Thursday, May 31, 2012

Henry VIII: Choreography

The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII - Act IV, Scene 2

The vision. Enter, solemnly tripping one after another, six personages, clad in white robes, wearing on their heads garlands of bays, and golden vizards on their faces; branches of bays or palm in their hands. 

They first congee unto Katherine, then dance; and, at certain changes, the first two hold a spare garland over her head; at which the other four make reverent curtsies; 

Then the two that held the garland deliver the same to the other next two, who observe the same order in their changes, and holding the garland over her head: which done, they deliver the same garland to the last two, who likewise observe the same order: 

At which, as it were by inspiration, she makes in her sleep signs of rejoicing, and holdeth up her hands to heaven: and so in their dancing vanish, carrying the garland with them.


Just prior to her death, the Queen Katherine -- now divorced, living under the title "Queen Dowager" -- has this vision of six women, presumably of the Six Wives of Henry VIII.

The Vision of Queen Katherine
Henry Fuseli, 1781

What does it signify? Katherine calls these ladies "a blessed troop":
Whose bright faces / Cast thousand beams upon me, like the sun?  
They promised me eternal happiness / And brought me garlands 
Which I feel / I am not worthy yet to wear.
They are kind, welcoming figures, heralding her to her final reward. Not adversaries. Not even Anne Boleyn. After all, who has the power in this situation? The King, who breaks with the Catholic Church to get what he wants.

The wives of King Henry VIII had an obligation -- not to him, but to England. To provide a male heir. So went these women's work. A procession of women, one of whom was seriously mourned by the King, only she who died in the process of birthing the only son who lived into childhood.

Denied her rightful place as Queen, an honor she treated as her vocation, Katherine is comforted by the women who will follow in her footsteps. It is one of two accurate visions of the future presented in this play. For our purposes, I desired Katherine to be of the six, not apart, not merely watching. She plays herself in this vision.

The Queen's Vision - a rehearsal

Choreographer Sarah Claire joined us this evening, and in two hours staged a remarkably large part of what will be a four-minute dance. The pieces come together. We open in two weeks.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Henry VIII: Fragility

This is where I discuss history or the work. If you want to know about my mental health, you can visit the running blog. However, on occasion, the heart affects the work in such a way that writing about it becomes compromised.

It should suffice to say that everything that is current troubling the little world inside my head could be calmed in a moment through a) communication and b) a little kindness. To that end I have made a habit of not commenting on every single thing someone else says on Facebook.

Yesterday, we celebrated the conclusion of another successful school year with the Great Lakes Theater School Residency Program. This annual ritual, bidding farewell to fond co-workers for the season, falling as it has the past several years on the day after Memorial Day, serves as an unofficial opening to Summer.  

GLT 2011-2012 Actor-Teachers

School is winding down for my children, which is not without its share of tremors. Living in Cleveland Heights, having school-age children is never without its share of disturbances. But at least we can rest in the knowledge that the schedule for the summer is already packed with camps and road trips and, unlike the summers of my youth, no one will cry I'M BORED. As usual, they will probably be crying I'M TIRED.

Last night, Elaine visited rehearsals for Henry VIII to help guide and shape the song. Her presence was relaxing but also very focused. I got to just sit there, listen and nod my big bald head. 

It was not my intention to put an entire song into this production. The Queen requests a melody to put her heart at ease. So, do we use Shakespeare-Fletcher's period lyrics? No, probably not. Songs are to entertain, not educate, and I did not want something arcane to bust up the contemporary flow.

So, do we use something from the Queen, this Queen's childhood? From the 1970s, perhaps, the greatest album of songs about betrayal and infidelity, Fleetwod Mac's Rumours was the soundtrack to third grade for me, and a template for interpersonal relationships. You think the kids today have it bad listening to Adele?

Scene from Cole Cuts (1998) featuring Elaine Feagler.
Song can take you higher.

