Tuesday, April 26, 2011

May 4th: Ron Pullins' Pico

While I have mentioned that I am rehearsing with Teatro delle Maschere for the Shakespeare Slam on April 30th, I am also in rehearsals for Ron Pullins' play, Pico, which I had the pleasure to read back in February at the Small Theatre Alliance of Boston's Open Mic Night where I was presenting a scene from my own work-in-progress, The Conversos of Venice.

I was so taken with Ron's script that I lobbied for the part!

My lobbying efforts paid off: under the direction of Daniel Bourque, I am rehearsing with Thomas Collins, Sally Nutt, and Shelley Wood, as part of F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company's Second Annual Ten-Minute Play Festival, May 4th at the Arsenal Center for the Arts. 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown, MA. Showtime is 7:30pm. Tickets are $15 at the door.

Monday, April 25, 2011

IRNE Intrigue, Part II

Previously, I wrote an account of, as best as I understood it, the pressure campaign placed on the Independent Reviewers of New England (IRNE) to dismiss Hub Review critic, Thomas Garvey from their membership. IRNE, had refused to dismiss Garvey, but Garvey announced his resignation in order to take the pressure off of his fellow reviewers. More remarkably, after Garvey had announced his resignation, Director of Press and Public Relations for the American Repertory Theatre, Katalin "Kati" Mitchell, in a comment to the Hub Review, essentially admitted that she had co-authored a letter with Shawn LaCount, Artistic Director of Company One (along with contributions from unnamed individuals supposedly representing six other theatre companies) demanding Garvey's removal.

Leaving aside the fact that I am an avid reader of The Hub Review, this would be an outrageous situation in the case of any critic. Critics are an essential part of the larger theatre community. Even were we to consider a hypothetical situation in which a particular critic was a "bad apple" and needed to be removed from an awards committee, this is the sort of case that needs to be made in public to the theatrical community as a whole, free of threats, not behind the scenes by a select group that does not represent the theatre community as a whole in which IRNE critics are threatened with having their privileges revoked if they do not disbar one of their own. These machinations showed a disrespect for the theatre community. Mitchell and LaCount et alia still have not made their case to the rest of us as to why they believed theirs was the proper course of action (Mitchell had promised to share the letter she and her ad hoc committee had drafted, but no such letter has been forthcoming.)

Last month, I asked:

[P]ro-Garvey or anti-Garvey, this is being discussed on the telephone, by email, and in face to face conversations amongst theatre people, but no one in the local theatre press is covering this story either in print or online. Would the press be so quiet if something similar had occurred on the theatre scene in New York? Chicago? Washington, D.C.? Seattle? Minneapolis?
Art Hennesey followed up and asked "When Will Boston Know It's A World Class Theater City?" Boston Globereporter Geoff Edgers, in response to my prodding, did mention the spat at the Exhibitionist blog only to dismissively ask "All right, Ian. We give. Does this count?"

Yesterday, Larry Stark, IRNE member, editor of The Theatre Mirror issued the following Open Letter to the ART:

Regrettably, until further notice, I shall not be attending any productions by the American Repertory Theatre (A.R.T.). Let me explain:

I have frequently been critical of other critics. In some cases, this has been my "internal editor" quibbling about style; at other times, it has been an attempt to let critics feel the personal pain that damaging criticism can cause in people who must get up before another audience knowing that critics' comments have shaped what at least some in that audience might thus believe.

But, even admitting these opinions, I believe even the harshest of critics, deep down, really love theater --- that creators and critics are really "on the same side". Sometimes it may look as though a critic Loves Theater To Death; still, in an austere era many of my colleagues are continuing to write critiques without being paid to do so, their love is that strong. And they try to apply their personal standards in as impartial a manner as possible, though it may not always look that way from outside. That, I think, is the critic's job.

The job of a Public Relations Coordinator for any particular theater company, though, is necessarily biased. The goal there is to get that same potential audience to view the company's shows in the best possible light, to see and appreciate what is there, and to come back again and again for more. And it may seem that P/R people and critics are at war --- especially when they disagree, with one seeing only negatives while the other must accentuate the positive.

But those on both sides operate in what is called "The Free Marketplace of Ideas" --- and audience-members may decide for themselves which one is right. This, at least, is how I assume the game should be played.

Lately, I have heard rumors that a vicious "kill the messenger" attitude threatens this entire structure. I have often voiced my opinions privately or written them publically, but deliberate attempts to disgrace or disbar or silence someone's free voice I cannot tolerate nor condone. I therefore sent the following letter to the producer at the American Repertory Theatre protesting what I see as disgraceful behavior, stretching back over many years, that has no place in that "Marketplace of Ideas" which I fervently hope will remain free.


Dear Ms. Borger:

Of late I have heard astonishing stories and rumors of the antics of a person in your employ referred to as "Catty" by those who have had contact with her. I undertstand that Public Relations work necessarily involves some sorts of manipulation; however, if even half of what I've been told is true, this person has no ethical standards whatever. I am astonished that you continue to employ anyone who so totally misunderstands her profession, and mine.

