‘Mary Stuart’ (The Book)

In addition to going to see Mary Stuart performed at the Folger, I also have a copy of the play and I’ve been reading it.

There was no good way to do this: either I’m spoiling a play I’m about to see or else I’m rehashing in book form a play that I just saw. I went for the latter.

It’s good, but also reinforces something that nags at the brain.

It’s not as good as Shakespeare.

Well… duh. Neither is Edward Albee, yet we can mostly agree that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is pretty darn good. So what’s up?

Oswald deliberately uses iambic pentameter and the play itself actually takes place in Shakespeare’s lifetime, so the comparisons cannot be avoided. And some of the themes of power, nobility, loyalty, as well as the wonderful little plots and conspiracies are very much out of the Bard’s history plays. And it can’t stand up to the (admittedly, unfair) comparison.

‘Mary Stuart’

Mary StuartI saw Mary Stuart at the Folger the other day. It was a Peter Oswald translation of a Friedrich Schiller play that nicely combined the language Shakespearean style classicism and (also Shakespearean style) timelessness. He kept iambic pentameter rhythms and that certainly helped. Not the humanity spanning scale of Shakespeare, but good, nonetheless.

The set piece, as it were, was a meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, arranged so as to appear a chance meeting – with Elizabeth hunting near the castle where Mary was under lock and key and Mary, unusually, allowed some small taste of well guarded freedom in the outdoors.

In a way, the set piece was a let down. I was led to expect some showdown between the two that Mary’s wit, charm and inner nobility would win. Elizabeth, during part of Mary’s big speech, was looking up and to her right – directly towards where I was sitting. Her expression wonderfully captured a sense of contempt for Mary’s posturing.

Leicester was a wonderfully deceitful, semi-villain and Mary was great, but I was more impressed by Elizabeth – and not just that one moment. Her vanity and her fickle choice of favorites were well captured, but without sacrificing her realpolitik. It was all well and good to be high and mighty about royal prerogatives, but Elizabeth actually ruled, which came with as many compromises as powers.

Two Gentlemen Of Verona

Art File S528t7 no. 40
After Angelica Kauffmann. Two gentlemen of Verona, Valentine, Proteus, Silvia, & Julia, act V, scene IV. Print, ca. 19th century. Shelfmark ART File S528t7 no.40 (size S).

We saw Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona performed by the Fiasco Theater at the Folger Shakespeare Library a few weeks ago. They used a minimum of actors, with everyone performing double duty. If I recall correctly, five actors – three men and two women – filled all the roles, with small costume additions and subtractions giving notice of the characters. They even played some live music on stage! However, I would be lying if I didn’t say that one more performer might have improved things.

There were a lot of young people. I think they were in high school. Now that I’m older, I actually cringe a bit when I see young folks at Shakespeare. It’s the prude in me, because until you see it on stage, you forget how many penis jokes Shakespeare includes in his comedies. Actually, I’m pretty sure that this one even had a joke about the a toothless woman having an advantage in terms of performing oral sex vis-à-vis her toothier rivals.

The ending is also problematic, because one of the leading ladies gets her total douchebag man. It’s not as bad as All’s Well That Ends Well, where even the king implies that maybe the heroine should have chosen to kick her chosen wretch to the curb, but it’s hard not to think that at least of the two couples who end Gentlemen will not have a particularly strong marriage.

Review: ‘Richard III’ at the Folger Shakespeare Library

We saw the second night performance at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a very elaborately (for a small theater like the Folger) staged production, with the stage moved to the center and raised up and the audience on four sides all around (occasionally with actors moving among us). The costumes were gorgeous and little goth. Queen Elizabeth, in particular, wore a blood red, form-fitting dress, leather corset, and a great plunging collar of black and red-black feathers. The widow of Henry VI, Margaret, was dressed like a mad woman from your local Renaissance Faire. The men, Richard excepted, wore items like leather trench coats and velvet jackets – all in black. Richard, though, wore a simple, military looking grey overcoat.

When a character died (was killed, usually by one of Richard’s lackeys), the ‘body’ was taken down, beneath the stage, through a series of trapdoors built into the stage. At the end, the central trap door was made translucent by the light on it and a skeleton was visible: a reference to the relatively recent discovery of the historical Richard’s bones beneath a shopping center parking lot.

Most actors in a production of Richard III are going to seem a little pale in contrast to the oversized presence of Richard himself – exception being Elizabeth. Her height (she was taller than Richard and, indeed, taller than almost everyone else in the play) gave her some physical advantage in matching Richard’s presence. His opening soliloquy breaks the fourth wall (or, in this production’s case, all four fourth walls), something he does several times throughout the first half of the play. The actor played with a strong limp, but was (so my companion assured me) very good looking and radiated an oily, sexual charm. Certainly, one could see Ann falling for him.

