Sunday, October 8, 2017

Shakespeare On Stage

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets
with Magdalyn Donnelly & Anne McEvoy
Great Lakes Theater
I am tired of Shakespeare.

Not tired of his work, that I am still quite fond of. I am tired of William Shakespeare, the man. A man about whom we know less than we know about any other individual about whom we have decided it is important to know things.

We know where he was born (not exactly when, though) when he died, a little bit about his family, and that he wrote thirty-eight plays. Respectable scholars are even still debating about that last bit.

For someone about whom we know nothing, there is an ever-expanding industry in making shit up about him. Each biography gets fatter than the last, containing greater amounts of conjecture, and the slightest potential new discovery turns out to be inconsequential or downright fantasy.

Someone found a painting in Canada twenty years ago of a young man, the artifact carbon-dated to the late 16th century. Bares a slight resemblance to Shakespeare, must be him.

More recently, however, is the cottage industry in stage plays, films or TV shows in which Shakespeare the man is a character. It began, more or less, with George Bernard Shaw, who wrote not one but two plays featuring the Bard in a lead role.

Oh, look. Shaw is lecturing.
Shakes vs. Shav (1949) is a ten-minute script which was written to be performed by marionette puppets in which the two famous playwrights argue over who is the better writer.

The Frogs, adapted from Aristophanes by Stephen Sondheim and Burt Shevelove in 1974, stole the "Shakespeare-against-Shaw" debate conceit entirely, drawing it out and making it much less amusing. But I digress.

Decades earlier Shaw wrote The Dark Lady of the Sonnets (1910) which was created expressly to promote the idea of England creating a federally-funded theater, which they eventually did with the National Theatre, though Shaw never lived to see it.

Dark Lady runs about a half-hour, and presents a blocked Shakespeare creeping around the streets of London after hours, searching for his mistress (about whom he writes in the Sonnets) and stealing inspiring snatches of dialogue from passersby for use in his future works. He eventually runs into not only his “dark lady” but also a sleepwalking Queen Elizabeth I, whom he first mistakes for his love. Comedy ensues.

The last third of this short play concerns Will’s efforts to persuade the Queen to establish what he calls a “national theater.” Most of the wit, however, involves the phrases uttered by the night watchman, the “dark lady” and the Queen herself -- familiar from Shakespeare’s canon-- which the frustrated playwrights jots down in a notebook for inclusion in his plays later. So the comedy depends upon these lines being familiar to the audience.

Mr. Shakespeare
Are you familiar with the phrase, “Frailty, thy name is woman”?

Perhaps you are.

“All the perfumes of Arabia”?

Yes, no? What is it from?

How about, “a snapper up of unconsidered trifles”?

No, of course you aren’t. Even I had to look that up.

Great Lakes produced Dark Lady for the outreach tour in 2006, and I played the role of Shakespeare. This was not a stretch, I had been playing the role of “Mr. Shakespeare” as a promotional gimmick for the company for two years by that point, making public appearances at art festival and rib cook-offs. I was their “unofficial mascot” for seven years. The costume shop created for me a beautiful, velvet doublet in the company’s signature purple.

The thing I learned performing Dark Lady … it isn’t funny. I mean, it would be, if the audience were composed entirely of those well-versed in the canon. Ever see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged)? It’s not funny because of references to Shakespeare. It’s funny because there’s a stoner in a dress and they rap Othello.

Actually, Complete Works isn’t funny, either. But I digress.

But therein lies the problem with plays about Shakespeare. We know nothing about him, we feign familiarity with him through his work, and inevitably we lean on the work itself to carry the narrative the pathos, and the humor.

Yeah, I saw Something Rotten. It’s funny, if it’s funny, because of the song about musicals. But "Will Power" is really painful to sit through. I know the idea of Shakespeare as a rock star is the joke, but is it? There’s this pretentious notion, flouted by complete nerds, that the man from Stratford was some kind of celebrity in his own time. Listening to Adam Pascal (who played him at the Palace) growl through “shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” like some kind of Jim Morrison or something isn’t funny, it’s embarrassing.

