Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Driven Before The Winds

Hi again, everybody! We’re about halfway through the run of Pericles and I wanted to check back in with you all, see how you were doing, brag about our amazing reviews and talk about our play for a while, to edify some of you and shame the rest into buying tickets and coming to see the show, like you know you should have already. And now that we’ve opened I can actually talk about specific, as opposed to structural, elements. We get to delve into what makes OUR production work, not just the building blocks and context of the play itself. And nothing makes our production work quite so much as the breakneck pace of the action.

Given what I’ve told you in my previous blog posts you probably know by now that a lot of stuff happens in this play, in a lot of different places, usually in very quick succession (or, in one notable place, after a 14-year time jump). Set in castles and palaces and temples and fishermen’s huts and beaches and tourney yards and gardens and whorehouses on at least six different islands and several ships, not to mention the storms and assassins and pirates and dream sequences and narrative interludes that dog our heroes, Pericles runs the risk of being disjointed, bogged down, and poorly structured [Much like this sentence! -KH]. Too much happens too quickly in too many places and it is easy to get lost. On a metatheatrical level there is something very interesting about that, the play running out of control like a ship tossed about in a storm. But just because something is intellectually interesting does not make it good theatre, as I have repeatedly been told at pitch meetings.

Pericles Shipwreck

From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. L-R: Dave Gamble, Jenna Berk, Grant Cloyd, Charlie Retzlaff, Jon Reynolds, Kerry McGee, Jennifer J. Hopkins. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Fortunately for us, our particular 90-minute small-cast stripped-down aesthetic works extremely well in this sort of situation. To continue the ship metaphor, our technical flexibility allows us to stay ahead of the storm. Instead of potentially stalling and losing momentum in lengthy scene transitions or costume changes, as a straight production might do, we can lean into it (which you might remember is my favorite device) and let the play rush us along. We trust in new lighting looks, our signature rapid costume changes, some quick box movements, and above all the intelligence of our audience, to understand that this new scene is happening in a new place. Instead of letting the settings and scene changes overwhelm and slow down the action we can use the breakneck action to speed ourselves up, keep the play moving too fast for anyone to get lost.

It helps, too, that we have more control over our pacing than a traditional companies. We are not beholden to each and every word of the text. We hold ourselves to a higher standard: a 90-minute show. Because we do so much cutting and rebalancing of the text to find the absolute bare bones of the story, we control more or less how long we spend in any given location. If we followed the flow of the play itself the audience would often spend just enough time somewhere to get used to it, and then be disoriented and lost again at the next scene transition. For us, though, movement becomes the norm instead of the exception. We can once again use the momentum of the play to our advantage, to keep the audience on their toes and ready for whatever comes next.

 

Pericles Party.JPG

From We Happy Few’s 2018 production of Pericles. Foreground L-R: Jenna Berk, Jon Reynolds. Background L-R: Kerry McGee, Charlie Retzlaff, Jennifer J. Hopkins, Grant Cloyd, Dave Gamble. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelschler.

 

But all of those staging and cutting tricks wouldn’t mean a thing if we didn’t have the chops to sell it to the audience. For all of this to work we need to MOVE, and we need to have clarity and purpose. The audience is smart and they can follow our breakneck island-hopping if we trust them, but that trust has to go both ways. They have to trust US, as well, to guide them from place to place, or they’ll get hopelessly lost between who is who and where we are. As you may have guessed from the structure of this blog post, however, we have multiple advantages on this front as well. We’ve got a wonderfully trusting and energetic cast, an altogether-too-qualified movement team, and a proven history of stripping down classical stories and bringing them to a new audience. Oh, I guess our director is all right, too, seeing as he was the one who realized how to put all of these things together and shepherd this play from an inconsistent island-hopping hodge-podge to the critically acclaimed show you still have a chance to see! We’re running tonight, tomorrow, and then Wednesday through Saturday of next week, come see what I’m talking about!

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Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Thrilling Adventure Hour and a Half

Good morning/afternoon/evening/sleepless midnight hours, whenever you do your independent-theatre-blog-reading. Its Tech Week here at the We Happy Factory, which means while everybody everybody else in the company works very hard to iron out any kinks in the production and make sure the play is the best it can be, I sit in a corner of the theatre and hope that someone has a historical or textual question that I can answer. I like to use this time to put together a blog post so it feels like I’m accomplishing something to draw upon the creative energy in the room and distill it to infuse some enthusiasm into my dry and staid prose.

Pericles has a lot going on. More than most of Shakespeare’s plays, more even than the other Romances. While he didn’t strictly obey the Aristotelian Unities of Time or Place, generally Shakespeare constrained himself to a handful of fairly nearby locations (sometimes as small as a single castle, city, or island) and a relatively brief timeline, not more than a few days or weeks. Some of them are a little more spread out, such as the Histories (and Lear) set in France and England, and sometimes, like Hamlet, their sense of time is more ambiguous. But none of them range as far afield and with so many different settings as in Pericles, not even Julius Caesar or Winter’s Tale, and only Winter’s Tale features such a tremendous time-warp in the middle of the play.

Time Warp

Its about time we did another Time Warp. From Rocky Horror Picture Show, 1975.

That’s because Shakespeare was drawing on an ancient and well-pedigreed storytelling tradition when he wrote this play, a genre he otherwise avoided. Pericles is, to my mind, Shakespeare dipping his toes into what I like to think of as the Fantastic Adventure story. These stories are typified by a young hero either travelling by himself or being separated from his companions, encountering fantastic and mysterious circumstances, and triumphing over them. Repeat as needed. Pericles spends the play wandering the Mediterranean and searching for glory, fleeing villainous monarchs, rescuing cities, miraculously escaping storms, mourning…He fits the literal archetype of the Adventurer.

