Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Witch of Edmonton (RSC)

A devil dog connects the disparate threads of the atmospheric Witch of Edmonton. The collaborative work by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford followed Henry Goodcole's 1621 exposé The wonderful discovery of Elizabeth Sawyer, a Witch, late of Edmonton.

The titular witch (Eileen Atkins) is a Shylock-like figure. Abused and berated by her neighbors, Mother Sawyer decides that if she is treated like a witch, she will act like one. Who should be listening but the devil, a black "dog" (Jay Simpson) named Tom. Meanwhile, the young Frank Thorney (Ian Bonar) secretly marries the pregnant Winnifride (Shvorne Marks), but his father insists Frank wed the virtuous daughter of a wealthy farmer. The third plot line follows the ridiculous Cuddy Banks (Dafydd Llyr Thomas, resembling Jack Black, here), who asks the witch about a love spell before encountering the devil himself.

Moody lighting, a reedy forest, detailed costumes, and beautiful if brief musical accents bring the rural Jacobean setting to life. One of the most memorable musical interludes is a funny and eerie dance that the devil commandeers. The devil is a marvelous creature. Simpson looks like a traditional demon, nearly naked, covered in paint, and decked with horns and a tail. His animalistic movements and light voice create a seductive, otherworldly figure.

The solid cast is unable to prevent the show from slowing to a crawl during its drawn-out conclusion, and there is one awkwardly prolonged death-scene. Still, the tense Witch of Edmonton makes for a night of spooky and suspenseful theatre.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Love's Labour's Lost (RSC)

Christopher Luscombe's charming production of William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost is set in the Edwardian era on a Victorian manor. The King of Navarre and his three friends vow to give up sleep, food, and women and instead dedicate themselves to studying. However, the king inconveniently forgot about the arrival of the Princess of France and her female entourage. Needless to say, the men's studies don't go as planned.

The play itself has gradually been gaining popularity. It premiered in front of Queen Elizabeth I, which partially explains the erudite language. The wordplay is intense, and its many obscure references are often lost on audiences. Labour's plot is delightfully silly. It is the play's rhetoric that elevates it. The dialogue is crammed with puns, rhymes, and poetry.

The witty and pragmatic Berowne, its protagonist, is perhaps the closest character we have to a young Shakespeare. He is played by the always-wonderful Edward Bennett. King Navarre and his friends (Sam Alexander, William Belchambers, and Tunji Kasim) are likewise endearing.

Of the women, Michelle Terry fares best as Berowne's clever love-interest. Unfortunately, the women don't have nearly as much fun as the men. Their sparkling costumes are stunning, but the focus on a Downton-Abbey-esque reserve makes their scenes rather dull.

The supporting cast is quite strong. One plot follows the love-struck Spaniard Don Armado (John Hodgkinson), and another detours into conversations between two ridiculously pretentious scholars. David Horovitch is especially funny as Holofernes, whose nonsensical discourse is particularly difficult to grasp. Peter McGovern brings wit and a sweet singing voice to the role of Moth, a page who humors Don Armado and his love-sickness.

The subplots converge in a performance of the 'Nine Worthies' for the lords and ladies. This play-within-a-play is a heart-warming musical inspired by Gilbert and Sullivan. The ensemble impressively handles the production's numerous musical and dance numbers.

Nigel Hess's score underlines the entire play. His music, performed by a backstage band, is alternately distracting, corny, and moving. Also essential are Simon Higlett's complex and gorgeous sets. One of the most memorable scenes takes place at night on a roof, illuminated from below.

The 'Nine Worthies' devolves into chaos caused by personal rivalries, and the comedy concludes on an uncharacteristically melancholy note. The 1914 setting lends great resonance to the ending. Here, Love's Labour's Lost is a diversion full of pre-war innocence.

The director has decided to pair it with the post-war play Much Ado About Nothing, or, in this case, Love's Labour's Won. The first half of this two-parter is a delightful piece that will likely improve as it continues to run. While Much Ado is the better-known play, Love's Labour's Lost has its own glittering charm.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Roaring Girl (RSC)

Jo Davies's adaptation of The Roaring Girl just finished its run at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Written by the Thomases Middleton and Dekker in 1611, The Roaring Girl features a remarkable, real-life figure. Mad Moll is a cross-dressing, cigar-smoking woman who assaults the sexist and assists the virtuous. The rest of the play is an uneven romantic farce, sometimes funny, often obscure.

