Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Only Vaunting Ambition

Given the preponderance of Shakespeare productions in major playhouses on both sides of Atlantic (and the presentation of those as special events at the cinema) as well as film adaptations of the canon – all of which have the resources to engage in world-building – it is left to the smaller theatre companies to focus on the internal lives of the characters. This is a fine and worthy mission indeed,  and that is the course taken by Hudson Theater Works with its production of Macbeth at the Woodrow Wilson School in Weehawken.

The play needs no introduction here. One of its most powerful themes – that of overweening ambition – has markedly modern resonance, especially close to a metropolitan center where fortunes and political careers are built upon such ambition. Though the play is set in a dark age of Scotland when Christianity’s hold on the population is far from a sure thing, where the appearances of witches is far from surprising, and power comes from the sword rather than law and tradition, director Frank Licato’s concerns are on the contemporary moment. Times and technology may change, but  ambition is still the destroyer.

Kevin Cristaldi and Daniela Mastropietro as Macbeth and his Lady embrace the complexity, offering up nuanced Shakespearean performances while still channeling a more modern vision of the roles. They first appear as that accomplished, tasteful, and, above all, nice professional couple. Yet, when opportunity presents itself, they abandon all morals and ethics and pursue their ambitions to the detriment of all, including themselves. The yuppie veneer of respectability is just that – they are hollow to the core. Cristaldi’s Macbeth whispers rather than bellows (think Pacino’s turn as the corporatized mobster in the second Godfather); his weapons is less a bludgeon and more a scalpel. His existential exhaustion come Act V is a refreshing and right choice. Mastropietro too reveals how Lady Macbeth is surprised (but not nearly enough) as she takes each harrowing step away from humanity into her own lust for power. When she realizes at the end of Act I that she would have murdered her own baby to satisfy her own bleak desires, she takes away everyone’s breath, including her own.

Brendan Walsh and Peter Collier as MacDuff and Malcolm make worthy adversaries. Shakespeare works not in binary oppositions but in trinary oppositions. Think Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras. Often Malcolm gets lost in the crush between Macbeth’s murderous rampages and MacDuff’s need for violent retribution. But important in there too is Malcolm, and Licato wisely refrains from cutting their scene in England when they plot Macbeth’s overthrow (and MacDuff learns of the loss of his family). As played, these two men do not necessarily like each other all that much, but they form an alliance anyway to destroy a shared enemy. Collier in particular crafts a tougher-than-usual Malcolm, informed from his experience playing Henry V. The troubles that afflict Scotland will not end with Macbeth’s death. It will be difficult for either men to defeat the other, and the civil wars will continue. Licato emphasizes that cycle of violence with the return of the witches who repeat the opening lines of the play.

For a Macbeth that is very much part of our world, check out Hudson Theater Works production.

Details can be found here: http://www.hudsontheatreworks.com

Burton’s Ghost is Happy

Concerning the current production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet now playing at The Public Theater, here is the short version the review: See it. Just see it.

Ok, for those who need more…

Among theatre geeks, the 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud has achieved legendary status. It gets copious mention in the first season of Slings & Arrows. It moved us past the Olivier interpretation onto fresh new ground. As best as I can piece together, what Oscar Isaac and Sam Gold have crafted here is the closest we are ever going to get in the 21st century to that landmark production. I was in London in July, and I had the chance to see the Andrew Scott take on the role (which, by all measure, is also superlative). I did not go because I felt like I have seen my definitive Hamlet.

Eschewing sets, costumes, and pyrotechnics, Gold just focuses on the language, the narrative, and forming on ensemble that will fully inhabit the world of the play. He succeeds. I had seen his Othello at New York Theatre Workshop, and he exceeded the high bar he established there. The claim of this production is that you get the full text. That is not quite true. Anything having to do with Fortinbras and Norway has been excised. Still, that’s 95% of the script, making for an evening long in hours (but far from an endurance test, at least for the audience).

Given his work in indie films (Inside Llewyn Davis) and major studio releases (the new Stars Wars trilogy), Isaac is known to have considerable acting chops. He lives up to that reputation. This is fully as realized a performance as we are likely to get. He embodies grief and the feeling of being completely at sea. When Hamlet feigns madness in Act II and III, one wonders here how much he is actually feigning. As Hamlet plunges into torment and guilt after killing Polonius, Isaac ably communicates the rawness of what the Prince of Denmark is experiencing. The final duel with Laertes is a welcome escape from the ever-mounting pain.

Isaac is surrounded by a cast equal to his talents. Keegan-Michael Key is an extraordinarily dynamic and funny Horatio; for once, I felt the necessity of Horatio in the play beyond serving as a sounding board for Hamlet. Ritchie Coster is an able (finally!) Claudius and sorrowful Old Hamlet. Peter Friedman offers the wiliest Polonius (plus Grave Digger) in a long time, and he has able support from Gayle Rankin as a bulimic Ophelia and Anatol Yusef (Boardwalk Empire) as a cooler-than-usual Laertes. If there is a link weak in the chain, it belongs to Charlene Woodard’s Gertrude; she just did not seem to get into the swing of the proceedings.

