look closely. think twice. cut once.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Margin Notes: May Violets Spring

Seen on: Sunday, 10/2/16.
My grade: B+

Plot and Background
Briefly put (since brevity is the soul of reviewing), this is a reexamination of Shakespeare's Hamlet from Ophelia's perspective, with a few twists thrown in. A mix of language from the Shakespeare canon and original text by playwright James Parenti, May Violets Spring puts Ophelia front and center, showing us pieces of the Ophelia we think we know, and the Ophelia we never got a chance to meet. The play was previously workshopped with The Other Mirror and performed by Dare Lab. Turn To Flesh, a company dedicated to new verse plays, revives this show as the mainstage of their 2016 season.

What I Knew Beforehand, 
and Disclosure
I saw (and reviewed favorably) an earlier workshop of this play (as well as recently interviewed its playwright, James Parenti). I'm also good friends with director Emily C. A. Snyder.


Play: In my review of the Dare Lab production, I examined the question of culpability. With an Ophelia possessing greater agency than her source material counterpart, she therefore carries more responsibility for how events play out - particularly when plot points or ideas are given into her hands rather than Hamlet's (such as the idea of "The Mousetrap" play). While that was - at least to me - a dominant theme of the play at that point, it is less of a question now. It is clearer now how many of the bad turns in the plot are the result of Hamlet's recklessness, as contrasted with Ophelia's more measured approach to problem solving. In general, I would say there's an increase in clarity across the board, particularly in regards to other characters' responsibilities or shortcomings. Gertrude's position as the deceptively perceptive but coldly pragmatic would-be mother-in-law is clearly and unforgivingly etched, while Horatio's loyalty and instinctive empathy for her similarly-orphaned friend feels organic and earned. As for Hamlet, well - that boy needs to work on his impulse control. I am generally a fan of the deepened explorations of the characters I see in this new draft, although toward the end, the pacing starts to flag and I begin to feel the length of the piece. Still, the craft inherent in the writing of this play is high caliber and noteworthy, and I'm glad it's being given further life by Turn to Flesh Productions.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Margin Notes: Hedda (Gabler)

Valerie Redd as Hedda. Photo by Jeff Farkash.

Seen on: Saturday, 9/24/16.
My grade: A-. Sumptuous and intimate.

Plot and Background
Hedda Gabler, Henrik Ibsen's 1891 classic, follows the titular character as she returns from her honeymoon, already bored with her new husband and seeking power and control over others' destinies. She is orbited by George, her smiling mediocrity of a husband; Judge Brack, a family acquaintance out for power of his own; and Eilert, a former flame - now sober, writing great works, and in love with an old classmate of Hedda's, Thea. As Hedda gathers and weaves the strands of these people's lives, she finds herself inextricably knotted in her own web. Hedda (Gabler) is produced by Wandering Bark Theatre Company, currently in residence at IRT. Wandering Bark, founded in 2011, is dedicated to exploring and adaption classical works, often with live music, multi-media design, and stylized physicality.

What I Knew Beforehand
It's vaguely possible I saw a teleplay of Hedda Gabler at some point, as the story beats felt familiar, and I definitely knew the play's final moment (and not just because of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder). And I knew I would be working through the fact that Ibsen generally leaves me cold.


Play: I don't know to whom to give the most credit - Matt Minnicino's taut 90-minute adaptation, Joseph Mitchell Parks's seamless, circling staging, or the cast, largely excellent and without self-indulgent flourishes - but this production belied my usual issues with Ibsen with aplomb. The story was gripping, full of inevitability and yet fighting its own fate with a laced-in ferality. The play still doesn't quite answer the question of just how such a person as Hedda can exist, but that seems to be an intended mystery - no one, not even Eilert, grasps the fullness of her, the hidden agendas, the plans, the manipulations. Only Hedda knows, and she's not telling. The play is staged with great economy, transitioning between scenes with stylized dances, as choreographed by Brad Landers, that give more insight into Hedda's inner motivations than her behavior in polite company. If you think you don't like Ibsen, I challenge you to take the time to go see this production, and then talk to me about it. If you do like Ibsen, then you should absolutely see it, and then talk to me about it.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Someone please explain to me what this is

In a break from recent form, this little piece of flotsam is begging to be shared. I've begun a project of reading through all my old abandoned writing and scraps of discarded thoughts to see if there's anything salvageable.

And I have no idea what this is. Please enjoy.

Friday, September 9, 2016

My Digital Couch: A Conversation with Playwright James Parenti

Photo by Trish Phelps.
Playwright, actor, songwriter, and producer James Parenti has a story to tell. His play, May Violets Spring, "a new story for a new Ophelia," will be presented later this month by Turn To Flesh Productions, a company with the motto "Modern Themes. Classic Style." James and I had a seat on my digital couch this past week to chat about the play's journey and when it's okay to futz with Shakespeare. The following is a slightly edited version of our conversation.

Z: Let's start at the beginning - what prompted you to write May Violets Spring?
JP: About six years ago, I was involved with the theater company The Other Mirror. Their artistic director - the incredibly talented Katherine M. Carter - and I had known each other for years, and we were discussing doing a production of Hamlet, bouncing around ideas. I'd somehow gotten it into my head that it would be cool to have Ophelia onstage during Hamlet's first few soliloquies. In my mind, this would help solidify their relationship, and deepen the tragedy of them losing each other (I learned years later that Sir Derek Jacobi had done something similar in his touring Hamlet in the '70s). But then, what self-respecting person would sit silently while the one they love agonizes? Why wouldn't she speak up, try to help? It was really exciting to see these soliloquies as scenes rather than speeches. Ophelia's already an incredibly interesting character in Hamlet proper, but to see her bouncing around ideas with one of the most brilliant characters in the English-speaking theater was extremely satisfying.

I was also interested in a particular interpretation of Ophelia's mad scene. One of the flowers she distributes is rue, which historically was used as an abortifacient: i.e., could be used to induce a miscarriage to rid oneself of an unwanted pregnancy. Therefore: was Ophelia pregnant? Did she have a more sexual relationship with Hamlet than we had explicitly seen onstage? I don't think this is the only interpretation, but it's one I believe is supported by the text. So I took it upon myself to write a few lines in blank verse to add to the play. I thought that if they were written in such a way, they might sound enough like Shakespeare than an audience might not realize the lines hadn't always been there.

And when I brought these ideas to Katherine, she pointed out what I hadn't realized: changes like these weren't just modifications to Hamlet; they were changing something fundamental about it. This was the beginning of an adaptation, a new play. She was the first person to encourage me to not write only a few lines, but to see how far this rabbit hole would take me. Turns out, it's a pretty deep hole.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

A Sung-Through ... Book? (in defense of Hamilton, as if Hamilton needs my defense)

I've had several friends reach out to me recently to ask me to explain why Hamilton is up for Best Book of a Musical. There's literally only one scene with dialogue - the rest is sung- (or rapped-) through. Even New York Times critic Charles Isherwood (who really should know better - this is his field) said as much on May 3rd:
I do find it slightly puzzling that it was nominated in the book of a musical category, since the show is almost sung-through, but it's the kind of juggernaut that we haven't seen in years.
Suddenly my impatience with past Tony telecasts with presenters pedantically explained what is the book of a musical seems poorly directed. It's time to check my premises - not everyone is the same level of nerd as me.

So let's look at this.

My Anomalously Accurate Tony Predictions

Lin-Manuel Miranda and company in Hamilton
I'm rather disappointed I didn't get to use one of the funny titles I have stocked up for this year's Tony predictions, but I think we all know where the majority of the awards (for musicals anyway) are going this year. My only hope for consistent inaccuracy is to get the play predictions entirely wrong. Let's see how out of touch we are! (or how far my anti-O'Neill bias tends). Previous season predictions here.

It was a strange season for Broadway this year, or at least for new musicals. I began the season thinking we'd have all these massive risk-taking productions, knowing they can't actually contend for the big awards, but wanting to make a splash anyway. And in certain ways, we did get that - we certainly saw a vastly more diverse season this year than, say, Hollywood. But with the premature closings of a number of shows (some deserved, some not), from Amazing Grace and Allegiance in the first half of the season, to the ill-advised Forrest Whitaker Hughie mid-season, and the recently-closed (or imminently closing) Disaster!, Tuck Everlasting and American Psycho, there's a sense that Broadway audiences are less willing to settle for Not!Hamilton - or at least that producers are more willing to cut their losses and get out while the getting's good; usually shows will wait til the awards season is over to announce their closing, but with little to no Tony love for Tuck or Psycho, perhaps I shouldn't be as surprised as I was.

Let's go see how badly I can predict play awards, shall we?

Friday, May 13, 2016

Regarding Eugene O'Neill and the Scarcity of Time

Last night I saw Roundabout's revival of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, and boy did it live up to its title. I've made no secret of the fact that I'm not an O'Neill fan, but last night was my breaking point. At around the three hour mark, I assumed (foolishly) we were near the end, and then spent the final hour with my thoughts caroming among various foci of:

  • imagining disaster scenarios,
  • wondering why they were still talking,
  • debating if I could pull off a pixie cut, and
  • resenting everyone in that theater.

So we're done. I'm drawing a line in the sand. Life is too short and O'Neill plays are too long. I've seen his two "greatest classics," both in much-lauded productions, and if I don't love him from those, I never will.

And now for some lighter fare:

In 2012, following a debate with a friend on the merits of this playwright, I penned a little A-B dialogue summing up Every Eugene O'Neill Play. At the time I had only seen one of his plays and read another. Having seen three O'Neill plays this past year, I can say with conviction that my playlet holds up.