Direct And To The Point: Cymbeline

This post is inspired by The Public Theater’s most recent production of Cymbeline, directed by Daniel Sullivan. Previously, I had had the pleasure of seeing Fiasco Theater production of this work. These viewings make up the sum total of my background with this play.

As I understand it, this production harkened back to a previous production Mr. Sullivan and set designer Riccardo Hernandez had worked on together in 1999 at the Old Globe. It features a found space aesthetic, with locations being suggested by key pieces of furniture and seats which are visible to the audience for the actors to sit in when they are “off stage”. The cast is small with most everyone doubling or tripling roles. This is a style of performance that I find to be a lot of fun as an audience member. I feel like it allows me to engage with the imaginative aspect of the storytelling and not be distracted by other design elements. It feels more like we (actors and audience alike) are all playing make believe together. You can see all the gears of the machine as it’s working. (As opposed to the more typical style of theater where everything is hidden and you only see the pieces you’re shown.) I wish this production had embraced this style more fully. The costumes, for example, could have been more suggested than actualized, such that that actors could add or subtract pieces on stage in order to become their different characters. Rather than having to be hidden away in a changing booth for a complete costume change. The “off stage” seats for the actors were visible, but definitely in the shadows. I would have loved for them to be plainly on display. In the prologue type scene right at the top of the play, they make use of the audience by having them speak selected lines. I wish they had found a way to work this in at some other point in the play. But, stylistic quibbles aside, these are my thoughts as they relate to the storyline…Cymbeline

Imogen Descending.

I think it’s safe to say that the first scene, where Posthumus is being banished, marks the beginning of a series of events for Imogen where everything in her life gets progressively worse (until the last scene when everything is righted). As such, it’s crucial for the moments where it seems like things might be improving to be as joyful as possible. I think it’s also important to pace each subsequent tragedy so that the distress level is able to continue to rise with each new turn. And within that, to explore the full spectrum of emotions we feel when we’re in distress, in order to keep her story from becoming one-note.

The Stupidity of Cloten.

There is lots of fun to be had in the stupidity of Cloten, and I think Hamish Linklater milked each and every opportunity. But I think Cloten’s stupidity also has to contribute to his danger. It’s important to believe that he would be capable of making good on his threats to rape Imogen on Posthumus’ dead body, given the opportunity. It’s important to believe that he is a legitimate threat to Belarius and his boys if he were left alive. Otherwise, the beading just seems cruel (and not an expression of noble, princely instincts. His danger (which builds) is that he’s stupid and he’s increasingly frustrated by the fact that everyone knows he’s stupid. I think he needs to have a degree of physical brutishness to him, so that what he lacks in skill and intelligence he makes up for in rage and brute strength. He’s a terrible fighter with regard to having any actual ability when he gets mad and goes ballistic, damage will be done.

The Villainous Iachimo.

One of the things that I thought worked exquisitely in this production was Raul Esparza’s performance of Iachimo. It’s easy (and boring) for Shakespeare’s villains to fall into being evil for the sake of being evil. However, if you can convey some sort of reason for why they’re doing what they’re doing (which Shakespeare often leaves unanswered) it becomes mesmerizing.

In this production, Iachimo became that guy whose gaping insecurity makes it so that he always has to win, always have to have the last word, can never let an offense go – regardless of the cost to himself or others. This driving insecurity made everything else about him make sense.

The Villainous Queen.

Likewise, the Queen, being another villain, needs her motive. In the production that I saw by Fiasco Theater, if felt very clear that the Queen was on a mission to get Cloten on the throne (so that she could rule the country by dictating his every move). Her distain for both Cymbeline and Imogen as obstacles on this path were palpable. In this production, that wasn’t as strong and, as result, her deathbed confession seemed to come a bit out of left field. I knew that she was evil, but I didn’t get a clear sense of why and exactly who she was for or against.

Pisanio with the Potion.

I assume that Pisanio, being a smart and observant servant within the court, knows that the Queen is not to be trusted. As such, it begs the question why he believes that the potion he gets from her is capable of bringing people back from the verge of death. I think the way to package this is for her command that he make Imogen give up on the idea of being with Posthumus (and her threat that he should also disavow Posthumus if he knows what’s good for him) to be as menacing as possible. So that when she give him the potion immediately following that, it feels like a bribe or an act of making him complicit with her plans. Her speech to him needs to be like he’s just been chosen by the most violent of street gangs and he better deliver or else. That way the potion becomes a gift worthy of the stakes and it’s a shocking enough scenario that Pisanio never really stops to think about why she might have given him such a valuable thing.

The Bodies.