Queen Elizabeth did match him well and the greatest sexual tension was not between Richard and Ann nor Richard and Buckingham, but between Richard and Elizabeth. Even when asking for her daughter’s hand in marriage, the real fire was between the two of them. The director even went ahead and made it explicit, with the two of them sharing a brief, but passionate kiss. Had this play been x-rated, you would have expected the two of them to immediately get down to some really dirty hate sex at that point.

Richard did lose me for a bit. Between his initial, risky, but calculated murders and his descent into paranoia, I wasn’t keeping up with where the production was going. But, at some point in the final act, it clicked for me again.

In general, the whole thing was done at a fast pace, well acted, exciting, and innovatively done. And, I finally got to see Richard III performed live!


Midweek Staff Meeting – A Different (Older?) Vision Of The Cafe

This a great idea. A cafe where you literally pay for time. The coffee is free, but you’re paying for a place to sit, relax, think, and discuss. Presumably, you won’t be getting a fancy coffee there, but mostly just regular and decaf. It reminds me of what a coffeehouse was in the good old days. Being just a shade under forty, the good old days, for me, are roughly the late eighties and early nineties. Coffeehouses multiplied, but they weren’t Starbucks, but independent places that focused on providing a public space, rather than on providing fancy or, in some cases, even good, coffee. You played chess with strangers. You wrote manifestos. Your plotted and planned. It wasn’t a place to quietly bring your laptop and steal wifi (the internet, much less wifi, being not widely available), but something closer to one of the places Samuel Pepys visited for useful gossip and political intelligence. Not very profitable, though, so it wasn’t so hard for Starbucks to kill them off. Hopefully, this model will work. And maybe come across the pond and into my neighborhood.

And speaking of coffeehouses, six indies in DC have banded together to create a ‘disloyalty card’ to encourage drinking one’s joe at somewhere other than a national chain. Good idea.

But this is just sad.

This is taking historicism to a whole new level. I’ve been to several theaters that attempt to recreate the Elizabethan/Globe theatrical experience (namely the Folger in Washington, DC and the Blackfriar in Staunton, VA), but to actually use candles and flame-based lighting! That is awesome!

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Richard III

Last Saturday was a pretty spectacular day. We meandered over to Jimmy T’s, Capitol Hill’s finest greasy spoon breakfast diner for omelettes and fried, jalapeno cheddar grits. Then we began our walk over to the National Gallery of Art’s West Building (whose collection is, basically, art before WWII).

Our path took us by the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is, of course, one of my favorite underappreciated DC destinations. A poster was up on their administrative offices for their upcoming production of Richard III.

STC 22314, title pageAs a teenager, I had a minor obsession with this play. I memorized the opening soliloquy (you know: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…) and stayed up until 3:30 in the morning to watch our local PBS station’s 1:00 am broadcast of the movie version starring Laurence Olivier as the titular hunchback (in Tampa Bay, if you enjoy good live theater, well your main option is go somewhere else; probably to another state).

But, you know, I’ve never seen it performed live.

So, we went into the theater and, after wrangling over our respective schedules, purchased two tickets for the second night of the play.

She noticed that there was a sign in front of the theater doors that said the theater was in use, but a fellow sitting in the lobby said that we could go upstairs onto the balcony if we wanted to watch the rehearsal.

The actors and director were still blocking scenes and we walked in on the one where Richard is standing over the body of Warwick and plotting to marry Anne. The fellow who told us we could watch came in and revealed himself to almost certainly be one of the actors (though I didn’t get see what his role is).

I could have stayed there all day, but she had never seen nor read the play nor was her knowledge of Western history and culture deep enough to know the story of an admittedly minor player in English history (though a looming figure in English cultural consciousness) and did not want to ruin the surprise of not knowing how things would end when we saw the full play.

So. Great freaking day, right?

Good Bye, Friedrich

Three hundred and eight years ago today, Friedrich Schiller shrugged off this mortal coil. Just saw the WSC’s production of his Wallenstein. Perhaps I’ll listen to the Ninth today, in his honor.

The King And I

So, we saw The King and I at Wolf Trap on Sunday.

As you may know, I am not a huge fan of musicals (there are a few I like; none of them are Phantom or Les Mis) but live theater is always something worthwhile.

The King had a fine voice and did well with a character that will always risk tipping over into a racist caricature. Unfortunately, Anna did tip for me, with her faux (I assume) British accent being a little grating.

The story was better than I would have suspected. Or rather, the story was more difficult (in a good way) than I would have suspected. The story of the doomed lovers remains, well… doomed. Pat, happy endings are avoided in favor of something triggering more ambivalent emotions. I like that.