Throughout Gold makes bold choices, and even if they do not always quite connect, you have to admire the invention and love of the play that never once wavers. Foremost, this is a celebration of Hamlet and so, even given the play’s elegiac turns, the evening never turns turgid. We are on a journey and glad to be on it.

This production closes Labor Day weekend. It needs to be seen.





A Psychologically Complex Lear

In The Empty Space, Peter Brook argued that one of the reasons contemporary productions of William Shakespeare’s plays were so deadly (as in boring) was because actors were so familiar with the material that they played the end of the play from the start. He used as an example Goneril and Regan’s professions of love for their father in the opening scene of King Lear. Professional actresses would transfer their characters’ final descent into villainy to their introductory appearance thus robbing themselves and the audience of any sense of journey. I am pleased to report that the production of King Lear currently performing at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City has taken Brook’s injunction seriously and have escaped the pitfalls that have plagued so many other productions of the tragedy.

Director Alberto Bonilla and his ensemble focus on developing strong, complex, and believable characters. Bonilla moves the setting forward to a facility for ailing seniors. Lear (Austin Pendleton) suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia, or potentially both, and the narrative of Lear plays out as a product of that illness. Pendleton has had a long, storied, and artistically rich career on both stage and screen, and he does not conform to the traditional image of Lear. Those who have assayed the role in the past – such as James Earl Jones or Laurence Olivier – can easily access bombast in their construction of the role. Pendleton takes a counter-intuitive turn. His style of acting is quiet and modest. He underplays where most others would over-play. He strays from received ideas about what Shakespearean performance should be and instead utilizes an acting approach more in keeping with an American sense of psychological realism. It is Lear by way of Willy Loman or Joe Keller. It is bound to be a controversial choice, but I think it pays dividend, especially in light of Brook’s argument.

What we therefore have is something I have never seen in a production of the play before: a full and intimate picture of the Lear family. British playwright Howard Barker wondered what became of Mrs. Lear and wrote his own Seven Lears to find out; he would have less to wonder about if he were to see this production. Pendleton, along with Elizabeth A. Davis (Once) as Goneril and Melissa Macleod as Regan, have brought the whole dark and dysfunctional history of this family onto the stage. This Lear does not bellow, but he laughs, he smirks, he cajoles, and we feel every smile as a lash on the backs of his two elder daughters. If they were not abused, they were certainly dominated and emotionally manipulated by a capricious and over-bearing patriarch. Even when they band together with the full power of the state behind them to deny him his entire retinue, they are still afraid of him. When Lear proclaims “I am more sinned against than sinning”, it is almost laughable here. In the hands of Davis and Macleod, Goneril and Regan’s choices are understandable and full of the contradictory greys that mark human choice in harrowing circumstances. When Lear attacks Goneril and wishes her a barren existence, our sympathies are with the daughter (it helps that Davis is obviously pregnant). This is a family with a penchant a la Albee for tearing into one another. The difference is that Lear makes a course correction and in abandoning power moves toward redemption, while his children continue on in their quest for power. Pendleton, Davis, and Maclead have created a Lear that is not just tragedy of Lear but also of Goneril and Regan – we cannot fully hate them nor can we fully forgive him for his responsibility in the play’s inevitable descent into darkness – and that is refreshing indeed.

Mounting a production of Shakespeare, especially on a tight showcase rehearsal schedule, presents a director a series of choices. Emphasize x, and you have to take the spotlight off of y. In focusing on Lear and his family, in fully grappling with their psychology and complexity, means less attention is given to the larger political reality of the play or world-building. King Lear has at its center a demonstrably irresponsible head-of-state who manipulates family and advisers (and the line between both is blurred) and sends his nation careening into chaos not because of threats from abroad but from self-inflicted wounds; it obviously speaks to our present moment. The larger geo-political implications of Lear’s choices got a little bit lost in the proceedings, and the design choice to confine the drama within the domestic sphere further isolated the impact of the tragedy from larger societal ramifications. I saw Bonilla’s excellent Macbeth (also at the Secret) a few years back, and the focus there was the opposite of here. World-building was at the forefront, and so there was less revelatory in terms of character exploration. What I look for in a Shakespeare production is to be shown something new or surprising in a canon I am all too familiar with. Bonilla, Pendleton, Davis, and Macleod made me want to spend time with these characters, and they found something both unexpected and deeply satisfying in the construction.

Also of note are Alexander Stine, who somehow managed to take the sanctimony out of the Duke of Albany and find both the darkness and the light in the part; Arthur Lazalde and Zachary Clark, who dive into Kent and Edmund respectively with great gusto; and most especially Jack Herholdt, whose portrayal of The Fool is quite simply brilliant. I had seen Herholdt as Dionysus in his own reworking of The Bacchae, and he never fails to captivate whenever on stage.

