Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Blood On Their Hands

It started with a Greek chorus, a collection of nameless onlookers who would comment on what had just transpired onstage. Like many beauty contests, the format finally boiled down to three women:
Eventually, the girl trio left the background to become the main characters in a play.
By sheer coincidence, I attended two back-to-back performances this weekend -- staged outdoors in East Bay venues -- in which three key characters were dressed in white nurse's costumes that had red crosses emblazoned on their chests. In each case, the three women predicted future events and acted as dramatic catalysts to move the action forward.

Both plays were adaptations of literary classics. Both dealt with the struggles of a war-weary population. The key difference between the two productions was to be found in their respective stage directors/adapters.

One production was the world premiere of a new work created by a budding theatrical genius with the potential to become the Peter Sellars of his generation. The other was a misguided adaptation of a classic Shakespearean drama by a self-indulgent hack.

* * * * * * * * * *
The plays of William Shakespeare have gained new life at the hands of playwrights and composers.
Over the years I've witnessed stage directors (in both theatre and opera) take artistic license with the classics in order to update them, make them more relevant, or give audiences a new perspective on an old work. The most egregious offenders?
Although California Shakespeare Theater's new production of Macbeth could not compete with the above-mentioned fiascos, it certainly tried. Stage director/adapter Joel Sass explained his approach as follows:
"I’m after a sort of David Lynch-y quality I’d characterize as feverish, ominous, and slightly ritualized. Events in the play should unfold in a space that contains the residue of events that have already occurred or that will be re-enacted; it is a dream-space that reflects Macbeth’s interior desires, disorder, claustrophobia, anxiety. The viewer’s conviction about the ‘reality’ of what they witness is periodically subverted: the space and the objects (and even the actors!) within it are mutable and can assume different functions/contexts. We want to create a surprising, psychological thriller/horror show, and not a history pageant/morality play.
The main thing I've done is reduce the number of supplementary characters. Often, people ask whether this is an exercise in budgetary thrift, but it isn't that at all! The fact is that, while I have enjoyed many 'large scale' Shakespeare productions, I often feel that the potency of the story is lost in the traffic of grand crowd scenes and continually shifting scenery. I wanted this Macbeth to feel much more intimate. 
Macbeth requires a great sensitivity to tone. What should be a psychological horror show can become a campy haunted house pretty quickly if you don't attend to tone. So in our production, we've avoided portraying the 'Wyrd Sisters' as stereotypical witches. Instead, we're conceiving them as the faceless, veiled nuns of an unnamed order, haunting the halls of an old asylum. We don't know what deity they serve, whether they are human anymore (or ever were), but we do see that they are capable of bringing comfort, pain, and temptation to those who encounter them.
I was very interested in tracking how morality and conscience are tested among those other characters in Macbeth's service. So I got rid of individuals who did no more than deliver 10 lines of verse before vanishing. Then I selected a half dozen remaining characters and extended their arc through the story by allowing them to absorb additional language and linger longer in Macbeth's sphere of influence.
Some characters have switched gender as our creative response to the casting of the ensemble. For example, I knew we'd be working with Delia MacDougall (from 2008's Pericles) and I thought it would be wonderful to have her play the Thane of Ross as a woman, to show the presence of a powerful woman as a member of Duncan's inner circle."
There's a curious thing about attempting to update Shakespeare: When done by a stage director with genuine insight who understands and respects Shakespeare's work, his plays can not only withstand certain tweaks, on some occasions they can even become more clearly focused.

However, when a misguided, poorly planned concept is imposed on a Shakespearean play by a self-indulgent stage director using tricks and shtick for cheap effect, the effort often backfires, making the stage director look foolish and miserably untalented. It may not be so much that Macbeth, as a play, is accursed. It may be that the director himself is a curse on the Scottish play.

What may have sounded great on paper, didn't work so well on opening night of the Calshakes production.. Sass's ideas reduced much of Macbeth to something that resembled a tacky slasher film that was inspired more, perhaps, by Quentin Tarantino than by William Shakespeare.

At the beginning of the play, the wounded captain who tells King Duncan how Macbeth and Banquo defeated the Norwegian and Irish forces ends up on a hospital gurney being operated upon by the three witches (who proceed to remove various organs from his torso until he dies).

