The Changeling, 2018, Brave Spirits Theatre
Recently the Renwick Gallery here in Washington, D.C., hosted a Burning Man art exhibit. Included was a smaller version of Marco Cochrane’s sculpture Truth is Beauty, made of steel rod, tubing, and covered by a stainless steel mesh. The piece depicts a woman with her head thrown back, on her tip-toes, and stretching toward the sky. It is meant to convey a woman expressing her humanity. Displayed at Burning Man in 2013, the original sculpture was fifty-five feet tall and had a base which included an inscription in multiple languages: “What Would The World Be Like If Women Were Safe?”
That world is so far from reality, I cannot even imagine it. When we started The Changeling, I thought I would keep a running tally of how many news stories about men assaulting women I would see over the course of the rehearsal process. I found I couldn’t bear to keep count.
The perennial dramaturgical question, “why this play now?” is not typically how I find my way into a production as a director. But this time around, it is all I could think about. This play is four hundred years old, yet every moment of it I recognize from my life, and from the lives of my friends. What did it mean to be staging it now as we once again asked women to publicly relive their trauma? What did it mean to ask audiences to watch a play about men’s physical and emotional subjugation of women while our own nation was once again showing women how little our pain counts, particularly when it threatens to get in the way of the ambitions of a white man?
There are no easy answers. But what theatre asks us to do is to witness: the lives, the hopes, the actions, and the sorrows of other people. The successful confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court marked a supreme failure of Americans to witness the pain of women. And we have been here before. In this theatre, as part of this audience, you are agreeing to witness--together. And maybe, once we are able to witness, and we are witnessed, we might finally be able to imagine what that Truth is Beauty world would be like.
Coriolanus, 2017, Brave Spirits Theatre
Watching the season selection for Shakespeare companies over last year, this year, and next year, certain titles have been showing up more frequently than usual: Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, and Coriolanus. Artistic directors seem to be drawn to these plays because they contain stories they wish to tell in this particular moment in America.
Coriolanus has never been particularly popular, but it has always been political. Directors and adaptors have seen wildly different messages in the play. Nahum Tate called his 1682 adaptation The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth, whereas John Dennis titled his The Invader of his Country (1720), their opposing viewpoints demonstrated in their titles. I have long been fascinated with this difficult play, a play which was co-opted by both Brecht and the Third Reich for opposite political purposes. Unsurprisingly, Brecht’s adaptation refocuses towards the people. In contrast, Nazi Germany saw the play as portraying the corrupt nature of democracy and the necessity for a strong military leader. Directors often use their productions to put forth a thesis as to who is the hero and who is the antagonist. In some stagings, Coriolanus is an arrogant tyrant. In others, the people are foolish and fickle. Sometimes, the tribunes are marked as the clear villains, two power-hungry politicians manipulating the people for their own ends.
I think Shakespeare’s truth is somewhere in the middle. As humans, we want to easily divide everyone into clear-cut categories. This person is trustworthy. This person is deplorable. A traitor. A patriot. With us. Against us. But the more complicated reality is that a hero and a villain lies within each of us. And I find this reading more palpable, more frightening: what if all of these characters are doing what they think is best, and destruction still can’t be avoided? Earlier eras used this play to pose questions about the power of the masses and the necessity of a great man. But the question Coriolanus asks us today is: are we even capable of not harming ourselves?
ANDREA: Unhappy the land that has no heroes. ...
GALILEO: No. Unhappy the land where heroes are needed.
-- Brecht, The Life of Galileo
'Tis Pity She's a Whore, 2017, Brave Spirits Theatre
In John Ford’s gruesome tragedy, siblings Giovanni and Annabella commit what is seen as a universal horror: incest. Even Vasques, Soranzo’s amoral servant, is taken aback when she learns the news: “Her own brother? O horrible!” Though almost all the characters are aghast at the news of Giovanni and Annabella’s sexual relationship, none of the are without blame. Vasques arranges torture and murder; Soranzo seduces and abandons a lover; Hippolita commits adultery and hopes for her husband’s death; Grimaldi and Hippolita each seek to poison Soranzo; and Richardetto’s selfish actions lead to the death of an innocent victim.
