On the myths and purposes of playing in Krannert’s “Polaroid Stories”

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it makes the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve; the censure of which one must in your allowance o’erweigh a whole theatre of others.

–  Hamlet, Hamlet

I am on my way to Idaho as I write this review, and I can’t help meditating on the striking difference between the hard reality of the cool northwestern mountains and the bizarre unreality of the corn desert that is Illinois. I mention this because I feel it is as apt a description as I can come up with for the jarring juxtaposition between a piece of theatre that has “presence,” that seems to be participating in the concerns of the time in which it is performed, and a play that does not. This sense of presence is one of the things I, and many others, love about William Shakespeare’s works: although written for and of a culturally-specific time and place, those plays seem to uniformly share an uncanny capacity to be imbued with a sense of presence.

SKINHEADboy (Ryan Leonard) and SKINHEADgirl (Kara Satokoun) contemplate their labyrinth.

I think we often confuse what I am calling presence here for “relatability,” which earlier this summer Ira Glass rather infamously accused live Shakespeare, New York’s Shakespeare in the Park no less, of lacking. Different than say exigency or presence, relatability bothers me as a rubric for aesthetic value for a couple of reasons. First, it exclusively privileges the individual subjectivity: I see a character that resembles my self on stage, and the more that character holds a mirror up to my nature, the more relatable this piece of art is. There is no way to find a communal aspect to this decadently narcissitic theory of processing a theatrical experience. And so second, this presumes an excessively shallow capacity of audiences: they either see something that looks like them and derive pleasure from the substitutional spotlighting of their identity, an identity that already exists. Thus, theatre is rendered incapable of saying anything new or illuminating, but as a form relegated to purely derivative and mimetic methods of meaning-making.

When Hamlet discusses his theory of acting, what he calls “the purpose of playing,” he speaks of a moderation and balance through which theatre is capable of showing “the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” Shakespeare is careful to make the distinction that theatre’s ability to mirror is not to reflect us as individual playgoers but rather the aspect and problems with which our society grapples. Another way to say this is that theatre is political in that it stages problems, sometimes offering a menu of solutions we might imagine, but doesn’t necessarily a) make claims for a single answer, nor b) simply reflects society as it already exists. By saying that a play, Shakespeare or otherwise, is successfully embued with a sense of presence is to say that we collectively as a multitude of playgoers see within its reflection a problem, tension, or debate with which our time grapples.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) and Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) sing empty words of love to one another.

But why this discursus on Idaho and relatability? When trying to come up with a way of approaching a review of Illinois Theatre’s production of Polaroid Stories, all I could do was come up with a list of details and choices that I disliked that didn’t amount to anything. A list of critiques that go nowhere is the worst kind of review, at least in my opinion. I just felt so belabored as an audience member on Krannert’s opening night, watching so much effort on the part of the actors and in the set design that gave way to frustration to make a coherent sense of the action and the words in players and playgoers alike. Polaroid Stories is one of a string of plays Krannert has staged in recent years that takes mythic abstraction as its central conceit. Like medieval morality plays, characters aren’t so much versimilitudinous as they are embodiments of virtues, vices, concepts. I’m thinking here of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, O BeautifulIphigenia and Other Daughters among others. Mice and men and gods are collapsed onto the same plane of existence, but in all of these the actors have been directed to act as if individual subjects rather than as universal concepts engaging with one another. How does one uncover inner motivation for Self-Love, for example? Again, like relatability, the point is not individaul subjectivity as such, but the collision of emotions, affects, concepts and the tensions they produce.

Let me explain by way of example. In Polaroid Stories, the gods are brought down from Olympus and placed in the bodies of disaffected and self-destructive urban youth culture: sex and drugs without the rock n’ roll. Theseus and Ariadne are skinheads wandering the labyrinth of speed and cocaine: a thread of “fuck yous” leads not to a minotaur (arguably that would be the drugs themselves) but to their mutual self-destruction. Orpheus is trapped within a cage for much of the play into which a ladder descends that he never takes out. This would suggest that the play world, our world, is the hell he descended to bring back his beloved. We are then a prior damned. But why? Eurydice dances, taunts, and tramps about his cage, egging him to violence, insisting she would rather forget, insisting she would rather remain in Hades. The yarn of “I love yous” she and Orpheus weave builds only to a mutual self-destruction as well. Both love narratives imply that love is not a desire universally shared: she/we do not want rescue, but love is the only tempting (although ultimately failing) distraction from that self-annihilation.

Orpheus (Shawn Pereira) can’t help but see his beloved in every woman, including Persephone (Martasia Jones).

What are we to do with a play like this? On the one hand the direction valorizes the individual crosses we have to bear that condition subjectivity. On the other hand it wants to make claims for self-destruction as a fundamental and universal truth of the human condition: as if to say destruction, nor survival, is our basest nature. I’m not saying you can’t have your cake and eat it, too; what would be the point of cake. But theatre as a form seems fundamentally at odds with this attempt to make two claims without fully staging the problem, the tension, the source from which they derive. Is it the drug culture and the urban poverty we allow? If so, this barely registers as a concern of the play—partly because the dialogue is flat, unimaginative, full of platitudes and fuck yous. This makes me wonder who this play is for, exactly?

