Friday, March 17, 2006

Visiting the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

We had a lovely time in Ashland, our first visit to the renowned regional theatre. Ashland is a charming small town, whose main street is lined with chic, interesting shops and gourmet restaurants, all in the shadow of pine covered hills that gesture to mountains beyond. The theatre is Ashland’s major economic engine; its three theatres sit together on a small rise above the main drag. The facilities are comfortable and warm, even when Ashland, in the winter, is relatively damp and cold. The operation seems impeccably run; our guide for the backstage tour was one of the company’s 60 resident actors, whose smart, informative talk fascinated the 15 or so participants who followed him, rapt, around the theatres’ front of house and back.

The festival attracts spectators from all over the country but especially from the San Francisco to Portland corridor, many of whom subscribe or come to Ashland every year to take in four or five productions at a time. This is the festival way—the OSF, the Shaw Festival, Stratford, and the Utah Shakespeare Festival all operate on a similar structure of presenting productions in repertoire, so that visitors can saturate themselves with multiple plays a few days at a time. The OSF offers eleven productions a year, nine of which run in repertoire at the height of their season. In a two-day visit, we only got to see two, but the experience whet our appetite for more.

The Importance of Being Earnest

This is my favorite of Wilde’s plays, in which I performed when I took acting classes as a kid at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. Wilde’s bon mots and wit stayed with me, and all these years later I find them even more pungent, smart, and topical. Perhaps this is why Earnest is being performed at regional theatres all over the country this year, a coincidence I found inexplicable until I saw the play again.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre is an intimate, warm space with a modified, small thrust stage that brings the audience close to the actors, making the back row of the 600-seat hall seem not very far away at all. The Earnest set design builds the play’s few different scenes on a turntable, which revolves easily and prettily from interiors in the city to exteriors and interiors in the country, neatly outlining the play’s dance between urban and rural moral codes.

The set’s colors and textures are lush and rich, but the design is also playful; in the last scene of the play, busts of famous playwrights stand atop library shelves. Although the play is set at the end of the 19th century, the anachronistic busts depict writers from across generations, including Coward, Shakespeare, and Wilde himself. The joke plays not only visually, but metaphorically, underlining the play’s resonance for contemporary audiences.

The double-identity plot, all of which hinges on the name “Ernest” and its homonym “earnest,” is a silly romance in which Jack Worthing cooks up an incorrigible brother named Ernest who’s always getting himself into trouble in whatever place Jack isn’t—the city or the country. His ward, Cecily, falls unaccountably in love with the idea of the character, so that when Jack’s dandy friend Algernon Moncrieff arrives, passing himself off as the wayward brother, she willingly falls into line as his lady.

Jack, on the other hand, passing himself off as Ernest in the city, woos Algie’s cousin Gwendolen, daughter of the great dowager, Lady Bracknell. Both women love the men because their names are Ernest. Both men, caught in the bind of their subterfuges, require immediate re-christening with the required name, or they’ll lose their lovers’ faith and their hands in marriage. Complications ensue, all of which are resolved for the best in typical farcical fashion.

The play is filled with asides to the audience, in which a character speaks his or her inner thoughts, which often contradict those he or she shares openly. This gives a good production something of a Brechtian feel, as the actors address the audience directly and collude with them in the evening’s good fun and critical stance. The OSF actors deliver their asides with crystal clear good cheer and a knowing chuckle to the crowd, inviting us in on amusing, sometimes wry, always intelligent jokes.

As Wilde intended, the mores of Victorian society are satirized mercilessly, but the jokes seem fresh more than 100 years later because contemporary American society under the reign of George the W is as riddled with fake sanctimony and ridiculous propriety as the culture Wilde criticized. The superficiality and slavishness to appearances over substance; the silly repartee that substitutes for real engagement; the astounding self-centeredness of each character; the strict hierarchy of social roles and interaction; all these resonate in contemporary American culture, and make Wilde’s parody more timely than ever.

A Winter’s Tale

I’m usually not a fan of Shakespeare productions. The language, instead of seducing me with its complexity and poetry, tends to alienate me, and I take even longer than usual to fall into the rhythms of the play. Gertrude Stein wrote about going to the theatre that in her first few moments of watching every production she experienced “syncopated time.” She fell behind the narrative as she tried to absorb the scene, the atmosphere, the characters, and the experience of being in the world of the audience as well as the world of the play.