King Lear runs through April 9th. More information about the show can be found here: http://www.secrettheatre.com/KingLear.html

Shakespeare and the 2016 Election

Time to do a little catch-up work. The 2016 election was — to put it mildly — a clusterfuck of epic proportions. There were two Shakespeare productions that were playing in New York City at the end of the year, however, that really went quite far in encapsulating where we are as a global society.

The first was Red Bull Theater’s Coriolanus. The play is ready made for our current moment. The tension between autocratic rulers and a restless and mercurial population speaks volumes about a disillusioned people who simply want to blow things up. Director Martin Sexton was both true to his source and true to the world outside the theater’s doors with his depiction of the titular hero soliciting for votes in Rome. Perhaps most prophetically about the work is that Coriolanus finds more in common with Aufidius, the leader of Rome’s enemy, rather than with his own people. Patrick Page, who is fast becoming one of my favorite New York actors (his work in Hadestown and Deaf West’s Spring Awakening was vital), was excellent in the role of Menenius.

The other production that captivated me was, of course, New York Theater Workshop’s rendering of Othello. Of course, stars Daniel Craig (Iago) and David Oyelowo (Othello) garnered most of the attention, but they were just two components in an superlative and successful ensemble. (I can’t remember the last time I so enjoyed a Roderigo — thanks to Matthew Maher.) Director Sam Gold moved the play forward to a modern military barracks somewhere overseas. While there was nothing particularly new about this choice — the National in London had made a similar choice a couple of years ago — the exploration of character is what truly marked this Othello as one for the ages.

The over-arching question of the play is the why. Why does Iago go after Othello with such a blind fury of revenge? Iago offers a few red herrings along the way, but none of those are particularly believable. For the aforementioned National production, Rory Kinnear presented an Iago who was just a bloke simply bored out of his mind.

Craig’s choice was far more active. His Iago was one of white entitlement and resentment. Not only did that crystallize the production but sent it screaming through the night like a runaway freight train (in a good way). The caveat here is resounding. That white resentment, let loose, will destroy everything before it — even the whole wide world.

For any who don’t think Shakespeare is relevant (I’m looking at your Ira Glass), these two productions more than prove them wrong.

A Tempest for Our Not So Brave New World

Better late than never. Alas, because of the political maelstrom in which we find ourselves, I can only respond to the production on a personal level.

On Friday night, January 20, 2017, I had the opportunity to see Donmar Warehouse’s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Beyond being an exemplary production of the Bard’s final play, it also provided a much-needed salve for my devastated soul.

Earlier that day, I had gone to the #ArtSpeaks teach-in at the Museum of Modern Art as he who shall not be named was being sworn in. The institution’s conversation about how culture can affect positive political change was uplifting, though I found myself nearly breaking down into tears. It was Phyllida Lloyd’s insightful production and the cabaret that followed that got me back on my feet.

Much has already been written on Lloyd’s deployment of an all-female cast (for this and two other Shakespeare plays: Julius Caesar and Henry IV, Part I) or setting the play in a women’s play. I must confess that I did not see the previous two works, but I found this Tempest to be staggering. Of course, Harriet Walter owned Prospero, but plaudits must be extended to the entire cast including Jane Anouka as transcendent Ariel, Sophie Stanton as a chav Caliban, and Karen Dunbar as a very Scottish Trinculo. The prison setting added a great deal to the play, as the story of The Tempest was an escape from the monotony and cold harshness of their daily existence. Lloyd revels in the magical possibilities of the play with a calypso rendition of “full fathom five” and an eerily gorgeous dance between Miranda and Ferdinand.


Walter is, of course, front-and-center through most of the proceedings. Unlike most of her male counterparts, she found the vulnerability beneath the sternness of Prospero. The most surprising – and welcome – moment can be attributed to Walter and Lloyd’s putting the utmost focus on Shakespeare’s ideas of mercy and forgiveness. Often a throw-away moment in other Tempests, Prospero forgiving Antonio served as a much-needed catharsis. That the prisoner – Hannah – who plays Prospero must continue her imprisonment (for apparently IRA-related activity) while all her compatriots find their freedom provides an elegiac coda to the whole proceeding; having her lie on a cot while reading Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed was a nice meta-touch.

After performing for two hours without intermission, the cast then performed a cabaret in the lobby. How they found the energy, I know not. It was a powerful continuation of the thematic trajectory of the production. Music and comedy created a sense of community between audience and actors. But the highlight belonged to Walter again who read Shakespeare’s monologue from The Book of Thomas More when More stops a mob from doing violence against refugees. “This is the strangers’ case/ And this your mountainish inhumanity.” As I said, salve for the soul.


My article on the importance of Shakespeare to the Chartist Movement was recently published by Monograf. You can find that article by following this link: