Translated and Directed by Vít Hořejš Performed by Vít Hořejš & Theresa Linnihan Production design: Alan Barnes Netherton Marionettes: Milos Kasal, Jakub”Kuba” Krejci, Theresa Linnihan Costumes, Vaněk and Brewmaster puppets: Theresa Linnihan Pre-show video: Suzanna Halsey Producer of GOH: Bonnie Sue Stein/GOH Productions Presented by: La MaMa in association with GOH Productions and Vaclav Havel Library Foundation
Václav Havel’s conceptualization of a self-informing citizen and employee, set during Czechoslovakia’s communist era, loses its absurdly comic and ironic sting in Audience, now playing at La MaMa through February 19. The reason has nothing to do with the quality of the Czechoslovak-American Marionette’s puppet version, directed by Vít Horejš (puppetry is a practiced art form in Central and Eastern Europe), where Theresa Linnihan locates the desperation of a coarse, destructing Brewmaster with the intensity of exposing an O’Neill character (and the show includes a growing puppet; marionettes by Milos Kasal and Jakub “Kuba” Krejci; surveillance cameras; and an important historical overview on Havel and the fall of Czech authoritarianism, by Suzanne Halsey, which goes by too fast). Instead, the issue lies with American culture’s acceptance of privacy incursions, whether from, among others, TikTok, the NSA, computer hackers, the IRS, Facebook tracking devices, and Chinese spy balloons (which the government recently seemed conflicted about shooting down, like wavering about giving out a phone number).
Havel (1936-2011) was known for never being much good at giving an interview, as the president of the Czech Republic and statesman (he went from being jailed to Kafka’s castle in Prague), much less as a playwright, dissident, and prisoner. Apparently, he could not look into the eyes of investigators or T.V. hosts, for fear of giving himself away and being punished. A second-nature revulsion to self-disclosure might even be a reason why his Vaněk character (the role is thought to be a reflection of the author, which Havel denied), in the three one-acts in which he appears, remains a passive construction. Certainly, in Audience, the Brewmaster is more a full profile than a dramatic character in conflict with an evenly matched opponent (Havel, apparently, sees his creation as the “audience” for his boss, not as an adversary). Vít Horejš, as Vaněk, offers a generous, comedic performance for a largely mild, passive role and, with his associates in the production, he meets the complex demands of the tightly choreographed dance of puppetry—an under-rated technically challenging craft, on top of the acting involved. Horejš’s translation offers a harsher, perhaps more dramatically right, ending than has been seen before (Vaněk, typically, tries to sneak out of the office without being heard). Unlike many modern American theatremakers, and others around the world—Havel, apparently, learned not to reveal himself in his art–that may help to explain pauses in his texts, which the author hoped would cause audiences to think about why they are there; other “freer” dramatists might have taken the opportunity to fill out the roles autobiographically.
Written in 1975, Audience (sometimes translated as Interview) is set in a Czech brewery boss’s office—an arena which Havel knew about first-hand. He was forced to be re-educated—to disregard his bourgeois background and presumptions and learn how to put in “a real day’s work.” Some might see his “dumbing down,” for the common good, as relevant to privacy issues in the U.S. now. Even in the Covid age, how often is one asked to meet for a beer with those in the office, or after a Zoom meeting, provide gossip on other employees, deal with an office snitch, bully, or self-appointed rule enforcer, or give a self-evaluation?
Yet security cameras in public spaces for protection, such as in subway stations, may fail in New York City and the United States Supreme Court finds itself unable to pinpoint a 2022 leaker, regarding an abortion draft, from a limited number of potential suspects. Some could question how the general population is benefiting by accepting its own deep scrutiny–through so many offices and algorithms, which, basically want to pinpoint taxpayer mishandling or assert control–and to what extent someone should have the privilege of knowing someone else’s personal information (without reciprocal transparent terms). At the same time, hiring managers may question the need for a college education, where critical thinking can be learned. The future is uncertain as to whether AI will carve out white-collar jobs, in any case.
Which brings theatregoers back to Havel, Kafka, and bureaucracy: Personal data can be extracted so automatically and benignly, and the fear of interrogation, the way Havel had come to know it, through breaches in human rights (Havel maintained he was not tortured), is largely dismissed.
Audience is a play about a terrifying reality, that has already happened here and is becoming more and more noticeable—and will swell more.
Tom Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning Best New Play Leopoldstadt—his 19th on Broadway–which opened October 2, at the Longacre Theatre, is epic, the English way, with huge scope and significance, about the need to win, and to always find a way to win: in relationships, in assimilation and even, as much as possible, against the ultimate horrors of the last century. There is too short a glance at Eastern European absurdism that informs previous plays by the author, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Deadand Dogg’s Hamlet, which may have been appropriate (some contend the form was a reaction to the existential effects of World War II), given his devastating theme: the destruction of a Viennese and Galician family, from their lives in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Austrian independence; from the Anschluss to immigration to new lands in the West. Instead, in PatrickMarber’s first-rate production, a measured cinematic approach seems to have been a guide, as if Freddie Young’s technically sharp, crystal-clear camera could be brought in for perfect scenic composition (the settings are by Richard Hudson, with Costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and lighting design by Neil Austin; project design, using period photography, is by Isaac Madge and sound design and original music are by Adam Cork), with allusions, in terms of writing, to Anna Karenina, Chekhov, Hedda Gabler, Woyzeck, and probably more classic work–Brecht should be mentioned, as well, for some might conjecture that events of this scale, in the theatre, may need to happen through one great Mother Courage figure, instead of a family. The characters in the play—and there are 38 of them, including young actors—a number of whom are interested in Freud and psychoanalysis, are not necessarily likable or sympathetic, and many are cunning, perhaps due to the fact that the momentum of the story does not allow enough time with each—they’re opportunists overwhelmed by barbarity.
For theatregoers, Tom Stoppard means erudite fun at the most sophisticated levels, but although expert at keeping his play moving–with language more windy and literary than imitative of real speech (and with excellent monologues)–there’s not much intrinsically funny here, in a dark documentary-like work about survival skills, literal survival skills, probably more appropriately examined in film. There may be a comic joke about a cigar cutter, which promises to let loose mayhem, a Freudian slip or provocation to be found, a suppressed or false memory, which the Viennese doctor might find amusing, but the serious subject also forces the viewer to examine contemporary societal splits and abysses, discussed , for example, by John Murray Cuddihy in his The Ordeal of Civility (1974), whose thesis is expressed by Chilton Williamson, Jr. as: “Jews and the modern West have been at odds with one another for [more than] the past 150 years, as a tribal and essentially premodern people confronted a civilization representing secularized Christianity . . . and . . . celebrants of the illusory “Judeo-Christian” civilization have deliberately disguised the schism . . . prevent(ing it from) . . . coalescing (157).” The divide continues, in the public eye, from blatant antisemitism, where synagogues need to be monitored on holy days, to the mindless, escapism of social media chattering, chronicled as recently as the present, as celebrities like Kanye West, Candace Owens, and Whoopi Goldberg express off-the-cuff opinion in cancel culture. Antisemitism is an endless polarizing, immobilizing subject, in a country that, by all accounts, has been very good to and for Jews, but has never asked or expected them, to explain themselves, with self-reflection, before American society in the way that African-Americans have been asked to do, for example, in the Million Man March (and that may be a source of contention). Yet, high profile cases, in the Jewish community, are not unknown and have profoundly upset the country, such as, in the recent past, those concerning Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, and Ghislaine Maxwell. A playwright could choose to self-identify as “British,” instead of “coming out” as Jewish, for reasons, personal and myriad, but the irony is not lost, that a largely realistic, historical drama, like Leopoldstadt, is an example of what the ‘60s and a playwright like Tom Stoppard, helped drive out of fashion, only to be refound again, now, in the present day, perhaps like his heritage.
