Get a deconstructionist drunk (if you must), and you’ll probably be treated to an excitable if slurred rant about text: what is it? How can it ever be called ‘fixed?’ Who’s in charge of it? Who’s authorized to divine and reinterpret its intentions and who is not?
Our talented colleagues over at dog & pony dc live with these questions on every project. After the National Showcase of New Plays at Woolly Mammoth late last year four playwrights stood on a street corner, dreaming up a production in which each of them represented one of intended meaning, expressed meaning, received meaning and interpreted meaning, before they collapsed in an exhausted geek heap.
One of the most productive sources of deconstruction is, of course, Shakespeare. Familiarity breeds content: mental content, that is. He serves as the great liberator from exposition, from the need to create a context in which to express whatever dramatic tension currently interests you as a playwright.
And deconstructionists can draw not just on audience familiarity but also on audience fatigue, illuminating their ideas with the energy that comes when we all, to one extent or another, roll both our eyes and our cuffs to the elbow when some poor Hamlet inhales to commence that inquiry into being and nothingness. The unspoken ‘what ya got for us, Ethan?’ can itself be the subject of a play.
Joe Calarco, I think it’s pretty fair to say, is responsible for one of the most, if not the most, intellectually and commercially successful deconstructions of Shakespeare in memory. I say this as one who has twice participated in mashing up Macbeth and the methods of Jerzy Grotowski, seen Michael Kahn’s deaf-mute Cordelia, Woolly’s Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet), a Hamlet in Sydney, Australia that featured six actors, no set pieces and so few props that Ophelia’s rosemary and rue were hairs she’d just yanked from her own head, and as one who is about to start rehearsals for a production of the ‘Voodoo’ Macbeth that calls for deconstructing both Shakespeare and Orson Welles, as well as deconstructing Welles’ deconstruction of Shakespeare.
That Calarco’s Shakespeare’s R&J lives beyond one wild and memorable production is due in part to the fact that, during its creation, he moved away from deconstructing a script to creating his own script: if someone rips out her hair, now, it’s plagiarism; were the Sydney troupe to create a text called Bounded in a Nutshell, hair-ripping might be mandated by the stage directions.
But it’s also due to the fact that he seems to have hit into the play’s heart – his own goal was to create something as insane, dangerous and deadly as what he believes was intended in the original (‘it’s supposed to be the most visceral play ever written’) – that rather than asking ‘what if this is about Colonialism?’ or ‘could this be applied to Nazi Germany?’ or ‘will modern audiences resonate with this more if it includes space vampires?’ he simply asked ‘what does this play do to me and how can I do that to others?’
Which is why it’s surprising to learn it was originally not his idea, not his project, and that for years he resisted what many people found it to be ‘about.’
Calarco has mused on some of this on the blog he’s keeping for Signature Theatre as they head into opening week of a new version of Shakespeare’s R&J. His blog writing is light but passionate, informative and funny and celebrates fifteen years of his play’s global adventures.
But when I went out to Signature to talk to him during tech I was hoping he’d ruminate more on what his play actually is. Is it deconstruction, for which familiarity with Romeo and Juliet is vital to full appreciation? Is it its own play? Is it a template for the particular passions of the next artist fortunate enough to direct it? Does it have a shelf life, placing it, in the year 2413, in the hands (or tentacles) of a director who deconstructs it by – gasp – using it to stage the action of Romeo & Juliet?
And why has he changed it yet again?
To answer that last question he cites 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver’s recent anti-gay comments, and Jadin Bell’s suicide. He speaks with obvious feeling about the people he has known who struggle with their sexual identities, and in particular about the current climate in which coming out is met with bullying so harsh as to be actionable, and those things were in his mind ‘the day we staged the end the way the end normally is . . . That night I imagined [such people] in the audience and thought: that’s just not an image I’d want to leave them with. I suddenly felt it was a little irresponsible.’
And therein lies the tension fueling Calarco’s ongoing relationship with his own play: on some levels he has fought it for how it was perceived. At one time, when what he smilingly calls ‘gay underwear plays’ were a dominant theatrical force in New York, he stood fast against discussions of homoeroticism.
He mentions a book by John Clum, ‘Still Acting Gay,’ in which the author describes Calarco as being vocal that Shakespeare’s R&J is not a ‘gay’ play and in which Clum speculates that it’s because he didn’t want to limit his audience: an easy enough theory that Calarco generously makes room for, but one that doesn’t jibe with much of what Calarco says while we talk. He doesn’t talk in terms of wanting to reach straights as well as gays, he talks about the exhilarating battle to find in the project he inherited a play that would exist in a world where any audience member recognizes that the danger in the first kiss derives from circumstances other than gender.
Multiple revisions (more, he acknowledges, than he does with his other plays) are perhaps not as surprising given these origins. He talks about how he took some heat in New York for resisting what the gay community wanted to make of it. ‘They would look at it and say how can you say that’s not part of the world of the play? I don’t want it to be a celebration of homoerotic imagery but by definition it just is . . . I’ve been leery of that.’ He says he has since thought, perhaps differently, about his refusal at the time to grant the performance rights to Celebration Theatre in Los Angeles.
Calarco is no Samuel Beckett: he learned to shrug off multiple all-female productions, despite recognizing, and eloquently elucidating, that the play is not written into female mouths (sit down, angry mob: I’ve my pocket Deborah Tannen handy). There was a Dutch production he found ‘jarring’ not only for having five actors but also for ending where Shakespeare and not Calarco ends, but not even that, combined with two productions within a six year span by Arizona’s Nearly Naked Theatre, will lead him to answering the question ‘what components of a play you have altered so readily are, to you, indispensible?’
Nor, though, will he say, after acknowledging that this script more than any other serves as a vehicle for him to communicate his individual strong emotion to his particular audience, on what terms a director in another country with a different relationship to youth, repression, danger and passion, speaking to a different audience, might make the play her or his own. At bottom, his relationship to the play is not particularly verbal. Many sentences go unfinished or suddenly veer into new territory. The leaping and rushing syntax of Juliet finds its way into his conversation and, aptly, expresses passion without always needing to define it.
So I throw the Kubrick/Spielberg hybrid AI into the mix. I ask whether it’s fair to liken the original version of his play to the Kubrick ending, at the bottom of the cold ocean, permanently lost and longing, values he’d deliberately cultivated fifteen years ago. And thus, is it fair to liken the version we’ll see this month to the Spielberg ending, taking us by the hand and offering reassurance. He accepts the analogy.
But then, when I start to ask whether there’s any area of life he might still, as a writer, be willing to address in Kubrick terms, we have a serendipitous misunderstanding: I offer ‘politics?’ as one topic he could in conscience address on a hopeless note, and he hears me asking whether his decision to change his own ending was politically motivated.
‘It’s purely political. I felt it was irresponsible, I really did. I remember two years ago when marriage equality passed in New York, being at the parade. And it was so empowering . . . and when I was in high school, it was unthinkable. I mean, I came out in high school, so I came out young, but watching [the parade] I’m thinking, these kids are still, you know…’ He stops, apparently unable to finish another sentence about the losses that result from bullying.
‘And that was the beginning of it for me in terms of . . . it was personal, in my gut, this moment of seeing [what kids deal with today], and thinking, if one of them was in the audience, knowing what they’re going through now, not wanting to be [gay]. I could never leave any of them with that image, knowing that right now, that’s what they are fearing, that they’re going to be alone, lost. And I just thought I can’t do it.’
I say it sounds like he started off life wanting his play to exist in its, and his, own reality and he’s come to see its social context over time.
‘You can’t ignore it.’ He launches into a wonderful tale of meeting James Rado, one of the writers of Hair. Rado saw an early production of Shakespeare’s R&J. ‘He came up to me and complimented me and I said “I’ve always wanted to do your show.” So they met with Galt MacDermot at Sardi’s (‘one of the more surreal experiences of my life’). Woodstock ’99, with its sexual violence and destruction, had just taken place, and for Calarco, hoping to direct Hair, the question of how to do the show ‘when, politically, the 60s seem farther away than . . .’ he trails off and gestures at an expanse that can’t be described. ‘And I said “you can’t ignore politics and history” and Galt said “I’m not interested in politics and history.” And I was like “you wrote Hair!” I mean, he was the composer so it’s different, but I remember thinking . . . ! But it’s the same thing: how do you address, I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t ignore it because of what was circling around me.’
Or as he sums up later, partly, perhaps, addressing his late 1990s self: ‘You are gay, and you’ve written this play. Where’s your responsibility in the world?’
I offer that, as much as it would not have been his ideal in 1997, perhaps he’s written a play that will help audiences become the audience he wished he were writing for fifteen years ago.
‘Exactly.’ He saw video of a production in Coventry, and was so horrified by the vocal response from the young audience (‘there are people yelling at the stage’ before the first kiss) that he contacted the cast to thank them for maintaining their balance and professionalism during the show. But he also notes that by the time that same audience were watching the ‘morning after’ scene, a scene, as Calarco notes, markedly more sensual and intimate than any other in the play, they were perfectly quiet and attentive. ‘They had the same journey as the characters in the play.’
Which is now a journey that ends in hope.
The article was written by Kathleen Akerley, an actor, playwright and Artistic Director of Longacre Lea, whose single show summer season is eagerly awaited by Washington theatregoers.
It was during the making of this trailer video, directed by James Gardiner for Signature Theatre, that Joe Calarco began making changes to his script.