Monthly Archives: July 2009

THYESTES at the Arcola Theater

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Family love with Caryl Churchill

And now, for a breath of fresh air, another Greek play as done by the Brits. Interesting that Greek theater is neither my personal forte, nor is it something I find particularly compelling or accessible, and so far it dominates 100% of my blog posts. My apologies, but at the end of the day, the one theatrical rule that I ALWAYS live by is that if something has Caryl Churchill’s name attached to it, I will do everything in my power to experience it. Even if that means dragging my confused American self halfway across London on the day of a massive tube strike. Even if that means having to sit through 75 minutes of one of the most disturbing spectacles I’ve ever seen. Even if that means having to convince my mother that going with me to watch one [admittedly disturbed] man kill his nephews and feed their corpses to his unsuspecting brother is, indeed, worth her time. Because let’s face it: I’m a HUGE Caryl Churchill fan.

I can’t remember when I read my first Caryl Churchill play, but it has to have been Top Girls. Churchill is everything I aspire to be as a playwright: funny, concise, ruthless, accessible, urgent and relevant. I have the ultimate school girl crush on her, and believe without question that everything she touches turns to gold. I’ll admit that part of my secret desire to see Thyestes was the insane hope that I’d see her in the audience: didn’t happen. (That’s OK, though…because really, what would I have done? “Hi, Mrs. Churchill, just wanted to let you know that I worship the ground you walk on. Will you let me touch you?” – I’ve never been good at impromptu meetings with my idols.)

Churchill’s connection to this production of Thyestes was as translator/adaptor. My mom and I spent the first hour or so of our recent trip to London scanning some City Cultural Magazine which lists all theatrical productions currently playing. On a whim, I checked to see if there were any Churchill plays running, and was delighted to discover this one. Had I heard of the Arcola theater? No. Had I ever read/heard of Thyestes? No. Had I heard of Seneca? Well…I’d heard the name…once… Did any of this matter? No. If it was Caryl Churchill, I was going to go see it.

The Arcola theater oozed that particularly pretentious brand of hipster charm, tucked away in a completely un-touristy neighborhood of London and populated by artists and artistic-types who try really hard to look like they’re not trying too hard. (OK, that might have been a little harsh. One of these days I’m just going to have to suck it up and christen myself a hipster artist along with the rest of them…) The performance was devistatingly empty – I don’t think there could have been more of 20 of us in the audience, but it was a small space so the undercrowding of the house made less of an impact. I might describe my proximity to the performance space as “chillingly intimate”. Set up like an old, dark, wet, grimy warehouse storeroom, the set was inhabited with equal discomfort by unhappy gods or the unhappy damned that they tormented throughout the piece.

Here’s your barebones version of the story before I continue: The House of Atreus is hella-cursed. Grandpa Tantalus is living in hell being tormented by Hades, but he’s taken out of his torment for a minute by some fury/demon/god thing who wants to remind him that the rest of his issue are going to be as cursed and unhappy as him. Terrific. Meanwhile, his grandson Atreus is extremely pissed at his twin brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and potentially stealing his kingdom. I wish I could tell you Atreus is “cut-Thyestes-out-of-the-will” or “don’t-send-Thyestes-a-Christmas-card-this-year” pissed, but that just doesn’t make good Greek drama. Instead, Atreus is “secretly-trick-brother-into-coming-for-a-visit-then-when-he’s-not-paying-attention-steal-his-sons-kill-them-and-feed-them-to-Thyestes” pissed. Tragedy ensues.

If you can imagine, this play was even more disturbing than it’s description. The technical elements were immaculately executed – lights flickered and images that I could have SWORN were really happening became video projections right before my eyes. As the messenger, terrifically performed by Prasanna Puwanarajah, comes on to tell the chorus how Atreus has killed his young nephews,  the space seems to react with as much anger and horror as the chorus himself. The lights cut out, leaving a terrified Chorus to cry in the dark. Several television screens, stacked arbitrarily  in a corner of the space and seemingly non-functional suddenly illuminate to black and white static. As the messenger continues to talk, the black and white static changes to blood red, and begins to literally drip OFF OF the screen to the floor below. (How did they do it? I’ve decided after weeks of speculation that most likely there was something projecting static ONTO the screens from above that could easily extend a projected image away from the screen. At the time, however, it was a terrifying visual mind fuck.)

To my delight, Caryl Churchill’s imprint was all over this production. The prose was perfectly translated with her blunt, curt slices, and I could easily hear her voice through Atreus’ demented fascination with revenge and Thyestes’ explosive horror and shock at his brother’s actions. I often feel, after reading a Caryl Churchill play, that I’ve been slapped in the face a bit by her passion, focus, and ruthlessness. And seeing Thyestes felt like far more than a slap. It was like a verbal beat down by the sickest depths of human detriment. Am I glad I saw the play? Absolutely. It was an immersive journey into a darkness I only want to visit in the theater. Unlike Phedre, Thyestes didn’t demand pity for its characters. It expected you to be as repulsed by them as they are by themselves. “Oh, you’re here to watch us?” they seem to ask as the play begins, “Well, your choice. Good luck with that.”

