Monday, June 25, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (performance)

Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography

From Facebook, 6/23/2018
A five year-old child, the daughter of local high school teacher, saw the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production of Troilus & Cressida at the Grove Amphitheater in Mayfield Village, and observed that the Greeks were the dominant force, that they are the oppressors. Or as she calls them, “bullies” (see right). Indeed, the Greeks are the invading force, having attacked Troy for the return of the legendary Helen … though that is not evident in our production.

There is in this production no apparent reason for the war. No Helen, no Menelaus. Paris is present, but as an older, career military officer (Leonard Goff) lending gravitas and history to the proceedings. The Greeks, costumed here to resemble Americans, are the apparent dominant force, seeking to occupy Troy.

After years of conflict, however, the battle has drawn to a stalemate. Ulysses (Minor Cline) perceives a lethargy which has settled into the Grecian troops. They observe, “Troy in our weakness stands, not in her strength.” It is a common American lament.

But what makes them bullies? The young audience member was no doubt affected by the manner in which Cressida (Hannah Woodside) resembling in her garments a non-Western woman, is passed around by the soldiers when she arrives in the Greek camp, having been traded for a Trojan soldier at the request of her father, the Trojan traitor Calchas (Calchas does not appear) who works with the Greeks.

"I'll have my kiss."
Patroclus (Shaun Dillon) & Cressida (Hannah Woodside)
Alex Belisle Photography
Other productions attack this scene quite aggressively. It’s practically a rape scene. The CSF performs in public parks, and while I knew that presenting Troilus & Cressida might not be the most family-friendly of stories, we didn’t want to horrify those who brought young children to see some free, outdoor Shakespeare. Children are also not the only people who can become distressed by the sight of sexual violence. If only more people were, perhaps this world would be a better place.

And besides, the very suggestion of an unwanted advance is something more people these days find uncomfortable to witness.

Yet, it was not my intention to make the Greeks "bad guys." Ironically, Cressida herself is supposed to be the bad guy. Shakespeare’s audience were as familiar with Chaucer’s version of Troilus and Criseyde as we are with Shakespeare’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Troilus is a model of fealty, and Cressida of fecklessness, almost immediately partnering with the Greek warrior Diomedes (Michael Johnson).

However, in spite of how she has been played for the past four hundred years, I was struck by her private laments. It’s not that she doubts her own ability to be faithful, it’s that she doubts the very idea of faithfulness. She blames it in part on the female condition, but then women have traditionally been judged more harshly for their behavior than men.

At the very beginning of our process, I held private character meetings with each member of the company, and I was surprised by an idea that both Michael (Diomedes) and Hannah (Cressida) suggested, which was that they had had a prior relationship.

Diomedes (Michael Johnson)
Alex Belisle Photography
This was certainly not Shakespeare’s idea, nor is there any basis for it in antiquity. But in the world I had proposed and that we were working together to create, could it not be possible? Why is Cressida there, in a theater of war? We decided she was a translator, it would give this apparent civilian a certain fluidity between camps. Perhaps they had had a moment, nothing too serious. And nothing known.

It is Diomedes, after all, who removes Cressida from her mistreatment by the other soldiers.

It went a long way to explain the scene in which Troilus (Brinden Harvey) asks Ulysses where Cressida is staying, and they over hear an intimate conversation, surprisingly intimate. Why would Cressida attach herself to Diomedes to swiftly? It makes no emotional sense to Troilus. Ulysses has already dismissed her as a whore.

But after her assault by the soldiers in Ulysses’s company, why would she not seek protection from one with whom she was already familiar? I wonder how apparent this is to the audience. All I know is a young girl likes Cressida best, and that is all right with me.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival "Troilus & Cressida" continues through July 1, 2018.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

M*A*S*H (revisited)

"Heal Thyself"
Summer is here. Theater camp has concluded, my show has opened, and it is time for a little vacation with the family. A two-day drive, with four teenagers in the car, and guess what? We still all love each other.