Ford fills his play with unrepentant characters, leaving the audience to question who is truly villain of the piece. The Cardinal wraps up the play pointing the finger squarely at Annabella: “Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store, / Who could not say, ‘’Tis pity she’s a whore?’” But Annabella’s sexual activities were consensual and faithful. The Cardinal presents a moral, but we’ve already seen him mishandle justice on behalf of a relative and seize the property and goods of Giovanni and Annabella’s family in order to enrich the church. Like the rest of the characters, the Cardinal has a compromised ability to judge right from wrong.
The beauty of this play is in Ford’s ability to make us sympathize with the characters who are supposedly committing the worst sin. When surrounded by characters more corrupt than they, the lovers, though incestuous, become pure by comparison.
Antony and Cleopatra, 2016, Brave Spirits Theatre
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616, at the age of fi fty-two. This year, 2016, marks the passage of four hundred years since his death. Around the globe, theatre companies and artists are celebrating with lectures, performances, readings, and other cultural events. It may seem strange to celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death, but I think what we have to be glad of here is the fact that Shakespeare did not end on that day in April so many years ago. Instead he has continued to inspire countless theatrical productions, dance pieces, musical compositions, artworks, essays, and more. His plays have afforded us endless opportunities to explore the meaning and power of drama, the wonder of language, and questions of humanity.
Brave Spirits is proud to be part of this year-long celebration with our production of Antony and Cleopatra. This sprawling, massive play seemed an appropriate choice for honoring Shakespeare’s equally massive legacy. Jetting between Egypt and Rome and back again, with over fifty speaking characters, and a number of quick scenes in quick succession, Antony and Cleopatra has frequently been described as Shakespeare’s most fi mic play. Instead of trying to make it feel like a movie, however, our approach has been to bring out what it is that makes this instead a work of theatre. A constantly moving ensemble of ten actors; movement and imagination instead of realism; juxtaposing the large-scale with the intimate. Through this production we celebrate the nature of storytelling, the magic of theatre, and the playwright who has given us so much, William Shakespeare.
Two Noble Kinsmen, 2014, Brave Spirits Theatre
The world of The Two Noble Kinsmen is one in which women are left without much choice. In the main plot line, two cousins and best friends, Arcite and Palamon, become enemies when they both fall in love with Emilia, Theseus’s sister-in-law. To stop them from fighting, Theseus tells Emilia to pick one to marry. When she refuses, he decrees that whichever of the two can win a contest of strength shall have Emilia as his prize. The fact that Emilia loves neither man doesn’t matter.
Emilia has not been treated kindly by male critics. In 1908, Tucker Brooke agreed with F.J. Furnivall’s unfavorable comparison of her to “a silly lady’s maid or shop girl, not knowing her own mind, up and down like a bucket in a well.” But I think any woman reading the play today recognizes that the problem isn’t that Emilia doesn’t know her own mind, it’s that Theseus doesn’t consider her mind important in solving the issue.
Such a situation is one that women today know all too well. Recently a video about catcalling, produced by Hollaback!, has gone viral, bringing attention to the harassment women face on a daily basis. Everyone I know who posted the video on Facebook had a man write comment after comment explaining to them why women shouldn’t be offended, why women shouldn’t be afraid, why women were overreacting. Multiple women chimed in to explain why such behavior was offensive and how it made them feel unsafe. Despite this, these particular men point-blank refused to reconsider their actions. One man said, “I will continue to say hello to pretty ladies that walk by me on the street.” Another remarked, “I will keep asking you to smile because your sadness will inevitably lead to someone else’s.” Our own minds didn’t matter.
At the end of The Two Noble Kinsmen, Theseus explains the action of the play by stating “Never Fortune / Did play a subtler game.” For him, the gods have fairly and justly brought about the troubling results of the plot. In this play, as in life, we may find Theseus’s summation unsatisfying.
