Revenge is in the Air: Moral tragedies welcome spring to Illinois

Maybe it’s the lousy weather. Maybe it’s the news. Whatever the case, this spring there has been a great deal of revenge drama on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus. The all-student run troupe, the What You Will Shakespeare Company, put up Two Gents, a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s play with a sociopathic rendering of Proteus. The Armory Free Theatre saw Dr. Andrea Steven’s directorial debut with a considered and considerate The Duchess of Malfi. But the surprise runaway hit of the spring has been John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, directed by Writers’ Theatre’s William Brown for the Department of Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Considering the college campus setting, it seems interesting that early modern plays invested in revenge and corruption are being targeted at and also successfully engaging our undergraduates.

Snuck a shot of the smart set design: a dramatic staircase, painted shutters to a bedroom, and a complex scrim backdrop did a lot of heavy lifting in this production.

Part of why I assigned in my “Intro to Shakespeare” class Ford’s play and arranged a field trip to see the production was so students could have a shared theatrical (not just dramatic, not just on the page) experience with which to engage one another. Their first responses were to the set design, which was indeed perhaps the cleverest part of the production with two main features. The first was the curving marble-esqe staircase dividing the stage in half. Used as a third entranceway, the staircase routinely underscored the power dynamics between characters: Giovanni begging his sister Annabella to take his love seriously, she standing halfway up the staircase, a figurative virginal pedestal; Vasquez coaxing a worried Putana from below that he will protect her despite her failure of guardianship—and then does not. Often the staircase was used to materially elevate women, put them in positions to be convinced and cajoled, only to be brutalized shortly thereafter. The staircase operated as a material reminder of the constructed nature of the dividing from and deifying of normative sexuality.

Giovanni (David Monahan) pleads with his sister, Annabella (Clara Byczkowski), to take his Petrarchan protestations of love seriously. Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann.
Much of the set design included painterly elements which professed both its historical Parma origins and the present day. Second of the main features was the scrim, which had two major tricks: projecting a kind of curved, stain-glass window for the conversations between Giovanni and his confessor, and then a blue-print like backdrop of a Roman collonade in acidic colors. At the top of the staircase was enough room for a bedroom with a louvered-panel that when open revealed the bed behind, and when closed became a Italian portrait, presumably of the incestuous siblings’ missing mother. These elements summoned up, in a minimal way, the accoutrements of an elite lifestyle, reminding us that these characters were not one of us, were not expected to obey the rules of the rest of us. Thus the architectural design of the production underscored issues of aberrance when it came to sexuality as well as class behaviors.

The louvered portrait also did a lot of work when it came to revealing transgressions, conscripting the audience into covert knowledge that siblings were sleeping together. Difficult to do tastefully, especially with college students, is stage nudity. There is also a strange decorousness of college theatre not run by students themselves wherein stage nudity somehow violates the “safe space” of the classroom as extended into the theatre. The morning after Giovanni and Annabella consummate their love, they talk in bed. The louvered painting is opened to reveal them chatting playfully, until they stand up to dress, when the stakes of their behavior is made clear. It is a brief visual cue that their demise, a product of this night, that the body will out. The suspended platform extending from the stairs, the collonade backdrop, and the movable louvers all evoke a panoptoconic sense: private knowledge is paramount, and as the audience, we are owners of blackmail material.

In a risky but tasteful moment, Giovanni (David Monahan) and Annabella (Clara Byzckwoski) banter about her marriage future the after sharing the night together. Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann.

But we audiences were not the only ones conscripted into bad behavior—or at least charged with keeping secrets we’d rather not. Perhaps what I liked most about this production was the way in which it took servants very seriously, maximizing the emotional ties between elite men and their lower-class bosom confidants. It is not with women, spouses, or even kin that the young and violent men of the play share their innermost desires and fears. It is with their day-in-day-out footmen with whom the bonds are strongest, and for whom we empathize the most. Despite her blinding, Putana’s cries for Isabella who we know is already dead and yet she cannot come to believe is heart-wrenching. At the death of Soranzo, it is unclear whether Vasquez is in laughter or tears at the death of man who he has served his entire life, and whose father had stolen him into slavery. Perhaps hardest to bear is Poggio’s despair at the death of Berghetto: the blithe and dull-witted gentleman whispers the name of his servant companion last of all and several times, suggesting his importance even over the new fiancé. These are all men without leaders, without moral guides over whom they do not hold power. So while the private lives these masters and servants share is sympathetic, it is also darkly Marxist in its implications: that men need other men of equal financial status in order to be morally policed correctly, or society will devolve into just this sort of bloodbath.

Vasquez (Neal Moeller) holds his dying master, Soranzo (Thom Miller), in his arms, while Anabella’s heart lays discarded in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Darrell Hoemann.

Brown’s production asks us to take the ethics of the play as its core concern. Private knowledges seems to conscript and pin characters to choices they would rather not make, but no one in the world of the play has the moral backbone to upset the norm of retributive violence as a substitute for reasoned justice. As the talk back with Dr. Andrea Stevens, Dr. Valerie Hotchkiss (of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, where we have the only first edition quarto of the playtext in the world), and dramaturg Sara B. T. Thile made clear, the jumble of issues in this play—of sexuality, religion, class—often make it difficult for directors to pick a consistent emphasis as these themes fluctuate in importance depending on the scene. Morally serious drama isn’t exactly what college undergraduates are looking for in their spectacle, but challenged with the aberrant justice of the play and their own conscription into private knowledges they would rather not have, the audience was attentive and fully engaged. With two more shows left in their season, I can only hope that the Illinois Theatre Department continues to select ethically challenging work to the obvious engagement of our students.