But that would make the songs just some kind of arch joke. There is a great deal of archery in this production of Henry VIII, but it wouldn't be appropriate there. Something sincere. And sincere, on stage, needs to be big. It needs to go on long enough to get past the a-ha, I see what you did there stage. And so. An entire song (and it's not Fleetwood Mac.)

How to perform an entire song, in an office setting, with four voices? Well, you will simply have to attend and see how well we do.

Costumer Heather arrived on Monday night with racks and racks of costumey goodness! In her delirium, the Queen has a vision of the six wives of Henry VIII (she is the first.) I asked for wedding dresses. Heather brought in maybe a dozen. For real! Some twelve big-ass, whitey-white-white wedding dresses. This is delirious vision thing is going to be awesome.

Whew ... aaaand another stomach-turning mood swing successfully navigated. See you at rehearsal.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Henry VIII: Pageantry

I love to sing-a.
And the moon-a and the June-a and the Spring-a

This afternoon I had a conversation with a reporter for the Sun News about the production. And I found the play is not difficult to talk about, it's actually pretty straightforward. You just have to make sure the subject stays on what the play is, and not so much about what it isn't.

When I first agreed to the production, I assumed there would be "pageantry" though I could not imagine what shape that might take. The more we commit to the contemporary look and feel of the production, the more any kind of classical pageantry, with formal dancing and choral odes would seem awkward. If we cannot find a modern way of presenting any aspect of the production, it just won't fit.

And so the party is an office party, crashed by the King and a few of "his guys" dressed not as masquers, but in a disguise which is at once contemporary and a little obnoxious, in the effort to bring life to the party.

Think Prince Harry coming to a costume party dressed as a Nazi, or Ted Danson in blackface. I mean ... we aren't doing that. Only something kind of like that.

Later, during the midst of divorce proceedings, the Queens requests a song to cheer her mood. This would be an odd request for someone to make at the office, but one of her people makes it work. And others join in. It's like that scene in Magnolia. Only different.

Yesterday we worked the song, just me, four actors and Rachel, the stage manager, talking through, singing through, and working through the song, with lyrics and without, stopping and going as necessary. Great progress had been made by the end of two hours, and we will revisit the piece on Tuesday.

The wife has forbidden me from ever again using the term "sausage fest".

Laura, our Katharine, recently joined the company in rehearsal. For two weeks we have been working non-Katharine scenes, establishing mood and attitude. Moving into the scenes with Katharine, it was stunning to me how different her character is from the rest. More conciliatory, open to compromise, calling things as they are, devoid of ulterior motive. Neither scheming nor clueless.

Two weeks in a hall of boys gave me insight as to why dudes like to direct Mamet. I am not saying I would, Mamet is a myopic bucket of shit. But I understand how one could.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Henry VIII: Rule of Three

Rehearsal of "Henry VIII" at the Ensemble Theatre.

In order to truly understand this play, the entire thing, it helps to already have a detailed knowledge of English history at that time. Shakespeare's (and Fletcher's) audience would have, and there are reference, sometimes casual references, to famous Lords and Cardinals. The work includes several Earls and additional Dukes.

This stripped-down version concerns itself with the machinations leading to fatal downflaws for Lord Buckingham, Cardinal Wolsey, and the near-downfall of Cardinal Cranmer. Three schemes to eliminate those close to the King, on that last of which fails because Henry finally sees how he has been manipulated, and steps in to say, no. Not this time.

Adapting this courtly, historical drama into a modern setting eliminates the possibility for the kind of pageantry one might expect from a party, a coronation and the birth of a princess. However, in discovering the work (even as we speak, during the rehearsal process) there will be three points that use music and/or movement to emphasize, illuminate or aggrandize key moments in the production. Or maybe more. But I will tell anyone who asks that there are only three.