Bluffing, as a theme, does come up in Leopoldstadt, from a card game, to counting numbers, to a family business, and the family’s definition of its religion. Because of Stoppard’s stature as a major artist, as well as a character in the play, who apparently knew little about his own family, theatregoers might question how much subterfuge is being used about his past and what he knew about himself. “Mathematics is the only place where one can make yourself clear,” intones one of the scholars in the play, but theatregoers may still be perplexed about how Stoppard thought of himself and when, before his admission, and to which version of the self he is referring to (of course, being Jewish in the entertainment field is nothing unusual or stigmatizing—similarly, no one raised an eyebrow when Carol Channing exposed the fact that she was of African-American lineage, in her autobiography). There is always a hide-and-seek game in fiction with real characters—are we watching fiction or autobiography? Also, to what extent is the fiction protective, and can one have it both ways, or many ways, when readers or audience members might be asking for less rationalized alternatives to reality and more clarity? Nevertheless, assuming that authors will write more conservatively as they age, there are real reasons to admire Leopoldstadt, none the least to “never forget”—and for the ensemble work of the actors, including David Krumholtz, Faye Castelow, and Jenna Augen, to only choose three. A work of this sheer expanse and literary quality is so hard to find anywhere, whether an author is young or old, Jewish, Buddhist, or a Christian Scientist: Where else today could another script be found, for example, where one would actually want to have had a traditionalist, like David Lean, render it on screen?
John Murray Cuddihy’s book The Ordeal of Civility: Freud, Levi-Strauss, and the Jewish Struggle with Modernity is discussed in The Conservative Bookshelf by Chilton Williamson, Jr. (Citadel Press, 2004).
Leopoldstadt, Tom Stoppard’s Olivier Award-winning Best New Play, is directed by two-time Tony Award nominee Patrick Marber and produced by Sonia Friedman Productions, Roy Furman, and Lorne Michaels.
Leopoldstadt’s full 38-member company, which includes several members of the original West End company and 24 actors making their Broadway debuts, will feature Jesse Aaronson*(The Play That Goes Wrong off-Broadway), Betsy Aidem (Prayer for the French Republic), Jenna Augen*(Leopoldstadt in the West End), Japhet Balaban* (The Thing About Harry on Freeform), Corey Brill (“The Walking Dead,” Gore Vidal’s The Best Man), Daniel Cantor* (Tuesdays with Morrie off-Broadway), Faye Castelow*(Leopoldstadt in the West End), Erica Dasher* (“Jane By Design”), Eden Epstein* (“Sweetbitter” on Starz, “See” on Apple TV+), Gina Ferrall (Big River, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Arty Froushan*(Leopoldstadt in the West End), Charlotte Graham* (The Tempest at A.R.T.), Matt Harrington (Matilda The Musical), Jacqueline Jarrold (The Cherry Orchard), Sarah Killough (Travesties), David Krumholtz (“Numb3rs,” Oppenheimer), Caissie Levy (The Bedwetter; Caroline, or Change), Colleen Litchfield* (“The Crowded Room” on Apple TV+), Tedra Millan (Present Laughter, The Wolves), Aaron Neil*(Leopoldstadt in the West End), Theatre World Award winner Seth Numrich (Travesties, War Horse), Anthony Rosenthal (Falsettos), Chris Stevens*, Sara Topham (Travesties), three-time Tony Award nominee Brandon Uranowitz (Assassins, Falsettos, Burn This), Dylan S. Wallach (Betrayal), Reese Bogin*, Max Ryan Burach*, Calvin James Davis*, Michael Deaner*, Romy Fay* (“Best Foot Forward” on Apple TV+), Pearl Scarlett Gold*, Jaxon Cain Grundleger*, Wesley Holloway*, Ava Michele Hyl*, Joshua Satine*, Aaron Shuf*, and Drew Ryan Squire*.
* indicates an actor making their Broadway debut.
Leopoldstadt’s limited Broadway engagement begins previews Wednesday, September 14 ahead of a Sunday, October 2 opening night at the Longacre Theatre (220 West 48th Street).
Perhaps the most personal play of Stoppard’s unmatched career, Leopoldstadt opened in London’s West End to rave critical acclaim on January 25, 2020. A planned extension due to overwhelming demand was curtailed due to the COVID-19 lockdown seven weeks later. In late 2021, the play returned for a further 12-week engagement. Both runs completely sold out and Leopoldstadt received the Olivier Award for Best New Play in October 2020.
Leopoldstadtwill mark Tom Stoppard’s 19th play on Broadway since his groundbreaking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead opened 55 years ago. Stoppard has won four Best Play Tony Awards, more than any other playwright in history.
Set in Vienna, Leopoldstadt takes its title from the Jewish quarter. This passionate drama of love and endurancebegins in the last days of 1899 and follows one extended family deep into the heart of the 20th Century. Full of his customary wit and beauty, Tom Stoppard’s late work spans fifty years of time over two hours. The Financial Times said, “This is a momentous new play. Tom Stoppard has reached back into his own family history to craft a work that is both epic and intimate; that is profoundly personal, but which concerns us all.” With a cast of 38 and direction by Patrick Marber, Leopoldstadt is a “magnificent masterpiece” (The Independent) that must not be missed.
Leopoldstadt’s creative team includes scenic design by Tony Award winner Richard Hudson (The Lion King, La Bête), costume design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, lighting design by three-time Tony Award winner Neil Austin (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Company, Travesties), sound and original music by Tony Award winner Adam Cork (Red, Travesties), video design by Isaac Madge, movement by Emily Jane Boyle, andhair, wig & makeup design by Campbell Young & Associates. Casting is by Jim Carnahan and Maureen Kelleher, and UK casting is by Amy Ball CDG.
Co-producers of Leopoldstadt include Stephanie P. McClelland, Gavin Kalin, Delman Sloan, Brad Edgerton, Eilene Davidson, Patrick Gracey, Burnt Umber Productions, Cue to Cue Productions, No Guarantees, Robert Nederlander, Jr., Thomas S. Perakos, Sanford Robertson, Iris Smith, The Factor Gavin Partnership, Jamie deRoy / Catherine Adler, Dodge Hall Productions / Waverly Productions, Ricardo Hornos / Robert Tichio, Heni Koenigsberg / Wendy Federman, Brian Spector / Judith Seinfeld, and Richard Winkler / Alan Shorr.
Tickets are on sale online at Telecharge.com or by phone at 212-239-6200.
For 10+ Group Sales information contact Broadway Inbound at broadwayinbound.com or call 866-302-0995.
María Irene Fornés’sMud/Drowning is playing for only 15 performances, September 28 to October 9, at Mabou Mines, in a double bill, directed by JoAnne Akalaitis, with new music composed by Philip Glass and produced by Mabou Mines and Weathervane Productions, in association with Philip Glass’ The Days and Nights Festival. The evening is not a return to the fantastical weirdness of previous outré Mabou Mines outings, although the first production of “Drowning,” in 1986, as part of an evening of one-acts called Orchards, unrelated to Mabou Mines, and inspired by Chekhov, cast her play with men dressed as potatoes. Today, the acclaimed director, Akalaitis, in an inclusive, intimate mood, offers her Fornés shows as hardly more than unaffected stationary rehearsal presentations. The first, Mud, is set at a long table (with the actors widely spaced, presumably in adherence of Covid rules; the production’s original staging was in Carmel, California, in October 2019), and they are accompanied by a keyboardist, Michael A. Ferrara, and harpist, Anna Bikales. White, russet, yellow, brown, blue: potatoes can be of many colors, but Fornés, originally from Cuba, was an important champion of Latino voices and actors before the millennium, when a string of her works, self-directed, played at Theater for the New City with her oft-chosen star Sheila Dabney, who was flooded with emotion at her curtain calls, after having recreated the brutalized, downtrodden, and brown, who claimed and called for humanity.
