01 April 2018

The Laramie Project, by Moises Kaufman and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project

The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project is an amazing, gut wrenching play. It is documentary theatre, built around the murder of Matthew Shephard in 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming. Matt was a university of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten by two locals and left tied to a fence post in the desert to die. Matt was killed because he was gay. The murder and subsequent trial of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson drew international attention, focusing the US and the world on the issues of homophobia and violence against LGBT people.

The Penn State School of Theatre’s production, directed by Steve Snyder and Wendell Franklin, did an admirable job with an exceptionally difficult play. The Laramie Project is difficult not only because of the subject matter, but because it requires a fairly small number of actors—10 in the Penn State production—to perform a large number of roles. The raw material for The Laramie Project came from over 200 interviews the members of the theatre company did with Laramie residents, journal entries from the actors’ trips to Laramie, public announcements from the hospital about Matt’s deteriorating condition, and trial transcripts. The actors then attempted to reproduce pieces from those original sources as accurately as possible, interweaving different voices and opinions.

What was really impressive about the Penn State production was the smooth regularity of the performance’s flow. Because the play is a kind of montage of interviews, journal entries, and other primary texts, it would be easy to leave gaps or breaks in the performance, but the actors moved without pause from one segment to the next, so that the show felt almost conversational. It is a town and a theatre company trying to talk through horror and guilt, trying to make sense of the brutality of the Matt Shephard murder. The transitions were mostly marked by minor costume changes, with a basic black wardrobe for all characters, a shift from one speaker to another could be marked by putting on a flannel shirt or jacket, by donning glasses, or putting on a hat. Sometimes these changes could happen off stage, and the actor would come back on with their minor bits of costume, but sometimes the change had to take place on stage, which required the actors not only to change costumes in real time but to completely shift their performance styles from one speaker to the other. For instance, at one point the actor playing the bar tender who was among the last people to see Matt alive has to transition on stage to playing Matt’s academic advisor at UW. The transition is visually accomplished by removing the bar tender’s flannel and putting on the advisor’s eye glasses. But at the same time the acting style shifts from the eager, somewhat flamboyant bartender to the suave and reflective academic advisor. These kinds of shifts happen continually both on and off stage, and the performances reflected these complex dynamics flawlessly.

Interestingly, the flow of the transitions moved so smoothly that the lighting always seems to move a beat behind. An actor would begin speaking, and then the lights would come up on their part of the stage, so that the first words of almost every segment were delivered in darkness. As the show went on and maintained this timing throughout, it was evident that the gap between the spoken word and the lighting was an intentional artistic choice. Particularly for a play the ends with a description of the sparkling lights of Laramie, and how Matt Shephard had always loved them, this choice to bring up the lights on action already happening evokes the hope the play tries to create—a bringing of light to a dark and horrible murder.

01 March 2018

Antigone, by Sophocles

The Set from Juniata's Antigone

When going to see a theatre production at a college theatre you’ve never been to before, you never know what you’re going to get. College theatre is of notoriously varied quality. Which is why I was so pleased with Juniata College’s production of Antigone, directed by Leigh Hendrix. While there were some performance limitations, the show took a lot of interesting risks and made unique interpretive choices that made for an engaging and thought-provoking performance.

Sophocles’ Antigone is one of the ancient Greek playwright’s best known works, and it has been subject to intensive philosophical debate over the years. The play tells of the clash between Antigone, daughter of Oedipus, and Kreon, who has inherited the throne of Thebes after the civil war in which Eteokles and Polyneikes killed one another— they were Antigone’s brothers, who were supposed to alternate ruling Thebes until Eteokles decided to exile his brother and keep the throne for himself. Kreon declares that Eteokles should receive a hero’s burial while Polyneikes should remain unburied, and that anyone who performed any funeral rites for him would be executed. After her sister Ismene refuses to help, Antigone goes and buries her brother’s body. She is arrested, and after arguing with Kreon over the gap between divine law and the law of the city-state, is sentenced to be walled in a cave. Kreon’s son Haemon argues for mercy, but his father ignores him, and as the guilt mounts against Kreon for his inflexibility the play ends with Antigone dead, as well as Haemon and Kreon’s wife Eurydike.

One interesting choice at the Juniata production was an all-female cast. The majority of roles in Antigone are male roles, and one of the ways the play has often been read (including by Jacques Lacan) is as a feminist struggle between Kreon representing the masculine power of the state on the one hand, and Antigone representing pre-political feminine kinship networks on the other. In casting Christine Reilly to play Kreon, Anna Sismour to play the guard, and a chorus consisting of four female actors, the Juniata production replaced the masculine authorities of the king, the military, and the chorus of elderly Theban men with female performers. The all-female cast is particularly interesting in light of Judith Butler’s argument in Antigone’s Claim, where she theorizes that Antigone represents not the feminine antithesis of Kreon, but a queer deformation of both Kreon’s (masculine) position as head of the state, and a deformation of the pre-political family because of her almost incestuous focus on her brother’s body (as well as being the offspring of Oedipus). When the entire cast is female, this queer challenge to social power structures is doubly reflected back, as Kreon’s masculine authority becomes a performance increasingly divorced from Reilly’s physical body.

There were also a lot of interesting individual performance choices. Beginning with the titular character, Antigone (Samekh McKiever) was much more afraid than I typically picture the character. McKiever took Antigone in a different direction than I have imagined the heroine, because after her arrest McKiever repeatedly drew back from Kreon, tried to escape, and sought help/sympathy from the elderly chorus. I picture Antigone as a character who seeks her own death, a lady who doth protest too much that she wants to live. But McKiever’s performance was of an Antigone who wants to live, and whose fine speeches about accepting death seemed as much an attempt to convince herself as anyone else. The performance challenged my take on the character in a way I found refreshing and engaging.