This version has elements of three time periods: it is written in the Early Modern period, set in in the Victorian era, and infused with modern rock music. Still, instead of conveying sexism's timelessness, this decision diminishes Mad Moll's radical character.

Part of the setting's purpose is to show that the Victorian age was not as prudish as we think. One viewer pointed out that at the end of the play, it is not Mad Moll who is isolated, but the old white men. Still, this takes away from the titular Girl, who is far more transgressive than the play attempts to be. Lisa Dillon is fine as Moll "Cutpurse," but her slim, androgynous looks are not truly groundbreaking in the way Moll is supposed to be. Her queerness is rather chic, while Moll is spoken of as an ever-present source of wonder and danger.

The main plot is so silly that a disclaimer is included within the text. A young man pretends to pine for Moll so his true love will look good in comparison. His overbearing father sets out to sabotage Moll. Several scoundrels attempt to seduce two married women--or more precisely, their purses. David Rintoul stands out as the intolerant Sir Wengrave as does Harvey Virdi as Mistress Openwork, who turns the tables on her seducer. (Other names include Gallipot, Goshawk, Dapper, Tiltyard, Trapdoor, and Neatfoot.)

A concluding speech boldly pronounces the importance of individuality and tolerance in the face of societal judgment. The message hits home.

The performances are energetic, and Moll is a brilliant individual. Still, one gets the sense that The Roaring Girl is a fascinating play to study, but one that is confusing and even dull to watch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Solidarity in a Time of Crisis

Recently, we’ve had national discussions about: gun control, healthcare, poverty. The list goes on. These conversations inevitably get sidetracked and fade from the media, though the issues continue to burn in our minds. The economy continues to limp along. Legislators strike down labor laws. We are increasingly entwined in the lives and struggles of those across the world.

This barrage of ills, combined with a bombardment of local and international horrors, fosters apathy. Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Pakistan, Russia, and West Africa have been in the news recently because of overwhelming illness and violence, and we all know the media only shows a fraction of suffering and injustice in the world. Contradictory reports convey situations as muddled, murky, and convoluted.

But what do we actually know about Ferguson? A white policeman shot an unarmed young black man six times. The police responded by leaving the body in the sun and preparing for protests with military equipment. They shot rubber bullets at crowds and teargassed people into their homes. They arrested, threatened, and assaulted civilians, including journalists . They pointed sniper rifles at innocent protestors. The governor declared a curfew on the town. The police refused to release information about the alleged perpetrator until they simultaneously released a video of the victim supposedly robbing a store.

The paragraph is in past tense, but it’s not over.

Have there been riots and looting? Yes. Has there been violence? Yes. Have there been shootings? Yes.

Let’s look at the Civil Rights Movement during its most famous years. It was peaceful. It was simple. It was quickly accepted by citizens across the country. Right? Wrong. It was divided and dangerous. It was organized and strategic. It was considered a distraction from more important evils.

Right now, conservatives are criticizing protestors by pointing out the evils of ISIS, as though fighting against systematic racism and violence supports a vicious, self-declared caliphate. Back in the ‘60s, civil rights activists were condemned for causing trouble when the Soviet Union was oppressing its civilians and threatening world annihilation.

The language then and now is very similar. “Don’t they have anything better to do? Why can’t they control themselves and let the system work itself out? They only care about blacks. What about the rest of the world? There are two, equally valid sides to every issue. Why are they instigating violence?”

Even though the vast majority of protestors have been peaceful (some are actively preventing looting), the police blame their own brutal reaction on the handful of violent civilians. “Why can’t they just be peaceful and remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message?”

Here’s why: the only reason why so many (but not nearly all) civil rights activists in the 1960s were nonviolent was the highly concerted effort to train protestors to react to abuse with nonviolent resistance. They provided this training because they knew the natural human reaction to threats is fight or flight.