It’s like that SNL sketch where Lin-Manuel Miranda plays a substitute teacher at a high school, determined to turn the kids onto how cool Shakespeare is, and they’ve heard it all before.


That’s actually part of a play I wrote once for an educational outreach tour, comparing verse to rap music. It was very awful and I will never mention it again.

Which brings us to the most produced American play of the 2017-18 season (as determined by American Theater) Shakespeare In Love, adapted for the stage by Lee Hall, from the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard.



As in the film, this is a purely fictionalized tale of a young William Shakespeare, like so many of us in the mid-90s (in his case, the 1590s) slacking and suffering writer’s block. He’s trying to write a new play titled Romeo & Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter. A great deal of the charm and interest hangs on seeing Shakespeare as fallible, flawed, with the same passions and potential for falling short as the rest of us. Kind of the way he’s represented in The Dark Lady of the Sonnets.

He has to work at writing, it doesn’t come easy. The best stuff is taken whole cloth from someone else (kind of like in Dark Lady) in this case usually Kit Marlowe.

Rhys Ifan as Edward de Vere
Anonymous (2011)
And just as with Dark Lady, over one hundred years earlier, much humor is dependent upon the audience being well-versed in Shakespeare. When I was in an audience for the Cleveland Play House production they definitely enjoyed the dog, while somewhat familiar Shakespearean allusions  bounced awkwardly off their heads in silence.

When Will is asked for new pages of the script and he promises them “tomorrow and tomorrow” and his producer adds, “... and tomorrow?” there was a general is somewhat delayed chuckle of recognition and the woman behind me tittered, mumbling, “heh heh, ‘creeps in this petty pace…’”

I turned around and said, “oh, you got that one?”

Now, I enjoyed the film of Shakespeare In Love, too. But I also enjoyed Anonymous, which tells an alternative history based on a popular conspiracy theory that the works of Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, a nobleman about whom there is a deep and rich biography available. A man who was actually once captured by pirates.

HE WAS CAPTURED BY PIRATES.

My colleagues who abhor such theories dismiss that film out of hand, because it’s utter nonsense. One critic even pointed out that a flashback from the mid-1500s featuring the young de Vere performing a scene from “his” A Midsummer Night’s Dream was preposterous because there is no possible way Dream could have been written before the early 1590s.

Yeah, well? Shakespeare In Love is how the man from Stratford created the story to Romeo & Juliet, based on his own personal romantic experiences, when Arthur Brooke’s poem "Romeus and Juliet" had been in heavy circulation since 1562, and even that is not the original tale.

But Shakespeare In Love is a comedy, Anonymous is meant to be taken seriously.

Really. Is it?

Shakespeare In Love
Charlie Thurston as Will Shakespeare
Cleveland Play House
Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni
But what about the children, they cry. Someone might see Anonymous and think that it’s true. Yes, and I am sure there are those who believe Shakespeare In Love is true -- not in it’s every particular, but in the larger sense that the playwright and poet William Shakespeare was charming, passionate, and had lots of friends. Only he didn't.

The real reason people want to believe Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays is because he is the kind of exciting character we want William Shakespeare to be. Only he wasn't.

Couldn't we at least, then, present the unfaithful horn dog in Shakespeare In Love, a man who spends far more time partying and having sex than actually writing, as the opportunistic, litigious, status-obsessed striver with the weak chin, beady-eyes and receding hairline that the available historical record makes evident?

Instead we get another fictional yet admittedly extremely handsome, roguish-yet-self-effacing charmer, like the one who played him in the CPH production, pictured here, resplendent in his beautiful, velvet doublet.

Wait. Where did you get that doublet?

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Hurricane (song)

Let us now sing the praises of the lighting designer.

The most mercurial of theatrical craftspersons, the light designer, put simply, illuminates the space. This was an element of stagecraft of which I was entirely ignorant as I entered college. I had literally never considered what if any thought went into the lighting of a stage -- and I had even directed plays in high school. Someone else took care of it for me, and I remained uneducated.

I thought you just, well. Turned on the lights.

Light design was a course I took my freshman year and I began to understand color and shape and their countless variation. I learned what a gel was, could tell the difference between a Leko and a Fresnel (and how to pronounce them.) I developed a fetish for gobos. But my appreciation for light has been slow. It is always the very last thing I think of.