This weekend the MFAs are doing a table reading of Lizuka’s newest play, to which the audience was invited to get a first-hand look in on the creatve process of an up-and-coming, cutting-edge American playwright. I’ve mentioned this in several reviews of Krannert productions, but at times I think with plays like these Krannert is doing a disservice to its students actors and student audiences—its core constitutencies, at least in theory—by wanting to be a nationally-renowned theatre. The commissioning of new work through the Sullivan Project is admirable, and the performance exchanges with England and Japan indeed incorporate the actors into the production process more deeply as they expand their toolbox. But content, a content that is capable of presence, is what matters at the end of the day, I should think. It doesn’t have to be relatable theatre, but it should have the potential to be relevant, if at least cogent. At intermission in the women’s restroom the only conversations being had were “is that it?” and “do you get what’s going on?” The play, not of its own fault but perhaps rather in those who selected it, willfully ignores its context. Like Campbell attempting to render an aesthetic like Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet for classical mythology, it misses the point that the MTV generation is about to move into their 40s. What does this play present for the Millennials, accutely globalized in their interests, politcs, and consumption practices? And these college kids made it to university, even if it is wedged in the corn fields. What is the point of depicting a self-destructive urban-youth culture except to preach to their own naivete? I thought theatre was about revelation rather than making one feel like an idiot; with rampant impostor symdrome in undergradute and graduate students alike, that is an emotion we are already far too familiar with.

Eurydice (Alexis DawTyne) finds a moment of authenticity with G (David Monahan).

I feel like Artaud in the vitriolic temperament this review is taking, as when we decries “An idea of the theater has been lost. And as long as the theater limits itself to showing us intimate scenes from the lives of a few puppets, transforming the public into Peeping Toms, it is no wonder the elite abandon it and the great public looks to the movies, the music hall or the circus for violent satisfactions, whose intentions do not deceive them.” What I mean to say here is not quite so dire, is not how the play fails at its own asprations, but rather how Polaroid Stories is a symptom of a theatre culture that doesn’t know how to be present for its changing audiences as the baby boomers and octogenarian subscribers literally die out. I like a big-budget musical as much as the next person, but surely our theatrical landscapeis capabale of more than comfort food and shock treatment? Have we given up on theatre as a form of political thought? An experience in which our very presence renders up political and politicized subjects? I hope not, nor do I think this has come to pass. For one, I would turn you to my review of Sean Graney’s All Our Tragic, the 12-hour mythic marathon that has sold out in its final month and received funding for a remount in 2015. That is a work day and a half of abstractionist theatre, and midwesterners are eating it up! Without the financial motivation of having to sell seats being a university theatre, I think Illinois Theatre has become complacent in their season choices, less concerned with doing actual ideological service to ad engendering a theatre-going base regularly habituated to performance. What are they training these actors ofr anyway, if not for making a living in the theatre? Or has that aspiration gone the way of Olympus, in the clouds, as well?

From Denmark to Chicago, and Back Again

Be not too tame neither; but let your own discretion be your
tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with
this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of
nature: for anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing,
whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as
’twere, the mirror up to nature.

– Hamlet, III.ii

Last week I took a last minute trip into the city to catch one of the three shows of Hamlet being performed at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. The production is the main feature of this year’s Globe-to-Globe initiative by the education arm of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The conceit started back in 2012: as part of the London Olympic Games, Shakespeare’s Globe staged 37 Shakespeare plays on their main stage in 37 different languages. It was an amazing feat, and Chicago’s own Q Brothers were included, remounting their Funk It Up About Nothin’ that I’ve discussed here. This project aims to be equally massive: the company plans to tour this production to every country in the world in two years.

Rather than go plush and lush, Dominic Dromgoole and his designer Jonathan Fensom took the conceit of “tour” directly and infused it into every aspect of the production. Like the staged readings of the Shakespeare Project of Chicago where their promptbooksthe things that would seemingly impede performancebecame the primary prop, so here. The very trunks to store gear, props, and costumes were the primary tool for arranging space and directing sight lines of each scene. They were propped up as thrones, stacked in a line to make Elsinore’s turrets, smacked and shook to reinforce ghostly incantations, and even used to help actors exit. To mark his getting abroad a ship for England, Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) is enclosed in a trunk which is then propped up facing away from the audience so he could leave the stage unseen. It’s the kind of design I’m a sucker for: clever, creative, and rich with potential for actors to make meaning because of presumed limitations.

Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) soliloquizes in an Elsinore made of traveller’s trunks.

