Thursday, May 17, 2018

The Seagull (2001)

Natalie Portman & Philip Seymour Hoffman
(The Public Theatre)
August, 2001. We were in New York City. My wife’s play Angst:84, following a rousing premiere at Dobama’s Night Kitchen, was being presented at the fifth annual New York International Fringe Festival.

Angst:84 is a satirical adaptation of Orwell’s classic 1984, reimagined to take place in an oppressive suburban high school in the actual year 1984. Requiring a company of fourteen, most of the cast were actual teenagers, or in their early 20s. A skeleton crew of techies (myself included, running sound) brought the entire team to around twenty.

Remounting and presenting the show (which included a bank of actual lockers, schlepped all the way from Ohio) was a labor-intensive event. Just raising funds before we left and rehearsing the show in the Dobama space took up a great deal of time during the summer, which was a welcome distraction for my wife and I, who were only just beginning to recover from losing our first child that March.

Once the production was under way in the Present Company space on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side (since demolished, now high-end apartments) we had time to unwind, and roam the city. I passed on an invitation to see the Twin Towers, a decision I have come to regret.

The "Angst:84" company in front of the Present Company.
Some hit TKTS for Broadway shows. I saw sixteen different fringe performances, sometimes entirely on my own. My wife and I wanted to try and get seats for The Seagull, produced by the Public Theatre in Central Park. We had exactly and only two days, back-to-back in which we had no performances, and we would need them in order to see this show.

Normally, as we had that June when we had seen Billy Crudup and Joe Morton in Measure for Measure at the Delacorte, you might need to show up before breakfast to wait in line for the free tickets they handed out around lunch.

But the line for The Seagull started the afternoon before, as soon as that day’s tickets were gone. Because every single artist in the production was a headliner. It didn’t just star Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline, though that would have been enough. It was directed by Mike Nichols, working with a new translation by Tom Stoppard, and also featured Christopher Walken, John Goodman, Natalie Portman, Marcia Gay Harden, Stephen Spinella, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. This was to be a legendary production. And the tickets were free.

Reading in line.
Philip Seymour Hoffman as Konstantin. Philip Seymour Hoffman was Konstantin.

The wife and I put out the call that we intended to wait in line, all night, for these tickets. We thought perhaps a few would join us, but seriously, that might sound a little ominous, spending the night in Central Park. Or possibly tedious. But these were teenagers, young adults. The entire company showed up, around 4 PM on a Wednesday, to wait for tickets to see a show on Thursday night.

There were already about a hundred people in line at 4 PM. We’d brought blankets, pillows, folding chairs, and picnic dinners. There were more than twenty of us, as several had New York area friends join in.

Central Park after dark.
We took turns, sitting and wandering the park. Sun began to set as that evening’s performance began. A group of us walked by Belvedere Castle and the lower reservoir which provides the backdrop for the performance, behind the stage for the Delacorte, and watched the performance from there. We walked the Ramble, and visited Strawberry Fields after dusk.

We exited the park, picked up a small bag of groceries, and reentered the park around West 81st Street. The play had ended, crowds were streaming out. As we approached the theater, a gaunt, six-foot man with a beard, sixtyish, wearing a tight black T-shirt and jeans strode past us with great purpose (and a briefcase.) Just as he passed, I realized it was Christopher Walken.

In the gutter on CPW.
It was a perfect summer evening. In the past they used to hand out the tickets a couple hours before curtain, instead of at noon, and in 1990 some of us waited to see Denzel Washington in Richard III. It was a hot day, bright with sun, but between five and eight the clouds rolled in and the show was rained out. This night was balmy and warm -- it was a hot fringe festival that year -- cooling off only slightly as the sun went down.

Once upon a time, waiting in line all night would have been uneventful. But Rudy Giuliani was mayor, and park hours were strictly enforced. We knew this going in, but weren’t sure exactly how that would work. As we understood it, the entire line would be made to relocate to Central Park West for the hours of 1 AM to 6 AM, when the park was closed to the public.

For better or for worse, there was a team of line enforcers, NYC theater patrons who were particularly enthusiastic about catching and shaming line-jumpers. A few hours before midnight, they went down the line creating a list of everyone on line. They were fierce, announcing that though they had no association with the park, the theater or the city, once the line returned to the park they would use this list to check for line-jumpers.

This also happened.
Whatever. Sure enough at 1 AM the NYPD politely (yes) told the line we had to leave the park. We did our best to maintain our relative place in line, those of us who had actually fallen asleep groggily staggering out to the cobblestones of CPW. I actually did try to fall asleep there, for a few moments, lying on the sidewalk, around West 82nd Street, the streetlights creating something like sun. But mostly we sat up and talked and played card games. Some even played guitar.

Settling back into the park after dawn, the line patrol came through with their list. There were a few altercations but nothing serious, not where we were sitting. The wait from then until noon may have been the most tedious, excitable teenagers (and me) finally succumbing to exhaustion and getting a few winks in, beneath the trees. There were also bagels. We finally got our tickets and went our separate ways for the afternoon, many of us to get some real sleep.

