Category Archives: Commentary


(Colette Davidson’s article appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, 5/17; Glen Stubbe Photography/Courtesy of Children’s Theatre Company.)

May 17, 2023|MINNEAPOLIS

Fievel Mousekewitz’s immigration story begins like so many others – a menacing, outside threat. The packing of bags. A tumultuous voyage at sea.

But, as the name suggests, Fievel isn’t a person, he’s a mouse. And the threat is a band of cats.

Fievel’s tale – “An American Tail” – is a story of loss, hope, rebuilding, and family. It is a story shared by many Americans, some recently, some in generations past.


A story focused on


Generations of American kids grew up on the story of Fievel Mousekewitz. At a time when roughly a quarter of Americans are satisfied with immigration levels, a new play looks at what it means to come to America.

Now, the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis is revisiting the 1986 film classic in dramatic form, in a world premiere from Tony-winning playwright Itamar Moses and Obie-winning director Taibi Magar. The tale of Fievel and his Jewish family’s traumatic uprooting from 19th-century Russia – in what is now Ukraine – to the boroughs of New York City is one that members of Generation X will remember from the animated film and a new generation can learn from.

In the opening act, the family of mice sing, “There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese!” The puns are abundant, but the lessons are universal.

“America is a patchwork of arrivals, but how do we welcome each new wave?” says Mr. Moses in an interview. “There are threats. But if we can work together, a better version of ourselves is always somewhere out there.”

Ultimately, “An American Tail” harks back to an era when immigration was romanticized, not politicized, in films like “West Side Story” (1961) or “Coming to America” (1988). This February, a Gallup Poll showed that Americans’ satisfaction with the country’s level of immigration had dropped to 28%, its lowest in a decade.

“This is reaching back to a happier time, a vision of immigration when it was seen simply as a part of the way this country worked,” says David Itzkowitz, a St. Paul-based historian. “Now, antisemitism is back in the media. … Immigration has become a race issue.”

(Read more)



(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/16, 2023; Photo: The Greek theatre in Syracuse. Photograph: Gaspare Urso’ )

Playing in the vast ancient amphitheatre, imaginative new productions of Euripides and Aeschylus find fresh nuance even in this huge space

How best to stage the great Greek classics? The fashion in Britain is for intimacy. But there are other alternatives, as I found on a visit to the ancient Greek theatre in Sicily’s Syracuse where everything is on a massive scale. The auditorium, carved out of a hillside, seats 5,000. The stage is 27 metres wide and 44 deep; acting, direction and design are correspondingly epic. Yet I discovered, in the two productions I saw, that psychological detail is still achievable even in this vast arena.

Seasons of the Greek classics began in Syracuse in 1914, continued spasmodically but only became annual events in this century. Scanning the records, you find that many famous directors, including Peter SteinLuca RonconiYannis Kokkos and Irene Papas, have worked there. Among the translators, the name of Pier Paolo Pasolini stands out. Each eight-week season blends a well-known title with others less familiar. This year Medea and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound kicked off the programme, with Peace by Aristophanes and a multi-media spectacle about Ulysses still to come. After July, selected productions will go on tour around Italy.

This is all the impressive work of the Istituto Nazionale Del Dramma Antico (National Institute of Ancient Drama) but I was relieved to find that a respect for the past was matched by a regard for the present. On a basic level, non-Italian speakers are offered an earpiece translation and a text in English. But my first discovery at Medea was a brilliant essay in the programme-book by the play’s translator, Massimo Fusillo, which suggests that Euripides pioneered the use of the inner monologue allowing us to get inside the protagonist’s head. Fusillo argues that this leads ultimately to Macbeth, Milton’s Satan and modern TV series such as Breaking Bad and Gomorrah. The play’s director, Federico Tiezzi, goes further by saying he sees Medea as “a clash between an archaic society and a post-industrial society” and compares Jason to the “great boisterous Ibsen titans from John Gabriel Borkman to Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House”.

All this is heady stuff but how does it work in practice? Tiezzi goes out of his way to stress the symbolic nature of the conflict in which Medea is told that she will be forced to leave Corinth never to see Jason or her children again. Medea initially sports a fearsome bird-like headpiece, her children wear fluffy rabbit-heads and Creon, the king of Corinth, a crocodile-mask. The female chorus, meanwhile, are blue-clad skivvies with pails and scrubbing-brushes. But the great revelation comes in the relationship between Medea and Jason.

(Read more)


(Chis Wiegand’s article appeaed in the Guardian, 5/5; via Pam Green; Photo: On tomorrow and tomorrow … David Tennant in a publicity shot for the Donmar’s forthcoming Macbeth. Photograph: Charlie Gray.)

The actor will take to the stage as the Scottish king in December, in the last production of the London theatre’s 30th-anniversary season

Hot on the heels of the news that Ralph Fiennes will play Macbeth in a tour of repurposed UK warehouses comes the announcement that David Tennant will also star as the Scottish king at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

It is the Scottish actor’s first Shakespearean stage role since he played Richard II for the Royal Shakespeare Company, on and off, from 2013 to 2016. In 2022 he was Macbeth in a two-part BBC Radio 4 broadcast. The Donmar production will be directed by Max Webster and will conclude the 30th-anniversary season for the London theatre, which was previously home to a banana-ripening warehouse.

