Theater Around The Bay: Honor Their Mistakes

The INTO THE WOODS panel with Stuart Bousel, Brian Katz, Corinne Proctor, Marissa Skudlarek, Oren Stevens, and Nick Trengove continues. This week they tackle Giants, Witches, and Wolf penis.

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Okay, so last week we pretty firmly established one thing about this show: that we all more or less love it. So this week, let’s get a little harder on it for a moment and talk about it with a more critical eye, because as praised as the show often is, it’s also considered “problematic” or “flawed” by a considerable contingent of critics- including some of its most ardent supporters. What do you think are INTO THE WOODS’ “problems?”

Corinne: There are some significant flaws and inconsistencies in the storytelling. The two biggest problems in my view are: 1) the Baker’s arc doesn’t quite work. The idea that he begins the show as a coward/unsure is undermined by the fact that he’s ordering his wife to stay at home and to go home repeatedly. This feels awfully dominant for a character who is supposed to be reluctant and afraid before coming into his own and becoming “daring” and “sure”; 2) Rapunzel’s hair not being a functional ingredient in the spell because it has been touched by the Witch is seriously problematic for me. Actually, this is the number one cringe moment in the show for me. Apparently Lapine thought it was extremely important that there be a reason the witch doesn’t get the items herself, but for me that’s not a huge concern. In the land of fairytales witches order others to fetch items for them – that’s not something I need an explanation for. I’m willing to go with that as part of the ‘rules’ of fairytale land. But for me it makes ZERO sense that her hair isn’t a “real” ingredient and that it can just be substituted with the random ‘hair’ of the corn instead.

Brian: Oh Rapunzel, Rapunzel- why are you in this show? Okay, sure, the witch needed something to motivate her, and “Agony” would be boring if only sung by one prince, but she’s a plot point/sight-gag/sound-gag with a serious amount of hair that some poor props person has to deal with. Her death NEVER works, or I’ve never seen it solved, and we don’t really care about her, we care about her mother (if the witch is played well.) I’ve also now seen two productions where her death was so poorly staged I had to tell my companion it happened. Speaking of death, the off-stage giant battle just does not work. It’s not as bad as the jousting in Camelot, but it’s bad. The antagonist in the second act is a sound effect and the fight is narrated. It’s the main reason I am excited about the film: we finally get to see some epic giant fighting!

Oren: I think a lot of people find Into the Woods problematic because it can feel like two different shows. The first act is such a lighthearted review of all the stories we know, and then the second act is a dark and twisty assault on moral absolutism. I also think that some people are responding to the discomfort that the musical is supposed to make you feel. There’s something deeply unsettling about suspecting, whether it’s in the back of your mind or blatantly obvious, that maybe our hero Jack is a murderous larcenist, and maybe the monstrous giant actually has legitimate complaints. These stories are stones in the foundation of many people’s childhoods, and Into the Woods rattles that foundation. And just so I can be clear: Jack is a murderer, and he is a thief, and he is a dumb teenager who thought he was having an adventure, and in the court of the theater-going-public opinion, I think he should be tried as a minor. Personally, my only real problem is totally nitpicky: I love the song “Your Fault” to death, but it is ludicrous to blame Little Red for anything because she dared Jack to do it. You can feel how hard they’re reaching to find something to point the finger at her for, and it doesn’t quite work. I don’t think there aren’t any other tough spots in it, but my memory is that there isn’t anything a director can’t figure out somehow.

Marissa: Okay, this might seem really nitpicky, but it’s not: When Rapunzel says to the Witch, “You locked me in a tower for 14 years,” it sets up a backstory timeline that doesn’t make any sense. Rapunzel is the Baker’s younger sister, and the Witch stole her away as soon as she was born. The Baker doesn’t know any of this until he is an adult and the Witch tells him, which implies that he was a very small child when Rapunzel was born. (If he had been older, he’d surely remember his mother’s pregnancy, the Witch coming to the house and taking the baby, etc.) Now, it might be possible to portray Rapunzel as a 14-year-old (it makes her seduction by the Prince pretty icky, but also truer to Grimm reality) but it makes NO sense at all to think that the Baker is 16 or 18. He and his wife have been trying to have a baby for years. They have a successful business. They read as significantly older than Jack and Little Red. They are not teenagers — and thus, Rapunzel has to be older than 14. I really wish that Rapunzel’s line was something like “you locked me in a tower for years on end” instead of “for 14 years” so that we wouldn’t have to deal with this conundrum. Also… the second half of Act Two is sloooow — “No More,” followed by “No One Is Alone,” followed by “Children Will Listen,” is three ballads that are more about imparting lessons, than about advancing the plot or delineating character. It doesn’t help that often, the person who plays the Narrator/Mysterious Man is a character actor with a weak singing voice, which makes “No More” tedious rather than touching. I mean, I guess it makes a certain amount of sense that the show slows down at this point. The Narrator and the Witch (both outsider-figures who helped push the plot along) are dead or disappeared, so of course the remaining characters feel uncertain and lack direction. But “uncertainty and lack of direction” don’t make for a very exciting final half-hour of a musical.

Stuart: Ha- so, for the record, that’s kind of what I love the most about the second half. I agree, the Narrator and the Witch are two sides of the same coin: authority. Both are more or less the people in control or most desirous of being in control. Or as a friend of mine puts it, “They represent the best and worst aspects of both the patriarchy and the matriarchy” so when they’re gone the children (i.e. everyone else) are really alone in the woods. So then the story becomes about them finding direction, coming up with new things to be certain of themselves, and then bravely moving forward. Which to me is super exciting- both that moment of them moving forward, but watching that process of them finding their way back to the path. Most stories end on “happily ever after” or the opposite (“woefully never to be?”) but Into the Woods is about how life is an endless cycle of victories and tragedies, one often spurring the other. That said, while I have a soft spot for Rapunzel (as I said last week), I agree that she is woefully under-developed (even her nameless prince demonstrates more personality than her) and Corinne’s point about the hair not being a viable ingredient to the Act One potion doesn’t help make her feel as important as she actually really is. But she’s as colorful as Cleopatra compared to Cinderella’s Father… perhaps the most worthless role in a play ever written? I mean, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty only have one line but they’re at least a fun joke. Cinderella’s Father is like a character from a first draft they forgot to cut. Maybe that’s the point, that he’s completely obsolete, but talk about a character who is a prop… I mean, that’s just it- Milky White, the prop cow, is more of a presence than Cinderella’s Father.

Nick: Hmm… The show has a lot of characters, and a lot of subplots, so it can be hard to follow for audiences more interested in the current pop musical fare, but… I defy you to find a show with any amount of critical acclaim that is not also considered “problematic.” Personally, my qualms have always been production specific: bad prosthetic wolf penises, and I’ve never heard a voice-over for the Giantess voice that I didn’t think was super hokey. They always sound like overweight ghosts with reverb.

So going back to the stuff about the Narrator, and incorporating the discussion of the second act, which is often a target for criticism, both regarding its pace and tone, how do we feel about the Narrator, who sets so much of the pace and tone of Act One, as a device?

Corinne: The Narrator works really well for me. The show is about storytelling and how the stories we pass down to our children shape their lives, etc . The Narrator fits into that really well.

Oren: I’m not going to say the Narrator is itself a clever idea, so much as a crucial part of an idea that runs throughout the show. Into the Woods spends time setting up the traditional fairy tale narrative in act one, and then breaking it down in act two. The narrator being present and powerful, giving the story shape and direction in act one, and then being literally killed by the characters in act two as the fairy tale form breaks down really brings home the breakdown of structure and absolutes. We move from a world structured by story, to a world like our own — not structured at all. Also worth mentioning: I know I’m throwing back to high school, but the rule “show don’t tell” that Mrs. Lott-Pollack hammered into my head is still so apt. I never feel like the Narrator’s presence is used to tell us pieces of the story that should be shown, but instead used to rush us through the boring information so we can get to the juicy stuff. We don’t need Cinderella to tell us she’s coming home from the ball herself, we just need to see her geek out over the prince with the Baker’s Wife.

Marissa: The narrator of Into the Woods is one of the few narrators you will ever find me championing. I distinctly remember being in elementary school and assigned to create a skit with a group of other kids. One of them started off by asking “Okay, who’ll be the narrator?” and I was like “Why does there have to be a narrator?” I do think that often, the decision to have a narrator is a crutch or an unthinking choice — but I also feel like in this case, Sondheim and Lapine did think about it and figure out how to make it work. A narrator is a traditional component of fairy tale theater (“content dictates form” is one of Sondheim’s dicta) and then in Act Two, when the characters decide to kill the narrator and the story goes off the rails? That’s some pretty clever theatrical storytelling. I know that Pirandello was doing this kind of thing decades before Sondheim and Lapine, but Pirandello doesn’t get produced as frequently as Into the Woods, and I’m all for introducing young people to “meta” tricks and the idea of breaking the fourth wall.

Nick: I too love the Narrator. That little meta-moment when they kill him? Ach! The layers of significance! The sloughing off the authorial voice marks a post-modern shift the narrative!

Brian: I don’t have an issue with a narrator for fairy tales, per se. My problem with the narrator is, as already touched on, in Act Two, where the idea of the story spinning-out-of -control is, to me, not fully explored. When the crowd offers the Narrator up to the Giant, he warns them that they need him to keep structure; where would they be without his presence? This does not ring true at the time because the fairy tales have already started crumbling but okay, we think, “it could get worse, right?” However, it doesn’t become drastically different. The same chaos that is descending upon the story simply continues. The only time this concept gets a nod is the Baker’s Wife’s “What am I doing here?…/ I’m in the wrong story!” before her death. It is not enough, and it is a wasted opportunity- or one that should have been left alone.

Stuart: One of my favorite moments is the Witch to the Narrator: “Some of us don’t like the way you’ve been telling it.” Possibly the best line in the play as it’s funny as hell, but also scary, and it highlights the tension between individuals in a society and the restrictions of that society. It reveals so much about the Witch but also comments on the mentality of most people who fit that archetype: justified in their position, perhaps, but unforgiving, vindictive, and usually proposing irrational solutions to that tension. It’s actually the Witch who finally throws the Narrator to the Giant, after the others have realized that isn’t the right thing to do. But that’s the problem with the Witch: it’s not that she isn’t technically right- it’s that she always takes it too far.

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And speaking of the Witch- she’s also “problematic”, isn’t she?

Stuart: Yes. And I say that as someone who loves the Witch. But there’s been a fair amount of ink in various articles over the years about how the role, which is really a supporting role, has unduly captured the audience imagination and this is often “blamed”, for lack of a better word, on a star, Bernadette Peters, having originally been cast in the role, thus elevating the stature of a character who is not meant to be the main character, and is also essentially missing from the last act of the play. Interestingly enough, a similar observation is often made about Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, who I think has a lot in common with the Witch. Both are outsiders, both have daughters they treat as possessions to be hidden from the world, and both have legitimate gripes against the people they perceive as the insiders, but the intelligence and moral high-ground of both are undone by this unforgiving, embittered world view that doesn’t allow for much mercy or compassion, let alone acceptance of or appeal to whatever good qualities the perceived insiders might have. They have both lost the ability to listen, most likely because they have never felt listened to themselves, and while they speak truths they are incomplete truths, or these kind of law of the jungle/final solution truths that aren’t going to work in a world where humans are social creatures and the lines between right and wrong are blurry. But we all sometimes want to be right more than we want to be like… open to the possibility of a plan B… and that is why I think the Witch is such a fascinating character regardless of who plays her.

Corinne: “Witches can be right/Giants can be good” is such an important lyric in the show because there isn’t a clear answer. That song, “No One Is Alone”, expresses one of the strongest themes in the show – the elusive nature of right and wrong and how people have to find an individual path to moral understanding (“you decide what’s right/you decide what’s good.”) and that path is not straight or clear.

Nick: The Witch is right insofar as we can be expected to subscribe to her rather cut-and-dry personal philosophy. To appease the Giants, we need to set aside our sentimentality and sacrifice the culpable Jacks. In other words, making the rational decision is always the most correct decision. But look what happens at the end of the musical – the Witch, advocate of the Rational Approach, alienates the others and ends up alone. The others band together, forced to face the more dire consequences of their more sentimental, albeit less rational decision to save Jack. But they are together, and through their combined efforts, they succeed. So yes, the Witch is right in a sense, but at the cost of companionship and human connection. And Giants can certainly be good. They can also be evil. Giants are people, too. Duh.

Marissa: Well, the Witch is pretty much a strict utilitarian. She argues that unless they give up Jack to the Giant, it will only cause more suffering. She also suggests that everyone is complicit in getting into this mess. Both of these things are factually true but the question of the show is whether they are morally true. If everyone’s complicit, shouldn’t everyone work to make amends? As for Giants… it’s interesting that Into the Woods kind of glosses over the fact that the Giant tries to eat Jack, which is normally such a huge part of that fairy tale. (Jack sings “Something bigger than her comes along the hall to swallow you for lunch,” but that’s just one line in the song, and despite almost getting chewed up, he still calls them “wonderful giants in the sky.”) If it weren’t for that, I’d say that the Giants really were decent creatures, at least to start out, and Jack is being a jerk when he steals the Giants’ treasure and arouses their anger. But if the giant threatened to eat him, eh, they’re both to blame.

Brian: Again, to quote the show (and Corinne): “You decide what’s right/You decide what’s good.”

Oren: Exactly, that’s the real point: whether or not the Witch is right is impossible to objectively determine, but regardless: she thinks she is. The giant also absolutely believes that she is good as well. Ultimately, all this absolute morality nonsense fades away pretty quickly in the face of real problems, and people have to figure it out for themselves.

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Well, and since we’re on the subject of “No One Is Alone”, that song probably gets the most discussion outside of the show. It’s been called both “sentimental” and “a flat out lie.” What do we think?

Brian: I do not believe it is a lie, nor is it overly sentimental. There is a theme of interconnectedness in much of Sondheim’s work; it is also a theme in Tony Kushner’s plays, my other favorite playwright of the late 20th century. Feeling desperately alone is an emotion, but not a reality. Even if one feels abandoned, Woods says you are connected to your ancestors, your community, and the place your soul holds in our collective consciousness.

Stuart: There is a similar theme in E. M. Forster’s work- and Forster is a major influence for me, and I suspect also for Lapine and Sondheim, as George’s repeated wish of “Connect George” has got to be an allusion to Forster’s mantra of “Only Connect.” I personally believe that the meaning of life is essentially learning how to live together in a way that celebrates our common humanity while still honoring our personal struggles and allowing for the pursuit of our personal definitions of happiness. That is a tall order and in my eyes thats why humans have been given free will and hope and all these other things- opposable thumbs- that is the stuff of fairy tales and myths and religion and philosophy and everything else that essentially boils down to us trying to make sense of it all, find the meaning, find that path, which is, yes, not always straight and clear, but there is a path. And to me that is what “No One Is Alone” is about, but I have often been accused of being sentimental and occasionally of being a liar.

Marissa: I think the problem with “No One Is Alone” is that it’s muddled. The title has a double meaning — it means both “You are not alone: I am singing this song to comfort you in this scary time” and “You are not alone: you are a member of society and anything you do can have repercussions and consequences.” The latter idea, that of communal responsibility, is the one that Sondheim and Lapine really want to focus on. But the former idea, being simpler and more sentimental, is the one that the audience tends to hear.

Corinne: But the song is not a lie. Of course, there are times when a person is alone, physically or on the side of a conflict, but that’s not what the song is about. No one exists in a void; our lives are all part of the greater human story. To interpret the lyric in a literal way misses the larger point. When we are faced with a moral dilemma or challenge, we must choose how to act. Though we may feel isolated or abandoned in these moments, we are not truly alone. The struggle to know what is right is part of the human condition.

Oren: Is it sentimental? Absolutely! Is it a lie? A more complicated question. Since the song is really a paean to grey areas disguised as a comforting ballad, I think the important thing to remember is that halfway through the song they sing “they [giants and witches] are not alone,” a further reminder that just because some people back you up, it doesn’t mean you’re right. Ultimately (and ironically, given that so much of this show undoes some of the bowdlerizing and simplification that many fairy tales received to make them more child-appropriate) this complicated moral lesson is dressed up to make it more palatable to the two young children being instructed.

Nick: I think the worst that can be said about “No One is Alone” is that it’s ever so slightly sentimental. But the message of this song is something I think is espoused by the whole musical – we are all interconnected, for better or worse. We don’t act in vacuums. Our actions and choices are both our own, yes, and also products of our memories and our connections with people, and have repercussions on others as well.

Will this discussion have repercussions? We hope so! Join us next Monday for part three and in the meantime, let us know what your answers to these questions are, or if you’ve got questions of your own you’d like to ask us!

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Theater Around The Bay: Creative Vilification

Our series of guest writers continues with Jeremy Cole telling us to tell it like it is- and then maybe twist the knife some more.

When I lived in Denver, I had a mutual admiration society going on with Joanne Greenberg, author of I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, In This Sign, and others. I would read all her books (The King’s Persons is my favorite), and she came to see all the plays I directed (I think Death of a Salesman was her favorite). I remember traveling a LONG way by bus to watch her tell stories in Gullah dialect (long story I’ll tell you some time) at a local charter school. I learned that she had sent her sons to that very school, and – dismayed by the prevalence of the F-word she kept hearing in the hallways – she offered to teach a class on creative vilification. What a delicious idea, I thought. Why simply drop an F-bomb on someone, she said, when you could zing them with “I should live long enough to bury you,” or better yet, “a hundred houses you should have, in every house a hundred rooms and in every room twenty beds, and may a delirious fever drive you from bed to bed.” These are Yiddish curses, and Joanne is a firm believer in Yiddish as the language of insult (q.v., my particular favorite: Er zol kakn mit blit un mit ayter – “He should crap blood and pus.”)