Some will sing. All will be expected to learn the salsa.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Anonymous (2011)

Vanessa Redgrave and Rhys Ifans in Roland Emmerich's "Anonymous"

"A vulgar prank on the English literary tradition, a travesty of British history and a brutal insult to the human imagination." - A.O. Scott, NY Times

"It’s that garbage again. Shakespeare ... a mere front for the brilliant Edward de Vere." - David Denby, The New Yorker

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Killer?

Someone else wrote the works of William Shakespeare?

Telling cute, made-up stories about Shakespeare is very lucrative. Tom Stoppard's rom-com Shakespeare In Love (1998) has as many grains of veracity as does Stephen Greenblatt's blockbuster fictional-historical Will In The World (2004) in which the author presumes to guess where the Bard was or may have been -- and what he thought -- throughout the period in which his plays were originally produced. But Roland Emmerich is an asshole. pretends not to rip the film for its premise, for being "not dumb enough." It is "portentous and didactic" where it should be "playful and clever."  You know, like Shakespeare In Love. You can always criticize something for being something other than what you want it to be, I suppose. However, to call it portentous is to miss, willfully or otherwise (see what I did there) that what may be seen as sincerely overdone is, in fact, the epitome of satire -- that kind in which the satirist never winks.

History Play; the lives and afterlife of Christopher Marlowe by Rodney Bolt is another such satire which does not let you in on the joke until the very end ... unless you are paying attention or exceedingly clever, like me. Presented as a sincere, well-researched and entirely accurate account of the life of Christopher Marlowe, you might even believe some of its claims ... unless you know one of the main sources, the library of one 'Julius Marx' is probably entirely bogus. Julius was the birth-name of Groucho Marx.

However, Bolt lets everyone in at the end, where he admits his prank with this final thought -- what we know about William Shakespeare of Stratford is very little, and with what we do know, anyone can make up any story they choose.

One thing I really enjoyed were all the little details in the Earl’s study, there for those of us who know a thing or two about the Bard. He keeps a falcon, and dessicated lizards (like some apothocary.) Oxford was, of course, an accomplished swordsman, unlike the actor William Shaksper -- one who can read, but not “form his letters” -- a drink-loving whoremonger.
The argument that only someone with a breadth of knowledge, afforded only to those with the leisure and wealth to support such pursuits, is branded as elitist to Stratfordians (the term doubters use for those who think Shakespeare is actually Shakespeare.) Anyone with drive and ambition can educate themselves, anyone may be born a genius, and those who are may self-educate themselves, and succeed.
It’s also an argument conservatives use to gut social programs and the public school system, but I digress.

Brian & Tim get busy on my work.

Great Lakes has commissioned me to write next year's outreach touring play, something thematically tied to Much Ado About Nothing. During the first few weeks of April I feverishly wrote a 45 minute prequel, describing the circumstances Benedick and Beatrice met, and events which form the basis of their relationship. Never written something so compact, so finished, so fast.

Last night we had a first reading and it went very well. I had been asked to write the entire thing in iambic pentameter -- there is a joke in Anonymous, playwrights arguing over whether it is impressive or easy to write in verse. I found it time-consuming, but not difficult. But then, I have access to a vast electronic database, Thesaurus.Com and rhyming dictionaries.

Unlike Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, but much like William Shakespeare of Stratford, I have never been to Italy. And yet, in my little play there are allusions to historic battles, based on true events, and references to art, architecture and geography about which I knew nothing before entereing into this endeavor.
     BENEDICK: There was a lad, and from his hat I’d say / That he was from Merano …
Yes, that was fun. I’ve never been to Merano, and have no idea whether their hats are distinctive or unique, but it’s colorful, right? You believe him because of this detail. And there is plenty in Shakespeare which is either geographically or anthropologically inaccurate or outright false, which is easily defended as poetic license.
But a man or woman can read books, and listen to the tales spun by sailors and other strange visitors, and craft from them, well … the greatest plays ever written, right? Again, I have never traveled to Italy, and never studied Italian history (well, not 16th century Italian history) but I was able to fake it good, right?
But I have the Internet. I can click a link and find precisely what I am looking for. Articles and maps and books and photographs and everything. In Shakespeare’s day, you needed to know which book you were looking for, where it was located, and which part to read. Absorbing the knowledge of Italian naval battles that Shakespeare would have required to write the single page I dedicate to them would have taken him days to hunt down and divine. It took me half an hour.

