Millman's Shakesblog

A blog about theatre, literature and the arts, with a particular emphasis on the work of William Shakespeare.

I went into the Stratford production of The Misanthrope thinking, you know, this is really a play that needs to be set in a high school. You’ve got a group of people who are essentially powerless and useless - having been deprived of any independent power by the absolutist king Louis XIV - but who are, by virtue of this very dependency, essentially equal, and who, because they are all wealthy, have no material needs either. They have nothing to do and no way to earn status - so they compete with one another at sheer posturing: by asserting their coolness and wittily denigrating all others, they try to establish themselves at the top of the social hierarchy. But the one on top today is only a single well-aimed putdown away from tumbling to the bottom of the heap. All of which sounds like the world of teenagers.

Having now seen the show twice, though (I’d read the play before, but never seen a production), I think that does Molière’s play - I don’t know whether to properly call it a comedy - justice. This isn’t a play about immature people. Or, rather, it is a play about immature people - but immature adults, not children or teenagers.

But first: why do I say I don’t know whether to call it a comedy? Because it blatantly confounds the generic expectations we associate with comedy. A comic resolution closes the action on a positive note. The boy and girl finally get together - or back together. The character who has upset the social order learns his lesson - or the upholders of the social order learn their lesson - or the malefactor is finally banished from the social order - and the social order is reintegrated on a more stable basis. Or whatever - there are a variety of comic plots, but the point is that they resolve on an up note.

The Misanthrope does not do this. It’s a very funny play, but it doesn’t end with a resolution at all. Célimène’s humiliation is the climax - this is the low point in the play both for her and for Alceste. But they are left, at least, with each other, and the audience’s expectation is that now, finally, they will take each other and be happily married. That’s not, perhaps, the most satisfying resolution from the female perspective - it’s a resolution in which Alceste wins (rather like the resolution in “The Philadelphia Story" in which, after her humiliation, Kate Hepburn has finally grown enough to be ready to accept when Cary Grant offers to take her back). But it’s a resolution. And The Misanthrope doesn’t resolve. Alceste has a condition for taking Célimène back: that she renounce society and find the world in him alone. Quite reasonably, Célimène - who is fully ready to marry Alceste at this point - refuses. And Alceste walks out.

That’s just not a comic ending. And since endings are the main determinant of genre - King Lear would be a comedy, of the sub-species romance, if Cordelia lived to marry Edgar and become queen - I question whether The Misanthrope is properly classified as such. It’s not a tragedy, but it’s structurally closer to Troilus and Cressida than to Much Ado About Nothing.

Troilus is a satire, a satire on chivalry and courtly love, a brutal demonstration of how little the ideals of that system have to bear on actual war, and its consequences for actual love. The Misanthrope, like much of Molière, certainly is a satire of the French society of his day, and of humanity more generally. But this isn’t School for Scandal either - that’s a satire of society with a comic plot, where the principal characters learn something about true values and are resolved to better social relationships as a consequence (in particular, the resolution of the Teazles’ marriage). If there is a satiric target at the heart of The Misanthrope, it isn’t the catty society around the principals. It’s something deeper within them.

This is a play about two people who love each other, but who cannot accept the compromise of self that opening up to love requires. Alceste and Célimène appear to be wildly different people, but they are identical in this. Each wants the other to be a satellite in orbit, themselves to be the star.

The heart of the play, for me, is when Alceste fantasizes about saving Célimène from a state of desperation:

Yes, I could wish that you were wretchedly poor,
Unloved, uncherished, utterly obscure;
That fate had set you down upon the earth
Without possessions, rank or gentle birth;
Then, by the offer of my heart, I might
Repair the great injustice of your plight;
I’d raise you from the dust and proudly prove
The purity and vastness of my love.

There’s a huge amount going on here. Alceste’s complaint is, in part, a function of his social position, as a member of the infantilized French aristocracy. There isn’t any way for Alceste to genuinely earn merit - there are no heroic deeds he can perform that would establish him as a man. And so he fantasizes about doing such deeds. But it’s also a fantasy about total power over the beloved. Alceste isn’t out to reform Célimène - to turn her into Eliante, her cousin, who declares herself ready to be his bride - but to create her, from nothing, he being the be-all and end-all.

Célimène replies to this fantasy - again, reasonably - “This is a strange benevolence indeed! / God grant that I should never be in need.” But there’s matter to unpack here as well. “God grant that I should never be in need” - not even of Alceste’s love? Is that the way lovers talk, disclaiming any necessity of the other? Not in my experience. Alceste understands love as a power relationship in which he is in complete command. But he experiences love with Célimène as the opposite - a power relationship in which she is in complete command. Alceste cannot help but love her, no matter what he or she does, but she has (apparently) no needs - not even of him.

Why does Célimène toy with Alceste the way she does? She declares to him that she loves him. I believe her (I don’t know what the point of the play is if she isn’t being truthful when she tells him this). Why are they not betrothed? What are they waiting for? Has Alceste actually not yet proposed? Well, why not? Wouldn’t that end the play very quickly? Right before her humiliation, Alceste demands that she choose between him and a rival. Why doesn’t he propose to her - wouldn’t she have to choose, then? Wouldn’t demurral in the face of a formal marriage proposal require some explanation?

The fact is, Célimène doesn’t have to accept a marriage proposal from anyone. She’s a propertied widow - the only kind of independent woman that existed in her day. She could, if she chose, become like Mme. Merteuil in Dangerous Liasons, and establish herself as a power in her own right. In a more chaste fashion, this is what she has actually done. Marrying Alceste - or anyone - would be giving up that independence. Alceste, meanwhile, cannot actually propose marriage, because this would establish the final character of their relationship on the basis of supplication. In his mind, she must choose him - declare her need - before he can rescue her, thereby establishing him as the powerful one.

They are, indeed, perfectly matched - because nobody else in their society is a worthy antagonist, and both understand love as a contest of wills, a struggle for mastery. (In that regard, they are a bit like Beatrice and Benedict, or C. K. Dexter Haven and Tracy Lord - or like Elyot and Amanda from Private Lives.) But this is a struggle that cannot be won. If Alceste ceased his rages, he would hold no further appeal for Célimène; if Célimène submitted, and told everyone Alceste was her be-all and end-all, he’d start to get irritated with her. Theirs is an impossible marriage of two minds; as their minds are, they cannot be married; were their minds to change, they would no longer be well-matched.

At heart, the play is a satire of love, and this couple, fierce antagonists who we know belong together, are the broken emblem of true love. They are powerful and fiercely independent personalities. They also love each other. And they cannot figure out how to express the latter without giving up the former. If this ties back to a social satire, it is that this predicament - of not being able to subjugate oneself to love and to one’s beloved - is sharpened by the position of the French aristocracy; lacking any way to establish themselves independently in the world, the only path to status is by one-upping each other in these interpersonal power struggles. And that’s not an environment conducive to a free exchange of love. But this is far beyond what a high school student can encompass. This is a grown-up love problem - and a very common one.

The most grownup characters in the play, meanwhile, the sensible and virtuous pair who do, in fact, wind up together at the end, are Eliante and Philinte, Célimène’s cousin and Alceste’s best (read: only) friend. And the heart of their story is the beautiful scene when they both declare that they would be willing to accept subordination, even humiliation, if that’s the price of love. Eliante tells Philinte that she loves Alceste, but she knows he loves Célimène. She hopes he wins her - but if Célimène marries someone else, she’d be happy to be his consolation. And Philinte listens to this, and replies: well, I’m in the same position. I love you, but I know you love Alceste. Nonetheless, if he marries Célimène, and leaves you high and dry, I’d happily be your second choice.

What on earth would these imagined marriages be like? We get an inkling when Alceste proposes to Eliante, declaring nothing of love for her but only a desire for revenge on Célimène. Could either of them really be happy knowing that they weren’t measuring up to the one their partner really loved? I suspect not - but this is their realism, the knowledge that, if they are in love, then they are in need, and if they are in need then they are out of power. And they’ll live with that. It’s a very bitter moral, and thankfully the play redeems it by letting Eliante learn something from Alceste’s absurd proposal, and take another look at Philinte, and wonder: perhaps he’s my first choice after all? This enables both of them to establish a relationship on an equal footing, because both have surrendered. (And their union is the only sign that, structurally, this is, in fact, a comedy.) But again, this is a moral far beyond the compass of the giddy, high-school-type society around them.

* * *

That’s the play, to me, anyway. And I give full credit to the production for bringing me to this understanding. Ben Carlson and Sarah Topham, as the two principals, have the kind of chemistry on stage that I’ve very rarely seen before. They are absolutely electric. Each is in absolute command of the very difficult (because so sing-song-y) Richard Wilbur verse. When they are not sharing the stage with each other, either is the sun around whom all the other characters revolve - Topham lassos them with her wit and lets them buzz around her head like tethered insects; Carlson subdues them by sheer force and velocity of his delivery. But every time they are brought together there are fireworks - and the displays build, progressively, like the best pyrotecnic shows. There are too many highlights to list, but if I have pick one its their ferocious verbal battle after Alceste returns brandishing the letter he received from Arsinoé, the battle that concludes with the exchange I excerpted above and Célimène’s prayer that she never be in need. Both actors cover such a range of emotions in such a short span of time - it must be exhausting. (The second time around, I spent the whole scene watching Topham’s face, the depth of feeling she puts into it when Carlson isn’t looking at her, and how she instantly retakes control of it as soon as he turns to her - not smothering her emotions, but reminding them - and Carlson - who’s boss.)

