission to quote him, said there was a time during the epidemic that he just stopped having sex. "The Normal Heart" is still relevant, because "denial and fear" are still with us, he said.

After the play ended, with the names still on the walls, the audience filed out. Two men stood at their seats in the orchestra, contemplating the names. They were clearly together, but stood next to each other silently. There was only one word to describe their postures, their faces: reverent. They could have been in church. In a very real sense, they were.

Friday, May 6, 2011

"Bernard and Bosie"

I love it when a satisfying theatrical experience also tells me something fascinating that I didn't know.

That was the case last night at a reading of the play, Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship, at the Episcopal Actors' Guild hall, which is part of New York's "theater church," The Little Church Around the Corner, more properly known as the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration.

The play, by Anthony Wynn, is a dramatization of a series of letters between George Bernard Shaw and "Bosie," and if that name means anything to you at all, you recall he was Lord Alfred Douglas, the young man who had a relationship with Oscar Wilde in the 1890s. Douglas' father, in writing, accused Wilde of being homosexual; Wilde sued for libel, lost the case and was subsequently sentenced to two years in prison at hard labor.

Anthony Newfield and Paxton Whitehead in "Bernard and Bosie"

"Bosie" Douglas
Directed by Elowyn Castle, president of the Guild, the performance featured two masters of the craft, Anthony Newfield (recently seen on Broadway in The Royal Family) as Bosie and Paxton Whitehead (currently on Broadway as Canon Chasuble in The Importance of Being Earnest) as Shaw.

The letters begin in 1931, when Bosie is in his 60s and Shaw in his late 70s. The most famous photos of Shaw show him with white hair and a full beard, but Bosie, in the popular imagination, always seems to be the beautiful youth stuck in time. How revealing to hear him as an older man, a bit pouty and querulous, but deeply devoted to Roman Catholicism and to poetry.

Yes - poetry. Douglas was a remarkable poet - another revelation. Here are some of his extraordinary images: "Love that weaves the years on time's slow loom" ... "The hunter's cry wounds the deep darkness" ... "To clutch life's hair, and thrust one naked phrase/Like a lean knife through the ribs of time." After I read that last one, I almost had to walk about the room a little to calm down.

George Bernard Shaw
Shaw, in the letters, is the writer we know from his plays -- irascible, brilliantly witty, sharply observant -- but also kind and almost a father-figure to Bosie. He lends Bosie money, spars with him about religion, gives him advice about his writing -- but never tells him to get lost. Douglas clearly had a great deal of charm and Shaw regards him with much affection, although the two often spare no words when they get cross with each other. 

Wynn has edited the letters beautifully and in the hands of two wonderful actors, the play is enthralling. The time period spans 13 years and the most affecting aspect of the work is how the two men, in the comfort of their "unlikely friendship," face old age and impending death.

As a theatergoer and writer of many years, I feel as if I already knew Bernard Shaw; I was glad to make the acquaintance of Bosie Douglas.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Catch this one if you possibly can

The Tony noms are out and theater people are eagerly picking them apart to see who gets a chance to triumph in five weeks' time or who wuz robbed. The nominees can bask in their glory, but my "wuz robbed" candidate - and I mention it here to urge folks to go see it - is Catch Me If You Can, which should have had more nominations than four, although Best Musical is among them.

Aaron Tveit and the ensemble hoofin' it in Catch Me If You Can

I was much more delighted by this show than the frat-boy humor in Book of Mormon, which I abbreviate as BM since that's about the level it's at. But BM is a sensation, overshadowing other shows by comparison.   

Nevertheless, Catch Me show has it all - stylish concept beautifully executed, engaging choreography, gorgeous leggy chorus girls for the straight men, a shirtless young hunk for the women and gay men, super-hummable tunes, top-of-the-line Broadway creativity everywhere you turn, excellent acting and singing - and the most important thing, a well-told story. Every scene advances the story, which is, basically, a boy looking for a family he can trust. The story also has, surprise, surprise, a moral spine. The device of FBI agent Carl Hanratty every so often "stopping" the show - and the two protagonists debating as to whose show it actually is - is not only brilliant theater, but a reminder that Frank Abagnale Jr.'s clever "fun" involved ripping off other human beings.
The scene between Hanratty and Abagnale, Sr. is absolutely brilliant, subtly morphing from a cop questioning a suspect's father to two men acknowledging how they have been damaged by *their* fathers. And how lovely to have it all wrap up with Hanratty being the upstanding father figure the boy was really seeking.
Aaron Tveit - whom I saw in "Next to Normal" - is a terrific young Broadway star. PLEASE don't go to the movies, Aaron! Kerry Butler - brilliant - too bad she only has one song, but she gives it her all. Love her character's quirks too; she's a real person, not a simpy little ingenue. Tom Wopat and Rachel deBenedet play parents who con themselves and their son, blowing family life apart.
This show deserves more standing ovations.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Stroman on theater flying: "a pain in the ass"

Yesterday afternoon, an open conversation with five-time-Tony winning director/choreographer Susan Stroman turned to the problems Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was having with flying, the term for suspending and moving actors or dancers above the stage or audience. When she attended the show a few months ago, she said, the actor playing the Green Goblin was left hanging about five feet in front of her and unable to move due to a technical malfunction. "We looked at each other," she said and mimed an eloquent shrug - to which the actor also shrugged, as if to say, "Whaddya gonna do?"

  Stephen DiMenna interviews Susan Stroman

I'd seen a marvelous flying sequence in American Idiot and it occured to me that flying isn't much part of Stroman's esthetic (although I haven't seen all her shows, of course) so I asked about it during question period. She responded that there had been a flying sequence in one of her shows, a production of A Christmas Carol, and it was "a pain in the ass." In another show, The Frogs, at Lincoln Center, there was a moment of bungee jumping, she recalled. Then she made some very valid artistic points. For one thing, a bungee jump can only go up and down and that's pretty much it. For another, she feels, the bungee jumping or the flying is rather like the exclamation point on the movement - an end rather than a beginning.      

The conversation at the Snapple Theater Center in New York was one of the Theatre Development Fund"s Drama Dialogues. Delightfully steered by interviewer Stephen DiMenna, a director and teacher in his own right, an audience of about 200 enjoyed Stroman's stories of such hits as The Producers, The Scottsboro Boys, The Music Man, Oklahoma! and my personal favorite, Contact.  

Stroman is one of those people who exudes joy in being a theater creator (look at the photo!) and the audience of savvy New York theatergoers and participants expressed it with her. I particularly loved the little ah's and murmurs of recognition at the mention of a particular show or a story of working with Mel Brooks or John Kander.

Some news tidbits: The Scottsboro Boys, which had an all-too-short life on Broadway, will live regionally, with productions scheduled for the Old Globe in San Diego, ACT in San Francisco and one in Seattle. A cast album is also in the works. There is talk of Contact becoming a film, but Stroman noted that making a film takes one away from the theater for a year and a-half, so film projects are "not something I'm pursuing." (Applause almost broke out when she said that.) Stroman would love to direct a straight play (as opposed to a musical). Hello, producers?