"Action Oxford"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII - or - All Is True

The Famous History of Life of King Henry VIII (also referred to in contemporary accounts by the title All Is True) was probably written in part by William Shakespeare, later heavily revised by his successor as playwright to the King's Men, Mr. John Fletcher.

For a play with a long and ostentatious title, Henry VIII lacks many of the flourishes modern audiences come to expect from Shakespeare. There are no fights, no ghosts nor witches. No speeches nor turns of phrase created for the work will strike any modern ear as familiar. It is not performed very much. Never has been, and probably never will.

The most remarkable thing about the play is that when it first debuted in 1613, it brought the house down. Literally. A stage cannon lit the thatched (straw) roof on fire, and the original Globe Theatre burned to the ground. Reportedly, no one was hurt nor killed in the conflagration.

When one thinks of the Henry VIII, the man -- and they aren't distracted by that horrid song -- they think of the big fat guy with the hat, and the fact that he had six wives, several of which he either divorced or had killed. Or you think of that drama on Showtime with all the naked asses.

If you attend a production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII and expect to see either beheadings or naked asses, you will be sorely disappointed, because it don't go there.

Last June Tyson Rand, artistic director the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival contacted me, asking if I wouldn't direct something for the 2012 season.  Someday I will chronicle my unhappy experience with the CSF way back in 2000 (it was unhappy for everyone, not just me) but at this time all I could say was I hadn't directed a Shakespeare since 2006, I really do not have time for directing, and anyway, what would interest me? If he'd said Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, I would have said no, I had nothing new to offer any well-worked scripts as those.

He said Henry VIII. wtf? I said ... well, all right.

The play is one of court intrigue, trodding ground Shakespeare's audience would have known well, having lived through its immediate aftermath. Henry, seeking a male heir, splits with the Catholic Church so as to legally procure a divorce from his wife, the Queen Katharine of Aragon. The Anglican Church is born (and lots of people are going to die -- but not in this story.)

The historical Catherine of Aragon was a formidable woman. She was ambassador to Spain -- the first female ambassador in Europe in recorded history. When Henry was abroad she ran the country, legally, as regent. She was a strong, capable, intelligent, worldly woman. They were married for almost a quarter century. But, her fecund years coming to an end, and Harry desperate for a male heir, he risked damnation to obtain a proper divorce, and to marry the young Anne Boleyn.

The play, to me, is one great sausage fest. Sure, some are raised up, and some are brought low. But it's all about powerful men playing the game of being powerful men. There are three female characters, Katharine, Anne (here "Bullen") and an "Old Lady". Each are disenfranchised in their way.

The production I am currently in the process of directing will be modern dress, but it won't be modern America. I read The Handmaid's Tale to give me insight into someone else's idea of a patriarchal theocracy. I decided early on that I simply could not justify making certain lords into ladies, or to have women play men's parts. I have done that, prefer to actually. But for this story, gender is such an issue, all guys have to be guys.

The primary image I gave to my people is actually that of The West Wing. There will be walking and talking. A lot of talking in this script. And a lot of walking. That doesn't not mean there will not be surprises.

I will strive to record more about this process as it develops. I know I have not blogged for some time, but I have been legitimately busy in a manner which has kept me from this pursuit at all. I am training for the marathon. Last month I wrote an entire, new script -- which I am happy to say had a lovely rehearsal reading this morning, and I look forward to sharing with the Unit on Tuesday night. And there is much to do at work. But I am really having a great time with the company of Henry VIII, which opens June 15th, and I'll try to keep you posted.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production of The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII opens June 15th at Notre Dame College.