Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tragedy, Tonight!

Arts evangelism doesn't always happen at fundraisers, special invitation events, or street fairs. Sometimes moments of arts education take place under the strangest circumstances.  Let me give you an example.

Last week I was undergoing a cystoscopy with a balloon dilatation of a stricture in my urethra when my urologist (in an attempt to distract me from some transient pain) asked which of the two performances I told him I had attended during the previous week was the best. I explained that it wasn't a question of one show versus another and that there are some weeks in which I may attend five or six performances.

"I know it's your thing," he said, "but doesn't it get to be kind of draining after a while?" "No," I replied, "catheters are draining" (at which point the assisting nurse nearly lost it).

Two nights later I embarked on one of the most dramatic experiences I've had in years -- something as profoundly moving as a Ring cycle, but without Richard Wagner's music. The occasion was the world premiere of The Great Tragedies, Mike Daisey's probing tetralogy of monologues about four of William Shakespeare's most famous plays.

As Jonathan Moscone (the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater who commissioned the project in celebration of the company's 40th anniversary) notes:
"Mike doesn't write out his material for his performances. He takes notes, he thinks it through, and then gets on the ride and brings us with him. I love the way he takes on aspects of our culture. He's fearless, fiercely articulate, but like a jazz musician working from a theme (in this case, Shakespeare) and wrestling with it with the entirety of his wit and intellect right on front of our eyes. 'The Theater of Mike Daisey' is fully, undeniably alive. Mike provokes. He challenges. He questions. He entertains. He takes his audiences on a thrilling ride.

Mike thinks by talking, he creates by talking, and he discovers meaning by talking. At the end of our initial two-hour talk, I was breathless. What I thought was going to be a 'get to know each other' [phone] conversation turned into a ride through Mike Daisey's brilliant mind. I felt myself slightly dizzied by our conversation. Indeed, I hadn't thought about Shakespeare like that in a long time: what he means to the world today and why he is necessary to us as a society -- and as individuals -- as we grapple with affairs of state, of nation, of community, of family, of ourselves. I am thrilled to have him explore Shakespeare's great tragedies on our stage."

Because Daisey has always been a provocative performer, I was certainly not expecting a CliffsNotes approach to Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. Since these plays have also received musical treatments from some of the world's great composers -- Romeo and Juliet by Vincenzo Bellini, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Charles Gounod, Sergei Prokofiev, Hector Berlioz, Frederick Delius, Riccardo Zandonai, and Leonard Bernstein; Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas; Macbeth by Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Strauss; and King Lear by Aribert Reimann -- I was eager to hear what someone who trained as a Shakespearean actor, devours text, loves the English language, and thrives on research would have to say about these great tragedies.

With so much music etched into my memory, how would an examination of Shakespeare's text by someone with Daisey's mental acuity change my perception of the dramatic moment from something like Mercutio's "Queen Mab" aria or Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene?

What transpired over four warm nights while seated outdoors -- under the stars -- in the Bruns Amphitheater constituted one of the most intriguing and woefully underattended arts events I've experienced in nearly five decades of  attending live theater. Daisey made cunning use of social media to crowdsource ideas from his followers on Facebook. One of the best comments came from actor Tony Torn, who wrote:
"My folks (Rip Torn & Geraldine Page) were appearing in the Scottish play at the Mercer Arts Center in the Mercer Hotel in the early 70's. One night after the show the entire building collapsed."
A series of snafus were deftly handled in the spirit that "The show must go on," Throughout each performance, an army of crickets provided an eerie soundscape that made one wonder if the audience and artist were entering The Twilight Zone. On the second night (Hamlet), Daisey had to cope with a pair of drunken hecklers as they left the theatre. He described the event on his Facebook page as follows:
"Tonight at The Great Tragedies the show built to a point where I perform the classic To be or not to be speech from Hamlet, just after I talk about being in a psych ward a few months ago. After the speech the lights slowly begin to die as I discuss what my suicide would mean to me, until I am speaking on the microphone with every light gone, all of us in the raving spectral dark under the stars outside, just my voice remaining. The scene built in intensity. Then an audience member started shouting at me as I talked about killing myself. She was shouting that she was bored. Others joined in, angry. One shouted a speech about how I will never understand or appreciate Hamlet as he angrily left. Then I brought the lights up and the show continued."
Mike Daisey performing The Great Tragedies
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

On the last night of his tetralogy (King Lear), a power outage affecting Rockridge and Orinda forced Daisey to perform without his carefully prepared stage lighting or any amplification. Instead, he sat behind a large table at the center of the stage with a battery-operated spotlight aimed at his face and spoke to the audience for two hours as if telling a ghost story around a campfire.