I’ll never forget Joanne on Merchant of Venice: “I hate that play. ‘Hath a Jew not eyes?’  Oh, please:  hath a DOG not eyes? Stupid play.” (Joanne once memorized Hamlet, however, in its entirety.)

I’ll never forget Joanne on Merchant of Venice: “I hate that play. ‘Hath a Jew not eyes?’ Oh, please: hath a DOG not eyes? Stupid play.” (Joanne once memorized Hamlet, however, in its entirety.)

I have to agree. We’ve become so banal in our criticisms, nowadays, that they hardly even register on our critical Richter scales. Political correctness, anger management and sensitivity training may all have their place, but at what cost? What happened to the days of the withering remark? The snarky aperçu? Where are our modern-day Alexander Woollcotts and Dorothy Parkers? He who once wrote “Number 7 opened last night. It was misnamed by five.” She, who once wrote of the play Give Me Yesterday: “Me, I should have given him twenty years to life.”

Do we hear such things today? Sadly, no. Not since 1986, when the New Yorker printed a one sentence review of Brighton Beach Memoirs that said “If you’ll believe Blythe Danner and Judith Ivey are Jewish, you’ll believe anything.” No, instead, we get pabulum: “Well…” (we hem, we haw) “It wasn’t to my taste” we say, or “I suppose it could have been better…” Balls. These are cop-outs. Case in point: I have no trouble admitting that I LOATHED the play Ghost Light. To say it wasn’t “my taste” would be disingenuous. I don’t merely want back the time I spent watching that travesty, I want all memory of it eradicated from my brain. I want restored to me the gray cells that committed suicide rather than take even one more minute of it. That is much closer to how I actually feel than simply saying “it needed work.” Please. The Autobahn needed work. The Pyramids needed work. That play needed a good paper shredder. So let’s get creative with our disdain. I don’t want someone to pull their punches when they don’t care for a performance, I want to hear their pain grow wings and take flight. If theater is meant to be an art-form, shouldn’t our discussion of it be an art, as well?

3 Jewish characters, 1 Jewish actor. I’ll give you three guesses…

3 Jewish characters, 1 Jewish actor. I’ll give you three guesses…

Let us put as much effort into our condemnations as we purport to put into our own work. If one’s problem with a given play is that the director didn’t understand the text, how can the complaint be taken seriously if it is uttered in a series of monosyllabic grunts? One of my favorite playwrights, Megan Cohen, never ceases to delight me with her originality. I honestly never know what’s coming next in her plays because she eschews formulas. She’s too smart for that, too uncompromising. Let us take a page out of her script the next time we have an unsatisfactory experience at the theater. Get out your thesaurus! Don’t say “bad” if “putrid” is nearer the mark. Don’t settle for “tepid” when “so boring I thought I was slipping into a coma” is more appropriate. Let us compare a plot riddled with gaping holes to the streets of San Francisco (no, not the old TV series, but the disastrous pot-holed nightmares that are this city’s streets). Next time we see lousy choreography, let us compare it to the chaos that is Critical Mass, or regale our rapt audience with tales of our first disastrous junior high dance. We are artists, dammit, and that should be apparent in every aspect of our lives. Not merely on our resumes, Facebook pages and blogs.

And speaking of blogs, have you been reading that one about Bay Area Theater? Child, you better turn your Hoover on, ‘cause I’ve got some dirt!

Kim Creates Kate

Last week we got to know Paul Jennings, the actor playing Petruchio in our up-coming production of Taming of the Shrew. This week, we’re checking in with Kim Saunders, who will be playing Katherina and making her San Francisco Theater Pub debut.

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So, who are you in a hundred words or less!

I am a native New Yorker and a city girl. My heart belongs to the theatre and has for as long as I can remember. I adore animals and share my home with a cat named Pyewacket and my wonderful husband Ron Talbot (Ed. Note: Ron is playing Gremio in this production). I love being busy and normally will be directing, choreographing, performing and coaching several projects at the same time

And how did you get involved with Theater Pub?

I was lucky enough to be cast at Custom Made Theatre Company in a production of Merchant of Venice. Having made friends with several people in the cast they took me to see last year’s production of Measure for Measure and I loved the entire concept of theatre in a bar! It reminded a bit of the NY Renaissance Faire and murder mysteries but with an amazing script.

What’s got you excited about working here?

So many things! The script, the people I am working with, the role I play and performing in an environment where anything can happen.

What’s got you worried?

The final monologue is so well known and can be interpreted in many ways. I hope that I am able to interpret it so the audience can understand Katherine’s point of view.

Have you ever been in this play (Shrew) before?

No.

What’s your history with this show?