Arguably the first and most famous Fantastic Adventure, and the one which shares the most in common with our story, is Homer’s Odyssey. As you all doubtless know, this is the story of Odysseus’ ten-year journey from the Trojan War to his home in Ithaca, and the trials and adventures he encounters along the way. Relevant for OUR interests, Odysseus too finds himself at the mercy of the divine, aided by Athena and opposed by Poseidon. Pericles’ adventures may be less fantastical than Odysseus’, he doesn’t blind any cyclopes or tie himself to the mast to hear the song of the sirens, but the two of them would be hard-pressed to determine whose tribulations were more punishing before they were reunited with their families.

1501_ 044

The Blinding of Polyphemus, by Pellegrino Tibaldi, 1550-1551

The Odyssey, the Aeneid, and other similar Classical stories set the stage for (or, more likely, revealed parallel cultural evolution in) Celtic stories such as the legends of Cuchulainn and Beowulf and King Arthur, or Arabic stories like Sinbad the Sailor in the Thousand and One Nights. This introduces a minor complication to my constructed through-line of the adventure story, in that the earlier Classical stories I cited were singular and self-contained, while the medieval ones are looser. The Odyssey is one continuous story with a beginning, ending, and continual forward progress in between, while Arthur or Robin Hood or Sinbad stories can be read out of order and independent of each other, having introduced and resolved their problem within the same story. But I would argue that the older Classical stories, and our own example Pericles, are also more or less episodic. While they are all marching towards a coherent goal (reunification with family, escaping Antiochan assassins, founding of Rome, etc), each of their individual adventures happens in a vacuum, and the accompanying stories can be told without any more backstory than “Pericles discovered himself shipwrecked”. The more you know about the character the better you’ll understand his actions, just like the more stories you’ve read featuring Gawayne or Alan-a-dale the better handle you’ll have on them, but the stories themselves are designed to be enjoyable without any context.

Alan_A_Dale

Alan-a-dale from Disney’s Robin Hood (1973). I will never pass up an opportunity to include a picture from this movie in the blog.

We can trace this kind of story all the way to the 20th century, and one of my all-time favorite genres; the pulp adventure story. It is really here that we see the pinnacle of the Fantastic Adventure take hold, embodied by characters like Tarzan, Solomon Kane, and Conan. These stories are utterly episodic; consequences seldom carry over from adventure to adventure, new allies and enemies alike are killed by the end of the story, and the hero finds himself in the exact situation he was in at the beginning. Looking forward and expanding your definitions a bit you can see this tradition continued in the original Star Trek, where no story lasted longer than two episodes. Clearly the Fantastic Adventure has got some legs.

James T Kirk

William Shatner as Captain James T. Kirk, from Star Trek (1966-1969)

‘Why does this matter?’, I can hear you asking. ‘What’s so important about Pericles being an adventure story that you felt the need to say a thousand words about it at us?’ Aside from that I think it’s super neat to be able to trace a genre from the fires of a Greek basileus or Saxon mead-hall, through the Middle Ages, across the boards of the Globe Theatre, all the way to Conan the Cimmerian and Captain Kirk, it represents an unusual departure in form from Shakespeare’s usual style. Unlike Shakespeare’s other plays, which create a single problem which is resolved by the end of the play, Pericles allows the audience to accompany the protagonist as he encounters and solves multiple problems. [Stay tuned later in the week for a potential reason this play is conceptually unique in Shakespeare’s canon -KH] We get to see our hero deal with a number of different situations, romantic, tragic, comic, and absurd, before the story concludes. We have a chance to get to know Pericles better than any other Shakespearean character, because we see more of his life than anyone else.

If YOU’D like to get to know Pericles better, your chance is coming soon! Tickets are on sale NOW and performances begin this Wednesday the 16th! I’ll be there, you should be too! Won’t you come on an adventure with us?

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: The Greek Connection

Happy May, everybody! Dramaturge and blogslave Keith Hock, back again as promised to satisfy that cliffhanger/teaser from my first blog post in almost the amount of time I said I would take to do it! No, not the cryptic “George Wilkins” aside (hold on just a little longer for that), the other one, right at the end. Yeah, that Greek thing. Despite my rejoinder last time to not place too much weight on the specific locations where the show takes place I believe that there is a lot to unpack in the Hellenistic setting and time period of this play, possibly more than in any of Shakespeare’s other plays (with the exception of the Histories, including Julius Caesar and Anthony & Cleopatra, for obvious reasons).

THIS IS GOING TO BE ONE OF THOSE BLOG POSTS WITH SPOILERS FOR A 400-YEAR-OLD PLAY BY THE MOST FAMOUS WRITER IN HISTORY, SO IF YOU DON’T WANT THE ENDING REVEALED NOW WOULD BE A GOOD TIME TO STOP READING. ALSO I WILL BE REFERRING TO DIANA AND THE ‘GREEK’ GODS IN THE SAME SENTENCE, I KNOW DIANA IS THE ROMAN NAME, I DIDN’T WRITE THIS PLAY, TAKE YOUR PEDANTRY UP WITH SHAKESPEARE

Most of Shakespeare’s plays could happen in a vacuum. As I’m certain I’ve discussed before, the majesty of the Bard lies neither in his plotting, nor his set dressing, but in the language and psychology. Hamlet could happen anywhere that men are depressed and isolated, Lear and the (other) Romances wherever you can find daughters and their aging fathers. Just about every Italian play is set there because the Italians made it to the Renaissance first and wrote all the stories and plays that Shakespeare stole and improved (seriously, the cultural weight, if not the political significance, of the Italian peninsula between the Renaissance and the First World War cannot be overstated). Titus Andronicus is really just a show about family. Macbeth gains something (possibly something vaguely racist and clannish) from its Scottish setting but Kurosawa pretty concretely proved that that story has legs elsewhere with Throne of Blood. So why do I give this show so much more credit for its setting?

