Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Midsummer Night's Dream/Radio Macbeth/The Unconquered

A three-way! Today spans a pretty wide range while keeping a foot firmly buried in sound.

It was the last of the three that I saw, but I wanna get this out of the way first, before the ADHD readers get restless: get your ass down to Navy Pier and see A Midsummer Night's Dream before it closes this Sunday. If you're under 35, they've got $20 tickets, which is less than some Storefronts charge, and they're not shoving you in the balcony with those, either. I was on the side of the thrust, but still arm's length from the action.

For those who haven't been paying attention, this production of Midsummer is part of the World's Stage series. Comprised of an Indian and Sri Lankan cast, the show is performed in a weaving of eight languages: English, Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Sanskrit, and Sinhala. It also incorporates elements of dance, aerial gymnastics and martial arts all on a sand-floored stage. Thirdly, it's the most vibrant, heart-warming, absolutely bursting with life production of Midsummer I've ever been partial to. Less a fleeting comedy than a celebration of all facets of love and sex and the mischief in between, there are moments of pure violence and moments of pure sensuality and moments of pure ridiculousness. But it's mainly purely rapturous.

One thing that has become a point of contention with the show for some is Chicago Shakes' decision to produce the show without translation. The production literally weaves the dialogue among languages: performers switch tongues mid-line and perform some entire scenes of dialogue speaking different languages than each other. If you don't know the story and are looking for a straight and informed narrative experience, I suppose I can understand the frustration. But (and maybe this is a little unfair because I am familiar with the play) I couldn't be farther from it. In fact, the few moments that I was a little less than impressed were the moments, particularly during the beginning, where the show remained in English for an extended period of time. It was during those points that it seemed like I was watching just another mostly faithful rendition of Shakespeare, and that's not what anyone in the audience bought their ticket to see. All the same, using that knowledge, I can't fathom the complaint that it was hard to understand what was happening on stage. Doing a show in a foreign language without translation is one of the many ideas I have long been (and currently am) toying with, and what I saw was very encouraging in confirming what I had suspected -- allowing yourself to fall into the fact that you don't know exactly what is being said transforms the theatrical experience from verbal to musical. And theatre shouldn't be a primarily verbal exercise, or at least it shouldn't have to default to a primarily verbal exercise.

Especially when it is as evident as here that the verbal is not always necessary to get the point and purpose across. Some of the most entrancing and effecting moments in Midsummer have no English involved. P R Jijoy as Theseus and Oberon speaks primarily in Malayalam and Sanskrit with the rarest of English and can't help but draw all eyes every time he is on stage. There are a couple of times when a large group breaks out into traditional song (although music is the universal language) that draw one into the community being constantly shared by this cast. And as M Palani's Demetrius declares his love for Helena in front of everyone the morning after -- and in Tamil -- I unexpectedly snapped out of my trance to realize just how fully locked into the show I was. This was mainly because of the second universal language: Archana Ramaswamy, who plays Hippolyta and Titania. Archana is a vision to behold (she's the one in all of the marketing material you've been seeing) and is always and utterly emotionally turned on during the show. She speaks in English throughout her role, but conveys twice as much simply through a glance here or a little eye contact there. Demetrius' ode to Helena is a perfect example. As I'm listening to this speech, normally a nice little "let's tie up these ends" moment, I glanced at Hippolyta to find a tear-streaked face. And not just a dab. Over a smile to make pulses race, tears were openly flowing down her cheeks. I watched tears drip, drip, drip onto her chest during a scene that is otherwise often a little glossed over in a language that I know nothing about and I was smitten. This is a woman that I want to forget everything and fall in love with. It's just one more on a long list of things about this show that go beyond understanding.


Meanwhile, down in Hyde Park, Court's brought in SITI Company's Radio Macbeth, another visiting Shakespeare production that either requires working knowledge of the source play or a willingness to give in to experience over narrative. This Anne Bogart directed piece is as much a concert as it is a theatrical experience. Set on sparsely furnished bare stage with four or five microphones scattered throughout, Bogart has cut Mackers down to ninety minutes and forged those ninety with a firm sense of musical abstraction. While still technically a telling (actually very much literally so) of the story, Radio Macbeth at its finest moments is a physicalization of Shakespeare's musicality. I'm a firm believer in revisionism and the power of new interpretation when it comes to the classics -- as unpopular as the idea may be, I don't know that the Folio and meter are the sacred cattle that they have become. Important to be aware of and only to be ignored with a purpose, perhaps, but certainly to be ignored from time to time. However, even as I look on from that stance, what Bogart has done is an honor to the placement of these words. If you are going to treat Shakespeare as the poetry that it is, this is what it should sound like. The nightmare soundscape of the Act IV witches/apparitions/kings horror and the absolute percussion of Lady Macbeth's insanity are perfect examples -- words and sounds intertwined to the point that you want to close your eyes on occasion, just to appreciate them.

In the lobby afterwards, I heard a student explaining to his family the plot of Macbeth and how the very loose narrative conceit of Radio Macbeth correlates. I felt bad for them; all of the magic was slowly being drained from the piece in an attempt to gain the upper hand on the ephemera of the show through knowledge and detail. Sometimes theatre isn't only about What Happened in the play. Sometimes, and these are some of the times I find most glorious, it's primarily about What Is Happening on stage.


I'm throwing The Unconquered, currently running at Trap Door, on here as well. It's a bit of an oddball in the grouping, but did you expect any less from Trap Door? With The Unconquered, playwright Torben Betts has reached some sort of odd symbiosis between Beckett, Kane, and Seuss. It's a lazy comparison on my part, but the show does defy easy explanation. In a 50s/60s sitcom world in the midst a revolution, Betts, through extensive repetition, uncomfortable imagery, and rapid fire slash overlapping dialogue, has created a work that pounds your skull into submission politically without ever truly giving an innocent to root for. It's a bleak work, offset by the sunshine of its world, where nothing bad really honestly happens, because even when it does, there's always a little canned laughter to save the day. Even the glimpses of the death and destruction waiting outside are provided to us through live vocal (and thus gleefully underdramatic) sound effects as performed by Kevin Lucero Less as Soldier, a performance that initially provides the vigor for the show but slowly crosses the fence from absurdist to self-parodic. It's kind of a running theme. Everything starts fiercely real in an anti-naturalistic setting and then ever so steadily becomes more and more painfully chosen for absurdity rather than allowed to be absurd, to the point where video footage of Soldier as a Max Headroom/Lounge Singer wannabe blares as Mother and Father do the theatrical robot (because they become incorporated into the machine works that are The System, understand?), while god knows what is exactly happening for the sake of the show. And while a vicious moment of stillness at the end begins the way to redemption, Beata Pilch (who pulls double duty as director and Mother) let the unruliness of the piece to often outweigh the reigns she held. When Soldier enters at a mile a minute making ricochet noises all the way, we're in it. When he becomes vaguely Eurotrash and sings, we're not sure, but we'll play along. And by the time he's a dozen different things, none of them identifiable, we don't know what we're supposed to be listening for or looking at and there's far too much of it with too little interest to even sit back and enjoy the ride.


So, I got my O'Neill Festival tickets in the mail yesterday and apparently this means I'm a Goodman Subscriber for 2008/2009? My Subscriber Benefits book (which only served to confuse me more) and Patron cards were included in the envelope, which I find unusual because I've never actually paid any money to the Goodman for a Goodman production -- I only bought tickets for the Festival shows, not Desire Under The Elms. I'm a little uncertain about what this all means (i.e. what perks do I get?), but also in the envelope were a pair of tickets for last Sunday's matinee of A Christmas Carol purchased by some lady from Glen Ellyn (oops!), so I'm not putting too much stock in anything I get from the Goodman. Don't worry, they were shitty and overpriced seats for Christmas Carol, anyway...

As you probably guessed, last night was Chicago Shakes' A Midsummer Night's Dream. Also on the schedule for the week: tonight is Profiles' The Thugs, Thursday I'm working box for Signal's Six Degrees Of Separation (which you should totally come see -- you can get in free on Thursday if you e-mail me for details), Friday is TUTA's Romeo and Juliet (for real this time), Saturday DADA [g]nimbus is coming out to play at Soiree DADA (which you should also totally come see), and Sunday is the side project's Cut To The Quick festival (I'm going for the whole shebang in one day: Static/Cling, Splinters And Shrapnel, and Splayed Verbiage). As Bokonon might say: busy, busy, busy.



Brian Barker said...

Music as a universal language?

I think the World needs a spoken Univeral Language as well.

An interesting video can be seen at http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8837438938991452670

Other detail can be seen at http://www.lernu.net

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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