If you’re anything like me and the death of Sam Shepard feels a little like a loss of part of yourself, run as fast as you can to Dark and Stormy’s production of Fool for Love. It’s a sort of balm – not so much because of the story which, in true Shepard fashion discomforts – but in how wonderfully this company produces this playwright’s work.
Eddie (James Rodriguez) and May (Sara Marsh) have met in a hotel room where May is staying. They haven’t seen each other years and the tension between them is palpable. May feels drawn to Eddie but also wants him to go. Both filled with jealously, Eddie at May’s waiting for Martin (Antonio Duke) to take her to the movies, May at Eddie for an affair with the rich “Countess,” the two push and pull at each other, starting passionate fires that burn them but also connect them. They’re clearly not supposed to be together, as the ghostly Old Man (Patrick Coyle) hints at throughout, but they can’t stay apart. This play hurtles forward like a nonstop ride you can’t get off and, while it seems like a love story, the play throws you into unexpected territory from which there is no return.
There is more than one fool for love in this story – there’s Eddie and May’s oil and water relationship, the old man who haunts what came before and whatever happens after, and even Martin in his rational well-meant kindness might seem naive, though he has no idea what he’s getting in to. This cast brilliantly shows all the different sides to their characters, from their flaws to their good intentions gone wrong, to pure bitterness and hate. I also appreciate that though the cast is small, it’s diverse and allows these actors to shine in parts that they may not often be given. (For more on this, see this article from the Star Tribune).
Dark and Stormy uses a small space and a simple set to great advantage. There’s something claustrophobic about this play and having a small theater space in the Grain Belt building helps build on that. The production feels fierce and intimate and allows for the tension of the piece to take hold and for the larger designs of the piece to speak more boldly (with lighting by Mary Shabatura, fight choreography by Annie Enneking, costumes by Lisa Jones, props by Katie Phillips, sound by Aaron Newman, and lasso expertise by Megan West). It’s a mistake to think this play is either simple or complicated – it’s both and neither with acting and design that may seem very simple but, like an iceberg, this is only the top layer and there’s far more underneath. This is the first Dark and Stormy production I’ve seen, but I’ve gotten the sense that, as small theater company, this is something they excel at.
Shepard has certain similar themes in his work – issues of masculinity, family drama and conflict, tension between being alone and being part of a community, cycles that endlessly repeat themselves from which there is no escape. Fool for Love is a great introduction to his work for someone who is unfamiliar with his plays and a wonderful celebration for those who know it well. Because Dark and Stormy is so devoted to Shepard’s style of storytelling and what his plays convey, this play is bright and dark, humorous and painful, gut-churning and empathetic. This play could easily stay in the melodramatic realm or become entirely bitter and cynical. All of these elements are present, but the show itself stays honest and sincere to its characters which in mind makes the best staging of Shepard – where all of these moments build on each other into a vivid array of emotions. As Ross Wetzsteon describes it, “His work is based on the spontaneous outpouring of feeling.” I’m so happy to have this production now not just as a way to celebrate Shepard, but also to celebrate what small theater companies in the Twin Cities can create.
Fool For Love is written by Sam Shepard and is directed by Mel Day. It is playing now through September 16th at Dark and Stormy’s space in the Grain Belt Building. Ticket and show information can be found on Dark and Stormy’s website.
I’ve decided to play around with content out here and start including writing that’s not limited to reviews or thoughts on shows. As I’m working on the Guthrie’s upcoming production of Romeo and Juliet as the literary intern, I’ve been thinking a lot about this play. It used to be one of my least favorite, but not because of the play itself. Because of 9th grade English, Taylor Swift, and Bella Swan, I found myself hating how the play had been appropriated into our culture instead of what the play actually contained. Revisiting it in my reading and research (and planning to see a production of it by Mission Theater Company this Friday) I did some soul-searching and rethinking about what in this play did intrigue me. Turns out I actually really love this play (as I do most Shakespeare) so I wrote a poem about it.
Portrayed so often
as an ingénue who doesn’t know
the pain of heartbreak
(or so someone would like me to believe)
Yet she would rather die
than live without her Romeo
live a life caged in
by iron bars and iron ways
Though she is seen as sweet and simple
her world is pain
filled with relentless violence
poisoned words and poisoned minds
Perhaps she has learned to hide this pain
(as so many women do)
Beneath bright skin and cherry red lips
a storm rages
Though she fights no battles on the page
she is a badass, a warrior
turning against society’s norms
Bold bright and cunning
she listens to her mind and heart and body
instead of numbing herself to the pain of the world
and doing what she is told
She spurs her family
trading blood lines for life lines
and breaks out of hatred
based on names
based on bodies
based on prejudice
Some claim Shakespeare wrote this tragic tale as a warning
of what happens when fools fall in love
of romantic love overtaking family bonds
and children refuse to listen to their elders
But perhaps it’s a different warning
a warning of what happens
when we refuse to let ourselves love freely
of violence begetting violence
prejudice begetting prejudice
Cycles that repeat because
we cannot break free from the wrong kinds of passion
too often reduced to petty love songs
and cardboard characters
in love for the sake of love
Society would prefer me to hate her
(and I did, not so long ago)
because it would prefer me to be jealous
(that greened eyed monster)
jealous of her looks
but most of all her freedom
Her fate is not one I want
but if my choice is death or a cage
it would be death that I take
She took her own life
rather than live with hate
with losing the power to make up her own mind
with hatred, the greatest pollutant of the soul
She battled against the darkest of foes
a battle women continue to fight
(we have died that same death a thousand times)
Still that fight goes on
It’s better late than never to see Pillsbury House Theatre’s production of The Children. I made it to the closing weekend of the production and I’m so glad I caught it. A riveting adaptation of the Greek story of Medea, this play imagines what would happen if someone had intervened before Medea killed her children out of rage and grief at her lover’s plans to marry another. When Ben (Kurt Kwan) and Lily (Kate Guentzel), Medea’s children, are taken away from Ancient Greece into modern Maine by chorus member (Tracey Maloney), their nurse-maid (Michelle O’Neill) inadvertently joins them. Terrified that her mistress is enraged at her and causing the hurricane that they are trapped in, the nurse-maid believes that she must placate Medea, find her spell book, and return the children to her. When a sheriff (Jim Lichtscheidl) arrives to help them evacuate from the storm, the nurse-maid believes him to be Medea in disguise and, instead of going with him and the chorus member, she whisks the children away and hides them, wanting to be forgiven by her mistress more than caring for the welfare of the children.