If the color of potatoes doesn’t much matter, the color of the actors in the first piece, Mud, can, offering the radical view we assume when we see drama at this theatre. If it doesn’t and one is producing the work of a Cuban playwright, in a play called Mud, and unearthing and tripping over pieces of Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard lying across the page, why not do Orpheus Descending, instead? Perhaps Akalaitis is signaling the most radical possible solution for Off-Broadway: a cease-fire on race issues and maybe ones concerning gender and age. Next season, everything will have returned to normal but, after the weight of COVID-19, for a moment, Mabou Mines has a celebration, with a white, blonde actress (Wendy vanden Heuvel) at the center (also in Mud are Paul Lazar, Sifiso Mabena, Tony Torn, and Autumn Angelettie) and old tenors and a countertenor, in fat suits, recalling an Orson Welles trio, dressed alike in loose jackets and scarves, one with a pork pie hat (Tomas Cruz, Gregory Purnhagen, and Peter Stewart). The mood is genial and marigold bright, unless you think the color is a reference to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a story about another trapped woman); the lighting design is by Thomas Dunn and the scenic and costume design are by Kaye Voyce, using blue and tan patterned linoleum, as if a background to a cozy cast party with wine, cheese, and sweet potato pie. We need that vibe even if it is a very different one than the ones Fornes brought to many of her plays, roughly forty years ago. Then, the presentations could be aching, anguished, with pinpricks of matter-of-fact humor, artistically rendered sets by the author, and silences, sometimes long, perhaps to hear that small, quiet voice (like the author’s)–of what was human, among the bestiality allowed on the stage. Signature Theatre’s production of Mud, at the turn of the millennium was unbearably intense and that is a vision probably close to what Fornés had in mind for the piece herself (Mud itself is reminiscent of a story by ZoraNeale Hurston, specifically “Sweat”), but realize that Fornes, as a working playwright and theatremaker, did write comedy, as well as musicals. What one of the reviewers here recalls first, from a class taken with Fornés in the 1980s, was the requirement that characters in plays never be made fun of or mocked, whether they were funny or not—their humanity was sacred.
By taking away the slow, Beckettian tempo of Fornés scenes, an awareness of melodrama and comedy can emerge (Akalaitis uses humorous physical parallelism, of hands and body placements, as examples, pronounced in the Mabou Mines production, and has a clown in Tony Torn as Henry, a man who can barely read). Actually, such an approach displays Fornés’s writing technique, which calls for randomization and displacement (the playwright Robin Goldfin typed and compiled many of Fornés’s exercises, and apparently there are more. Hopefully, INTAR has them and they are in safekeeping, a rare treasure). What the method allows Glass, however, are clearly defined sections to compose for, which is why the evening can feel like being at a silent film, where music is played at clear demarcations (Fornés’s script actually calls for freezes to last eight seconds at the end of each scene, which will “create the effect of a still photograph,” amplifying the idea of the filmic and sectioned). Glass’s post-minimalist music for the opera does not (and probably should or could not) feel particularly specific to a rural America, in Mud, or to potatoes reading a tabloid at a diner, whatever that would sound like (Gabrielle Vincent’s anatomically accurate makeup for the bloated bald-headed men may be a reference to actual victims of drowning). Glass seems to take a generic, or maybe unobtrusive, route through the absurdity, giving ambiance in minor-keyed arpeggios, relying on sung text, without, for instance, configuring arias, duets, and trios.
Part of the allure of this Mud/Drowning may, in fact, be the decision to have extreme visionaries take themselves less seriously, less adventurously, less singularly, and be tempted to put down their own visions. Instead, they offer what is possible: non-intimidation, non-attachment, an informal feel of the home, and an appeal to camaraderie, after a very long two years of the arts being at sea.
Photos: I. Fornes (Mabou Mines); cast of ‘Mud’ (From left: Paul Lazar, Wendy vanden Heuvel and Bruce MacVittie in a staged reading of María Irene Fornés’s “Mud.”Credit…Julieta CervantesNY Times); Cast of ‘Drowning’ (Gregory Purnhagen, left, and Peter Stewart in JoAnne Akalaitis’s production of Philip Glass’s short opera “Drowning.”Credit…Julieta Cervantes, NY Times); J Akalaitis (Mabou Mines); P. Glass (Famous Composers.net)
(The following article was compiled and written after listening to an interview with artistic collaborators from Belarus Free Theatre, 3/22; by Bob Shuman, Stage Voices. )
An old saying: “When the guns are singing, the muses are silent.” The original may actually have been: “When the guns are singing the laws are silent.” We are those muses who hope not to stay silent when the guns are singing; who do not stay silent when the guns are silent, also. We don’t have the right to another way. We have to be the back-up, to help those who are fighting, because there is no one else who will do this; because there are those, from the arts and elsewhere, who are actually fighting on the streets.–Nicolai Khalezin, Belarus Free Theatre
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, silently, as they screamed, from behind a deflating transparent plastic globe, Belarus Free Theatre, in Being Harold Pinter (2011), warned the west of the price of dictatorship in Eastern Europe. Their works for the stage, often short and urgent, left audiences feeling that little could change for them—in their country, so remote geographically, linguistically, and politically—but we did not think it could become worse, and so our response was largely acquiescent. Now, eleven years later, the company, along with approximately 3.7 million refugees from Ukraine (and uncounted numbers from neighboring countries, have been in flight (France24; updated to 4 million on 3/30/22), uprooted, running, homeless, and given paperwork, while rushed escape plans are made for the U.S., the United Kingdom, the EU or other points where there is, hopefully, no war—something the actress and director Liv Ullmann has stated needs to be addressed immediately and legally: “I get very shocked. . . . To be honest, I know that the same thing will happen in Norway. But at least I can fight it more easily because I belong to that country. I don’t belong to the US. But I can say what I mean.”
New work from Belarus Free Theatre remains prescient, as if from Cassandras at the Trojan War. Dogs of Europe, based on dystopian fiction –which feels like a current documentary novel, although it was written in 2018/2019 and is “one of the best pieces of literature written in Belarus in the last thirty years,” according to Nicolai Khalezin, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre, along with Natalia Kaliada. Alhierd Bacharevic, its author, presents life in a future Russia, where their own land has “disappeared,” along with literature and the European Union, replaced by authoritarianism and indifference. Frank Hentschker, interviewing two company members, Svetlana Sugako and Khalezin, for Segal Talks (Daniella Kaliada provides English translation), on Wednesday, 3/23/22, led the discussion, concerning what is on their minds, what is on everyone’s minds: the war in Ukraine, during its twenty-eighth day, a day that: sees the continued devastation of Mariupol, the destruction of a Ukrainian anti-aircraft missile launcher, strikes on Ukrainian military infrastructure, and Putin’s announcement that payment for Russian natural gas must be made in rubles, among other critical issues.
Livestreaming on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network, Khalezin, who is also an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner, journalist, and who was put in prison for his activism, begins bluntly, “Thinking people tried to scream and shout of dangers awaiting, but ultimately, we failed in our mission; we all share collective blame for allowing Putin to exist—but artists must use the historical moment.” Sugako, an activist, musician, and actor who is leading on a new campaign for LGBTQI rights for the company, was also jailed, before she left the country, for protesting Lukashenko’s seizure of a sixth term as president, in 2020. On Zoom, she looks boyish and thoughtful (both of those interviewed wore their hair in bouffant styles), and, since 2011, she had been running the entire operation for the Minsk theatre, before taking refuge in Poland and England (she is, currently, in the process of taking props from Warsaw to London for a new show called How Man Had a Speaking Sparrow; the Artistic Directors of the Belarus Free Theatre, at the time, were forced into exile in London. She once built a wooden raft and sailed down one of the rivers in Belarus, it is explained, to talk to people in small villages, to bring theatre to them. Comparisons to a Huckleberry Finn are not warranted, however, as even performing and speaking in Belarusian, her native language (or wearing a t-shirt or placing a decal on a car window with the flag of the country), carries an arrest sentence; looking for work in the state theatre, was prohibited and unsafe, as well, because of associations with the underground stage.