The three witches operate on Duncan's captain in Macbeth
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Zombie-like witches haunting an abandoned World War I mental asylum proved to be the least of this production's problems. After Macbeth kills Duncan, he reappears with both hands dripping with blood (this is not usually the case since Macbeth is a skilled warrior). Having both Macbeths dripping with blood after Duncan's death severely dilutes the impact of Lady Macbeth's sleepwalking scene (in which she guiltily tries to wash the blood from her hands).

Stacy Ross and Jud Williford in Macbeth (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
The attempt to use modern dress did not fare much better. Whether Macbeth was wearing a track suit, soldiers were dressed using Army surplus, Banquo and Fleance were decked out like Nascar drivers, the ghosts of Banquo's sons wore gas masks or, following her sleepwalking scene, Lady Macbeth was strapped into an obsolete type of wheelchair, tied down with restraints and wheeled offstage (perhaps for a lobotomy?), Christal Weatherly's costumes often seemed to work against the action rather than support it.

For example, in the banquet scene, when Macbeth reacts in horror to the sight of Banquo's ghost with the words
"Avaunt! and quit my sight! let the earth hide thee!
Thy bones are marrowless, thy blood is cold;
Thou hast no speculation in those eyes
Which thou dost glare with."
...it would seem nearly impossible for Macbeth to notice Banquo's glare when the ghost is wearing a motorcycle helmet with a tinted visor covering his face. Nor does Banquo ever sit in Macbeth's chair (which would have a lot to say about a throne that had been unjustly usurped). Instead, he merely stands in the middle of Macbeth's living room. At end of the banquet scene, when Macbeth says
"My strange and self-abuse
Is the initiate fear that wants hard use,
We are yet but young in deed."
...it was the first time I ever received a hint that part of Macbeth's constellation of problems might be a tendency toward chronic masturbation. Another unnecessary bit of gratuitous violence involved the scene in which Lennox used a pair of pliers as a torture device to extract the Thane of Ross's fingernails.

Lennox (Nicholas Pelczar ) tortures the Thane of Ross (Delia MacDougall )
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

For the record, Shakespeare's play ends with Malcolm's speech -- not with an epilogue in which the ghosts of Macbeth and his wife wander around a deserted asylum spouting lines from their famous soliloquies and acting like they had just dropped in from a touring production of Marat/Sade. Joel Sass's travesty might not have seemed like such a lurid theatrical miscarriage if Bay area audiences had not been exposed to Mark Jackson's brilliant modern dress adaptation of Macbeth that was staged by the Shotgun Players in December of 2008.

The Calshakes cast worked hard to bring Sass's concept to life. Although Stacy Ross's Lady Macbeth and Craig Marker's Macduff carried dramatic weight, the efforts of Jud Williford as Macbeth, Nick Childress as Malcolm, Nicholas Peclzar (doubling as Banquo and Lennox), and James Carpenter (as King Duncan, a porter, Seyton, and Lady Macbeth's doctor) seemed curiously anemic. Macbeth's sobering words -- "It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" --  took on new meaning in Mr. Sass's hands.

* * * * * * * *
Speaking of the Shotgun Players, here's a tip. Go to this link now and reserve your seats for a performance of Jon Tracy's In The Wound. Do not pass "GO," do not collect $200. As the folks at Nike say, "Just do it!"

It's rare for lightning to strike twice in the same place. In terms of outdoor theatrical productions by a small company staging world premieres on a bare-bones budget, the odds against success are even greater. Unless, of course, you've got incredibly strong leadership.

Poster art for In The Wound

The Shotgun Players' founder and artistic director, Patrick Dooley, boasts a solid resume as an actor, director, and producer (in 2007 Shotgun became the nation's first 100% solar-powered theatre). As Dooley notes:
"In the early days, we didn't talk to many local playwrights. It didn't seem smart for an unknown theatre company to do an unknown play by an unknown playwright. So we just focused on making good plays and diligently sent our checks to support the faraway families of Mamet, Churchill, and Brecht.  Somewhere along the way, I realized that it was time to start giving back to an art form that had been so good to us. Yes, there is always room in the world for another great Hamlet. But it's also important to support those voices trying to articulate the world we live in today. We've made a concerted effort in the last few years to do just that with some remarkable success (Dog Act, Meyerhold, Beowulf,  This World in a Woman's Hands).
A key accomplishment has been our focus on long-term relationships with playwrights and composers. To back that up we produce at least one commissioned play each season. Many of the commissions also feature original music.  Keeping with the spirit of innovation and challenge, we encourage our playwrights to write the epic, sweeping plays they've always dreamed of.
To celebrate our 20th anniversary in 2011, we will present an entire season of commissioned new works."
Director/writer Jon Tracy is a theatrical wunderkind who, in addition to his work with Shotgun Players, is Director of Artistic Development at SFPlayhouse (where he oversees new works by local playwrights produced in their "Sandbox" theatre). According to his bio, "Jon Tracy is an unsubstantiated myth. He dreams big raconteur-like things and sings small raconteur-like dreams. He keeps meeting happiness for coffee and the coffee is good."