A portable, battery-operated spotlight (Photo by: Wikimedia Commons)

Why are so many fans in awe of Daisey's intellect, passion, and craft? Consider the foundation of his approach to Shakespeare's four tragedies. Not only does he see them as progressing from the passion of young love to the physical and mental deterioration of old age that leads to death, he ties each tragedy to one of nature's seasons and the four fundamental states of matter that are visible in our daily lives.
  • Romeo and Juliet is filled with the fire of youth and the passion of spring. Daisey is quick to classify Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers as either horribly accursed or remarkably dumb. He also finds a wealth of material to explore in Mercutio's speech about Queen Mab while speculating that Friar Laurence might have been a supremely incompetent pervert who took delight in listening to Romeo's tales of sexual conquest before supplying the young lovers with drugs ("What could possibly go wrong?").
  • Hamlet is filled with air (sometimes hot air), and appropriately is a play belonging to summer. Yet it is full of contradictions, not the least of which was Daisey's own astonishment at being assigned Hamlet's soliloquies by an acting teacher at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art while he was studying in London on a scholarship. The obstacle Daisey had to overcome was his personal consternation at the thought of a fat Hamlet appearing onstage. And yet, as he dimmed the stage lights until he was in total darkness (while detailing the chilling effects of his own suicidality and his visit to a psych ward), he was using every bit of theatrical suspense to hold the audience in the palm of his hand as he probed some of the most vulnerable areas of his troubled psyche.
Mike Daisey performing The Great Tragedies
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)
  • Macbeth belonged to water, blood and, quite appropriately, autumn. Daisey described how, in the area of northern Maine where he grew up, one becomes acutely aware of the power of water to freeze, expand, and by doing so, destroy a house; how the falling leaves signify death and, in fact, signal his favorite time of year. While he can have the audience in stitches as he describes hearing his mother-in-law tell her friends that the first time she met Daisey he was stark naked with only a tray of fruit being held in front of his genitals, he also narrates the harrowing story told to him by a former zookeeper in Tajikistan who, among other horrors, witnessed a gang of desperate men brutally beating and raping a kangaroo.
  • King Lear is very much about the earth, death, and winter. As Daisey mused about the adults who were formative influences in his life, ranging from an abusive grandfather to his mentor, Richard Sewell (who was Daisey's acting professor at Colby College and one of the co-founders of the Theater at Monmouth), he segued into a somber analysis of his deep concerns about the future (and possible death) of the American theatre.
Mike Daisey performing The Great Tragedies
(Photo by: Jay Yamada)

Back when I first attempted to make a living as a freelance writer, I noticed a curious pattern of behavior in the subjects I interviewed. Those in business, political, and administrative pursuits were clad with a nearly-impenetrable coat of emotional armor. For the most part, they relied on carefully scripted answers in constrast to the opera singers and theatrical artists who were quick to peel open their hearts and souls and invite me to poke around and ask any questions which popped into my mind.

The triumph of Daisey's skill as a storyteller is not only how well he probes the structure and causality of Shakespeare's tragedies (as well as the flaws of the titular characters), but how piercingly vulnerable he makes himself to an audience while examining his personal inadequacies and the deepest, most painful tragedies of his own life. The result is a rare and very threatening kind of dramatic honesty that may be too much for some people to handle.

At the end of his meditation on King Lear, Daisey wraps up all the loose threads in his narration and reveals to the audience why his life could not have turned out the way it did without Shakespeare, his commitment to the text, to the theatre, and to his audience. Magnificently directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, his epic performance offers a powerful justification for the arts as a central part of our lives.

While audiences who trekked out to Orinda were extremely fortunate to experience the world premiere of The Great Tragedies, I have no doubt that Daisey's tetralogy has "legs." Not only should his frequent haunts (The Public Theatre in New York, the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts) consider The Great Tragedies a special treat for their audiences. the artistic directors of Shakespeare festivals around the world would be wise to have Daisey challenge their audiences with his astonishing work of dramatic depth and psychological insight.

Is it any wonder that, over four nights of pure theatrical magic, the lyrics to Daisy Bell (a popular song written in 1892 by Harry Dacre) kept popping into my head on my way home? Sing along with me....
"Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do...
I'm half crazy all for the love of you...
It won't be a stylish marriage...
I can't afford a carriage...
But you'll look sweet...
Upon the seat...
Of a bicycle built for two..."

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