Staged Reading: ‘In The Belly Of The Whale’

This is the second, Taffety Punk sponsored, Capitol Hill Arts Workshop located, staged reading of a new play that I’ve seen. Like the first, it riffs on an existing (and canonical) work. In the first case, it was Shakespeare’s infrequently produced Coriolanus and in this case, it is the story of Jonah, from Genesis.

There’s no good way to say this, but I was disappointed. It’s a work in progress, but the flaws are so striking and, dare I say, intrinsic, that it’s hard to see it being a success.

It is a six person play: Jona (a woman, unlike her Old Testament namesake, and the protagonist), Astrid Overlander (a sculptor), Domino (a sort of frightened old man caricature who steals/collects junk that…), Jed (sells on the street; he’s also a caricature, but a more amusing one; a comic, street level entrepreneur who is alwasy optimistic about future business prospects), a parrot named Calliope, and the stage manager.

I assume the stage manager is a ‘character,’ because without her narration, the quantity of dialogue drops sharply and the quantity, elaborateness, and expense of the sets would become impractical for almost any theater (and it would turn the play into something more like a special effects extravaganza). But that ‘character’ also becomes a crutch and violation of the old writing adage, ‘show, don’t tell.’ She tells us what’s happening all through the play (and had, by far the most lines; more than the other combined, I wager).

The ideas picked up and dropped resemble a grab bag of late night, undergrad conversations. Jona writes to (explicitly stating so) fend off the coming (literal) end of the world. Astrid makes sculptures that are simultaneously cradles, cages, and arks. Domino collects the detritus of the world. They are Brooklyn bohemians and stereotypes, rescued, after a fashion, from a biblical flood by the surprisingly buoyancy of Astrid’s latest masterpiece. There’s a whale swallowing, there’s guilt overcoming (even though the origin of her guilt seems rather low stakes, especially for one apparently triggering both an apocalypse and a whale swallowing), there’s an ark, there’s that cradle metaphor, and that cage metaphor, and hypergraphia, and messages in a bottle, and on and on and the themes tangle and mix and never resolve and never cohere and I still don’t know what it was trying to say.

The Social Contract

  I’m not going to explain Rousseau’s Social Contract. Frankly, if you’re reading this, you can look up what better folks than I have to say about the Swiss philosopher meant or should have meant or maybe meant. Also, you probably have access to a public library. And if that public library is poorly stocked in terms of Enlightenment philosophy and commentary, there are university libraries. Maybe you can’t check out a book, but there is pretty much no barrier to simply going inside and spending a few hours reading up on the subject.

What struck me was how some of his remarks are quite prophetic in their implicit criticism of some of the structural problems affecting the American (and global) economy.

Very early on, he criticizes what today we might call rentier capitalism. In The Social Contract, he is speaking purely about land (possession of agricultural still being the avenue towards wealth and the source of the aristocracy’s wealth), but the idea is easily transferable to modern financial instruments.

Possession of land, he says, must, in part, be justified by ‘labor and cultivation.’ Modern financial instruments do little to actually invest in production or innovation or much of anything (if I buy AT&T stock, AT&T does not suddenly have extra capital to expand broadband access; rather, I have simply given money to the someone who used to own the stock). In other words, they do not participate in ‘labor and cultivation.’

Later, he also explicitly attacks finance directly, as a destructive force that drives government away from the business of public service and which replaces ‘community’ (though he references the city-state, which shouldn’t be taken too literally, but rather as a reference to Greek philosophy and an idealized, Athenian-style polis) with money.

On economic inequality:

It is precisely because the force of circumstances tends continually to destroy equality that the force of legislation should always tend to its maintenance.

His distinction between ‘will’ and ‘force’ are in the context of the difference between the legislative and executive branches, which is less interesting and, in one sense, posits ‘will’ as the act of legislation and ‘force’ as the act of execution of said legislation (later, he also says that separation of the legislative and executive is necessary in a democracy). But he is pretty explicit that will is a moral cause (using ’cause’ in a loose, but not too loose, philosophical sense).

He gets what Machiavelli was trying to do in The Prince. Ostensibly writing for a prince, but actually writing for a future, restored republic.

Rather interestingly, he notes that, sometimes, slavery was a necessity for a form of democracy. He notes that widespread use of slaves in ancient Sparta might have been what allowed Spartan citizens to be free to participate in the government and direction of their city.

It’s interesting because, more and more, it is clear that American democracy was built on the economic back of slavery – that only the economic benefits (benefits for the white, male elite who created American democracy) of slavery allowed for the existence of America, both intellectually and practically.

The old copy of the book that I read had a slip of paper in it (actually, a piece torn from an envelope), with an address in my writing to the Open Fist Theatre Company in Los Angeles. It’s not far from my old apartment in Hollywood, though I don’t remember going there.

Staged Reading Of A New Play At The Capitol Hill Arts Workshop

I’d had a ticket for this, but then the blizzard came and it was rescheduled. It wasn’t a full on production but a staged reading of a new play titled First Citizen, presenting the little performed Shakespeare play, Coriolanus, from (mostly) the point of view of four ‘citizens’ who more or less represented different classes and different political viewpoints. Rather like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the play interspersed actual dialogue from Shakespeare with the new dialogue of First Citizen. Afterwards, was a talk back session; I had been expecting it to be more question and answer, but it was more like an open critique.

Some of the critiques I disagreed with, especially since most centered around historicity. Whether characters accurately reflected socio-economic realities of that time (late Republic) of Roman history. Whether we needed more background on Roman politics (what are the roles of the Consul and Tribunes?).

My personal response was different. As to historicity, first of all, it’s in dialogue with Shakepeare who, despite writing plays known as ‘history plays,’ should not be considered a historical source, so let’s not ask it to be historically accurate (but let’s do ask it to be presently relevant). Secondly, knowing some of the basics of the political system of one of the founding civilizations of what we know as western civilization is not, actually, too much to ask. I don’t want to get into (relevant) questions of euro-centrism in education, but knowing the barest minimum about the Roman Republic is pretty basic stuff (and does not preclude nor exclude also having a basic knowledge about Imperial China’s bureaucratic system).

On the positive side, the play handled political questions well. It was a political play about the best path for change that benefits the mass of people and it did an excellent job of not reaching conclusions, by which I mean, every point of view was challenged, so that the audience was denied a pat, self-satisfied answer and was instead given more questions.

On the negative, and it’s a small point, I thought that the non-‘direct from Coriolanus‘ dialogue was too much in the middle. It bounced a bit between colloquial and vaguely Shakespearean. Don’t try to compete, I say. I would have liked the original dialogue to be more colloquial and more modern in tone.

But really good and if it is put on around here, I would go see it.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ At The Folger


Loved it.

Went on a whim. Found some cheap tickets online, bought that day for the show that evening.

When I was a child, my mother took me to see this play, making it my first encounter with live Shakespeare. If I’m honest, I don’t really have any firm memories of it. Nor had I read the play since then, so, rather unusually, I was able to go into the performance with only the barest knowledge of the plot (star-crossed lovers, Puck, fairies, and a donkey).

The production was befittingly playful, with some fun, extra-textual touches (a lovelorn Helena introduced singing a sad song by Adele). Puck was played by Erin Weaver as less a trickster, than a pan-sexual cupid (actually, all three fairy characters were pretty hypersexed). Lovers Lysander and Hermia were twenty-something, backpacking travelers; Helena as a stylish young woman (except that when first seen, she’s wearing the sweats of a depressed and jilted lover); but Demetrius was merely… I don’t know… millennial? He didn’t really get the kind of identifying costuming that the others did.

And it ended with an onstage dance party by the cast.

There’s still time. Absolutely worth seeing. Arguably, the second best production I’ve seen at the Folger (number one has to be their amazing Richard III).

Also, because of all the extremely valuable primary documents in the exhibit hall, they opened up the library itself for wine, water, and snacks (not wanting to risk a priceless letter to Shakespeare being wine-stained). Unless you’re a legitimate scholar, you don’t get much chance to wander back there, so that was exciting.


BAM_image300As part of a series of plays by and/or about women that is currently appearing throughout the city, the Folger Shakespeare Library put on texts&beheadings/ElizabethR.

It’s far better than the title, which sounds like it was written by someone who’d just read of tone essays of by second rate Derrida disciples.

On stage are four ‘Elizabeths,’ each representing, in part, different periods of her life, but mostly different aspects of her life. For example, the last one to be featured (in what the cast declared to be Movement 4), mostly focused on her strident anger at attempts to marginalize her or threaten her reign or right to rule.

Each of the four movements featured one actress whose ‘lines’ were almost exclusively from the writings on Queen Elizabeth herself – from her prayers, her letters, her poetry, and her speeches to Parliament. The other three would speak more colloquially, providing background and context.

It was absolutely gripping and compelling and it seems petty to criticize, but I will anyway. One actress had a strong accent (Spanish, I think), which detracted, for me, from her portrayal as that quintessentially English figure. On a more existential level, as fantastic as it was, what was the purpose? What were we intended to learn or walk from it with? I’m not clear.

But still. A Shakespeare theater was the perfect outlet for this, because any production of Shakespeare invariably is at least partly about showing this centuries old writer, this man of his times, wrote works that are relevant and timely/timeless. If this play (performance? production? it’s not exactly a play, is it?) had a purpose, at least part is showing how Queen Elizabeth’s existential, feminist struggles for power, for the right to power, and for the right to determination are as timeless and timely as they are of their time.

I Finally Got My Better Half To Come With Me To #LittleSalonDC

PuppetIt wasn’t that she found the idea particularly objectionable, but that she was out of town every time I went (purely coincidence, I assure you). She hemmed and hawed a little, but in the end, it was a great night and I think she enjoyed it.

Flying Guillotine Press launched new book of collaborative poetry by sixty odd writers called Breaking the Lines. I checked it out, but it wasn’t really my bag, but I did pick up another one of their books, Stephanie Balzer’s WED JAN 30 12:58:10 2013 – THU DEC 20 14:16:36 2012. There were also jam samples from PinUp Preserves, but someone I missed those.