Khalezin explains, from Washington, D.C., that actually Belarus Free Theatre did not start politically. Instead, at its inception, the company was incorporating and reconfiguring, theatrically, a philosophy based on the principles of Total Football (Soccer), as conceptualized and implemented, during the ‘70s, by Rinus Michels, of the Netherlands National Football team. The ensemble is still trained in total immersion: quick transitions (from offense to defense), forced spread throughout the field, as well as sincerity and actuality (the Belarus Free Theatre School, Fortinbras, which came into existence twelve years ago, incorporates the method, along with physical theater, actor perception, and other techniques). At the time, those in the company were also questioned about what mattered to them—“what gave us strength and what bothered us.” In turn, audiences would begin thinking about what bothered them. Today, Khalezin, moustached, with a chin strip goatee and earring, is still asking about the problem of us—which now includes a war in Europe, the largest since World War II.
Hearing from artists, who are stuck and do not know how to react, Sugako discusses the issues and solutions with Natalia Kaliada (who is currently in Washington, D.C., speaking to representatives in Congress, the Senate, White House, Pentagon, and foreign ministry, about the Ukraine invasion). Part of a response, the theatremakers believe, is to “continue to do” and be active: “express, show, and shout!” (“You have to do it, you are artists.”)—even in a time “when we can do nothing and even as art can not change the situation.” Václav Havel, Czech president, dissident, and playwright, who spent almost eight years in prison, said,“fight, no matter where you are. Just continue to fight.” Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Mick Jagger, and Steven Spielberg, may not talk much, but they are “engaged socially and politically,” and have discussed major issues concerning Eastern Europe with Khalezin. Part of our solutions may be to question; “looking at the world as questions.” Face problems. “Ask,” even as “it is not the goal of the arts to look for answers.” Learning is crucial, of course, “but learning in dialogue.” This technique is “more important than a master class.” Khalezin also believes we must continue on our paths: “When you realize your resilience, you start enjoying it more, but be patient, because you may want to take the road of least resistance, which might not sustain you, as an individual.”
Khalezin does not actually believe that most people want to talk about My Fair Lady and Book of Mormon—the same “jolly” shows that had filled houses before the emergence of COVID, more than two years ago. He believes the theatrical community wants to talk about “the poignant topics,” what’s going on in real life. He even finds the positive reception of the Belarus Free Theatre production of Dogs of Europe, in the U.K., suspect (the play recently closed, on 2/22, at London’s Barbican), in lockstep, critically, with other 4-star reviews (only the Financial Times gave the work 5-stars (below). This may suggest a lack of critical thinking in the art world, with rote determination on the part of reviewers. Perhaps they are simply playing it safe during such a dangerous time. Khalezin, nevertheless, notes that the lack of strong positions did not stop the production from being sold-out during its run, meaning that ticket buyers wanted to see and talk about the work, no matter what mainstream sources wrote.
He knows also that those involved with, and working in theatre, want to respond to arts leadership, because those in institutions, are, in fact, marginalizing artists, and are not letting them speak freely–or taking them seriously. Khalezin maintains: “I really do think it is up to institutions to provide and provoke artists to allow them to express their real thoughts and feelings. Then, through discussion, both can finally discover a world where the things seen onstage are relevant.”
Khalezin is speaking about “every single one of us,” no matter our circumstances: Belarus, war, Europe–they are “stories about me”—and Khalezin maintains that art must talk about me (“I am not Hamlet; I am not Hamilton; I am a Belarusian, I’m an émigré, my country is involved in a war, I’m a European . . . my friends are currently dying”). He thinks of those who have lost their jobs, singers whose livelihoods have been destroyed in Belarus and the Donbas region of Ukraine. He wants to write an opera for them called, The Wild Hunt of the King’s Stag. The story concerns a group of wealthy people who dress up and pretend to be ghosts. They go on a wild hunt, marauding. The project is employment for those fired in Belarus and those from now bombed-out theatres in Ukraine; for the singers of Kharkiv Opera Theatre; the singers from the Belarusian Opera Theatre who, fired for political motives, were also forced to leave. Also the proposal is for actors of the Belarusian theatre who can’t be found, are gone, and are now literally homeless. He wants to involve a big European theatre, and allow creators, who have lost everything, to work close together with other artists, after so much suffering. The world needs to understand how close we are to each other and how we all suffer.
On the twenty-eighth day of the Ukraine invasion, Sky News is reporting that the largest Kyiv fire since the beginning of the war is blazing, according to a female firefighter on video, coming from the scene; NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is calling for Putin to stop saber-rattling over concerns of a Russian nuclear attack. Sugako talks of bringing people together, those who are displaced and rootless, who have only a backpack and no choices. She calls those in Belarus Free Theatre part of her own family, whom she has grown up with, amid creation, smiling, crying, hugs and laughter (as well as well as political campaigns, actions, and activism). If and when she returns to her homeland, she talks about continuing her work on the river, bringing theatre to those who can not come to a city, reaching them on her raft.
The full interview:
About the Artists:
Svetlana Sugako studied graphic design then music & choreography at Belarusian National University. She has been involved with BFT Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk since its inception in 2005, and has been running the entire operation in Belarus since the Artistic Directors were forced into exile in 2011. Formally the production manager, Svetlana is an activist, musician, actor and is leading on a new campaign of BFT on LGBTQI rights. Sugar is featured in the book Two Women in Their Time, by photographer Misha Friedman and The New Yorker staff writer Masha Gessen portraying Svetlana Sugako and Nadya Brodskaya as the power couple spearheading the day-to-day activities of the celebrated Belarus Free Theatre in Minsk. In August 2020 longtime Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko won the vote to seize his sixth term, despite widespread evidence of vote-rigging. The result sparked the largest protests that Belarus had seen in decades—as well as an unprecedented level of police brutality. Sugako and Brodskaya both went to the protests, and were quickly arrested. The pair were placed with 34 others in a cell designed for only four. They were also not given water or food for three days. Before the protests, the Belarus Free Theatre had been one of the few dissenting voices in the country. Sugako believes that through its 16 years of activity, the theatre played an essential role in keeping Belarus’ critical spirit alive, in turn contributing to recent wave of protests.
Nicolai Khalezin is the co-founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), an award-winning director, playwright, designer, educator, political campaigner and journalist.
Prior to co-founding BFT in 2005, Nicolai was Editor-in-Chief of the leading social-political weekly newspapers in Belarus – Name, News and Our Freedom – all of which were shut down by the regime. Khalezin was the owner of the only contemporary art gallery in Minsk, which was also closed down by the authorities. His works were exhibited at the Istanbul Biennale, Milan Expo, in Rome, Berlin and at the Moscow Centre of Contemporary Art.
Nicolai served time in prison in Belarus for his involvement in political campaigns and was recognised as a Prisoner of Consciousness by Amnesty International. This experience inspired one of BFT’s most celebrated shows, Generation Jeans, an autobiographical duologue about rock music and resistance. Written, directed and performed by Nicolai Khalezin, with live music by DJ Laurel, Generation Jeans has been performed more than 100 times around the world to date, including at the home of President Vaclav Havel upon his invitation in 2008 and at the UK’s House of Commons together with BFT Trustee Jude Law in 2012.
Further playwriting credits for BFT include Burning Doors, Master Had A Talking Sparrow, Discover Love, Trash Cuisine, Time of Women, all of which he also directed, and the adaptation of King Learwhich was staged at the Globe to Globe Festival, as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Nicolai is the co-founder of BFT’s theatre laboratory, Fortinbras, the only independent arts school in Belarus.
