“Theatre is a war…the actors are the ones on the front line.” – Ellen
I love the middle of a TV season, especially in serialized shows. The engine has revved up, the story flies with full speed, and the big issues start to flare up. Suddenly, as a viewer, you start to figure out where this is all going.
Take Geoffrey, for example. Last week I theorized that he might be feeling some pangs of guilt over Oliver’s death, having dreamed himself at the wheel of the ham truck that killed the poor old director. But now, as context and theme build up, we see the show using Macbeth to create a story of usurpation, succession, and ambition. Why else introduce us to someone like Henry?
Ah, Henry…Geraint Wyn Davies continues to nail this character, and this is the episode where the veneer finally starts to shake. Henry obviously has pretty deep pre-existing notions about the play, but until now he’s been subtle in the way he’s challenged Geoffrey as director. Not anymore! The gloves come off, as Henry intensely resists Geoffrey’s idea of a stripped down, naked Macbeth being cleansed by his wife, so better for us to see him as a fallible human.
I imagine Christopher will have more to say regarding a naked Macbeth. Teeheehee.
This contrasts pretty strongly with Oliver’s (and Henry’s) repeated insistences that Macbeth is “a villain”, or “evil”, or “a psychopath”. It continues to be the primary sticking point between Geoffrey’s and Oliver’s interpretations of the play. Both are quick to play the “crazy” card on Geoffrey to validate their points (Oliver even goes so far as to imply that Geoffrey just wants to sympathize with the perceived “crazy” Macbeth). And Henry, upsettingly, begins to use Ellen against Geoffrey as well.
Ellen this week is the person caught in-between. Her quote at the start of today’s review makes the point that she’s the one who has to execute the ideas that Geoffrey brings, and obviously has a vested interest in his sanity. This isn’t even addressing the fact that they’re dating, and live together, and she’s fearing more and more for his psyche, having finally directly witnessed one of his “work sessions” with Oliver (And man, oh man, does Geoffrey look crazy when Stephen Ouimette is omitted from the show). In the end, she can’t handle it, and sends Geoffrey out of her home.
Elsewhere in New Burbage, Richard descends deeper and deeper into the terrifying world of alternative marketing with Froghammer. Catching a glimpse of a new billboard, showing the New Burbage subscriber as a comatose old person along with the tagline “Don’t Bother”, sends Richard into a fury. He desperately searches for Sanjay, eventually locating him on “a helicopter for some reason”, and they meet in the ever-morphing Froghammer offices.
Along with more Nixonian wisdom, Sanjay offers Richard the idea that by establishing themselves as crazy, they become free to create whatever conversation they want. Those who don’t care will flee, those who do will become enraged. Richard is enraged, despite the new ads being thought up by “an idea-blast team composed of a puppeteer, a figure skater, and a nine-year-old child!” Sanjay insists that Richard’s anger means things are working exactly how they’re supposed to be.
“The Curse”, however, has decided to throw a few wrenches into the process. Nadine, the director of Romeo and Juliet, takes a nasty fall off the new thrust stage and fractures her neck. Ellen gets audited. Jerry, Henry’s understudy, comes into rehearsal drenched in blood from a bike accident (“That’s a great look for Banquo’s ghost”, quips Oliver).
Oh, and Darren Nichols is the only choice they have to direct Romeo and Juliet. Theatre-hating Darren Nichols.
But don’t worry; says Anna, “Apparently he doesn’t anymore. He went to Germany and was ‘reborn’. Now he loves the theatre!”
Yeah, that’ll solve everything.
Caitlin Griffin says:
Geoffrey accepts, rather quickly, that he is going to have to direct this production with Oliver. Perhaps he’s grateful for the help, even if it is driving him mad and away from Ellen… again. Oliver walks Geoffrey through the characters in the show – deified Duncan, rat-like refugee witches, an imposing, larger-than-life general Macbeth… But Geoffrey’s still having trouble with that lead role. Macbeth is described in this episode as a psychopath, a monster, and a villain by various people, but Geoffrey cannot imagine staging the play effectively without a relatable lead character. Someone human that the audience can see themselves in and recognize that despite his terrible actions, he had choices. That is what will make the horror of the chain of events land.
A lot of times, characters are broadly painted as BAD or GOOD. There were certain shorthands that told you who the character was and how you should feel about them. Snidely Whiplash = BAD, Dudley Do-Right = GOOD. One of the many wonderful things about Shakespeare is that he doesn’t always make it easy to hate the villains or love the heroes. You enjoy the honest glee in Aaron the Moor and Iago; and you’re not quite sure how to feel about Coriolanus or Antonio the Merchant since they’re not exactly good people. But we learn so much more from these rounder, more human characters – about ourselves and our choices and actions. If we can’t relate to the person onstage in some small way, then we’re simply voyeurs watching someone rise or fall and feeling alone in the dark. Connection is what theatre is all about, and Shakespeare connects with human experiences. Kings or peasants, lovers or players, drunk with power or grasping for that last strand of everything you used to have – Shakespeare puts it all out there for us and probes some really dark places in our souls.
Meanwhile, Richard has allowed himself to be seduced by a new advertising company whose edginess crosses the border into offensive insanity. Sanjay tells Richard, “People feel the same way about your theatre as they do about going to the library.” What has been missing from New Burbage for so long is a connection to its audience. As Oliver lost more and more touch with what the texts were saying and focused more on how to display them – the audience grew less and less interested and began arriving to hear “spoken-word Opera” – lavish sets and familiar words – an audiobook with great costumes. Geoffrey’s Hamlet, while refreshing, could not change the public’s perception of the Festival. A huge change needs to take place in order for a fresh audience to take those seats.
We know the subject matter has the ability to connect, but the way in which it’s displayed must do so also. This is not an unfamiliar place for many theatres or libraries or even museums who are making changes in order to reach their audience in new ways as the forum for communication drifts farther from frequent personal interaction. I am sure this is something the DC audience has experienced, what with all the theatres of varying sizes, museums of general and specific interest, and libraries in many sectors either downsizing or chugging along, so how do you feel connected to the cultural community? What makes you connect with a particular theater or institution? What makes it valuable to you, and do you translate that value into ticket costs or donations?
Christopher Henley adds:
One of the genius parts of S&A is the device of the ghost of Oliver Welles. Firstly, it is an echo of Shakespeare’s use of ghosts. It is, of course, a prominent part of the plots of the two famous tragedies that are the focus of the first two seasons of the series, Hamlet and Macbeth.
Secondly, it dramatizes the aspect of creating theatre that is a dialectic. When one directs a play such as either of these two, one is part of a centuries-old continuum. In addition to the many and storied, indeed legendary, productions of each play, one must contend with very recent productions one’s audience would be aware of, even if they won’t have seen them. Several recent productions might have occurred in one’s city, at one’s theatre (particularly if it is classically-oriented, as New Burbage is), in one’s own career. (Remember, this is Breedlove’s fourth Macbeth.) One could be quite actively engaged in a psychic conversation with past collaborators and competitors, as well as with colleagues and mentors. Although it is not particularly narratively realistic, Geoffrey’s debates with and collaboration with Oliver is psychologically realistic.
It’s not unknown for one director to do a production based on the work of a colleague. I’ve known of at least one case where a production was based on the notes and concepts from the director’s mentor who didn’t live to realize the planned production. (Red Bull’s Jesse Berger doing Garland Wright’s Edward II.) I met an actor once in the canteen of Berliner Ensemble. He was in costume for a performance of its Heiner Mueller production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. Mueller had, at that time, been dead for years.
Speaking of Berlin, I know Geoffrey thinks Darren Nichols is a pretentious poseur, as we all do, or are expected to do. But would a director as adventurous as Geoffrey is supposed to be really consider time in Berlin to be an indicator of artistic worthlessness? If so, and speaking as someone who has seen the vitality and excitement of the Berlin theatre scene, I will paraphrase JFK and say that, if he believes that, let him go to Berlin!
The other genius bit apparent in this particular episode is the elegant parallel structure of the different plot lines wherein characters ask each other for trust: Sanjay of Richard; Richard of the Board member; Geoffrey of Ellen. Trust is the sine qua non of successful theatre, necessary but not sufficient to its creation. It’s quite the savvy stroke to echo the request for trust throughout the various plots.
I’m delighted to say that my treasured memories of this episode are as wonderful as I remember them: the inexperienced ASM who calls time mid-speech, is upbraided, and melts down in operatic fashion; the stoned interns whose neglect of a vital fax causes the long-suffering Anna to do one of her best Jack Benny-worthy slow burns; the late-arriving understudy who is oblivious that his bike accident has left his bloody head an example of what Banquo’s ghost should look like.
Speaking of the bloody understudy, I loved when he coaches the actress playing Juliet with an answer to the question of which Queer as Folk character she resembles. It reminded me of my ice-breaker question at first read of the Lear I directed at WSC in 1994, which question was “name your favorite Smiths song.” By the time it got around to our lead, the venerable classical actress Mikel Lambert (we were doing a female Lear), who had already played each of the daughters, and was, shall we say, not conversant with seminal British bands of the 1980s, she gave the (coached) answer “Girlfriend in a Coma” to the wild delight of all. (Queer as Folk, by the way, is a bit of a Canadian in-joke. Although the series is set in Pittsburgh, it was filmed in Toronto. One of the actors I met on my Canadian-Washington Theatre Partnership trip to Toronto told me that it had created a new category for union extra work: apparently, you get more if, as an extra, you aren’t wearing much or anything in some back-room bar scene.)
Speaking of nudity, as an actor who’s done more than my share of stage nudity, as a director whose productions have had more than their share of stage nudity, memo to Geoffrey: next time you want to introduce the option, don’t spring it on an actor in front of the entire cast. Go gently into that naked night. Also, maybe you shouldn’t stop with only Maccers himself. (Hmm. Memo to self: what if the entire cast is naked the entire show?)
Of course, nudity at a venerable institution such as New Burbage is problematic. I’ve heard that Andrew Long’s bare ass in an STC Midsummer cost them a significant amount of subscribers. I don’t know if Stratford has even ever done nudity; if so, I imagine it was in one of it’s smaller spaces. Which reminds me: wouldn’t a festival of this size be juggling multiple venues? Funny that it seems to have only the one theatre space. [replies John: I *think* Romeo and Juliet is suggested to be concurrent? I’m not 100% sure.]
One last thought, a memo to Ellen: cut Geoffrey some slack. A director of a Shakespeare play can never be too prepared. You should be a small bit more understanding concerning his late nights.
Stray Thoughts and Quotes:
“That’s a sure sign of evil, horses going mad!” – Oliver
“The air is positively THICK with irony.” – Oliver, after Nadine’s fall occurs moments after a “curse”-related argument.
“I hate…the interns.” – Poor Anna. We’ve all been there.
“War is war, soldiers are soldiers, ambition is ambition.” – Geoffrey. A nice representation of the thought process that often brings about a modern dress production.
“I’m not being insensitive, Anna, I’m just thinking ahead!” “I’m not heartless, I’m just…detail oriented.” – Richard, skipping sympathy for Nadine to find a replacement director.
Is Maria SMing both productions? Are they concurrent?
“What is it that turns a man into a monster?” is said here, and makes me think of the success of the brilliant Breaking Bad. Seriously, start watching Breaking Bad.
There’s a subplot regarding the young lady (Sarah) playing Juliet, and her momentary interest in flirting with Patrick, her Romeo. However, questions like “who is your favorite character on Queer as Folk?” suggest his happy dagger might prefer a different sheath.
Henry casually mentions hanging with THE POPE. Ugh. Hate that guy!
“Oliver’s concept…it’s good. It’s not his usual…shit.” – Geoffrey
“Even the Nazis haven’t…” among a barrage of other complaints from angry subscribers regarding the new ad campaign. I’d like to tell you that this is an exaggeration of how theatre patrons sound when they call to complain…but I can’t lie.
“He was reborn in Germany. Have you thought about that?!” – Geoffrey, sharing Darren doubts.
Interesting how Brian, whom Geoffrey fired, is the one able to show Henry the wisdom of Geoffrey’s idea.