The police in Ferguson have devolved into “us versus them” mentality, which is why they don’t even have the judgment to make themselves look good on camera. Empathy and compromise become less likely. Some of them are having the time of their lives, finding thrill in fighting “the enemy” every night. Some are scared, because large groups of angry people, especially when they have just cause, are scary. White Southerners who beat peaceful activists in the sixties often described themselves as being driven by fear to “defend” their community.

The Ferguson police are taking out the media in a variety of ways. In many Southern attacks on activists, reporters were the first to be taken out. Cameras were smashed, journalists were beaten. It makes sense to remove the means of recording a serious crime. Thankfully, civilians now have ways to record and quickly disseminate information.

Racism today is perceived as being more subtle than it was in the past. Segregation and voter disenfranchisement still exist, but the solutions are less clear-cut. People dismiss this epidemic of police violence due to it being directed at “criminals.” The prison-industrial complex is so ingrained in American culture, many hardly think twice about it.

This is how discrimination happens. This is how inequality exists. This is how atrocities occur. They become normal and, thus, invisible. Those who experience it every day are told to shut up and stop exaggerating.

But the world was watching when white Southerners beat black activists fifty years ago, and the world is watching now. And they are outraged. Recordings of police brutality have been popping up for years. A few simple laws could significantly reduce police violence.

In 1961, the nation’s youth poured into Mississippi and Alabama to protest segregated bus stations. That sense of solidarity happened then, and it can happen now. In spite of widespread prejudice and racism today, past activists DID make a difference. This new world includes the internet, a tool for coordinating, fundraising, and gathering information, as we have seen across the planet.

We can learn from past and present movements. Gazans, also trapped in their homes, instructed Ferguson residents on how to handle tear gas. The most successful civil rights groups were and are tactical. Working together can be as challenging as facing down oppressors. Something Occupy Wall Street severely lacked was focus, an essential element in affecting change.

Diane Nash, a leader of the 1960s Movement, pointed out that metal is most malleable when hot and least manipulable when cool.

And right now, it is hot. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Shakespeare Challenge: Ten Relationships

The final Shakespeare Challenge: finding ten relationships, good or bad, harmonious or dysfunctional.

10. Relationship [1] Othello and Desdemona

Against all societal convention, Othello and Desdemona fall desperately in love and marry. They treat each other as equals—at first. Desdemona makes Othello happier than he could have imagined, and Desdemona deeply admires the experienced Othello. One gets the impression that they would have had a long and happy marriage if everything didn’t go AS BADLY AS IT POSSIBLY COULD.
OTHELLO: Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul
But I do love thee! And when I love thee not
Chaos is come again.

10. Relationship [2] Benedick and Beatrice

Beatrice and Benedick have a long “friendship,” which consists of exchanging barbed insults. They talk about how much they despise one another until, thanks to interfering friends, the two fall in love. Their relationship is one of equals, as they have met their match.
BENEDICK: Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.

10. Relationship [3] Cassius and Brutus

Cassius manipulates Brutus into killing their friend and leader, using his strong moral sense against him. But Cassius relies on Brutus. They conspire together and go through great danger together.
BRUTUS: When I spoke that, I was ill-temper’d too.CASSIUS: Do you confess so much? Give me your hand.BRUTUS: And my heart too.CASSIUSO Brutus! 

10. Relationship [4] Hotspur and Lady Percy


Hotspur and his wife have a, shall we say, fiery relationship. The macho and sexist Hotspur has an equally headstrong wife, Lady Percy, or Kate. But underneath their many arguments lies a true affection.
LADY PERCY: In faith, I’ll break thy little finger, Harry,
An if thou wilt not tell me all things true.

10. Relationship [5] Bottom and the Rude Mechanicals


The enthusiastic, arrogant, and bombastic Bottom is one of Shakespeare’s funniest creations. He and a group of laborers are part-time actors. In spite of his immense stupidity, his confidence inspires the other actors’ admiration. They flee from Bottom when fairies turn him into an ass (get it?), but they reunite to perform in front of the court. Their shenanigans and tragic play are absolutely hilarious, and there is something endearing about their dedication to one another and to the play.
QUINCE: If we offend, it is with our good will. That you should think, we come not to offend, But with good will. To show our simple skill, That is the true beginning of our end.