As plastic and pliable as the trunks became in shaping the world of the play, so too were the actors on a number of levels. First, in line with the global ethos of the project, the cast is explicitly multiracial. The troupe of 12 runs a production with a skeleton crew of 10, alternating between Hamlets (2) and Ophelias (3) night-to-night; on the Wednesday I went Hayat, an East Londoner of Indian descent, was paired with Hong Kong-native, Jennifer Leong. A cast like this I imagine resonates differently and powerfully depending on where the troupe is in the world; at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, such multiracial stagings shine a (healthy, I think) spotlight back on the predominantly white, upper class, octogenarian crowd that is, quite problematically, the theatre’s bread and butter.

Second, in terms of plasticity, the notion of touring for two years and having watched Kevin Spacey’s documentary, NOW, of a similar project so recently, got me thinking about what a commitment it must be for these actors to sign on to such a gig. It must be any casting director’s nightmare to curate an ensemble that a director wants, the theatre can afford, and will cohere into a production that can maintain the momentum of a tragedy for two years. It must have taken near that long just to get the bodies! The additional substitutions for Hamlet and Ophelia gives some ease and variety to the versions this skeleton crew performs, no doubt, but the version I saw, unfortunately, did not quite cohere as an ensemble.

Hamlet (Naeem Hayat) and Ophelia (Jennifer Leong) make brief contact before they realize they are not alone.

Some of the old hats at the game, like John Dougall (Claudius/Ghost/Player King), Miranda Foster (Gertrude/Gravedigger 2/Player Queen), and Keith Bartlett (Polonius) knew how to keep their emotional paces in check no matter how many times they had done the part. Hayat and Leong both succumbed to emotional plateau rather quickly. Hamlet was touched from the first words that left his lips, so we went on no journey of grief and self-doubt with him, nor were we allowed to question whether or not he had the reigns to his feigned madness. Leong played an intensely minimal and one-dimensional Ophelia, but unlike Hayat, who still seems to be untangling the threads of his part (and fairly so), I think Leong might intend her Ophelia this way. Her other responsibilities in the play consists of Cornelius, the diplomat to old Norway, whose most prominent line is: “In that, and all things, will we show our duty.” Her Ophelia seems informed by this absolute duty that looks absurd in its extremity as the cause of her death as it does Laertes to his father’s death and Hamlet to his. So while Hayat has yet to pace his madness so it looks something other than manic with motive (which even Polonius can deduce he has), Leong has chosen a cold madness unsatisfying to watch yet consistent in its effect.

While every member of this ensemble was responsible for at least one instrument and no less than two parts, Amanda Wilkin (as Horatio here, but other nights, Ophelia), seemed to be pulling extra weight and making it seem easy.

While this is not a play noted for its music in the Shakespeare canon, there was a lot of music here. Again, every body on the stage was responsible for a sound, and none was done unprofessionally. In fact, I was most impressed by Amanda Wilkin (Horatio and others that night, but whose Ophelia I would have loved to see) on the accordion and Matthew Romain (Laertes/Rosencrantz/Fortinbras) virtuosically on the fiddle, not to mention a pleasure to watch in their respective parts as Horatio and Laertes. (As a side note, I am a fan of the rather popular trend for casting women as Horatio, but always surprised Laertes never gets the same treatment. What if Ophelia had a sister instead? Is it impossible to think, in this day and age, that Hamlet’s “foil” could be a woman?) In line with what we know of original practices (see a great recent blog post about the origin of the this term here), a carousing opening tune drew audiences attention to the action as they decided not to turn down the houselights in order to keep with the daylight of the Southwark Globe.

Setting the mood throughout and marking time, the arrangements were most prominent again at the play’s conclusion. With bodies strewn about, a seemingly undeserving Fortinbras surveying the carnage and only Horatio left to tell the tale, what is a director to do? Here, an ethereal drum from a dead Polonius and Guildenstern summon the ghost of Ophelia from behind a trunk. She dances around each of the dead, summoning each to rise as well. They take up their instruments gradually as the tune builds into a jig, getting the crowd to applaud and allowing the actors to take their bows all without seeming to undermine the value of the theatrical experience of tragedy we as the audience spent the last two hours suffering through together. It’s a tough balance to strike, but in this moment, the play seems ultimately successful in its aims as it depends on the actors, the design, and the direction to reify rather than undermine what is valuable about the communal experience of tragedy.

The show is long gone from the US now, logging only three stops here, one in Canada and one in Mexico. Ultimately, I’m glad that while “global,” the production team decided not to linger in the US and its dependable ticket sales and audience numbers. I don’t really think this is a Shakespeare for us, and I am entirely alright with that. With the casting and design choices, I can envision this production being really powerful in East Asia and Africa, whose more variable performance traditions as well as cultural associations with the essential themes of the playhonor, revenge, deathare vastly different than in the West, giving performances of this play a new richness in its pliability. There seems to be a growing awareness of this richness and its commercial viability if the uptick in world-tour Shakespeares are any indication. Similarly, I have drawn so much attention to the nuances of design and casting here precisely because this production highlighted, for me, the creative options these same limits may have afforded touring for early moderns. As we attempt to “globalize” Planet Shakespeare, these local concerns seem to also always inevitably come back to us.