Hotel life can -- if you can tear yourself away from your computer or phone -- provide the opportunity to take in some old fashioned television. We watched two episodes of M*A*S*H, back-to-back, just like I could on any single weekday during my childhood from seven to eight on Channel 43.

The vast majority of episodes from eleven seasons feature a cast of characters who were created for the television series, and not taken from any of Hooker's novels -- Potter, Winchester, Hunnicutt -- and the characters of Hawkeye and Houlihan grew to bear little resemblance to those from the books or from Altman’s 1970 film version, upon which the TV series is based.

Last night we saw the one where Edward Herrmann plays a relief surgeon who cracks under the pressure of “meatball surgery” (S08E17 "Heal Thyself") followed by the one where Col. Potter receives word that he’s the last survivor of his World War One buddies (S08E18 "Old Soldiers").

I have avoided re-watching the show for my entire adult life. When I was a kid I must have seen every episode several times over. I have probably watched M*A*S*H more than any other television program ever made. But whenever I happened upon a broadcast, revisiting just a few moments, I was appalled at the stupid jokes, the laugh track, and the general “niceness” that all the aforementioned characters fell into once they had jettisoned the difficult Trapper John and the impossible to make sympathetic Frank Burns.

Watching an episode play out in real time, from beginning to end, I was reminded of what made the show truly good. Yes, it was sanctimonious, I knew that as an adolescent. But take for example the way they took their time to play out the young surgeon’s disconnection from reality under pressure was truly affecting. I was surprised to learn they even borrowed from Shakespeare. I didn't read Macbeth until eighth grade. Herrmann’s doctor bemoans his inability to get imaginary (but also very real) blood off his hands.
The blood won't come off.
No matter what I do, it just stays there.
Just take it easy.
See what I mean? Look at that.
Never gonna go away.
No matter how hard I scrub or -- how much I wash it's gonna stay there.
Where do they come from? What do they -- What do they expect me to do? I can't.
I can't.
Well-written and well-played. When we moved into the next episode, and Col. Potter announced a sudden visit to Tokyo General, I knew exactly which episode this was. From somewhere in my head I heard the words tontine and pledge and the phrase, “give that man a cheroot.”

I may have been the only eleven year-old who knew what a cheroot was.

"Old Soldiers"
There were so any elements of the episode that I had no life experience to comprehend. The team of characters do not at first understand the colonel’s behavior, and one suggests he may have received a dire diagnosis himself in Tokyo. They never use the word cancer, not once, but when the gang is summoned to Potter’s tent, they have already braced themselves for the worst. “You have our total support,” says one, before learning the truth about the colonel’s recently deceased comrade.

You have our support? That struck my eleven year-old ear as odd, what kind of support do you provide someone who is ill? “I support you,” like he was being persecuted. Didn’t make sense. Now it makes sense.

Also, Colonel Potter’s entire war record was something I was unable to fathom. What I didn’t know about World War One was a lot. The final act of the episode features Henry Morgan speaking, taking his time, without interruption, describing the provenance of the bottle he has just received, the night in question, the fate of his comrades, an extended toast to lost youth … it is remarkably affecting.

The motion picture M*A*S*H is something I have also not watched in a long time. I saw it very young, and it had a poor effect on the way I saw the world. Indeed, it gave me an education in the madness of combat, and the joys of bucking the system. But it is cynical in the extreme, far too passive in its criticism of institutional racism, and downright condemnable in its treatment of women, especially women in positions of authority.

It is easy to tear down corrupt institutions, easier still to merely ridicule them from a distance. It is far more challenging to build up institutions based on basic human decency and understanding.

See also: Cleveland Centennial, M*A*S*H (TV show), January 20, 2012

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (costume design)

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival has to perform in a wide variety of spaces, from plain, grass fields to brick plazas, with audiences seated all on the same level as the company, or looking up at a stage. There are two large tents, situated stage left and right, that act as a backstage area for the performers.