You must realize that in the climate created by her actions, any positive reviews of your company's work can be construed as written out of fear of this woman's power to ruin the reputation of anyone voicing opposite opinions.

I cannot believe you are ignorant of this situation, but you must be aware that continuing to employ her in such a sensitive position can only be construed as approval of such behavior by the American Repertory Theatre, which I fervently hope cannot be the case.

But if you condone such actions, I cannot.

I cannot in good conscience continue to work with anyone who behaves with such vindictive misunderstanding of her job, and mine. To do so would suggest that I myself condone such behavior, which is decidedly Not the case.

Should there be a change in personnel in future, I would appreciate your notifying me.


===Larry Stark
of Theater Mirror

Tonight is the IRNE Awards. I generally don't concern myself much with awards ceremonies, but tonight, I am interested.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Scene From A Rehearsal


Good even, good Master What-ye-call't;

[TOUCHSTONE and JAQUES exchange bows.]
How do you, sir?

[They bow again]
You are very well met.

[And again.]
Goddild you for your last company.

[And again.]
I just split my pants. I am very glad to see you.

[They bow a final time.]
Even a toy in hand here, sir. Nay; pray be cover'd.
William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act III, Scene 3

Teatro delle Maschere does the Shakespeare Slam

On the afternoon of April 30th, Teatro delle Maschere will be performing a commedia dell'arte inspired version of a scene from As You Like It at the Shakespeare Slam, part of a day's worth of festivities presented and curated by Actors' Shakespeare Project and Orfeo Group but featuring contributions by a number of area theatre companies. It all starts with a parade at noon! (a full schedule is listed on ASP's website.

This time around, Teatro delle Maschere will feature Rachel Kurnos as Audrey, James Van Looy as Jaques, and myself as Touchstone, (all reimagined as commedia characters) with a surprise guest as Sir Oliver Martext! (It will be the first time James and I have worked together since Cosmic Spelunker Theater.)

The Shakespeare Slam will begin at 3pm at Redline at 59 JFK Street in Harvard Square, Cambridge!

Here's a scene from last year's Shakespeare Slam. And yes, there I am amongst the crowd of Juliets:

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Notes on Darko Tresnjak's "Merchant of Venice"

Last week I attended the a matinée performance of the touring production of The Merchant of Venice. The production, starring F. Murray Abraham as Shylock, was a revival of director Darko Tresnjak's 2007 mountings with Theatre for a New Audience and the Royal Shakespeare Company. I make no secret of my obsession with this play (in fact, I'm so obsessed that I'm writing "response play") and so there was little chance that I would have missed the performance, but in this case I attended as part of a group outing sponsored by Prism, an initiative of the New Center for Arts And Culture which was offering a post show talk led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor, Michelle Ephraim (whose Reading the Jewish Woman on the Elizabethan Stage sounds fascinating.)

What follows is not a review of this particular production. Thomas Garvey at The Hub Review has already written one with which I largely agree, and Rick On Theatre recently reposted a review of the 2007 production. Rather, these thoughts are a response to both the performance and the post-show discussion.

Many argue that of Shakespeare's plays, Hamlet is the greatest work of literature in the Western canon; I contend that while The Merchant of Venice may not be as fine a dramatic poem, it may very well be the most important; for the text is a disturbing portrait of European civilization; In many ways bridging the difference between medieval antisemitism based in theology and superstitions about Jews and the modern antisemitism that presents Jews as people, yet a dangerous people: it underlines that antisemitism is "the oldest hate" and intrinsic to Western civilization. By way of contrast: the literature of the Holocaust, while more horrific, allows Europeans a way of shifting the blame, pretending that horrors of antisemitism was solely the work of the Germans and a few collaborators, or just handful of extremists who had taken over a handful of governments. However, a text like The Merchant of Venice and its continued popularity over the centuries attests to the deep rootedness of antisemitism in European civilization.

This is not to say that Shakespeare is an anti-Semite, or that the play is anti-Semitic propaganda (though it has often been used that way); Shakespeare is too subtle, too prone to irony, and too curious about the sheer diversity of humanity to be so easily dismissed in that manner. However the play is the product of a culture that was anti-Semitic, and and is structured in such a way that it affirms the views of the anti-Semite: the irony only becomes visible to the anti-anti-Semite. This is precisely what makes the play disturbing to modern audiences: we want Shakespeare, the English language's greatest dramatist and poet, to be enlightened and liberal as we are, so we try to find the modern, post-Enlightenment liberal in the irony, but as much as we want the play to be an unambiguous condemnation of bigotry and affirmation of pluralism, the ironies simply will not allow it.