10. Relationship [6] Mistress Ford and Mistress Page


These two badass ladies run rings around the men in their lives. One husband is super jealous, the other is laid back. One man tries to seduce them both to get their money. They find all this to be hilarious. They’ve known each other since childhood, and when together, they are as mischievous as clever schoolgirls.
Above: their secret handshake in a production I saw at the London Globe.
FORD: I think, if your husbands were dead,you two would marry.

10. Relationship [7] Rosalind and Celia


Rosalind and Celia are very close cousins. When Rosalind is banished, Celia defies her father and goes with Rosalind into the forest. Rosalind dresses as a boy and Celia as a peasant girl. They share secrets about love until their relationship gives way to heterosexual romance.
CELIA: we still have slept together,Rose at an instant, learn’d, play’d, eat together,And wheresoever we went, like Juno’s swans,Still we went coupled and inseparable.

10. Relationship [8] Macbeth and Lady Macbeth


Macbeth admires his wife’s steely resolve. Though Lady Macbeth berates and pressures her husband, one gets the impression that this relationship is fairly equal. They consult and advise one another. They have gone through hardships together. Once the killing starts, though, the two become increasingly estranged until Macbeth is too numb to mourn his wife’s death.
MACBETH: Bring forth men-children only, For thy undaunted mettle should compose Nothing but males. 

10. Relationship [9] Henry V and Catherine


After defeating France, Henry V woos French princess Catherine over a language barrier in a charming scene. However, there is plenty of ambiguity here, considering this is an arranged marriage between conquered and conqueror.
KING HENRY V: O fair Catherine, if you will love me soundly with your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it brokenly with your English tongue.

10. Relationship [10] Antony and Cleopatra


Unlike most lovers on this list, Antony and Cleopatra are middle-aged. In spite of their experience, they are rash, dramatic, and passionately in love. But balancing love and work, when it involves running countries and working at cross purposes, can be messy, even for the most formidable historical icons.
ANTONY: Egypt, thou knew’st too well
My heart was to thy rudder tied by th’ strings,
And thou shouldst tow me after. O’er my spirit
Thy full supremacy thou knew’st, and that
Thy beck might from the bidding of the gods
Command me.

That's it. Hope you enjoyed it! :) 

Shakespeare Challenge: Nine Protagonists

9. Protagonist [1] 

BerowneLove’s Labour’s Lost


Literary, cynical, and merry, Berowne is a delightful protagonist who can argue for or against anything. He delivers gorgeous, witty speeches, and, to me, represents a young Shakespeare.

9. Protagonist [2]

CleopatraAntony and Cleopatra


In many ways, Cleopatra is a stereotype of a histrionic woman. However, I eventually came to admire how open she is about her desires and emotions as well as her more tactical side. Mark Antony brags about how independent he is from Cleopatra, but in battle, in spite of her genuine love for Mark Antony, Cleopatra is the one thinking about numero uno.

9. Protagonist [3]



How could I not include Hamlet, one of the most famous, complex characters of all time? This intense young prince is overwhelmed by grief and circumstances that are out of his control. Deeply emotional, philosophical, troubled, and witty, Hamlet is often hailed as a modern man whose thought surpasses his action.

9. Protagonist [4]



The titular Othello has lived a hard life, but he considers himself a lucky man. In spite of being a black Moor in Italy, he has become a general and married a senator’s daughter. Othello is remarkably cool-headed and respected—until his close friend, a comrade-in-arms, starts spinning lies to play on his deeply buried insecurities. Othello’s fall is one of the greatest and most tragic in Shakespeare.

9. Protagonist [5]

LearKing Lear


Lear is a highly flawed king, bombastic, self-righteous, and, in his old age, unwise. Yet his decline into dementia is devastating. After the betrayal of his daughters, he vacillates between lucidity, confusion, and extreme bitterness.

9. Protagonist [6]


The audience watches as Macbeth turns from respected soldier to manipulative and bloody villain. Spurred on by three witches and his wife, he is at first reluctant to kill for the throne. Yet once he starts, paranoia takes over, life and love lose meaning, and Macbeth can’t stop murdering friend and foe to keep his power.

9. Protagonist [7]

RosalindAs You Like It

Rosalind is the vivacious daughter of a banished duke. After her uncle also banishes her, she heads for the woods, dons men’s clothing, and cheekily names herself Ganymede. She uses her disguise to flirt with her crush and teach him about love, teasing and obsessing over him along the way.

9. Protagonist [8]

BenedickMuch Ado About Nothing

Benedick is a misogynistic if hilarious fellow who swears off marriage. He loves war, his comrades at arms, and cracking jokes. By the end of the play, he sides with a woman while other men malign her and consents to both love and marriage.

9. Protagonist [9]

BeatriceMuch Ado About Nothing

DON PEDRO: Your silence most offends me, and to be merry best becomes you, for out o’ question you were born in a merry hour.
BEATRICE: No, sure, my lord, my mother cried, but then there was a
star danced, and under that was I born.
Beatrice is free-spirited, outspoken, fiesty, loyal, and witty. Her friends list her flaws as being proud and sometimes merciless. Basically, she’s the bomb. Delightful company, great entertainment, and a friend who will defend you to the end.

Shakespeare Challenge: Eight Plays

8. Play [1] Hamlet


What can I say about Hamlet, the character or the play? They are never ending, fascinating puzzles, portrayed and interpreted countless times. The plot follows a young prince driven to avenge his father’s murder. Along the way, the audience is treated to existential meditations about the human condition. Don’t worry, though, there’s humor as well. Filled with iconic quotes and characters, the play is considered by many to be a remarkably modern study of an individual’s grapple with purpose, life, and death.

8. Play [2] Othello


Though written four hundred years ago, Othello deals with racism, sexism, and psychopathy. It includes gorgeous language and well-drawn characters. Othello is a black “Moor,” a former slave who becomes a renowned general. He and Desdemona, a young white daughter of a senator, fall desperately in love and marry. Unfortunately, Iago, one of Othello’s comrades and closest friends, takes the opportunity to play upon Othello’s weaknesses. The audience watches in fascination and frustration as a one of the most wicked villains of all time torments sympathetic but highly flawed protagonists. Sometimes problematic, always controversial, the play is one of Shakespeare’s most painful tragedies.

8. Play [3] Much Ado About Nothing


Much Ado About Nothing follows two couples, one young and innocent, the other slightly older and much more cynical. When slander drives their small community apart, the play veers awfully close to tragedy. Thankfully, it remains a delightful comedy, with scintillating banter, buffoonery, and a battle between the sexes. In spite, or perhaps because, of the play’s genuine tension and heartbreak, one leaves Much Ado thinking of the ridiculous wonders of love and how “man is a giddy thing.”

8. Play [4] Measure for Measure


A very dark comedy, Measure for Measure includes sexual coercion, the threat of beheading, and lots of prostitution. The few “moral” characters are, at best, hypocrites. There is some hilarious and ribald humor deriding draconian laws and pious attitudes, particularly when it comes to sex.

8. Play [5] The Winter’s Tale


The Winter’s Tale is a beautiful play of grief and loss, joy and restoration. A king, in a mad fit of jealousy, disrupts his court and destroys his family. The character “Time” divides the play in two. The second part takes place years later, where the warmer spring winds offer second chances and fresh hope. There is a hint of the supernatural, but perhaps it is simply the power of love that renews the human soul.

8. Play [6] A Midsummer Night’s Dream


At first, I thought A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a remarkably silly play. But now I couldn’t do without the enchanting setting and abundant humor. Mismatched lovers, bickering fairies, magic spells, a hilarious troupe of actors, and one ridiculous play within a play add up to make one of Shakespeare’s most memorable comedies.

8. Play [7] Antony and Cleopatra


I’ve only read Antony and Cleopatra once, and, truth be told, I don’t remember it in detail. I do remember the vivid, plausible characters who grew on me over the course of the play. The romance initially comes across as overwrought and gendered before revealing itself as complex and mature. It is ultimately a moving and complicated political story of the end of an era and a love between two great figures with personalities to match.

8. Play [8] Romeo and Juliet


This tragic story of two very young lovers has been adapted both before and after Shakespeare’s version. It is filled with beautiful poetry and lively characters, such as our heroine’s bawdy nurse and our hero’s wild friend. The love story illuminates the rashness and innocence of youth in a community fraught with prejudice and violence.