Direct And To The Point: Midsummer Night’s Dream

This post is inspired by the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Lear deBessonet that’s currently playing at The Delacorte. Like any of any of Shakespeare’s works it has elements that are challenging to pull together. And some of the most successful moments occur where the expression of the text has been hyper personalized. My specific reflections are as follows:

Midsummer Nights Dream

Theseus and Hippolyta
– Every time I see this show, I have the same reaction to these characters, which is “why are these people here?!” To a certain extent, they seem like an odd layer of middle management – presiding over the lovers and mechanicals but not quite as powerful as the Fairy lords. The fact that their lines open and very nearly close the play makes them feel structurally important. But from a storytelling perspective, there is nothing of interest for the audience to track. As such, I wonder if you could start the play with Egeus’ grievance regarding Hermia and shift the Theseus/Hippolyta lines about their upcoming nuptials to later in the scene. It might not be possible, but if you could make that shift, it would introduce to them as serving a function in the story rather than being characters to pay attention to. I saw a bit of commentary about how Hippolyta standing up to Theseus would have been unusual for the time. I would love to see more made of this, especially given that Theseus offers Hermia the option of becoming a nun (rather than being put to death for not marrying her father’s choice of suitor). Presenting this dynamic is also interesting to me given that Theseus and Hippolyta are of higher social stature than the Lovers, meaning their behavior presumably becomes the standard to some extent.

The Lovers
– I absolutely loved what Annaleigh Ashford did with her interpretation of Helena. It’s easy for Helena to come off as desperate and clingy. But that comes from a place of weakness and isn’t terribly likable. Additionally, I don’t think it makes a whole lot of sense in the context of her actions. She actions strike me as plucky not desperate. In this production, Helena was portrayed as being determined and incredibly turned-on, and it was fantastic. What made this even better was that her determination then had to escalate to absurd levels, allowing for authentic, need-based comedy. I would have loved to see the other three lovers rise to this level of need. Part of the comedy to be had with regard to the Lovers is in watching the fluctuations in absurdity and the attempts to temper that absurdity. But you only get that payoff if their absurdities are solidly based in need AND their absurdities reach extreme proportions.
– That being said, you have to be careful with how that absurdity is expressed for the gents. You want to avoid the absurdity tipping over into something that might be read as dangerous. Danger is not funny. Perhaps their determination to win Helena could be channeled towards trying to look sexier than each other, or out dance each other or something like that. The important thing is to steer clear of anything that relies on force. When it finally escalates to them fighting with each other, I would try to make their battle as ridiculous as possible. Maybe one of them tries to rip up a whole tree (but can’t do it), then a whole tree limb (but still can’t do it) and finally goes to battle with a tiny twig (or droopy flower). While the other one tries to use his shoe as a weapon. Something that clearly highlights that they’ve completely lost their minds and aren’t even thinking coherently enough to do any harm. After all, when it comes to the gentlemen, their absurdity is result of a faire prank. An accident prank, but a prank nonetheless. The resulting action should be tonally on par with Titania falling in love with an ass.

