Tuesday, April 10, 2012

On Interpretation

¿Donde está el Siete Madres?
in·ter·pret   [in-tur-prit] v.

to bring out the meaning of (a dramatic work, music, etc.) by performance or execution.
Often in the theater we use the word reinterpretation, which means "to interpret again." Which is to say ... to interpret. Perhaps, to interpret differently. But still, it is merely another interpretation.

Much has been made of the recent interpretation of Tennessee Williams' Camino Real at the Goodman Theatre. Apparently what they mean is adaptation because from all available description (and I have co-workers who have seen it and told me about it) a deeply heartfelt, if misunderstood, play by the greatest American playwright has been stewed, screwed and tattooed, festooned with artifice and sights contrived to offend. We aren't just talking design choices here, a text which traditionally runs close to three hours plays in less than two, which characters cut, collapsed or entirely replaced.

This should be galling to me, as I love this play. I love Williams' poetry, and his use of dreamlike imagery. It is wonderful and horrible, and no one saw it when it debuted on Broadway in 1953 and that may be another reason I like it so well. But it is because precisely because so many have badmouthed it, I wish that I could see it. My expectations appropriately lowered, what could I lose? And after all, some of my favorite productions have been interesting, inspired interpretations of well-trod works. The Skin of Our Teeth at Cleveland Public Theatre comes to mind. Or, you know ... pretty much any single Shakespeare you and or anyone has ever seen.

Saturday night I left the kids at the in-laws and went Uptown to check out the Everything Is Terrible tour, which just happened to be in Athens that night. Since I was first turned onto this site (Josh? Brian? Who takes credit for this?) I have been enjoying their online video productions. Their mission is to collect professionally produced video tapes (they have to be from tapes) and carefully edit them to highlight the sheer awfulness of modern civilization.

You may notice a large amount of their subjects are made-for-TV movies, motivational videos, or locally produced broadcasting, created between 1988 and 1992. The George H.W. Bush era was truly the heyday of inexpensive, godawful filmmaking.

Unfortunately, I was not able to remain for the main event, the audience interactive film Doggie Woggiez! Poochie Woochiez! which also features live music. But I did enjoy the first hour, which was greatest hits collection, presented on a large screen at full-volume. This mash-up of deliriously edited, horrible terrible video included several scenes which have already been pulled from YouTube because of copyright violation. This included a horrifying ventriloquist dummy which the EIT folks had edited to lip-synch to Justin Bieber's Baby.

The introduction included an original video featuring a puppet explaining the definition of FAIR USE, in an appeal for understanding. EIT is covered by the First Amendment because their work comments upon the original. The manner in which they present the original critiques the original. Watch this shudder-inducing scene from the Rodney Dangerfield comedy, Ladybugs.

Okay. Once you have taken a show to wash the shame away, ask yourself ... was that commentary, or is that scene inherently creepy on its own right, and the slasher-movie music therefore redundant?

As long as I am drawing a line from big-budget slash-ups of Tennessee Williams to hilarious, ghastly, ironic, online video montages, I would regret not bringing up Video Psychotherapy, which began in the 1980s as the brainchild of area cinematographer Ted Zbozien and broadcast late-night on the Mayfield Heights public access channel.

He took a store-bought ventriloquist dummy, suited it up with a black turtleneck, blazer and black sunglasses, had his friend Jeff Adams provide a mocking voice, and you had The Doctor, a fascistic mental overlord who submits his views to an endless reel of superfast edits featuring terrible screams, exploding heads, plummeting bodies and extended riffs of ordinance.

The Doctor's largely spontaneous rants are all the more delicious because they include the swingy stylings of the Art Institute of Chicago playing Dreaming of the Master from the album Nice Guys. Video of the original shows are hard to come by, even on YouTube, because Zbozien carefully guarded the tapes after the show's original run. Recently, however, he has reemerged online with a new puppet, made-to-order -- again, to avoid copyright infringement.

Late 1980s Video Psychotherapy

However, his use of existing clips from copyrighted works of film and video appear to fall more acceptably under the FAIR USE doctrine, because each clip is so brief, and cannot be taken to represent the whole. I mean ... I'm not a lawyer ...

The Republic of Gilead

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to spend long hours with The Famous History and Life of King Henry VIII (All Is True) written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, which I will directing this summer for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. This is one of Shakespeare's late works, the co-writing credit (which is widely accepted) an indication that he may have started writing it and abandoned it, or was too preoccupied with business matters to give it his entire attention, or if you believe such things, that he was already dead (i.e. not the Shakespeare of Stratford) and other writers were taking scripts he had barely fleshed out, expanding upon them and keeping his name on them.

Whatever you believe, what most people know about Henry VIII (the play) is that it was the one that was being presented when the original Globe Theatre burned to the ground in 1613. There are no quotations from it that went on to be famous. My personal favorite: "All hoods make not monks."

My plan is to edit the thing down to 90 minutes, the text hardly warrants anything longer. The major problem with cutting Henry VIII is that, as arcane courtly intrigues go, it's plot stands out as being at once terribly complex and stupifyingly boring.

However, as I have had almost a year to mull this puppy over, the one thing that strikes me as interesting is that if you took this play by itself, absent any knowledge of the English history that came before or after it, you would not be so impressed by Henry's break with the Catholic Church (arguably what the pay is all about) but rather the extent to which women do not exist as human beings. Catherine of Aragon, historically a great English ambassador, is relegated to the status of non-person when the King decides to divorce her. The First Divorced Woman, how does THAT make a girl feel?

The argument is that the King, now middle-aged, wants a male heir and Catherine can no longer provide him with children. So he dumps her for a pretty, much younger wife. And it's 2012 and I'm thinking, hell, thank goodness no fat, white, self-righteous Christian men of power do that anymore.

So I've been reading The Handmaid's Tale. And I am looking forward to how we may interpret this.

UPDATE: My bad, EIT's "Baby Doll" is, indeed, available online. More creepy dummy goodness!


  1. Thanks for this - one of the many things I've learned from your musing is how Shakespeare et al jibes with a Biblical story I've been mulling over for a few years. Don't know what form it will ultimately take whenever I get to the writing, but Thank You for the correlation!