Friday, September 08, 2006

Othello at the American Shakespeare Center: A Round, Unvarnished Tale

I come not to bury the American Shakespeare Center, but to praise it -- and I mean to praise it to its gorgeous oaken rafters if I can. With the opening of Othello, the most domestic and provocative of Shakespeare's major tragedies, the four-play lineup for the center's "Summer/Fall Season" is finally complete. Although I have yet to see the ASC's productions of As You Like It, The Tempest, and MacBeth -- all in heavy rotation from now through November -- I'm happy to report that the final show in the series, Othello, is a delight from start to finish.

First, a few words on the center itself: For Virginians who consider ourselves as poor as church mice when it comes to high culture, the ASC complex in Staunton, Virginia, offers riches indeed. In any given year one can count on Shenandoah Shakespeare, the repertory company behind the Center, to stage no fewer than thirteen separate shows, including works from the Bard, plays by his contemporaries, and even a more recent offering or two like Greater Tuna or The Santaland Diaries. The center is best known for its traditional fare (the more traditional the better), and slowly but surely it has made the unlikely hamlet of Staunton a world-class destination for Shakespeare lovers who want to see a "round, unvarnished tale."

Five years ago, the company unveiled its piece de resistance -- a mind-blowing, one-of-a-kind reconstruction of the Blackfriars Playhouse. Shakespeare's indoor theater, the lesser-known companion to his outdoor Globe, has been reproduced in meticulous and loving detail, with intricate woodwork, beautiful chandeliers and a well-trod thrust stage. Some concessions have been made to modernity, mostly in the lobby area: Electricity, of course, and indoor plumbing, but also a modern elevator, ramps for limited handicapped accessibility, a tiny bar serving local wines, a computerized ticket system and a spacious, well-appointed backstage area. But the theater proper seems to belong to an entirely different universe, one in which seventeenth-century theater has been recreated and reinvented for the twenty-first century.

As the actors inform the audience prior to each show, Shenandoah Shakespeare employs "Universal Staging Practices." There is no lighting designer because there is no lighting: House lights remain on throughout every performance, allowing the actors to see and interact with the audience. There is no set designer, because there are no sets -- or rather, the Blackfriars is the set. Props are minimal; costuming may or may not be period, but is never elaborate. Staging tends to occur throughout the theater: For crowd scenes, actors may even lead the audience in chanting and clapping. And because the cast works with a different audience at each performance, no two shows are ever exactly alike. The idea here is to present Shakespeare's plays more or less as a seventeenth-century audience would have experienced them.

As a side benefit, Shenandoah Shakespeare explores the Bard's relationship to the theater of his day, and reveals his keen awareness of both environment and audience. The dialogue of Shakespearean drama is often tinged with actors' jargon (for instance, Othello's line "Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it / Without a prompter"), and although a reader may easily overlook or slight them, these reflexive moments gain renewed force in an explicitly theatrical setting like the Blackfriars. Of course, Shakespeare was no Bertholdt Brecht. Brecht's "epic theater" is designed to direct audiences' attention away from the stage, while Shakespeare's self-consciousness brings us ever closer to the action. Few contemporary Shakespearean productions manage to capture the joyfully reflexive, even metatheatrical qualities of his writing, but the American Shakespeare Center manages to do so at nearly every performance.

The only downside to ASC's approach is that it makes Othello impossible to review in any normal sense. I could say, for instance, that the actor playing Iago (James Keegan) looks too old for the part, and that the actor playing Othello (Rene Thornton Jr.) is much too young, but none of these naturalistic criteria matter much. The important thing is that James Keegan has created the best Iago I've ever seen, a man's man who exudes friendly, frat-boy charm among his fellow soldiers, yet confides his deep-seated malice to the audience. Keegan uses the Blackfriars' impeccable acoustics to great effect, delivering low stage asides and angry tirades with equal elan. Most importantly, he makes clear that Iago is no less deluded or weak than the man he would destroy, which doubles the tragic impact of the final scene. Far from the "motiveless malignity" that Samuel Coleridge famously described, this Iago is a tragic figure in his own right.