My own sense of syncopation at Shakespeare is always attenuated. I’m tripped up not by the lack of naturalism, or by the stinted speech and sometimes awkward dress and the way the actors’ bodies bend themselves into different poses and attitudes as a result; I don’t necessarily need naturalism with my performances to make them mean something. I’m more distracted by how archaic the language sounds, and how hard I have to work to find my way in (to “blast” my way in, as avant-garde playwright and director Richard Foreman used to say about what spectators needed to do to enter the off-kilter world of his performances). Often, I never make it, because I’m put off, irritated that we continue to venerate a writer who was simply successful in his own day and never meant to be so venerated, but comes to us as canonical through a centuries-long discourse of critical, ideological, and pedagogical insistence.

I was surprised and moved, then, to find myself entranced by the OSF’s production of A Winter’s Tale, which I’d seen only once before, in a muddled university theatre production almost 20 years ago that left a bad taste in my mouth for the play ever since. The OSF production, directed by Libby Appel and performed in their indoor Angus Bowmer Theatre (where, remarkably, I’d seen Earnest the night before, evidence of the OSF’s marvelous quick set changeovers), is a taut version of the text, running just under three hours and launching immediately into its storytelling, holding the audience spellbound from its first moment to its last.

Paulina enters to sit on the steps that ring the front of the thrust stage with King Leontes’ and Queen Hermione’s son, telling him she has the perfect tale for a winter’s night. Before we know it, the frame has receded and the central story begun, with Leontes and Hermione at a party in their Sicilian kingdom, both trying to encourage Leontes’ friend King Polixenes of Bohemia to extend his visit. When Hermione’s entreaties work, after Leontes’ have failed, the king becomes unaccountably suspicious and flies into a jealous rage that undoes the rest of their collective lives.

While it’d be silly to look for rational reasons for Leontes’ outsized, violent fears, and while the story requires a certain suspension of disbelief throughout, Appel’s production convinces us not to worry too much about the details. Her succinct direction allows us to attend to the emotions, the nuances of each moment as they’ve vividly conveyed. The actors’ skill lies in their ability to conjure the immediacy of the present, even as their actions gesture toward a tragic future or mire them in a mistaken and unhappy past. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a production of Shakespeare in which the story moved so fluidly and took my imagination and my emotions along so effortlessly.

I still tripped over the experience of that awkward, archaic syntax and vocabulary, but the actors made such good sense of the language that it felt colloquial. I was drawn into a story that seemed told in the vernacular, and left free to concentrate on the folly of power and jealousy, of retribution exacted for wrongs no one even dreamed of committing. The inevitable deaths and unfolding sorrows felt resonant and new, as we watched the king come to terms with the devastation wrought by his own insecurities.

Although the last act bogs down in second-hand story telling, in which minor characters spend a long time reporting on unseen events, the visually spare, compellingly choreographed production evokes a sense of redemption, of the world setting itself once again aright after a terrible, too human wrong has turned it awry. Because the play is finally a romance, the long dead Hermione is resurrected to live happily ever after with her king, and the relationships are forged anew. But the spare, sharp production manages to let the sorrow linger, as though even while we watch Leontes and Hermione reunite, we know that the residue of what they lost through his jealousy (time, common memory, and especially, their sweet son) will haunt them, offering us a cautionary tale about abuses of power and the fatal stupidity of overactive male egos threatened by strong, seductive women.

The Feminist Spectator

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Catching Up with Culture

I guess they say April is the cruelest month, but for me, February and the beginning of March proved most crushing. My resolve to write twice a month was foiled by other commitments and obligations, and while I longed daily for the time to write, it just never transpired.

I’m now posting from a Sheraton Hotel, looking out at the rainy banks of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, where I’ve escaped for spring break. We’re seeing a production at the Oregon Children’s Theatre later today; leaving tomorrow to make our way to Eugene through the pinot noir region of the Willamette Valley; and arriving the next day in Ashland, to spend a couple of nights seeing productions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’m looking forward to a rejuvenating week, one that should give me plenty of things on which The Feminist Spectator can ruminate in these cyberpages.

To catch up, however, from this unfortunate six-week lull, I have various things on which to report and discuss, which I’ll do in backwards chronological order. First, the controversy over the New York Theatre Workshop’s “postponed” production of My Name is Rachel Corrie; second, the Oscar broadcast and Brokeback Mountain’s upset by Crash; and finally, in my next posting, three productions I saw in New York over the blizzard weekend in February 2006.