 

Toshiro Mifune

Toshiro Mifune as Taketoki Washizu, from Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957)

 

If you’ve been a long-time reader of the blog, or you read the title or the introductory paragraph of this post, you may have guessed the answer already. It should come as no surprise that I attach a lot of value to ancient Greek literature, particularly the Tragedies. As one of the cornerstones of Western art and quite possibly THE basis for the tradition of theatre I do not think my passion and respect for them is overblown, though some of my colleagues disagree. I have regular tantrums reasoned and mature discussions at pitch meetings over why I’m not allowed to stage a full mask-and-chorus Oresteia in one of our season slots or do a Seven Against Thebes/Prometheus Bound heraldry-and-pyrotechnics showcase as a fundraiser. My colleagues’ [correct -ed.] insistence on how unstageable, unmarketable, and unapproachable these shows are to a modern audience notwithstanding, their influence on the medium cannot be ignored. Since Shakespeare was probably about as smart as me I bet he thought the same thing. I believe that he took advantage of the Hellenistic setting of Pericles to consciously explore the tropes that typify Greek theatre, as a combination homage and experimental update.

There are two related Ancient Greek tropes that in my opinion really stand out in Pericles. The first is the intercession of the divine, a hallmark of Greek tragedies but few and far between in Shakespeare’s work (to my recollection the only other physical manifestations of gods in his plays are Jupiter in Cymbeline, which is basically a ‘Greatest Hits’ of Shakespeare’s other works, and Hecuba in Macbeth, whose appearance may have been a later addition to the play). Diana’s appearance in the penultimate scene mirrors the tendency of the Greek gods to appear out of nowhere at the end of the tragedies to resolve the plot, a trope so prevalent that it gave us the idiom deus ex machina, the god out of the machine, to describe an extraordinary and unearned conclusion to a story. The god in question would then explain why whatever cruelty they have inflicted on the hero and his family was justified, more or less because they said so and the whims of the gods are irresistible. The action Diana takes at the end of our play, to reunite the long-suffering Pericles with his wife and thereby turn his fortunes from miserable to joyous, does not strike me as very in-character for the notoriously virginal Diana, nor for the petty and vindictive Greek gods as a whole, but I suppose Shakespeare should get at least as much credit as I gave Racine for the need to update for new audience sensibilities. Besides, Pericles ISN’T a tragic hero; he isn’t being punished for his hubris, he is just an adventurer at the mercy of the gods.

Deus Ex

Box art for Eidos’ Deus Ex, (2000) Surely that is what this game was about.

 

Which conveniently segues us into the second trope, part of which I mentioned above; the inexorable will of the divine, and it being indistinguishable from fortune or luck. To the Greeks there was no such thing as random chance; all luck, either good or bad, was interpreted as the will of the gods. And they were completely helpless to the whims of fortune. Once the gods decide something (usually something bad), the decision is made. When Ajax figures out that Athena wants him dead, he kisses his wife goodbye, gives his son Eurysaces his famous shield, which is ALSO named Eurysaces, and trundles himself off to the beach to fall on his sword; his desires mean nothing, even to himself, in the face of Athena’s decree. Pericles seems to buy in completely to this philosophy [though many of the other characters, Marina especially, seem less on board with this fatalism, as we discussed in our dramaturgy rehearsal -KH]. Both Pericles himself and the omniscient narrator (thoroughly We Happy Few-ified for this production) tell us multiple times, in multiple scenes, that Pericles is utterly at the mercy of fortune. He accepts with equimanity both his marooning and the death of all his men by shipwreck and the miraculous recovery of his ancestral armor in the space of a single scene, and he attributes both his wife’s wooing and apparent demise to “the powers above us”, which “We cannot but obey”. It is not that Pericles has no agency; he just accepts that there are some things beyond his control and works to navigate AROUND those increasingly-common reversals of fortune in his life.

This is obviously not the only time that Shakespeare toyed with fate: I could write another entire blog post about the prophecy in Macbeth, and Romeo famously shrieks that he is “Fortune’s fool” after killing Tybalt. But Macbeth spends his entire play trying to game his prophecy, and Romeo is a 19-year-old in love, with more than his share of the accompanying self-involvement, while Pericles knows FOR CERTAIN that the gods are toying with him and is just trying to roll with the punches and see where he lands. By explicitly making Pericles the gods’ plaything Shakespeare had the opportunity to write a character who was made to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, just as Heracles and Oedipus and Odysseus and the other tragic heroes of antiquity would. Except Shakespeare, perhaps tired of killing his darlings, gets to engineer a happy ending.

To some of you this connection may feel like a stretch, to which I say get bent, why don’t you write your own blog if you’re so smart, why? Shakespeare’s plays are riddled with classical allusions and can be sourced to everything between Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Brittaniae, Boccaccio’s Decameron, the Iliad, Plutarch, and (apocryphally) Don Quixote. It seems unlikely, almost impossible, that he WOULDN’T be familiar with the tragedians given the breadth of his knowledge. Indeed, the hubristic downfall of his tragic heroes offers some pretty solid evidence of their influence on him. Besides, Pericles comes near the end of his career, when he was getting experimental with a new style. The similarities are too close, and they add too much to the play, for me to ignore. If you’re still not convinced, come see the show for yourself in a few weeks and try to change my mind! Tickets are available now!

Pericles, Prince of Tyre: Geography Lesson

Welcome back, everyone! It’s been a while! I’m sorry to abandon you all winter, but, like a bear, We Happy Few needed to take the winter season to hibernate. We are rejuvenated along with the cherry blossoms of our fair city, though, and we are ready to begin preparations for our Spring show. We Happy Few are very excited to bring you all Pericles, Prince of Tyre this season! Tonight is our first rehearsal, which means while everyone else is working very hard in the rehearsal room I get to write about whatever oblique or tangential angle I can find on our play, and then find a way to connect it to our concept. To that end I am looking forward to answering your questions about this comparatively little-known play, starting with “What and where is a Tyre?”