But I wrong the production to single them out, because the cast as a whole is phenomenal. Juan Chioran makes a forceful and upright Philinte, who softens heartbreakingly in his key “I’ll take second-best” speech to his beloved Eliante, played by Martha Farrell as a sweet and level-headed girl strongest in her well-reasoned reproof to Alceste for thinking love is expressed through furious criticism (my only quibble with her performance would be that I missed her moment of realization that Philinte really is the one for her - the key turn for her character - but there are so many faces to watch I may simply have missed it). Peter Hutt is hilariously oleaginous as Oronte, and Kelli Fox is a tightly lidded pot of venom as Arsinoé. And Trent Pardy and Steve Ross are positively edible as the “little Marquess” Acaste and the more generously endowed Clitandre, the sanctioned gossips of the court. Every one of them - even those that, on the page, seem the broadest caricatures - persuaded me that he or she was a real person; every one of them owned the verse like it was so much conversation. It’s the kind of ensemble that only Stratford can assemble.

And though this is emphatically not the kind of production where you go out humming the set, that’s just because the acting is so good and the language is so strong. Because the set is a magnificent confection; it looked like the play was set in the Fragonard room of the Frick. And I have to give credit to director David Grindley as well. This production was cast and the design approved by Brian Bedford months ago, who was originally slated to direct (and to appear, as Oronte). Bedford had to bow out due to the extraordinary success of his Earnest in New York, and it can’t have been easy for Grindley to come in and direct a production that began as someone else’s idea. Based on the results, either he and Bedford were of one mind, or Grindley is extraordinarily flexible, because what I saw was a fully realized conception of the play.

But walking home from the theatre, what I found myself dreaming about, finally, was how the Festival might use this central pairing to further marvelous effect. Might I humbly suggest that it is time to do Measure for Measure again, that Topham absolutely must do Isabella before she ages out of the role, and that Carlson would be the perfect pairing, more obviously as the Duke, perhaps more interestingly as Angelo. Either way, if they can reproduce the electricity that sparked between them in this Misanthrope, the audience had better watch out.

Posted by Noah Millman at 1:06pm.

At the other extreme from Jesus Christ Superstar - in terms of funding, exposure, and theatrical style - is the production of Richard III now playing at the Tom Patterson theatre. This has been described by many critics as overly traditional, but I don’t think they go far enough. This isn’t a traditional production; it’s, for lack of a better way of putting it, a reactionary production, a conscious attempt to access a medieval mode of storytelling, one that winds up highlighting aspects of the play that, in most modern productions, get short shrift, and giving less weight to what is generally treated as central.

Those two aspects are, respectively, the understanding of Richard’s (purportedly) bloody reign as part of providential history, which this production emphasizes, and a psychological emphasis on Richard’s self-loathing, which this production plays down relative to other Richards I’ve seen.

I should state from the start that Shakespeare’s Richard is entirely fictional, not to be compared to the historical Richard, last of the Plantagenets - but Shakespeare’s sources, in Holinshed and, before him, More, were no less fictions. Tudor mythology demanded that Richard be portrayed as an outright villain, a villain of exceptionally monstrous proportions, for whom no crime (including regicide and infanticide combined) was beyond the pale. I have no particular interest in wandering into the fens occupied by the White Boar’s Partisans, but suffice it to say that virtually any crime that has been imputed to Richard is subject to serious historical dispute.

But what Richard presented to Shakespeare was an interesting dramatic problem. Richard had to be portrayed as a monster. But his (perforce) righteous antagonist, Henry Tudor, couldn’t have a terribly complex portrayal, and only really comes into the story late in the game (he’s in France all through Richard’s rise). So, in a play about Richard, we’re going to be with the monster for most of the story. What will give us sympathy for the devil?

Shakespeare didn’t make Richard, like Marlowe’s Jew of Malta - or Aaron the Moor of Shakespeare’s Titus - a character who simply delighted in villainy. Rather, he gave him a fascinating psychology, rooted in self-loathing (even after he successfully woos Anne, he declares, “Upon my life she finds, although I cannot, / Myself to be a marvelous proper man.”) that, in turn, derives perhaps from his deformity, but more plainly from rejection by his mother (when Richard’s mother blesses him, she prays that he become virtuous, and Richard replies, “Amen; and make me die a good old man! / That is the butt-end of a mother’s blessing: / I marvel why her grace did leave it out”). This is the Richard that most productions focus on - a man who hates himself at first, flees confrontation with that self-loathing into unspeakable villainy, only to come face-to-face with it, magnified multiply by his numerous crimes, on the eve of his final battle.

But why does Richard succeed? Why is this man, who everyone around him recognizes is a villain - and everyone does; no one is deceived, except perhaps the Lord Mayor of London whose main qualification for the office seems to be precisely that he is pathetically easy to deceive - why is he able to claw his way to the top, even briefly?

A psychological answer would be that Richard is acutely attuned to the needs of everyone in the society around him - he zeroes in on what each of them must have, and provides it, from Anne who -rather like Guinevere in Camelot, who pouts, “will kith not kill their kin for me” - longs to be so beloved that monstrosities would be committed for her sake; to Hastings, who longs to see the Woodvilles put paid to; to Buckingham, who wants to be the kingmaker; to Tyrrel, who simply wants a chance to prove himself. And this aspect of Richard’s psychology is very clear in this production - I think particularly of two moments: when Richard calls Buckingham “my other self,” in this production it feels like flattery - just what Buckingham wants to hear; that he’s really on the “inside” - rather than a true recognition of a kindred spirit; and when Tyrrel returns from the murder of the princes in the tower, and Richard thanks him, in this production he reaches down and strokes Tyrrel’s chin, gently, caressing him - a creepy eroticization of Tyrrel’s crime that sent chills down my spine, and no doubt was exactly what Tyrrel, deep down, wanted as his chief reward.

But on another level, Richard succeeds because that is what he was sent to do. He is the scourge of God, sent to punish England for the crime of deposing Richard II over a century before, and for all the subsequent crimes that followed from that one. By the time Richard of Gloucester arrives on the scene, any vestige of reverence for the ideology of divine right has been expunged. Hastings will not see the crown “foul misplaced” - but that’s because of his personal loyalty to Edward. Buckingham hesitates to murder the princes - but he has no qualms about lying about their legitimacy to make their uncle king. Richard enters this world, looks around him at the rampant corruption, and leads people quite easily to their dooms. He is a satanic figure in the sense of being a tempter - and all his victims recognize, before their deaths, that this is what he has been, that they are being punished, justly, for their sins, and that Richard has merely been the instrument to effect their punishment.

And this is the note that sounds strongest in this production - and why I say it has almost the feel of a medieval morality play.

Which is ironic. Because before the play opened, what everyone was talking about was the star. Seana McKenna, one of Canada’s most accomplished stage actresses, was to play Richard. This would surely be interesting.

And it is. But not in the way one might expect. This production could have been an epic disaster a la the production in “The Goodbye Girl.” Or it could have been a fascinating meditation on gender and Richard’s alienation from his own body. Or it could have simply been a fantastic actress doing a star turn. But it isn’t any of these things. When McKenna first came on stage, I didn’t think - “hey, that’s a woman;” I thought, “wow, Richard is really short.” She’s not playing Richard as a woman, and she isn’t playing “masculine” - she’s playing Richard, and this Richard is an observant, proud, confident schemer, fully aware of the power of his own mind and fully convinced that he is beyond scruple. And we wind up focusing not on him, but on him as he relates to the other characters in the play. McKenna’s Richard is weakest in soliloquy (particularly Richard’s one moment of vulnerability, when he wakes from the nightmare visitation by the ghosts of his victims) and extraordinarily strong every time he sees an opening to slip the knife in - the moment he knows he has Anne hooked, and offers her his dagger to slay him if she cannot love him; the perfectly timed revelation of Clarence’s death that puts an end to unhappy Edward; that happy moment of recognition with Buckingham; the creepy caress of Tyrrel’s face.

Ironically, this star-vehicle of a play, which one might have expected to become even more star-focused than usual because of the unusual casting, is actually more of an ensemble piece than many productions, because the emphasis is so much on how every other character is affected by Richard rather than on the personality of Richard himself.

And so, let me say a few words about those other characters. The overwhelming standouts in the production were the women who actually got to play women - Yanna McIntosh as a forceful and moving Queen Elizabeth, Roberta Maxwell as a bitter Dutchess of York, and Martha Henry as an absolutely terrifying Queen Margaret, not merely a prophetess but a kind of vengeful ghost (and attired as such - it looked to me like the ghosts of the various victims of Richard were dressed to remind us of Margaret’s linen robe). But the men had their own moments - Sean Arbuckle made a meal of the small role of Catesby, playing him as a grinning psychopath with an exceptionally silly hairdo (a theme of Arbuckle’s roles this year); Oliver Becker was equally vicious, more in the thuggish mode, as Ratcliffe, the Rat to Arbuckle’s Cat; and Shane Carty as always does a marvelous job playing the fool, in this case as the Lord Mayor and as the second murderer of Clarence.

The production design, criticized by some for being boring, struck me as admirably clear, using a simple color palate to differentiate between the warring factions, and emphasized, again, the medieval setting, the simplicity of the costumes (no rich finery, not even for the royals) again playing up the sense that this is a morality play rather than a history.

I’ll conclude with one moment when McKenna broke out of the mold of the performance as a whole, to very positive effect. Late in the battle, Richard, his horse slain out from under him, is asked by Catesby to withdraw. He replies:

Slave, I have set my life upon a cast,
And will stand the hazard of the die:

This is a Richard we have not seen before - a “die all, die merrily” moment that, suddenly, and for the first time, brings us on his side. It’s a foreshadowing of the greater, somewhat similar moment Macbeth has close to his death, and has a similar quality of breaking out, achieving a freedom that the character had been unable to achieve before. In this case, Richard is finally not scheming, but betting all on his body - without even a horse to help him - to win the day.

And I thought, watching him: for all his faults, that’s a man.

Posted by Noah Millman at 5:09pm.

There are actually two productions at Stratford this year where a principal character is greeted with “hosannas.” And now, having seen the other one, I finally understand what the fuss is about.

The fuss about Andrew Lloyd Webber, that is. My experience with his work has been relatively limited. I saw Cats (stupid) and Joseph (cute, but negligible) as a kid, and last year at Stratford I saw Evita (more enjoyable than I expected, but didn’t stay with me). Depending on my mood, I had classified him in my mind as either “not for me” or “sign of the apocalypse.”

I now must revise both assessments: he wrote at least one musical that has the potential, at least, to go right through me. Potential that was fully realized in the current Stratford production.

The central conceit of the show is wildly heretical. Jesus of Nazareth, in this show, dies not as a necessary sacrifice to redeem the blood-guilt of the world, but as a publicity stunt, the only way to ensure that his message would spread “to the ends of the earth” and endure for thousands of years. Wildly heretical, but dramatically electric. This Jesus, as beautifully realized by Paul Nolan, is a death-haunted man, a man who sees through his followers’ adoration, and knows that his inspiring presence isn’t working the ethical transformation he seeks. “For all you care, this wine could be my blood” is a bitter rendering of the gospel verses, all of which talk of Jesus’s blood being poured out for others and thereby forming a new covenant. This is not a man with a messiah complex; this is not a man who yearns for martyrdom. He is, rather, a superstar, a phenomenon, who is tortured inside by the fact that Judas is right - he has begun to matter more than the things he says - and sees only one way out of the box he’s built around himself.

Josh Young, who plays Judas, is a phenomenal vocal star, but more important even than his voice in this role are his qualities as an actor. For the entire show, he’s trying to reach Jesus, desperately trying to get him to listen - and then, in a way, Jesus does listen, does give him a central part to play. And the anguish and betrayal on both sides - Judas’s betrayal by Jesus as well as Jesus’s by Judas - plays out powerfully on both Young and Nolan’s faces in the pivotal and electric Last Supper scene (made even more electric by the hilarious irony that all through the scene the other apostles just keep singing about their own troubles, and how much they wanted to be apostles so they could write history - they don’t even notice the history that is being made before their eyes as they sing).

Another scene that works marvelously here to bring the three principals together, even though Judas is singing to himself and the others are not on stage, is the brief reprise of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” sung by Judas. What for Mary Magdalene is a source of wonder - if I know anything, I know how to love men, but I don’t know how to love him; isn’t that strange? doesn’t that make me love him more - is for Judas a cry of pain - all I want to do is love him, and be loved back, and he’s telling me the way to love him is to kill him? really? that’s my reward? I found Chilina Kennedy’s rendition of the song beautiful, but surprisingly distant; she seemed to be singing to the audience rather than to the sleeping man beside her. But Josh Young’s brief reprise was heartbreaking. Nikos Kazantzakis and Martin Scorsese gave us a Judas who was truly Jesus’s favorite, and who betrayed as part of a plan to achieve the necessary martyrdom, but Webber and Rice’s Judas takes the next step - realizes that by playing this necessary role, he has damned himself, made his own name an eternal infamy. And he could deal with that, even with that, if Jesus would only confirm to him that he understands, that he doesn’t damn him. But Jesus won’t give him that comfort.

And, at least in this staging, the final irony is that Jesus’s plan failed. He didn’t get out of the box. Jesus (resurrected before his death, in a white linen suit) strides out onto a runway that then extends out over the audience. And he begins to preach to us, telling us his message. But we can’t hear him. He’s completely drowned out by his backup singers proclaiming his superstardom, and by Josh Young’s (apparently also resurrected) Judas, standing just behind him, shouting what he’s been crying the whole show: “only want to know.” Even more in death than in life, Jesus matters more than the things he says. The plan failed.

The Nolan-Young, Jesus-Judas relationship is the fiercely beating heart of the show, but the subsidiary organs all show their own fierce life. Bruce Dow’s Herod is a vicious reprise of his emcee from Cabaret of several years ago - a nasty, overindulged, tantruming baby. Brent Carver cuts an elegant figure as Pilate, a connoisseur who sees the exceptional qualities in Jesus and has no desire to pluck this rare flower, but only late in the day realizes that he’s doomed to be a participant in this story rather than a critical observer, and who begs Jesus to let him off the hook, and, like everyone who begs something of Jesus, from the lepers to Judas, is denied. Marcus Nance as Caiphas has the vocal authority of a Verdi villain, and Lee Siegel is equally powerful as Simon Zealotes, urging Jesus to be the revolutionary leader his followers generally wish him to be. And, indeed, the entire cast has such a deep bench of talent that it’s almost scary.

I could quibble with a few bits of staging. The sexuality of the Temple sequence, for example, seemed to me to have nothing to do with anything; this is Caiphas’s temple, and he and his fellow Jewish leaders are got up as a cross between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the fedaykin of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the lyrics themselves talk of thievery and commerce, but not specifically of the sexual kind. And I think the visual concept, which I found generally quite strong, could have benefited from a clearer distinction between Jews and Romans - the tossing back and forth between Herod and Pilate, the handing off to Rome for punishment, none of this has a visual resonance because we don’t see two distinct parties on stage. But these really are quibbles; the show is magnificent, and fully deserves the accolades it has received.

Posted by Noah Millman at 3:04pm.

The word, “Hosanna” is actually two words from biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: “hosha” (that’s Aramaic; the biblical Hebrew would be “hoshiah”) which is the imperative form of the verb “to save” or “to redeem”  (i.e.: “save!” or “redeem!”) and the word “na,” which is a term indicating a request of a superior like “please” or “I pray” or “I beg of you.” It is, in other words, a desperate cry for salvation from the divine.

In practical modern usage, a “hosanna” is a cry of praise of the divine. That is to say: it isn’t something you say, it’s the term for such cries. To describe a bunch of people shouting “hallelujah!” and “praise Jesus!” you would say they “shouted hosannas.”

The transformation of the term derives, I would assume, from the prominent placement of the cry “hoshiah na” in the Jewish hallel prayer; the Aramaic “hosha na” shows up prominently in the concluding prayer of the Sukkoth or Tabernacles morning service; it’s also part of the name of the holiday that ends the festival of Sukkoth: Hoshanna Rabba or “great hoshanna”. The hallel is a series of hymns of praise to the divine (that’s that “hallel” means: praise, laud, extol) sung on various festivals. Jewish prayer being strikingly petitionary in character relative to other monotheistic liturgies, this praise cycle climaxes with the call-and-response cry “save us! prosper us!” Christian liturgy having a less-petitionary character, it’s not surprising that the cry for help became more a declaration of faith; rather than “redeem us!” it meant, effectively, “our redeemer!” And from there it’s a short distance to being a descriptive term for shouts of ecstatic praise for the divine.

I don’t know how much Michel Tremblay knew about the origins of the name he chose for the title character of one of his most historically consequential plays, but given where and when he grew up (in a religiously-besotted pre-60s Quebec) and his deep affinity for the classics, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was quite well-informed indeed. At a minimum, he would certainly have known of the word’s appearance in the gospels as the shout of recognition of Jesus’s messianic identity upon his entry into Jerusalem.

So what might he have meant by having a Montreal drag queen choose that name for herself? Did Claude Lemieux mean “I am the messiah?” Or did he mean, “save me! please!”

The move from one to the other - a disrobing of the word of its later connotations, taking us back to the original meaning - is the movement of the pivotal day in Lemieux’s life on which the play takes place. The play opens on Hosanna returning from a disastrous evening at a Halloween drag ball, where she attended dressed as Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Hosanna, the queen of the queens, had planned to make her triumphant entrance in this costume, and thereby experience an apotheosis: she would become Elizabeth Taylor, and Cleopatra, for real, at least in the eyes of the Montreal drag community. But it was not to be. Over the course of the evening, we discover that the ball was an elaborate practical joke on Hosanna, to get back at her for her pervasive bitchiness. Knowing that she was exceptionally attached to Taylor, and to her portrayal of Cleopatra in particular, the other drag queens organized the ball around a theme that would inevitably prompt Hosanna to come dressed as her ideal. And then all the other drag queens came dressed as Taylor as Cleopatra as well, to mock her obsession and to outshine her in execution. And they were able to execute this plan because they had the cooperation of Hosanna’s husband (that should properly be “husband” - this was 1973) Cuirette. It’s a profound, apparently unforgivable betrayal. As Hosanna says in the second half of the play, after finally telling the story of the evening in full, “I didn’t know you all hated me so much.”

It’s a very powerful play on the page, but I’d never seen it performed before. I was intensely curious to do so - this was one of the shows I was most looking forward to at Stratford this year - partly because I liked the play so much on paper, partly because I thought last year’s production of For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again was so excellent, and partly because I am quite fond of Gareth Potter, who hadn’t really found his defining role yet at the Festival, and who was slated to play the title character.

The critics generally seem to have felt that performance didn’t live up to expectations, but I - perhaps because I had not seen it performed before - didn’t have the same reaction. Some blamed the change in politics since 1973, both sexual (there’s a great deal of business about being a “real” man or a “real” woman that feels quite dated) and sectional (the play was interpreted at the time as a political allegory of Quebec, a culture living in drag as French mistress to an Anglo Canadian male, that needed to find its true self and its own manhood). But neither of these are the heart of the play. At heart, it’s the story of a relationship, of two people who love each other and hate each other, and who finally draw close to each other in full honesty only because one has hurt the other as badly as he could. And that’s a story that’s still true, and still played true on stage.

Much of the first half of the show consists of sparring between Hosanna and Cuirette, with the party’s host, Sandra, serving as another sparring partner over the telephone. I could quibble with performance choices in this part of the play. Oliver Becker’s Cuirette wanders around reminiscing and staring out the window, but I didn’t get the feeling that he was deliberately distracting himself to avoid confronting Hosanna (which surely he is - he knows what he did, even if he doesn’t yet know just how badly he hurt his lover). But Potter’s Hosanna plays it very cool, holding his emotions tightly in check when Cuirette is around, bursting out in fury only when Sandra calls. My only quibble with him would be that we never see the savage wit that Cuirette and Hosanna herself attest to, the cuts and barbs that fueled her rise from hayseed rent boy to the top of Montreal drag society. But that loss is the flip side of the gain of seeing through to the pain that Hosanna feels from the beginning; if she were more herself - sharper in her thrusts at Cuirette, more controlled in her slashes at Sandra - that pain would be hidden.

Nonetheless, the first half of the show is something of a dance, going in circles rather than forward, and both the highlight of the show and the weakest moment take place in the second half. The highlight: Potter’s long monologue finally telling us about the disastrous evening, and just what it meant to him, reaching back all the way to his childhood to explain just who he was, and who she hoped to become, that night; just how high she’d flown, so we’d know how far he fell. Cuirette (or, rather, Raymond - he appears to have shed his persona by this point, though that persona was never as pronounced as Hosanna’s) came in towards the close of this disclosure, and finally the two lovers connected - I believed Raymond really loved Claude, and hurt him, as badly as he could, for that reason, not simply out of hate.

The weakest moment: the very end, when Potter takes off Hosanna and becomes Claude Lemieux again, and declares his naked manhood. This is the one moment in the play that did feel dated to me - and felt like an imposition on rather than an eruption from the characters. It is important that Claude declare himself, reveal himself unadorned. But “I’m a man” doesn’t feel to me like what this moment is about; rather, it’s about “I’m not Cleopatra, I’m not Elizabeth Taylor, I’m not Hosanna - I’m not even really Claude Lemieux, which is also just an identity, a persona. I’m just this poor, bare, forked animal.” Unaccommodated man, not “a man” - that’s what Claude has come to, and needs to be loved for. As we all do. And as, lucky for him, he is. And since I believed that, the show worked.

Posted by Noah Millman at 9:57am.

I don’t mean here as in where I am physically - that’s Canada, the promised land, where I’ve already seen six productions at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival that I haven’t gotten around to writing about. I mean here as in on this blog, writing about theatre. What is the purpose of this activity?

The question comes to me because I’m still hoping to take this blog to someplace where I could grow more substantial traffic, but as I’ve contemplated doing that I’ve realized that I have only the faintest idea what I’m about. And that led me to the question: what are critics about generally?

I think the purpose of criticism, generally, is to open up additional windows into work that a casual reader/viewer/listener/etc. might not otherwise think to open, or see were there at all. But that’s the function of criticism of work that is already established as worthy of criticism, or that the critic wants to justify moving into that category.

But criticism of new work can barely do this at all, because it doesn’t have the time to be properly reflective, but also because no windows are open yet. And so other considerations may come to overwhelm the proper function of criticism, functions that I think are at least somewhat questionable.

Most obviously, there is the critic’s own desire to have a reputation. If we’re talking about criticism of established work, one hopes this reputation will be based in part - though it never will be entirely - on whether it generates novel insights, and whether it communicates these persuasively and well. But for new work, a reputation can be gained other ways more easily.

The most rewarding strategy for a critic of new work is to be seen as a good pundit - someone with a good track record of getting it “right” - and getting it “right” means predicting what will be received generally the way it was received by the critic in question. For the most “powerful” critics, this process becomes somewhat self-fulfilling: lesser-regarded critics, some producers, and to a limited extent even audiences will fall into line once the great critic has pronounced sentence. For less “powerful” critics, the critic can achieve some of this success by internalizing the expectations of his or her reading audience. If he or she knows their taste well, then he or she can write reviews that will help that audience find works that will appeal. This, though, has essentially nothing to do with criticism; rather, it’s consumer advice - valuable, I would certainly say, but not as criticism.

A critic can also establish a reputation by being a gadfly, a curmudgeon, a wit, a gossip - by adopting a persona that is engaging and entertaining in and of itself, at least to some of the audience. Negative reviews are especially good for this, and I think most people - even artists who hate critics - enjoy a really well-written savaging, because they are entertaining. But this, again, has very little to do with criticism, the best evidence being that the best reviews of this sort are of work that wasn’t worth reviewing from a critical perspective in the first place. Rather than criticism, this is a kind of comedy writing.

Then there is the critic as gourmet. I think this is what most critics, in fact, think they are: people of exceptional taste and knowledge who, whether the mob follows them or not, deserve respect because they have that exceptional taste and knowledge, which empowers them to say what is good, what is better, what is best. (And what is outright bad.) But this is the critical type that is, it seems to me, the least justifiable. The gourmet, after all, does not necessarily educate in any fundamental way - does not communicate actual insights about the work in question. Because that’s not strictly necessary, and in some cases isn’t even possible - how much can you possibly learn about music from reviews of the opera, or about cuisine from reviews of great restaurants? Reviews like these are frequently stuffed with content-free terms of praise or scorn. Many readers read gourmet critics to acquire opinions about works they don’t understand and may never even have experienced, so the gourmet does not even necessarily drive sales to degree that the pundit or consumer advisor does.

So what am I doing here? Well, what I’m doing first and foremost - in keeping with my producerist predilections with regard to art generally - is pleasing myself. Writing so that I clarify for myself what I myself have experienced. I really do think that’s true for all creative writing: you do it for yourself, and then to share it with others. And I hope I am providing actual criticism, thoughtful reflection on, in particular, classical theater and productions thereof. Sharing insights I learned from particular productions in the hopes that readers who are familiar and unfamiliar will learn something - or will argue with me, and I will learn something. Artists generally, and understandably, hate to read criticism of their own work, but if I had to describe my ideal audience there would be a great many artists in it - writers, directors, actors, etc. I like to flatter myself that, if I have an insight into, say, Leontes’s motivations, which came to me because of a particular actor’s performance, that this insight might prove useful to another actor preparing for the role, even differently useful than seeing the other actor’s performance might have been, since that performance might have struck the second actor differently than it did me, and led to different insights (or merely to the imperative to find a different way in, not to copy someone else’s performance).

But, inevitably, I’m going to fall into some of these other patterns: trying to a pundit, or a wit, or a gourmet. And a little of that is ok. But I hope my limited coterie of readers will keep me on the straight and narrow and reprove me if I indulge in those habits too much.

Posted by Noah Millman at 12:43pm.

Belatedly finishing up the shows I saw in New York before I left town, I’m going to say a few too-brief words about an excellent production of The Winter’s Tale that was part of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s celebrated residency this summer at the New York Armory on Park Avenue.

The Winter’s Tale is one of my favorite plays. I don’t have the time right now to go into all the reasons; a year ago, in my write-up of the Stratford production, I started out saying I don’t have time to talk about all my ideas about the play, and wound up spending almost the entire length of the post doing exactly that. I could do the same now, but instead, I’ll give you my strongest impressions from the production, particularly the things I learned that I hadn’t known before.

The overwhelmingly dominant image of the production is a pair of towering bookcases. For the entire first act they loom ominously over the proceedings. Then, after the trial, when Leontes has finally been forced to confront the madness of his charges, and the consequences of that madness in the deaths of his entire family (Mamillus definitively, Perdita presumptively, Hermione … well, there you are required to awake your faith), just as Leontes leaves the stage, the bookcases topple over onto each other, the books avalanching out onto the stage, a vivid image of the fall of Leontes’s house (marred only by the fact - presumably driven by safety concerns - that Leontes watches this collapse from just offstage, rather than the house tumbling around his head).

And the books stay there, littering the floor, for the remainder of the play. When, sixteen years later, we meet a penitent Leontes at his wife’s tomb, he picks among the piles for reading matter, wrapped in a gray blanket of grief. But the books are there for the Bohemian interval as well. In Bohemia, though, they are transformed into so much paper rubbish; the very Wicker-Man-ish dancers at the outrageously bawdy sheep-shearing-festival dance are clad in crumpled sheets - men of paper rather than men of hair - and even the trees have pages for leaves. There’s an allusion to Autolycus’s ballads there,  as well as a frame-breaking reminder that this is The Winter’s Tale - that what we are seeing is a kind of fairy story - but I sense a larger metaphor behind.

The suggestion behind the design, I came to feel, is that Leontes’s is a studied folly, a disease he caught of reading too many books about this sort of thing rather than from observation of life. I haven’t fully unpacked that idea, but it strikes me as an extremely potent one. The observations that Leontes uses to justify his jealousy are, after all, laughable. This production plays that fact up - where in some productions there is an overheard line to misconstrue or a gesture meant in friendship to misinterpret, to minimally explain Leontes’s madness, in this production there is nothing (unless I missed it) provided by way of a jumping-off point. Leontes just loses it. Decorously at first - Greg Hicks makes a very civilized jealous king - so that you almost might miss it, Leontes simply loses his mind. But his madness takes the form of spinning a scenario, almost pre-packaged from another source, and the looming bookcases are very suggestive in this regard.

Indeed, it’s worth thinking about Leontes as another one of Shakespeare’s “writer/director” figures, who manipulate the other characters in the play through a scenario of his design. The Duke in Measure for Measure is one of these; Prospero is another; Iago a third, at least with respect to Othello; it’s a common Shakespearean theme. Camillo assumes Leontes must have a Iago of his own, but there is no one. Leontes manipulates himself into this mess. And yet, he’s also manipulating everybody else into the tragedy that, for whatever reason, he wants to inhabit. My primary evidence for this is that Leontes withholds from all his interlocutors essential exculpatory evidence regarding Camillo’s flight that he, Leontes, knows.

Leontes, right after his jealousy erupts, unpacks his heart to an astonished Camillo, and then orders Camillo to murder Polixenes, Leontes’s friend and fellow monarch, whom Leontes suspects with his wife, Hermione. Instead of following out this command, Camillo flees with Polixenes. Leontes interprets this flight as evidence that Camillo was compact in treachery with Polixenes and Hermione, and he holds up Camillo’s flight as a bit of irrefutable evidence of his right suspicion to all his vassals who try to dissuade him. But he never tells them of his order to murder Polixenes. Had he done so, he surely knows that they would respond by telling him that this was why Camillo fled: so as not to commit a horrible crime that he, Leontes, woudl surely repent of when he returned to sanity. He hides this exculpatory evidence because he doesn’t want them to be able to out-argue him. He wants the tragedy to proceed. It’s madness, but yet there’s method in it.

Nobody manipulates Leontes into jealousy. Rather, he manipulates everybody else to get to that trial scene. (He’s no doubt confident that the oracle will speak in riddles that he can interpret to his liking, but for once the oracle speaks with utter clarity, and he is check-mated.) But where did he get this scenario from in the first place? The bookcases, perhaps, hold the answer to that. Why do any of Shakespeare’s manipulative writer/directors undertake to create the dramas that they do? Why, for that matter, are we sitting in the audience? Presumably, to find a drama, a sense of life, that they - we - cannot find in life itself. So too, perhaps, with this civilized, successful, but not normally very dramatic bourgeois king, Leontes. This is why he holds to his madness so strongly, even though he can see it is destroying not only his family but himself. Because this is his contribution to the bookshelves. This is the story he has inside him, and he will write it with his own life’s blood, because it feels to him like the only creative thing he’s ever done. And a sad tale’s best for winter, anyway.

And so, when the pages are ripped out to adorn the trees (perhaps also an allusion to Orlando’s poetry in As You Like It - another play that starts with tragedy at court, then moves to comedy in the rustic “green world”), the dancers - even the bear - this is life breakout out of the boundaries of text, and hence of the tragic scenario.

There, you see - I’ve wound up doing what I said I wouldn’t, rambling on about the play. This was a very fine production all around - in addition to Greg Hicks’s Leontes, I’d call out Darrell D’Silva as a vigorous and charming Polixenes; Gruffudd Glyn, an adorable dunce as the Young Shepherd; Brian Doherty as an exceptionally foul Autolycus; Tunji Kasim as a determined and convincingly royal Florizel; and Noma Dumezweni as an unusual Paulina, a cat who doesn’t actually need to use her claws, because she knows we know she has them. I didn’t feel from either Kelly Hunter’s Hermione or Samantha Young’s Perdita the kind of sexual vivacity that I generally associate with these characters, but on the other hand this Perdita looked so strikingly like her mother that for once the first recognition scene, with her father, made instant visual sense. And I enjoyed very much one emendation to the text - Antigonus, in this production, does not exit pursued by a bear; rather, he himself pursues the bear, charging at him to distract him from the bawling infant Perdita, thereby saving the girl’s life at the cost of his own.

This was a Winter’s Tale that I’ll be thinking about for a long time. I only wish I’d had the chance to see director David Farr and leading man Greg Hicks in their Lear as well.

Posted by Noah Millman at 12:01pm.

This was a problematic season at the Delacorte: in addition to All’s Well That Ends Well, we were treated to a riveting production of another “problem play” - Measure For Measure, one of my favorite plays and one that I’ve rarely seen done to my satisfaction.

The play presents numerous problems to a director and the actors in the company. Isabella is an extremely difficult character for contemporary actresses to get inside - in our society, homosexual panic about one’s emerging sexual feelings is a commonly-explored theme, but heterosexual fear of sexuality isn’t so much explored as condescended to. Angelo, meanwhile, is apt to be portrayed either as a one-dimensional villain, or to be softened in performance; we have a hard time accepting that he is what the play says he is: a magnetic, masculine, coldly rational reactionary undone by an inability to handle his own sexual stirrings. (Actors and directors slated to do the play should consider reading Oriana Fallaci on the Ayatollah Khomeini; she called him one of the most sexually magnetic men she’d ever met.) And, if we confront him directly, we have an even harder time coming to the point of forgiveness that the end of the play demands. (I note, again, that if Angelo were played as a reactionary unaware of his own homosexuality, and Isabella as a young man preparing for the priesthood to escape the first stirrings of his own in that direction, then we’d understand their relationship much better - their mutual attraction and repulsion; Isabella’s willingness - even eagerness - to see her brother die rather than sleep with Angelo to save his life; Angelo’s otherwise somewhat puzzling determination to corrupt Isabella rather than woo her honorably; etc.) And then there’s the Duke, the fantastical duke of dark corners who, though we are told by his faithful lieutenant loves nothing so much as to know himself, takes considerable pains to make sure none of us out here in the audience really get to know him. A man who cruelly manipulates Isabella, making her think her brother dead when in fact he was saved, all in order to … well, it’s not clear. Test her? Test Angelo? Just to see how far he can take this crazy plot he has concocted? It’s a terribly difficult role to play as a character, as opposed to a theatrical construct, but that’s what’s demanded.

And then all these difficulties come to a head in the final scene, when the Duke will not stop play-acting, far beyond any bounds of rational motive; Isabella (and we) are expected to forgive Angelo, though he never confessed or repented until the Duke is unmasked, and he knows he is already undone; and then the Duke, in a final act of lunacy, proposes marriage to Isabella.

But these are really challenges, not problems. Measure is classified as a “problem play” because, supposedly, it isn’t a proper comedy or romance (and plainly it’s not a tragedy). But what is the problem with it? Why is it not a proper comedy? It ends in a marriage, after all. Or why is it not a romance? The conclusion is a scene of revelation and reconciliation, of the healing of breaches and the apparently dead brought back to life. Why is there a problem? Is it in the play - or in us?

* * *

For many modern critics, the problem is indeed the absurdity of the Duke’s proposal of marriage to Isabella at the end. This ending comes so completely out of nowhere, and is so out of tune with the mood of the moment, and the Duke himself is so fantastical, that many have rejected the possibility that this might, in fact, be a happy ending. And they have warrant in the fact that Isabella herself does not answer the Duke, and that the Duke, in fact, has to propose twice, recognizing the first time that he has spoken badly out of turn, as Isabella has still not digested the fact that her brother is still alive.

But reading the play this way, I think diminishes the journey that Isabella has gone on, and that we have gone on with her. Isabella has gone on about as long and difficult a journey as any heroine in Shakespeare (her main competition is Imogen in Cymbeline). She has gone from being someone eager - she’s not the slightest bit ambivalent about the choice - to see her brother die rather than contemplate sacrificing her virginity to save him, to being someone willing to forgive the man who put that choice before her, and then, when she gives in (so he thinks) betrayed her by killing her brother anyhow (so she thinks), and who arrogantly threatens her with prison rather than admit his crime - this man, she forgives, for the sake of the woman who still loves him. She has gone from absolute for death to, very nearly, absolute for life, even the life of such a worm as Angelo.

If the Duke’s proposal is an affront, an absurd insult, then we have to ask why that is. If she cannot forgive the Duke for manipulating her, and her feelings - and he does so, mercilessly - then we have to ask why that is, since she was able to forgive Angelo for much worse. If she cannot think about marriage at a time like this, after all she’s been through, or if, worse, she still wants to be a nun, then her willingness to forgive Angelo for Mariana’s sake starts to look a bit like defeat - a willingness to let others live because she herself no longer has the will to do so. The more I think about it, the more I think that the Duke’s proposal is the last leg of Isabella’s journey which, if she refuses to go on it, calls into question the whole journey before it.

Moreover, I’m not convinced that the Duke would be a bad match for Isabella. For one thing, a woman with such a rampant father fixation is inevitably going to wind up with a paternal husband. (It’s not an accident that Isabella first bonds with the Duke when he is in a habit, so that she calls him “father.”) For another, I think a close examination of the play shows that Isabella comes most to life when she is entwined in the Duke’s fantastical schemes. Why should that be, I wonder, if she didn’t have something of that fantastical spirit in her - even if that spirit, entwined as it is with her own sexuality, is something she is running from in fear.

I’ll make an extended comparison to clarify why I think the match isn’t crazy. Stanley Cavell wrote a marvelous book about the classic Hollywood comedies called Pursuits of Happiness, in which he claimed to find the origin of many of the most appealing and profound of these comedies in the structure of a Shakespeare comedy. In a Shakespeare comedy the lovers confront a breach in their love in the world of the town, and have to go off into the wilderness - the “green world” as he calls it, a place of healing - for the breach to be repaired, so that we can end with a reconciliation that is also a wedding. You can easily see how this works for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or for As You Like It; and Cavell’s emphasis on the theme of breach and reconciliation connects Shakespearean comedy with Shakespearean romance, which is very satisfying. These plays he connects to classic Hollywood comedies such as “The Awful Truth,” “The Lady Eve,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”

There’s one movie on his list, though, that doesn’t involve a retreat to the “green world” to heal. Quite the opposite. That’s “His Girl Friday.” Cary Grant plays a newspaper editor whose crack reporter and one-time love, Rosalind Russell has come back to announce that she is leaving for good - leaving journalism and marrying another man. The action of the movie drags her back into the world she thought she had escaped - wanted to escape - and, ultimately, not just back to Grant’s employ, but back to his arms as well. In the heart of the action, Russell must interview a caged criminal condemned to death, trying to get his story and, thereby, get him freed.

Cavell calls the dark, cynical, death-haunted space that Russell retreats to the “black world” in contrast to the “green world” of the paradigm comedies, but it serves the same function. This horrible place is where Russell must go, in order to heal the breach with her destined mate (and with her own nature). The fact that the space is black rather than green, death-haunted rather than life-filled, says something about these characters, and the nature of the larger world in which they dwell, but structurally it is the same as in the paradigm comedies.

I think Measure for Measure functions similarly. It’s a comedy all right, but there is no green world for Isabella to retreat to. Only the black world of the Duke’s prison, presided over by Abhorson the executioner and Barnadine, the convict fitted neither to live or die. This is where she belongs, where she, ironically, will find life. And the Duke is a fantastic in the same mode as Grant from “His Girl Friday” - a man of tricks and deceptions who manipulates everyone - most especially the woman he loves - to get her in the position to recognize the truth about her nature, and come home to his fantastical bed.

* * *

The real “problem” that most directors and audiences have with this play is that they try to allegorize it. And the play seems like it wants to be allegorized - the friend who joined me at this production said the play reminded him of Shaw, with so many characters seeming to be there to make a “point,” a point they made in frequent satiric speeches. But this, I think, is a trap, most especially for the actor playing the Duke. The Duke is a deeply strange character, but he is a character. He’s not the director of the play - he’s a man trying to direct people as if they were in a play. His proposal to Isabella is not the completion of some allegorical movement on her part, she standing in for the human soul and the Duke standing for Christ or whatever. It’s a sign that he sees an affinity there - a human affinity, between his own nature and hers.

The hard part about playing the Duke as a character, which is what is required if the play isn’t to become a relatively sterile allegory, is that the Duke loses control of his own plot. In the magnificent and insane final scene, the Duke “returns” to Vienna, and is met at the city gate by an Isabella, who accuses Angelo publicly. But the Duke dismisses her allegations, and leaves the scene - returning in the friar disguise that he wore for most of the play. And, as the friar … he continues to play a part. It’s not clear what he’s aiming at, what his plan is - it’s not clear that he has a plan of any kind. Once he is unmasked by Lucio, his behavior becomes comprehensible again - he doles out information bit by bit, leading all the characters, Isabella in particular, to the emotional place he wants them. But before that his behavior seems downright crazy. Why won’t he give up the disguise?

Well, I can think of two mutually-reinforcing explanations that make sense. The friar disguise accomplished two things for the Duke: it enabled him to escape formal responsibility for his actions without giving up the ability to shape events. And it brought him close to Isabella. Fear of reassuming formal authority, and fear of losing Isabella, strike me as entirely sufficient explanations for the Duke’s refusal to doff the disguise at the moment that - by his own plans - he must.

* * *

I’ve gone on long enough about the play - I should say something about this production. When I see a production of Measure, what I care about most of all is how Isabella is played. And Danai Gurira was the first Isabella who, in my estimation, came close to encompassing this fascinating and complex character. The creepy-crawlies she got when she had to tell her brother what Angelo wanted of her, and her fury when, after initially agreeing he had no choice but to accept death, he asked Isabella if she mightn’t bend a little - I’ve never felt the force of that scene before in performance; I’ve felt it on the page, but always found some falsehood on the stage. Not this time. And her chemistry with Andre Holland as her brother, Claudio, was very fine; though he’s supposed to be the elder, you could tell that she’d been used to dominating him by sheer force of personality. And Isabella is a powerful personality - she wants the most restrictive cloister possible because she knows how strong the chains will need to be if they are to bind her fast.

Michael Hayden was also one of the better Angelos I’ve encountered, falling short mainly in not being convincingly a commanding male. I believed that he believed in his own rectitude. I believed the self-loathing that overcame him when he discovered he had sexual feelings, too. I believed the cold determination with which he set out on his new path of iniquity, to make a conquest of Isabella and then hide his crime by murdering Claudio. What I didn’t believe was that Mariana adored him after all these years of abandonment. Because, well, he just wasn’t all that. But be that as it may - what we did get was more important, which is a believable torment inside Angelo that too many productions deny us.

And then the Duke. His first appearance on the stage is enormously promising. We are shown a bed, a mass of tangled figures sprawled thereon, which suddenly tumble off, revealing themselves to be a host of horned black-faced demons, who scatter as the Duke, no longer buried under them, sits bolt upright in stark terror, and frantically begins to dress. I say this is enormously promising, because it establishes that the Duke is a character rather than some kind of theatrical construct. He has a psychology. He’s haunted by demons. What those demons are, we don’t know - his own repressed desires? His guilt at having let the city of Vienna descend into rampant vice? It doesn’t really matter. I once saw a production of Measure that opened with an elaborate scene in a bawdy nightclub; partway through the scene, the Duke arrived, and was seated in a box (in the audience) with a bottle of champagne. The floor show began - and then the place was raided, by Angelo and his goons. The Duke had to be whisked out before his deputy could discover that he frequented such a den of iniquity. This was certainly a powerful and dramatic opening, and it established adequately strong reasons for the Duke to flee Vienna - but it pretty much corroborated everything that Lucio said about the Duke, and hence reduced him to a ridiculous, even villainous figure. And if that’s who the Duke is, then what’s this play about? I much preferred this production’s opening: we know the Duke is fleeing out of fear, and a fear that exists in his own mind, but it is up to us to decide what he is afraid of.

Unfortunately, the rest of Lorenzo Pisoni’s performance doesn’t quite live up to that opening. The detachment of his performance for most of the play - as if he were genuinely above the action, rather than merely posturing to be so - is part of what lent this production the Shavian air that my companion identified. Indeed, Pisoni’s Duke was most alive in his confrontations with Lucio, played ripely by Reg Rogers; Lucio’s accusations that the Duke himself was fond of a nighttime escapade now and again seemed genuinely to get under this Duke’s skin. That’s the strongest hint we have in the rest of the play of the forces at play inside the Duke, forces that must find some kinship in those inside of Isabella and Angelo for the ending of the play to make sense.

And that ending, focused as it was on Isabella, redeemed much that gave me pause before about the way the Duke was performed. Isabella, as noted, doesn’t say make any reply in the text to the Duke’s proposal of marriage. I’ve seen the moment staged as humble acceptance; I’ve seen it staged as outraged rejection. Gurira, in this production, wanders downstage and stares out into the audience, a bit bewildered, as if to say: I thought I was done. My brother is saved. My chastity is preserved. I thought I could leave now. Was this really only the beginning? Yes, Isabella: it is only the beginning. I would like to see a production where this moment is played as a moment of actual connection between the two principal characters, but if I’m not going to get that then this is a very credible reading of the scene, and of Isabella’s feelings at this moment.

The rather heavy main plot of Measure is leavened by episodes of exceptionally black - and exceptionally funny - comedy. With two exceptions, these are handled magnificently by this production. Carson Elrod makes a perfectly infuriating Pompey Bum - I have never laughed louder at the scene where he is interrogated by Constable Elbow in front of Angelo and Escalus, the Duke’s other minister, though equal credit in that scene must go to David Manis, as the dim-witted constable, and whichever actor played the drunken customer of the brothel where Pompey works as a tapster. And Elrod was equally hilarious - and equally pointed in his humor - in the later prison scenes (which included an extended bit of audience interaction). My only hesitations in the humor department related to Tonya Pinkins as Mistress Overdone and Lucas Caleb Rooney as Barnadine, both of whom seemed to me to be playing to the audience rather than inhabiting their roles. Though I did very much appreciate Barnadine’s whooping and charging off to make more mischief when he receives his pardon. It always struck me that this particular decision on the Duke’s part is at least as ridiculous as his marriage proposal - he seems to have learned nothing from his experiences in disguise, and is as determined to be lenient now as before he appointed Angelo to impose a new stringency. I’m glad to see that the director, David Esbjornson, agrees with me.

Posted by Noah Millman at 4:58pm.

Assuming it’s not the title to a lost sequel to Love’s Labours Lost, I’ve always favored the theory that it’s an alternative title to All’s Well The Ends Well, Shakespeare’s highly problematic romantic comedy. There is no play in Shakespeare’s canon, that I’m aware of, where love, if that’s what is won in the end, is so plainly the product of labor. And I think that, rather than either the aggressive forwardness of the heroine or the manifest unworthiness of the hero, is the reason for our dissatisfaction with this play.

To summarize the main plot: Helena is the daughter of a famous doctor, and is adopted by the Countess of Rousillon when her father dies. The Countess has a son, Bertram, with whom Helena falls hopelessly in love - all this before the play begins. When the King of France falls ill, Helena sneaks off to Paris, and promises to cure him with her late father’s medicines, venturing death if she fails and earning a husband if she succeeds. Succeed she does, and chooses Bertram. Bertram, appalled at being wedded against his will to a low-born girl, flees to the Italian wars, promising never to acknowledge Helena as his wife until she can get the ring off his finger and show him a child of hers begotten of him. Needless to say, some months and one bed-trick later, Helena is able to produce both, and wins her groom.

Shaw admired Helena as the first “Ibsenite” heroine on the English stage precisely for this forwardness: she picks her man; she undertakes the quest to win him; she, when her fairly-won prize is snatched from her, wrenches the plot around by sheer force of will to bring about her desired ending. And for some critics, it is precisely this aggressive pursuit of a man by a woman that makes the play unsatisfying.

For others, starting with Samuel Johnson, the problem is Bertram. In the Great Cham’s own words:

I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram; a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate: when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness.

That “dismissed to happiness” is a particularly delicious touch - but it’s a line that skates around the most important question left open in the play, which is not: why does Helena still want Bertram? (a good question, but not the most important one) but rather: can this marriage possibly be happy? The play gives ample reason to doubt in the language of the final scene. Here’s Helena and Bertram’s final exchange, after she has revealed herself to him, and that she has accomplished the impossible feats of getting his ring and carrying his child:

HELENA:

Will you be mine, now you are doubly won?

BERTRAM:

If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly,
I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly.

HELENA:

If it appear not plain and prove untrue,
Deadly divorce step between me and you!

That’s an awful lot of conditionals for a loving reconciliation. And then Helena turns to her mother - or, rather, Bertram’s mother, whom she rejected by that name earlier in the play, now finally acknowledged as her own, without condition. The King concludes: “All yet seems well; and if it end so meet/ The bitter past, more welcome is the sweet.” Which isn’t entirely reassuring either.

But why can’t it be happy? Is it that Bertram’s character is so incorrigible? Perhaps - but if it is so, then we haven’t looked closely enough at a number of other purportedly happy marriages in Shakespeare that won’t end well. Johnson could not reconcile himself to Bertram. Could he to Demetrius? Claudio? Bassanio? Heck, what about Romeo, who, far from being the ultimate true lover, throws over his beloved Rosaline like so much old newspaper at the first sight of Juliet, then proceeds to be the main culprit responsible for the pile of bodies at the end of the play, mostly because of his infatuation with his own infatuation than out of any devotion to Juliet?

No, I don’t think the problem is that Helena is the active one; everyone loves Rosalind, and she takes quite the active part in shaping her fate. And I don’t think the problem is that Bertram is undeserving; that fault is too common among Shakespeare’s male lovers. The problem is the love is not a labor - but in this play, it is.