Rene Thornton's Othello is more problematic: He does not convey the gravitas of a military leader, and consequently his downfall never fully registers. Nonetheless, Thornton is immensely likable, and plays off Keegan's Iago well. More successful, I think, is Sarah Fallon as Desdemona: Shakespeare's women are generally well-played at the Blackfriars (even when, as here, they happen to be ill-used), and this Desdemona exhibits none of the simpering tendencies often associated with the character. Fallon plays Othello's ill-starred wife as a virtuous, strong-willed woman, who loves her husband yet is bewildered at his sudden, inexplicable change of heart. Celia Madeoy excels as Emilia, a sensible woman torn between sexual attraction to husband Iago and her growing suspicion that he might be up to no good.

In keeping with the ASC's general approach, director Jim Warren does not impose an interpretive agenda on Othello. The approach pays handsome dividends, by showing the play to be far richer and more complex than most of us have thought. Most audiences and directors -- American ones, anyway -- see Othello as Shakespeare's definitive statement against racial prejudice, and race is a prominent issue here. But it is far from the only issue: The play may also be considered a pre-feminist expose of domestic violence, or a scathing condemnation of the practice of "honor killing" (which sadly survives even in the enlightened West). It might serve as a warning on the dangers of military idleness (when Othello's soldiers arrive at Crete and discover they have no battles to fight, they promptly turn their swords on each other), or it could give a timely reminder that even a brave soldier can lose his bearings when he's kept too long away from home. Warren allows Othello to signify all these things and more. Yet he never presses too heavily on a single issue, and he never allows the play's various thematic concerns to overshadow its entertainment value.

And make no mistake, ASC's Othello is rousing entertainment, the kind that reminds us what is sadly missing from too many Shakespeare productions. Most actors and directors, at least from Orson Welles onward, have struggled with the problem of making the Bard of Avon accessible to modern audiences, and to this end they often employ elaborate staging, obvious political agendas, and other devices to distract the audience from the form and the language of Elizabethan drama. But the American Shakespeare Center suggests, quite subversively, that Shakespeare might have had the answer all along: The play's the thing.


A word to parents: ASC productions are family-friendly, and may be considered generally suitable for ages ten and up with supervision. The usual caveats as to sexual content and dirty jokes apply, of course. Othello, perhaps the most thematically mature Shakespeare work, is something of an exception, but even so this ASC production should be appropriate for younger teens with parental supervision. Parents who want to introduce their children to the Bard will find no better opportunity, and prices at the Blackfriars (especially for upper balcony stalls) are unbeatable.

Monday, September 04, 2006

My Dinner with Terry

"Did you know they have a pipe organ?" Terry Teachout asks me.

It's Friday evening, and I'm meeting the Wall Street Journal theater critic in the lobby of the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center in downtown Staunton, Virginia: He's arrived in town for a few days to review the opening night of Shenandoah Shakespeare's Othello, and to catch a few other Shenandoah Shakespeare productions from the current season. By Sunday morning, he'll understand what the company is doing, and possess all the info he needs for a review next Friday. (And if you're looking for spoilers, gentle reader, you won't get them from me.)

Usually New York critics don't venture far beyond Gotham -- even New Jersey is too exotic for some. But Teachout has been visiting Shakespearean festivals from coast to coast, looking at regional theaters and generally giving critical parochialism a none-too-easy goosing. He's also been meeting up with arts bloggers wherever he goes, which is how I received an invitation for dinner and an evening of theater. Truth to tell, I would never have expected a New York theater critic to care about the theater scene in Staunton. Heck, I'm from Charlottesville (thirty-five miles away), and most of the time I don't care about the theater scene in Staunton. I am beginning to rethink that position.

The Stonewall would be easy to find even without the red neon sign on the roof: As you drive into the old downtown, the building all but sticks a foot out to trip you. However, Staunton's queer layout -- nearly every street is one-way, and nearly every way comes out wrong -- makes actually getting into the hotel a tricky business. I'm meeting Terry in the lobby because -- well, it's the Stonewall Jackson Hotel, and as far as I know everybody meets there. The hotel is considered "historic" because it first opened its doors back in 1924, though as far as I know nothing of global significance ever happened there. It certainly has no connection that I know of to any Confederate general. I don't know how the hotel will attract anything other than Citizens' Council and Sons of Confederate Veterans conventions with its awful name, but I doubt anyone will change it: In Virginia, we're perfectly happy to sacrifice good business to bad politics.

When I first saw the Stonewall Jackson a decade ago it was nothing but a derelict hulk, but over the past few years it has been restored to something like its original splendor and reopened to guests. This was the first time I'd ever been inside, and the stately marble-floored lobby was obviously meant to knock my socks off. And yes, the hotel has its own pipe organ -- a Wurlitzer from the grand old days when ballrooms were for dancing, not for conferences.

Teachout is easy enough to spot: He's the only one who's trying to read something. He's holding a glossy black publicity portfolio from the Blackfriars Playhouse -- where we're going this evening -- about six inches from the tip of his nose, and I recognize the folder straight away because I've had one of them before (a gift from fellow theater critic and libertarian blogger Rick Sincere). True, the sad remnants of Hurricane Ernesto are passing overhead, and what promised to be a full-blown, bring-it-on tropical storm has instead been a cold, sloppy, all-day rain. But we're about as ideally situated as anyone could be: The playhouse is next door to the hotel, the hotel has a Friday night seafood buffet, and if we decide to eat elsewhere, all the restaurants of downtown Staunton are but a stone's throw away. We don't have to get wet; we barely have to go outside. Everything is set and ready.

Naturally, I have to bollix things up a bit.

As everyone who reads Terry's blog already knows, Terry has been fighting a nasty little cold bug for the past few weeks -- and a long, stressful drive from Washington, DC to the southern end of the Shenandoah Valley through driving rain isn't exactly good for what ails you. Despite a considerable headstart, he had managed to arrive at the Stonewall only a few minutes before I did, with "just enough time to change my shirt." Clearly, this situation called for comfort food, Southern style. In Staunton the best place to get down-home cooking is Mrs. Rowe's Restaurant and Bakery. Mrs. Rowe's is about as far from the Stonewall as you can get and still be in Staunton, but since we're talking about a small town that's not necessarily saying much: I drive Terry there, and within ten minutes, we're running through the rain into the front door. "I couldn't have done that a year ago," Terry says. Mrs. Rowe's is very popular, especially on Friday nights, but we have no trouble getting a table in a back, teal-colored dining room -- next to a family of six. A child begins to squall nearby, and I flash what I hope is a conspiratorial, slightly malicious grin: "Welcome to Staunton."

By now I'm getting a good look at Teachout. His face suggests that he is open, frank and pleasant, but not altogether easy to peg. The bearing suggests a little of Felix Ungar, a little of Oscar Madison, frequently both at once. You wouldn't take him for a Missourian right away (although he has written extensively about his small-town upbringing), but you wouldn't think him a native New Yorker either: There is something about him that always seems betwixt and between, though never in a disquieting or uncomfortable manner. His Southern accent can fade in and out as the situation dictates.

My own accent tends toward a clipped geographic neutrality, and Terry is quick to notice this. Our waitress's accent is unmistakable, and when Terry and I sit down he instinctively takes the chair facing her. The two of them prove endearing and accomplished flirts, in the cordial style of small-town restaurants where no alcohol is served. Even though Mrs. Rowe's has grown in both size and reputation over the past half-century or so, it's still the sort of place where men may expect service with an extra "sweetie" or "hon" on the side (no doubt to aid the fragile masculine digestion).

Terry and I have ordered plates of country ham steak. This dish -- for which this restaurant is justly renowned -- would send a cardiologist into screaming fits, with a quarter-inch thick slice of sugar-cured pork that covers nearly the entire plate. A small circle of marrowy bone sits in the center, such as all country hams have, but the cut contains surprisingly little fat. A side of baked apples garnishes the ham; mashed potatoes with gravy and green beans occupy smaller bowls on the side. Each meal comes with a moist, buttery-sweet ice-cream scoop of spoonbread, a Southern cornmeal concoction so named because it is both served and eaten with a spoon. Portions range from ample to overwhelming: My soda comes in a bladder-busting red cup, and Terry's iced tea comes by the carafe. Everything is delicious. For dessert, Terry orders a chocolate pie topped with a weightless meringue; I order a more solid but no less scrumptious half-brick of bread pudding (the last one, I'm told), drenched in warm, white custard sauce. Terry informs me with a wink that "capitalism is paying for your meal this evening," and grins from ear to ear when he sees that our bill amounts to less than forty dollars. "The Journal won't even feel that," he cackles.

At first the conversation flits across a number of miscellaneous topics: We talk about Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, which both of us have seen and neither of us entirely liked, but which I enjoyed more than he did. (I think Terry wanted complex music and psychological depth, while I was happy to settle for background noise and children's theater.) We mention the prolific Richard Greenberg, and how watching his plays feels like playing the slots: Verbose + Neurotic + Gay = Small Payoff. We talk briefly about my post criticizing his "Sightings" column on Gunther Grass, which involved no small degree of overreading on my part. But soon Terry has turned the spotlight on me -- he wants to know who I am, since this blog has never provided an abundance of about-the-author information. Of all possible topics, I am the one I least anticipated, and feel least prepared to discuss. Frankly, most people I know would much rather talk about themselves than me, and I generally find it best to let them.

Yet within a few minutes Terry has managed to coax a few round, unvarnished tales out of me that I don't believe I've ever told anyone before, and he's managed to get me talking about my own first love -- music. His technique is remarkably novel, or at least seems so to me: He asks questions and listens to my answers. As I speak, Teachout subtly mimics a few gestures: When my elbow rests on the table, so does his. Within minutes he has found a general theme in the stories I half-tell and the details I'm reluctant to divulge (especially within earshot of a family of six). In case you're wondering, gentle reader, for a Gay conservative and recovering leftist in rural Virginia who loves all the arts, even the ones he's not sure he can share with anybody, that general theme would be "apostasy." Finding threads within stories is what critics get paid to do, of course.

But the best critics are concerned with something beyond mere criticism; they wish to do something other than separate sheep from goats. Much of Teachout's writing is geared toward initiation (which might well be his overall theme): Terry places himself in the space between discovery and connoisseurship, so that he may shuttle his readers from one point to the other (and sometimes back again). It says something, too, that Terry does this as a conservative critic -- and perhaps only an old-school conservative temperament, the kind which revels in the absence of ideology, could really accomplish it. His main objective, it seems, is to pique readers' interest in things they don't already know, to transform curiosity into delight and delight into knowledge. Terry is undoubtedly working his alchemy on me: He has suggested more autobiographical blogging (of which I hope this post constitutes a start) and even the possibility of my becoming a professional freelance writer. He adds that "no matter who you are or what you think, in New York you can generally find a group of people who will agree with you."

At a few minutes past seven, Terry and I leave Mrs. Rowe's for the Blackfriars to catch Othello. It takes us slightly longer to get there than I plan, because I take a wrong turn on the way. In the lobby, Terry and I are detained by the director of publicity, who is very happy to see him. He explains the staging practices of the theater (about which, more anon) while loud, pep-rally cheers emanate from the interior. The design of the lobby may be contemporary, but that's all for the sake of contrast: As we enter the Blackfriars, the director claims, we'll "go back in time four hundred years." Four hundred years or not, I think we both want to see what all that cheering is about. I know I do.

And here, I'm afraid, the curtain must fall -- for the time being, anyway. I've promised not to reveal anything about Terry's review, so my own post on the Blackfriars' production of Othello can't and won't appear until Friday morning. Still, if historian William McNeil is correct, and progress really does occur when strangers meet, perhaps there was more to my dinner with Terry than met the eye. Nothing life-changing occurred, but something happened somewhere, at least on my end: Already I'm beginning to look at blogging in a slightly different light. In future I may post more frequently and doubtless more frivolously. I intend to keep up the film and theater criticism, though it may be a bit more informal. I also plan to post some personal essays as well -- all in the hope that you, gentle reader, may enjoy getting to know me a little better.

(Hat tips: First of all, to Terry Teachout for reminding me what a horrible name the Stonewall Jackson is for a hotel, and then to Rick Sincere for steering me to an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.)

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Subscribe to Posts [Atom]