As Ben and Lily realize their caretaker is not to be trusted, Ben tells Lily stories to calm her down. But when he realizes he cannot remember his own mother’s story accurately, things begin unravel and Ben’s hope that the chorus member will return to save them becomes faint. Realizing that they must find the hope and strength within themselves to get out of this situation, Ben’s story becomes that of another child and in a powerful, gut-punching twist, this play delves into a deep and astounding realm of dealing with trauma and hope.
Not only is this play mesmerizing and emotional, the world it inhabits is rich and beautiful, swaying back and forth between frightening and magical. The use of puppetry, beautifully designed by Masanari Kawahara, adds a wonderful level of skill and emotion, allowing the audience to go back and forth between the puppets’ movements and the actors’ emotions that they are showing and projecting through the puppets. As Michael Elyanow noted during the discussion after the performance I attended, the use of puppets prevents child actors from being traumatized every night but also allows the characters a way to work through their trauma as they shift from childhood to adulthood. The lush sound design by Katherine Horowitz, poignant lighting by Michael Wangen, and haunting set by Joel Sass blend with Kellie Larson’s props and Clare Brauch’s costumes to make a world that lends itself both to the imagination and the far too real.
This show is full of really wonderful theatrical moments – the movement of the puppets, beams in the ceiling that move as the hurricane hits, lighting that aid scene shifts but carry a certain significance at the very end of the play. This show really carries a huge emotional component that is reminiscent of another of Elyanow’s shows, Lullaby. This show has haunted me afterwards and is such a powerful, beautiful perspective on overcoming trauma, finding strength and trouble in the power of hope, and learning how to be loved after a terrible ordeal. It’s one I wish I could see again, after knowing how it all comes together, and hope it returns in another staging soon.
The Children is written by Michael Elyanow and directed by Noel Raymond. It is playing now through October 16th. Ticket and show information can be found on Pillsbury House Theatre’s website.
Before I begin this review, I’d like to share a bit of my personal experience to frame my viewing of this show. I was born in Indiana, in the southern part of the state, then moved north when my dad quit his job and started grad school. My mom and I spent two years living in trailer on a lake in rural Indiana that had once belonged to my paternal grandparents while my dad attended school at Ball State. As my mother drove me to school every day in Warsaw (which was about a twenty minute drive), I would see abandoned houses in the overgrown fields, begin to decay and run into ruin. I always wondered what had happened there and why there were abandoned, sometimes creating stories to make answers of my own.
Sam Shepard’s Buried Child feels like one of those answers in the most nightmarish of possibilities. Set in rural Illinois in an old farm house where the fields have long since gone fallow, Dodge (Terry Hempleman) is confined to a couch in the sitting room, suffering from some unknown illness and watching baseball while upstairs, his wife Halie (Barbra Berlovitz) prattles on about the weather, Dodge’s health, and a son of theirs who had died. Leaving to talk to their church pastor about how to commemorate their son, Halie leaves Dodge in the care of his two sons, Tilden (Brian Goranson) and Bradley (Paul de Cordova). Tilden, who previously lived in New Mexico, had returned after running into some “very bad trouble” and is now living with his parents, sneaking outside to enjoy the weather and bring back vegetables that seem to mysteriously be growing in the field. Bradley, eerie and bully-ish, arrives to cut his father’s hair while he is asleep, shaving his head entirely. The brothers hate each other for unknown reasons and Dodge insults them and doubts their legitimacy as his sons. While he is sleeping and the brothers are gone, Tilden’s sone Vince (Matthew Englund) and his girlfriend Shelly (Charlotte Calvert) stop by the farmhouse. They are on their way to New Mexico to visit Tilden, believing him to still be there, and Vince is convinced he should stop by the old farmhouse, reconnect with his grandparents, and celebrate the old times. But he returns to far different situation where no one knows who he is and seems lost in a world that is void of reason and disconnected from anything that Shelly or Vince can understand. By the time Halie returns with Father Dewis (Leif Jurgensen), confusion is rampant, Vince has disappeared, and Dodge is on the brink of sharing a terrible secret that reveals what’s really out in the cornfield and the true darkness simmering under the surface of what once appeared to be a “Rockwell painting” family.
Having seen Pro Rata’s A Lie of a Mind (another Shepard play) last fall, I was at least somewhat prepared for the issues of memory, cyclical dialogue, and dislikable characters that I was likely to encounter (and also continually ask, “Sam Shepard, are you okay, man?”). But it still can’t take the edge off of the environment that is created by Shepard’s words. The frustration that is felt by Dodge’s curmudgeonly attitude, Halie’s lack of connection with the present (depicted by her first large conversation being delivered entirely offstage, her constant misremembering of her deceased son, and her lack of acknowledgement that Tilden is even in the room), and Vince’s refusal to admit that things were not as they once were adds a high level of tension and dramatic irony. Combine that with Shelly’s feeling of being utterly out of place while also remaining the one voice that sounds somewhat reasonable, Bradley’s creepy playing with power (which becomes misogynistic when directed to Shelly), and the looming feeling that there is something very, very wrong in this house leads to what I heard one audience member describe as “unnerving… makes you feel kind of throw-uppy.”
I’m not sure I like Shepard’s writing – I’m not sure I’m supposed to – but he does what he does very well. Ruminating on how twisted patriarchy is – especially in family lines – the play works as a commentary on masculinity and paternity while playing with notions of memory and recalling the past within something that feels that, at any minute, it could spiral into a Lovecraftian horror story or a Stephen King novel. The cast does an incredible job of conveying this tension, especially in Hempleman’s delivery of dialogue that circles around and around in the same ideas. There were a few moments there seemed to be some awkwardness with props, but then again, holding onto a dozen ears of corn or long-stemmed roses is awkward. The simple, austere set (designed by Justin Spooner) wonderfully captured the run-down farm house and added to the unease. Also, being from Indiana, I was impressed with the accents by the actors and work done by dialect coach Sara Schwabe. The lower Midwest accent is unique – it’s not quite Appalachian (ie: Kentucky or Tennessee) but it’s sure got a certain twang to it.