The Segal Talk will be hosted and moderated by Frank Hentschker, Executive Director of The Segal Center.
ABOUT THE SEGAL TALKS
The Segal Theatre Center’s online conversation series SEGAL TALKS was created in March of 2020 after the abrupt closing of the Graduate Center for any kind of public activities due to Corona and the cancellation of the entire spring season. The SEGAL TALKS during The Time of Corona offered conversations on theatre, performance and art during the pandemic featuring with more than 200 theater artists from over 50 countries. New York, US, and international theatre artists, curators, writers, and academics talked daily during the week for one hour with Segal Center’s director, Frank Hentschker, about life and art in the Time of Corona and speak about challenges, sorrows, and hopes for the new Weltzustand— the State of the World. In the summer of 2021 Segal Talks continued to focus on Theatre, Performance and The Political, the Segal Center’s 2023 New York International Festival of the Arts Project and the 2022 Center’s Public Park Project. During the pandemic The Segal Center was for a long period globally the only theatre institution creating new, original, daily content for the global field of theater and performance five days a week. Currently the Center is preparing the 4th edition of the Segal Center’s global Film Festival on Theatre and Performance.
Originally founded in 1979 as the Center for Advanced Studies in Theatre Arts (CASTA), The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center was renamed in March of 1999 to recognize Martin E. Segal, one of New York City’s outstanding leaders of the arts. The Segal Center curates over thirty events throughout the Spring and Fall academic seasons, all free and open to the public. Dedicated to bridging the gap between the professional and academic theatre communities, the Segal Center presents readings, performance, lectures, and artists and academics in conversation. In addition, the Segal Center presents three annual festivals (PRELUDE, PEN World Voices: International Pay Festival, and The Segal Center Film Festival on Theatre and Performance) and publishes and maintains three open access online journals (Arab Stages, European Stages, and The Journal of American Drama and Theatre). The Segal Center also publishes many volumes of plays in translation and is the leading publisher of plays from the Arab world. The Martin E. Segal Theatre Center (MESTC) is a vital component of the Theatre Program’s academic culture and creating in close collaboration a research nexus, focusing on dramaturgy, new media, and global theatre. The Segal Center provides an intimate platform where both artists and theatre professionals can actively participate with audiences to advance awareness and appreciation. www.TheSegalCenter.org
THE SEGAL TEAM
Executive Director: Frank Hentschker
Associate Producers: Andie Lerner & Tanvi Shah
THE GRADUATE CENTER, CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, of which the Martin E. Segal Theatre Center is an integral part, is the doctorate-granting institution of The City University of New York (CUNY). An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs, as well as a number of master’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to twenty-eight interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns. Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, The Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events. www.gc.cuny.edu.
HowlRound Theatre Commons at www.HowlRound.com is a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide that amplifies progressive, disruptive ideas about the art form and facilitates connection between diverse practitioners. HowlRound envisions a theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. HowlRound was founded on an organizing principle in the “commons”—a social structure that invites open participation around shared values. HowlRound is a knowledge commons that encourages freely sharing intellectual and artistic resources and expertise. It is our strong belief that the power of live theatre connects us across difference, puts us in proximity of one another, and strengthens our tether to our commonalities. HowlRound is based at Emerson College, Boston. http://www.howlround.com
“You will not be relaxed,” warned co-director Natalia Kaliada during the pre-performance talk for the Belarus Free Theatre’s show Dogs of Europe. Placed on each seat in the auditorium was a placard bearing the face of a persecuted Belarusian activist; mine was baby-faced Dmitri Gopta, born 1999, jailed for throwing stones at police vehicles. Every member of the BFT troupe is a refugee, having been arrested, harassed or detained under the country’s dictatorship. This three-hour adaptation of Alhierd Bacharevic’s novel, about a Russian “New Reich” facing down the rest of Europe, sounded like a gruelling prospect.
What a surprise, then, to be constantly beguiled, amused and intrigued over the show’s entire running time by a joyous mix of acrobatics, dance, folk song, clowning, slapstick and absurdism. From underground performances in Minsk, it has been spectacularly opened up for the Barbican stage. (The show’s brief three-night run has now ended.) Images of vast fields and forests projected on a screen behind the actors fly us to the remote village of White Dews in the year 2049, with its riotously eccentric inhabitants.
Drink is quaffed, defiant songs sung and guns waved, sometimes to comic effect, sometimes not. A covert parachutist floats down while trees shuffle about, Birnam Wood-style. Four interlocking trolleys of varying heights on castors become steps, bookshelves and beds.
Periodically a naked man trudges across the rear of the stage, effortfully pushing a large globe made out of books. There’s always something fascinating or weird to gaze at.
Nylind Kaliada and her co-director Nicolai Khalezin privilege imagery over plot; even with the help of the surtitles projected over the actors’ heads, it’s hard to make out the story. Dogs of Europe is firmly in the east European tradition of satirical obliquity in the face of censorship.
The mockery of the preening military man might be overt, but why does one character always carry around a toy goose? A mysterious “agent” trawls the last bookstores in Europe in search of a poet who always carried a feather. Why a fire dance? Who’s the guy with the accordion? What’s the significance of the naked man running round in circles? With exceptional sound design (Ella Wahlström, the thrilling vocal and musical skills of Marichka and Mark Markzyc) and visual flair (Richard Williamson), it barely matters. ★★★★★ belarusfreetheatre.com
JOE KINNISON is on the hook for our latest interview, talking with SV’s Bob Shuman about getting started in bass fishing, enjoying the peace, beauty, and intellectual challenge of the sport, and sharing insights from the world’s top Bassmaster anglers: Christiana Bradley, Tyler Carriere, Destin Demarion, Pam Martin-Wells, and Brandon Palaniuk.
Joe Kinnison “sincerely promotes fishing for everyone.” His previous book is Oh’Fish-Al Innsbrook Fishing Guide, on fishing technique tailored to a lake resort community in Eastern Missouri. Joe is an officer in a St. Louis fishing club, and he has several bass tournament wins. He is also a member of the Missouri Writers Guild and the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association (SOEPA).
What did you hook your first fish with—and what are your first memories of fishing?
When I was in primary school, my parents bought a small farm. The farm was all of the way at the end of a miles long gravel road. A small neighborhood organization took up a collection to maintain the road, along with a well that served water to the community. The well was a short walk up the road from our site, and a roughly two acre, kidney-bean-shaped pond was just downhill from the well on common ground. The pond was difficult to approach. It was surrounded by weeds and generally not well kept. Still, we decided to try fishing in the pond one summer day. After trampling enough weeds to get to the water’s edge, we baited hooks with bobbers and worms and started casting. In what seemed like no time, we were reeling in bass, many of which were good size, at least to a kid. Nearly every cast produced a fish, and I remember getting worn out, more than feeling that we’d caught all we could.
What kind of bait do you use today?
I use artificial baits today, and I change baits depending on the forage of the lake and the season of the year. I have had some of my best fishing days, in terms of volume, fishing a lipless crankbait. A lipless crankbait is a fairly heavy lure which is shaped like a fish. The fishing line ties to about the center of the fish’s back which makes the lure wiggle as it moves. A lipless crankbait can be cast a long distance, and the lure is retrieved at a regular rate. I use the lure to cover flats, which are large, shallow sections of lakes. I have had some of my most prolific fishing days dragging a lipless crankbait up the deep edge of a flat and long distances over the submerged surface of the flat. When the fish bite this moving lure, they tend to bite hard. The long length of fishing line from the long cast gives the hooked fish room run, and surge, and jump.
How has your technique changed over the years—and what crucial insight did you have about it?
