Category Archives: Current Affairs

SHAKESPEARE COOKIES FOR THE HOLIDAYS ·

(Marissa Nicosia’s article appeared in Folger’s Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare Plus, 12/3; via Pam Green.)

Knots, cookies, and women’s skill

A plate of beautifully baked cookies is a wonderful thing. It is a welcoming gesture for guests, it signifies a holiday or a special meal, and it is a demonstration of a baker’s skill at making something pleasing to the eye and the palate. In Shakespeare’s England, bakers in elite households prepared sugar sculptures, confectionary, marzipan, and sweet doughs shaped into knots, twists, and letters.

Sweets were an occasion for British women to not only show that they were excellent bakers, but that they were masters of other handicrafts such as sewing and writing. In her book Pens and Needles: Women’s Textualities in Early Modern England, Susan Frye explores the deep and pervasive connection between sewing and writing in Renaissance culture. She writes, “Women from a variety of backgrounds created needlework pieces that placed accepted subjects in every room, that helped to clothe themselves and their families, and that declared the family’s social status, even as they may be read as personal and political expressions” (116). A woman’s style of knotting thread and creating samplers, or needlework pictures, was an indication of her class and taste. It was as individualized as handwriting. Likewise, as Wendy Wall shows in her book Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen, handwriting and needlework were connected to culinary skill. Although elite women employed cooks in their households, the lady of the house might personally participate in the preparation of finely shaped delicacies. Recipes that instructed cooks to shape soft dough or marzipan into “knots,” asked bakers to draw on their experience knotting thread as well as writing “knots,” meaning elaborate circular flourishes or majuscule and miniscule letterforms (Wall 143).

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FRANK GAGLIANO:  ON  RENÈ AUBERJONOIS ·

By Frank Gagliano, 12/10

The death of actor Renè Auberjonois (at age 79) is another sad RIP instance of a recent extraordinary theatre personality who once touched my life. 

In 1968, John Lahr asked me to take over an Adult Ed class he was teaching in Dramatic Lit, at NY’s Hunter College. I had never taught anything, anywhere before — and was nervous. I decided to start the class with “King Lear” because I had just seen the production at Lincoln Center, with Lee J. Cobb as Lear. Renè Auberjonois was the very physical, very clear spoken, very funny, Fool in that production. 

I invited Mr Auberjonois  to the class. He accepted. I wish now I could remember the one question about his role and about the Lincoln Center production that I was dying to ask him — and DID ask him in the class; but I can’t recall it. I do know that Mr. Auberjonois delighted the class with his Shakespeare/Lear/intellectual, and practical theatre, expertise, and that his appearance stimulated and relaxed me into opening myself up to a life of teaching, as well as writing.

And in reviewing the Clive Barnes 1968 NYTimes review (which beautifully brought to life that production), from the list of players in the review, I discovered that there were actors in that Lear that had been in my plays; and that John Gleason (who had designed the lighting for my “Father Uxbridge Wants To Marry” Off Broadway, had done the lighting design for “King Lear.” It was probably Gleason who helped arrange for Mr. Auberjonois to visit my class in 1968. Gleason (who died young) was a close associate and colleague of that rare man of the theatre, J Ranelli, who died some weeks ago, and to whom I paid tribute in Facebook last week. J had a more involving through line in my life than Renè Auberjonois. But that opening touch of Renè Auberjonois . . . Well . . 

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/08/obituaries/rene-auberjonois-dead.html

Photo: https://www.aspenideas.org/speakers/rene-auberjonois

FOR ENTERTAINING MUSICALS, LOOK NO FURTHER THAN … PARIS ·

(Laura Cappelle’s article appeared in The New York Times, 12/5; via Pam Green.)

The genre has long been seen as minor in the French capital, but a string of English-language productions is creating a pleasingly upbeat dynamic.

The answer is unlikely to be musicals. While one of the genre’s ancestors, the 19th-century operetta, once thrived in France, musicals have long been considered minor in this country, which prizes conceptual seriousness over entertainment onstage. Yet a string of successful English-language productions has jazz hands and fidgety feet working their way into the local parlance.

“An American in Paris,” back from a Tony Award-winning Broadway run and an international tour, is competing this month with a sparkling new revival of “Funny Girl” at the Théâtre Marigny. And the two productions share a producer who has played a major role in the wave of musicals in Paris this past decade: Jean-Luc Choplin, who directed the Théâtre du Châtelet from 2004 to 2017 and is now leading the Théâtre Marigny down a similar path.

While some production companies have translated American musicals into French in recent years, Choplin has invested in English-language productions presented with subtitles. It’s a sensible choice, because the upbeat earnestness of the genre sits awkwardly with the taste for irony that is built into French discourse.

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Photo: The New York Times

JONATHAN MILLER, BOLD DIRECTOR OF THEATER AND OPERA, IS DEAD AT 85 ·

(Benedict Nightingale’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/27; via Pam Green.  Listen to a BBC interview with Jonathan Miller.)

Known for his radical restagings of classic works, Mr. Miller was also a doctor who periodically left the stage to practice medicine.

LONDON — Jonathan Miller, the British theater and opera director known for his radical restagings of classic works, died on Wednesday at his home in London. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by his son William Miller, who said his father had had Alzheimer’s disease.

Although he was best known as a director, Mr. Miller was a man of many talents and regularly called a Renaissance man, although he disliked the term, which he said was almost invariably used “by people unacquainted with the Renaissance.”

He first achieved fame as an actor in the anti-establishment revue “Beyond the Fringe,” a hit in both London and New York. He went on to win acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic for his productions of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Mikado” and other works. He also produced and hosted television shows.

Most unusually, he was a medical doctor, with a special interest in neurology; he occasionally left the theater to practice medicine. But his absences — as, for instance, a research fellow in neuropsychology at the University of Sussex in 1983 — never lasted long.

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Photo: The New York Times

 

‘MACBETH’ AT CLASSIC STAGE COMPANY–ONLY THROUGH DEC. 15 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

John Doyle’s production of Macbeth, playing through December 15 at Classic Stage Company (CSC), should fit into the current zeitgeist exactly.  In a world of 280-character tweets and multitasking, the story, enacted in this 90-minute version, demonstrates the kind of revenge corporate staff relish:  a power couple, who are promoted too swiftly—and need more on-the-job training–get their comeuppances.  Even seemingly sensible cutting can lose an article–or book or play, however.  What sometimes seems like arbitrary writing, pared away, may actually be necessary connective tissue, even if it isn’t very good—and especially if a magic spell has been placed on it.  Macbeth is no exception—the story can grow long, as any thirteen-year-old will tell you, especially after, say, Lady Macbeth’s handwashing scene. What most people probably like best, anyway, are the cauldron and witches; forests and ghosts; battle scenes and blood: the tragedy’s elements, instead of its telling. These are also areas known generally, which actors don’t always go much further into researching (so different from the way Stanislavski would approach work, sending a team into the very environments he was working on—to learn history, seek objects for sets and design, and talk to the people who knew something of the past, place, and people).

Corey Stoll and Nadia Bowers, in the doomed central marriage of the play, as well as the other characters, too, only refract the contemporary: points made in glossy magazines about gender roles and hair and better liberal politics. Doyle, extolled for his minimalism, seems to have given us a rehearsal for a production yet to come, although he ensures racial and gender balance, he hasn’t found the universal.  Perhaps he realized, in his streamlined, fast-paced Macbeth, in the round, that after he took everything away, the center wasn’t really there. And maybe that is an astute, frightening way to describe today.

 

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Visit Classic Stage Company

Classic Stage Company (136 E. 13th St, New York)

Macbeth

John Doyle, Scenic Design
Ann Hould-Ward, Costume Designer
Solomon Weisbard, Lighting Designer
Matt Stine, Sound Designer
Tom Schall, Fight Director
Telsey + Company, Casting
Bernita Robinson, Production Stage Manager
Stephanie Macchia,  Assistant Stage Manager

 

Macduff, Captain………………………………………………………………….BARZIN AKHAVAN Malcolm ……………………………………………………………………………..RAFFI BARSOUMIAN Lady Macbeth …………………………………………………………………………… NADIA BOWERS Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman …………………………………………… N’JAMEH CAMARA Banquo, Old Siward…………………………………………………………….ERIK LOCHTEFELD Duncan, Old Woman……………………………………………………………….MARY BETH PEIL Macbeth………………………………………………………………………………………… COREY STOLL Ross …………………………………………………………………………………………..BARBARA WALSH Fleance, Young Macduff, Young Siward…………. ANTONIO MICHAEL WOODARD

Photos by Joan Marcus

JOHN SIMON, WIDE-RANGING CRITIC WITH A CUTTING PEN, DIES AT 94 ·

(Robert D. McFadden’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/25; via Pam Green.)  