Richard II, 2013, Mary Baldwin College MFA Production
I have a thing for Shakespeare’s history plays. In particular, I love the neglected history plays. In undergraduate survey courses, I discovered my preference for reading these plays over the tragedies and the comedies. In 2008, I witnessed the RSC’s cyclical production of the eight English history plays, under the direction of Michael Boyd. I learned then how effective, how exciting, and how touching these plays are in performance. As my class prepared for our MFA year, I began thinking about and campaigning for Richard II. I felt that the play would highlight our strengths, while providing ample opportunity for growth. The cast and I found much joy in exploring the scansion and rhetoric of Richard II, a play that is written entirely in verse. The play provided wonderful roles for both the younger and the experienced members of our class, allowing us to believably play the generational differences, family dynamics, and parent- child relationships that are so important for getting to the heart of history plays.
Richard II also made a surprisingly ideal selection for the extreme casting slot. With only five actors, the reasons to avoid history plays are clear: they have larger cast lists, unfamiliar plots, and large fights. Richard II, however, never stages a battle. Despite the play’s large character list, the majority of its conversations take place between four or fewer characters. Past MBC extreme casting productions have made much of the inherent comedy that occurs when actors rapidly switch back and forth between characters. Richard II’s DNA, however, does not much call for this, allowing this production to stand in stark contrast to the more frantic rhythms of its companion piece, The Insatiate Countess. I encourage you to see both productions to experience the range of performance possibilities that occur when your main ingredients are the text, five actors, and the imagination.
Richard III, 2012, Brave Spirits Theatre
When re-reading this play last fall, I was struck by how Shakespeare emphasizes the movement of bodies. Most obvious, of course, is the movement of the main character. Physically deformed and with a limp, Shakespeare’s Richard moves differently than every other character in the play; his differences provoke negative comments throughout the text. Not only is Shakespeare the first author to portray the character with a limp, but Richard’s deformities are also commented upon much less in the two other contemporary plays, The True Tragedy of Richard III and Legge’s Richardus Tertius. Shakespeare alters the tradition of Richard’s deformities and repeatedly draws attention to them.
Second, there is the aided movement of characters, both dead and alive. The corpse of Henry VI is conveyed across the stage and begins to bleed; blood flows through “cold and empty veins.” The First Murderer has to drag Clarence’s body offstage. King Edward requires Hasting’s assistance to return to his chamber. Several characters move through the space on their way to execution, soon to become headless bodies. Hastings’ head, notably sans his body, appears on the stage.
Third is the introduction of new bodies in the fifth act: Shakespeare presents brand new characters late in the text. From the outset this seems like bad writing, but I think Shakespeare decidedly chose this approach rather than creating larger roles for fewer characters. He creates a world in which people constantly enter and exit the story.
Finally, there is the movement of the actors’ bodies. Depending on differences between the folio and quarto texts, there are up to 52 speaking roles. Shakespeare’s company of actors would probably have been slightly larger than ours, but they would have doubled (and tripled) roles, as our cast is doing. In small companies like ours and Shakespeare’s, the group is juggling a lot of roles between few people. Actors are constantly in motion, changing costumes, and entering and exiting the stage. I chose to do the play with as few actors as possible: ten, which is the greatest number of characters that appear on stage at any given time. I also cut only three small speaking roles from the play; you’ll see many characters in this production that are often removed by other directors. In keeping the cast small and thus bringing attention to the doubling, I am hoping that we will discover something about the magnitude of the world Shakespeare has created.
Heightening the doubling to this extreme also serves to support the inherent theatricality of the script. I would argue that Richard III is one of Shakespeare’s most rhetorical plays, perhaps only outdone by Richard II. The language, and its use of repetition, parallelism, antithesis, and other rhetorical devices, is incredibly self-conscious. To meet this play on its own terms, we must embrace its bold rhetoric and theatricality.