I strongly recommend this show, but know that it isn’t your typical night at the theater. If you can handle tension that never eases up, realizing that “buried child” doesn’t mean what you think it means, and feeling like you exorcized some demons after this performance, go for for it. The moments of dark humor – and there are a lot – help ease the tension somewhat, but by the second act, you’ll be gritting your teeth, and squirming in your seat. A must-see for fans of psychological thrillers.
This isn’t really a review, as I didn’t make it to Coup D’Etat’s wonderful production of Tennessee William’s The Glass Menagerie until closing weekend. But because it was such a splendid production, I wanted to share some thoughts about it, generated greatly by the director’s note left at the door of the theater.
Directed by Lanny Langston, this production starring James Napoleon Stone, Kaylyn Forkey, Cynthia Uhrich, and Kevin Fanshaw highlights the claustrophobic nature of the play and the tense, fragile foundation of the Wingfield’s hopes and expectations. Glass baubles hang from the ceiling, ethereal music weaves in and out of the soundscape, and Savage Umbrella’s SPACE, located in an old warehouse, lends perfectly to this show whose characters struggle with modern ideas of success while harboring romantic notions of a different lifestyle. Amanda dreams of the past when she enjoyed gentlemen callers before she married, Laura is repeatedly called old-fashioned for her shy demeanor and simple outlook on life, and Tom escapes to the movies, to watch stories of adventure so unlike the monotonous life he leads.
Langston’s directorial note asks the audience to consider their own memories and how they remember them. This came easily for me with this show because many of Laura’s experiences resonated with my own (realizing you’ve heard lines of dialogue the echo things people have actually said in your life is a very bizarre feeling) and I was wound up in seeing my personal connection with Laura. The greatest sadness of the show involves Laura and Jim, her gentleman caller. Some might say that the greatest tragedy is that Laura’s love for Jim remains unfulfilled, as he is already engaged to another, despite the interest he seems to show in her. But it isn’t just that Laura doesn’t end up with Jim (especially as that could be interpreted less as the sadness of unrequited love and more of the fear Amanda exhibits that Laura will become an old maid. As a person who has been single most of her life in a society that isn’t very kind to single people, I refuse to submit to that nonsense. Rock on, single ladies). Rather, it’s the false hope that Laura receives and the work that Jim does to ease her out of her shyness, which she immediately recedes back into once she realizes Jim’s interest in her is not what it appears. Finally in her life, someone has seen her as more than shy and embraces her difference, and then in the span of a few minutes, she finds that it’s not enough and it all falls apart.
At the top of the play, Amanda wonders what they are all going to do with the rest of their lives. She is disappointed that her children are not where she expects them to be. Laura is 24, not married and not on a strong career path. Instead of trying to figure out why or what other options might exist for Laura, Amanda berates her (rather harshly in this production) and pushes her into situations that make her shyness (which looks – and feels, as audience member – an awful lot like anxiety) stronger and prevent her from succeeding. As a millennial, the pressure and idea that you should be at a certain point in your life is something I greatly empathize with. As a young person concerned that I’m not where I should be – and realizing that being an adult is not some kind of formulaic success pattern and that worrying about such things is not worth it – the concern about what one is doing with their life and Amanda’s fretting over it is both familiar and frustrating.
This show is described at the beginning as a memory play, and it’s Laura’s brother Tom who narrates this memory for us, describing it as “the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” What truth then is Tom telling us? Is it that events in our life become more powerful when we look back upon them? That it is difficult to tell the importance of time when we are young? That children are fated to be like their fathers, as Tom is, and that happy endings will never exist for people who are different, like Laura? That memories are like glass and, like Laura’s menagerie, must be tended to be recalled and reflected upon their importance? Or how our memories of the past better reflect who we are than what happened? That our memories are as sensitive as glass and can just as easily be broken or distorted? That Laura – like her glass unicorn – must be broken in order to fit in to what society expects of her so that she does not always appear different? All of these? None of these?
This is my first time seeing a performance of The Glass Menagerie and I’m grateful that it was this production that I saw. It’s one of those shows that is often done and, when done well, is striking and thought-provoking. I’ll certainly be mulling over this one in the weeks to come.
You’re at the theater. The lights lower down into a harsh, red tone as the soundscape of a riot plays and the worst screaming you’ll ever hear pierces your ears. Immediately you are thrown into the fall of 1919 in Elaine, AK as Effie Reynolds (Regina Marie Williams) argues with her husband Virgil Hillman (James A. Williams) about letting their son be burned alive outside their home.
Scapegoat is intense from the first moment, grabbing its audience by the collar and never letting go. Focusing on two different story lines in the same Arkansas town and four different couples, the play grapples with how the past continues to haunt the present. Virgil and Effie, who are mourning the murder of their son, are also struggling to take care of their farm without the extra help. Plagued by guilt and in some way responsible for their son’s murder, Ora Gibson (Jennifer Blagen) returns vegetables that her husband Uly (Dan Hopman) has stolen after assisting in the murder. Ora pleads with Effie to let her help with harvesting cotton to assuage her guilt, though Effie is furious with her for the lies that appeared about her son’s relationship with Ora. Meanwhile, Virgil is organizing a union of black sharecroppers to fight for better returns on their crops. Tensions rise as Ora continues to be haunted by Effie and Virgil’s son and Uly plans to stop Virgil’s efforts.
In the present day, Paula and Russell Barnes (Regina Marie Williams and Dan Hopman) and Elaine and Greg Macaslan (Jennifer Blagen and James A. Williams) are on vacation from their homes in New York City and driving through the rural South. Russell is peeved with Greg for his continual comments on race and the groups toys with the idea of trying not to talk about such issues, which becomes impossible when they discover the past of the town around them.
Double casting can be tricky in a show, but in this piece, it not only works brilliantly, it’s necessary. The quote from Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past” applies here, in a town that may have forgotten what occurred but the resonance of the tragedy still hangs in the air. The mixed-race relationships between the characters compared against the relationships of the first act allows for a deep, dense conversation about race and marriage that, due to the dual roles, allows for a continual looking forward and looking back. The poverty of the sharecroppers (especially the “white trash” look of Ora painfully displayed in a dress made from a burlap sack by costumer Trevor Bowen) contrasts sharply with the well-off Ivy league professionals who complain about the hotel not having room service, while still leaving room for different conversations of privilege (such as Elaine’s eagerness to learn about the history of the town while Greg and Paula don’t want to “play Roots.”)
