Lovers’ Vows: Melodrama

Tonight is the night! It’s time for Opening Night, to reintroduce Elizabeth Inchbald and Lovers’ Vows to the world of theatre, where they both belong. We are thrilled for the opportunity to share this play with you all and to restore Inchbald’s reputation as a master of the stage. It is difficult now, having lived and breathed this show for months, to imagine how this play could have vanished, largely remembered only as ‘the play in Mansfield Park’, considering how much fun it IS, how popular and controversial it WAS, and how illuminating that controversy and by extension the play as a whole is into the gender politics of the time, especially considering that it was written by a woman [you’ll have to read my dramaturgy notes for a fuller but still laughably incomplete exploration of that controversy -KH]. I do have a guess as to why it may have been cast aside, however, and very conveniently for me and fortunately for you it is an explanation that dovetails nicely with an element of our staging that I can call out and discuss with you. That idea, of course, is the Melodrama. I think that the formulaic nature of melodramas makes it easy for people to underestimate and ignore them, and I think that the elements of melodrama in Lovers’ Vows may have unjustly hurt its reputation in the historical record.

What do I mean by melodrama? It is one of those words that is easier to understand through examples than by definition, but the core elements are exaggerated characters, obvious plot points, outsized reactions, and utter sincerity in production. It has some elements, the exaggerated character types and formulaic plot structure, in common with Italian commedia dell’arte, Spanish siglo de oro, and Japanese Noh plays. Lovers’ Vows is not a full melodrama (see our director Kerry McGee’s director notes for more information about the line that it walks) but it shares some of these traits with the pseudogenre. It is not as by-the-numbers as some of Inchbald’s earlier plays, in which she used descriptor names to indicate the morality and traits of the characters; a common form of literary shorthand you may recognize from, among other places, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, in which the villain is named Chillingworth [no offence to any readers named Chillingworth, but it is an objectively sinister name -KH]. But the play is no mystery, and while surprises by the handful are in store for the characters, the audience is unlikely to be shocked by any of the revelations. It is a style that rewards fidelity to structure, that draws energy and humor from its rigidity to form.

And if you know anything about our approach to staging challenges, and specifically my analysis of our approach to staging challenges, is that we love to Lean In. Finding what makes a play tick and emphasizing it. In this case what makes the play tick is traditional execution. So we are executing the play traditionally.

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From We Happy Few’s 2019 production Lovers’ Vows. L-R: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha, Lee Ordeman as Baron Wildenhaim, Jack Novak as Frederick, Gabby Wolfe as Amelia, Alex Turner as Anhalt. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

We are putting the show in a straight proscenium, no tricky inversions or thrust configurations or in-the-round shenanigans. A proscenium focuses the audience’s attention on the stage, paints the same picture to every member of the audience, defines the playing space, contains the action. This show doesn’t want to conceal anything or trick the audience, leave ambiguity about where the action is taking place or what is motivating a choice. It wants to hide information from its characters but make that information abundantly clear to the audience. So our proscenium emphasizes the reality of the world on stage and reassures the viewer that they can trust their perceptions and their assumptions. And, more importantly, that they can trust us.

We are playing in period costumes. No ambiguity about the time or place that the play is inhabiting; we want it to be abundantly clear that we are in rural Germany in the mid to late 1700s. More importantly and unusually for us, we also have no on-stage quick changes. Everyone is who they are. We don’t want the audience to spend time or energy thinking about who or what else a character could become, we want them to focus on who they are and what they are doing in the moment. Unlike many of our shows, everything on stage is exactly as it seems, and our clarity in costuming emphasizes that the audience should trust their senses and us, the players, to deliver on their expectations of the world we are inhabiting.

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From We Happy Few’s 2019 production of Lovers’ Vows. Background: Jessica Lefkow as Agatha. Foreground: Jack Novak as Frederick. Photo by Mark Williams Hoelscher.

Melodramas and other form-driven plays live or die by their execution. The point isn’t to surprise the audience with revelations, it is to reward their understanding of story structure and impress them with the clarity and fidelity with which the story is implemented. I think we’ve done a pretty good job of establishing the world of Lovers’ Vows, introducing and typifying the inhabitants, and delivering exactly the kind of story that Elizabeth Inchbald wanted to share with the world. But I am a little biased. It is up to you, the audience, to judge if our execution is up to snuff, so I encourage you to join us and see for yourself.

Frankenstein’s Blogster: I’m So Lonely

Happy Halloween, everyone! Blogslave Keith Hock back again to share some more spooky scary horror thoughts with you before the Halloween Bell rings and I turn back into a pumpkin […right? My personal mythology is getting a little muddy -KH] and have to go back to talking about staging and lighting and direction and all that, you know, actual theatre stuff on this blog I write for a theatre company.

But before that happens I have one last horror trope discussion that I want to squeeze in, one that each of our three shows touches on differently: solitude. I’ve touched on this topic once before, but only in passing, and it was a LONG time ago. I think it’s about due for a deeper exploration, wouldn’t you say? Ordinarily I would invite you to join me on this journey for a little while, but it would be counter to my theme this time. So instead I will ask you to focus on the fact that you’re reading this by yourself. No one is with you. If you’re at work, everyone else is at their own desks, working on their projects or goldbricking like you, by themselves. If you’re on the train or the bus, even if you’re pressed in with people, each and every one of them, yourself included, is alone. Headphones crammed in both ears, eyes locked on your phones, willing away the sensation of being surrounded by strangers. Maybe you’re at home, sequestered from the dark chill outside, turning on all the lights so you don’t get sad and desperately clinging to whatever Netflix show you half-watch for company and noise, any noise to hide from the cold, mechanical tick-tock of that old-fashioned clock that you don’t remember buying or hanging up [whoa, lost the thread a little bit there. Let’s rein this back in. -ed.] Anyway, meditate on the intense loneliness that permeates modern life while we explore isolation in horror.

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Scott Whalen, from WHF’s 2018 production of Frankenstein. Photo by Mark Williams Hoeschler

Let’s start from the same place I started oh those many moons ago, when we were adapting our first Poe story. At the time I called out how uncommon it was that Poe would write a horror story that could so easily be rendered as a dialogue, because it suited our purposes from a staging perspective. And I had some, frankly, pretty stupid and poorly-written ideas about what made horror such a solitary genre. If I somehow had even less integrity than I already do I would have secretly edited that paragraph so that I sounded less dumb and had a halfway-coherent thesis. But instead I will leave it as a monument to the ignorance of youth, and will make some more bold and poorly substantiated claims here which certainly I will not be embarrassed to look back upon in another three years. Only this time, instead of broad generalizations about horror as a whole (which I have saved for my dramaturgy notes) I will observe solitude through the lens of our three adaptations, to see how different authors interpret this necessary facet of their genre.

In Dracula, solitude equals vulnerability, straight up-and-down. Lucy, Mina, and Jonathan are in the most danger when they are alone, separated from their allies. This should not be surprising for a book that is more transparently about the power of friendship than Harry Potter, a book series so transparently about the power of friendship that the seventh book opens with a quote about how the bonds of friendship are so powerful that they transcend death itself. Dracula prides himself on his hunting prowess, comparing himself to a wolf. But his wolf-lore is lacking, because he failed to notice that wolves hunt in packs. Once his prey are able to join together and work as a team they quickly turn the tables on the Count. The message is clear: while the world may be full of mystery and danger, there is no challenge that cannot be overcome with friends.

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L-R: Kerry McGee, Jon Reynolds, and Meg Lowey, ready to hunt some vampires.

Poe seldom used isolation as a theme in and of itself. He often used it as a symptom of sorrow, as in The Raven or Annabel Lee, or simply as a condition, a necessary precursor to the story he wanted to tell; for The Pit and the Pendulum to work the protagonist must be by himself, but his solitude doesn’t MEAN anything ulterior to the text. But most frequently for Poe, loneliness was closely associated with madness, though which one led to the other is not always necessarily clear and varies from story to story. Considering that Poe’s personal life was rife with personal tragedies, loss, and betrayal, it makes sense that he would be both desperate for, and suspicious of, companionship. Perhaps the best example is The Tell-tale Heart. Our murderous ‘hero’ at first seems to be driven mad by the mere presence of his elderly roommate, and then, if possible, driven even madder by his absence. Unable to tolerate either companionship or isolation, his unraveling mirror’s his author’s, and the reader’s, struggles to find their place in the human community.

Frankenstein is more explicit about the theme of solitude than Poe, for whom its meaning varies depending on the demands of the story, and more nuanced than Dracula, where it is directly refuted by demonstrating the importance of friendship. For Victor Frankenstein solitude brushes perilously close to solipsism. He needs to be alone while he works, he cannot bear Clerval’s presence or respond to his father’s letters. Even his wedding night he spends by himself, scorning his bride in a misguided attempt to outwit his far more cunning Creation. Frankenstein erects countless barriers between himself and the people who care about him, in the name of keeping them safe from his ‘tortured genius’. Contrast this with the Creation himself, an actual tortured genius who would love nothing more than simple human contact but is stymied by the cruel accident of his birth. Victor scorns the love that is heaped upon him at every turn in his arrogant pursuit of solitude, while his Creation, cursed to an eternity of isolation, hunts desperately for any sort of companionship or, indeed, attention.

 

If you would like to have friends to help keep you safe and sane from the encroaching darkness that typifies the human condition, why not invite someone to come with you to see one (or all) of our shows? We are running until the 10th of November, and tickets, though going fast, are still available! I hope to see you there!

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.

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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.

 

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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!