Aside from the fact that Shakespeare needs the bodies to be uncovered in order for his scene to continue to play out the way that it does, it’s ridiculously strange that Belarius and his boys leave the Fidele/Imogen and Cloten corpses uncovered. I don’t know if there’s anything that can really be done about, based on how the text is. I wonder if there’s a way to imply that the Belarius crew had to leave suddenly because of the approach of Caius Lucius and his men.

The Battle.

The battle scenes are quick and rather chaotic, especially given that Posthumus switches from fighting for Rome to fighting for Britain in the middle of it…and then ends up being jailed by the Brits. So, whatever can be done to make all of that clearer should be done. I feel like costuming that quickly and clearly distinguishes the Romans from the Brits is a good start. I also wonder if there’s a way to see Posthumus be caught with with some part of the Roman uniform on him. Like if the Romans where red capes and the corner of a red cape is seen sticking out of Posthumus’s bag? That seems a bit trite, but I was completely confused about how Posthumus ended up in Cymbeline’s jail. So perhaps something like that is worth it for the sake of clarity. Also, perhaps it makes sense to just cut that scene in jail? I think it’s enough if we know that he’s been captured by the Brits.

That Final Scene.

That final scene is a doozie with plot points wrapping up right, left and center. The thing that I really wanted from this last scene was better stage pictures. I don’t mean to imply that the pictures Mr. Sullivan and his cast created were not good ones. What I do mean, is that with all of the disparate plot lines coming together so quickly, it’s difficult to maintain visually what everyone’s relationship is to everyone else. I don’t have a solution for this, but I would definitely want to spend some time on it in rehearsal.

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

Direct And To The Point: Start At The Top

I recently had the pleasure of attending a talk back for Hamilton, the fantastic new show by Lin-Manuel Miranda that’s currently playing at the Public. The show is sung (or rapped) straight through from beginning to end. During the talk back, someone asked if Lin had ever considered making the format of the show be more like a traditional musical, with scenes broken up by songs. Lin responded that they had tried that, but because the language in the songs was so heightened there didn’t seem to be anyway for the scenes to maintain the momentum of the music. So, instead they opted to let the piece be sung through, to start at a high point and build from there. And, amazingly, this is exactly what watching the show feels like. The opening number feels like you’ve been shot out of a cannon and the story continues to escalate through the whole show. It’s one of the few performances where I’ve been exhausted by the end, as an audience member, because I have been watching and listening so intensely from start to finish.

This strikes me as a terrifying, but fantastic way to operate. Throw out the best idea you have and continue to raise the stakes. Often my instinct when I have an idea I’m really excited about is to view it as the climax (figuring out how to appropriately scale everything back that comes before it) rather than the starting point. This approach makes a lot of logical sense. It’s much easier to plot your course if you know where your going. Plus, if you start with your best idea right out of the gate, you’re in the daunting position of having to meet or exceed it in your next scene/song/moment. But the value of an artist lies in being able to present something in a way that feels fresh and new and relevant, not repackaging the same old thing over and over again. Which means part of our job description is stepping out onto a limb and taking risks.

If you want to do big things, you have to think big thoughts. The way we get to a point where we think in big thoughts, is by routinely stretching our brain (and our comfort level) to produce big thoughts. If you read any of James Altucher’s work (and I highly recommend it) this echoes his concept of how you can grow your creativity and train yourself to become an idea machine – by continually pushing your brain to think that way.

It’s not genius, it’s training. Time to start doing the heavy lifting.

(I’m trying to write shorter posts, so it’s easier for you to read and me to write. I can’t make any promises, but I’m trying.)

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

Direct and to the Point: Into The Woods

This post stems from The Public’s most recent production (remounted from a previous production at Regents Park) of Into The Woods. I’ve seen one other production of the show. And unlike some of the other theater lovers of my generation, I have not listened to the soundtrack ad nauseum. All of which is to say that I consider myself only casually familiar with the show.

Into The Woods LogoOverall, I think one of the challenges with this show is getting it to congeal. This is a show with millions of characters and almost as many plot lines. As such, hard to get all those characters to be in the same world and all those┬áplots to relate to each other. I find the theme of parent/child relationships to be a huge component of this show. By not double casting any of the parents or children, and therefore having each child’s respective ghost parent be present on stage toward the end (if I remember correctly, during No One Is Alone) this production did a great job of highlighting that. The other major theme for me (at least in how I’m currently thinking about the show) is one of violence and when/how/if it’s usage is justified.

Specifically, my thoughts on this production are as follows…

– A Little Boy for a Narrator.