There’s a lot going on in this show and a great deal of ground being covered in an enthralling two hours, focusing on the intersections of race, class, gender, families and raising children, relationships, adoption, and history. The dramatic irony of the audience knowing the history of the town before the characters in Act 2 discover it adds a wonderful layer on top of the conversations they have and makes their realization of it all the more effective. Regarding the title of the play, there is no singular scapegoat in the show, but instead a look at all the different things receive blame or become the reason to avoid discussing certain topics. Virgil and Effie’s son the one person who receives blame but is actually innocent. Other elements become scapegoats however – Ora blames herself for the death and searches for a way to resolve the issue while Virgil and Effie blame her and her husband for what happened. In the second act, different rationales are blamed for avoiding the conversation of race – not finding it appropriate to discuss with children, wanting to have a vacation and leave these issues behind, etc. However, no blame is clearly laid out. Understanding is expressed for all characters, even the violent Uly who desperately wants to own his own farm. As the characters grapple to understand in the second act, Elaine’s powerfully expresses what it’s like to try and understand race as a white person -no matter how much you learn, it will never be enough – while Greg and Paula personally dismantle the idea of a “post-racial society.” In some ways, the show reminds of Clybourne Park (the double casting, the use of the similar setting switching between past and present) but, where Clybourne fails to have a nuanced discussion and lays blame in the wrong places, Scapegoat marvelously succeeds and delves into an honest and more sincere look at modern day racial understanding.
The writing by the impeccable Christina Ham is full of pithy, wise lines that roll naturally off the tongue and can’t help but illicit sounds of agreement and awe from the audience. Ham’s trend of focusing on little-known or overlooked history (as previously seen in Ruby! and Nina Simone: Four Women) works powerfully with the issues at hand – Uly says at the end of Act 1 that the town will soon forget the events that have occurred and in Act 2, the characters remark on how quickly we’ve forgotten the deaths of those like Michael Brown. The tension of not wanting to know the past because of its horror and needing to remember it to pay respects and spur justice weaves in between the horror of learning just how nightmarish the past can be – and how the nightmare never really leave. Though never seen, only heard, the presence of the dead son haunts every line and the scream at the beginning never entire fades from the ears. Though the show is full of wonderful humor and wit, there is also a layer of despair and horror – a horror at realizing that many of these things are so terrible because they are true.
With a smooth set designed by Dean Holzman with props by Kellie Larson that cleverly moves from two sharecropper homes into two hotel rooms, sound design by Katherine Horowitz that manages to capture a leak in a tin roof without ever having to see the roof, and powerful lighting design by Michael Wangen, this show is a tour-de-force all around. I have the tendency to get really excited about each show I see, but this one hit a really unique chord in my mind. It’s the sort of show that I want to drag all of my friends to, the kind I wish my family in Indiana could see, the kind I want to force Donald Trump to see. If there’s any show that demands to be seen right now, it’s this one. And it absolutely cannot be missed.
Scapegoat is written by Christina Ham and directed by Marion McClinton. It is playing at Pillsbury House Theatre now through June 26th. Show and ticket information can be found on Pillsbury House’s website.
Currently playing in rep with The Normal Heart at the Lab Theater, is New Epic’s staging of Coriolanus. Before I begin to review this production, I have a confession to make: this is my favorite Shakespeare play as well as being a show that fundamentally changed my life. I saw this performed in London at Donmar Warehouse in January of 2014 with Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus and Hadley Fraser as Aufidius. I loved the production so much that I watched it again via National Theater’s film broadcast and for a while, it convinced me that all I wanted was to be strictly a Shakespearian dramaturg. When I heard that New Epic would be doing this play, I was elated.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Donmar production during last night’s opening show. The Lab Theater itself is similar to Donmar (an old warehouse, with bare brick walls and an intimate space) and certain staging choices were also reminiscent – the use of the ladder during the first battle scene, chalk being used to draw on the floor (though in a different manner), Coriolanus’ fate at the very end. I’m curious to know if there are common tropes or directorial choices for the show or whether Donmar’s production was an influence, or if it’s just uncanny coincidence.
The similarities end there, however, and Joseph Stodola’s production is unique. The play has been adapted, cutting out much of Shakespeare’s more tangential portions but also cutting out the character of Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife. In her place, Volumnia (Michelle O’Neill) takes on two roles – that of Coriolanus’ mother, but also his confidant and empathizer. Before I get ahead of myself, here’s a quick summary of the play – Coriolanus (Torsten Johnson) is unpopular with the people, due to his harsh attitude and his lack of empathy for the plebeians. However, Rome is also at war with the Volscians, and Coriolanus, who has been brought up as a warrior, trained by his mother and right hand man of sorts, Menenius (Zach Curtis). The Volscians, led by Aufidius (Michal Wieser) hate Coriolanus but also admire him for his strength and prowess as a warrior. Coriolanus defeats the Volscians and returns home, triumphant and with new wounds that Volumnia is proud of. As is tradition, Coriolanus is meant to show off his wounds as an emblem of his honor and success in battle. However, he is stubborn and headstrong and refuses, instead promising the people to show them in private, in order to gain there votes. Realizing they have been lied to and Coriolanus has absolutely no intention of keeping his word, the people turn against him, using the Tribunes, Brutus (Grant Sorenson) and Sicinius (Adam Qualls) to banish him from Rome. Knowing “there is a world elsewhere,” Coriolanus leaves his tearful mothers and joins with his former enemy Aufidius to plot Rome’s downfall.
As was the case in The Normal Heart, the cast remains outstanding, with Antonio Duke as Titus and Jucoby Johnson as Cominius, both members of Coriolanus’ army. Shakespearian dialogue can be a bit tricky, but for the most part it was clear and succinct, not at all falling into the dry, dull space that people all too often seem to think Shakespeare occupies (and sometimes does). There is also a modern feel to the editing of the script, making the scene move at a quicker clip and parsing down the lines so the move more smoothly. There were a few instances where the lines didn’t land quite right to my ear, but overall it was slick and seamless.