When I moved to St. Louis, I started getting together with a small group of anglers. We jokingly called ourselves the Bassin’ Assassins. About once a month, we would travel to a group of ponds on a friend’s farm. We were not a very experienced group, but the ponds were seldom fished. These bass would bite almost anything. I started by throwing an inline spinner, which is really more of a trout lure than a bass lure. The bass bit it anyway. Since the ponds were a forgiving environment for an up-and-coming angler, I started experimenting. What I learned is that I preferred to fish slow, rather than just rip baits along a path and try for a reaction strike. I liked making the bait appear natural and move like a real crayfish or a worm. I later learned that this style of mimicking prey is called finesse fishing. Finesse fishing is the method I most prefer. It is slower, it gives a good feel for the fish, and being able to tempt a fish with what it believes is actual food is rewarding.
Why do you think people give up on fishing—and is there a way to keep them going with the sport?
I have met many people who like catching, but don’t necessarily like fishing. I think most people get excited to have a fish on the line. They get to steer the fish, reel it in, control it, and grab its lip. Although that’s the excitement of the sport, catching does not always happen. Moreover, sometimes when it does happen, the fish do not fight, or they are too small to be challenging. During most fishing trips, there is a period of time when the fish are not biting. Those are the times when most people give up on fishing, finding it boring. Those that stick with the sport seem to be the anglers that start seeking solutions when the fishing is idle. They start changing lures, alternating retrieve cadences, or switching colors. They start to notice changes in water color or wind direction or sun angle. Those that begin to understand the natural elements that impact the catching. These are the ones that keep going with the sport. I think the best way to learn the types of things that matter to fishing success is to spend time on the water with someone who loves fishing, not catching.
You interviewed five professional anglers, affiliated with Bassmaster for this book—were there any commonalities to their experience and stories? Are most people who fish helpful to the newcomer?
Fishing is a welcoming community, especially to kids. In my experience, anglers are like golfers, in that they are happy to recount the elements that led up to their par, what club, what distance, what line, and so on. For anglers, it may be what reels and cranks, what location, or what technique. While some anglers protect their secrets, most are quite open in sharing their experiences. As for the professionals, the most common element of their stories is that they each had a mentor. Be it a grandfather, brother, or family friend, each angler had a generous fishing enthusiast take them under their arm and give them experiences on the water. Although fishing is the second most popular outdoor sport, fishing can seem to be a small and not mainstream community. Really, it’s not. You just need to find a friend.
What does a fisherperson do during the off-season?
The off-season for professional fishing may not be what you think, the off-season is actually in the fall. Professional tours start as early as February, and the season ends in July. While that is the professional ranks, I make the point in my book that I am far from a professional caliber angler. For me, the off season is what you might expect, winter. I live in the Midwest, and I am not a big fan of cold. Some of my peers travel to Arkansas each year to fish for trout in the Ozark mountain streams. Personally, I like the heartiness and the fight of bass, so I stick with that type of fishing. I give my boat a good cleaning about Thanksgiving time, and I park it until the Easter season. I spend the winter reading and writing.
Please discuss the issue of releasing fish after they are caught. Why would or wouldn’t you do this—is it ever required?
Choosing to either keep or release a bass is a thorny issue, and there are passionate opinions on both sides. Large and smallmouth bass are not good eating fish. They are edible, but they would not be a first choice among diners. As such, keeping these fish for food is not the norm. For most of my fishing tenure, catch-and-release has been the preferred method. Recently, however, lake management views have been changing. Bass tend to be the apex predators in most lakes. With few adversaries, the fish tend to overpopulate. When a bass population gets too large, sufficient food is not present to support all of those fish. The fish tend to grow to approximately the same size and compete for what nourishment is available. These fish tend to thin. The industry calls such fish stunted. The bulk of the fish population of a lake can be unhealthy, starving. Some of the new thinking is that small bass should be removed from lakes and rivers to try to prevent the stunting problem. With small bass being particularly hard to prepare as food, the question becomes what to do with them. Dead fish are better used for garden fertilizer or even left on the bank to feed birds and raccoons. Some animal rights people believe that culling small fish is inhumane. Other animal rights people believe that starving a population of fish is inhumane. There are good arguments on both sides. I am a believer that catch-and-keep is the best policy.
What is fish body language and how does knowing about it help when fishing?
Even experienced anglers generally do not know that largemouth bass can change color. The fish have the ability to express the green and black pigments in their skin, or they can mask those pigments. It would not be unusual to catch really green-looking bass on one trip, and then catch really white-looking bass on another trip on the same lake. Coloration depends on how deep the bass are swimming and how much vegetation is in the water. Bass express their pigments when they are in the weeds. The green shades make them harder to find. The suppress their pigments when they are in deep or open water. More whiteness makes them harder to see by other fish looking from the bottom toward the surface. The pigment provides information to the angler. If you reel in a white-ish bass, it does not mean the animal is unhealthy. Instead, it means the animal came from a deep, suspended position to bite the lure. In that way, the coloration of the bass tells you at what depth the fish are feeding. This is valuable information for the angler.
How would this book have been written if you worked on it ten years ago—what has changed in the field?
I do not think this book could have been written a decade ago. Like many pursuits, fishing has undergone tremendous technological change in the last ten years. In that period of time, the industry has developed high resolution sonar equipment, invisible fishing lines, and previously unheard of lure presentations like umbrella rigs. Due to the improvements in the technology, most anglers have been focused on trying new gear. The new gear has been effective in improving catch rates, especially for offshore fish. As the technology has been assimilated, in my experience, questions remained unanswered. For example, if we both have all of the greatest gear, what makes an angler on the Bassmaster Elite tour different from me? In looking for that explanation, it became clear to me that soft skills separate anglers who already possess the latest technology. It really comes back to the human elements to determine success. Mentorship is a factor. It is also sensory skills, creativity, and organization that make the true difference.
What do you discuss in the book that isn’t typically covered in fishing books?
This may sound mundane, but one of the things that I discuss is how to get on the water. Some of the nation’s best fishing lakes are overwhelmingly large. It can be a difficult problem just to get started, and no one tells you that perspective. I point readers to where to launch their boat, where to get a guide, where to stay overnight, and where to grab dinner. Such practical things are often omitted in fishing books. Beyond the practical, few other fishing books will inform readers about things like sensory training and improvisation techniques.
How long does it take, on average, for someone to feel confident in fishing?
Getting confident in fishing can take a while. I cannot really identify a precise timetable, but I would say about five years will not be far off. As with any sport, some people have a natural gift for fishing. They may be particularly aware of nature or unusually observant. These folks usually start fast. For the fast starters as for the rest of us, eventually the angler will have an outing where they catch nothing. A reliable bait does not work or no fish reside in a confident “honey hole.” At these times, whatever confidence the beginning angler has fails. What restores confidence is going back out on the water and trying different lures, different techniques, and different locations until one finds and catches the fish. Having to adapt to different conditions and different quirks is what ultimately makes a successful angler. One would have to have experienced several shut-out situations before becoming assured that success could be achieved under most fishing conditions. Personally, going onto a lake knowing that I can effectively fish crankbaits, or spinnerbaits, or soft plastics, or swimbaits is what ultimately gave me confidence. That and being able to consistently out-fish my brother-in-law.
Do you honestly believe that both sensory training and improv training really make a difference to an angler?
Both of these disciplines sound “new agey,” and “fluffy,” as in not tangible. I refer people to a scientific study of a baseball team that employed sensory techniques. The results were measurable. In the book, I tried to translate some of the sensory training ideas to outdoors pursuits. I have tried these sensory exercises, and I believe that they have helped my fishing. My most memorable response to suggestions for sensory training was an angry one. A very experienced angler chastised me for trying to teach people what for him was just being “in the zone.” I guess he had some natural abilities, and he was upset that I was teaching people how to make the best of their lesser gifts. Improv is also a tentative conversation for most anglers. People seem to think that I’m trying to get them to try out for Second City Comedy or something of that ilk. No, I’m trying to provide permission and instill a process for experimentation. Sometimes just knowing it’s okay to cast a jig with a purple streamer or a crankbait with a worm weight ahead of it on the line is acceptable as long as it is purposeful.