Prolific, erudite and caustic in his wit, he surveyed the entire cultural landscape

John Simon, one of the nation’s most erudite, vitriolic and vilified culture critics, who illuminated and savaged a remarkable range of plays, films, literature and art works and their creators for more than a half-century, died on Sunday in Valhalla, N.Y. He was 94.

His death, at Westchester Medical Center, was confirmed by his wife, Patricia Simon.

In an era of vast cultural changes, Mr. Simon marshaled wide learning, insights and acid wit for largely negative reviews and essays that appeared in New York magazine for nearly 37 years, until his dismissal in 2005, and in The Hudson Review, The New York Times, Esquire, National Review, The New Leader and other publications.

In a style that danced with literary allusions and arch rhetoric — and composed with pen and ink (he hated computers) — he produced thousands of critiques and a dozen books, mostly anthologies of his own work. While English was not his native language, he also wrote incisive essays on American usage, notably in the 1980 book “Paradigms Lost: Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline.”

Born in Yugoslavia and educated at Harvard, Mr. Simon was an imperious arbiter who, unlike daily press critics, foraged widely over fields of culture and entertainment at will, devouring the Lilliputians with relish. He regarded television as trash and most Hollywood films as superficial. His formula for an ultimate triumph on Broadway: “A loud, vulgar musical about Jewish Negroes.”

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Photo: Michael Tighe/Donaldson Collection, via Getty Images

MY FIRST PRODUCED PLAY? AH, I REMEMBER IT WELL ·

(Laura Collins-Hughes’s article appeared in The New York Times, 11/11; via Pam Green.)

The return of Tony Kushner’s “A Bright Room Called Day” prompted us to ask leading writers: How did it go for you? And what did you learn?

Tony Kushner was in his 20s when he wrote “A Bright Room Called Day,” on the graveyard shift at his job as a hotel switchboard operator.

Ronald Reagan had just been re-elected, and Kushner, political to the core, channeled his alarm into the play. When his theater company, Heat & Light, staged it in 1985, Oskar Eustis — now the artistic director of the Public Theater — was there. That’s how they met.

“There’s a scene where the characters sing ‘The Internationale,’” Kushner said the other day, “and someone in the audience started singing along with them. And that was Oskar.”

Eustis, who gave Kushner his professional debut two years later when he staged “Bright Room” at the Eureka Theater in San Francisco, is now directing a revival at the Public.

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Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

 

DRUIDSHAKESPEARE: ‘RICHARD III’ (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Aaron Monaghan, as Richard III, in Ireland’s Druid Theatre U.S. production premiere of Shakespeare’s history–it plays until November 23 as part of Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater–appears like Mikhail Baryshnikov’s crippled twin, obsessively jerking forward, planning, always thinking.  Probably a delight to the Tony-winning director Garry Hynes–who apparently loves the low, comic staging of old Warner Brothers and Saturday morning cartoons, he can’t stand still, amid posing royals, played by working people—here, Richard’s deformity is pronounced in his lower half, instead of in a humpback and claw hand.  As the king, Monaghan is witty, sarcastic, and sadistic—as out of touch and privileged, as a Prince Andrew, who can’t sweat.  Shakespeare calls Richard a “hellhound,” but rarely do most audiences feel the banality of mundane murder, which can be overridden, in other productions, by pageantry and towering sets; a star turn.  Hynes is interested in the earthbound: smoke and weather (actually, she has brought her Richard III to New York, during our dull and rainy fall, which coincides with mention of All Souls’ Day in the text).  She rejects the pomp, like she is knocking over Civil War monuments, although, akin to another Irish director, Maria Aitkens, she and her set and costume designer, Francis O’Connor, fall for hats, thankfully foregoing the one that American men, at least, actually do over-wear:  the baseball cap.  There is plenty else on display, though: derbies, Beckett’s bowlers (especially relevant to Hynes, given her 2018 staging of Waiting for Godot), antique military wear, puff hats, hoods, veils, and mitres. Richard is one of her rare characters who does not wear headgear—his crown is so temporary. 