My Name is Rachel Corrie Postponed at NYTW

My Name is Rachel Corrie is a play based on the journals and emails of an American peace activist who was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer she was attempting to keep from destroying Palestinian property. Devised by British actor Alan Rickman and The Guardian journalist Katherine Viner, the play was produced to strong reviews at London’s Royal Court Theatre, which apparently negotiated a transfer to New York Theatre Workshop for this spring. Last week, however, Jim Nicola, artistic director of NYTW, announced that the theatre intended to postpone the production indefinitely. Nicola said, “We were not confident that we had the time to create an environment where the art could be heard independent of the political issues associated with it” (see for the story and Nicola’s quote).

NYTW does have a track record for producing risky theatre productions with a decidedly political slant. In fact, I opened this blog last August with their production of the Five Lesbian Brothers’ Oedipus at Palm Springs. Right now, they’re presenting Will Power’s The Seven, which tells in hip-hop verse, with choreography by Bill T. Jones and direction by Jo Bonney, Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes. NYTW brought us Jonathan Larson’s Rent, Tony Kushner’s Slavs, various Naomi Wallace productions, including The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek, and various other productions by playwrights whose commitment to critically engaging the social is clear-eyed and articulate (the many problems with Rent notwithstanding). Nicola insists in Playbill that his theatre is committed to “help our audiences and our community engage in an open and civil discourse on issues of our time. Our purpose for being is to create the most conducive place for these conversations.”

Yet many see his stance as a dodge for what they perceive as his capitulation to the local Jewish community, which stood fast against the production. Earlier stories in the New York Times—first reported by Jessie McKinley on February 28, 2006—reported that Nicola “said he had decided to postpone the show after polling local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work. ‘The uniform answer we got was that the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy,’” McKinley notes. Artists from around the world—including actor Vanessa Redgrave and New York playwright Christopher Shinn, a member of NYTW’s affiliated artists’ group, The Usual Suspects—slammed the theatre for retreating from the potential controversy.

I haven’t seen the play, and obviously can’t judge it myself on anything but the reports I’ve read and its glowing London reviews (the producers have secured a transfer to the West End, after which they’re looking for another New York theatre to which to move it). But I can, like many others, consider NYTW’s decision to postpone the production and find it lacking.

Given the recent passing of the second iteration of the Patriot Act; given the wiretapping scandal that Bush’s administration has so neatly sidestepped; given the debacle of Dubai’s operation of US ports; given the lack of open public discourse about these and so many other issues, doesn’t a theatre company with a reputation for social commitment have a responsibility to offer its stages to for discussion and debate, however acrimonious? As Edward Rothstein points out in his March 6th “Connections” piece in the Times, the backlash NYTW sought to contain by the postponement has erupted in any case, without giving audiences the opportunity to actually see the play and decide for themselves what it means and what it might tell us about the state of global politics and our common humanity. We might, in fact, find that the play is slight or even trite, and not worthy of the political burdens it’s now been forced to bear. If we do find it moving and illuminating, better we should come to those conclusions by witnessing the production ourselves.

Nicola’s decision isn’t surprising. How can theatres not feel cowardly, when resources are shrinking, when public support for the arts is practically non-existent, when theatres rely on donors to fill the gaping holes in their budgets? But if the bottom line drives artistic decisions, then why continue to produce? Nicola should have produced My Name is Rachel Corrie this spring, and invited those of us who would have attended the production—to decide for ourselves what it means—to help support NYTW by becoming donors ourselves, by supporting not just this production, but future work that might take what some consider political risks. By bowing to pressure (real or imagined) not to agitate the sympathies of present donors, Nicola and company missed an opportunity to cultivate those who might have surprised him by assuming their own places on his donor rolls, happy for the chance to support a company willing to take a risk by producing a topical play.

Brokeback Mountain’s Best Picture Loss

Those of us who thought for sure that Brokeback had a lock on the Best Picture Oscar last Sunday (March 5th, 2006) were surprised when Crash won instead. Plenty of speculation surrounds the Academy’s decision. Ultimately, this matters very little in the scheme of things, except perhaps as a fleeting cultural moment in which we might learn something about the preferences and prejudices of a very small, self-selected group of artists who represent “the Academy,” artists given an undue amount of power to sway public opinion on the movies.