I have always loved this show and the witty repartee between Kate and Petruchio. I have auditioned for it several times but have always been called back for Bianca. Having already done Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, this seems like a natural progression and I am excited to take it on!

Shrew is considered controversial- why do you think that is?

The true question is: who tames who? Shakespeare chose to make his heroines remarkable women; if the shrew is truly tamed at the end you have then forced a square peg into a round hole. I don’t think that is what Shakespeare intended. I believe in the end they both have found love and a true partnership. If anything these two are now a force to be reckoned with against the world!

Tell us about your character- what do you love about them?

I love the sparing between my Katherine and Petruchio as well as the ability to use all the physical elements that bring these two to life.

What do you hate about them?

I always want to find the humanity in my characters. How did they become who they are before the play has begun? When playing such a strong character it is sometimes hard for the audience to see the hurt and vulnerability that has brought them to where they are when you (the audience) first meets them.

What do you see as the biggest challenge?

Back to….the final monolgue. Everyone knows it and already has an opinion.

When you go about creating a role, what’s your process, in a nutshell? How do find a way into a character, particularly one written so long ago? 

For me listening and working off other actors, as well as the director’s vision are my favorite ways of finding my way into creating a role. Also many hints are in the text and also in the pauses thanks to the verse! I have several acting techniques in my toolbox if I need them as well.

What do you think this play has for a modern audience? 

Hopefully a great deal of laughter and maybe a new take on the show to start a new conversation!

A lot of famous lines in Shrew- what’s your favorite one?

“If I be waspish best beware my sting.”

A large selection of beers at our bar- what’s your favorite beer?

They keep adding new ones so I just want to keep trying new ones!

Don’t miss Kim, and the rest of this fantastic cast, in Taming of the Shrew, which plays four nights only- March 18, 19, 25 and 27, at 8 PM at the Cafe Royale. No reservations necessary as admission is free (with a suggested five dollar donation at the door), but get there early as we tend to fill up!

From Tripple L to M4M: Stuart Bousel Talks About His Life With The Bard

In preparation for our next production, a scaled down version of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure opening on Tuesday, August 14th, director Stuart Bousel talks about his previous tangles with the world’s most famous dead white male.  

Like many directors, I have a love-hate relationship with Shakespeare.

I love him in that he’s an amazing writer who has left us almost forty plays, many of which are masterpieces and all of which are eminently performable, and because these plays are the magical combination of incredibly universal and public domain, his work is a sort of lyrical playground for any director looking to put on a production where he or she can flaunt their innovative choices while still taking advantage of a several centuries long pedigree. Of course, there in lies the problem: these plays have been around for so long and are so well known that it’s somewhat impossible to just put them on as plays, and when you do so, inevitably, half your audience comes in with expectations that can have little to nothing to do with your production.

The first Shakespeare play I ever directed was his lesser-appreciated romantic comedy, Love’s Labors Lost, or as I like to call it, Tripple L, a play I adore, in part because it’s one of the rare, truly “original” plays Shakespeare wrote (most of them come from historical or mythological sources), and also because there’s something youthful and charming about it that makes me think it was, for Shakespeare, what SubUrbia was for Eric Bogosian or This Is Our Youth was for Kenneth Lonergan: that charming, quasi-autobiographical play you write about being good looking, reckless and having nothing to do but get wasted, flirt and act like you know everything about the world. Hence, when I directed my production in 2006, I re-set the show in a modern San Francisco nightclub, scored it with pop-music and costumed it with trendy clothes and an eye towards contemporary realism, making it about the people I knew. At the time, I figured this would be my one and only Shakespeare foray.

The trouble is, Shakespeare is sort of an addiction, and once you find your gateway play, it’s hard not to be tempted to do another one. And then another one. I did Hamlet next because, well, why the hell not, right? And that’s when I first figured out (as many people do on their first production of Hamlet) that there are some shows you do knowing virtually everyone who sees it is going to have “their version” in mind and that in their head it’s going to be superior to whatever you do. Which means you might as well go hog wild and that’s what I did, setting the show in modern times, once again, having actresses play the men and actors play the women and a terrifying seven foot tall ghost in what could best be described as Japanese horror flick drag. To date, it’s actually one of my favorite shows I’ve directed, being almost entirely wrapped in my own particular brand of experimentalism and cloaked in Bousel-ian touches: abrupt acts of violence, monochromatic color schemes, romantic suicides, homo-erotic undertones and surprise redemptions.