In costume, whether by convention or necessity, Hynes and O’Connor want to accentuate gender, as well as class.  Men wear half-kilts and robes—Clarence plays in white, but much of the design is in black leather–and women play men, or, at least, boys: those young princes taken to the tower.  Hynes’s theatrical revolt is larger than not wanting the audience to identify with a story or character, however—she is taking on, and extending philosophies, from Beckett and the Bard, as well as Brecht.  Her audiences are aware that they are alienated, as in Epic theatre, but she also wants viewers to understand that the situation is not limited, constrained, or contained. There are cycles of life surrounding the dead wood and industrial rust of her boards and proscenium, an issue men in the house may not think or even care about (Camille Paglia has brought this issue up, regarding Beckett)Hynes’s Godot insists on asserting life beyond confines—and Richard III emphasizes, of course, death.  The metaphor for her setting is too inspired and original to spoil for anyone who will see this work, especially for those who do not automatically identify it—when the pieces come together, the revelation is at once apparent and incisive. Viewers, however, may want to investigate Conor Linehan’s Celtic-tinged minimalist music.  

On the one hand, Hynes gives futurist punk costuming and Shakespearean oration, scraped clean, and on the other, she intersperses scenes with expressionist images and horror movie chills—such as a corpse being pulled on the train of Lady Anne’s gown.  There is an indebtedness to Strindberg, as well, who also knew of a pagan, agrarian cosmos, as Hynes allows her queens to crawl, like pigs, in the dirt.

© 2019 by Bob Shuman.  All rights reserved.

Directed by Garry Hynes

Produced by Druid

Starring Aaron Monaghan as Richard III

Francis O’Connor, set and costume design

James F. Ingalls, lighting design

Gregory Clarke, sound design

Conor Linehan, music             

David Bolger, movement and fight choreography

Doreen McKenna, co-costume design

 

With Marie Mullen, Jane Brennan, Ingrid Craigie, Garrett Lombard, Rory Nolan, Marty Rea, Bosco Hogan, Peter Daly, John Olohan, Siobhan Cullen, Frank Blake, Emma Dargan-Reid

Performance length: Three hours, including intermission

Visit Lincoln Center

Photos:  (from top)  Robbie Jack, Richard Termine

Press:  Michelle Tabnick

 

BACK ON CATFISH ROW ·

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

(Geoffrey O’Brien’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 11/21.)  

Porgy and Bess

an opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 23, 2019–February 1, 2020

Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music

by Richard Crawford

Norton, 594 pp., $39.95

Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, to mixed reviews and insufficient box office receipts, but I am unable to disassociate it from the musical culture I grew up with in the 1950s, a decade when George Gershwin’s opera seemed to be everywhere. In 1951, at the dawn of the LP era, the first ostensibly complete recording was released by Columbia Masterworks.1 Earlier recordings had consisted only of hit songs from the show—“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Columbia’s lavish three-record set offered more music than the original Broadway version, which had been shortened by at least thirty minutes before the New York opening. More crucially, it presented Porgy and Bess as an opera of densely interwoven parts, unlike productions that in the decade following Gershwin’s death in 1937 had made drastic cuts and replaced recitatives with spoken dialogue, turning it into something more like a musical.2

For my oldest brother, Robert, a precocious student of musical theater and orchestral arrangement, the Columbia recording became a constant object of study. At mid-decade, when he was fourteen and I was seven, I had the benefit of hearing many passages played repeatedly, along with a running commentary on fine points of harmony and instrumentation often beyond my comprehension. Robert’s ultimate concern being formal, he impressed on me the sense of an invisible architecture beyond words, delineated by the baton he sometimes waved in accompaniment.

No technical explanation was needed to grasp the tidal power of Gershwin’s music in the choral surges and Porgy’s final departure, especially at the volume my brother preferred. At the same time, an intimacy of feeling throughout suggested a community, almost a household, of voices running through all the possible levels of speaking, singing, crying out. To listen closely was to be pulled into an encompassing sonic environment within which lives were being lived under constant stress, in the imaginary but very real space around the record player.

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Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera