Monday, July 31, 2017

Didacticism and Virtue at the Shaw Festival

Shawn Wright and Jeff Irving with the cast of Androcles and the Lion at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

At every performance of the Shaw Festival’s production of Androcles and the Lion, George Bernard Shaw’s 1913 dramatization of the Aesop fable, a member of the audience is picked to play the lion. Other theatregoers who have been handed colored balls before the play begins are invited to throw them onto the stage at will, interrupting the dramatic action and prompting a variety of responses from the actors, who have to tell an anecdote or recite a section of Shaw’s preface to the play or share any thought that pops into their heads. This process is in the service of what Tim Carroll, the Shaw’s new artistic director, calls “two-way theatre,” which is intended to break down the barrier between the actors and the audience. Carroll directed Androcles, but his mission is visible in the productions he didn’t stage, too. In Wilde Tales, the lunchtime show, adapted by Kate Hennig from four Oscar Wilde fairy tales and directed by Christine Brubaker, children from the audience sit along the sides of the Court House stage with signs and other props; their participation is encouraged at certain points in the action. In Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George, directed by Kevin Bennett (who trained with Carroll during his tenure as associate director at Shakespeare’s Globe in London), the house lights remain on during the performance and the cast interacts with members of the audience – especially those who are sitting right on the stage of the Royal George – just as actors at the Globe play up to those groundlings who have found standing room right below the thrust, within easy reach of the performers. Five of the six plays I saw at the Shaw began with a member of the staff – an assistant stage manager or head dresser or what have you – addressing the audience and providing some tidbits of information about his or her job.

I hate to pose the obvious question, but why on earth would a professional theatre company want to break down the barrier between the actors and the audience? As it happens, the spectator chosen to play the lion at the matinee I attended of Androcles is a friend of mine, and I was amused and charmed to see how she fulfilled the demands of her assignment. But I was also distracted, just as I was at the Donmar Warehouse production of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui earlier in the summer when the cast brought audience members up to take part in the dramatic proceedings. My friend isn’t a professional actor and she hadn’t been rehearsed in the role of the lion. Every time someone threw one of the colored balls at the actors and interrupted the play, I wondered why the hell I was supposed to care more about some actor’s random thought or personal story than about Shaw’s play. Androcles and the Lion is no masterpiece, but as the work of an actual playwright (and a great one) it’s inherently more interesting. What, exactly, is the upside of these interjections? Are we supposed to pretend that anything that happens on a stage by accident on the whim of an audience member is automatically worth watching? The Paul Taylor Dance Company doesn’t invite spectators to come up and shake a leg with them, nor do patrons of the Metropolitan Opera expect to be made part of the chorus at Carmen. They are professional performers; we are not. That’s why we pay money to see them.

Jeremiah Sparks, Ric Reid, Travis Seetoo, Marla McLean and Cherissa Richard in 1837: The Farmers' Revolt. (Photo: Emily Cooper)

A lot of what you see this summer at the Shaw is familiar from other venues that profess a commitment to populism – the Globe, certainly – and to a contemporary leftist approach to casting practices. Color-blind casting is a no-brainer; obviously talented black and Hispanic actors should be allowed to play the parts that, until the last half-century, only whites were deemed qualified for. But gender-blind casting is another matter. In Philip Akin’s revival of the ensemble piece 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt, developed in 1973 by Rick Salutin with the Toronto company Theatre Passe Muraille, two of the Shaw’s elegant senior actresses, Sharry Flett and Donna Belleville, are asked in some scenes to play farmers, a task for which even their extraordinary technique, honed over decades (this is Flett’s twenty-eighth season at the Shaw and Belleville’s eighteenth), has not prepared them. In another interlude Flett is cast as a young mail-order bride whose husband is played by Marla McLean, an actress half her age. The Farmers’ Revolt is a deadly piece of didactic writing; these casting peccadilloes make it silly and implausible as well, and these gifted actors are being asked, in effect, to playact. Yes, actors have made the leap across gender (like Lily Tomlin in The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe) and some productions of Shakespeare have created an esthetic out of cross-gender casting: Tim Carroll’s marvelous Twelfth Night with Mark Rylance and Samuel Barnett at the Globe (which ended up on Broadway three seasons ago), Edward Hall’s work with Propeller, Phyllida Lloyd’s Julius Caesar set in a women’s prison. But there was a point to the choice to cast men as women or women as men in each of these cases – and it wasn’t the generalized and unconvincing one that gender shouldn’t be an obstacle. Audiences at The Farmers’ Revolt know perfectly well that the women playing farmers aren’t men; at no moment in the performance do they transcend their femaleness. So the idea seems to be to point out how limited we are by our gender (and, in the case of the mail-order-bride episode, age) biases. 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt wants to make us into better human beings. By the time I got to it, after Androcles and the Lion and The Madness of King George and Wilde Tales, I was weary of being preached at and talked down to and had concluded that the dedication of Carroll and his colleagues to improving me was rather insulting.

Carroll and other contemporary directors borrow the interruptions that remind us we’re watching a play from Brecht, but Brecht had bigger fish to fry. In a great production of Mother Courage or The Threepenny Opera, the perceptions about war and poverty can still sting, and the alienation effect retains its power to shock and disorient us. (Mother Courage’s realization that she bargained too long to save the life of her captured soldier son lashes you across the face like a branch in a dark wood.) Something’s gone disastrously wrong when a Brechtian alienation device is merely distracting or confusing (as in The Farmer’s Revolt) or when its point is so obvious or clichéd, or the effect seems so dopey, that your response is to roll your eyes. That’s how I reacted when Martin Happer (an actor whose work I love) showed up in King George as the Prince of Wales, a part he’s clearly too old for, or when André Sills played both a doctor and Pitt, the Prime Minister, in the same scene, switching hats to indicate whose lines he’s saying at any given moment. The production treats Bennett’s play – not one of his best – as a vaudeville, and it’s looser and less dawdling than the National Theatre’s original 1991 mounting, which Nicolas Hytner directed; I prefer Tom McCamus at the Shaw to Nigel Hawthorne, who played King George at the National and in the 1994 movie. Christopher David Gauthier’s costumes are beautiful. But Kevin Bennett’s Brechtian flourishes are fatuous and even childish. How many times does a member of the audience have to be handed a jar containing the king’s stool or urine sample before Bennett registers that the joke has worn thin?

Cast of Wilde Tales, at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

Between the Brecht and Brechtian shows I saw in London in June and the Shaw season, I feel inundated with misconceived examples of the alienation effect. In her farewell season as artistic director of the Globe, Emma Rice imported her production of Tristan & Yseult, a play she’d developed for her company Kneehigh from the myth that formed the basis of Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde. The colleague who attended the show with me had seen it previously in the Arts Emerson series in Boston and swears that its Kneehigh incarnation was far better – that Rice undermined her own work by plopping it down in the Globe rather than rethinking it for that space and that she overstated everything that had been subtler the last time around. But though I trust his assessment completely, I’m also reasonably sure that I would have hated it then, too, if not quite as much as I did at the Globe. It’s one of the most visually ugly productions I’ve ever sat through, and the ugliness seems to be a moral choice – that the implication is that my preference for beauty indicates that I’m not only hopelessly bourgeois but somehow morally wanting. (That’s also the message I thought I was receiving when I pushed back against the way the ensemble in Wilde Tales played down to their roles, as if they were camp counselors desperately keeping their charges from getting too bored. But Wilde Tales doesn’t offend the eye – on the contrary, the use of puppets is imaginative and delightful.) The hip-ironic tone of Tristan & Yseult, particularly glaring in the early scenes, made it impossible for me to become emotionally engaged with the characters or the narrative. The battle scenes, which were clumsy to the point of amateurishness, settled for low-comic brutishness and repetition (I counted three different knees to the groin) rather than attempting to get at the horror of war through invention or encouraging us to consider its complexity. And the role of Brangian, Yseult’s lady-in-waiting – whom she sends to her bridegroom, King Mark, on their wedding night (the bed trick Renaissance audiences saw in plays like Measure for MeasureAll’s Well That Ends Well and The Changeling) so he’d see blood on the sheets and believe that he’d wed a virgin – is played by a man, Niall Ashdown, in a slip that doesn’t provide even the meanest suggestion that we’re looking at a woman. The alienation effect is supposed to reverse itself when Brangian staggers home from the royal bedchamber feeling lonely and abandoned, and Ashdown works hard to provide some authentic feeling in this scene – as Sam Rockwell does, for instance, as Thisbe in the last few moments of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” section of Michael Hoffman’s wonderful 1999 film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The problem isn’t Ashdown, who’s a good actor; it’s that his efforts come too late, after Rice has already made him look like a clown. What’s the point here – that we shouldn’t ignore this poor woman’s feelings? Well, we wouldn’t if Rice didn’t go to such lengths to make the character – and the actor – seem stupid. Flute playing Thisbe in Midsummer is a clown; Shakespeare wrote him that way. So when Hoffman and Rockwell transcend his clownishness, that’s a true feat.

I’ve often complained about plays and movies that kiss the audience’s ass, not just confirming us in our view of the world but telling us what good people we are because we know how bad it is to be racist or sexist or ageist. But Tristan & Yseult and these four Shaw productions aren’t about our virtuousness; they’re about the virtuousness of their directors, who ram it down our throats.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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