The Mechanicals
– Strangely, with the Mechanicals, I feel like the challenge is try to find a unique presentation of these characters for your production. Because they are so well written, as long as the actors commit to their respective personalities and needs it’s rare for these guys to fall flat. So, while I usually enjoy these characters, I’m rarely surprised by anything in their interpretation. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but that would be my question during the design, casting and rehearsal process – to see if something different could be found in these characters and the journey they take (without taking anything away from what makes them wonderful).
An exercise I find helpful with regard to thinking in a new direction is to take the essence of what you’re looking at and consider where else in life you encounter that same essence. With regard to the Mechanicals, two qualities came immediately to mind. The first is that they are completely earnest. The second is that they are largely incompetent. With regard to the earnestness, other places where I have encountered that quality include children and people who are learning English as a second language. These are populations where the desire to understand and be clearly understood is of the utmost importance. If they can work in a joke, that is a huge accomplishment. But typically, the ability to be duplicitous or evasive is beyond them. With regard to the incompetence, the two examples that come to mind include the current administration down in Washington and the MTA. (Sorry MTA, but we both know things haven’t been great for you recently.) Neither of those options seem like they would be a good idea to pursue. They feel like things that could quickly devolve into bashing organizations that are not functioning optimally. And frankly, I don’t know that going in the direction of children or foreign speakers would be any better. But all four of those concepts are different from each other and are not the way the Mechanicals are typically conceived of. And while none seem like the answer, they might help generate an idea that would be terrific.
– Another thing I would mention about the Mechanicals is that it is tremendously important to keep the pace up throughout their performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. The ideal would be to keep it as funny as possible but also as tight as possible. Given that it takes place after virtually all of the other plot lines have been resolved makes it the “11 o’clock number” – something to thrill the audience and be done. Which is difficult to achieve, especially given all the asides by Theseus, Hippolyta and the Lovers. I would try to trim these down as much as possible and for the remaining interjections, make sure that there was always some business simultaneously going on with Pyramus and Thisbe – set change, costume change, dance number, something – as way to try to maintain momentum.

The Fairies
– One thing this production did that I particularly enjoyed was to have all of the Faires be older actors. As in, people who could have believably played grandparents. I appreciated this for several reasons. As a society, we tend to look through our senior citizens (which in this play, intersected well with the Faires being invisible to the humans). It also made sense to me that these characters were spirits of the earth who are responsible for the changing of the seasons and have been around for thousands of years. If they’ve been around for thousands of years, of course they’re old. And of course they might be bored and find it fun to toy with the human. Plus there’s something incredibly fun about a mischievous old person. So taking this approach to the casting made a lot of symbolic sense to me, but from a purely logistical standpoint, it made a clear visual distinction between the Faires and everyone else. Often I feel like productions try to establish this visual distinction purely with costuming. A sort of “that person is dressed in a glittery unitard, so I guess they must be of another world” kind of thing, which annoys me to no end. Dealing with “magical beings” is always challenging on stage. But I find that it is most effective when 1) you’ve defined what the rules are for these magical beings, 2) don’t try to do what you can’t (or don’t have the budget for), and 3) trust that your audience will suspend their disbelief for you if you let them. For this play, the degree to which the Faires influence the humans is pretty clearly laid out in the script. The only thing that really needs to be created for the audience’s benefit is that they exist in a different world. And by going in this direction with regard to casting, this production created that effect almost effortlessly.
– On the subject of age, I also appreciated that this production had the child who Titania and Oberon are fighting over present on stage. Because it’s only talked about in the script (and because it can be hard to cast a young child) many productions do not have this character appear. Which I totally understand. But it was really satisfying to have their bone of contention be made manifest.
– With regard Titania and Oberon, I don’t feel like they should be waging all out war over the boy. They are certainly squabbling over him, but they have made up by the end of the play, despite the fact that “ownership” of the boy has changed hands. To me this only makes sense if they are having a Cliff and Clair Huxtable type of disagreement. Meaning they are sincere about their differing positions and are going to be very active in trying to get their point across to the other party, but at no point do we as the audience ever think that they don’t love each other or that they will not find a way to resolve this dispute. This production (and most other productions that I’ve seen) didn’t go so far as to make it seem like Titania and Oberon were at war, but it also didn’t make it seem like this was a small matter in the scope of their relationship. I think the distinction that I’m looking for here is that it be established when we initially meet these characters that they do truly love each other and this disagreement is not going to be the end of everything. This is difficult given their initial lines to each other, but if the lines were played as teasing (coming from a place where both of them feel secure within the relationship) rather than launching an offensive (where the underlying current is “I’m ready to end this thing right now”) it might be possible. And it would make their eventual reunion make more sense to me. If that can be established, it also makes sense to me that Oberon finally calls for Puck to reverse the enchantment on Titania, because the prank has gone too far. If it’s not a solid and loving relationship to start with then I don’t know why Titania would amiably return to Oberon immediately after he took the child AND reveals to her that he made her fall in love with an ass.

