Category Archives: Commentary

VENICE HAS A BIENNALE FOR THEATER, TOO ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times,  8/2; via Pam Green.)

Despite a history stretching to 1934, it feels like a David to the art exhibition’s Goliath. but its program is all the better for that.

VENICE — What if David, the biblical hero who defeats Goliath, were a gay teenager with a taste for vogueing? The Italian director Giovanni Ortoleva makes the case for reinvention in “Saul,” a new play presented at the Venice Theater Biennale — but the character is also a metaphor for the entire festival, which concludes on Sunday.

While Venice has had a Theater Biennale since 1934, it still feels like a David to the Art Biennale’s Goliath. Misleadingly, the juggernaut contemporary art exhibition is regularly referred to as “the Venice Biennale,” but this city is actually awash with Biennales. Theater is a yearly fixture along with dance and music, while the art and architecture events happen every other year. Yet the performing arts’ presence remains more discreet.

It may be a blessing in disguise. This year’s lineup was blissfully free of the same old star directors who headline many international theater festivals. Antonio Latella, who has been at the event’s helm since 2017, appears more interested in theater-makers who fly below the radar. His first edition featured only female directors, and, in keeping with this year’s theme, “Dramaturgies,” the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement went to a dramaturge, Jens Hillje, the co-director of Berlin’s Maxim Gorki Theater.

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TONY HARRISON’S PRAGUE SPRING ·

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Chris Bowlby travels with Tony Harrison to Prague, to discover how one of Britain’s best known poets was shaped by the cultural energy and tragedy of 1960s Czechoslovakia. Harrison reads from his Prague poems in the locations where they were written. And he relives with Czech friends stories of cafes and cartoons, sex and surveillance and the hope and despair of a people fighting Soviet tanks and secret police with words, plays and tragic self-sacrifice.

PTP/NYC (POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT):  ‘HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT’ AND STOPPARD’S ‘DOGG’S HAMLET’ AND ‘CAHOOT’S MACBETH’ (REVIEWS FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Historians, looking back at contemporary American theatre, will have to evaluate whether our stages were reflections of society or partisan distortions. Were our artists “living in the truth,” as former Czech president Václav Havel would ask, or were they politically motivated, sold out, blindsided, outfinanced, or unable to speak due to silencing opinion-makers, the market, or even Google, facebook, or twitter.  A work like Rob Ackerman’s Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson, from The Working Theater, which played off-Broadway, during June and July, sees America’s employed as powerless and compliant–and the boss as original and supremely intelligent, even while he demonstrates only basic knowledge.  In Christopher Shinn’s Dying City, which ran at Second Stage this spring and summer, the highlight is the storytelling, although the characters are types—the smart, contemporary woman, the sensitive, uncloseted gay actor, and the disturbed soldier—all meeting progressive expectations.  What audiences may not be questioning, though, is to what degree the arts in the U.S. are really free—and this is where a writer like Havel, whose rarely performed Vanek plays (three of them here, of four; banned during communism), are now running at PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project) until August 4, alongside two short pieces by Beckett and Pinter, in Havel: The Passion of Thought.  Even if most Americans can not know the horror of life in Czechoslovakia, in the last century, one of the short plays in the evening, a two-hander called “Protest” is a pros-and-cons checklist for the conscience, universally true for anyone who must challenge authority, in any of its guises–or even only intends to send a tweet.  America itself has powerful censoring mechanisms, despite the First Amendment, strongly expressed in 1978 by Russian Nobelist and Soviet labor camp survivor, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, whom Thomas Farnan, in Human Events, reminds us, wrote that the media, Western news reporting,  “[endorses] ‘fashionable trends of thought and ideas’ while suppressing ‘independent-minded people from giving their contribution to public life.’” Solzhenitsyn was severely criticized—in fact, told to go back where he came from, like “the Squad” today–but his observation regarding “fashionable trends of thought and ideas” is essential when thinking about American arts.