Richard III’s reliance on rhetoric and theatricality must be due in part to Shakespeare’s youth. Antony Sher quoted his director Bill Alexander describing the play thusly, “It is a young writer’s play. It is a young director’s production. It is a young Shakespearian actor’s performance. It has the crude vitality all of that implies.” Alexander’s observation is astute. After all, Richard III was only 32 when he died. Looking at the historical events, Richard is only 19 at the opening of the play. (Shakespeare conflates time a great deal in this play.) Thank you for joining me, the cast, and Travis Blumer, our young Richard, as we explore and enjoy the crude vitality of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
The Spanish Tragedy, 2009, The Rude Mechanicals, MD
where words prevail not, violence prevails
I never realized how violent the Elizabethans were until college. One semester I took an English course on Renaissance Drama. The course did not include a single play by Shakespeare, with the result that most of the plays we read were completely new to me. They are plays that do not get performed very often, if at all. But they are plays I cannot forget. The remarkable acts of violence contained in them left me breathless: Bajazeth braining himself on his cage in Tamburlaine, D’Amville accidentally smashing his own skull in The Atheist’s Tragedy and of course, the end of The Spanish Tragedy. I got the same excited and grossed out feeling when I first saw the Bride squish Elle’s eyeball in Kill Bill. But that response is to a lesser degree: after all, anything is possible on film. The fact that such feats were attempted four hundred years ago in front of a live audience fascinates me.
The Elizabethans believed in theatre that was bold and exciting. Actors and playwrights had to fight for the attention of the audience. No doubt this is one reason revenge tragedy was so popular in the early modern era. The Elizabethans were inundated with violence in their daily lives. Criminals were publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered. Londoners would have seen heads stuck on spikes as they crossed the Tower Bridge. Bear-baitings were a popular form of entertainment. It is no wonder that playwrights included violent spectacle in order to draw audiences.
Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is in many ways the premiere example of this. It was the father of the revenge tragedy, the most popular genre of that time. The Spanish Tragedy was one of the most performed plays of its time and went through eleven printed editions between 1592 and 1633, a number which no play by Shakespeare can match. Its influence was profound. Other writers borrowed from, quoted, and parodied The Spanish Tragedy. One scholar has counted over one hundred allusions to the play by Kyd’s contemporaries and successors. The similarities to Shakespeare’s Hamlet are so numerous that some have claimed Kyd wrote the Ur-Hamlet off of which Shakespeare based his masterpiece.
That is not to say these plays were not without their detractors. Attacks were consistently made on the stage in the form of pamphlets. Puritan authors denounced the stage as portraying and encouraging the evils of mankind. One clergyman blamed the stage as the cause of the visitations of the plague. In his mind, heaven was punishing the Elizabethans’ ungodliness. Sound familiar?
Like the Elizabethans, our modern American culture simultaneously celebrates and abhors violence. After several occurrences of school violence in the late 90s, President Clinton ordered a study into whether the entertainment industry was luring children to violent films, music and games. Many blamed Hollywood for creating a culture of violence.
Despite the opinion that violent films lead to violence in real life, these movies often translate into successful box office numbers. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was such a popular TV series that producers created two spinoffs, one in New York and one in Miami. The success of Martin McDonough, who is the most frequently performed playwright in North America after Shakespeare, is another indication of our culture’s preoccupation with violence. And what else could explain the existence of five Death Wish’s?
But this doesn’t tell us why. Why did the Elizabethans love revenge tragedy? And why do we love stories of revenge today? Beyond just being shocking, these plays and films force us to confront a part of our humanity we would like to deny. We are simultaneously repulsed by and attracted to extreme violence. Revenge is seductive. The fact that we can have such power over another being’s life is elating. The fact that even the best of us could be driven to make use of that power is humbling. We know the act of revenge is wrong, yet all of us feel its pull. Revenge tragedies force us to consider this very human dichotomy, and remind us that no matter how attractive the idea of revenge is, or how necessary it may seem, we should always find the results abhorrent.