Day 2: May 27, 2019
“Is it funny?” asked John Doyle, director of TITUS ANDRONICUS
The Play on Shakespeare staff decided that we would begin our Festival experience by attending the world premiere production of Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of THE ORESTEIA at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC. It seemed logical to pay homage to the original festival concept. And we are HUGE Ellen McLaughlin fans. (My review: the production was excellent and the adaptation extraordinary and pristine. How does she do that?!?!?!)
On my way to Penn station, I was handed two packets of AXE deodorant wipes, and I thought, “hm, these could come in handy sometime.” Little did I realize that sometime is now. Because that Tom’s Long-lasting wild lavender natural deodorant isn’t cutting it here in The Big Apple. SallyCade Holmes, our line producer, says she has found the perfect natural deodorant. I must get that recommendation from her!
We keep forgetting that today is Memorial Day. The city has been so quiet you’d think we would have caught on. But what it has mostly meant is that the supply chain has been funky. Yes, there is a water dispenser, but the water bottles didn’t arrive until late this afternoon. And no one knows how we ended up with 32 rolls of masking tape…..
Today was our first two-fer. Which means that we began two rehearsals: TITUS and SHREW. That’s quite the combo, eh? And here’s the fun part: both were translated by Amy Freed. She secretly confessed to me today that she has fallen in love with TITUS. I replied that it’s her kind of play. (Is that a compliment, do you think?)
This first week is the heaviest in terms of the paperwork for the actors and stage managers. Someone needs to give a major grant to Equity so they can digitize the process. Sometimes I feel like they are still using IBM Selectric typewriters, carbon copies, and liquid paper. (Yes, I’m that old to remember such things.) But once all that paperwork is done, the 78 actors who make up the core company won’t have to do contracts anymore. It was great that Equity agreed to bundle them together for the core company.
I bounced between the TITUS and SHREW rehearsal rooms for most of the day. And then caught the last hour of TWO GENTS which has had the great good luck to work in the space for two days before the first reading on Wednesday night.
John Doyle was moving very slowly through the first scene of TITUS. I think we got to page 18 by lunch time. But it’s really smart to take the time to lay in the stakes and the actions. Good golly, a crapton happens in those first 18 pages!– killing your own son for insubordination, rejection of an arranged marriage, bargaining for the top dog political position, a dramatic turnaround from captive (whose oldest son is sacrificed earlier in the scene) to Queen (when she agrees to marry Saturninus, who just got named ruler). The question was raised: do these actions seem out of touch from the actions that happen in our world today?
This discussion led John to ask, “is it funny?” And it is in a weird way. Because it’s ridiculous. And absurd. And it elicits our laughter reflex, I think. Audiences often complain to me that there are others in the audience who are laughing inappropriately. As if a play is supposed to be serious all the time because it’s labeled as a tragedy. But if you don’t establish it as comic (which gives the impression that something can be worked out), then you don’t have the depth of the tragic outcome (which means that, yes, it got worked out, but the conclusion is definitive. And nobody is a winner at the end of a tragedy.)
I always think laughter is appropriate in the theater. It’s an autonomic response. It’s not like you can help it. There are different kinds of laughter. And the laughter in uncomfortable situations indicates to me that an audience is paying attention. Because what’s happening in TITUS should make us uncomfortable. You can’t take it seriously, can you?
We also spent some time talking about the difference between natural voice and Shakespeare voice. One of the aspects to this experiment known as Play on translations that I am interested to hear is if actors feel more comfortable in the contemporary syntax and therefore will not feel compelled to speak that classical voice tone, which always sounds false to me.
Meanwhile over at SHREW, director Jackson Gay decided to jump in and read the whole thing right off the bat. In general, I don’t love that idea, but in the case of the comedies, I think there is value in hearing the whole play so you can figure out the rhythm of it. Because comedy is all about the rhythm.
Playwright Amy Freed takes no prisoners, as we say in metaphor-land, and when we came back after lunch, her script was covered with 3×3” fuchsia post-its. I thought, “Oh, boy, she got out her scissors during that read-through!” (I feel very vindicated that I have insisted on putting in line numbers for these scripts – that system came in very handy today.)
I did protest about one cut she wanted to make. There is a quick two-line exchange from two servants after the first scene at Petruchio’s house where all chaos has broken out. We are playing that everyone EXCEPT Kate knows this is an act. And the two lines that Amy was prepared to cut gave us that information.
Nathan: Peter, didst ever see the like?
Peter: He kills her in her own humor.
At that point in the play, we have seen Petruchio the braggart (Oh, don’t you worry, Baptista, I can get her to love me) and the fighter (I swear, Kate, if you hit me again, I’ll hit you right back). He has behaved inappropriately at his wedding (he couldn’t rent a decent tux from Men’s Wearhouse?) and now, in the ‘honeymoon’ period, he is berating his servants who are quivering and quaking at his barking. But if we learn afterwards that the behavior at his house has been a ruse, does that mean everything about him is a performance, and therefore not really who he is? I don’t mean to romanticize Petruchio but I think there is the foundation being set up in this early play for characters in later plays to grow from bull in a china shop to a humble human being. (Leontes, perhaps?)
We also spent time figuring out who could take these random servant lines. It’s not as simple as asking “Who’s not in this scene right now?”
I’m excited that we will be reading The Induction, because I think there is something about the setup in there, and especially in the doubling of Christopher Sly with Petruchio that is useful. So much about play-acting in these plays, and certainly there is a meta-theatrical frame of playacting in this play. And like TWO GENTS, is the overall action of this one going from false (Sly) to authentic self (Petruchio)?
Every rehearsal room has a copy of ALL THE WORDS ON STAGE, a pronunciation guide to Shakespeare’s words. We spent time on the pronunciation of the character names. Some people were wanting a more Italian pronunciation, and others wanted the English version of Italian names. It’s always a fun conversation to have when working on a production. We landed more in the English version of Italian names camp for this reading.
I caught the second half of the TWO GENTS mark-through over at Classic Stage. They were moving to music stands (this is very complex staging, you know: “Move to music stand #3, and then on line 1375 move to music stand #1). And they are juggling an unwieldy three-ring binder. There is a balcony at CSC, and they wanted to use it for a scene in which Thurio and Proteus sing to Sylvia. (Which is premonition to another famous balcony scene!) but it’s not going to be lit for our Festival, so we can’t use it. Darn it! Oh well, I guess we have to use our imagination.
Tomorrow begins the beginning of the War of the Roses.