Tag Archives: theater

Ion at the Shakespeare Theatre


Oh, what a wonderful thing theater is! I thoroughly enjoyed the Shakespeare Theatre’s new production of Euripides’ Ion, billed as a “Greek tragedy with a happy ending.” Though the “happy” part of the “happy ending” is always subject to nuance and debate, as the viewer must necessarily question the tidiness with which that “happy ending” is obtained….

The play is currently being staged at the Harman Center for the Arts, the newest venue for the Shakespeare Theatre, and I always find my time there well worth the effort. The play was only about an hour and a half in total, with no intermission, emphasizing the compression of time. In David Lan’s adaptation, the chorus–originally suppliants to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi–are modernized into tourists, a decision that works so perfectly with the idea of a suppliant to the oracle that I’m surprised that no one had done it before. The set design doubles this staging decision, retaining the “authenticity” of the temple place–Greek columns, flagstones, grueling steps, altar, grandiose doors separating the space outside the temple from the temple interior–but edging it round with the trappings of a tourist destination. The grueling stairs have been rendered safer with the addition of those metal handrails you might see at any scenic overlook, and the plaza is separated from the temple doors by a chain–no visitors beyond this point!

I won’t go into it all, but I was particularly interested–given that the play was being performed in Washington, DC–to note the resonance at times between Ion and our new President. Ion not only looked like Obama (whether this casting choice was deliberate, I don’t know, but I find it hard to believe the director could be so oblivious), but the character’s worries about being seen as an usurper, “son” to a non-Athenian but suddenly endowed with a massive political inheritance, could not but sound a note of familiarity.

If any from theater history are reading this, I highly recommend it and definitely encourage you to go! Try for half-price tickets via The Ticket Place.

Renaissance/Restoration Theater History

Last Wednesday, we had one of the best classes this term, I think–it was sad to see that some students were missing! We spent the first bit of class going over the midterm exam, especially the matching section, which many students found more difficult than I’d expected–this gave us the opportunity to talk about test-taking skills, context clues (thanks, Crystal!), and how to use information from one part of the test in another. After all, one way to think about college is as a testing ground for critical thought, or the ability to confront an unfamiliar situation with a body of skills that make the unfamiliar familiar, possible, sensible. I gave the class some sample essays that received high marks, to press home the need for content and precision. Ultimately, I was very impressed with the maturity of the class, many individuals having been confronted with lower marks than they may have expected. That led into two student presentations about critical essays on Ford’s ‘Tis Pity, both of which were excellent and led to a rich and stimulating discussion about the play’s ethical center, what it seemed to be saying/staging about the impact of a corrupt society on the individual moral sense, and what the play was suggesting about the unacknowledged and often ugly realities that make us who we are. Both of the presenters did an excellent job with the assignment, and this makes me more and more certain that this kind of presentation is the way to go. I’ve never gotten this level of nuance and careful assessment from freer oral assignments, and I’ll definitely use this format in the future.

We moved on from there to a (gasp!) powerpoint on the Renaissance/Restoration context–we covered quite a bit of material in a short space of time, and I think that for such a vast swathe of history a slide collection makes sense. Though it pained me to do it. I don’t feel it compromised the nuance and messiness of the information, though, so I’ll consider doing it again in the future. One student, coming to me in office hours, pointed out something that I’d not quite put into words about both my approach to “lectures” and the text we’re using–the textbook isn’t a “regular” textbook, she said, meaning that it doesn’t have highlighted terms or summaries at the end. She made a valid point; any study of literature, culture, history is necessarily gray, and it does students a real disservice, I think, to eviscerate that “this/and,” “yes/but” truth. In order to help students get a firmer grasp on the textbook material, the next post asks them to come up with their own reading guide question and a sample response to it–questions getting at especially useful or relevant information I’ll incorporate into the final exam. At any rate–digression!–we went over the main tensions and arcs of the periods in question, focusing especially on the changing material structure of the theater as a window into these larger trends. We had less time to spend on the Restoration context, but since we’re also discussing The Rover next week, that’s alright.

For the last portion of class, we enjoyed another excellent student presentation on Behn’s play that particularly addressed its rape culture. That led into an equally stimulating, if somewhat brief, discussion about what the setting of carnival meant for the women’s agency–and the class confusions the play stages under cover of masquerade. How does one distinguish between a “woman of quality” and a “harlot”–which a rover might “ruffle” without fear of repercussion?

Finally, I have to admit I’m extraordinarily excited about the final projects in this class–one group is creating a Lysistrata MySpace network (with notes, writing on walls, group-joining, and so on) performing the chronology and character development of the play; one student wants to create a graphic novel of either The Rover or Tartuffe; one group wants to create a mini-documentary a la Operation Lysistrata; another student is creating a scale model of a particular ancient Greek theater. A good handful are also interested in writing essays, which I’m also looking forward to, as we haven’t had so much time to devote to the plays themselves. The last month and a half will be interesting!

Ushering for "Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine"

On Saturday, I immensely enjoyed ushering for the CenterStage‘s production of Fabulation; or, The Re-Education of Undine. This season has been fabulous–with only one exception, The Matchmaker, I’ve seen every show through the magic that is volunteerism, and I’m not quite sure what my favorite’s been. The Kushner musical Caroline, or Change; the infamous Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; or Lynn Nottage’s funny-beautiful Fabulation–all have good cases in their corners…. Fabulation is a contemporary piece riffing on some of the same themes as Caroline; it’s a very Afro-centric play, but it doesn’t speak exclusively to people of color. It suggests that the world we immerse ourselves in creates identity, and that identity can just as easily be re-created–it’s a hopeful play, but a play not without acknowledgement of the pains attending any re-education.

The play’s title alludes to a the German folk tale of Undine, a water nymph that fell in love with a human man, bore his child, and was therefore consigned to mortality on land; however, when she found that he had become unfaithful, she cursed him with wakefulness and returned to the sea. This tale is, of course, the basis for Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid,” butchered in recent memory by Disney. The play doesn’t take up the subplot of the folk tale, Undine’s curse on her erstwhile husband,  but it does suggest that Nottage’s Undine–and by extension the many women in the play like her–has somehow exiled herself from her “authentic” identity (or at least, one part of her identity) in her quest to become part of the Black upper-middle class. In the first minutes, we learn that her husband, Herve, has not only left her–in part because she  herself drifted away–but also left her with nothing, cleaning out their joint accounts. Undine, rejected by her upwardly-mobile friends, returns to her home in Brooklyn, a past that she figuratively killed by creating a story of her rise in which her family died in a fire. Her grandmother, whom everyone thinks of as diabetic, is actually addicted to heroin, and Undine is pressed into service as a runner–when she gets pinched by the police and sentenced to rehab. She discover’s she’s pregnant, and–now a member of the poor underclass–must navigate the abstruse and illogical bureaucratic system signified by the Social Security Office to get an abortion appointment. By the time she finally comes face to face with a doctor, he informs her that she’s in her third trimester, and an abortion is impossible. In this Job-like fable, Undine is not only routinely stripped of every piece of armor and every bit of stable ground, but she is also forced to confront the part of herself she surgically removed in her own fabulous (the word is deliberate!) rise to fame in the business world.

While we can take issue with the one-dimensional idea that Brooklyn represents a forsaken authenticity and the white PR world of Manhattan represents an illusory fraudulence (literally, as Undine’s Latin husband has cheated not with another woman, but with her money and her idea of him), the play does an excellent job dramatizing the real distance between the two worlds, as well as the way our identity is often bound up with the discourses of each. As Undine falls further and further away from the life she’s grown accustomed to, the life she desires far away from her parents’ Brooklyn walk-up and her humorously heroin-addicted grandmother, the child inflicted upon her by husband Herve becomes a sign of her new life–and the pains attending its birth. The play could easily fall into sentimentalism, but it doesn’t; in part because of the play’s pervasive, sharp-edged humor, and in part becuase of the interesting choice to double Herve and Guy, the former addict Undine meets in her court-mandated therapy and with whom she later falls in step. Nottage avoids sentimentalism, too, by emphasizing the fabulation; the play names itself a fable, and it treats itself as such from start to finish–it is a fable that, like Undine’s brother’s epic poem on Brer Rabbit, has real political significance, but is capable of addressing those politics from the slight remove offered by the stage.

(The other thing that occurs to me, as I’m remembering the play, is Undine’s own affair with her mediocre rap-star client. In the staging, we were clearly to see him as “inauthentic,” a gangster who uses most of his six-figure income to associate himself with the streets; Undine treats him with condescension, a condescension that belies her own attempts to remove herself from her past. I’m not sure what to do with this, especially given the intertext of the water-nymph’s curse. Any ideas?)

Dog in the Manger Discussion, Presentations, and Incest Plays!

Last Wednesday we were finally able to get back together as a class and contemplate our response to the Shakespeare Theatre’s production of Dog in the Manger, and I was very gratified to see how eager everyone was to discuss! Many students had questions that, significantly, we couldn’t really find good answers to–like the significance of the singer and the painting that appeared throughout the play as a backdrop or as a prop, even visible on the singer’s skirts. We discussed how a good production needs to have a coherent, accessible, and articulatable purpose that ties the set design to the acting to the larger themes of the play; sadly, this one didn’t. Though it was entertaining, don’t get me wrong! Students were particularly confused by the singer, but the giant neon skull was also a topic of debate–which led us into a discussion of postmodern pastiche, perhaps the only really viable approach to the production I could see. The play’s title reference was helpful here; the Countess was the titular dog in the manger, neither allowing her Secretary to eat nor deigning to eat, herself, but trapped, immobile, between two impossibilities. That is, of course, until the utterly farcical conclusion (and I mean that in a good way!), which turned the impossiblity into an “impossibility.”

We spent quite a bit of time on the question of authenticity, because that’s an important question that both the play and the production raises–is true love even a possiblity for these people, so consumed with class and status? Is the Secretary really a nobleman, after all? I tried to convey the anti-authentic perspective of postmodern pastiche, and we speculated on this as a viable reading of the performance choices. Ultimately, we felt it didn’t quite work, but it is important to exercise the rational faculty, all the same! Students tend not only to want the emotion to be real,  but also to see anything that questions the viability of such authenticity as “bad,” period. Hopefully, the performance raised an awareness about the nature of realism–it’s essentially a style, not a truth.

We also had the first two group research presentations, which did leave something to be desired. One presenter in each group clearly put more effort into the project. I was happy to see the class as a whole interacting with the presentations, pressing their peers where necessary, asking questions, trying to move the discussion forward. I hope, though, that the rest of the class was paying close attention….

The discussion of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore didn’t seem to go as well as I thought it would–I expected students to have strong opinions, questions, something! I hope a group or two will attend the performance at CenterStage, though–it would not only be a good experience in general, but it would put the play into the necessary concrete context. I am afraid the reason behind the desultory quality of the discussion had to do with the language of the play; it may have presented a difficulty for some readers? Then again, we did seem to get somewhere with a brief discussion of Giovanni’s disputational strategies, the way he emphasizes reason at the expense of custom and form, Bergetto’s tragedy, Ford’s representation of the Cardinal, the question of class (is this a “city tragedy”?  why is Grimaldi not punished?) and authority, and the troubled issue of our sympathies. With whom are we meant to sympathize, and why? Is this really a play about incest, or is it more a play about the dark, sharp, ugly undercurrents of an increasingly mercantile society still governed by aristocratic privileges?

One of the things I find fascinating about the play is that Annabella and Bergetto are the two most sympathetic characters, though both are clearly depicted as flawed but undeserving of their fates. Bergetto is childish, perhaps even idiotic, and killed mistakenly and unjustly when on the brink of love, and Annabella is seduced, impregnated, and horribly killed by her brother at the virtual moment of birth. All the murderers are egged on by their own arrogance and unwillingness to let another get the best of him. I can’t wait until March 15th, when I’ll be seeing the performance here in Baltimore!

Fuente Ovejuna, Midterms, Essays and World Literature

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so these next few will be a bit spare, sadly. The midterm crunch is getting to me just as much as to my students, I think! The past week, in 203, we spent most of our time on Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna, which students really seemed to enjoy; one student in particular surprised me (Melissa!) by participating actively and passionately in the discussions. The text is not only accessible, but it also works on so many different levels that the work of analysis becomes almost easy–there’s the plot and the subplot, which dovetail nicely, allowing one to comment on the other or to operate as a metaphor for the other. Students seemed readily open to the idea of love–and lovemaking–as a metaphor for legitimate, moral, right action between individuals, and from the metaphor of interpersonal behavior to the significance of community. Both of these forms of interaction emphasize interpersonal responsibility; the town becomes one composed of many parts, just as the couple or the family unit does, and each part has a responsibility to the other. The Commendador’s vision of interpersonal relationships is very one-dimensional, linear, non-reciprocal, which tends to fragment the self from the other.

So far, only one student is working with Lope de Vega for the first essay, which I’m a bit surprised about; however, I don’t think I put any sample essay topics about the play on the assignment sheet. I’ll definitely have to incorporate some of those in later classes.

The midterm happened on Tuesday, and I’m eager to see what everyone’s done; I’m hoping to finish that grading pile by Monday, though as Robert Burns has said, “the best laid plans….”