Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Our Fin De Siecle?

Love's Labour Lost, Hinterlands, and Ed Seigel's Farewell

"In Love’s Labour Lost Shakespeare seeks to test the limits of his literary powers and finds that they are limitless."–Harold Bloom

"Is there anything particular you want to do onstage? Or do you just want to be onstage?" Max in Hinterlands

The Huntington Theatre Company’s Love Labour’s Lost is probably the best way to experience the literary feast Shakespeare has laid out for his audience in this early comedy. It is generally held that Love’s Labour is minor Shakespeare, but most voices in the canon of Shakespearean criticism will add a caveat that the play does provide them with endless pleasure. The story of four young men who swear to forego earthly pleasures in the pursuit of immortality through knowledge and scholarship is a light comedy that provides virtually no suspense, but instead washes us over with great language. Nicholas Martin’s cast is certainly an endless pleasure to behold, and they have done Shakespeare well, but across town, over the last few weeks, there was another production that could provide insight into not only this grand experiment of Shakespeare, but also of our larger theatrical landscape.

At the Boston Center for the Arts, Rough and Tumble’s Hinterlands Season One was playing up in the Rehearsal Hall C . At one point of Hinterlands, the ringmaster of a travelling performing troupe confronts their company manager, a dedicated backstage helper who is always expressing a desire to get on stage. She has come up with a weird routine that completely bombs when she is finally allowed to present it to an audience. Afterwards, the ringmaster tries and fails to get her to describe what, exactly, her act is. He asks her, not unkindly, "Is there anything particular you want to do on stage? Or do you just want to BE on stage?" This is the question we could ask, with equal kindness, of both productions, and indeed both plays.

Nicholas Martin has set his Love’s Labour just after the Fin De Siecle. As is explained in a program note, this is a perfect setting for it frees the production of any overriding feelings of impending doom. Meanwhile, over at the BCA, Dan Milstein’s marvelous, enjoyable and sweet band of travelers also seems to exist in a period free from depression-era hardship. And though there is wisp of the idea that the days of these travelling circus shows are coming to an end, it only blows through the production like a light breeze.

There is an inescapable truth that sneaks into the end of Love’s Labour, and Nicholas Martin does effectively convey that moment of harsh reality’s intrusion on the frivolous proceedings. However, the moment is fleeting, and the song of the country folk, (meant to be an earthy and simple ending to the stylistic fireworks that have mesmerized us for over two hours,) is rushed through and presented as a punch line to the evenings proceedings. Martin clearly understands the theory of the poetic character of Berowne as being a nascent Henry and Hamlet, but his ending tableux blacks out far too quickly to register the full impact. In retrospect, lightly treading on these concepts is a wise choice for Martin's production, and Shakespeare himself more than likely knew he was trying to place undeserved weight on his prior construction. W.H. Auden pointed out that the young men in Love’s Labour are, "pursuing seriousness in frivolous way." And Auden suggests that Shakespeare too could be found guilty of this in the case of this play.

Over the past couple of weeks, Village Voice critic Michael Feingold has expressed a feeling of watching a theatre trying to come out of something. This past week he cites the plays of Adam Rapp as evidence of a mal de siecle, a "century sickness," the type of which gripped French Society 200 years ago. (One hundred years before the fin de siecle of Martin’s Love's Labour.) Perhaps he is right. The Huntington’s production of Love’s Labour Lost is refreshingly free of any heavy conceptual elements and exists solely to be enjoyed as the flourish of literature it is. Hinterlands is a joy as well, though in a quieter, but equally stylistic way. The backstage life of the performers of the Hinterland Travelling Revue is well observed, and generates feeling, empathy, and smiling sadness. In the end though, our emotions are left slightly unresolved, much as they are when we are left standing in the fields of Navarre, watching the Ladies return to their country.

Critic Mark Van Doren wrote that Love’s Labour Lost remains minor Shakespeare because of the artificial story imposed upon it by Shakespeare in order to shape some sort of coherence and meaning to his linguistic playfulness. Rough and Tumble is exploring and taking joy in the elements of theatre that they do best, but the artifice placed as its frame doesn’t quite hold either. There is much of that in our theatre and indeed our literary culture today. Somebody once said that we don’t need any more ideas in our theatres, we need more storytellers. Shakespeare went on from Love’s Labour to compose some of the greatest comedies and tragedies of all time. Now, what is important about the Rough and Tumble’s Hinterlands is not so much the artificial story, or that it is stylistic, but that it doesn’t try to be something else, and is free from heavy aesthetic influence and most of all - cynicism.

Rough and Tumble’s production is inspiring because it feels as if it is a move towards something. Michael Feingold writes of the plays he considers emblematic of our current mal de siecle, "the characters bristle with unspoken agendas that are all too obvious; and people about whom we know little begin to reveal improbably dark inner impulses...., the characters seem unaware that anyone has ever had problems like theirs before and invariably choose the worst possible solutions." You don’t get that feeling watching Hinterlands, or Love’s Labor Lost. While the mal de siecle writers, "are essentially romantics, aggressively delving into the bleak and the sordid as a way to ward off their own sentimental impulses," Martin and Milstein are romantics engaging the romantic.

I don’t mean to bastardize Harold Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence, but as I have navigated through my own creative projects and watched so many of my peers working over the last ten years, I have noticed the pressure of three large forces hanging over younger American playwrights: David Mamet, Sam Shepard and, on the comedy side, Christopher Durang. One of the more frustrating things is to see people with clear talents, who are trying so hard to work within the templates left to us by these playwrights, who themselves have moved on from their work of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Perhaps playwrights have just not reached the misreading stage of approaching those dramatists, but I am of the opinion that many a young playwright, myself included, writes with Shepard rather than Shakespeare in his head.