 

“The Protest” is set in Prague, outside a lovely garden home, marked by flowering magnolias and gladiolas–in thirty-two shades–of a television and film writer (played robustly by Danielle Skraastad), who admits that she is “pushing fifty.” She must make a decision on bold action, regarding a court decision, thinking aloud to an old theatrical friend, a dissident (a non-judging David Barlow): “When the rest of us want to do something of ordinary human decency, we automatically turn to you as though you were some sort of agency for the conduct of moral matters.  Perverse, isn’t it? Sickening, isn’t it?”  Her choice is to regain her self-esteem, lost freedom, and honor, even if it means losing her job—or to continue living on “the path of accommodation” and “shameful compromise.”  She realizes that she must be made an example of, and punished cruelly, if she chooses the first option.  She would be the bad conscience of people who do not act, and who will smear her, ultimately thinking her decision stupid, nothing more.  The dilemma is not simply Eastern European, of course, and must be made not only by the accommodating characters in Dropping Gumballs on Luke Wilson (also set in the television industry), but also in other contexts, such as teachers’ rooms in academia, validating disproven conclusions on Darwin’s theory, for example, the Hollywood of #MeToo, and at publishers and theatre companies, among various jobs throughout the country, adherent to the common wisdom, as opposed to critical, independent thinking.

“Interview” may remind of Chekhov’s short story, “Misery,” where the need to express thoughts, explain oneself, becomes so urgent that the central character begins confiding in a least likely figure.  In Chekhov, this is a horse.  In Havel’s short play, the character is Vanek, who is asked to inform on himself.  Havel’s plays can have elements of absurdism—as they drink and munch peanuts–but he is not whimsical, and his writing can even sound like O’Neill’s realism. It is not lost on viewers, at Atlantic Stage 2, that the playwright does not advocate socialism, part of the current U.S. national debate (what other son of a builder do you know who does not advocate socialism and became president of his country?).  Havel’s characters are bored and drunk, living futile lives, without work ethic and devoid of meaning: “What about me?” says the crass, tormented brewmaster (Michael Laurence), “I’m only good enough to be the shit on which your fucking principles can grow so you can be a goddamn hero. . . . You’re gonna show off  . . .  about the way you handled barrels in a brewery! But what about me?  What can I go back to?  Huh? What future have I got?  What?”  In the plays, Havel works full circle—climax and catharsis always lead back to stagnation, point zero; contradiction (Vanek, for example, is expected to make friends but not become “chummy”) and repetition. The characters can never progress psychologically, much less spiritually, which they appear to want to do, even if they can only make pretense to commercial mimicry.

In “Private View” a couple (Christopher Marshall and Emily Kron) looks toward the West for its cues on everyday life, such as food, art, sex, parenting, and purchase of consumer goods.  The ideas have not grown organically out of their own culture, however, and the characters come across as earnest and empty fakes.  Although the PTP/NYC season 2019 centers on four writers, known for their contributions to the subject of human rights, the chief among them are Havel and Tom Stoppard, both of Czech origin (although Stoppard, for much of his life, has been a British citizen).  In “Private View,” the playwright most invoked, in Havel’s one act, is Ionesco, another Eastern European (in this case, from Romania, who settled in France).  Students and readers can sometimes not understand why artists will speak figuratively–in symbol, for example (a rhinoceros) or metaphor (a cabaret to represent Nazi Germany—the sad news of the death of Hal Prince has just been announced), instead of being direct and exposing the thing itself.  The explanation is usually, “Because it would be too painful”; another reason may that it is too dangerous.  The Vanek plays may seem to talk around what’s really going in a Communist satellite fifty years ago, which had led  PTP’s Co-Artistic Director Richard Romagnoli, in 1991, to add two further short plays in creating Havel: The Passion of Thought, by Pinter and Beckett.  Yet, even so, you may be able to hear the screaming: “Life is hard and the world is divided. Our country has been written off by everybody, nobody’s going to help us, we’re in a very bad way, and it’s only going to get worse–and you can’t change it!”

Pinter’s sobering play, “The New World Order,” takes the audience into a torture room, where assumptions are dismantled, as a hooded man listens to his captor’s threats, spoken as banalities: “He hasn’t got any idea at all of what we’re going to do to him.” Although the assassins are about as bored as the brewery workers in “Interview”—in fact, one seems to maliciously echo the brewmaster’s monologue in Havel’s play: “Before he came here he was a big shot, he never stopped shooting his mouth off”—the leader explains that they are “keeping the world safe for democracy.”  Beckett’s play, “Catastrophe,” actually written in honor of Havel—a work in which Pinter had also played as an actor–has especial bite and edge at PTP/NYC (the consummate direction for the Havel evening is by Richard Romagnoli).  The play (here, the speaking roles are, nontraditionally, played by two women, Madeline Ciocci and Emily Ballou, whose forward-march pacing give the play a fascist edge)–seems to be questioning how the media distorts—and makes fashionable–human rights’ victims—Havel and Solzhenitsyn, for examples, and Natalia Kaliada and Nikolai Khalezin, from Belarus Free Theatre, and Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, to only begin a listing—who might say that what they were doing had nothing to do with becoming celebrities.

Although this review is being finished, at the end of July, during the second night of the Detroit Democratic debates, it should be mentioned that people can be fearful of socialism, despite its current fashionableness in the United States. One need only look at Sir Tom Stoppard’s Dogg’s Hamlet (known for its 15-minute rendition of Hamlet) and Cahoot’s Macbeth, probably a director’s nightmare (ably undertaken here by Cheryl Faraone), a complicated mosaic of different languages (Early Modern English, Modern English, as well as one the playwright has completely made up), utilizing a large cast. Additionally, as if a new society is being constructed during the plays, there are different settings and shifting set pieces, including huge, brutalist alphabet blocks, created for a Stalinist era (the design is by Mark Evancho; the three costume designers for the evenings are Glenna Ryer, Chris Romagnoli, and Rebecca Lafon;  and Hallie Zieselman designed the lighting). Amit Prakash, visiting assistant professor, Middlebury College,  has written, “In a society dominated by ideology, words are completely untethered from their meanings, shared human experience is always up for debate, and truth is as evasive as a hunted animal.”

Stoppard seems to see dislocation and language reconstruction as occurring due to changing ideology, and these plays appear to be giving a Stoppardian mirror image of Czechoslovakia, during the 1970s and 1980s (Ed Berman, who worked with the playwright at Almost Free Theatre in London, has also been consulted for Potomac Theater Project’s Stoppard plays). Although based on Shakespeare, the work is also influenced by Beckett, Havel, Wiggenstein, Pavel Kohout, detective novels, Ionesco, and the Theatre of the Absurd, to start.  One setting for Cahoots Macbeth is a home, which can seem unusual, given that plays are being performed there, instead of at a theatre.  Faraone writes, “forbidden to practice their art in public, one survival strategy (for artists, in Czechoslovakia) became performing Shakespeare in ‘apartment theatre.’” Such playing areas affirm what Kaliada has said, in interviews about stagings in another Eastern European country, Belarus (performances are given in apartments or at birthdays or weddings, to elude authorities).  Havel discusses how to evade them in “The Protest”–by hiding in a department store:  “You mingle with the crowd, then at the moment when they aren’t looking, you sneak into the bathroom and wait for about two hours. They become convinced you managed to sneak off through a side entrance and give up.”

What happens if you are caught?  Stoppard’s detective/government inspector (Tara Giordano, in a trench coat) explains:  “I must warn you that anything you say will be taken down and played back at your trial.”

For more info visit http://PTPNYC.org, Like them on Facebook at https://www.Facebook.com/pages/Potomac-Theatre-Project-PTP/32709392256, follow on Twitter at @ptpnyc (https://twitter.com/ptpnyc), and on Instagram at @ptpnyc.official (https://www.instagram.com/ptpnyc.official).         

The Atlantic Stage 2 is accessible from the A, C, E, L trains to 14 St./8 Ave. or the 1, 2, 3 trains to 14 St.

 © by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.  Production photos: Stan Barouh.

Press: David Gibbs, DARR Publicity

The cast for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes David Barlow (PTP: No End of Blame, Victory, The Castle), Emily Kron (PTP: The Europeans, Sweet Tooth at Cherry Lane), Michael Laurence (Broadway: Talk Radio, Desire Under the Elms, NBC’s “Shades of Blue”), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Danielle Skraastad (Broadway: All My Sons, Hurricane Diane with Women’s Project & NYTW, The Architecture of Becoming with Women’s Project), Emily Ballou and Madeline Ciocci (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke).

The production team for HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Glenna Ryer (Costume Design), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Devin Wein (Production Stage Manager).

The cast for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Matthew Ball (PTP: Pity In History, Pentecost), Denise Cormier (Broadway national tour The Graduate, Showtime’s “The Affair”), Tara Giordano (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Vinegar Tom, Serious Money), Christo Grabowski (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History, No End of Blame), Christopher Marshall (PTP: The Possibilities, The After-Dinner Joke, Pity In History), Peter B. Schmitz (PTP: Lovesong of the Electric Bear, Therese Raquin), Lucy Van Atta (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, Serious Money, Spatter Pattern), Olivia Christie (PTP: Brecht on Brecht), Will Koch, Emily Ma, Katie Marshall, Madeleine Russell (PTP: The After-Dinner Joke, The Possibilities), Lior Selve, Zach Varicchione and Connor Wright (PTP: Pity In History).

The production team for DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH includes Mark Evancho (Set Design), Hallie Zieselman (Lighting Design), Chris Romagnoli (Costume Design Dogg’s Hamlet), Rebecca LaFon (Costume Design Cahoot’s Macbeth), Sam Tompkins Martin (Props Design), Peter B. Schmitz and Adam Milano (Movement) and Alex Williamson (Production Stage Manager).

TOWERING BROADWAY DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER HAL PRINCE DEAD ·

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Richard Drew/AP/Shutterstock (6529474b)
Hal Prince, Harold Prince Harold Prince holds his Tony award at Broadway’s Minskoff Theater in New York, . Prince won the best director in a musical for “Show Boat,” the lavish production of the landmark Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical
Tonys Hal Prince, New York, USA

(Mark Kennedy’s article appeared on the AP,  7/31.)

NEW YORK (AP) — Harold Prince, a Broadway director and producer who pushed the boundaries of musical theater with such groundbreaking shows as “The Phantom of the Opera,” ″Cabaret,” ″Company” and “Sweeney Todd” and won a staggering 21 Tony Awards, has died. Prince was 91.

Prince’s publicist Rick Miramontez said Prince died Wednesday after a brief illness in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Prince was known for his fluid, cinematic director’s touch and was unpredictable and uncompromising in his choice of stage material. He often picked challenging, offbeat subjects to musicalize, such as a murderous, knife-wielding barber who baked his victims in pies or the 19th-century opening of Japan to the West.

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RESURRECTING MAYAKOVSKY ·

Listen on BBC Radio 3 

Vladimir Mayakovsky was THE poet of the Russian Revolution. A revolutionary in his personal life as well as in his art, Mayakovsky sought to overthrow traditional practices and became the spokesperson for a radical new society. But the tensions and demands of speaking on behalf of the state would take its toll. In 1930 a nation went into mourning when Mayakovsky took a pistol and shot himself through the heart. Ian Sansom has been reading Mayakovsky since he was a teenager, inspired by Mayakovsky’s uncompromising example as a total artist, prepared to sacrifice everything for his vision. Ian travels to Mayakovsky’s birthplace in Georgia and speaks to poets, translators and academics who are seeking to keep Mayakovsky’s legacy alive. With rare archive recordings of Mayakovsky reading his own work, a Russian Futurist soundtrack from the period and on-location recordings from Moscow, Georgia and London, Ian attempts to resurrect the spirit of Mayakovsky.