You really make the sport sound approachable and fun. How were you able to do that?
Two teachers in particular had an influence on my life. A high school English teacher was a fiend for economy of language. Second, a college professor once lowered a grade on a paper saying that I turned in ten pages because I did not have time to write eight pages. He wanted editing and economy. I brought those sentiments into my professional life, and I became a big advocate for clarity and simplicity. I believe that writing in that fashion makes most topics approachable.
Fishing can get really complex, and the industry is heavy on jargon. I have heard professional anglers take more than a full minute just to tell you the details of their rod, reel, line, and lure combination. I do not think it needs to be that complicated. One of the things that I really liked about the anglers that I worked with is that they too kept it simple. For example, one only used two lure colors, among the hundreds of choices. If the pros can reduce the options to two, so can weekend anglers.
Finally, fishing is fun. Something about the man versus beast situation is primal. Fishing is a rite of passage. Getting proficient at fishing is really just calling upon skills you use in other areas of your life and channeling them productively into this particular pursuit. Most people have the life skills that enable at least some measure of success at fishing. I am hoping to draw these out of people so that they enjoy the peace, beauty, majesty, and intellectual challenge of the sport as I do.
Thanks so much, Joe, for talking with Stage Voices.
MERRY WIVES By William Shakespeare Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh Directed by Saheem Ali Featuring Abena, Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Brandon E. Burton, Joshua Echebiri, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jennifer Mogbock, Julian Rozzell Jr., Kyle Scatliffe, David Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson
By Bob Shuman
Shakespeare in the Park returns to the Delacorte with a new version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, called Merry Wives, which is suited less for the outdoors than for small screens, reflecting the cramped quarters of the last 16 months: the neighborhood and its regulars; the local laundromat and fading signs for Biden-Harris. COVID goes unmentioned, despite the fact that one former cast member had tested positive (social distancing protocols are in place), amid street drumming, lip-syncing, helicopter propellers (not part of the show, although overhanging air-conditioners are), and hair-braiding salons. The Public’s staff has never seemed as accommodating (many thanks) or probably given as thankless a job, in asking audiences to keep their masks on; despite a rainy weather forecast, Oscar Eustis, the artistic director, is emphasizing how the theatre belongs to the audiences in his introductory speech—volunteers and employees at Shakespeare in the Park have, over time, displayed de rigueur meanness with the bourgeoisie–and taxpayer largesse. After a year in the dark, because of the pandemic, this summer’s production, still wants to cancel, in accordance with current societal trends, dealing those in attendance an adaptation, which ultimately asks the public, and artists, what it will take to pull beyond sit-comming the Bard and art, and envisioning work as something other than variations on the broken record of one-party New York political thinking.
The performers are ebullient, however, playing West African immigrants in South Harlem—and, as a homecoming to the theatre, the vehicle, with a popular Shakespearean character, who receives his just desserts for premeditated womanizing, is a sunny, colorful, becoming segue back into live work, even if these creatives seem to have been binging on “Roadrunner” cartoons, as artistic inspiration. Were our times not so dangerous (speaking now beyond infectious diseases), a light review could be left, guiltlessly, but Merry Wives, is also “shrunk,” like clothes might be in Mistress Ford’s laundry, simplified with easy stereotyping, which can impose meanings and facilitate inaccurate appraisals of communities and original art (recall that one of Verdi’s outsized masterpieces, Falstaff, is based on the same play, more complex and psychologically examined). The issue of how adaptors and adaptations change meaning by becoming overly obvious, direct, and simplified—by changing words and calling it free speech–is worthy of examination, where even a play by Shakespeare might be misapprehended and erased, for our own good.
In Central Park, on July 14, the predicted rain never comes, although it is explained that a cast member had been injured the night before, reminding of the almost forgotten physical reality of theatre and the Herculean effort of putting up plays, especially after a postponed opening and at this time.
Merry Wives may be all it wants to be. And, for the moment, after so long, maybe it is all it needs to be.
with Abena, Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Brandon E. Burton, Joshua Echebiri, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jennifer Mogbock, Julian Rozzell Jr., Kyle Scatliffe, David Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson
MERRY WIVES By William Shakespeare Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh Directed by Saheem Ali
Tickets are reserved through the Public in online lotteries
In a 2019 BBC interview on “Free Thinking,” the actress Patti LuPone succinctly noted that the U.S. does not have a National Theatre, nor does it celebrate the work of any dramatic writer, as does Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. She also feels, having starred on both Broadway and the West End, that producers, and others in Britain, are more interested in the merit of work, rather than huge corporate profit, which affects the caliber of the American scene.
U.S. entertainment unions (SAG-AFTRA, AEA, and others), additionally, can cause confusion for artists—as is happening now with disagreements over streaming media—whereas their counterparts in the U.K. and Canada find workable solutions for artists instead of roadblocking. Theatrical product has become uniform—whether that is in terms of political view, names involved, areas of diversity attached to projects, and types of events and stories produced. American theatremakers, themselves, who may believe they are powerless, also, can side with entertainment fiefdoms, which may make them less individually creative. The phenomenon of gatekeepers in entertainment, and in an industry like publishing, has long become accepted, sabotaging, instead of fostering, the work of practitioners, and subjecting them to rote mechanisms of exclusion.
Others in the professional hierarchy may profit by yoking artists to schemes in which they continue to pay for the hope of market exposure—in an undetermined future. LuPone mentions that, despite the professional labyrinths, “some shows get through,” which is a little like hearing doctors say, “Some patients live.” However, a 3/28/19 article on Bloomberg captures the importance of American artists and their real power: the Arts actually “contribute(d) more than $800 billion a year to U.S. economic output, amounting to more than 4 percent of GDP.” To help demonstrate what this means, “The contribution of the arts to America’s economy is equivalent to nearly half of Canada’s total GDP, and bigger than the economic output of Sweden or Switzerland. Indeed, the arts account for more of U.S. GDP than industries such as construction, transportation, and agriculture.”
Governor Cuomo, fortunately, has expressed his understanding of our arts impact. On 1/12, as reported in The New York Times, he stated, “New York urgently needs to revive its arts and entertainment industry if it is to recover from the coronavirus pandemic,” despite the fact that American artists waited six months longer than their counterparts in other countries for relief (15 million dollars was released for them in December). Of course, the need is not specific to one group: According to the Washington Post, on 1/21, 900,000 people filed for unemployment in the previous week, adding to the 16 million people already receiving benefits. This does not take into account the needs of those who may have worked part-time, in gigs, or other temporary work, or those undetected and invisible, deemed ineligible for government aid, which can include artists.
Solutions, nevertheless, can be found for those left behind. Although the arts, as economic engine, are undervalued in the U.S., other countries see the contributions. In 2019, they added more to the UK economy than agriculture–the Guardian reported that “the sector added £10.8bn to the economy.” Currently, as discussed in The New York Times on 1/13, France and Great Britain offer aid geared to temporary or seasonal working conditions of arts workers. Germany and Austria, with long histories of arts subsidies, implemented bonuses and insurance. Other countries are working with cultural bailouts and long-term loans.
Our legislators, who recognize the economic engine of the arts, must champion delayed abilities and the powers of those who continue to be oppressed in the field–yet, one area, arts-based education programs, has been in decline “for the past couple of decades,” according to Bloomberg. Funding in a public-private partnership with the Mellon Foundation, though, which was also announced by Governor Cuomo, will “distribute grants to put more than 1,000 artists back to work and provide money to community arts groups.”
Better would be if such events were available, throughout the state, for those who need this pandemic year to establish footholds for themselves, not for others whose careers are already validated. Students whose professional aspirations are stalled, beyond inconvenience, and who will now be competing with those younger than themselves and with more current school experience—these are the performers whom New Yorkers should be seeing, congratulating, and paying for. Their time to shine has been curtailed.
Some would consider that the time of COVID might, in fact, be ripe for reevaluation and rethinking, where government, practitioners, and audiences must envision a new theatre for those who participate, based on improved working conditions and fresh ideas.
After almost a year, seeing the difficulties of others, and experiencing them ourselves, we have learned so much—sometimes about things that were being done wrong or couldn’t be heard at all.
Some of us had never seen Lee Breuer, who died January 3, working without a stocking cap—but what is probably most surprising is that we saw a playwright, this hands-on, at all. In 2010, upon early audience entry, at New York Theatre Workshop, he clarified tech, behind a huge plywood board, for his double-bill of monologues Pataphysics Penyeach(“Summa Dramatica” and“Porco Morto”). In 2013, with La Divina Caricatura, Part 1: The Shaggy Dog, at La MaMa, there was a question as to whether he might even be seen, as press performances were canceled due to his illness. He appeared, hustling through the impersonal subway tracks of the set, though, where a dog had been abandoned. That animal, Rose, a puppet, also the star of the show, caused a visceral reaction, when she began eating “poop,” a polite way of naming the grotesque situation—one this reviewer categorized as an aberrant absurdist element, while still shuddering. Much later, now the owner of two Jack Russell terriers, one who had been deserted on a highway in South Carolina, the truth of the writing emerged. Although our dogs are now ensconced in Massachusetts during the pandemic, for several years, Breuer remained on my mind often, his visual observation about pets acute, disgusting, and pervasive.
He was part of the East Village zeitgeist—I should say he was our Peter Brook. Mabou Mines offered performance based on hard theatrical theory and experience, not simple propaganda, although clearly leftist. Breuer volunteered at the Berliner Ensemble, under Communism, worked with Grotowski, adapted Beckett, and more, to give his work an international edge. It’s impossible to think of the American avant-garde, without him. Tracking our way back from the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, along Seventh Avenue to Forty-Second Street, in 1988, someone, talking about the chorus, was saying how you weren’t “going to ask those big, mature Black women to do a lot of choreography,” as we understood musicals then, when someone noted the stately stage progressions, in The Gospel at Colonus. The voices moved the audience, and caused them to dance, instead. Lee Breuer was, almost inarguably, America’s finest theatre practitioner at the end of the twentieth century and early twenty-first, mainstream or otherwise. His aesthetic was so fully formed, centered, and grounded, in fact, that it seems an injustice to say that he was an experimental director. It’s better to describe him as a seminal one.
In a July 2020 Zoom interview from Segal Talks, hosted by Frank Hentschker, with Maude Mitchell, Breuer macrocosmically talked about playwriting, music:
“I wanted to get this feeling of everyone contributing their melody to a larger whole, and that there would be a form that would arise from it. I think music is the key to it. I think if we can feel that all the currents–political, aesthetic—are joining together to make a statement–and if you can discern what that statement is–that you will have achieved a tremendous revelation about what our times and what our lives now are all about.”
Breuer’s statements could expose internal horror about the American and human condition, combining humor with the monstrous, as he did with Pataphysics Penyeach, which used children’s storybook and cartoon characters facing contemporary political and sociological existence. Back in 2010, he seemed to pinpoint how we had been overwhelmed by the technological: “Reality is not real,” a distinguished professor, a cow, tells us “—it’s virtual.” The play demonstrated a “spin” on French symbolist writer Alfred Jarry’s pataphysics (a “send up of metaphysics”).
According to Breuer, in a 2007 video conversation at Towson University, theatre only exists half the time on the stage; the other half takes place in the head. The viewer is choosing the play’s message after “balancing the work’s thesis and antithesis.” The synthesizing process is apparent in a work like Pataphysics Penyeach because, through the ridiculous and cerebral, one attempts to decipher the meaning, to make sense of the divergent inputs, holding on in the hope of unmasking the secret of the piece. Steadily looking for metaphor, in “Porco Morto,” the second one act in the evening, Breuer turned the concept of “capitalist pigs” into a playlet about a piglet, who talks like Porky Pig.
For those drawn to the stage of Lee Breuer, part of its appeal must be his interest in the viewer as thinker, not simply as blank page—he was an intellectual theorist himself, not only a defender of theory, whether Marxist, Feminist, Market, or other. Breuer’s is a formidable intelligence to be openly missed; irreplaceable, still to be reckoned with, and learned from.
More than forty-six years ago, the Sherman brothers’ Big Band musical Over Here! (they had written the scores for Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, and the song “It’s a Small World,” for the 1964 World’s Fair) opened on March 26, 1974, at Broadway’s Schubert Theatre. Hoping to do for the ‘40s what Grease had done for the following decade (that ’50s-inspired show originally opened theatrically in 1971), Patty and Maxene Andrews starred (LaVerne, the third and oldest of the trio, died in 1967). Directed by Tom Moore, with choreography by Patricia Birch, Over Here! is about a trip, by train, across the contiguous United States, as well as through America’s heart, memory, and consciousness, and its cast included stars, who had yet to break out: John Travolta, Treat Williams, Marilu Henner, and Samuel E. Wright. From the distance of so much time, however, what was most bamboozling for me, as a suburban teenager, was a transvestite bride, dressed in white and carrying a bouquet, who sat toward the rear of the mezzanine with her groom. (Whether related or not, one song in the vehicle, is called “Wartime Wedding”—and the Vietnam conflict would continue until 1975.) Under the proscenium itself, a young dancer appeared to be swimming across the stage, like Esther Williams–we could barely take our eyes off of her. Ann Reinking was her name, and she died on December 12, at age 71.
My brother and I had actually seen the future Tony winner before, in Pippin (1972)—and, at a Wyoming movie theatre, ten years later, she appeared on celluloid, as what’s best, in Annie—a movie that was too big for its story. In an interview with The New York Times, in 1991, Reinking comments on what theatre was like in the late 1960s and 1970s—she called it “sophisticated and adult.” And among the shows, flowering in Sondheim’s “city of strangers,” were: Cabaret, Pippin, A Chorus Line, Chicago, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Dancin’—five of which she appeared in. During that era, when we caught the theatre bug, dance was becoming a necessary part of the actor’s toolkit, as show people talked intimidatingly about triple threats—and Reinking was probably the best example of the breed, able to dance, act, and sing, with a smoky voice. Before too long, we would be playing in those shows she helped define and create, in college and community groups. Performers were different then: tougher, alienating, and asocial, as was that transvestite. Theatre, was a societal revolt—and to Reinking, who could dance strong or elegant or shaded, every step was as meaningful as a word in a line of dialogue.
The superagent Robert Lantz told me a change occurred with the opening of Annie on Broadway (1977). The audiences would be younger now, the themes, in the work, less complicated. Reinking’s talent is validated in that she could play in both spheres: the darker musicals, which the culture was moving away from, and those demarcating a new age (that would welcome the British theatrical invasion). Ironically, she might be remembered best for a movie that was antithetic to her most challenging roles (not unlike the actress Gloria Grahame, who today is best-known for being Ado Annie, in the film of Oklahoma!, rather than for her Oscar-winning role in The Bad and the Beautiful). Reinking probably bridged the genre gap better than the noir star, but the profound, hard cynicism and sarcasm of her working-class characters, may garner less understanding today. Perhaps, for good reasons,we prefer comic escapism–and have lost too much of an affinity for Brecht. Reinking’s likeable, balletic dancing in a “soft, floating” yellow dress in Annie, however, is a mirage.