(Read more)


(from Radio Free Europe, 5/10; Photo: Nikolai Daineko.)

Visit Radio Free Europe 

A Moscow court has sentenced a poet to four years in prison for publicly reciting verses condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Tver district court sentenced Nikolai Daineko on May 10 after finding him guilty of “inciting hatred and calling for anti-state activities.” Daineko, who agreed to cooperate with investigators, was arrested along with two other poets, Artyom Kamardin and Yegor Shtovba, in September after they presented their anti-war verses in public. Kamardin’s girlfriend has accused police of subjecting the poet to sexual violence during his apprehension. Kamardin and Shtovba will be tried separately. 


(Philipp Jedicke’s article appeared on DW, 5/5; Photo: DW.)

“Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror” is about a fictional circus troupe during the Third Reich. This tale of humanity in inhumane times is told by disabled and non-disabled people.

British playwright Hattie Naylor had originally wanted to tell a very different story from the one currently touring successfully through Britain. Her initial plan was for a play based on the cult 1932 horror film “Freaks” by US director Tod Browning, a movie that had made a big impact on her.

“What’s really special about it is that disabled people are the heroes in the film,” said Naylor. But the copyright situation was problematic, and the deeper Naylor delved into the history of circuses of the early 20th century, the more a very different story formed in her imagination — one that would become the musical “Waldo’s Circus of Magic and Terror.”

During her research, Naylor encountered numerous stories of circuses that employed disabled people, both before and during the Nazi regime. She read about people of short stature working as acrobats and clowns, about Jewish circus directors, and about Adolf Althoff, a non-Jewish German circus director who took in the Bento family of Jewish acrobats, hiding them and giving them work. And Naylor learned how several people were able to save themselves from certain death in extermination camps with touring and connections with international circuses. 

Extermination of disabled people

During the Second World War, the Nazis murdered more than 250,000 disabled people. Disabled people were mercilessly persecuted or even turned in by their own relatives. They often met their deaths only after inhumane experiments were performed on them — as in the case of Lya Graf, a world-renowned short-statured circus star who perished in Auschwitz in 1941.

Naylor was especially horrified to read that the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditary Diseased Offspring” was one of the first enacted by Adolf Hitler just six months after he seized power in January 1933. In his racist fantasy of omnipotence, German children were to be “nimble as greyhounds, tough as leather, hard as Krupp steel.” That law was only the beginning.

Under the Nazi dictatorship, thousands of disabled or short-statured people and those with psychiatric illnesses were forcibly sterilized, with the aim of “keeping the German national body pure.” Those people were as undesirable to the Nazis as JewsSinti and Romahomosexuals, non-conformist artists or political opponents.

The speed with which the measures were implemented in the 1930s convinced Naylor of the importance of telling these stories today. “I am really aware of the rise of fascism in Europe again, and in my own country, and very dubious national and international movements,” she said.

(Read more)


(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/6; via Pam Green; Photo: Adjoa Andoh as Shakepeare’s Richard III. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

An inspiring analysis of Shakespeare and race restores his reputation as a playwright for all

There is a vivid moment in Farah Karim-Cooper’s new book where she reflects on the image of the nation’s pre-eminent playwright – how unfathomable he has seemed to artists and how his face has been conjured from a historical blur. She compares portraits and discerns a marked shift in the 18th century when he seems to become “more beautiful, symmetrical, and whiter in complexion”.

If visual art has hitherto seemed like a peripheral detail in the appraisal of his work, Karim-Cooper, a professor of Shakespeare studies, connects this paled image to a metaphorical whitewashing: the man we celebrate today is not the one who lived and worked in Elizabethan England but a reconstructed fantasy, built to serve as an emblem of white excellence and imperial Englishness.

Efforts to decolonise Shakespeare have been fiercely contested in the past and as co-director of education at the Globe theatre, Karim-Cooper navigated her own storm when she organised a series of webinars on anti-racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Far from being cowed by the experience, she has produced a book-length study of the bard through the lens of race theory.

It is a thorough analysis but also a kind of love letter. Karim-Cooper felt an instant connection to Shakespeare at the age of 15, during an English lesson on Romeo and Juliet. But in order to love him, she argues, we have to know him fully, and not only his genius but the darker aspects of his legacy.

Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh

It is a clever deployment of Shakespearean wisdom on how to love without a distorting “fancy bred in the eye”. The great white bard of the title is just that type of idealised cultural construct, she suggests. “I am a foreign, brown woman – and I feel seen and heard in Shakespeare’s plays,” Karim-Cooper asserts and this chimes with her book’s broader aim: to restore the swan of Avon as a playwright for all.

Close readings of the texts produce concrete examples of racial prejudice, antisemitism and colonial subjugation in works such as Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. Some of this is familiar, but Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh. She also bypasses charges of unfairly applying 21st-century definitions of racism and white supremacy by calibrating her analysis to the values of the Tudor era, or subsequent centuries.