Producer: Conor Garrett.

LET’S GO: PTP/NYC’S (POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT)–WORKS BY TOM STOPPARD, VACLAV HAVEL, HAROLD PINTER & SAMUEL BECKETT ·

PTP/NYC’S (POTOMAC THEATRE PROJECT) INCLUDES WORKS BY
TOM STOPPARD, VACLAV HAVEL, HAROLD PINTER & SAMUEL BECKETT
THAT RESONATE WITH OUR CULTURAL AND POLITICAL MOMENT

PTP/NYC (Potomac Theatre Project), in association with Middlebury College, proudly presents its 33rd repertory season, its 13th consecutive in New York City, running to August 4, 2019 in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Atlantic Stage 2, located at 330 West 16th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.

This season’s line-up includes DOGG’S HAMLET, CAHOOT’S MACBETH, by Tom Stoppard, directed by PTP’s Co-Artistic Director Cheryl Faraone, and HAVEL: THE PASSION OF THOUGHT, comprised of five serio-comic one act plays by Vaclav Havel, Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, directed by PTP’s Co-Artistic Director Richard Romagnoli.

Performances are Tuesdays – Sundays at 7pm, Saturdays – Sundays at 2pm, and select Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2pm. Schedule varies – for exact days and times visit http://PTPNYC.org. Tickets are $37.50, $22.50 for students and seniors, and $20 for previews. Purchase online at http://PTPNYC.org or by calling 1-866-811-4111.

The New York Times says PTP/NYC “stands out amid the summer season’s fluff and fringiness as one to turn to for serious work” and The New Yorker calls the company’s work “daring and provocative.” The Village Voice states, “Every July, PTP/NYC presents a season of serious drama, a powerful burst of counter-programming to New York’s summer silliness. Since PTP moved to New York in 2007, its program at Atlantic Stage 2 has become one of the grounding moments of this city’s theater scene, with the ensemble focusing on stories of sociopolitical struggle—always thorny epics, always rich with language.” Huffington Post says, “Potomac Theatre Project bring intelligent, beautifully directed and performed fare to New York and we are so much luckier for it.” One Magazine states, “PTP/NYC are an extraordinary company. They choose powerful, thought-provoking work, and their actors, directors and technicians work together in such a seamless way, there are no chinks in this armor. PTP/NYC is necessary theatre, right here, right now.”

The Atlantic Stage 2 is accessible from the A, C, E, L trains to 14 St./8 Ave. or the 1, 2, 3 trains to 14 St.

For more info visit http://PTPNYC.org, Like them on Facebook at https://www.Facebook.com/pages/Potomac-Theatre-Project-PTP/32709392256, follow on Twitter at @ptpnyc (https://twitter.com/ptpnyc), and on Instagram at @ptpnyc.official (https://www.instagram.com/ptpnyc.official).

(via David Gibbs, DARR Publicity)

AT AVIGNON FESTIVAL, COMPETITION COMES FROM THE FRINGE ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/18; via Pam Green.)

An underwhelming official lineup led many festivalgoers to branch out into the less well-known complimentary program.

AVIGNON, France — There isn’t one Avignon Festival every July, but two. On the one hand, France’s biggest theater event presents an official selection of productions, known in Anglicized French as “le In.” On the other, you have “le Off” — an open-access, Fringe-style festival which has mushroomed to include more than 1,500 productions this year.

This summer, the contrast between the two events has been especially stark. Disappointment in the main lineup has dominated conversations here, inevitably followed by recommendations for the Off. The In and its director, Olivier Py, have themselves to blame for the downturn. Too often, the theme of this year’s edition — odysseys — led to predictable and preachy theater. Productions raced straight to answers, political or otherwise.