On the other hand, I didn’t care for Shamya Butler-Bonner’s portrayal of Ismene (who is one of my favorite characters, disproportionate to her relative role in the play). To be clear, there was nothing wrong with Butler-Bonner’s acting, or even with the interpretive choice. But the anger she brought to the character is totally foreign to the way that I see Ismene. In her interactions with McKiever early in the play, Butler-Bonner’s energy was much higher than McKiever’s, and her tone was more outraged. For me, Antigone is the sister whose anger burns from the inside out, whereas Ismene has, in my mind, the survivor’s drive to live quietly and unobtrusively to avoid further destruction.

The other major performer who made a big impression was Reilly, playing Kreon. Kreon is, for much of the show, a tough character to make work because he spends the bulk of the time as a kind of swaggering tin-pot dictator making edicts and demanding he have his own way. And Reilly wasn’t always fantastic in that element, but where she really delivered a powerful performance was at the play’s end, when she brought in the lifeless body of Haemon (Rina Kirsch), and the body of Eurydike (Corey Atkinson) is brought out of the palace. In that grief and despair, Reilly really shone. With bloody hands, and on her knees between the bodies of her family members, Reilly wailed the grief of a king brought from the height of power to complete despair.

Apart from the performances, the set, designed by Apollo Weaver, added a unique and innovative component to the performance. The back wall was a Greek façade with columns and double doors, then a performance space echoing ancient Greek theatres—with a raised platform up stage and a semi-circular orkhestra downstage—but what was intriguing was the ring of dirt around the orkhestra, which can just be seem in the photo above. Most of the ring of dirt was dry, but the section at the center of the stage, where the stairs down from the orkhestra to the ground were, was mud. And as characters walked through that mud, it was tracked progressively onto the stage. So as the play went on, the stage became dirtier and dirtier, turning the white marble(-looking) set brown. Then at the end of the play, when Kreon brings on Haemon’s body, the mud that has been accumulating the entire show is mixed with blood. A symbol of the sad and squalid condition that Kreon’s hubris has brought to Thebes.

03 December 2017

The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare

The American Shakespeare Center’s travelling troupe is consistently excellent, and their production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Jemma Alix Levy, lived up to that high standard. The ASC’s distinctive performance ethos is one of the major factors in their success. Their performance style is a blend of the modern and the Elizabethan, as they perform in fully lit spaces and incorporate music (both Early Modern conventions), but give the plays a distinctly modern twist with modern music and attitudes.

Taming can be a really tough play to do well because the performance needs to navigate how the anti-feminist elements will be presented in a way that works for a modern, post-feminist audience. The high plot focuses on Katherina (whom Petruchio insists on calling Kate), known throughout Padua for being a fearsome and tempestuous woman who will endure the company of no man. The problem is that her beautiful and agreeable sister Bianca is being courted by several suitors, but their father Baptista has said Bianca cannot marry until Katherina has found a husband. When Petruchio arrives in town looking for a wife—any wife, as long as she’s rich—the suitors ask and Petruchio agrees to marry Katherina (to get her father’s money). Against her will, she is married off, and Petruchio begins the process of “taming” her, which essentially involves depriving her of food and sleep until she gives in absolutely to his will. While this is going on, a young nobleman named Lucentio has also come to town and fallen in love with Bianca. In order to circumvent both the existing suitors and the suspicious Baptista, Lucentio dresses up as a tutor to teach Bianca Latin and Greek. Through the strategic use of love poetry, Lucentio wins Bianca’s heart. When all parties involved come back together at the end for Lucentio and Bianca’s wedding feast, they make a wager on the submissiveness of their wives, and Katherina is the only one who obeys, at which point she makes a speech scolding the other wives for not looking upon their husbands as lords, masters, and gods.

Obviously the anti-feminist element is a major problem for contemporary audiences, which are unlikely to be all that sympathetic to a figure like Petruchio who essentially tortures his wife until her will is broken, or even to Katherina’s closing speech in which she declares an ethic of slavish subservience. In order to counteract this problematic subject matter, it’s crucial to have a strong comic performance.

In the ASC production, many of the funniest moments actually came from supporting characters. The funniest performance of the night was Calder Shilling, who played Petruchio’s servant Grumio and Lucentio’s father Vincentio. As Grumio, Shilling was all that one could want from a bumbling comic servant—he vacillated between terror that Petruchio (Ronald Román-Meléndez) would beat him, exhaustion after walking back to Petruchio’s estate, drunkenly attempting to defend his master with various foodstuffs, and trying desperately to lift a suitcase that every other character picks up with ease.

Another particularly funny performance came from Kyle Powell, playing the elderly suitor Gremio. Powell would laugh raucously at others’ misfortunes, particularly when the other husbands lose their money betting on the obedience of their wives, and his slow shuffle to get anywhere was comically over-performed. Similarly hilarious was the pairing of Constance Swain, who played Tranio, Lucentio’s servant who takes his master’s clothing and place to allow Lucentio to go undercover, and the slow-witted Biodello, played by Topher Embrey. As Lucentio’s servants, Tranio and Biondello needed to keep their master’s true identity a secret, which proved unusually difficult with a series of comic mishaps, including Biondello’s continual inability to remember that Tranio was pretending to be Lucentio and the arrival of Lucentio’s father (Shilling) after Tranio had employed a decoy (Hilary Alexa Caldwell) to pretend to be Vincentio and give permission for Lucentio and Bianca to marry.