The good news? Thyestes ran a short 75 minutes. I don’t think any of us in the audience could have handled more.

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PHEDRE at the National Theater

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I recently had the great privilege to be in London for a few days, and when I heard that Helen Mirren (excuse me, *Dame* Helen Mirren) would be starring in a production of Phedre (the Ted Hughes translation, no less!) at the National Theater, it was with great hope (and very little expectations) that I attempted to score a ticket. Well, what are the chances that there were TWO returned tickets in the SAME row for the sold-out press night performance available at the box office at the moment my mom and I inquired about availability? Sometimes I think the universe aligns itself with perfect magic.

As I waited for the show to begin, looking at my four-pound program (cost, not weight – they CHARGE for programs in London!! wtf?), a man sat down heavily next to me. “You just got that ticket, didn’t you?” he asked. “Um…yeah,” I said, not quite sure where this was going. “I know,” he replied, “I just returned it an hour ago.” Everything about his tone implied I was RIDICULOUSLY lucky to have gotten his returned ticket, and he considered me a poor substitute for whatever companion of his was originally supposed to have the seat to his right. I would have said something back, but I couldn’t think of the right way to phrase it (“oh, did your wife/boyfriend/daughter/mate get sick or something? well that was just terrific for me, huh?”), and to be honest, he was completely right. I was ridiculously lucky to get a ticket, and I’m sure I’m a completely annoying theater companion to have. When I’m excited about the show, I don’t just watch the performance, I tend to watch the reactions of the people around me (it’s quite creepy, I imagine). I have no scruples “shh”-ing my neighbors if they’re being dicks and talking during the performance (WHO DOES THAT??! sorry…personal pet peeve), I watch a show with what must seem like bizarre focus, and I suspect (although I’ve yet to personally notice), that I’m a Loud Breather.

Anyway, nothing was different in my experience watching The National’s Phedre, which, although strikingly simplistic, offered plenty to observe. At the top of the show the stage was blocked by a “Safety Curtain” (called that even though it was clearly more “wall” than “curtain”). As the house lights dimmed (I still get goosebumps thinking about it), the “curtain” opened like a camera lens to reveal one of the most chillingly enchanting stage pictures that’s ever greeted me at the top of a show. The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is as much of a character in the production as any of the people who inhabit it – depicting a sort of hallway/balcony of Theseus’ castle emerging “naturally” from what must be a huge mass of fiercely orange rock, set against a stunning blue sky. Because this balcony is partially covered by the rock (producing an indoor/outdoor feel), lighting designer Paule Constable was able to work beautifully with shadows. Although one has the impression that Theseus’ kingdom is bathed in bright, hot, golden light, most of the characters spend the play in the decidedly darker (visually and thematically) shadowed world of this balcony.

The Gods, evoked so precisely in Hughes’ translation (they’re both there and not – constantly present in the conscience and consciousness of the characters but never “seen”; and conspicuously absent as Phedre spirals out of control) are both present and absent in this set as well. The sheer majesty of the space is enough to make one believe in the Gods of this world, but the openness and loneliness of the barren set (I can remember one, maybe two insignificant metal chairs) feels as empty and unfulfilled as so many of Racine’s characters when they fruitlessly call on the Gods for help.

If I’m spending a lot of time trying to evoke the visual impact of the stage picture at the top of the show it’s because…well…for me it was by far the best moment. It seems dismal to say it “all went downhill from there” but it kind of did. That’s not to say the show wasn’t stunning – it was – but the task placed on these actors – to fill this incredible space – was near impossible. Which is not, of course, to say that they didn’t do their darndest. It was extremely interesting for me to read the London reviews of Phedre after opening night, and, subsequently, read the New York reviews after a special filmed performance was presented in NYC last week. The Londoners were generally cruel, dissing Mirren as well as the rest of the cast, but placing most of the blame on director Nicholas Hytner (Artistic Director at the National). One reviewer even made the brassy call for Hytner’s resignation as a result of his direction. Mirren’s “restraint” was condemned, and actors were deemed “bloodless”. On the other hand, the NYTimes review of the filmed production had enough ass-kissing gushiness in it to even make me (who love love LOVES Mirren) squirm a bit. Her “majestic theatricality” was practically worshipped, as well as her veteran status and the overall production’s incredible theatrical impact.

Personally, I’m inclined to agree a bit more with the Brits than the New Yorkers. Phedre is one of the most complicated, fascinating and heartbreaking female characters in all of drama, and at times it seemed (to my horror),  like Mirren was encouraging us to laugh along with her at Phedre’s utter feminine ridiculousness. You know all of those horrible stereotypes about jealous women? It felt like Mirren’s Phedre was saying “Yeah guys, that’s me! It’s OK to laugh.” For those of you not familiar with the plot, I’ll give the bare bones version: First performed in 1677, written by the French Dramatist Jean Racine. Phedre’s husband Theseus, the King, has been missing for a while. Meanwhile, she’s desperately in love with her stepson, Hippolytus (awkward…), and doesn’t know what to do about it. She’s tried being a jerk to him (didn’t work), and sending him away (didn’t work), so now, with her husband missing and questions of succession coming up, she tries just telling him how she feels. Now, it’s a tragedy, so can you guess how that strategy works out? Correct – it doesn’t work.

What the New York Times called “majestic theatricality”, I’m inclined to call surface-level mockery, at least at its worst points. At one particularly awful moment, Phedre discovers that Hippolytus is secretly in love with Aricia, a prisoner-of-war living at the palace. First Mirren looks forlornly into the distance, then turns her back on the audience, and a moment later doubles around, literally snarling “Aricia must die!”. Around me, the audience burst into laughter, while I cringed. I’m really awkward about laughter during performances when it doesn’t come at moments where I’m convinced it should (like, say, in a comedy), and this moment, which as written has so much potential for heartbreaking patheticness, became instead a grotesque caricature of every misogynist’s idea of the “jealous woman”.

That’s not to say, of course, that Ms. Mirren is not a spectacular actress. She is. I saw it at several moments throughout the performance, most notably during her death (whoops! gave away the ending. but come on…you had to guess it), which was utterly poignant, painful, and agonizing. Crawling onto the stage, Phedre collapsed in a heap with as little dignity as her servant Oenone, who threw herself off a cliff an act earlier (one British reviewer implied the actress might as well actually have done so. Ouch). Only at this moment (granted, five minutes before the show ended), did I truly feel the impact of the force that is Helen Mirren onstage.

[The rest of the cast was good, too, but let’s face it, any production of Phedre is all about Phedre. A ridiculously petty point that I must nonetheless mention: Dominic Cooper (playing dream-boy Hippolytus) is hot. Like, H-A-W-T hawt. I had seen him a few years back in The History Boys on b-way and was generally unimpressed, but in this incarnation, wearing a black wifebeater and camo pants, he was sizzling. I realize it’s petty to judge someone based on their appearance rather than their performance (um…I think that was good, too…didn’t really notice…) but if you can’t do it with Hyppolytus (the male equivalent of a pin-up girl, as far as I’m concerned), who can you do it with? Let’s put it this way: I TOTES understood where Phedre was coming from.]

Overall, it was a night I would not have missed, and although the performance was curiously disappointing in some ways, the fact of the matter is: reliving the visual impression of that first stage picture still gives me goosebumps. I’d say that’s a good thing…

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Introduction: Hi!

Although I like my TV bad (as in, “Food Network Caters Your Wedding”/”True Life: I hate my big boobs”/”Groomer Has It” bad), I like my theater GOOD. As in, change-your-life kind of good. As our entertainment options get more and more easily, “pre-packaged” accessible, I’ll admit that it requires substantially more “effort” to get off one’s butt to spend the time and money required to see live theater. And yet some of us manage to do it.

My hope is that this blog encourages me to continue my life long quest to continually seek out and see new and exciting theatrical projects. True, I don’t need too much encouragement, but the fact remains that it’s a whole lot easier to see shows when a) they’re consistently offered to you for free and within a 5 minute walk of where you live (the case when I was in college) or b) you’re studying abroad in Avignon, France, in the midst of the largest theater festival in the world (the case when, well, I was studying abroad in Avignon, France). This blog, then, is not only an opportunity for me to share my (admittedly) subjective opinions with my (hopefully) faithful readership, it’s also a theater watching contract with myself.

Before I continue, I must of course concede the innate hypocrisy of this blog. When I read a New York Times Review and find that my opinion agrees perfectly with Mr. Brantley’s, I tend to get pretty smug. However, if I find that my opinion differs from the reviewers, I am instantly filled with at least some level of nauseatingly pretentious superiority. Who am I to receive my opinions from some self-designated “expert”? My opinions are my own, thank you very much! (I really am a snob). So for me to blog about shows I’ve seen and offer my opinions to you seems…well…kinda like a dick move. I will take this moment to establish, then, that I offer my opinions not to supplant your own, but merely as the reflections of someone who really – REALLY – loves theater and just can’t keep it to herself. One of my favorite things about theater is that everyone’s experience is his or her own – there is no such thing as an “objective” review of a performance. That I believe.

Thus, I unapologetically present to you then my *extremely* subjective opinions. I’ll try to blog every time I’ve seen something new, and I’ll try to keep this project up. My hope is that you share with me (as comments!) your own reflections and reactions – to the shows, to my thoughts, to whatever.

Love,

Jessie

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