How does Tresnjak address these problems? Tresnjak, a naturalized American, is an ethnic Serb, born in the former Yugoslavia,
He is explicit that he reads The Merchant of Venice in light of his homeland's decent into savage tribalism:

Four years ago, when the first incarnation of this production took place, I thought a great deal about my childhood in Yugoslavia. For a long time, the relative economic prosperity had kept the social injustices and ethnic tensions under wraps. All that changed when the economy disintergrated. I remember my mother saying: "People are starting to turn on each other."
While some, such as Garvey, argue that the co-dependence of love and money is the central theme (see our friendly debate of a year ago for instance) while the more visceral theme of antisemitism is secondary; Tresnjak, like so many of us, responds more to the themes of antisemitism, and the co-mingling of tribe and money.

To this end, Tresnjak, sets his Merchant of Venice on Wall Street of "the near future": the Rialto is the trading floor; Portia is the sole heiress of an old money family. This setting does justice to the theme of love and money. So while Tresnjak makes clear that "the oldest hatred" still lurks in the religiously tolerant cosmopolitan America of lower Manhattan he glosses over the particularly Christian character of the antisemitism. Tresnjak's merchants and traders are nominal Christians who hate Shylock because he is a business rival; that he happens to be an Orthodox Jew just gives them an additional excuse to hate him more. In Shakespeare's Venice (which is a mirror to London of his era) these same characters hate Shylock not just because he is a Jew, but because it is their Christian duty to hate Jews.

This has long been my argument (sharpened, I admit by debate): The play affirms the victory of Christian theology over humanism. Shylock might love more sincerely than any character in the play: unlike either Bassanio or Gratiano he would never willingly give up his wife's engagement ring; in his first appearance, despite past experiences, he is willing to forgive all Antonio's past insults for a future in which both might be friends; he implicitly trusts his daughter, even if she sees him as humorless and oppressive. It is Shylock's heart that is most vulnerable to being broken. It is only when his daughter betrays him, his wife's ring is stolen and traded for a frivolity, his rivals arrange to rob his home under the pretense of a business dinner, does he truly lust for murder.

Though Shylock's "hath a Jew not eyes..." speech is so often seen as a statement of Shakespeare's humanism, it is also a preamble to Shylock's call for revenge, which affirms the Christian prejudice that Judaism is a religion of law without mercy while Christianity is the religion of mercy. So while Shylock loves more, and loves more sincerely, and is even willing to set aside old quarrels and love the gentile as a friend, he is unforgiven by the Christian God so long as he remains a Jew. Conversely, the Venetian and Belmontean characters may be insincere in their oaths, superficial in their love, and give their prejudices free rein, they are forgiven by nature of being Christian-- as such, Shylock's conversion, an unjust humiliation to a modern audience, was a happy ending for the Elizabethan audience ensuring the play kept true to the genre of comedy, much as with Duke Frederick's renunciation of his throne at the end of As You Like It.

In keeping with the theme of antisemitism, Tresnjak's casting of Jacob Ming-Trent as Launcelot Gobbo (he was played by Kenajuan Bentley in the 2007 production) is intriguing, as a black actor in the role (a courier in this 21st century setting) invokes the specter of anti-Semitic rhetoric in the African American community, however, it also necessitates the cutting of this exchange, a response to Launcelot's complaint that converting Jessica to Christianity raises the price of pork:
LORENZO: I shall answer that better to the commonwealth than you can the getting up of the Negro's belly. The moor is with child by you, Launcelot.

LAUNCELOT: It is much that the Moor should be more than reason; but if she be less than an honest woman, she is indeeed more than I took her for.
(Act III, Scene 5, 27-32)

Professor Ephraim noted in the post-show talk that essentially Lorenzo is saying "while I can make a Jew a Christian like myself, you can't make your baby white like yourself." Consequently, Launcelot's speech about in which he says:
Here's a small trifle of wives! Alas, fifteen wives is nothing. Eleven widows and nine maids is a simple coming-in for one man. (Act II, Scene 2, 125-127)
Which is partly a parody of the Biblical patriarch Jacob that begins with Launcelot's deception of his blind father Old Gobbo earlier in the scene is also cut. (As a clown, I also make no secret of my affection for the Gobbi, father and son.) Though, to be fair, I've yet to see a production staged where Old Gobbo isn't cut.

The 21st century setting of Tresnjak's Merchant, also obscures another aspect of historical antisemitism: the invocation of the Devil. Repeatedly, Antonio, Launcelot, Solanio, routinely compare Shylock (and Jews in general) to the Devil, if not stating that Shylock and Jews are themselves the Devil or at least intimately involved with the Devil. In 21st century New York: this is merely an insult; but in England of the 1590s, the Devil would have been a real thing to much of Shakespeare's audience. While this belief was not official Church doctrine, Joshua Trachtenberg's The Devil and the Jews well documents the widespread folklore by which the medieval and early modern Christian imagination linked Judaism with Satanism (a theme that I've given much consideration.)

In short, Tresnjak Merchant does succeed to showing that antisemitism continues to exist, while at the same time glossing over those elements of the text that show how deeply rooted antisemitism is in Western civilization, leaving the genealogy of "the oldest hatred" obscure. Thus a dramaturgical puzzle: how can theatre be simultaneously a mirror up to today while also being an archeological dig into the history that made today possible?