The journey was at least intriguingly personal in “Outside,” a hotly anticipated new work by the Russian director Kirill Serebrennikov. Mr. Serebrennikov, who has been accused of fraud in Russia, was released on bail in April after nearly 20 months of house arrest, yet remains banned from leaving Moscow.

The case against him is widely seen as a trumped-up attack on artistic freedom, and Mr. Serebrennikov has continued to work regardless, directing productions from afar. For “Outside,” he took inspiration from another artist who fell afoul of the authorities in his country: the Chinese photographer and poet Ren Hang, who was arrested several times for his explicit work before killing himself in 2017, at age 29.

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THE PLEASURES OF BRECHT ·

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A celebration of the simple joys of life, and the story of Brecht’s much-loved poem that described them.

In 1954, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht was the leader of his own theatre company and an international literary star. But his relationship with the East German communist party was growing increasingly strained, with projects derailed and poems censored. It was a time of disappointment, as he began to see the gap between the hopes that kept him alive throughout the years of war and exile, and the reality of life in the GDR.

Out of this context came a simple poem, Vergnügungen, a list of pleasures, which moves from “the first look out of the window in the morning” via showering, swimming, the dog, dialectics and “comfortable shoes” to “being friendly”, a phrase that for Brecht signified a utopian ideal.

The poem is a statement of the delights of the everyday, but it also looks out into the world beyond the private sphere.

Writer and ecologist Joanna Macy, philosopher Christopher Hamilton, pleasure activist Adrienne Maree Brown and German scholar Karen Leeder reflect on what Brecht’s list of simple pleasures can tell us about our own time.

Music composed and performed by Phil Smith. 
Piano pieces recorded on location at Brecht’s house in Buckow, Germany

Produced by Phil Smith 

A Somethin’ Else production for BBC Radio 4

 

BLACKOUT DARKENS BROADWAY, BUT SONGS BRIGHTEN SIDEWALK SCENES ·

(Michael Paulson’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/13; via Pam Green.)

Most theaters closed down on their most lucrative night of the week, but some casts gave their fans a memorable moment.

“The Phantom of the Opera” was one of about two dozen Broadway shows that had to cancel performances during the blackout.

Nightly at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, Hades, the king of an industrial underworld, boasts of his “power chords and power lines” before bellowing, as the lights flash, “I conduct the Electric City!”

But on Saturday night, even the title character of “Hadestown” turned out to be powerless.

The blackout that darkened parts of Manhattan’s West Side forced the closure of all but a handful of Broadway shows — as well as movie theaters, Carnegie Hall, a Jennifer Lopez concert at Madison Square Garden, much of Lincoln Center and many smaller venues, stranding ticketholders and disappointing tourists who had flocked to performance venues for a Saturday night out.

“There was a line of people outside waiting, so we hate to have to not do the show for them,” Aaron Tveit, one of the stars of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” which is now in previews, said disappointedly as he left the shuttered Hirschfeld Theater. “Hopefully everyone is just safe.”

The electricity failed about an hour before curtain for most shows, meaning the casts and crew were already in place and audiences were on their way.

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Photo:  The New York Times

 

OUTDOOR SHAKESPEARE: THE PIONEERS OF A SUMMER TRADITION ·

(Georgianna Ziegler’s article appeared in Shakespeare & Beyond, 7/9; via Pam Green.)

Shakespeare by the sea, on the river, in the park or garden, on the common – in the summertime Shakespeare’s plays are everywhere outdoors! High-profile shows in New York’s Central Park or at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival may come to mind for active theatergoers today, but the inspiration for this kind of outdoor performance actually came from semi-amateur theatricals, often led by women, in England and America in the late 19th century.

Lady Archibald Campbell, Agnes Booth, and As You Like It

One of the earliest and most influential of these productions was organized by Janey Seville Pastoral Players. In 1884 and 1885, they put on productions of As You Like It at the Coombe Warren estate in Surrey, with proceeds going to charity. (The Folger Shakespeare Library owns an archive of ima Callander, better known as Lady Archibald Campbell.

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