Touring I Hate This the very first thing I did was get rid of the bed special, a rectangular light which would appear when my character was in the hospital, and disappear when he wasn’t. It was impractical for such a basic tour. Video I needed, and sound. But just turn the lights on, a general wash, that will be fine. Light design is a luxury.

When Double Heart went from touring to the New York Fringe, someone reminded me that the tour never employs a light designer (general wash, please) and that we would need one for the Connelly. Couldn’t we just use some other show’s plot? Seriously, I wanted to get away with that. Lucky for me I’d met Cris a few years earlier, a professional designer living in New York and he was able and amenable not only to do the work, but made us all look so much lovelier in the production.

Double Heart tech rehearsal
Light design by Cris Dopher
Watching Hamilton at the Richard Rogers last summer was a bit of a blur, not least of which because we were seated high in the galleries, but the light made me see and appreciate a trope which got by me when first listening to the score, that of the eye.

The set for the production is deceptive in its simplicity, it is a big, open room. Tables and chairs are brought in, sometimes the mere suggestions of tables - a board held by company members - and so the light has a lot to do to set mood, to isolate areas of the stage, and people. And there are those two turntables which sweep people and set pieces around the stage, sometimes quite fast. The action swirls, and light swirls with it.

In the first act, when Washington first sings history has its eyes on me, the turntable is ringed with blue, but the unlit (black) center shrinks, and you realize you are seeing a great eye, the pupil constricting.

In the second act, this effect is mirrored when Hamilton sings “Hurricane.”

This used to be my least favorite song on the recording. There’s always that song in the second act, the low-point song (and yes, I know the show goes lower) which is slow, reflective, and usually, somnabulant. Lin-Manuel Miranda has a fine voice, but speaking honestly I feel he wrote this one for someone else to sing.

Lucky for us, someone else did sing it the night we were there, the incomparable Javier Muñoz, and it was downright operatic. But if the singing raised my estimation of the song and its place in the production, the choreography - and the light - gave the words the emotional weight which was intended.

As Hamilton is struggling with his choices as he confronts a potentially career-ending scandal, he recalls his childhood in St. Croix, and the hurricane which nearly destroyed the city. “In the eye of a hurricane,” he sings, “there is quiet - for just a moment. A yellow sky.”

The eye returns, a sickly yellow, dilating, slowly rotating circle. As he describes the chaos and destruction of the disaster, a tragedy whose record he created as a young teenager, and which record created the conditions for his education in colonial America, company members hoist and hold props and furniture - tables, quills, chairs, books, paper - and people, slowly and unnaturally held in the air and swept around the circle, caught in the maelstrom. Helpless.

The hurricanes come, and we prepare for them as best we can. What follows after is the definition of how successful and competent we are as a civilization. The current administration was swift to respond to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which struck Texas and Florida, respectively. But Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria, which devastated the American territory of Puerto Rico has been shamefully slow.

When President Trump chose to rage-tweet at San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz for criticizing these efforts, Miranda - the son of native Puerto Ricans - jumped into the fray.


This was surprising, because the artist is notably polite, positive, and generous on Twitter. After the curtain speech for Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, Miranda kept his cool, telling Terry Gross:
“I don’t get engage in a tweet battle with anybody. Twitter is optional, y'all!” 
It is a fine show of character not to respond to personal insults directed at one’s self. But the president’s drawing politics into this humanitarian crisis was apparently a step too far, and Miranda’s response has made headlines.

You, too, can assist, Miranda has been promoting the Hispanic Federation, which has two funds that are going directly to on-the-ground relief in both Puerto Rico, and also in response to Mexico’s recent devastating earthquake. Donate today.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

How I Spent My Summer (2017)

Raising Cairn
Celeste Roberge, 2000
Portland Museum of Art
As summers go, this past was not as historic, nor as creatively productive. We won no basketball championships, directed no productions of Shakespeare, attended no theater festivals, nor were we present for the nomination of a tyrant.

I wrote no new plays.

But summers are important, they always have been and for different reasons. I still work, to be sure, but this is when vacations are had, and my wife and I do strive to make the most of those brief moments as we can. Once it was because our children needed attention and occupation, and now it is becoming increasingly apparent our summers with them as children are running out.