The thing that excited and, quite frankly, surprised me about Rough and Tumble’s Hinterlands was how free from those influences it seemed. And, magically, without those encumbrances, the play and production breathes in a fresh way. It doesn’t try to be clever, or try to be edgy, or try to be really any one thing at all. And though this free spirit of invention is its ultimate undoing, (as, on a smaller scale, it is also the undoing of Nicholas Martin and Shakespeare in Love’s Labour,) it provides a breath of fresh air, a light through which we can see the emerging of a new period.

Ed Seigel’s farewell piece in Sunday’s paper was generous, but still had the hallmarks of what made his tenure so stressful for the theatre community here in Boston. I have always detected a bias toward production value in Mr. Siegel’s commentary on the Boston theatre scene, this bias is nowhere better indicated than by his classification of Fringe theatres as being established companies with actual operating budgets. I never felt he clearly understood that the best theatre scenes are grown from the ground up, from people operating in garages, and groups of new graduates taking on theatre in headstrong way. The theatre community doesn’t grow from the top-down, with the vanguard being the import of "hot" New York shows.

Ed Siegel is right that new spaces have provided breathing room for the anchor theatres to present edgier work. But, remember, Charlie Victor Romeo, (now playing at Zero Arrow,) is a play that premiered in 1999, seven years ago. Orpheus X, and The Road Home are more of what we should be seeing in those spaces. Small and fringe theatres need to be pursuing projects that reach for something new as well. I would like to see smaller companies try to link more with artists from other disciplines.

Perhaps after a relaxation period, and playful period, we will be able to confront things like the Iraq War that loom over us so heavily, but seem to be approached only through docu-drama so far. Here’s to the future!


Anonymous said...

And while we're on the subject of credibility (Re: Ed Siegel departing) It might increase yours if you disclosed your own links to the Huntington in one of your effusive posts praising their work. (Subscribe! Subscribe!Subscribe!) Some might say that not doing so creates something of a conflict of interest.


YS said...

Hi, and thanks for posting.

It is obvious to me you wanted to make a point, and didn't really read the post above.

I have never once attacked Ed Siegel's credibility, including in this article. I have disagreed and agreed with him on many occasions. But, I have never once questioned Mr. Siegel's ethics or conduct. Though I have tried to suggest his aesthetic biases, which are a completely different thing.

I'll play gracious host though, and address your point.

I am not sure what link to the Huntington you imply. Do I know people at the Huntington? Of Course. I also know many actors who have worked at the Huntington. I know people who have worked at and have acted at the ART, Boston TheatreWorks, Devenaugh, Nora, the Lyric etc. I am also a donor to many theatre companies, here and elsewhere. And I am casually acquainted with many other theatre artists and companies, (11:11 and AYTB for example.)

Like many other theatre artists in town, I have also taken classes with different organizations and actors as well.

What "conflict of interest" would I possibly have? Believe me, the 23 hits a day this blog gets doesn't keep the electric bill on. I only wish I had a producer's stake in all of the shows I talk about, good or bad. I also wish I had the time to review all the shows in town.

My "interest," is for the theatre to be good, and our theatre community to grow. I want all theatre to succeed. We all should. I have my own theatre company in Boston, Essayons Theatre Company. I promise you this, I will never review my own shows. (But I will unceasingly tell you to come to them. How's that for a conflict of interest?) I have worked with and know many people involved in theatre in this town, it is true.

As far as the Huntington goes, you should really scroll the archives to see all of my commentary. As far as specific productions, I didn't like The Road Home, Burn This, or Breath Boom, and I had serious problems with the Huntington doing The Real Thing, (which led to a blogosphere discussion about Regional Theatres.)

My suggestion to "Subscribe" was clearly to point out their choice of the play Streamers, a very different and dicey play. Last year the Huntington came out on the absolute bottom of the Subscriber Value survey I did of most of the New England Theatres. (This year the ART is looking like the winner though. And even a very infrequent reader of this blog knows my feeling about them.)

To top it all off, there can be no conflict of interest, because this is a blog! I am neither a journalist, nor a reviewer. These are all of my own personal opinions, of which many people, even friends, disagree.

Very clearly I state that I am a theatre artist. And commenting on specific productions is probably the smallest fraction of what I write about. When I do, I usually use it to make a point about larger issues of theatre or the community.

If you want theatre commentary from journalists and critics with no ties to the Theatre Community, you can scroll through any of the links on the right side of my blog.

Anonymous said...

All right. Okay. Maybe I came on a little strong there- I didn't mean to seem Trollish. Your explanation is good enough for me. My apologies for a knee-jerk reaction.

And I did read the whole post.

I'm not a fan of the Huntington for many reasons. Too many to go into right now, I'll leave that be also. On the whole though I find their work despairingly middle of the road, and if you want to talk about the other side of regionalism (I have read the rest of your entries) I think a lot of the attitudes they as a company display towards the rest of "Boston Theatre" (IS there a real sense of what Boston Theatre is? That's what I'm really curious about) are shameful. And that's before we even start to talk about the way they're pricing people out of the BCA.

I too want to see things in the Theatre Community be good, and for there to be plenty of growth.

By the way, I too enjoyed Hinterlands- probably my favorite R&T show so far. We're in agreement about that.

I'll save my defense of ART for another time...