Tyre is a city that used to be an island fortress off the coast of what is now Lebanon. Besides this play it is known for being the birthplace of legendary Carthaginian queen Dido and a stronghold of European crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. But it is perhaps most famous for its defiance of Alexander the Great and his…creative response.

Siege of Tyre

Art by Adam Hook, for Ancient Siege Warfare, by Duncan Campbell

Remember how I said earlier that it was once an island? It was actually barely connected to the land by an extremely narrow sandbar which was submerged in water most of the time. This placed the city in an unusually good defensive position when Alexander came a-calling on his mission to conquer the world, and the Tyrians were accordingly disinterested in his overtures. So disinterested, in fact, that they killed his emissaries and threw their bodies off the walls in plain sight of Alexander and his army. Not one to take an insult lying down, and demonstrating his famously pragmatic problem-solving, Alexander ordered the sandbar be enlarged and built up to a causeway allowing his army to march up to the walls and besiege them. This was STILL not enough for the Macedonians to conquer the city, as naval sorties kept his siege engines from making any headway until naval reinforcements from Greece eventually gave him control of the waves and he was finally able to conquer the city. In retribution for their arrogance in fighting for their city and lives he crucified 2,000 and sold the rest of the population into slavery, and then to add insult to injury left his causeway in place. It connects Tyre to the mainland to this day.

You may notice that I did not spend a lot of time actually getting into what is significant about Tyre and why Shakespeare (and George Wilkins [I’ll get to THAT another time-KH]) chose to set this place here. To address that briefly: the obvious and boring reason is that the story Shakespeare plagiarized from Gower based it on, Apollonius of Tyre, dictated that it be so. But like I said that’s not especially interesting, and as you can probably guess from my primary conceit in most of my other blog posts I have something else in mind. Pericles, despite the title of the play, spends comparatively little of his time in Tyre, mainly sailing between and having adventures on and around a handful of islands and ports in the eastern Mediterranean. He ventures to Mytilene and Ephesus on the Turkish coast, to Tharsus and Antioch in the northern Levant, and all the way down to Pentapolis in modern Libya.

Pericles Asimov Map

Illustration by Rafael Palacios, for Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare, by Isaac Asimov

But you won’t find me putting too much analysis into why he visits any of those cities, either. To my mind there is nothing overly significant about any of these locations individually; the important element to examine is the overarching setting of The Mediterranean, or to be even vaguer, The Sea. It is no accident that at different points the story is driven by not one but two distinct storms and a pirate raid.

Moore, Henry, 1831-1895; Rough Weather in the Mediterranean

Rough Weather in the Mediterranean, by Henry Moore, 1874.

And if the physical setting is meant to be vague the timing can be even more so. According to Isaac Asimov the presence of a King Antiochus the Great in the text vaguely establishes a time period of around 200BC, but since there never WAS a Pericles who ruled Tyre the timing can afford to be up in the air. Asimov also whines that ‘Tharsus’ doesn’t exist and is either a bastardization of Tarsus or Thasos, or an entirely made-up city-state, so its possible he was a little overly-concerned with the verisimilitude of this clearly fantastical play. This isn’t a history, like Henry V or Anthony and Cleopatra, where the time period is integral to the play and can be authoritatively nailed down. It is closer to a legendary ‘history’ like Cymbeline or Troilus and Cressida, that has a vague timeline but would be best categorized as ‘A long time ago’ or ‘Once upon a time’. If we must nail down a specific era the only timing that matters is that there be no hegemonic control in the region; for the plot to work all of the city-states, Pentapolis and Antioch and Tyre and Tharsus and Mytilene, all be independent and free to backstab and politic. That means it would have to be either after the Peloponnesian Wars (ended 404 BCE) and before the rise of Alexander the Great (330s-320s) or between the disintegration of Alexander’s empires (~300BCE) and the rise of Roman authority in the Near East (let’s call it 30BCE). This is without even taking into account anachronisms like Transylvanian whores and French johns and Spartan knights with Latin mottoes and clocks […not clocks. Wrong play again, sorry -KH]. The specific time period doesn’t seem to have been especially important for the story that Shakespeare wanted to tell, or we would have a more concrete textual sense of it.

This is not to say that we are meant to be kept off-balance or confused by the setting; only that we are not to put TOO much weight on where the action is meant to be. Pericles and the entire play are constantly in motion, and while I would argue that the Mediterranean/Greek/Hellenistic setting is important (for reasons I will ALSO discuss in a later blog) the continual, overwhelming, and above all unpredictable nature of The Sea is essential to the constant upheaval that typifies this show. I look forward to talking your ears off about this play for the next month until you all agree with me, and then continually bragging about how good it is after it opens in May. Won’t you join me?

Blog in the Manger: Keep Your Distance

Welcome back, everyone. I hope you all had a lovely thanksgiving. I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that we’ve got another week of shows, starting tonight at 7:30 (including a talkback with the cast proctored by Yours Truly) and running every night until this Saturday. The bad news is that these performances will be the last of the run, we MUST close on Saturday, December 2nd. And who knows when you’ll have another chance to see a production of a Spanish Golden Age play performed, much less one of such quality by your favorite company? Run, don’t walk, over to our ticket-sales website and pick up your tickets for this weekend! Go ahead, do it now. The rest of the blog will wait.

Done? I’m glad you came back because I didn’t stop by simply to nag you all into coming to see the show. That was part of my reason for writing this, don’t get me wrong. But all stick and no carrot is no way to motivate someone, as I have repeatedly informed my superiors. Mostly they just laugh and bang the Writing Stick harder on my cage, so I doubt they’re likely to change anytime soon. But I am happy to include bribery in my coercion, so I wanted to give you some chewy dramaturgical explanations to consider while you watch or reflect on the show. Specifically, I wanted to look at the way that both allusion and geography are used to separate the action on stage from the audience, to simplify the audience’s suspension of disbelief by creating distance between their world and the world of the play. Confused? Good! Let’s see if I can clarify.