What can I say about the performance? There are indelible moments, pictures in my mind which I will never forget. There was a second or two, deep into the first act … Kevin Kline (as the famous author Trigorin) had been on stage for perhaps twenty minutes, and I was momentarily, mentally pulled out of the performance, thinking how I had seen this man in numerous movies, but that I had never before seen him exist in real space and time, not without close-ups or edits. He was just there.

Breakfast en plein air.
That moment Trigorin (Kline) and the actress Arkadina (Meryl Streep) share a passionate kiss on the floor, which he deftly breaks, fluidly rolling over, pulling a notebook and pencil from his vest to make a note. The then-twenty year-old Natalie Portman as the aspiring actress Nina, upon securing a promise from the famous, older writer, executing a neat, bubbly pirouette, like a bird-hop, unable to contain her excitement. Meryl Streep did a cartwheel.

And Hoffman as Konstantin, a man doomed as a writer and a lover, who in this production controversially shot himself on-stage (rather than, as indicated by the Chekhov’s stage directions, off) facing upstage, toward the reservoir, seated in a high-backed chair, the stain bleeding through during the play’s final moments.

That ending, so startling and disorienting, it was hard to believe the play was over. The applause was grand but strange.

Playwright in sunglasses (center).
And so, our adventure concluded, we exited the house. Some wanted to try and catch some stars -- the very location of the theater makes it impossible for actors to jump in a car and speed away, like Walken the night before, they had to leave on foot. Or, in the case of Marcia Gay Harden, wearing a bicycle helmet. She was very generous with her time, talking to several admirers. My wife and I held back from our crowd; I try to leave people I don’t actually know alone unless I really have something I want to ask or tell them.

A small number of us were decided where we would go next, to decompress, hopefully with dessert. John Goodman (who is, in fact, very large) walked past, and one of our team, Brian (he said I can tell this story) was overcome with excitement and took off down the path to have words with the famous actor.

We watched from a distance as our colleague said a few enthusiastic words to Goodman. Goodman gave our friend a strange smirk before turning away abruptly and walking into the dark. Brian returned, shaking his head. “That was weird,” our friend said. “I told him how great the show was and he just kind of blew me off.”

Meryl Streep & Kevin Kline
(The Public Theatre)
Oh, well, we said. Actors. Half a dozen or so of us decided to head a few blocks west to Cafe Lalo. I hadn’t been there in over five years, I had fond memories of hanging out there for hours, writing, while my wife (we had only just started dating in the mid-90s) worked her shift at Shakespeare & Co. Two sites for two Meg Ryan movies. Weird.

Anyway, pastry and coffee and conversation when all of a sudden Brian, he who accosted John Goodman, shook his head, dazed and gasped, “Oh, my GOD!

“I said to John Goodman, ‘I just saw the show -- tell Kevin Kline he was amazing!’”

"Angst:84" by Toni K. Thayer is available from Heartland Plays, Inc.

"The Seagull" a new film adaptation starring Annette Bening and Saoirse Ronan, directed by Michael Mayer, with a screenplay by Stephen Karam, opens June 15, 2018.

Many thanks to Heather Stout Nebeker for the Central Park photos!

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Troilus & Cressida (rehearsal)

Cressida & Troilus
(Hannah Woodside & Brinden Harvey)
Tonight we ran through the first seven scenes of the play. There are eighteen scenes in this production, but even that’s arbitrary, the final four scenes all run into each other, battle scenes, scenes of chaos and death.

These first seven scenes constitute the first half, setting up the conflict which will end tragically in the second. I’d call it a farce, except for all of the sorrow, unhappiness and death. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, however, which is front-ended with dancing and fighting, followed by two hours of self-pitying wailing, this show holds the best violence for the second half, and at the end, and there’s dance all over the place. There will also be singing.

So, to the point. Here we are, a month from opening, and we have roughly staged the first half! I hope to have the entire thing blocked by Memorial Day.

I love this process, and we have a great team. It’s challenging to co-parent and direct in the evening, that’s really why I don’t do it that often. It is the end of the school year, which means concert and other special, end-of-year events. On those evenings, Cat and Leilani choreograph dance, or Kelly and Josh the fighting.

Troilus & Cressida takes place during the Trojan War. Through necessity and for creative reasons, this adaptation will be contemporary, or nearly so. Dressing everyone in armor, providing all swords, staging grand, one-on-one battle scenes. These things are prohibitive.

Also, we have an opportunity, devising a ninety-minute abridgment of what could easily be a four-hour play, to draw focus to the universal realities of conflict and war, to literally display how yesterday is not that different from today.

Meeting with our costume designer Jenniver, we have selected a palate of uniform and other pieces which reflect the American conflicts of the past decade. Just tonight I met with Lisa, our sound designer, to discuss brief sound and music possibilities, also culled from the early 2000s (see: Spotify playlist, right.)

As I had described earlier, much of the mythology has been stripped from the next. We are focusing on the men and women who are caught up in the fight, and how decisions made affect the lives and relationships of those people.

That also makes for some pacing issues; eliminated scenes make for certain characters exiting then entering again, almost immediately. This was apparently in editing the script, last night I got to see this in action. Or inaction. We’ll fix it.

We have a month!

Join us for PLAY ON! a benefit for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival in the Speakeasy at Bier Markt in Ohio City, May 20, 2018.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Family Theater Day (2018)

Lula Del Ray
Yesterday, Google celebrated the work of Georges Méliès with a 360° video, highlighting examples of his films. The craftsmanship that went into those movies is absolutely remarkable. Today’s video animations (like the aforementioned “Google Doodle”) stand atop the shoulders of those giants who relied upon wood and nails and paper and glue, and most important of all -- light.

This weekend at Playhouse Square they are presenting Family Theater Day (formerly the International Children’s Theatre Festival) where Cleveland audiences will have the opportunity to see some amazing professional productions intended for all-ages by companies from around the world.

Lula Del Ray, presented by Manual Cinema (Chicago, IL) is a phenomenal accomplishment, an exquisite animated picture postcard, rich in nostalgia and longing and executed with precision and wonder. I sat with an audience of children from schools across the region at the Connor Palace, and after a few moments of requisite shushing, they sat in absolute silence, enrapt not only by the story but the artistry which was present to the eye.

Using three old school overhead projectors, countless transparencies, a guitar and string trio plus one computer keyboard player, and a couple actors, the company told an a largely wordless saga, projected as shadows onto a large screen.

A teenager, stuck in the desert where he mother manages a satellite array, yearns to visit the big city to see the country duo, The Baden Brothers. Their haunting rendition of the traditional ballad, Lord, Blow The Moon Out, as performed live by these musicians, would have made my teenage heart long to be a part of something bigger.

The Secret Life of Suitcases
The other day I also had the chance to see The Secret Life of Suitcases, created by Ailie Cohen and Lewis Heatherington (Scotland) which is staged like an elaborate gift box or pop-up book; a fairly mundane and muted exterior opens and expands to reveal color and adventure and joy.

Larry is serious about his work and never joins the rest of the office for lunch, until a flying suitcase shows him how much more is out in the world to experience. A duo of puppeteers carry Larry through several journeys utilizing forced perspective, unusual voices, and plentiful droll charm.

The first time I was made aware of this annual event was five years ago, when I was at the very beginning of my enterprise in the writing and creation of plays for child audiences. I am constantly amazed and delighted by the effort and craft companies from all over put into developing stylish and moving productions like these, and they have inspired me in my work.

Bring the family downtown tomorrow, several of the events are ticketed and while others are free. But you don’t even need to bring a child to be captivated by these productions.

Family Theater Day in Playhouse Square is Saturday, May 5, 2018.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

The Famous History of Troilus and Cressida

Diomedes & Cressida (Troilus at left, seething)
Every three years, by accident is not design. I am contracted by the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival to direct one of the Bard’s lesser-performed works. Six years ago that was Henry VIII. In 2015, Timon of Athens. This summer, we will present Troilus and Cressida.

It’s fun. “Oh,” the people say, “I’ve never seen that one!” That’s right. No one has. I mean, they have, there are those that have, but most have not.

We learned of a couple who saw a Shakespeare play on their honeymoon and have made it their mission to see a production of every one of his (to date) thirty-eight acknowledged plays. Three years ago, they traveled from Cincinnati to see my Timon. It was number thirty-four on their list!

The advantage of staging the pieces few know is that I can do whatever I want with them. People would howl if you left “To be or not to be” out of your production of Hamlet. No one would notice if I left out “What is aught, but as ‘tis valued?” though that is a good line, one of the major themes, and I feel not bad at all giving it to a different character to speak.

Troilus and Cressida is lesser tale of the Trojan War, named for the fiery, brief love affair between one of the sons of Priam (Troilus) and the daughter (Cressida) of a Trojan priest and traitor. When, on the urging of the traitor for his daughter to join him on the side of Greece, an exchange is arranged for her and a Trojan prisoner.

The text suggests that Cressida easily takes up with one of the Grecian soldiers, though you could easily imagine she is actually trying to align herself to one who would protect her in a perilous situation. Regardless, Troilus spies their exchanges and assumes the worst.

There are those who believe this play answers the question, “Did Shakespeare believe that Romeo and Juliet would have had a long, faithful life together, had they lived?” That answer is no.

However, that is not all Troilus and Cressida, the play, is about. It’s about all kinds of things, with a mythological weight thanks to a staff of characters including Agamemnon, King of Greeks, Helen, she whose face launched a thousand ships, Cassandra, the clairvoyant and unheeded, Nestor, the ancient and verbose, Priam, king of Troy, and Andromache, his queen.

I have cut all of these characters from this production.

Rather, we will focus in large part on Troilus and Cressida themselves, who are not actually the primary focus of the full-length text, as well as the character of Achilles. War has bogged down. As Ulysses observes, this is due less to the Trojans strength, and more to the laziness, apathy and indulgence of the Greeks, as best reflected in the person of Achilles, who refuses to fight and spends hours in his tent with his lover, Patroclus.

Our production will reflect a modern superpower, one also accused of apathy and indulgence.

Rehearsals begin this weekend, the company largely composed of actors I have never worked with before, or even met before auditions. I am very excited to get started.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Troilus & Cressida" opening June 15, 2018.