Dreaming…while onstage
– The play seems to have an extremely high rate of people falling asleep on stage. Which is always kind of hard to make seem believable. I find the longer the window is that you can give actors to be falling asleep the easier it is to sell. I would want to look at the earliest point in the scene where I could have characters start to get drowsy and/or to see if there are moments where they can overhear or be drifting off during the following scene.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Taming Of The Shrew

The post is inspired by the all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which was just recently at the Delacorte. I was not planning on doing a post about this show, given that it’s not a play that I particularly love. But ignoring it seemed foolish. Shakespeare only wrote so many plays and this play is far more likely to be produced many of his histories. And if someone offered me the chance to direct it, I would be thrilled…and then I would be like “oh crap, how do I make this a story that I can stomach watching.” So in the interest of thinking along those lines, here we go.

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say every time I see it. I love seeing all these ladies playing roles they never get to play. I absolutely love it. In this production, the ladies who were playing male roles were costumed as men. In Ms. Lloyd’s all-female production of Henry V which I wrote about previously, the women were not actually costumed to look like men. Instead a masculine quality was suggested through their physicality. I prefer just making use of the physicality because it allows them the best of both worlds – being able to remain women, but take on characteristics that are traditionally viewed as male such as authority, aggression, bravado, etc. But, on the other hand, having them costumed as men, as they were in this production, did eliminate the friction around the question of what does gender mean when a play written for two distinct genders that’s now being performed by only one.

Taming of the Shrew

The Times did a feature article inspired by this production, asking whether or not we should continue to bother with producing this play. For it they interviewed Ms. Lloyd, Julie Taymor and Tina Packer (from Shakespeare & Company). Thoughts on the play seem to range from “it’s important to tell because of the present day misogyny that continues to exist” to “this is a love story between an atypical woman and her equal.” I agree with both of those view points to a degree. This production, by using the framing devise of a beauty pageant, suggests that life for women is one unending Miss America contest, which is valid but not exactly a story that I’m excited to tell. I do think this is a story about keeping up appearances. Every character except Kate is trying to convince us (and the people around them) that they are the picture of propriety. I’m interested in Kate learning (more appropriately, being forced to learn) how to play the game…so that she can undermine it. I’m more interested in saying “you have to be playing the game in order to change the game.” Which I think could be difficult to chisel out of this piece, but might be possible.

Whenever I’ve heard people talk about casting an actress for Kate, they talk about casting an actress who is strong and feisty. Which is the right answer. First and foremost we have to believe that Kate is a spitfire. But to some degree I wonder why any actress exhibiting those qualities would want to play Kate. For this production it felt like Kate spent the first third of the show spunky and spirited but the remaining two-thirds begging and pleading. Which is a valid rendering of what’s in the text. But if you’re trying to adjust what’s in the text for a contemporary audience I think you want to do whatever you can to keep the last two-thirds of her story from being pitiful. That spark shouldn’t be extinguished (or tamed), but rather should be channeled into different outlets. Without that spark, she ceases to be the woman that Petruchio actually loves.

Petruchio has to be different from any of the other men in this world. While he agrees to woo Kate primarily because of her dowry, I think he falls truly and unexpectedly in love with her because of her spirit. Petruchio is not interested in declawing the Tiger and rendering it harmless. If you declaw the Tiger then anyone can wield control over it. If you befriend the Tiger, then it maintains its power and you are in the unique position to be able to influence it. That is the more impressive feat. And in this world, where virtually all of the other men are strutting around trying to prove how impressive they are (in order to win Bianca’s hand), Petruchio can distinguish himself to Kate in their first scene by his sincerity. Granted the moments where he can do that are fleeting, but I think it can be done. Kate is the outcast of her society and the way to infiltrate an outcast is to say “I see who you really are, I understand you and I value you”. (This akin to the “you have never been satisfied” moment between Angelica and Alexander in Hamilton.) If Petruchio can communicate to Kate that he respects her and views them as equals, that’s something she can neither ignore nor run away from. Where Kate and Petruchio differ is that he is a master at playing the societal game, and he uses that knowledge to cheat the system. This is what he must teach Kate. In this production, Petruchio seemed to disregard societal norms entirely which I don’t think ultimately serves their relationship nor Kate’s arc (at least not in the way I’m interested in telling it). in my ideal world, the message that he communicates to Kate is “I get this world and I get you and I’m the bridge that’s going to enable you to say ‘buzz off’ the way you’ve always wanted to.” It’s admittedly a tall order based on what’s in the text, but I think it might be possible.

The Taming.
In order for this play to be palatable to me, I’m looking for three main things with regard to the “taming” of Kate.

  1. I need to believe that Kate and Petruchio are legitimately the perfect match for each other. For my money, their first scene together is when this has to happen. I’ve mentioned that Petruchio needs to be different from all of the other men in this play. Likewise, Kate needs to respond to him differently than she does to everyone else. Not that she doesn’t revert to tactics that she’s successfully used before (she does), but he gets under her skin (and into her brain) the way no one else is able to. And we need to see that difference. Additionally, any time either of them gets a rise out of the other, is a point for whoever stayed calm and a demerit for whoever got angry. To get angry is to admit that you’re losing ground. If you’re winning an argument, you’re not angry, you’re delighted. So, both sides want to avoid that as much as they can.
  2. I need the actual taming to seem as equitable and as necessary as it can be. Which is tricky. It can be helped if we see that Petruchio is suffering the ailments he’s inflicting on Kate as much as she is (i.e. neither one of them are able to sleep or eat and it’s miserable for both of them). Additionally, the distinction between behavior in public vs. behavior in private needs to be well established. In public, Kate needs to behave in a manner that suits her society. In private, when it is just her and Petruchio, she can be herself. I would love to try to establish that Petruchio only insists that she comply with his every command when they are in public – when there is at least one other character present on stage. This feels like a bit of a stretch, but the theme of keeping up appearances that is present, it might be possible to goose that. If this abusive behavior can be put in that context I think it can seem like less of something that Petruchio asserting his dominance and more about Kate learning how she has to play the game. I was struck in this production by the way that the “kiss me, Kate” moment occurred in private. As such, that moment has the potential to be about Petruchio asking for her affection in a really vulnerable way. And it’s a moment where Kate can discover (and reveal) that she actually is attracted to this person, contributing to this private standards vs. public standards, especially if this is only the second time that we’ve seen them be alone together (the first being the “bonny Kate” scene) and it is the first moment of real intimacy that we see between the two of them. In this production I wasn’t sure if Kate and Petruchio had slept together after the wedding ceremony, and that is a big deal. The societal expectation is that they would (and I think it’s important that we see Kate expect that), but if that were to happen at that point in their relationship, in light of how Petruchio just kidnapped her from her own wedding and is about to deprive her of food and sleep, it becomes too violent an act to get past if we want to establish the possibility of a genuine relationship between the two of them. It’s better for the story of their relationship, that we don’t think they have slept together until we can believe that Kate is a willing participant.
  3. I need some kind of interpretation of that final speech that allows me to believe Kate has not become a Stepford Wife. In this production, the groveling way in which Kate delivers this speech ends up winning her the beauty pageant which she has unknowingly been part of this whole time, which shocks her back to her senses and prompts her to reject everything she has previously said. I think that’s a valid interpretation (and gives its own spin to the Induction), but it’s not the one that I find most interesting. I’m more interested in treating the story as reality and trying to find a solution to how Kate and Petruchio can exist together afterward. Certainly, there are things that can help this last speech. It helps that in this moment Kate gets to throw Bianca and the Widow under the bus for their churlish behavior. Additionally, it’s also reasonable to say behaving like a jerk (even if it’s justified) only serves to make life miserable for everyone (yourself included). And if we’ve done what we can to establish a solid and loving relationship (or at least the foundation for one) between Kate and Petruchio, there is merit to saying “this is a partnership and in a partnership each party has certain responsibilities”. That being said I would likely look to trim some of the language about women being soft and husbands being demi-gods.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Post them below. The more, the merrier.