Thornton Wilder’s recuperative apocalypse; or, “The Skin of Our Teeth”

Ladies and gentlemen! Don’t take this play seriously. The world’s not coming to an end. You know it’s not. People exaggerate! Most people really have enough to eat and a roof over their heads. Nobody actually starves—you can always eat grass or something…Savages don’t love their families—not like we do.

Last night was the opening of Illinois Theatre’s The Skin of Our Teeth, a play that though written in the mid-1940s still seems to smack of something very modern indeed. In fact, Thornton Wilder was accused of plagiarizing from that quintessential modernist, James Joyce, whose similarities were identified by none other than Joseph Campbell. The clarity and precision of Wilder’s dialogue, however, is that which sets the two voices apart. Even in his own description of the conceit of his play can we see a style to which David Mamet or Will Eno might be drawn:

Here is a comedy about George Antrobus, his wife and two children, and their general utility maid, Lily Sabina, all of Excelsior, New Jersey. George Antrobus is John Doe or George Spelvin or you—the average American at grips with a destiny, sometimes sour, sometimes sweet. The Antrobuses have survived fire, flood, pestilence, the seven-year locusts, the ice age, the black pox and the double feature, a dozen wars and as many depressions. They run many a gamut, are as durable as radiators, and look upon the future with a disarming optimism. Alternatively bewitched, befuddled, and becalmed, they are the stuff of which heros are made—heroes and buffoons. They are true offspring of Adam and Eve, victims of all the ills that flesh is heir to. They have survived a thousand calamities by the skin of their teeth. Here is a tribute to their indestructibility.

As dramaturg Po-Hsien Chu described it, Wilder’s is a “philosophy of survival” while Joyce’s cycle of characters are invested in anything but. Where we might draw a line between the two works is their shared sentiment, that civilization is the universe “heap[ing] miseries upon us yet entwine our arts with laughters low.”

A Telegraph Boy (Colton Adams) delivers his message to Mrs. Antrobus (Cassandra Cushman) while her Dinosaur (Dina Monk) and Mammoth (Kyle Bullock) listen in. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann c/o The News-Gazette.

I must admit that my last review of an Illinois Theatre production at Krannert was rather grumpy, concerned with the mythic theatre the department seems so invested in and yet seems so distant from the community they ostensibly serve. While mythology has been a central course of material for these plays, if we add The Skin of Our Teeth to this mix, I might relabel this investment not in “mythic” but rather in “metaphysical” theatre; that is, theatre that attempts to posit a model or explanation of being and the world that encompasses that experience. Thinking about it in these terms, that makes a kind of sense for undergraduates: putting on productions that posit a range of ontological models. While a few moments were rocky due to opening night jitters on a very large stage space, I was eminently more satisfied as a spectator of Wilder’s meditation on civilization allegorized in the form of a nuclear family rather than the piecemeal theodicy of MTV Olympians. This may be the allure of Wilder’s posture towards allegory as a vehicle through which to awe at the very notion of mankind’s survival as a species.

Sabina (Sarah Ruggles) articulates to the audience her issues with play. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann c/o The News-Gazette.

As members, survivors of our own tragedies as well as those writ large, the audience is positioned to find a recuperative experience from the play (unlike Joyce’s Wake) then, despite Sabina’s (Sarah Ruggles) protestations otherwise. I must admit, I am a sucker for a cleverly dismantled fourth wall within the narrative of a play. Sabina is perhaps the darker side of the play’s take on survival, one who ultimately does remain despite constant impediment but is never satisfied with merely surviving despite her advice “not to inquire into why or whither, but to enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate; that’s my philosophy.” I’ve come to enjoy Ruggles’ delivery, lately featured in the New Short Plays FestivalO Beautiful, and an exceptional Trinculo in The Tempest. She is able to cultivate a measured sardonic wit that gives a sense of criticism and judgment to dialogue that a lazier actress would render merely ebullient. So when Sabina turns to the audience in the end to say “This is where you came in. We have to go on for ages and ages yet. You go home. The end of this play isn’t written yet,” the final sentence doesn’t ring too cleverly, too neatly. Yes, of course we are a humanity that continues to thrive, but in Ruggles her tenor makes us question whether that insistent survival is something we should valorize, particularly in light of global weirding, overpopulation, and contagion. (As a final word on casting, I would have liked to see more of the MFAs in this production. The script is difficult and cerebral, and while I trust it in the hands of Ruggles and Neal Moeller, there were definite stretches of tonal confusion with the interpretive inconsistency of many very young BFAs in the mix.)

A Fortune Teller (Brandon Rivera) portends humanity’s self-destruction. Photograph by Darrell Hoemann c/o The News-Gazette.

Helping the overall tonal consistency of this play is a stunning and coherent scenic design by Drew Lupson. The deconstructed house pieces that suggest both scale and generic-ness reminded me of similarly effective designs from ArcadiaAugust: Osage County, and The Crucible. In Excelsior the house is cozy, and large-scale puppets of a triceratops (one actor) and a mammoth (two actors) play house dogs to the Antrobuses. The windows are massive, and the siding suggested by scrims so that all interiors are at the same time translucent, only suggestions of reality but resisting material certitude of the action’s place in time. Likewise the Gamorrah of the Atlantic City Boardwalk is brightly lit with large billboards that refrain from the gauche, refrain from swallowing the actors but still suggests the extremity of their/our decadence. While at heart I prefer the intimacy of non-theatrical, studio, and black box spaces for my theatre, this production makes use of its proscenium, or rather, unraveling its limits by constantly threatening to burst from the arch’s frame with the signage and deprioritizing the fixity of its frame by the translucency of the architectural lines within it. In short, the combination of smart dialogue, thoughtful performers, and clever design makes this play worth the ticket, if at times just by the skin of its teeth.