If you’ve already seen the show you might have noticed that Teodoro …certain characters just absolutely will not shut the hell up about the legends of Icarus and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Phaeton. Nor are these the only mythological references in the piece. Tristan outrageously claims to be a greater warrior than Hector. Diana’s very name is a classical allusion, to the notoriously prickly and virginal goddess of the hunt. These allusions serve the same multiple purposes that classical allusions always serve. First, they prove to the audience how literate both the character and the author are, that they can intelligently make such a reference. As Benji Djain pointed out to us in his talkback, De Vega would want to show off to the audience how much he knew about Greek mythology, and his audience in turn would be flattered and proud that they, too, caught the inside joke. Second, they use a common reference point to illustrate or elaborate on a concept. Allusions can be used as shorthand for a more involved explanation, provided your audience makes the connection; for example, referring to yourself as Atlas when you feel like everyone is unfairly relying on you.

Darmok

Or by showing you this. From Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 5 episode 2, “Darmok”, 1991. L-R: Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Picard, Paul Winfield as Captain Dathon.

And finally, classical allusions simultaneously elevate and distance the situation that they are applied to, places it on an even footing with the myth. It isn’t Teodoro’s fault, or Diana’s, or even just bad luck that caused this trouble, it was the will of the gods. Zeus himself struck down Phaeton when he rode the carriage of the sun too high. By drawing these overblown comparisons the characters, and by extension de Vega, are identifying themselves with these legends and myths. It makes the situation seem all the more impressive and important to be placed on the same footing as these stories, but it also justifies why something so outlandish is happening. This story exists in the same world as these myths and legends, the allusion says, not the normal world where you walk down the street to buy eggs and bread and nothing out of the ordinary ever happens.

Mulberry Street

And it isn’t merely by these flowery metaphors that this play seeks to disassociate itself from the ordinary. Something that we very consistently found ourselves forgetting, and then reminding ourselves of, during the rehearsal process is where, exactly, it was set. “It’s a Spanish play”, we said to ourselves, “it must be set in Spain!” Forgetting, as we did so, that only one-third of Shakespeare’s plays (mostly the bad ones) are set in merry old England. Another third of Shakespeare’s plays are set in strange one-off settings like Denmark, Bohemia, Athens, or some fanciful island or enchanted forest.  And the final third take place in Italy [I know this mostly because Isaac Asimov, in his infinite strangeness, took a break from his busy biochemistry professor/science fiction author career to organize his Guide to Shakespeare under these geographical distinctions instead of similarities in plot or type -KH]. Dog in the Manger is set in Italy, as well. This might seem confusing to us because we’re stupid, but de Vega didn’t choose an Italian setting for no reason. Italy isn’t THAT far away from Spain, but it’s not exactly close either. His audience would be familiar with the concept of Italy, but many would not be familiar with the country or culture. Presumably they would therefore be more inclined to believe some outlandish things about it, like maybe that some Countess would fall in love beneath her station and set in motion a complicated love triangle as the one they’ve just observed. After all, isn’t Italy where all of those touring theatre companies came from? And isn’t it where those plays were set, too? They must have gotten their stories from somewhere, right? It’s easier to believe that something unusual would happen in some other foreign place, than that it would happen on the street you walk down every day to go to work. By distancing, de Vega is giving the audience more opportunity to suspend their disbelief: this isn’t a Spanish story, it could never happen in Spain! But Italy, crazy things happen there all the time. Who knows what they do over there.

DiM Screaming

From We Happy Few’s 2017 production of The Dog in the Manger. Foreground; Raven Bonniwell as Diana. Background L-R: Charlie Retzlaff as Fabio, Deborah Crabbe as Dorotea, Tori Boutin as Anarda. Photo by Mark Williams Hoeschler.

Even within the play itself, we see distancing being utilized, almost to the point of exoticism. There is a reason that Tristan’s outrageous lie about Teodoro’s origin centers the story in Greece (and then, when he slips up again, even further afield in Armenia). Greece would be a place that an audience would have heard of, but know comparatively little about. And the things they would have heard of would be even stranger than they would have heard about Italy. They have their own crazy non-Catholic Christian church over there, for one thing. Duke Ludovico has a line about what a strange musical language Greek is, a line that really pushes the line between creating distance and being openly racist. They also eat all that exotic food that Tristan so enjoys, not normal Spanish food. And, lest we forget, it’s also where all those wacky stories I talked about before came from. Crazy shit [pardon my French -KH] like that happens all the time over in Greece, just look at all those legends. Just like the Italian setting excuses some plot shenanigans for the Spanish audience, the merchant’s faux-Greek-ness explains the preposterousness of his story. It becomes another unlikely miraculous coincidence from Greece, the land of unlikely miraculous coincidences. Ludovico is willing to seize on any pretext to regain his son, so he is prepared to ignore some inconsistencies as long as he can justify them to himself. His doing so gives the audience permission to overlook any flaws or errors that they might have noticed in the story, in order to suspend their own disbelief and allow the story to wash over them.

And there you have it! I hope my pedantic overanalysis helps you let go of your own overanalytical tendencies and just let the story happen. If you want to see this distancing I’ve just discussed played out on stage, or give yourself some context for what you just read, we’re still running until the end of the week! Tickets are available HERE. I hope to see you there!

What Makes Vampires So Monstrous?