And she wonders why I am depressed this week.

Humming
Jaume Plensa, 2011
deCordova Scultpure Garden
The first major journey was to attend, and in my case, to officiate, a wedding for my wife’s cousin and his beautiful bride. Perhaps you didn’t know I am an ordained minister, but seriously, who isn’t these days? I needed to register with the state to conduct ceremonies in Ohio, in Illinois they don’t ask. Are you in good standing with your church? Well, you better be, that’s the only thing they have to say about it.

We turned this delightful event, held in Aurora, into an extended stay in the Chicagoland. Funny, I set one of my recent works in suburban Chicago, though I’d never really spent any time there. Just research. Passing through and investigating those sites I thought appropriate, I was not disappointed. I tried to imagine my characters there. They must have been happy once.

The weather in Chicago was perfect, we did the architecture tour, saw the Neo-Futurists, spent a whole day at the Museum of Science and Industry. I had my own memories of that place from when I was a kid, I was probably there more for myself them for them.

A Sunday Afternoon On
the Island of La Grande Jette

Georges Seurat, 1886
Chicago Institute of Art
In July, I bought a new car.

Our schedule fell out so that we needed to be in town by August 1 for my daughter to begin soccer practice, so we barely got Boy Camp in before it was time to leave for the east coast, this year spending several days in Salem, MA before continuing on to Friendship.

Between the Art Institute back in Chicago and the deCordova and Peabody Essex in Massachusetts, we spent much leisurely time at art museums, both indoor and out. Our time in Maine, however, was brief. Before long we were heading back, a stop in Concord to meet friends and check out the grave sites of famous authors before making our way back home.

Throughout the summer there were macaroni and cheese topped burgers at the Speedtrap Diner, deep dish at Navy Pier, drop-dead ramen at Kokeshi, and our favorite waiter at Congress Bar & Grill. Also, I developed a strange obsession with Oh Hello, On Broadway on Netflix, which I watched at least three times.

Real Estate Goldmine
Joshua Starcher, 2017
Rooms To Let
After Maine, we still had all of August, which ended up being something of a blur, driving back and forth across the state. The truth is, a cloud has been hanging over us since the very beginning of the season, on what may have been the first unofficial day of this summer. It was a Saturday in late May, the kids were on a year-end, school-related Cedar Point trip, the wife and I had the day to ourselves and witnessed Rooms to Let in Slavic Village, the first of our many art-related summer explorations. It was while waiting for the kids to return on the bus that we received the call.

It’s personal. It’s family-related. I don’t want to go into it right now. It is enough for now to say I have been looking at things more closely at things this summer, and finding them horribly beautiful.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Salem Witch Dungeon Museum

Salem Witch Museum (2017)
Twenty-one years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were concluding her first week in Friendship, ME when my cousin asked if we had ever been to Salem. She’s just past through and was delighted by the honky-tonk; the wax museums and so-called “museums” which commemorate one of the most-shameful (perhaps only one of the first most-shameful?) moments in American history, the Salem Witch Trials.

In particular, she told us we must check out the Salem Witch Museum or the Salem Witch Dungeon -- we assumed there was only one institution called the “Witch Museum.” Not two, or as is the case today, three. Or four.

My girlfriend found a wonderful B&B and when we arrived our host was only to happy to recommend the Peabody Essex Museum, and some fine restaurants by the waterfront. When we asked about the Witch Museum her face fell with something like disgust or disappointment.

“Oh, you’re here about the witches,” she said under her breath before politely directing us toward that part of town.

In fact, it seemed back in 1996 that Salem had not truly embraced its designation as “Witch City” at least not the manner that it does today. The TV Land statue of the character Samantha from the TV program “Bewitched” was not unveiled in 2005.

But then, even the Peabody Essex, founded at the very end of the eighteenth century was much homelier than it is today, receiving a massive renovation in the early 21st century. Like a lot of cities, including ours, Salem seems to be enjoying a tourism boom.