The opening was some poetry by Lucian Mattison and… can I admit he didn’t really do it for me? From DC’s ‘Opera on Tap’ (wherein people sing opera at bars) were Kristina Riegle, Carla Rountree, and David Chavez. They actually sang from musical theater, but they were great performers, as well as being excellent singers. I even got some special attention during ‘I Hate Men,’ because when the line about men with chest hair arrived, well, I was the only person near the front with  suitably Sean Connery-esque fur. I don’t get a huge amount of attention from ladies these days, so we take what we can get, even if it’s being singled out during a song entitled, ‘I Hate Men.’ Finally, there was a vaudeville style act by Mark Jaster and Sabrina Mandell (from Happenstance Theater) and puppetry by Sarah Olmsted Thomas and Alex Vernon (also occasionally from Happenstance Theater). The puppetry was absolutely magical, though it would take too long to explain, so if you live near DC, try and find a time to see it and if you don’t, well, sucks to be you.

‘Tartuffe’ At The Shakespeare Theatre Company


Washington, DC is blessed with not one, but two Shakespeare theaters. One is my neighborhood stage at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the other is the glass-fronted, Chinatown edifice of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

From the moment I saw it on the schedule, I knew I wanted to see it. I’d read Moliere, but had never seen one of his plays performed before. And the reading can’t do justice to a broad, creepy, over the top, sexual and more than a little sado-masoschistic-y production. All of which should be considered good things. Once the audience got into it, there was always someone trying to hold back their laughter in a ‘I can’t believe s/he did/said that’ kind of way.

Oh. And the titular Tartuffe looked a Anderson Cooper at an S&M club, wearing a shirt with a nipple exposing flap on the front, if Anderson Cooper were sibiliantly voiced, classically trained dancer.

‘L’Épreuve Villageoise’ From The Opera Lafayette


This is the third time I’ve seen a production by the Opera Lafayette, who specialize in eighteenth century French opera, but it was the first opera-comique I’ve seen by them.

A small cast (four singers, a ‘chorus,’ and a dancer) and minimal sets for a small, gem-like romantic comedy. Pascale Beaudin as the female lead, the country girl Denise, was absolutely darling. You wanted to take her home to meet mother. Her eventual beau, Andre, impressed me less, but his buffoonish romantic rival, a baritoned Thomas Dolié, was a great comic foil. The production was performed in the relatively intimate terrace theater (I have no idea how many stages there actually are in the Kennedy Center… but there are a lot).

I’d say go see it… but it’s too late. Suckers.

I actually was not going to go, but I won free tickets from WETA, our local classical music station. The five dollars a month I donate has been more than paid back. I actually found out that I’d won through a suspicious sounding email (apparently, the original winner never responded, so I was next in line – I was told to reply back quickly, because they needed to get the name to will call) and right up until I they handed me the tickets, I had an itch at the back of my head that this was all a phishing scam. But it wasn’t and it was great d–n day.

‘Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead’

As soon as I knew the play was on the schedule for this season, I knew that I wanted to see it. The only Tom Stoppard plays I have seen performed at Arcadia (which, oddly, I have seen on three separate occasions: once in Atlanta; once in Montgomery, Alabama; and once in at the Folger) and The Invention of Love. Being a great lover of Hamlet, it irked me that I’d never had the chance to see this particular play.

For much of the play, it is just the two characters on stage, alone. Other characters walk in an out, but they are peripheral to the ‘real’ world of Hamlet. It’s at once hilarious and terribly sad and if you’re in DC, I hope you’ll see it at the Folger. It made me think of the lines from the Pink Floyd song, Wish You Were Here: Did you exchange/a walk on part in the war/for a leading role in a cage?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trapped as walk on parts in a cage, without any real agency. They exist only to propel the progress of their betters/greaters, i.e., the leading characters in Hamlet. It left me feeling very melancholy because it suggests that it may never be possible to understand one’s purpose, even if one knows one’s purpose, and that knowledge could be meaningless because it comes without a view of the larger picture.

It is probably also the only play I have ever seen that addresses George Berkeley’s metaphysics (in a short, bastardized form: does anything exist if it not perceived?).

Watching ‘Antogonick’ In Chicago

It was literally, the last day of its run: Anne Carson’s adaption of the final play of Sophocles Theban Cycle, mostly commonly known as Antigone but here called Antigonick.

If you’ve read my blog at all, you know that I have read a great deal of Anne Carson and like most of her work. This play actually premiered in DC, but I wasn’t able to see it, so I am so excited that I finally had the opportunity to see it as the Victory Gardens Theater.

The whole play was run through in this production and then, once it was over, it started over again, but with actor’s switching roles.

Antigone became the chorus, Kreon became Antigone, Euridike became Kreon, etc., etc., etc. The gender switching, but more importantly, the different readings, gave very different views of the same dialogue. It was like getting the chance to go back in time to change things yet, despite making changes to the past, watch it slide inexorably to the same tragic present.

I went with a friend and while we there, I thought, oh no! I’ve dragged him to my kind of thing and he’s going to hate this! But he loved it, so I have some support when I say it was awesome.