Direct And To The Point: Ladies, All The Ladies

This post is a response to the production of Henry IV, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, which was recently at St Ann’s Warehouse. Since this was my first time seeing a performance of Henry IV (and this production took the liberty of combining parts 1 and 2) I didn’t feel like it made sense to make this post about those texts. But I am interested in looking at one of the most notable things about this production – its all female cast. One of the things that I aspire to do as a director is to advocate for more and better roles for women. Shakespearean plays can be particularly uninspiring from this vantage point. Often, you’ll have 3 women’s roles to 15 men’s roles, and the size of those roles is significantly smaller in scope. And while Shakespearean plays are something of an open invitation for various conceptual ideas, it’s rare to see an all female production at this level. So, without further ado…Henry IV St Anns Warehouse

No apologies.

The single most striking element of this production was to see women in roles where there was no apologizing, no softness. In roles where they were initiating action, rather than just responding to what life threw at them. It was thrilling. An actress friend of mine had the opportunity to play Peer Gynt when she was in college. She summarized the difference of experience by saying that female roles are about being female, where male roles are about being human. Which sounds bold, but is actually very true especially with regard to females characters who are under the age of 40. Stories where there is a female protagonist are the minority. When they are the protagonist, their character arch typically revolves around love – falling in love, surviving love gone wrong, etc. And when they manage to avoid the love trap, they tend to be about responding to what’s happened to them – a parent has died, they’ve been diagnosed with cancer, a rebel droid won’t leave them alone. Female characters who pursue their own agenda are often portrayed as villains or deranged or both. I don’t find that to be an accurate representation of my life or the lives of the women I know. But when you hear all these stories and none of them reflect the reality you experience, you start to think it doesn’t really exist. So, it was refreshing on a really profound level to see these women have free reign to be fully human.

I forgot.

There were moments during this production where I forgot I was watching women, moments where I saw them as men. I find this fascinating, especially given that there was no attempt made by the production to disguise them as men. Because of the conceit of this production, that the story was taking place inside a women’s prison, all of the women playing male characters were dresses in grey sweats and t-shirts. But no effort was made to pass them off as men. Breasts were not taped down. If they had longer hair, it was simply pulled back in a pony tail. In an interview with Playbill, Lloyd mentioned that she had really encouraged the cast to use space the way men use space (ie. to take up more of it) and that shift felt very palpable. I love when you can do the heavy lifting of your story in an organic way rather than through special effects. If we want to impress people, special effects are great. But if we want people to be able to relate to us, it’s better to use our own facility.

The least interesting…

I found the two female characters of this production (Lady Percy and Mistress Quickly) to be the least interesting. I’m not entirely sure why that was. Certainly, they are among the smaller roles and are not intricately involved in the plot. But I wonder if having an all female cast contributed, in part, to that dynamic. In a production with traditional casting, these roles could display more masculine characteristics – Percy can be blunt in telling people exactly what she thinks, Quickly can crass and bawdy – without ever being in danger of confusing the issue of whether they are playing men or women. I don’t think these roles were intentionally pulled back, but they just didn’t standout. It’s worth thinking about how you distinguish your female roles from your male roles (and what function they serve) when your entire cast is female.

Still different.

I read an article recently that talked about the word “equal”. Its point was that we’ve begun using “equal” as a synonym for the word “same” and that we should strive to avoid that. Equal refers to a fixed quantity. Thus, men and women are not equal. They can have equal rights. They can be paid equal salaries. They can have equal intelligences. But they are not the same items. And when you replace one with the other, while many things will remain the same, there will be a shift in some things. One of the things my husband remarked on with regard to this production was that he missed the genuine affection and comradery between Hal and Falstaff that he had seen in more traditional productions. Which makes sense. The bulk of the interaction between these two revolves around Hal publicly humiliating Falstaff, a dynamic which is all in good fun among a group of guy friends. But among women, that dynamic doesn’t exist. Among women, that behavior is malicious and signals a major breach in the relationship. And since the women where not disguising themselves as men, this change of dynamic altered their relationship and significantly reduced the impact of Hal severing all ties with Falstaff in the final moments of the production.

Questions? Comments? Concerns? Post them below. The more, the merrier.