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.

War and Tears: or, vaudeville for veterans at Krannert

NURSE: [to a stretcher case with a bandaged head] Don’t worry. We’ll soon have you back at the front.

This must be said first and foremost: I love Oh! What A Lovely War. Not the radio play, not the 1969 film, not the idea behind Illinois Theatre’s production up now at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, but the production itself. When you put yourself in the rhetorical position of reviewing, you are partly asking yourself essentially whether there was anything that could be done to help a play achieve the goals it sets for itself. Last night, despite the bitter cold and first flakes of snow, was one of those rare moments when I as both a teacher and a playgoer was fully warmed by a theatrical experience.

And this is certainly not a play that attempts to warm you in any way. A “musical entertainment” composed in the early ’60s by Joan Littlewood and Charles Chilton, it is a biting inditement of both our willingness to be a party to if not the cogs of warfare in war time, but also a critique of our resistance to the notion that war is part of our life stories in peace time. It is cyclical, generational, and has informed all of our lives to a unique degree since WWI, the focus of this production. Generically framed as a vaudeville act—that is mixing of specialty acts such as burlesque comedy with song and dance features—the trivializing tenor of the form underscored our own blasé when it comes to the material immediacy of warfare. The production also scaled up the vaudeville form by applying multimedia as a useful tool in an already medley form. One wall of the blackbox theatre was entirely take up with floor-to-ceiling projections of actual battle footage, and during the course of the production attrition data was chalked over it.

The maquette model for Krannert’s staging of “Oh! What A Lovely War.”

All the smarter was the decentering of power effected by the vaudeville form—where there is no protagonist or central characters with which to associate, but rather a number of figures and MCs—as well as the general movement the production required. Programs were handed out only after the production, as throughout the long benches we used to sit were continually moved and repositioned underneath us, sometimes again used for seating but as often used as platforms for dancing. There was no central location in the theatre from which a narrative emanated. The two other sides were used as sets, one as a board room for military deliberations and the other replicating a trench. The final wall had a live band, conducted by Cara Chowning, from which actors intermittently pulled instruments and performed themselves. In this way the play suggested that while there are certainly leaders in war, we followers, we that make up the nations of the war games direct where we choose to locate centers of power.

But perhaps what I loved best about the production is that it overtly (and not merely seemed, as in 44 Plays for 44 Presidents) targeting the immediate concerns of Krannert’s ethical constituency: the undergraduates. The announcement to turn off your cellphones was a complex one, teasing the undergrads about debating to leave after intermission knowing they were there for class credit. It also interrogated openly whether the University of Illinois had any business putting on plays critiquing warfare at all—made especially poignant as it was the day after Veterans’ Day. Furthermore, this was presentational theatre: that kind of theatre not interested in storytelling and narrative relate-ability, but rather that kind of theatre that works as a “site of passage for those immense analogical disturbances in which ideas are arrested in flight at some point in their transmutation into the abstract,” according to Antonin Artaud. It would have certainly been a production Artaud would have liked, cruel in its relentless marking of millions upon millions of deaths to absolutely no gain. As the University of Illinois celebrates the 100th anniversary of World War I’s start with a number of events, lectures, and exhibitions, I actually felt connected in an authentically disturbing way with this part of world history.

I am going to confess something here: when it is a really good play, something that fundamentally shifts or rattles the way I look at the world, I cry. I usually can make it out of the theatre, but then I typically need to walk home, weeping all the way. I’m not sad, but rather this is my reaction to being emotionally overwhelmed by art. When I first visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome, I pretty much saw nothing of it because I couldn’t stop from tearing. I did the same when I left the Steppenwolf production of Good People, and the Court Theatre production of Titus Andronicus; it’s just my tell. At the end of the production, Thom Miller as the MC shattered the fourth wall by removing his bowler hat and detailing all the members of his family, from great grandfathers in the Great War to brothers in our wars, who served in the military. Then every single actor in the very large (and impressively balanced) ensemble stood against the projection wall, stated there name and their lineage in warfare rather than taking bows, rather than evacuating the seriousness of the experience. There were stories of grandfathers just missing boats that sank, fathers leaving camps just before they were obliterated, siblings serving in foreign wars and others disallowed to serve because of their race. I started to loose it when one young man confessed being the great grand son of General Patton, and then was nearly lost when the last in the line, Mark E. Fox, articulated that he himself had served as a marine for six years. And rather than taking an applause, the cast remained behind encouraging attendees to chat about their families, their stories as connected to the history of war we all share.

The student performers, rather than taking bows or applause, instead rose to the seriousness of the drama by each describing their war heritage.

I walked all the way home in the 29-degree air, not bawling but sniffling, thinking about my younger brother and only sibling, Jacob. He’s in his early 20s still, and had there been a draft in our lifetime, as a soccer and football star he would have been one of the first to go I’m sure. I thought about both of my grandfathers, one with six brothers and the other four, all of whom served in either the Korean or Vietnam wars. I thought about the handful of band geeks from high school who ended up doing military service. Usually any student that I have that also comes from Hawai’i are military kids, and I couldn’t help but think about them, too. The play didn’t make me angry that war existed (though certainly partly), but rather by interrogating the ways in which war has been woven into our heritage, our identities, so much so that it is only a passing consideration. If you only go to one thing at Krannert this year, make it this play. That’s all I can say.

  • Illinois Theatre‘s production of Oh! What A Lovely War plays in the Studio Theatre at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus 6-16 November 2014.
  • Note, there is absolutely no late seating for this production due to experimental seating (trust me, I’ve tried).
  • You can also download the program for this production; and consider attending a special roundtable talk-back with MFAs and graduate students about the production this Friday.