Hi there, everyone. Blogslave Keith Hock here with a SPOOK-tacular October blog post! I’m sorry I couldn’t give you anything creepy or scarifiying last week, focused as I was on historiography, so this week I tried to make the blog extra terrifying to make up for it.  Last time I talked to you about vampires I told you about one of their most important and recognizable trait (their sexiness) and the way that that separated them from the other monsters. Today I want to talk to you about something they share with other monsters, and their OTHER most recognizable trait: the blood drinking. Or, to broaden the synecdoche a little bit, people-eating. Anthropophagy. And, most importantly, cannibalism, because Dracula and his coterie at one point WERE human, even if they are no longer. That ‘if’ is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.

Eating people is shorthand for monstrous. Always has been. It is a simple shorthand: to give a good indication of how awful a creature is, have them not merely kill people but to devour them as well. It makes audience understand exactly how dangerous the creature is, and how little regard it has of the rules of society. The first thing that Grendel does when he assaults Heorot is snatch up a warrior to eat. Ancient Greece abounded with these monsters. Seemingly half of Hercules’ quests revolved around him dealing with some sort of man-eating animals, be they horse or bird or lion, and between Scylla snatching sailors out of his ship, the Laestrygonians spear-fishing his crew, Polyphemus gobbling up his men in the cave, and Circe’s abortive barbecue, it seems likely that Odysseus had more men eaten by monsters than killed in battle during the Trojan War. Fairy tale giants and witches from Jack’s Beanstalk to the Baba Yaga would literally announce their intentions to cook and eat their victims. It is hard to think of a monster that DOESN’T eat people.

To Serve Man

“To Serve Man”, The Twilight Zone, 1962.

But what happens when the the man-eater is human? There is precious little stopping one sufficiently motivated person from eating another, after all. We are little more than skin suits holding together a heap of muscles and fat cunningly wrapped around a skeleton in such a way that it becomes ambulatory. It’s not like human bodies are poisonous (unless you eat too many brains) or made of wood or iron or something indigestible. From a purely practical perspective there is no reason for humans to NOT eat other humans. And yet, with a few isolated cultural exceptions such as [allegedly] the Caribe and New Guinean mountain tribes, cannibalism is regarded as an ultimate taboo. Eating manflesh serves as an indicator of abandoning your own humanity. To treat your fellow man not as a fellow traveller but as a source of food suggests that you have surrendered your commonality with him.

Allow me to present some examples, starting where else but Ancient Greece and my second-favorite cursed bloodline, the Atreides. This familial curse began with Tantalus, who killed and cooked his son Pelops into a dish as a sacrifice to the gods. Why exactly he thought the gods would like this the stories do not make clear. The gods, being gods, immediately knew what he had done and were horrorstruck by it. Again, being gods, they resurrected Pelops, and then laid a familial curse on the bloodline and sentenced Tantalus to eternal torment submerged up to his head in water he could not drink and surrounded by grapes he could not eat. But wait! Having somehow not learned the lesson from his Grandpa, family namer Atreus took revenge on his brother Thyestes for stealing his wife and crown by killing Thyestes’ sons (Pleisthenes and another Tantalus), cooking them into a pie, and feeding them to him. You may recognize this plot point from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, where it serves a similar purpose: to explore the hideous depths of depravity, the risks to one’s own soul, that will be explored in the search for revenge. Atreus, like Titus, took care to ensure that Thyestes actually ate before the secret was revealed, and Thyestes was rewarded for his accidental cannibalism with exile and a doubling-down of the familial curse. Atreus would go on to be killed by Thyestes’ other son Aegisthus, who would be killed in HIS turn by Atreus’ grandson Orestes. I find it particularly striking that even the Greek gods, perhaps the most deviant pantheon I can think of, drew the line at cannibalism, and even the accidental consumption of human flesh called for expiation.

Saturn Devouring His Son

But perhaps they had a reason to dislike the idea. “Saturn Devouring His Son”, Francisco de Goya, 1819-1823.

Lest you believe that the only thing I know anything about is the Greeks and Shakespeare, let me share a non-European example as well. The Wendigo is a Native American legend from the Great Lakes region, occupying the nebulous territory between a monster and a curse. A Wendigo encountered in the wild, as it were, was ash-grey and rail-thin; think a skeleton that has been wrapped in skin and then vacuum-sealed. They were voracious man-eaters who thrived on winter, cold, isolation, hunger, and darkness. But the more interesting element of the Wendigo, especially for my purposes, is not this “monster-of-the-week” aspect, but their cultural cachet. There was a pervasive idea in the Algonquian tribes that a human could become a Wendigo if they were overcome by greed, or ate human flesh. The need to consume would trigger a transformation within them, and their humanity would be surrendered in exchange for an unending hunger, an insatiable need to have more, and more, and more. The Wendigo legend is not dissimilar from the European werewolf, as it depicts a human literally abandoning their humanity in the service of their dark appetites.

Wendigo Souza

“Wendigo”, by Marcelo de Souza, 2010.

Cannibalism appears in modern culture, too, except that instead of legends and fairy tales we have movies and tv shows and books. Cannibalism is used as shorthand for an abandonment of civilization, the rejection of and contempt for rules, norms, and mores. Often in post-apocalyptic scenarios, such as Neil Marshall’s Doomsday or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it is an acknowledgement that society has abandoned them, and so they are right to return the favor. In science fiction scenarios, such as Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves or (with a somewhat different intention) Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, it carries the idea that the cannibals think they have more important issues to think about than their humanity. In suspense and crime thrillers, like the various iterations of the Hannibal Lecter character and the tv show Bones, it signifies a character believing himself to above the rules, too smart to be tied down by the laws of society that keep the ‘normals’ in check. In each of these settings the cannibalistic characters believe that they have something to gain by losing their humanity. It is a clear trade that is being defined in each of these situations, and it is a trade that they are all glad to make because they place no value on their conscience.

Wolves

Dracula and his vampiric children fit very neatly into this trade-off. Dracula consciously and positively identifies himself with predators, particularly the wolf. In his mind the human world is little more than a herd of sheep or cattle for him to toy with and prey upon at his leisure. He willingly accepts the gifts of the monster, the strength and cunning and charisma and ruthlessness, and regards the faith and compassion which he has lost as liabilities. Because he has willingly surrendered these human traits he holds them in faint regard. But his scorn for humanity, especially human companionship and loyalty, ends up being his downfall.

If you want to SEE this downfall, you’ve still got a couple more chances this month! Dracula will be returning to Spectre Arts down in Raleigh this weekend if you feel like taking a road trip down to beautiful North Carolina. If travelling to the Tar Heel State is not in the cards for you, fear not! We have a few additional performances here in the Nation’s Capital as well, including one at the Southeast Public Library on the 26th and another at CHAW on the 30th. I hope to see you there!

Iphigenia: Director Chat!

Hello again, readers.  It’s me, blog slave Keith Hock, here with some more ranting and raving on the subject of our upcoming reading of Iphigenia.  We’re gonna mix it up today, however, and the majority of the ranting will come not from myself, but from the director of the reading and my maybe-boss, Bridget Grace Sheaff (the managerial hierarchy of We Happy Few is Byzantine, to say the least, and the only thing I can say with any degree of confidence is that I am NOT in charge).  Readers from the last time I had Bridget drop by will recall that she is much better at saying nice things than I am, so those of you still with functioning hearts should be very excited to have her back.  She has graciously consented to an interview which we certainly conducted face-to-face over tea, and not in any way over the internet and hours apart while we were both snowed into our respective apartments this previous weekend.


Keith: Tell us about yourself.  How did you come to be entangled in the WHF network?  Are you secretly gunning for my job?

Bridget: Wow. So suspicious. Why would I be after your job? Seriously. Drink your tea.
No, go ahead, drink it. It’s perfectly safe…

The short answer: I fell in love. It’s as easy as that.

The long answer: I think one of the answers I hear the most from theatre artists when they are asked how they get jobs is “It’s who you know.” Which, after you hear it over and over again, becomes quite annoying. But it’s truth doesn’t disappear. (These are my exact feelings about Taylor Swift songs- always annoying, always true to life.)  So, yes, I got involved with We Happy Few because I went to school with Bob Pike (the sound designer of Duchess of Malfi, CUA Class of 2014) who got involved because he talked to Kiernan McGowan (trusted Brain Trust member who also graduated from CUA (represent, amiright)) who is now engaged to Raven Bonniwell (co-founding Artistic Director).

Right? It’s who you know. But it’s also about finding your tribe, about finding people whose work speaks to you. So when I was looking for projects to get involved in, I took a look at the work WHF had done in the past, of which I heard nothing but high praise. And, I’ll tell you what, I don’t believe in fate. But I got pretty close to believing when it hit me that the goals of WHF and my goals were synchronous if not identical.

And so it’s less about me than it is about mission and goals and finding people who want to change the world in the same way you do. (Look at me, I’m gettin’ all misty over here.I am a fool/ To weep at what I am glad of.”) That should tell you everything you need to know about me. And I really mean that.

K: Drop some knowledge about the difference between directing a staged reading and directing a performance.  What about it is easier?  What is harder?

B: Directing a staged reading is actually quite difficult. You would think it would be easy. “Oh hey, all your actors will have scripts and they are just expected to stand and talk and sound pretty and make the right faces at the right time and you don’t have to worry that they don’t have it memorized or that they forget a costume piece or whatever, you’re going to be fine.”

That’s a surface level analysis of a staged reading.

In a staged reading, the text is the star. The play is the only ego in the room you need to be concerned about. It rules. It dominates. It stares you in the face and does that annoying nose-flick thing every nine seconds. It demands that you pay attention to it and acknowledge the wound that it opens. It says, “I am flawed and complicated and leagues deep with knowledge. I am older than you and I have something to teach you. WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO SAY.”

Of course you have to do this with a full production. But in a full production, you get to use the text to do things on stage. In a staged reading, the text uses you to do things to an audience.

It’s vulnerable important work. It’s no less valuable than work on a full production. It just involves less props.

K: Why?  Why Iphigenia?  Why, specifically, THIS Iphigenia?

B: If I’m being totally honest (which I wish was a bigger failing of mine), I knew NOTHING about this play or even it’s original legend four months ago. As most things go in the Brain Trust [Editor: point of clarification; the Brain Trust is how we refer to the organizational core of We Happy Few.  My pitches to call it the War Council, the Synod, and the High Circle were rejected], one person suggests one thing, which leads to one person suggesting another things, which leads to Bridget volunteering to help in whatever way possible. In this case, it happened in such a way where Bridget volunteered to help cut and organize the script in a some sort of WHF fashion of changing the play and ended with a stellar cast of actors that make Bridget’s heart flutter. I didn’t choose Iphigenia as much as I stumbled over it one day, turned around to see what had made me lose my footing, and found this beautiful story that I can’t stop thinking about. This particular Iphigenia happened because of my absolute devotion to Racine and all things French. (I’ll get into that later). I will tell you that if I had to answer “Why this play, why now?” I would give you some long flowery answer that essentially boils down to this: what does it mean to sacrifice? When all instincts to love and protect and serve the ones we love fall short of what is asked, what is the precipitate of the reaction?

K: There’s a pretty enormous parallel between the Iphigenia story and the Abraham/Isaac story in Genesis, which I unaccountably managed to completely ignore in my previous blog post.  Do you have any thoughts on that?

B: I’m very Catholic, I have thoughts on everything. It actually is one of the things I continually come back to when I think about this piece. Of course, in the Abraham story, God was testing him to see if his faith was strong enough to trust something as precious as his son to the Lord (and, you know, is foreshadowing for the whole Jesus thing, but let’s not get into that because we could be here all day). In this story, it’s pretty clear that Iphigenia is going to die. She has to die. These gods work in a different way than the Judeo-Christian God, even the one in the Old Testament. I could get pretty theologically philosophical with you, but I only have minors in Theology and Philosophy. However, I have a major in Drama, so I instead am going to talk about how this is MAJOR DRAMA.  It’s a classic story, sacrificing your children. And both Abraham and Agamemnon are reasons that it is classic. It’s something we all identify with, even those of us without children. It’s access to our empathetic pathways is immediate. It sits on our skin and instantaneously seeps into our bloodstream. It hearkens back to landmarks in our mythic and spiritual culture that we all identify. And that’s why we can keep telling it today.

K: As a dame [Editor: I narrowly dodged a slap here], how do you feel about my assertion that the primary drama in this story is about how Agamemnon is forced into an unwinnable situation?  Do you think that is true, or am I blinded by my own undeniable masculinity about the true nature of the piece?  Does it change from version to version?

B: Yes. Thank you for asking this question. Let’s talk about this: Yes. I am a female director. Yes. There is some inherent male/female dichotomy in this play. Yes. I think that it is a really interesting aspect to talk about.

HOWEVER. For me, this is a play primarily about human beings, not just men and women. This is a play about family. This is a play about duty and sacrifice and loyalty and war and love and heartbreak and ruin and triumph and fate and God and country and children and, ultimately, fault. That’s the primary drama of the story. What goes wrong.

I think that you are structurally correct that Agamemnon’s struggle is the catalyst of the piece. That is what the through line of the story is saying to us. If we are going to look further at the piece, I think we need to talk about what changes from beginning to end. Elinor Fuchs tells us that we can find the heart of the story by setting the play in the middle distance and looking at the play through squinted eyes all the way through. And when we look at Iphigenia this way, we have at both ends parent’s fretting about the fate of their child. Even though Clytemnestra only comes in (like a wrecking ball) halfway through, she is the parent remaining onstage at the end while Ulysses describes the scene at the temple. This directly bookends Agamemnon talking to Ulysses at the initial incident of the play. And so my argument is that the true nature of the piece is not about men or women, but about how our labels and roles define how we react under pressure.

K: Who do you think is the most interesting/exciting character in this show?

B: I love Racine’s added character of Eriphile. There is something so April Ludgate about her. She speaks to a part of us that we all like to deny. We would all love to be the tragic hero. We would love to be the victim. We would love to be the martyr. Because those people are revered and respected and sacrificed for. And what’s great about Eriphile is that she LOUDLY wants all of those things. She is frustrated and annoyed that Iphigenia gets that kind of attention. What an amazing and very human desire to explore in this age of digitalization, of internet stardom and reality TV fame. And what a fascinating take on self-centered sacrifice. Where is the virtue in that thought process? I mean that question very seriously. I’m really excited to look at this character further.

K: Is there anybody you’re especially excited to work with on your cast for the reading?  Anyone you’re dreading?

B: I couldn’t be more thrilled with the cast! I’m excited to work with everyone. One of the big highlights of this for me is that I get to watch Melissa Flaim act. I have deeply and fervently admired Melissa since my time at CUA. The first time I ever saw her, I got to watch her fearlessly and with amazing grace tell a boy in my Drama 101 class that if he was going to be proud of doing half-hearted work then there was no reason for her to be in the room because he could do that without her. She taught me so much about how to be in command and watching her as Clytemnestra may be the highlight of my 2016.

I’m dreading working with Tori Boutin because she is my best friend and really talented and funny and clearly I hate her with my whole soul. (Is she reading this? I hope so. She’s gonna be so mad.)

K: This translation is, in the nature of French plays, structured as rhyming couplets.  How long does it take you reading it to not hear it all sing-songy and actually take it serious?

B: I think that verse text is my soulmate. It understands me in a way I don’t understand myself. I come back to it at the end of the day, safe and secure in the truth it provides me. I don’t know what it is, but I love French plays. Cyrano de Bergerac is my favorite piece of theatre of all time, Racine’s Phedre is my current dream project, and who doesn’t love Moliere? The rhyming couplets doesn’t bother me at all. I gave up the idea that something that rhymes sounds like songs a long time ago. (I mean, look at Sondheim. Rhyming or not, there is nothing “sing-songy” about that man’s work.)

To me, something is too “sing-songy” when it is just rhyming for the sake of rhyming. If it has purpose and drive, then rhyme merely helps bounce the actor from line to line. Really, if the text is about human beings, real and full-blooded people with real and earnest problems, then it’s not “too” anything for me.

The translation makes all the difference in my mind. My friend Bob once compared translating to carving wood. Pieces of the original block have to go, but if you are careful, you are going to get something equally as beautiful as the end result as you did with the original. When translating from French, especially translating Racine, you have to balance keeping the verse intact, the rhyme intact, the meaning intact, and the story intact. It takes a lot of skill and what is great about using the Cairncross translation is that so much of the original beauty of the text is preserved with great care and tact. It’s really exciting.


And there you have it, folks.  Hopefully this will have piqued your curiosity to see what exactly we’ve been talking about these last two blog posts.  Perhaps you are curious how Racine (and then Cairncross, and then Ms. Sheaff) were able to take this ancient story and update it, drag it from the Festivals of Dionysus in Attica some three thousand years in the past, through the court of the Sun King, and share it and make it relevant to you today.  It could be you want to know how exactly Bridget exists with all this passion clearly boiling out of her at all times, and you want to see how that manifests in her directing.  Maybe you’re mad at me for some reason and you want to attend this solely to yell at me for some error or slight I have made (It’s probably that last one, isn’t it.)  Whatever the reason, you should be able to satisfy your burning desires at our fundraising event, tonight at 7:30PM at CHAW in Eastern Market.  Free Reading!  Fabulous Prizes!  Cash Bar!  Cool People!  Donation Opportunities!  Truly the social event of the season.  I look forward to seeing you all there.