We are taken from original stagings in black- and brown-face to the trauma carried in roles such as Othello for contemporary Black actors. Karim-Cooper makes some rather creative connections between Shakespeare’s world and ours: a discussion on inter-racial couples such as Othello and Desdemona and Titus Andronicus’s Aaron and Tamora segues into an analysis of the present day ambivalence towards Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; she draws on the cultural theorist bell hooks’s idea of political resistance through self-love, hailing Aaron’s eloquent defence of his blackness (“Coal-black is better than another hue / in that it scorns to bear another hue”) as “the first ever black power speech”.

Historians including Miranda Kaufmann and David Olusoga have supplied ample examples of diversity in Tudor Britain, and Karim-Cooper sees Shakespeare as holding a mirror to this society, with his plays interrogating live issues around race, identity and the colonial enterprise. Her critique is at its most absorbing and original when she shows how complicated his approach was. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously – it was how his mind worked,” she writes, and demonstrates how figures such as Shylock and Aaron were both defined by stereotypes as well as undermining them. Her arguments, cumulatively, come to feel essential and should be absorbed by every theatre director, writer, critic, interested in finding new ways into the work.

(Read more)


(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the guardian, 5/4;Photo:  Peter De Jersey as Cymbeline. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz.)

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Departing artistic director Greg Doran reinvigorates this tale of a royal family in crisis with clarity and intelligence

The president of the Royal Shakespeare Company, King Charles III, may be bemused by the company premiering, pre-Coronation, a play about an English king in a contentious second marriage and in which an “oath of loyalty” becomes an issue. Republican mischief seems unlikely: Cymbeline was scheduled as the RSC farewell to departing artistic director Greg Doran, who is finally staging the only Shakespeare play to elude him.

As a second leaving present, Doran has published a tremendous textbook-memoir, My Shakespeare, explaining how rehearsals start with the cast paraphrasing each line in modern speech, sealing meanings to be revealed in verse. That must have been tough with Cymbeline, a very late play with knotted poetry and a plot so convoluted that some productions add an onstage narrator.

A triumph for Doran’s method is that there is never doubt about who is or pretending to be whom. And his scholarly attention to text is shown by an unusual division into three sections. In The Wager, the exiled Posthumus accepts in Italy a creepy challenge that his England-held wife Imogen will not succumb to an attempted seduction by nobleman Iachimo. The second section, Wales, features the sex bet’s consequences, comic and gruesome, around a Milford Haven cave. The War somehow coheres the bizarre last six scenes where, through human confusion or divine intervention (dazzling gilded design by Stephen Brimson Lewis), identities flip and the “dead” wed.

(Read more)



(From Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5/2/2023. Photo: Daily Express.)

An actor from a theater in Russia’s Siberian region of Buryatia, who in March slit his wrists while on stage to protest the firing of the company’s artistic director over his stance against Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, has left the country.

Artur Shuvalov of the Russian Drama Theater in Buryatia’s capital, Ulan-Ude, on May 2 confirmed to RFE/RL reports saying that he left Russia fearing for his safety.

Shuvalov said he is currently in an unspecified post-Soviet nation and plans to move to another country after he manages to arrange the trip of his wife and his child to his current location.

On March 29, Shuvalov cut his wrists with a knife at the end of a play in front of a live audience, saying he and his colleagues have been under pressure for a year over their attempts to get back the theater’s artistic director, Sergei Levitsky, who was fired last year for openly condemning Russia’s ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Shuvalov’s wife, Svetlana Polyanskaya, who worked as an actress at the same theater, resigned in March after coming under constant pressure from management for her stance on Levitsky’s reinstatement.

Since Levitsky was fired, the theater’s actors have demanded local authorities reinstate him and have conducted different forms of protests, including the removal of the symbols of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine from the theater’s facade and raising awareness of the situation in local media.

(Read more)


(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/28/2023; via Pam Green; Photo: Transatlantic tragedy … Kenneth Branagh. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

The play, which the actor has described as being pertinent to our ‘savage and judgmental’ political climate, will run for 50 performances in the West End before transferring to the US

Kenneth Branagh is to star as King Lear in a production that he will also direct in London and New York.

The play will run for 50 performances at Wyndham’s theatre in the West End from October and then transfer to the Shed’s Griffin theatre in the US in autumn 2024.

It is produced by the Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company (KBTC) which presented a season of seven plays at the Garrick theatre in London from 2015-16 including John Osborne’s The Entertainer with Branagh in the lead role. In 2017, Branagh directed Tom Hiddleston as Hamlet in a limited-run production to raise funds for Rada. In 2021, KTBC’s planned production of The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan, starring and directed by Branagh, was cancelled due to Covid-related absences during rehearsals.

Branagh, who played Edgar opposite Richard Briers’ Lear in a 1990 touring production of Shakespeare’s tragedy, said in a 2019 interview that King Lear has a “sense of contained outrage by previously voiceless people” that remains pertinent in the modern political climate. The play, he added, explores a “tremendous lack of forgiveness … that is perhaps also something that our world is experiencing – a savage and judgmental and instant and violent division”.

(Read more)