My next two Shakespeare productions were A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night, both for Atmostheatre’s Theater in The Woods, an annual summer production staged in a Redwood preserve near Woodside, California. Both shows were exercises in charm and period theater, the first staged as a Regency era bittersweet romantic comedy, the second a more experimental foray into tragicomedy set in the early 18th century Massachusetts Bay Colony. Of the two, I personally think Midsummer was the more successful (you really just can’t beat setting that play in an actual forest) but on some level it’s virtually impossible to mess up that show unless you really try (and that said, I’ve seen it happen) and the fact is I learned more from Twelfth Night, which was a reminder that directors should play with these classics but never lose site of the story they are telling and what that story’s emotional core is for them.

Which set me up for directing Merchant of Venice, a production that, as of this writing, is still playing at the Gough Street Playhouse (home of the Custom Made Theater Company), having just been extended for another two weeks. In some ways a return to form for me, my Merchant is a sprawling commentary about the world of modern business and how its various social dramas of status and exploitation are played out in nightclubs and bars, break rooms and boardrooms. There is a light motif of pop music, drug and alcohol abuse, and retro fashion, setting the play in the 1960’s, 1980’s and contemporary world all at the same time, while preserving many of the antiquities of the text and finding numerous sight gags in the use of current day technology. To me, it’s the best Shakespeare I’ve done yet, using narrative to study the contrasts and comparisons between a time and society we think of as so removed from our own- and yet with which I think we have a lot in common. A lot we probably aren’t terribly proud of.

For the Pub’s Measure for Measure, however, I may be foraying back into the realm of charming, albeit this time with more edge than previously, as Measure packs a dirtier, nastier punch than Midsummer or Twelfth Night. Last year I had the honor of adapting Henry IV and V into The Boar’s Head, in which I also had the honor of playing Ned Poins. Something I loved about the show, directed by Jessica Richards, was how we moved throughout the Bar, which was transformed, through the text alone, into the Boar’s Head tavern from the plays, with only two moments of stepping away from that infamous East cheap locale so that Henry IV could bemoan his vanishing son and later die of unknown causes on the pool table. This time around I knew we shouldn’t do another show set in a pub. There are only so many times that could happen, even in Shakespeare’s vast canon, and the sooner we set a precedent that there were no precedents, the better it would be in the long run if, as it seems we intend to, there was to be an annual Shakespeare play at the Pub. When Measure for Measure was first suggested it seemed like an excellent fit because it would, like all Shakespeare plays, defy expectations even as it created them. Plus, it was an unusual choice, a play not frequently done or particularly well known, and so liberating myself and the cast to do with it what we would. Ironically, it’s going to be the first Shakespeare play I have ever directed that will be costumed in 16th century clothes, but the traditional take ends there.

Something I have discovered while putting together an 80 minute version of this show (that I now affectionately refer to as M4M) is that I’d actually love to do a full production sometime. We cut a lot of material and characters to make this play flow as smoothly and slickly as possible in the bar, and some of that is stuff I’d really like a chance to play with. But I’m also now completely hooked and going through a love phase with Shakespeare, so it may be a while before I allow myself the luxury of directing a second production of any of the shows I’ve done so far, when there are so many left I’d like to sink my teeth into.

In the back of my head, I’ve been considering both King John and Henry VIII for quite some time, and recently it was put into my head by a producer friend of mine to consider Romeo and Juliet. The pre-production phase for a production of The Tempest has been going on for about three years now and some part of me is always fantasizing about Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Cymbeline. I have no real desire to direct Two Gentlemen of Verona or Much Ado About Nothing and yet if offered the chance, I wouldn’t turn them down because I see how both could be lovely shows and I have ideas. Which is the problem. I have ideas for all the shows. So do most directors.

And once you open that door for us, it can be a really difficult one to close. 

Don’t miss Theater Pub’s Measure for Measure, playing four nights at the Cafe Royale (August 14, 20, 21, 27) and one night at the Plough And Stars (August 22), always at 8 PM, always for free. 

Pint Sized Plays Interviews 3: Marissa Skudlarek and Nancy Cooper Frank

We thought we’d start your weekend off right with a pair of interviews from two returning Pint-Sized playwrights. Marissa Skudlarek was part of Pint Sized 1 and Nancy Cooper Frank was part of Pint Sized 2. Now they’re both back for more!

How did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m a longtime friend of Theater Pub and had a play, Drinking for Two, in the inaugural Pint-Sized Play Festival in August 2010. (Otherwise known as “the play about the pregnant lady.”) This year, as the submission deadline for Pint-Sized approached, I had a cluster of ideas in my head that seemed to want to coalesce into a short play, and I realized that this play could easily take place in a bar. So I sat down and wrote Beer Theory.

Nancy Cooper Frank: This is my third collaboration with Theater Pub. The first was way back in 2010, so I can’t remember how I first heard of this creative bunch of people. I’m tickled by the way the action in a Theater Pub production can move from table to table, through the audience, across the pool table, along the bar, up to the balcony.

Nancy Cooper Frank

What is the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Nancy Cooper Frank: You can’t waste time setting things up. You have to dive right in.

Marissa Skudlarek: Because short plays have to be so concise, so precise, they live or die by their initial concept. Even more than a full-length play, a short play needs a zesty or sparky or intriguing idea behind it. I have written so many bad short plays for school assignments — plays that were doomed from birth with no hope of salvage, because the ideas behind them were so weak. (Which is why I doubt that the best way to teach someone playwriting is to make her write a lot of short plays… but that’s another story.)

What is the best thing about writing a short play?

Marissa Skudlarek: The freedom to experiment and to be as weird as you want to be. For instance, I could never see how to make direct-address monologues work in my plays, and thus hated and feared direct address. But in “Beer Theory,” my characters talk to the audience and I’m OK with it! Moreover, the whole time I was writing this play, I was thinking “This is weird, it’s bizarre, it probably won’t make sense to anyone but me.” But I was willing to take the risk and write it because, hey, it’s a short play, it’s not a full-length.

Nancy Cooper Frank:
See answer to question 2.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Marissa Skudlarek:
The answer to this question might be more apparent after you see “Beer Theory,” which is in a sense my attempt to articulate my artistic credo in the form of a seven-minute quasi-romantic comedy… so I’ll just say, I have always felt far more affinity with Apollonian modes of art than with Dionysian. In particular, this year I have been paying special attention to the dictum “content dictates form,” recently popularized (though not coined) by my hero Stephen Sondheim.

Nancy Cooper Frank: My Uncle Albert, whose stash of ’60s era Mad magazines I discovered as a six year old. It’s pretty much my first memory of myself reading. Of course, it meant I was reading parodies of books and movies I’d never read or seen, or even heard of.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?

Marissa Skudlarek: Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I think he would be a good fit as the male character in my play, a guy in his late 20s who loves indie rock but hates going to concerts. And, more to the point, I’ve had a crush on him ever since I saw that insanely charming YouTube video of him singing in French.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Dame Maggie Smith and Dame Judi Dench. Because they’re great and if they were cast in my show, I would not be the Oldest Living Collaborator with Theater Pub. (Oh, you said pick one.)

Marissa Skudlarek

What is a writing project you are currently working on?

Marissa Skudlarek: This is going to be a busy and Olympians-focused summer for me. I will be revising my 2011 Olympians play, Pleiades, for publication in the upcoming anthology. Plus, I will be writing my 2012 Olympians contribution, The Love Goddess, based on the Aphrodite myth — it will be my first screenplay!

Nancy Cooper Frank: I’m revising my Daniil Kharms: A Life in One Act and Several Dozen Eggs. (based on the life and work of the Russian experimental writer) and also working on a longer play with fairy tale elements set in Russia.

What’s next for you?

Nancy Cooper Frank: I guess I’ll just keep on writing and reading plays and going to plays.

Marissa Skudlarek: Other than “Pleiades” and “The Love Goddess”? Well, I’ll also continue to write my “Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life” column for the San Francisco Theater Pub blog every two weeks… watch this space!

What upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area theater scene?

Marissa Skudlarek: I’m looking forward to Shotgun Players’ next two shows. They reliably do strong and interesting work, and this summer they are offering Truffaldino Says No, a world premiere by witty local playwright Ken Slattery, and Precious Little, a script that I have heard amazing things about (it’s had some productions on the East Coast) but didn’t know if I would ever get to see staged.

Nancy Cooper Frank: Circle Mirror Transformation at Marin. Custom Made Theater’s Merchant of Venice.

What’s your favorite beer?

Nancy Cooper Frank: Any decent Pilsner. Love those hops.

Marissa Skudlarek: I don’t drink beer — that’s why they kicked me out of Portland, Oregon when I turned 21. OK, I do love Belgian fruit beer (Lindemans Framboise) but that doesn’t really count as beer, does it? I stick to wine when I’m at the Cafe Royale… and cocktails or cider at other bars.

Don’t miss the Pint Sized plays, opening July 16 and playing July 17, 23, 30 and 31 with a special performance at the Plough and the Stars on July 18. All the rest are at our usual stomping grounds, Cafe Royale, located at the corner of Post and Leavenworth in San Francisco’s lovely Tendernob neighborhood. Performances are free, no reservations necessary, but show up early and stay late- we’re bound to be sold out and the crowd is always the best part of Theater Pub!