The cutting of Virgilia and emphasizing Volumnia in a different way was interesting and uncomfortable. Volumnia is a bit like Lady M. from the Scottish Play and is very powerful and controlling. But this production adds a very dependent and incestuous edge to her relationship with Coriolanus. The downside of this is that it distracts from the tension between Aufidius and Coriolanus, which is vital to understanding Coriolanus’ complex nature. He turns to his enemy abandoning the life of a proud warrior, but one who is still at the beck and call of his people, to be worshiped and adored by his enemy, who is the human personification of the id and may turn on him at any moment. Having Volumnia also express such id-like passion and refocusing the play to include more of her was interesting, but I’m not sure it worked for me and I feel it somewhat overshadowed Aufidius and Coriolanus’ relationship.
Aufidius and Coriolanus’ scenes were wonderful, however, and the fight choreography was superb. The chemistry between Brutus and Sicinius was also fantastic, capturing their cunning to overthrow Coriolanus wonderfully and adding an almost mind-reading feel to the way they thought and interacted. Having this play in rep with The Normal Heart makes for some very interesting comparisons between shows, especially between the characters the actors are doubled up on. While I might not like all the adaptions to the script, the way the two shows work together is really wonderful, especially in terms of characterization. It’s also interesting to track the props and see how they shift from show to show and take on different meaning.
This show also takes on a certain power in an election year, with so much focus being on voices being heard, fears of tyranny, and political personas. What I love about this play is that it doesn’t deal with the Rome we know in its glory days, but an early, unstable Rome recovering from a previous dictator and struggling to find its way. New Epic’s way of capturing this is very powerful and one that produces an interesting echo when seen along side a show such as The Normal Heart which deals with establishing a different kind of power in culture. I’m thoroughly impressed and can only wish companies had the ability to shows in rep more frequently.
Coriolanus is directed by Joseph Stodola and is playing now through April 16th at the Lab Theater in Northeast Minneapolis. Ticket prices and information can be found on New Epic’s website.
This is an abridged version of the post I wrote after seeing Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse in London in January of 2014. The tone of this is rather different from what I use on this blog, so be prepared for random allusions to other media and over-eager fangirling. Hopefully this will provide some more background on the plot this Shakespeare tragedy as well as my thoughts on it. For a review of New Epic’s production at the Lab Theater, read it here.
I would like to preface this post with the admission that the fact that I saw this show, in the flesh, in London is A) exceptionally fortunate, lucky, and privileged, B) somewhat phantasmagorical and surreal that it actually occurred, and C) one of the most humbling and moving experiences of my life. If I could personally thank everyone at Donmar Warehouse associated with the show, I would do so, but I am afraid this post will have to suffice.
What does one say about Coriolanus? It’s a tragedy, that’s certain. One knows that from looking at the title page of Shakespeare’s script: The Tragedy of Coriolanus. This isn’t going to end well for the title character. But the play doesn’t even start well for the title character. It begins with some very angry citizens wanting to kill Coriolanus for driving up the price of grain. In Josie Rourke’s staging at Donmar, this is preceded by graffiti being panted on the wall in Latin, reading “grain at our own price”. From the beginning, there is a sense of violence, tension, and unease. Sitting in the back row of the circle, the second level of the Donmar, with my back to a fire escape, I was rather terrified every time I felt a bit of wind on my neck or a particularly intense bit of action occurred onstage that someone was going to appear behind me with a sword and I was going to find myself even more immersed in the play than I already was.
Whether you are familiar with the storyline or not, the staging and expression of the actors makes this play engaging and watchable. During the intermission, I told Tyler, my friend/theater companion, that I had somewhat forgotten I was watching a Shakespeare play. I meant this in a strangely positive way – I was so immersed in what I was going on I wasn’t thinking about the transitions from Act 1 to Act 2, I knew things had been cut out but I wasn’t concerned with them as I have been in other Shakespeare plays I’d seen performed. At the end, I knew that certain things had been tweaked but it didn’t occur to me until later and I didn’t mind. Language in Shakespeare is rarely a problem for me but in this staging, with what felt so seamless and smooth from act to act, scene to scene, I forgot entirely that the language I was hearing was not how we speak day to day on the street. It sounded so natural and so clearly expressed that I forgot that what I was hearing was in anyway unlike how I would have a conversation with a friend, or how I’d debate an issue with a coworker.
Tom Hiddleston as Coriolanus was absolutely marvelous. Coriolanus is a complicated character – he’s not a likeable guy, he reacts rather angrily and forcefully and belittles the plebeians. And yet, Shakespeare wants us to feel empathy for him, to see him as a man driven by urgings to seek glory and power. Hiddleston does this phenomenally well. At the beginning, when he brushes off the concerns of the citizens and later, when yells at his troops in a harsh very un-Henry V sort of way, the immediate reaction is dislike. Caius Martius, later Coriolanus, is quick to anger, violence and is kind of what I’d picture Cato from The Hunger Games being as an adult – a person who was trained early to be really good at one terrible thing – killing. (And speaking of The Hunger Games, according to the program from the play and from Donmar’s Twitter feed, President Snow’s first name in the books is Coriolanus. Guess my seeing all of the allusions to the books isn’t entirely unmerited.) Also like Cato, Coriolanus is greatly subjected to the expectations of his society and the expectations held about himself. He is both prideful and reluctant, wanting to claim what he feels is rightfully his in becoming consul, but refusing to show his wounds gained in battle in order to gain votes.
I’ve asked myself where my opinion of Coriolanus began to shift during the show, when I really began to feel sympathy for him, and it was shortly after the epic battle scene, staged with brilliant effects of falling embers and ashes, in which Coriolanus is presumed dead, only to reenter, bathed in blood. My edition to Coriolanus describes this scene as him being “like a new-born in battle. It is as if, to be a man, the ‘fatherless’ Coriolanus must reborn of his own volition in the masculine setting of war” (Crewe xxxviii). In this particular staging, I saw this scene a bit differently. This is less about becoming a man but becoming a public spectacle, of going for soldier to war hero. Once Coriolanus enters, a horrific, epic sight, he has transgressed from ordinary into completely extraordinary. (But perhaps this is because I was watching Jack Gleeson’s talk on celebrity culture before writing this).
After this scene, in which Hiddleston is covered in so much blood that I truly felt myself growing nauseous, the play shifts into what I’m going to call the shower scene. I’d heard about this part before from the internet reacting to the fact that a shirtless, blood-covered Hiddleston showers onstage. Fans lauded the sexiness of this scene. I would like to add my two cents and assure you that though Mr. Hiddleston may be a very, very attractive man, this scene was not sexy and I was in utter agony throughout the whole thing. If you have trigger warnings with injuries or gore or such, I encourage you to skip the next section in case they might bother you. (Edit/ fun fact: This is how I learned that I am in fact afraid of blood, especially stage blood. Not ideal timing.)
Here is how the scene goes – Coriolanus strips off his shirt, blood matted in his hair and streaming down his neck, revealing a very gruesome wound on his left arm (I was facing stage left and thus got a very clear view of its gruesomeness). He proceeds to stand under a torrent of water, shuddering at first from the cold, then proceeding to slowly, agonizingly, let the water clean his wound. Somehow, without dialogue, only with physical actions, body language, and pained moaning and screaming that just recalling it makes me shudder, Hiddleston makes you feel as if you are Coriolanus, experiencing that piercing water pouring into your wound. This scene felt outrageously real to me and I am still wondering how the make-up artists made the wound look so real and how Hiddleston can possibly express such levels of pain night after night.
By this point in the play, I start feeling rather badly for Coriolanus. He’s gotten really beat up in battle, his worst enemy Aufidius, “a lion that I am proud to hunt,” is still out there fuming and plotting against him, his mother is happy with his return but wants more from him, and now he’s trying to win an election while a lot of people still hate him. He also shows a certain tenderness towards his mother, Volumnia, his wife, Virgilia, and his friend and supporter, Menenius, which contrasts nicely with his rage and anger elsewhere and makes it harder to simply dislike him. Coriolanus has depth and complexity. He longs to do something else with his life that doesn’t involve killing people for a living. Becoming consul could allow that but he must always conflate his warrior status with being a politician. Or perhaps he is unable to be any sort of politician but that who does always conflate his warrior/soldier life with politics but doesn’t want to be other-ized as this victor, as a war hero. I could postulate on Coriolanus’ mental state all day so I’m going to stop myself before that’s all I end up writing about.
This brings me to another area of interest for me and one I wish I knew the answer to. Upon reading the play, thinking about it over the course of a few months, and then upon seeing it, I found myself changing in how I thought of the characters. At times I agreed that Coriolanus was a tragic hero and at other times he seemed more a tyrant, a future President Snow that was stopped before he could go too far. Other times he was a political pawn, used to garner support for something he seemed somewhat detached from. And yet he still had his pride, he yearning for respect and admiration, to be seen as worthy of great accolade. I wonder, and continue to wonder, how actors peg down such mutable characters. Is there a way of fixing on certain interpretations so that each night you know what sort of Coriolanus you’re playing while still allowing the other versions to simmer beneath the surface, to allow the audience to pick up on these possibilities while still expressing clearly the sort of character you are presenting? Are there still little things that shift about? Some nights, are a word or two given with more anger, more hostility than other nights? Does Aufidius ever present himself with slightly more hostility? Does Coriolanus ever feel a slight bit more forlorn? These are the things I wonder before and after seeing shows, upon wondering how an actor will present a character and seeing that, while a portrayal is clear, I still see so much simmering beneath the surface.
On the note of complicated characters, I’ll pick up with the two lead women of the play: Volumnia and Virgilia. Volumnia is described by Crewe as being powerful, perhaps even more powerful than her son, using him as a sort of surrogate to gain her own status (Crewe xxxvi). In fact, Crewe even claims that Coriolanus might be more valuable to her as a dead hero than a living one (Crewe xxxvii). I was surprised, however, when Volumnia seemed rather hysterical at parts. At first, I found this a little off-setting – why was such a complex character acting so weak? And then I stopped myself. She wasn’t acting weak – hysterics is not a sign of weakness. Volumnia uses her “feminine weaknesses” to stay ahead of the men in her society and make sure that she is in an advantageous position despite her son’s mistakes. If she supports her son, but also distances herself from his actions, she can stay ahead of the tide and keep herself being dragged down into his misfortune. And yet she tells him that “action is eloquence” and yearns for his success. At the end, it’s her encouragement of him to leave Aufidius and the Volscians that is his downfall. However, it rids Rome of the problem he brings to them – a man who has been ousted from his homeland, taken in by their enemies, but longs to a place where he might have been heralded as a hero. At the end of the play, Volumnia returns, viewing her son’s dead body while rose petals fall around her. Perhaps this suggests that she is the true hero, ridding Rome of a future tyrant. Perhaps this is to suggest that she only wanted the best for her son but he refused to compromise to her ideals. Perhaps it suggests that she destroyed him and that there is a tragedy in a misbegotten relationship. Perhaps its none of these. Deborah Findlay makes for a marvelous Volumnia and presents her as a character that is oftentimes is as contradictory as her son.
Virgilia is also a complicated character, made so partially due to her limited amount of lines and little known about her relationship with Coriolanus. Despite the limits of her character in the script, Birgette Hjort Sorensen gives a lot of depth to Virgilia and performs her marvelously. Virgilia and Coriolanus have a son and in Josie Rourke’s staging, the couple seems to have a very warm, affectionate relationship. So when Coriolanus is banished, Virgilia’s reaction is very striking and powerful. Dressed in a tight black dress and heels with a sophisticated air, she seems the sort that perhaps has imagined being a senator’s wife or a First Lady. This seems, however, to come from a little of Volumnia’s pressures, something that comes out when the two women first appear and Volumnia tells Virgilia to enjoy the time she has away from her husband. This staging of the play makes further allusions to it when both women come to visit the banished Coriolanus and Volumnia pushes Virgilia to confront her husband, which she does rather sexually, sliding into his lap and kissing him while caressing the inside of his thigh. As this builds, Coriolanus pushes her off, seeming shocked, suggesting that something about this is offsetting or unusual. While they would seem to have a passionate, romantic relationship, perhaps this suggests that her actions are used to manipulate him as well. Perhaps Coriolanus is a changed man and cannot feel the range of emotion he would like to have towards his wife at this moment, or perhaps what he feels is too painful to deal with. Or perhaps, given his recent interactions with Aufidius, he simply cannot deal with more intense physicality.
This brings us to Aufidius, a character which powerfully represents the intermingling of sex and violence which Hadley Fraser does with great panache. He seems to simultaneously want to kill Coriolanus and tells him this, while making a lot of sexual insinuations and, in this staging, even kisses him. A case in which homoerotic subtext isn’t very subtext and is performed as such paired up with the pivotal characters of Volumnia and Virgilia makes this play a whole lot of heated emotions. Crewe describes Coriolanus as preferring a plane of “contradictory passion and predatory interchange” in Rome, a harsher, more violent world that could Freudianly be read as consumed by the id (Crewe xxxvi). The interactions between Coriolanus and Aufidius are jarring and confusing, and I love it. There’s no assumptions made about sexuality in the show, nor does it suggest anything about romance. It’s a instance of mutual obsession, in which the two men are muddled up in hate and love and it is expressed in various ways. Complicated this with the idea that Aufidius is meant to be a double of Coriolanus and one could begin to wondering if this is more a commentary on self-adoration and pride as well as masculine superiority and patriarchal ideals, as readings like Crewe’s take on.
Last but not least there is Menenius, who is suggested as a father-figure for Coriolanus and a bit of a Falstaff figure of support. He acts as a bit of comic relief and helps show an endearing, positive side to Coriolanus’ warlike nature. To Menenius, Coriolanus is a hero and a good man, someone who deserves to hold the place of consul, and who could lead Rome to greatness. However, between Coriolanus’ unwillingness to compromise and the citizens’ insistence on Coriolanus to reveal his wounds and keep the promises made to them by those surrounding Coriolanus, Menenius’ hopes are not to be. Menenius seems to be the smooth talker with a comic streak, which Mark Gatiss brings out marvelously, and he acts as the one who can assuage the politicians while Coriolanus rages and spouts whatever comes to his head before the assembly. There is something more restrained about Menenius, as if he were a sort of press correspondent for a rather uncouth politician. While he urges the Tribunes to believe that Coriolanus can be a good consul, Coriolanus with simultaneous darkness and humor snarkily persuades the citizens to fill out the ballots in favor of him. And when the citizens find they’ve been misled, they oust him and harass him, pelting him with tomatoes. Just scenes earlier, rose petals were dropped on a welcomed victor, and suddenly the tides turn and Coriolanus is now beaten with rotten fruit. And yet the worse for him has still not occurred.
I’ll leap ahead now to the end of the show, which I will summarize briefly. After being thrown out of Rome and escaping to the Volscians, Coriolanus is visited by Menenius, whom he rejects, as well as his mother, wife, and son later. They bow before him, treating him as a powerful sort of warlord. Coriolanus’ own son lays prostrate before him, an action, along with Coriolanus’ reaction, that pulled roughly at my heartstrings. In one instance, Coriolanus appears to be ignoring his mother while she speaks to him, his back turned to her and appearing stoic. But, as he was facing our side of the theater, you could see the tears streaming down his face, not in the least bit unfeeling to her words.
Ultimately, Coriolanus decides to leave and return to Rome but, unlike the play, he never leaves the Volscians. Instead of being killed by conspirators, he is killed horrifically by Aufidius himself. Remember the trigger warning about gore from before? I’m going to bring that back for the remainder of this paragraph. Roughly grabbed, hung up by his ankles and either his abdomen cut from navel to chin or his throat cut or both, he is roughly murdered, his body jerking and spraying blood across the stage. To say this scene appalled and terrified me is a gross understatement. I have seen murders in plays – I’ve seen a staging of Macbeth in which Macbeth was trussed up and beheaded. But again, it was the realism here, the uncompromising frankness and intense stage effects that has imprinted this ghastly scene on the back of my retinas for the rest of eternity. I was not expecting the play to end this way – I can’t say that anyone really was – and to then contemplate going to the stage door afterwards felt kind of perverse. Really I only wanted to curl up in a little ball behind my seat and cry for the next hour or two. These are the times I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into by becoming a Shakespeare fan.
I find it hard to really concisely summarize this play because I feel it encompasses so much. However, Crewe has given me a good way in which to do this with the line, “the one all alone is a god or nothing. To be a god in human guise is to be nobody at all, since humanity is constituted only in relation to other humans, and by their recognition” (Crewe xli). When Coriolanus worries about his words being twisted, when he longs to be powerful but by his own accords, not along the demands of the citizens, he struggles with the good old Shakespeare issues of public and private, of a ruler and a loner, of struggling to who he is versus what others want him to be.
I also haven’t managed to talk about the rest of the cast, which is a shame, because they are all brilliant. I especially liked the duo of Brutus and Sicinia, the Tribunes, played by Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger. The stagings they had as well as their expression was really interesting and makes for a great insight to political discussion and commentary on the show. But truly every member of the cast is astounding and all work together marvelously and powerfully onstage.
Despite the fact that I have managed to make this play sound like the most painful thing in existence – and would agree that it has ruined me forever, I highly recommend seeing it via National Theater screening if possible. This show really has changed my life, as a would-be academic and as a fan of theater. It is an amazing, vibrant, powerful performance, and nothing I can say will really capture how much in awe of this show I am. Theater continually inspires me with its ability to interact and engage with audiences but I felt that this production took it to a new level for me. So a thousand and more accolades for Donmar, Julie Rourke, and the entire cast, crew, and whomever else isn’t considered by those mere nouns for this absolutely marvelous show. Consider this an infinite standing ovation.
Crewe, Jonathan. Introduction. Coriolanus. By William Shakespeare. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. xxvii – xlix. Print.
“The Normal Heart” is a show that weighs heavily on the audience after seeing it. Staged by New Epic Theater in the North Loop’s Lab Theater, it is written by Larry Kramer and originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1985. In this production, the warehouse space of the Lab creates an unsettling atmosphere, with rough brick walls and eerie preshow music played low enough that it can go unnoticed, but once heard cannot be ignored.
Given that much of this show is about being heard and not being ignored, it’s the perfect way to set the scene. The story revolves around Ned Weeks (Michael Wieser) and his work to gain attention on the AIDS outbreak in New York City. It’s the early ’80s and no one knows how the virus is being transmitted. Ned, motivated by advice from Dr. Emma Brookner (Michelle O’Neill) and sick of seeing his friends dying, decides to start a crisis organization to draw attention and support for those in the gay community suffering from the disease. He clashes against his brother Ben (Zach Curtis) who, as a lawyer, will not help his organization and has never seen Ned as an equal. Ned also faces dissension from those in the gay community and in his crisis organization. Bruce (Torsten Johnson), Tommy (Antonio Duke), and Mickey (Adam Qualls) go head to head with what they see as his fear-mongering and telling people how to live their lives. Mickey and Bruce especially dislike Ned’s urging for people to come out, as they hold jobs where being openly gay would make life harder for them – especially Mickey, who faces growing tension with his boss in the city health department, Hiram Keebler (Grant Sorenson). On top of this, Ned is emotionally dealing with the first serious relationship he has had with New York Times writer Felix Turner (Jucoby Johnson). As a person who had been accused of unlearning how to love, Ned struggles with his feelings and the ways in which AIDS becomes a more and more personal issue, continuing to love even while around him he is surrounded by more and more death.
Powerfully capturing the beginning of the AIDS outbreak in a theatrical piece long before Rent or Angels in America would be written, The Normal Heart packs a hell of a punch. It’s one of those shows where you can hear the entire audience crying by the end (and I was certainly one of them) and where the vivid imagery of words disturbs and destroys as much as it enlightens and creates. The use of movement and lighting in this staging – especially with the clever incorporation of fluorescent lights – is wonderful. A musical soundtrack of Queen is interwoven throughout the piece (which I’m curious if this called for in the script or a choice made by this production), at times seeming a bit over the top but more often driving home emotional peaks and themes in the scenes they follow. The use of cigarette smoke and food onstage also adds scent as backdrop to the production, using another sensory element with a unique impact.
This show is riveting and packs in a lot of deep conflict and pertinent issues. Revolving around the horrors of an unknown disease, issues of leadership – especially in grassroots organizations, fighting for proper healthcare, debates about sexuality, and divisions inside the gay community, The Normal Heart covers a lot of ground. The arguments that Bruce, Mickey, and Ned have around the topic of promiscuous sex is powerful. Ned, following the advice of Dr. Brookner (who likens casual sex to junk food), argues that AIDS is likely sexually transmitted and urges for his friends to stop having sex. Mickey and Bruce, however, see this in a much different way – to them, Ned is making sex dirty and wrong again, an issue that the gay community has fought against for years – and continue to fight. Some aspects of the gay culture shown here do feel dated – the statement “I don’t believe in lesbians” and the discussion of transvestites shows the limitations of gay culture in the early ’80s but also nods towards how they are continually overlooked in the issues of today. Other moments are clearly relevant to today. In one of the most powerful scenes, Tommy asks during a eulogy, “Why are they letting us die?” Given Antonio Duke is the actor delivering this line, this becomes not just about sexuality but about race and refusing to see the problems that are so obviously in front of us.
In the program, director Joseph Stodola describes how this show, along with the theater’s other production performed by the same cast, Corioloanus (which I’ll be seeing next week), deal with political issues of those fighting from the margins.”There are no heroes or villains in this kind of theater,” Stodola says. “There are emotions, flaws, complexities, ideologies. There are no easy answers or happy endings.” This is exactly what The Normal Heart achieves – complex issues, powerful characters that are neither good nor bad, and many questions left unanswered. As the lobby display reminds us outside the theater: there is still no cure for AIDS.
The Normal Heart is written by Larry Kramer and directed by Joseph Stodola. It is playing now through April 16th at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis. Show information and ticket prices can be found on New Epic Theater’s website.
For a show representing a fictionalized account of an event that occurred nearly ten years ago, it is breathtaking how relevant Jessica Dickey’s The Amish Project is to current affairs. Based upon the shooting in Nickel Pines, PA in October of 2006, this one-person show explores the the effects the shooting had on the community and how people dealt with such a senseless tragedy. Dickey negotiates complicated layers created by two Amish girls, the widow of the shooter, a resident of Nickel Mines, a professor of Amish culture, a young woman working in the town, and the shooter himself, performing each character with clarity and honesty.
Wrapped up into this delicate play are deep considerations of loss, grief, hatred, anger, fear, and forgiveness. Centering around not the horrific act itself but the aftermath of Carol, the gunman’s widow, being changed by the kindness and forgiveness the Amish community shows her, the play doesn’t attempt to ask, “Why did this occur?” (noting at one point that the Amish don’t ask this question). Instead, it pinpoints this pivotal moment, a situation that Dickey described as, “a radical act in the face of unimaginable violence.” Carol, who has been consumed with pain at being called the wife of a “sicko” in the supermarket finds it unbelievable that the victims’ families are able to not only forgive her but comfort her and help her. Though “darkness ate him [her husband]… and now it’s eating me” and she believes she lives in a world where she’s “two days from sicko” herself, Carol is transcended by this act, pushing her from a world where tragedy that happens everyday somehow coexists with incredible kindness and gentleness.
Dickey’s impulse to fictionalize rather than realize the events this story is based on feels right, to leave the Amish to their privacy and to avoid any chance of sensationalizing this tragedy. A space is then created where the issues of broadcasting and media, questioning beliefs of all kinds, and considering forgiveness of an unknown gunman can be fully considered without a constant referral to actual people. We can leave what we personally know about the event behind and enter Dickey’s world, to share Carol’s wonder at how it is possible to believe anything at all while also understanding young Velda’s view of joy, a six-year-old Amish girl who simply believes that joy stands for Jesus, others, and putting yourself last. Faith and religion are a running narrative throughout the show but regardless of one’s background and beliefs, the themes are poignant and compassionate. It is rare that work dealing with spiritual ideas avoid feeling exclusionary but this one manages to do it not only well but with great poignancy. As an audience member described, the force of the ensemble allows the audience to feel a part of the show and this allows a sort of dialogue to take place through powerful moments of silence and realization.
The imagery of this show is also powerful: through lighting, set, and staging with Dickey’s physical movements, and also in the images painted by dialogue, through referrals to flight, meadows, the unseen character of Aaron, and the painful moment of sadness being so visible that it appears “like a wet towel” around the neck. But most powerful of all is the image of hope that is expressed throughout the the entire piece.
Included as part of the Guthrie’s “Singular Voices, Plural Perspectives” series, each show includes a post-show discussion with Dickey, allowing audiences members to share their thoughts and ask questions. Part of Joe Haj’s initiative to create a more town hall-like conversation around performances, it is a wonderful opportunity to for the artist to receive feedback and for audiences to engage more personally with the work.
“The Amish Project” is written and performed by Jessica Dickey. It is playing in the Dowling Studio at the Guthrie Theater from now through February 14th. Ticketing information and show dates can be found on the Guthrie’s website.