"Bewitched" (2013)
The Salem Witch Museum is the more stately of the two tourist traps we visited two decades ago. Located right off Salem Common, the exterior is extremely visible and striking, formerly an actual church. It also has the benefit of having a large statue of the city’s founder, Roger Conant, standing high in the middle of a three-way intersection. He is dressed appropriately in the puritan fashion of his time, but his great cloak and tall hat do make him look like a witch himself.

However, the attraction itself is not particularly interesting, though it looks sharp. Crowds are ushered into the center of a large room, where a booming recorded voice complete with sound effects describes the events of 1692 while life-size, stationary panoramas depict the terrifying history. Then you exit through the largest gift shop in Salem -- and that’s saying something.

No, the big fun is to be had at the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum, which is distinctive in that it features an actual historic artifact, a single beam of wood from the actual building where members of the accused were actually imprisoned during the witch scare of 1692.

Down the less-traveled Lynde Street, the Dungeon Museum is also a former religious space, a chapel built in the late 1800s. It was to this site I imagined one day taking my children, to share with them mine and my wife’s love of bizarre roadside attractions, though the prospect did not leave me without a little hesitation.

We have passed through Salem a few times in the past several years, visiting our friend Kim, having lunch at Gulu-Gulu, and sharing with them the more respectable sites of the Peabody Essex and, this summer, the House of Seven Gables. But they’re still young and each of them have expressed a disinterest in anything approaching scary.

At least, that was until last year when the girl asked if we could go on the Spook-A-Rama at Coney Island, which she claimed to have hated having decided to do immediately upon exiting, though comments she has made during the year since have suggested otherwise.

You see, when my wife and I went to the Witch Dungeon Museum in 1996, we had a slightly different experience than what is offered today. After paying admission, we entered the chapel, where there was a theater curtain hiding the chancel. Without any fanfare, the curtain opened and the half dozen or so in attendance with us watched as two women performed a scene adapted from original court transcripts in which young Mary Warren accuses the elderly Elizabeth Procter of witchcraft.

Salem Witch Dungeon Museum (1996)
"More weight."
The first thing we really noticed was how the judge, bailiff and court spectators on stage were all ancient mannequins, posed rigid and awkwardly in their seats. They did not move nor comment throughout the proceeding.

Following the performance, the younger of the two actors stepped forward, and led us into the basement, which resembled a prison. We were informed about the historic importance of the wooden beam, and our attention was directed to various cells where we could see even more mannequins being horribly mistreated.

Then she instructed us to head down a short hallway, to take our time, and she would meet us at the other end. She then disappeared through a doorway and we were left on our own. I volunteered to go first down the hallway, peering into cell doors and windows and sure enough, at the far end of the hall, one of the mannequins wasn’t a mannequin at all, but our tour guide who suddenly put out her hands and yelled BLEAGGHH!!!

Not exactly Spook-A-Rama, but high cheese. I did wonder whether or not the girl would get a kick out of it.

What I did not expect was the very pleasant surprise that the Salem Witch Dungeon Museum has during the past generation in fact stepped up its game! There were not two, but three performers on hand, the third what you might actually consider a docent. Also dressed in period costume, she provided narration and context prior to the performance (it was the exact same amateur performance) and led us all the way through the basement “dungeon” giving an entirely respectable historical overview of the events and the persons involved.

The prison cells are still occupied by the exact same dummies we had seen in the 90s, I believe the lights have been lowered to hide the aged plaster and papier-mâché. But we received a proper if brief education in mass-hysteria, and no poor college intern popped out from anywhere to say BOO!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Discovery (album)

Summer, 2001. We had rocked unsteadily through those first few months after the loss of our child, we had journeyed to England and back. And then there was time and plenty of it. I had to prepare for my work at Great Lakes, memorizing lines, but rehearsals wouldn’t begin until the first Tuesday in September.

My wife had written a play that was going to the New York International Fringe Festival. Angst:84 is a high school satire with an acting company of fourteen, many of whom in this cast were actual teenagers. Several were going into college that fall, others returning to high school. The summer was booked with rehearsals, dance party fundraisers and group mailings promoting same.

My job was to run sound at the festival. That’s it. Coming off my sadness and grief it was delightful to be surrounded by young people and doing youthful, fun things. In this, my wife and I were not exactly in the same place. She was game, she was not having “fun.”

At one of the mailings, the director was playing the new Daft Punk album, Discovery. No idea what hooked me so fast and so strong, I mean, I like EDM but this felt like something special. It was a feeling.

Angst:84 rehearsal (Photo: Plain Dealer)
That summer I had also downloaded many ROMs from the cabinet video games I had grown up with, and this album seemed the perfect soundtrack to playing those games. It was as though this album actually existed in 1980. I tried to pinpoint exactly what song I was thinking of, which songs they had sampled, but I was never able to figure it out. The closest I could get were tracks like “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire (1978) or “Valerie” by Steve Winwood (1982).

Last month, as our summer began and we were listening to satellite radio, I tuned into the 80s station, because you know me. The song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles (aka Trevor Horn) came on and of course I had to point out that actually that song is from 1979 and suddenly it struck me, right around the refrain where the woman is singing “You are … a radio star” from somewhere in the background, that this was the song.

Like, the entire album Discovery are numerous reworkings of that one song, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Especially the vocals in “One More Time” and “Digital Love.” Thematically, “Video Killed the Radio Star” is melancholy tune chronicling the end of an era while “Digital Love” is about a dream of a wonderful happy time which have been in the past or never have happened at all. They are both sad in their own way, recalling a memory of joy.

To me, of course, “Video Killed the Radio Star” was released as my childhood was concluding and moving into troubling adolescence. I read online that Daft Punk was trying with Discovery to create a tribute to the first ten years of your life, whenever that may have been in time. There are also specific samples which were used as the baseline for certain songs, but this one is never mentioned, because it’s not actually sampled. But it’s all over the record.

Put the blame on VTR.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Testament of Mary @ Mamaí Theatre

Anne McEvoy in "The Testament of Mary"
Some twenty years ago my partner and I went to see Annie Sprinkle give a lecture at Cleveland Public Theater. Once a sex worker and performer in pornography, Sprinkle had by this time earned a doctorate in human sexuality and had moved into education and sex-positive advocacy.

It was a full house that night, and as we streamed into the theater there was this one woman standing outside, entirely on her own, protesting the event. She had a sign and she was expressing her disapproval. I cannot recall what was written on the sign, nor exactly what her point of view was.

There are several arguments against pornography. The puritanical is perhaps the first that comes to mind, that performing sex acts on film or video for the enjoyment of others is wrong, improper, it is degenerate.

There are also more relevant arguments against pornography and more specifically the porn industry, which preys upon women, especially very young women, and can even participate in human trafficking.

If I remember correctly, this protester was against that evening’s event because sex work is generally anti-woman, that it defines women, the entire gender, as simply something to be fucked. A sound, feminist, anti-porn argument.

As the audience entered, we just kind of ignored her. But her presence impressed me. Whether I agreed with her or not, she was taking a stand for what she believed, all by herself. She wasn’t grandstanding, she wasn’t aggressively attempting to shame anyone. She was obviously outnumbered by the crowd and she had no support. She was just making her point, outside, in the cold.

We don’t protest theater in Cleveland. Not much. Too polite, perhaps. Or maybe it’s because no one cares or worse, that the vast majority of people in greater Cleveland who might be offended are entirely unaware of what happens in the theater scene.

Photo: Steve Wagner
Last spring, Talespinner produced my play Red Onion, White Garlic, and when it was announced that this Indonesian folktale would be performed by women in hijab (87% of the people in Indonesia today identify as Muslim) I was thrilled, and also concerned. We are a polarized country. Our president has expressed a general contempt for Islam. Would someone make trouble?

No one made trouble. Please. How would the racist dingbats of Northeast Ohio even know this were happening?

But recent events have made live theater an occasional lightning rod for controversy. Following a performance of Hamilton, attended by Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, the cast gave a curtain call speech as the man exited the hall. The outrage that followed in the media was scattershot; is it appropriate to lecture a captive audience following a play, shouldn’t they show more respect to the Vice President-Elect, must everything be about politics?

This was at Hamilton. You get it.

This summer the Public Theatre made headlines again -- this time with Shakespeare if you can believe that -- by presenting a modern dress production of Julius Caesar as one of their two, free productions at the Delacorte in Central Park.

Shortly after the election, The Public's Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis, decided to cast Caesar in the form of Donald J. Trump. This textually justifiable interpretation of Shakespeare’s version of Caesar as a proud, preening, feckless, needy, physically weak, power-hungry windbag would be on full display in the form of the actual sitting president, and in the president’s own city.

It would also mean depicting him murdered in the Senate, every single night.

Photo: Inside Edition
Even the discussion of the assassination of a sitting president is repellent to me. I don’t even joke about it, and I’ll joke about anything. First, I am an avowed pacifist. Then, the violent overthrow of a democratically elected figure is the diametric opposite of democracy. One individual or small number of people conspiring to violently undo the decision of the vast majority, it is anathema to the values upon which this nation was based.

This is, in fact, a dominant theme of the play Julius Caesar. Brutus is torn between his belief in the ideals of a democratic Republic against his deep love of his comrade Caesar. But the people want to make Caesar their emperor, their king, it’s what the people of Rome, for good or ill, have decided they want.

In murdering Caesar, Brutus utterly failed to teach the citizens of Rome that it was necessary to slay a potential tyrant. (Ironically, J.W. Booth also failed in this regard, and as an interpreter of Shakespeare he really should have known better.) Brutus's name was disgraced and eventually he threw himself on his own sword rather than surrender to a man  -- Octavius, later called Augustus Caesar -- who would soon become to first true emperor of Rome, regardless of Brutus’ sacrifice.

But your average Trump-supporting troglodyte wouldn’t know that. They couldn’t be bothered to watch this production, any production of Julius Caesar, let alone read it. They just saw the stabbing murder of a version of Caesar dressed like Donald Trump on a continuous loop on Fox News and on Breitbart. No other part of the play, just that one moment.

None of these people would have even cared about the production if they hadn’t been told to care about it by the people who tell him to think things on TV and on the internet. The production had been playing for weeks before the uproar began, and it was only through the final weekend of performances that protests took place in the form of Trump sympathizers interrupting the performance and storming the stage (death threats to Eustis and his family at his home came later) which created a heightened sense of expectation, wonder, and worry at those final shows.

After all, in Shakespeare’s day, when Caesar, and later Brutus then Marc Antony, make their speeches to the actual audience, certain members of  the audience called lines back to the stage, rehearsed lines. There we undoubtably audience plants at the Globe, and so it was this summer at the Public. How was an audience member to know if the person getting riled up next to them was an actor, a protester, or perhaps a domestic terrorist?

Last weekend I brought my mom to see The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, directed by Bernadette Clemens and produced by Mamaí Theatre at the Helen Theatre in Playhouse Square. Tóibín created a stir when he wrote the novel, a brief exploration of Mary, mother of Jesus, as a troubled, conflicted single parent to a religious zealot in a dangerous time. Adapted for the stage in a ninety-minute solo performance, she tells the audience directly of experiences at once familiar but seen from a fresh perspective; from a person who sees only disaster in what is to come, and from an intensely personal point of view.

Photo: America Needs Fatima
On Friday, July 8 a peaceful protest was staged on Euclid Avenue, sponsored by the Media Research Center, an arch-conservative lobbying organization whose founder, L. Brent Bozell once referred to President Obama as a “skinny ghetto crackhead.” They provided flyers decrying the depiction of “Holy Mary” for her “bubbling with contempt for her Son’s demented followers,” that she “threatens the writers of the Gospels with a knife,” and that for a time she “lives as a bandit, stealing to survive.”

These allegations are true, as are all the others cherry-picked and presented out of context from this compelling narrative. Anne McEvoy, one of our most talented performers and a good friend, imbues her character with pathos, and also the deep, painful wisdom of a mother and woman who has lived so long and seen so much. It is a passionate and moving performance.

Sitting in the house, however -- with my own mother sitting next to me -- I was keenly aware of the others in the audience around me. That one protest had taken place the week before. This Friday evening there were few people downtown anyway, a sleepy summer evening in Cleveland. There were no security offers checking bags or purses. I wondered how many attended as a direct result of the protests. I have to admit, it motivated me to get a ticket.

But what if one of those in attendance had ill-intent? To interrupt the performance, or worse? These things happen today.

I am not a person of faith, and am accustomed to seeing things from a variety of points of view. I guess that’s relativism. If a person of faith cannot glean insight from a reinterpretation of their beliefs without flying into a rage, they need to breathe, to begin again, and to reconsider the foundation of their faith.

Mamaí Theatre presents "The Testament of Mary" at the Helen in Playhouse Square through July 23, 2017

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Boy Camp 2017

For the eighth year running, the boy and I have been left on our own for a weekend in July, a weekend we refer to as Boy Camp. The truth is, we have plenty of father-son time during the course of any given year. In January my wife and daughter headed to the Women’s March in DC and the boy and I - and Sarah - saw theater, ate poutine and attended the Science Fiction Marathon at Case.

But Boy Camp has become a strong tradition, something we both really look forward to. The weekend has not disappointed. True, we did not go bowling, but we have made a date for the near future. But other stereotypically testosterone-inspired events have transpired.

For example, yes. We began with a trip to Home Depot. Seriously. His call. He has wanted for some time to make his own practice swords, like those we employ in the residency program, and that required ½’ PVC pipe, foam and duct tape. He also bought a dangerous looking utility knife and almost immediately nicked himself with it. Lesson learned, I hope.

We also headed to Game Stop to remit a gift card he’s had, like, two years. His computer and phone have kept him away from that Xbox he bought at the police auction a year or so back, but he only had one controlled. Now he has two and we stayed up late Saturday night playing WWF Smackdown ‘13.

After shopping we headed to Ensemble Theatre, where The Whiskey Hallow was giving a free concert. It should have been out in Pekar Park, but was rescheduled for indoors under threat of heavy storms which never materialized. The bands includes on of the boy’s teachers from School of Rock and a former student, they’re pretty amazing and it was a great show. Wish it could have been outdoors, though.

However, it did afford us the opportunity to check out the ARTFUL artists studios on the second floor of the former Coventry Elementary space. Only two years ago we were rehearsing scenes for Timon of Athens up there, and there was nothing but open, wanting space. Now there are studios and classes, and real work going on.

Unfortunately, the school district plans to sell the building, which puts this new endeavor, Ensemble Theatre, Lake Erie Ink and another important local arts organizations out on the street. I should write a letter.

That evening he made a sword (cut his finger) and we watched three episodes of The West Wing before bed.

Saturday morning he indulged his father, joining me for a theater-related meeting and bearing through it pretty well. I had promised fried chicken and waffles, which is where we headed directly after - to Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles. Folks in the office have been telling me about this place, and we had a fantastic lunch there. However, I think he learned that real pieces of chicken fry better than the boneless kind.

Then to Shaker Square Cinema for Spider-Man: Homecoming. It was the best of the Spider-Man movies. I never liked any of the previous Spider-Man movies.

Before dinner, some exercise. I ran, he biked, some three or so miles through town. We talk about anything on these runs, I am grateful for them. When he comes along on the bike I get water, and take a few breaks. The running has been very challenging the past several months.

Before dinner we had to get bananas, and of course some ridiculous-flavored ice cream. I planned to make fried banana and sunbutter sandwiches, but he persuaded me to slap a piece of cheese on them. He was correct.

We dined watching Most of Buckaroo Banzai. He really wanted to play Xbox but I suggested we watch something while our hands were occupied with the sandwiches, watermelon, Fritos, and Twinkies ice cream. He agreed, and we made it most of the way through the movie before his desire to lay the smacketh down became too overwhelming.

Now, I had made a promise the night before which I seriously did not feel like keeping this morning, which is this: he wanted to fish. I, having been ill for the past ten days, was delighted to not only sleep through the night, but to sleep late. By nine I had no intention to find somewhere to drop a line during the hottest part of the day.

Fortunately, before he woke some friends called asking if he didn’t want to go with them and their son for the day. And so, Boy Camp drew to a close - for me - a bit early, as I sent him to hang out with his best friend in the beautifully resurrected Edgewater Park.

There’s so much more summer in store. I am sure we will get out into it together soon.