One of the notable distinctions of this production was the use of a little boy to be the story’s narrator. I really enjoyed this. It was a conceptual twist that really served the story well. I think anytime you can make a shift like that and have it completely integrate and inform the story, it becomes really exciting for people who are aware of previous versions. (Without detracting from the story, for anyone who might be seeing it for the first┬átime.)

– Sexy Little Red.

In this production, the choice was made to have Little Red and the Wolf’s encounter be a sexual one. For me, in the specific context of this production, this interaction was a bit too graphic to fit within the conceit of being part of a little boy’s imagination. While I recognize that there are sexual innuendos scattered throughout the text of this show, I think they need to not be the focus. I think they need to stay implicit because making them explicit gives them, for my taste, too much importance. I wonder if instead, that Little Red and the Wolf’s relationship is one that could revolve around violence.

– And About That Wolf.

In a world where Giants are actually giants and witches are actually witches with spells and powers and whatnot, I think the Wolf should be a wolf. In this production the Wolf was merely a man in pursuit of Little Red. It didn’t bother me initially, but increasingly I think that there should be an effort to render him as a wolf. Though the story may be allegorical, the world, in actuality, is magical.

– Giants in the Sky.

I LOVE when theater is theatrical. I love when you can invite an audience to use their imagination to complete then picture. The use of puppetry elements to create the Giant in this production was absolutely magical.

– Witchery.

I think it’s crucial that we as an audience feel something for the Witch. Of all the parents we see in this story, she is the one who has done everything the way she should with regard to raising her child – and it still blows up in her face. And she owns up to that. That should be heart wrenching. And I think if you allow for that depth of pain, then you earn the bitterness for her final number.

– Getting the Glass Slippers.

Cinderella’s storyline goes something like this: I want it, I get it, it’s not really what I wanted at all. But the thing is, if you’ve fought really hard to get what you want, you’re supposed to want it once you get it. That means two things with regard to this piece. The first is that there’s a greater pay off to be had if Cinders works really hard to get what she wants. This probably means that contacting her dead mother could be a much bigger deal. It’s one thing to pray to your dead mother. It’s a whole other thing for your dead mother to respond and be able to help you in some way. I’ll grant that the world of the play is a magical one, but a miracle should still be miraculous. The second thing is that she needs to try really hard to like what she gets once she gets it.

– Mr. and Mrs Baker.

If there is a central plot line for Into The Woods, it belongs to the Baker and His Wife. As such, we need to care about them. For me, that means I need to believe in their relationship at the start of the play. If a relationship is fundamentally broken, it deserves to dissolve – there’s no sense fighting if there’s really nothing worth saving. If a relationship is fundamentally solid but is struggling to figure out a problem, that’s when I’m rooting for them to make to the other side. This is admittedly difficult to establish since they are arguing when we first meet them. However, some of the research that’s out there (if you haven’t already, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink) would seem to indicate that it’s not that people in healthy relationships don’t fight, it’s just that they fight ways that don’t destroy their relationship. So I think the key might be making a real effort to try to have them both be arguing for the relationship instead of against each other. It’s a subtle distinction, but I think that’s where the answer is.

– Her Fault.

The Baker’s Wife gets into something of an ethical quagmire when she cheats on her husband with the Prince. Potentially, it’s her blind idolatry for his royal highness coupled with the stumbling blocks she and her husband are experiencing in their own relationship that get her into the situation. But it’s how she gets out of that determines whether the audience will hate her. It’s worth noting that at this point in the show her husband has gone out of his way to give her the one thing she desires, and therefore our loyalties are likely to be with him. Additionally, the Prince has just told her their interaction was nothing but a one time fling. And then she has to decide what she’s going to do next in a direct address to the audience. I think choosing to return to her husband (not defaulting back to) is important. The lyric “just remembering you had an ‘and’ when you’re back to ‘or’ makes the ‘or’ mean more than it did before” needs to be true. It’s the “ah ha” moment that song has been building to. What she has with her husband has to be more precious than it ever has been previously as a direct result of her indiscretion with the Prince. There’s not a lot of space in the song for that discovery, but I think that’s the one thing that can redeem her to the audience.

– His Fault.

This thought actually came from reading an interview with Dennis O’Hare about his experience playing the Baker. O’Hare mentions that the hardest thing for him to understand about the Baker was how quickly the Baker gives up his son. And he’s right. It’s definitely a point worth shifting through. Every parent tries to do what they believe is best for their child. Sometimes when a parent believes that they are unfit to raise (or unworthy of) their child, the best choice they can think of becomes abdicating their role as parent to someone else. It’s presumably a choice that is riddled with guilt and shame. But it should be a choice. And it should be a choice that the audience gets to see.

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