Some commentators decided the nod to Crash demonstrated Brokeback backlash, a gesture of dismissal for the “gay cowboy movie” that had stirred so many sympathies and inspired so much editorial ink and tabloid images. Oscar night host Jon Stewart captured the spirit of the thing with his amusing, cleverly edited montage of cowboy films past, all spliced to underline the homoerotic implications always present in the genre. Nothing new about Brokeback, the clips seemed to say, except that Ennis and Jake consummate what in many of these films is an unstated, inarticulate longing.

Brokeback might not be a “great” film—but then, is Crash? Or Lord of the Rings, or many of the films that won Best Picture in years past? Crash’s ensemble drama offers terrific performances by actors often lost in the shuffle of the Hollywood cash cows they’re stuck milking—Sandra Bullock, Brendan Frasier, Ryan Phillipe, in particular, all turn in wonderful moments in the carefully intercut narrative that let them transcend the one-note acting of their previous work. In Crash, they remind us that they’re artists of a sort, willing and able to stretch themselves out of stereotypes and into characters whose ambivalences and racism and corruption (examined or not) seems real and painful and somehow instructive. Matt Dillon, Don Cheadle, Thandie Newton, and the terrifically talented Terrence Howard (whose turn in Hustle and Flow provides the perfect social counterpoint to his upwardly striving, assimilationist, soul-deadened television director in Crash) also provide moments of complicated insight into the murky, always gray but sometimes illuminating and hopeful areas of contiguity in a city (or country) where so many cultures cohabit and collide.

But Crash’s conceit—determined as it is to let lives bump against each other and to find, in that serendipity, moments of both brutality and redemption—is finally a bit too pat, as the stories line up surprisingly neatly in how they touch the central and radiating tragedies. I found Crash thought-provoking and at times moving, although I’m not sure it told us anything new about bigotry and class privilege or offered us original perspectives or ways out of the quagmire of racial suspicion and disregard.

While I couldn’t turn off the Oscar show applauding Crash as a “first” (the first film to address racism in LA and in the US so trenchantly, for example, would be an overstatement, applied here), I could have left the long evening of tepid television moved by Brokeback’s distinction as the first film with gay or lesbian content to win Best Picture. Brokeback, too, might not be a “great” film (a distinction with no doubt as many definitions as there are viewers), but its story—told so majestically by Ang Lee and his cinematographer, and so poignantly by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal—does offer us something new. I chafe when people call it the “gay cowboy movie,” because its story resonates more widely than that. Brokeback tells the historical yet resonant story of two men in the 60s who killed their spirits living lies because they couldn’t see anything in their futures but certain violence if they chose to own up to and publicly live out their passion for each other.

The wrenching image of the two shirts hung one over the other, first seen in Jake’s abandoned closet in his parents’ house, and finally seen as the signature, underscoring image in Ennis’s closet in his trailer, provides the moving history lesson that’s ultimately Brokeback’s greatest contribution to contemporary culture. The image crystallizes the painful reminder that these men’s love for each other was forbidden to be seen, and could only be demonstrated metaphorically by intertwining the arms of the fabric in which their arms once held each other. The two shirts on one hanger remain tucked carefully away behind the firmly shut doors of the closets in which Ennis and Jake were forced, by social convention and constricting morality, to lead their truncated lives.

Leaving the Oscar telecast knowing that a Best Picture award for Brokeback might have opened those metaphorical closet doors would have meant a lot in a cultural moment in which gays and lesbians feel their own version of public backlash, when state after state holds referenda about constitutionally closing off marriage and sometimes adoption rights, and when conservative legislators and far-right watch dog groups monitor televised images for “pro-gay” content. Under the social extremism of the Bush administration, it’s “hard out there” not just for a pimp (the rap anthem from Hustle and Flow that provided its own, more pleasing upset when it won Best Song), but for queer people trying to live their lives with dignity and to take pleasure in our sameness and our difference from other Americans. I would have been moved to witness Brokeback be named the first film about gay people to win Best Picture.

But I guess we’ll have to keep waiting.

In “Catching Up II,” I’ll report from a feminist perspective on the New York productions of Sweeney Todd (starring Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris), The Little Dog Laughed (the Hollywood closet play by Douglas Carter Beane), and The Color Purple (the musical adaptation of Alice Walker’s award-winning novel).

I hope to keep this blog up-to-date from now on, because it’s so important to keep the dialogue going. I always appreciate your responding posts and comments—let’s keep talking about what all this means and what we might observe and say and do to keep our culture progressive.

The Feminist Spectator