There’s no labor in Love’s Labours Lost. There is something lost - the lovers in Love’s Labours Lost don’t get to wed at the end of the play; death and royal obligations intervene - but not everything: they have fallen in love, we believe enduringly. But not by working at it. That play is play, is one long series of games, and it is through play that we see love blossom between the two quartets. And so it is in every story Shakespeare tells of a truly blossoming love. The labor by which Kate the Shrew is tamed consists of absurd games - and we know that love finally won when she joins in and plays along. Similarly with the verbal games played by Beatrice and Benedick - and the game played on both of them to trick them into acknowledging their mutual love. When Romeo and Juliet first meet, we know they have fallen in love at first sight because they spontaneously write a sonnet together.

If Bertram and Helena had a scene, early in the play, where they teased each other like siblings, and then Bertram was appalled at the prospect of actually marrying this girl - because she’s low-born; because she’s homely; because he’s always thought of her as a sister - then we’d believe that this is a romantic comedy, with an ending where “all’s well that ends well.” But there is no such scene. Instead, the only person whom Helena plays with is Parolles, the braggart and coward, with whom she has a brief verbal joust at the outset of the play. I think it is for this exchange, more than anything, that we are pleased to see Parolles survive his trial, and thrive, in his way - for all his faults, he’s the only one who can make Helena smile. And it strikes me as another inauspicious sign that Parolles is not merely unmasked (that had to happen), but is banished from Bertram’s company the same night that Helena accomplishes her impossible task via the bed trick.

We don’t believe this can end well because we have not seen our lovers together, even for a moment, showing us even the slightest glimpse of the play of love between them.

*   *   *

Needless to say, this makes the play a bit of a challenge to put on. The central problem - that this is a romantic comedy about two people who we have no reason to believe are actually in love - nags at us from the first. We keep waiting for that missing scene, for the evidence that will let us believe this story. And since we never get it, we are apt to get frustrated with the story rather than to reflect on it.

I’ve seen a couple of different solutions to this problem. One is to find an alternative emotional center in the relationship between Helena and the Countess of Rousillon. The two have a taut, Strindbergian scene early on in the play, where the Countess calls Helena her daughter and Helena flinches, refusing to acknowledge her as such. Ostensibly, Helena refuses because the only way she could be the Countess’s daughter would be by marrying Bertram, which is more than she can hope for - but this raises more psychological questions than it answers. Isn’t it more likely that she can’t be her daughter because then marrying Bertram would be incest? And who was Helena’s mother anyway - we hear a lot about her father, nothing about a mother; isn’t that suggestive? As noted above, the reconciliation between the Countess and her daughter-in-law is far warmer, and has far more of a suggestion of closure, of a completed movement, than the reconciliation between Helena and Bertram. So this is a viable way to read and stage the play: the story of a woman coming to accept a mother’s love by way of romantic catastrophe.

Another is to play up the seriousness of the military setting. Parolles can appear something of an obvious ridiculous figure - everyone but Bertram sees through him pretty quickly, after all - but he’s masquerading as something that everyone takes terribly seriously, and a production could play up this fact, the importance of martial honor in this world. This is a world at war. Bertram’s chief complaint, before he is wedded against his will, is that nobody will let him go to battle and win honor. What’s a woman’s place in this world? You would expect it to be exactly what Diana’s is: prey for the gallants of the wars, another object of conquest. And this is what Parolles avers - and Bertram as well. From Bertram’s social perspective, Helena and Diana are not terribly different. Let’s take Bertram’s complaint about Helena’s proposal at face value: it’s not that she feels like a sister, and it’s not that she is plain; it’s that she’s low-born. Made to be conquered by the likes of him, not mated with him as an equal. It’s not just snobbery; it’s a kind of militarist sexism: his manhood is offended by the match. Parolles is unmasked when he undertakes a parody quest to recover a lost drum; even Bertram is forced to acknowledge that he’s not a real man of honor.When Bertram is unmasked, at the end, what he learns, on this reading, is that he isn’t really a ladies man. He may want to love ‘em and leave ‘em - he may think that’s what a man does in this world of war - but he’s actually a faithful husband, in spite of all his efforts. Which actually has the potential to be a happy ending.

The recent production at the Delacorte Theatre goes in a third direction, one that doesn’t entirely work - though I honor the attempt.

In this production, the salient divide between Bertram and Helena - what we see and feel keeping them apart - isn’t class or the quasi-incestuous nature of their existing bond, but age. Annie Parisse’s Helena is an obviously mature woman, while Andre Holland’s Bertram is just barely of age. Bertram’s youth is noted in the play as well - he complains that his mother thinks he isn’t old enough to go to war, for example - but I had never thought of Helena as being distinctly older, nor did the loss of his youth jump out as a rationale for Bertram’s fury at the King’s matchmaking (indeed, in the text Bertram has had his eye on Lafew’s daughter all along).

The good thing about this choice is that it makes psychological sense to a modern audience, and enables us to sympathize a certain amount with Bertram. Bertram’s yearning to go to war, and his desperation to avoid this marriage, are of a piece: he wants to earn his own name before he is slotted into a social role determined for him by his elders. And it isn’t out of harmony with Helena either. While I had never thought of her as older than Bertram, she is the kind of young person the older generation - the Countess, Lafew, the French King - dote upon. Why can’t all the young people be like her?

And the age difference allows for one moment that has divided the critics. Before leaving Helena (as he purposes, forever, though she doesn’t know this), his new wife begs a little affection: “Strangers and foes do sunder, and not kiss.” There is no direction that he kiss her, and in most productions he declines or condescends at most to a peck on the forehead or some such. In this production, Bertram kisses Helena fully and lingeringly on the mouth.

It’s a puzzling choice in some ways, very much against the sense of the scene. But the sense I made of it is that Bertram doesn’t so much hate Helena specifically as hate the idea of being forced to marry - so young - and to someone older than him (spiritually older, more mature, as well as chronologically so). And so he does kiss her - and is surprised by her warmth and passion, almost to the point of repenting his decision to go. Almost, but not quite.

This doesn’t solve all problems. Helena, after all, still “wins” in the end - and total victory is not generally a prelude to a happy marriage. But the bigger problem is that, from where I sat, Helena’s passion and warmth was, well, not exactly manifest. I’m not sure this was a problem of her chemistry with Holland’s Bertram, however. Rather, I think the problem crept in with Tonya Perkins. I feel a cad for saying so, since nobody seems to agree with me, but I found her performance as the Countess to be inexplicably cold. And I didn’t feel I was dealing with aristocratic reserve; I just felt like she didn’t have genuinely strong feelings for Helena. That scene, when she calls herself her mother and demands why Helena will not accept to call her such - I’ve seen that scene played laceratingly, and in this production it was limp, Perkins interrogating Parisse with almost clinical detachment.

I felt the loss of the Helena-Rousillon dynamic keenly, but I think the greater loss was to the Helena-Bertram dynamic. If you want me to buy that this story has a happy ending - as director Daniel Sullivan plainly did - then you have to show me signs of love between the principals before the ending. You just have to. And that’s what the anomalous kiss was for. But the only thing that could justify that kiss was passion on Helena’s part, not Bertram’s. That’s something Bertram could respond to, with surprise. And that’s not what I saw. In which case - and this is a strange thing to say given that everyone else in the play is wondering what she sees in him - what does he see in her?

The rest of the play is ancillary to this central question, but it occupies a good deal of stage time, much of it enjoyable. John Collum was a less-tyrannical King of France than the one I carry around in my head, but he certainly was winning. David Manis was an appropriately acerbic Lavatch; Dakin Matthews well-timed as the quipping Lafew. Kristin Connolly didn’t really bring an additional dimension to Diana - which is a pity, I think; she’s so central to the plot, I’d like her to actually have a character, rather than being a prop for Helena’s designs. And Reg Rogers rather stole the show as Parolles, which is what Parolles is supposed to do, but the more he mugged and swaggered the stupider Bertram seemed for not seeing through this obvious fool. But that’s the usual challenge with this character: the funnier he is to the audience, and therefore the more he does to engage them in the play, the more he damages the central plotline by making Bertram seem an absolute idiot for not seeing what anyone with eyes could see.

But the heart of the play is the Helena-Bertram axis. I give credit to Parisse, Holland and Sullivan for trying a novel approach to making this romance plausible. And if it didn’t entirely work, I don’t blame them too much, as they were swimming against a current that Shakespeare himself set flowing.

Posted by Noah Millman at 6:45pm.

That’s Goneril’s assessment of her father almost immediately after he comes to live with her, and it is the touchstone of Derek Jacobi’s highly-acclaimed performance in the title role in the Donmar Warehouse production of King Lear, recently mounted at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. From his first moments on stage, Jacobi is playing, putting on a show for his daughters and his courtiers alike. And when Cordelia doesn’t play the part the way he wants her to, he throws a tantrum.

It’s one way into Lear. The King is a big tantruming baby. If we hear the horrific language he hurls at Goneril issuing from a mature and sober mouth, we really wouldn’t blame her for locking him out in the storm - no man should speak that way to a woman, to say nothing of a father to a daughter. But children can say the most awful things, and never even consider the pain they cause.

On the other hand, we must believe him when he says he is “every inch a king.”

That’s the challenge of playing Lear in a nutshell. The same man - in the same scene! - must say he is “every inch a king” and make us believe he is, and only a few lines later must tease those who have come to succor him by cackling, “Nay, if you get it, you shall get it with running,” and scampering off like a five-year-old. For me, Jacobi didn’t quite rise to the first half of that challenge.

I’m not sure I’ve seen a Lear that did, though, so I can’t count that as a serious knock against the production. And Jacobi had moments of sublime incandescence - most especially in the scenes with the blinded Gloucester, when Lear has transmuted into his own Fool (the marvelous Ron Cook having left the story midway through, as the Fool inexplicably does - and this production doesn’t resort to any tricks, like having Lear kill his Fool in his madness, to explain this departure; it just leaves it a mystery). Jacobi is at his strongest here, when we can’t tell just how mad he is, how affected he is by Gloucester as Gloucester weeps for him and we weep for them both.

But the distinct pleasure of this production was the portrayal of the two elder daughters. Pippa Bennett-Warner was a lukewarm Cordelia, with no great chemistry with her father, but Gina McKee and Justine Mitchell were the most interesting Goneril and Regan I’ve ever seen. I’ve usually seen Regan portrayed as a one-dimensional villain, an oily, hateful creature, while Goneril mostly gets to be angry - and, given how her father talks to her, at least she has some cause. But McKee’s Goneril was a more complicated creature, the oldest child of whom dad always expected the most and who dutifully delivered, even though it meant marrying a man for whom she had no affection, only to find herself passed over in favor of Cordelia, the baby. She’s belatedly achieving independence from her father, enacted, unfortunately for them both, through cruel domination of him. But she’s also discovering her own erotic life, with Edmund, and her own political power, both of which quests bring her into direct conflict with her husband. (And I greatly appreciate that Tom Beard did not play a neutered Albany, but rather as a forceful, healthy man trapped in a marriage - presumably entered into for reasons of state - to a woman he never loved.)

And Regan, as played by Mitchell, far from being a cackling villain, is almost naive, the overlooked middle child who always followed her stronger-minded father and sister. When Regan, in the love test, says, basically “what she said, but more so,” it usually comes off as simply obvious fawning. But this time, it seemed revelatory of character: this Regan doesn’t actually have her own words, her own perspective. She doesn’t turn into a villain in her own right until very late, with the blinding of Gloucester, when she suddenly discovers a heretofore unknown bloodlust; now she giggles and cackles, but since we know that only recently she was following her cruel husband around like a puppy, the transformation is quite chilling.

These are two long, terrible journeys the older sisters go, and I applaud the actors and the director for finding the path and taking us along.

Inevitably, I suppose, the usual strength of the Goneril and Regan stories mean a relatively weaker Edgar-Edmund story; both Gwilym Lee and Alec Newman do fine work, but there wasn’t the same urgency that there sometimes is to their story. We don’t feel, as we sometimes do, that the consequences for the entire cosmos will be dire if Edgar fails and Edmund triumphs. On the other hand, I was pleased that Newman’s Edmund was less-calculating than is often the case. This Edmund is an improviser, not entirely convinced himself that he is succeeding as well as he is, barely keeping one step ahead of something snapping at his heels. It’s a feeling I usually associate with Iago rather than Edmund, and it made for an interesting choice.

Lear is one of those plays that can be done with nothing but a bare stage, and that also can survive, even thrive, in a large-scale production. This time the tragedy played out on a starkly empty stage of tall, rough-textured white pillars. (It was almost startling to see an actual joint-stool in the trial scene.) The whiteness was exceptionally effective in the blinding scene; when Cornwall pops out the first orb, and dashes it against the wall, we suddenly see red - and it does something to her when Regan sees it, too. But the one “big” effect of the show left me cold. Rather than having Lear bellow and holler to out-rage the storm, the blowing suddenly quiets, the Fool stops his staggering and swaying, and Lear, lit from below the stage, whispers his rages into a mic. It’s a very cinematic effect - the storm going quiet, time slowing down, the words communicated in voice-over - but I think it would be cheesy on film, and it didn’t work for me on stage either. I thought, “oh - the storm is in his mind” - but I didn’t feel like the storm was in his mind. But this might also have been Jacobi’s delivery, which was, for lack of a better word, stagey, as it often was in Lear’s set-piece speeches.

Lear is one of those plays that really is too big to encompass completely in one production. This one drives home the political dimension of the play; that one is more of a family drama; another is a powerful Christian allegory - and all are right and none are the thing itself, nor can they be. But Harold Bloom is wrong that this is a reason to prefer the study to the stage; you will never feel all these Lears if you do not see them. It’s just a reason to see many, many good productions with different emphases. This one left me with a much more complex understanding of the older sisters than I had had before, and with a dread of second childishness and mere oblivion. That’s more than enough to make it worth the seeing.

Posted by Noah Millman at 12:42pm.

At the other extreme theatrically from a head trip like Sleep No More is the head-y but emphatically not trippy latest from Tony Kushner, the endlessly (and, really, entitled) Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, playing the last few weeks at the Public Theater. The title’s double allusion to Shaw and Mary Baker Eddy does an excellent job of warning us what we are in for: four hours of people who are alienated from the bases of their affections and, indeed, from their own bodies and who, despite a total inability to communicate, refuse Tom Lehrer’s famous advice to at least have the decency to shut up.

I haven’t got a perfect fix on what it is that animates my antipathy for Tony Kushner’s work. I recognize his talent. He’s got considerable wit. I thought the first half of Angels in America was brilliant (I saw the original run, not the recent revival). But as early as the second half of that early play I began to have trouble with him.

Perhaps it’s that he writes dramas of ideas, but frequently about ideas I don’t find compelling. (Kushner presumes not only upon an interest in left-wing politics, but on a particular framework for that interest, which really is presuming twice too much.) Perhaps it’s because he simply will not edit down to reasonable theatrical length. The second half of Angels was hopelessly bloated; I got the strong feeling that it was as long as it was simply because he couldn’t cut any of the wonderful bits in the first three-hour installment, and he couldn’t very have the second half be only an hour and a half long. And this new play isn’t just long: it’s repetitive. (And it has as many consecutive endings as “The Return of the King.”)

Perhaps it’s that his plays too often feel like situations rather than stories, their stasis unsuccessfully masked by endless chatter. In this play, basically every character ends up right back where he or she started - the suicidal father is still determined to kill himself, the alienated youngest son is confirmed in his alienation, the weak oldest son is confirmed in his weakness - and so on. It’s not Chekhov - we don’t see hopelessness play itself out to its fully pathetic end. It’s not even O’Neill, characters finally revealing to each other how shattered they are. I had no sense of tragic catharsis when the patriarch, Gus Marcantonio, finally gets rid of his family and is able to kill himself. I just thought: yeah, of course he got what he wanted. He was a stubborn old bastard who always got his way at the beginning, and he’s still a stubborn old bastard who always gets his way.

Or perhaps it’s his fondness for a certain self-loathing male character who I assume is a kind of negative author stand-in - the character was names Louis in Angels and he’s named Pill in iHomo, but whatever his name is, he’s always the same: someone who cannot really give or receive love, and who is also a failure in his professional life, and who we are supposed to believe is redeemed, in some fashion through a kind of political epiphany (in Louis’s case, the epiphany is that his Mormon Republican boyfriend, though professing a kind of libertarianism, isn’t actually going to challenge the anti-gay assumptions in conservative jurisprudence; in Pill’s case, it’s his thesis about gay Trotskyites opening up the possibility of a leftism that is ecstatic rather than puritanical … or something). I have no objection to art that makes me spend time with loathsome and self-loathing characters. I was riveted by “Carnal Knowledge.” Heck, I had kind things to say about “Greenberg.” It’s something about the way Kushner clearly loves this character, though, that makes me hate him so much. He hasn’t earned that love. Not from me. And I’m not going to indulge him until he does - not by “saving the cat” or some other trick to win sympathy, but by making me feel with him.

And that’s the biggest problem I have with Kushner’s work. I am oppressed by a lack of direct access to his characters’ feelings. Oh, they feel, don’t get me wrong. Heck, even Shaw’s characters have feelings. But though they think and talk endlessly, they have precious little understanding. Especially of their erotic desires which, in Kushner’s world, come off not only as unreasonable but operating entirely against sense. Pill is beloved by a rent boy, Eli. What’s that love about? I don’t even mean why does he love him - I don’t know how anybody answers that - I mean what is their love? How is it shaped? When does it flower? I don’t have the foggiest idea from the play - desire is just a fact. The heart wants what it wants. And this is the way every character talks about desire - why did V, the youngest son, sleep with Maeve, his lesbian sister’s partner? Why did Empty, the sister (oy, the names in this play) sleep with her ex-husband? These erotic escapades certainly have consequences - mostly anger, the emotion Kushner is most comfortable with - but nobody is interested in understanding them. Nobody is interested in empathy, neither for the “cheater” nor for the “cheated on.” Everything is judgment and the evasion thereof. At the end of the play, I didn’t feel I’d learned something important. I was just happy to be rid of these people.

And yet, that kind of strong reaction deserves more excavation. If I just didn’t go for his stuff, that would be that: I wouldn’t go for it. The problem is that at the core, I find an uncomfortable kinship. I’m a head-y person, after all, more comfortable with ideas than with people, and more comfortable with argument and attack than with any other form of discourse. I’m a writer who sometimes struggles for direct access to his character’s feelings, I have an unfortunate tendency to analyze my own work, to think about what this or that action or character or turn means instead of writing from the inside out and letting someone else do the analysis. Kushner wants me to see the greatness of these people’s struggle, to see them as types of tragic heroes, but my only reaction is: there but for the grace of God go I.

I should say a few words about the production. The set is a meticulously accurate recreation of a Carroll Gardens Brooklyn brownstone. For some, this will induce acute nostalgia; for others, acute claustrophobia. I live in Brooklyn now, but I didn’t grow up in this environment; for me, it was just nice to see kitchen-sink realism where the designer knows exactly the right make of sink. (Unlike, say, God of Carnage, the New York version of which was set in the same general vicinity, but whose set suggested confusion on the designer’s part between Cobble Hill and Soho.)

The cast must have worked extremely hard simply to keep control of Kushner’s text, which, in addition to being voluminous, is orchestrated like a four-hour dissonant madrigal, with five, six, even more voices overlapping at once, specific snippets rising to distinct audibility in what I assume is a carefully prescribed sequence - the whole thing requires the kind of perfect timing I associate with a dense farce like Noises Off than I do with a family drama like iHomo. And the work pays off: their timing is uniformly flawless. And, for better or worse, they all fully inhabit their Kushner-world characters.

I hope when the run ended, they all got a chance to go somewhere nice.

Posted by Noah Millman at 4:31pm.