It is because of these variances and limitations that I prefer to have absolutely no set. I will be honest, whenever I have seen CSF use a set, I have found it an unpleasing distraction from whatever the unique backdrop of wherever the show is being presented, whether that be a college building, a bandshell or chain link fence.

For Henry VIII we used one piece of furniture; a blue, plastic waiting room chair, for exactly one scene.

Timon of Athens did have a marvelous set piece, a large refreshment tray, covered with snacks and drinks and festooned with a large fraternity logo. It remained onstage for half the show, when Timon was in town and throwing parties, and wheeled off for the second half when he had abandoned civilization for the woods.

Henry VIII
(Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, 2012)
Instead, I always want to costumes to be the set. The costumes are vitally important to instantly communicate character, and to transport the audience to a specific time or place.

The costume designer for Troilus & Cressida, Jenniver Sparano, has heard this before. She joked with that “no ever ever says they don’t want costumes, that they want the set to tell the whole story.” So be it! When I heard Jenniver was going to be working on this production, I was so delighted. I am happy to have been dressed by her in the past, she’s an outstanding designer with great attention to detail.

Of course, I have been very happy with each of the costume designers I have worked with through CSF. I appreciate how challenging it can be to create or procure costumes for a large company on a modest budget. For Henry VIII I asked designer Heather Brown for modern suits for men and women that communicated wealth and power, and that is exactly when she provided.

Brinden as Troilus
Meg Parish created a perfect year 1970 college campus look for the company of Timon of Athens, which was complimented by a team of actors willing to let their hair grow out for part of the summer.

Troilus & Cressida, a tale of the Trojan War, has been updated to take place ten years ago, during the waning months of a conflict which will be visually familiar to our audience. Jenniver has gone so far as to create stitched name tags for each of the Greek officers. The company looks outstanding, and they have been inspired by their costumes.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.

Friday, June 1, 2018

New Improv Games!

Hey! We're working on a book of new theater games for students. Check these out and let us know what you think!

Terror Cell
All students sit in a large circle and are told to close their eyes. Instructor taps one on the shoulder. They have to get up, and silently hit another student over the head with their fist, then sit back down. Assaulted student must point at the one who struck them. Two others perform a scene in which they are in a foreign location and use gibberish to portray the emotions involved.

Students balance the space. When instructor says GO all students must scream as loud and charge as fast as they can without running into any other students or falling down. When the instructor blows the whistle, all students collapse where they are, as hard as they can. They must then trace dream imagery on the floor with their fingers. Repeat.

Instructor chooses the least talented students, they are placed in the center of a circle and coached into performing an improvised monologue. Prior the beginning of class, instructor has already told all other students to yawn or express appropriate boredom whenever the chosen monologist begins to make a sound. Exercise continues until the chosen student either quits or cries.

Party Quirks
Choose one student to throw a party; all others plays guests who have a specific characteristic which will most likely be ableist. Everyone loves Party Quirks!

Two students begin a scene based on a prompt. Another student joins the scene as "Michael the Good Angel" and begins to change their motivation and subdue conflict until the scene has lost all relevance or interest.

Divide the group evenly into hammers and nails. Go!

UPDATE: NEW New Games!

Rock, Paper, Scissors
Three students must create a battle royal scene where each student holds a different weapon (rock, paper, or scissors) and battle to the death. The winning student is rewarded by moving on with life.
- Lauren S.

Hold the class in a pitch-dark room. Have the light on, for now. Instructor tells students to be quiet, closes eyes, then points at the first student who makes a noise. The appointed student must then remain still in the middle of the room, while other students scatter around the walls. Instructor turns off the light. Other students breathes heavily, slowly, and audibly, without making any other sound. Instructor turns the light back on, after one minute.
- Alex H.

(DISCLAIMER: These games are theoretical in nature, and must never be played by anyone under any conditions. This is true of the games on this page and of all improv games anywhere.)