His work is more than merely good. In 2009, Dooley and Tracy joined forces to create The Farm, a hugely successful adaptation of George Orwell's allegorical novel, Animal Farm, that was one of the best productions seen in the Bay area all year. This month, they have returned to John Hinkel Park with Tracy's adaptation of Homer's epic poem, The Iliad, entitled In The Wound.

Once again, with minimal funding, Shotgun Players have accomplished what many larger theatre companies could only dream about:: creating a vibrant new piece of theatre that is relevant, accessible, and consistently thrilling.

If last year's production of The Farm was bursting with energy, In The Wound has 30 athletic actors constantly on the run performing what, at times, looks like a Greek version of color war. Tracy has updated the action from ancient Greece to August of 1944, labeling the Grecian Task Force's invasion of Troy as Operation Tyndareus. Although his soldiers first appear with bright red and blue plumage in their helmets, by the end of Act I, many are on crutches or limping across the stage with the help of aluminum walkers.

Charisse Loriaux,  Elena Wright, and Emily Rosenthal
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
Whether Tracy's nurses/goddesses are pounding out rhythms on war drums or taking turns galloping across the stage disguised as a stag (seeing is believing), his imagination is so rich -- and so clearly articulated onstage --  that he manages to make Homer's epic poem understandable to a modern audience that, like the ancient Greeks, has grown tired of constantly being at war. Tracy's wry, sarcastic writing also contains some golden comic moments:
"The other day I had lunch with the head of Medusa."
"Oh yeah? How'd that turn out for you?"
Jon Tracy rehearsing In The Wound (Photo by: Torbin Bullock)
Tracy has taken care to explain how the Trojan War resulted from the oath of Tyndareus -- a plan concocted by Odysseus, King of Ithaca (Daniel Bruno), who describes himself as a social mathematician. Dressed in a dark, blue suit, Odysseus -- who is often counseled by Palamedes (John Thomas) --  is drafted into the business of war.

Since war never ends, Odysseus can never rest. Although his wife, Penelope (Lexie Papedo) and son, Telemachus (Yannal Kashtan), keep pining for him at home, their time together is limited by the Gods.

Thanks to Odysseus, the Greeks had all vowed to uphold the oath of Tyndareus (in which they swore to support Helen's choice of a husband and unite against anyone who tried to steal her away). Unfortunately,  they had never considered the possibility that Troy's rowdy lover, Paris (Harold Pierce), would abduct Helen (Jennifer Jovez) from her elderly husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta (Dave Garrett).

Family ties and sacred oaths being what they are, Agamemnon, King of Mycenae (Michael Torres) -- who is also the brother of Menelaus -- is quickly drawn into battle. Not even the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia (Nesbyth Rieman) -- who was, for a very brief time, the wife of Greek's greatest warrior, Achilles (Aleph Ayin) -- can save him from years of war-torn misery.

The famous Greek warriors Patroclus (Roy Landaverde) and Ajax (Dave Maler) are on hand to engage in lengthyy battle. On the opposing team stand Paris's brother, Hektor (Alex Hersler), and his elderly father, King Priam (John Thomas).

Nina Ball's unit set features three towers which hide musicians beneath camouflage netting and a series of wagons used to help with transitions while masking entrances and exits. Christine Crook's costumes range from simple Army fatigues to three amazing costumes for AthenaHera, and Aphrodite that incorporate angel's wings made from of the crutches of dead warriors. Brendan West's original score (which was created in collaboration with every member of the production and is performed exclusively by the ensemble) includes music for the waterphone, harmonium, and wind chime. I'm pretty sure I saw one Greek soldier playing a harmonica as well.

Tracy has created a rollicking, walloping piece of epic theatre about the evil and stupidity of war. In addition to its literary and dramatic value (you've never seen paper planes make such a powerful anti-war statement), In The Wound is an impressive achievement in traffic control. Performances continue through October 3 in John Hinkel Park. Don't miss it!

No comments: