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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Doesn’t Trust Its Text

The albatross — as featured in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner — is one of the most iconic metaphors in literature, symbolizing guilt, suffering, and pretty much anything else you want it to. Which makes it especially odd that Phyllida Lloyd’s new stage adaptation at BAM, starring Fiona Shaw, delivers the tale in such an insistently literal manner, turning what might have been an evocative solo performance into a plodding pantomime.

The Rime relates the saga of an ill-fated excursion in which the titular mariner makes a fatal misjudgment, shooting a wild albatross, whose spirit curses the crew. The wind dies down, stranding the ship, and the travelers expire of thirst. After confrontations with angry sailors, then dead sailors, then a ghost ship, the mariner washes up on shore, surviving to tell his tale.

Shaw, presiding in front of a massive white sail, recites Coleridge’s haunting lines with vivid clarity. But she’s stymied by her stage partner, a dancer who pantomimes scenes and makes shadow puppets on the sail (“Water, water, every where” inspires open-mouthed gasping; when the sailors die, he becomes a staring corpse). Apparently afraid to trust the text, Lloyd illustrates it furiously, a heavy-handedness that saddles the piece with (dare I say it?) an albatross of its own.

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Testament of Mary: Tóibín’s play gives Fiona Shaw endless opportunities for self-indulgence

The onstage installation which the audience is invited to come up and inspect before the performance of Colm Toibin’s Testament of Mary (Walter Kerr Theatre) includes a live vulture, an object of fascination to me. My experience of vultures is limited, since Broadway producers rarely appear onstage themselves. The actual bird, which spreads its wings once (I assume on cue) before its handler removes it to a safe place offstage, looks mightily impressive, calm and dignified, a credit to its species.

Then the audience returns to its seats, the curtain comes down—which seems a backward way of starting a show—and elements of the installation are cleared off so that the performance can begin. The performance features Fiona Shaw, also visible as part of the pre-show installation, who is an object of fascination to many, but not, I regret, to me. Unlike the vulture, which does only what is necessary for vultures, and rarely preens its superb feathers, Shaw is an actress whose sole determination seems to be to call attention to herself. Her technical skills, like the vulture’s wingspan, reach out extensively, but few artists in any field have ever preened themselves so relentlessly over their technique.

You might assume that playing Mary, mother of Jesus, would lead an actress toward a degree of humility, or at least simplicity. Shaw, instead, is led by her director, Deborah Warner, toward a nearly nonstop display of busy, show-offy overemphasis. In Tóibín’s text, Mary, in the time following her son’s crucifixion, is grief-stricken, distraught, angry, and resentfully suspicious of the constant callers (never identified except as “they”) who keep trying to make her version of events jibe with the myth they want to transmit to the world—a string of feelings that should offer its performer ample opportunities without requiring over-demonstration.

Over-demonstration, however, is Shaw and Warner’s stock-in-trade. You’ve never seen such a bustling busybody as this Mary, though her business—carried out on a semi-abstract set cluttered with rehearsal furniture and props—has a reckless irrelevance to the text. She constantly picks things up and drops them, or throws them away; she shoves chairs and tables around pointlessly, or overturns them; she compulsively nibbles tidbits of something from a jar. To cleanse herself of the memory of the Crucifixion, she strips and showers onstage. Every few minutes, it seems, she fishes up a new accessory to add to her basic black rehearsal outfit—a cape, a shawl, a sleeveless tunic, a headscarf. Separated from the words, the physical event suggests an attempt to produce a fashion show inside a slapstick two-reeler.

The verbal accompaniment to this manic cartoon gets no better treatment. Shaw rarely speaks, in the simple sense of the word, as human beings on- or offstage speak to one another. She has no time for that basic function: She’s far too preoccupied with finding a verbal effect for every phrase. She mutters, she mumbles, she shrieks, she groans, she shouts, she gabbles, she croaks, she spits syllables with heavy sarcasm, or she lays them down heavily one by one, like thudding stones. When no props are readily to hand, she accompanies the vocal effects. At one point, spreading her arms and screeching out the last word of a sentence, she even imitates the vulture. Only in one brief passage, when she narrates the raising of Lazarus, does she sit still and speak quietly, to powerful effect. Everything else is excessive.

And what is all the excess there to convey? Frankly, very little. Tóibín’s text, not insincere and not badly written, traverses, rather superficially, a set of thoroughly familiar questions and ironies about the story of Jesus and the myth that Christianity has shaped from it. Voltaire, Renan, Kazantzakis, and Terrence McNally were all there before him, along with countless others, and he offers no startling advance on their notions. His big shocker, at the end, is to have Mary say that the salvation of the world was not worth her son’s suffering and death. Well, probably the mothers of most of the men the Romans crucified felt exactly the same way, and they didn’t get the honor of having their kids worshiped as divine.

In our time, regrettably, religion carries little meaning except for extremists. What our crowds worship is the idol of Celebrity. Shaw’s shallow self-indulgence in this cluttered piece of gratuitous flimsiness is just another opportunity for ticket buyers to dance in ecstasy around the Golden Calf of stardom. Those of us not so easily swept away need not bother wasting our time and money.

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Spring Arts Guide: The Testament of Mary, Quite Contrary

As a girl in County Cork, the Irish actor Fiona Shaw walked past a statue of the Virgin Mary every day on her way to school. She didn’t care much for the sculpture—”this revolting statue, this mass-produced blemished virgin with marble all around”—or for the Virgin, either.

Crunching an apple during a snatched rehearsal break on the ninth floor of a midtown high-rise, Shaw recalled her early associations with the biblical Mary. “She seemed to be so watery and blue,” said Shaw of the Virgin’s typically insipid portrayal in art. “She’s a blank virgin mother without personality, whose virtues don’t seem to include anything you’d want to explore as a child—not lively, not chatty, never said anything remotely interesting.”

And yet, Shaw, 54, a helplessly interesting actor with sharp features and an even sharper intellect, will play that virgin—and on Broadway, no less—when Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, directed by Shaw’s longtime collaborator Deborah Warner, begins previews on March 26 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. “I knew if Colm wrote a version of Mary’s story it wouldn’t be blue and watery,” said Shaw.

Tóibín is an Irish writer of daunting precision and rare psychological insight, perhaps best known for the novels Brooklyn and The Master. His Mary has plenty to say, rather little of it virginal, holy, or full of grace. In this monologue, first written for the theater and then recently published in expanded form as a novella, an elderly Virgin reflects on her own life and that of her celebrated son.

Even as Tóibín’s Mary struggles to live quietly, encountering the simple pleasures and demands of the everyday, early Christian followers intrude on her solitude. She offers a more acerbic attitude toward these disciples than what the Gospels suggest. “A group of misfits,” she calls them, “or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye.” These men want her to tell a story that extols and glorifies her son. Mary only wants to narrate her particular truth—which includes a troubled relationship with that son and a skepticism surrounding his godliness.

Tóibín portrayed a County Wexford childhood even more saturated with the Virgin than Shaw’s. Perched on a swivel chair in his book-lined office at Columbia University, he spoke of “a world of Mary, praying to Mary, statues of Mary.” A former altar boy, he recalled a prayer, “Hail, Holy Queen,” that he recited every night of his youth. (For her part, Shaw recalled saying the Hail Mary “every two minutes.” She can rattle off the whole of it in four seconds flat.)

Tóibín never really intended the play, which he first began writing during a visit to Ephesus, for Broadway. “It’s not something I ever thought would happen,” he said. But following a successful debut in Dublin in 2011, starring the Tony-winning actress Marie Mullen, producer Scott Rudin insisted on bringing it here.

Though it might seem a highly secular space, the Great White Way has often proved hospitable to plays and musicals with strong religious themes. The past several years have seen such new plays as Doubt and Grace, as well as successful revivals of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet while the latter are both drawn from the Gospels, neither includes a Virgin Mary.

One difficulty in staging the Queen of Heaven is that in the Gospels she barely appears and speaks even more rarely. Tóibín said that for anyone who undertakes to imagine Mary, “you’re dealing with silence. Her silence. The imploring figure at the cross is silent. The figure in general is silent.” Marveled Shaw, “She only says about two things in all the New Testament.”

Tóibín cited a host of inspirations for the voice of his Mary: Greek heroines, Bach cantatas, various contraltos, a Titian canvas and one by Tintoretto, the late poems of Sylvia Plath, recent novels by J.M. Coetzee, and a poem Tóibín himself wrote as a teenager, now lost. Tóibín has fused these disparate sources into a forceful, enduring tone—anguished, bitter, and often contemptuous, particularly of all the adoration her son has generated.

Of the resulting script, he said, “Very few actresses could do it.” Yet despite her demurrals about unlikely casting, Shaw seems an obvious choice for this prickly, complicated character. Among Shaw’s virtues, according to Tóibín: “absolute fearlessness, fierce intelligence, extraordinary physical agility, and a face that can do anything.”

Shaw has never shied away from difficult roles. Though film audiences may know her best from comical turns as Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter series, she boasts a daunting theatrical résumé, from Medea and Mother Courage to a cross-cast Richard II. She memorized T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as a solo piece and more recently learned and recited Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner accompanied by a dancer, a production that will play the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the fall.

But while Shaw is an old hand at undertaking layered characters and thorny monologues, she described rehearsal for The Testament of Mary as “a huge struggle.” Shaw’s approach focuses less on Mary’s exceptionality—it’s not every woman who births the putative Messiah—and more on her universality: Many women have troubled relationships with their children. In charting the script, Shaw discovered “a wonderful story of family betrayals, family losses,” she said. “It’s the story of a woman who is rejected by her son and then rejects her son, and that could happen anywhere.”

Neither Shaw nor Tóibín could predict with any confidence how Broadway audiences will react to this piece. Tóibín noted that when the play debuted in Dublin, the theater provided ample exits for those who chose to walk out and discussed how to manage spectator protests. But no one left, and no one objected. “The theater was full every night,” he said.

Shaw describes New York audiences as generous, but also quite demanding. “When we took Medea here, people laughed quicker, faster, sharper, and more viscerally than they did in London,” she said. “It seems to me that there’s a kind of intensity of expectation of audiences in America.” Yet she does not know how spectators will react should the play challenge their particular religious beliefs.

In rehearsal, Shaw said, she focuses very little on broader questions of faith, truth, glory. “This story that we have here is a woman trying to get through a day,” she said. “I get the feeling that she’s probably someone whose great desire would be to be anonymous. That’s the thing that history has ripped from her.”

“The Testament of Mary,” March 26–June 16, Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, walterkerrtheatre.com

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The Testament of Mary

Mary doesn’t speak much in the gospels. A question at the annunciation, a polite request at Cana. Isn’t it time she had a few more lines? Novelist and playwright Colm Tóibín obliges, supplying a monologue for the queen of heaven (the regal Fiona Shaw) that allows her to speak in her own voice–anguished, indignant, probing.

Tuesdays, Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Wednesdays, Saturdays, 2 p.m.; Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Starts: March 26. Continues through May 5, 2013

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Alan Rickman Is a Corrupt Banker (in John Gabriel Borkman)

Alan Rickman has a voice that’s bitter and rich and sinister, like a malevolent cup of coffee. “At drama school, it was the subject of a great deal of criticism and a lot of hard work,” he says during a recent phone interview. “They said I had a spastic soft palate. They were right.” Actually, he can’t discern his distinctive tones. “I don’t hear what anybody else hears,” he says. “I’m six-foot-one, I wear size 11 shoes, and I have this voice.”

Rickman will lend that voice and that height and indeed those feet when he takes on the title role of Frank McGuinness’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, which begins at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 7. Borkman, Ibsen’s penultimate work, concerns a disgraced banker (played by Rickman), who spends his days pacing an upstairs room and bemoaning his downfall. Below, his wife (Fiona Shaw) and her twin sister (Lindsay Duncan) battle for the affections of his son.

Considering the current economic climate—particularly in Ireland, where the production debuted at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre—the role of a corrupt banker would seem quite a wicked one, though Rickman resists such a classification. “As an actor you must never judge the character you’re playing,” he says in a slightly scolding tone. He does suggest that audiences may see certain resonances between Borkman and the actions of Bernie Madoff or Conrad Black, and believes that the financial situation gives the script immediacy. “It’s a play completely about now,” he says. “It’s about the dichotomy between the fact that this man has manipulated and used other people’s money, but at the same time that even now we need these people because they have larger visions.”

Does Rickman need “these people”? Surely, his career has benefited from playing villains, such as the German terrorist in Die Hard, the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the menacing Severus Snape in the Harry Potter franchise. Borkman might easily be seen as joining their villainous ranks. But Rickman bristles politely at any suggestion of typecasting. “I’ve played many more people who aren’t villains,” he says. “Most of the work I’ve done, most of the people I’ve played don’t have one word you could tie to them.”

Indeed, you might struggle to find much in common among his three New York stage roles—the scheming, seductive Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons dangereuses; the dapper, ironic Elyot of Private Lives; and the decrepit, rageful Borkman. Rickman doesn’t see much similarity among them. “The part chooses you,” he says. “You don’t choose it. Time moves on, and you change, and you’re not the same person anyway—your center is different, your experience is different, what you have to say is different.”

Rickman first encountered the part of Borkman as a student at London’s Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts. Sir Ralph Richardson, for whom Rickman once worked as a dresser, played the title role, flanked by Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller. “It was a rather seminal influence on me, actually, at the time,” Rickman recalls. “Watching an extraordinary actor and two extraordinary actresses. It stayed with me.”

The current production also boasts a pair of extraordinary actresses in Duncan and Shaw, though with one so fair and one so dark, few would think to cast them as twin sisters. This is Rickman’s third pairing with Duncan, who previously played the Marquise de Merteuil to his Valmont and Amanda to his Elyot. “What I have is the most profound respect and affection for her,” he says of Duncan, “but the important thing is that she would never trade on either of those things. We don’t piss about. We’re out there doing our best for each other.” Duncan is equally complimentary, noting that Rickman “doesn’t seek approval for the characters he plays, so you’d better engage and keep up. I think there’s always an invigorating hint of challenge in the air.”

Rickman has partnered Shaw almost as often. She also had a role in Les Liaisons dangereuses, and they have shared the stage in Mephisto and As You Like It. “It’s one of those great moments in life,” he says, “where you all come back into the rehearsal room again, and go, ‘Well, where have you been for the last God-knows-how-many-years? What’s been happening to you?’ And, of course, in Fiona’s case, enormous things, so it’s a real privilege to get back together again.”

Since they last prepared a play, Shaw has begun to direct operas, which Rickman suggests makes her particularly acute and inquisitive in rehearsal. Rickman has also become a director, staging the documentary play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, which ran at Minetta Lane after New York Theatre Workshop unceremoniously dropped it from the schedule, and a marvelous revival of August Strindberg’s The Creditors, which played at BAM last spring. He says he would like to direct again, but can’t discuss any forthcoming projects. “Ask me in a year’s time, when the things that I’m attached to are over or have started or have found their financing,” he says.

You might wonder why Rickman continues to bother with the theater at all, considering how much more remunerative film is and how it plays to a much wider audience. But theater, he notes, “is part of me, it’s where I learned anything. It’s in me, and it puts its hand up every so often and says, ‘Oi, it’s about time you used this.’ ” In addition to directing and acting in it, Rickman attends the theater as often as possible and will try to see Time Stands Still and The Merchant of Venice before Brooklyn rehearsal begins. “I’ll go see anything,” he offers. “I’m a willing listener, a willing viewer. The aim is to keep current.”

And he’s eager to assure viewers that John Gabriel Borkman is very current, despite its 1890s composition and setting. “To me, John Gabriel Borkman isn’t an old play—it’s brand-new and of the moment,” he says. As to those who consider Ibsen rather hidebound, he absolutely dismisses the charge. Ibsen, he declares, “is thrilling and monumental and often very funny. Stuffy? Forget that. There won’t be anything stuffed on view.”

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Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner’s Beckett Production is a Little Too Funny, Eh, Joe?

Erasmus University in Rotterdam hosts the World Database of Happiness, a collection of studies and statistics examining the relative contentment of 95 nations and their populations. Factors such as wealth, health, religion, political involvement, and even feminism are all considered. And yet amid this exhaustive research, there’s no data exploring how waist-high burial in a desolate landscape with only a taciturn husband and a handbag for company affects one’s satisfaction.

Winnie, the heroine of Samuel Beckett’s 1961 Happy Days, doesn’t let these unusual circumstances faze her. As she performs her ablutions, she chirps, “Another heavenly day.” It’s certainly another heavenly night when passed in the company of an actress as accomplished as Fiona Shaw, who plays Winnie. Shaw and director Deborah Warner have returned to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with an arresting take on a classic, following their collaboration on Medea in 2002. In that production, Warner had Shaw play the Colchian princess as a disaffected housewife. Here, she urges Shaw to portray the dithering Winnie as a woman of intelligence and appeal, not unaware of her plight but determined to make the best of it.

Physically, Shaw little resembles the woman Beckett originally envisioned. In a letter to Roger Blin, who directed the French premiere, Beckett described Winnie as “a little heavy, a little bit fat . . . a virile woman, perhaps, with expressive eyes, and a large bosom.” Shaw has expressive eyes, yes, but she’s quite slender and only the aid of a push-up bra allows her any bosom at all. Shaw’s Medea may have been a housewife, but her Winnie isn’t—she styles herself as more glamorous than that, possessed of allurements. Warner also has designer Tom Pye somewhat modify Beckett’s specifications for the set (with permission from the famously prickly Beckett estate). Instead of the single scorched mound, masses of collapsed concrete paving and broken bricks heap the Harvey Theater stage, the detritus of some man-made disaster.

That set may prove the production’s most evocative element. Shaw’s a wonder to behold—present, engaged, perilously funny—but she’s so good at showing how Winnie survives her circumstances that she nearly transcends them. When every line Shaw says is rewarded, deservedly, with audience laughter, one almost forgets Winnie’s plight.

The emphasis on surface brightness ignores the yawning dread beneath. Warner has mentioned the play’s “terrifying emotional center,” yet she takes pains not to dwell there. No contract states that a Beckett production requires lashings of existential despair (not even his estate would insist on it), yet to do without seems strange. Are we ready for Beckett without tears? Shaw and Warner apparently are, with this unusually happy Happy Days.

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The Ex Factor

Clytemnestra, the vengeful wife of Agamemnon, has enlisted many of the theater’s great grande dames in her deadly service. Kim Hunter, Florence Stanley, Irene Worth, Gloria Foster, Diana Rigg, Claire Bloom, and Fiona Shaw have all played the queen—a scorned woman whose consuming anger over the murder of her daughter compels her to seek revenge on the perpetrator, her unfaithful husband.

For anyone fortunate enough to catch the Persona Theater Company’s current production of Clytemnestra’s Tears at La MaMa, the temptation will be great to rank the Greek actress Themis Bazaka among that pantheon of thespians. Virtually unknown in this country, Bazaka delivers a performance of jolting power and tear-streaked pathos. It’s a brave, brilliant spectacle, a portrait of rage as it shades irreversibly into madness.

An hour-long monologue performed in Greek with English surtitles, Clytemnestra’s Tears amounts to a sustained wail of grief. The play, written by Avra Sidiropoulou, begins with Clytemnestra floating amid a sea of memories and dreams. “I once had a daughter called Iphigenia/Whom the gods snatched away from my breasts,” she tells the audience. The rest of Clytemnestra’s sad story emerges fitfully from the dense, highly subjective verse. This feels like an unreliable account of an unstable woman hopelessly ensnared in her poisonous ruminations.

The staging, also by the playwright, mixes avant-garde styling (a dripping-water soundtrack; quasi-abstract decor) with the stentorian formalism of a classical production. The result is appropriately timeless and surprisingly cohesive. “Oblivion./Time is expanded,” intones Clytemnestra, describing the isolation that the gods have inflicted on her. Channeling antiquity through a postmodern lens, the play would make ideal viewing in an open-space setting, like the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum or the Fleischman Classic Theater at the Getty Villa.

Bazaka commands the stage with frightening intensity throughout, somehow managing to overcome the surtitles’ clumsy translations and reach the audience through what can only be described as telepathic willpower. Wearing a complicated dress that suggests a giant hornet crossed with an 18th-century courtesan, she thrashes about the stage deploying violent gestures that feel both reckless and incredibly precise. At one point, she enacts Agamemnon’s fateful homecoming by unrolling a purple carpet from between her legs. Death and birth thus linked, she begins to disintegrate before our eyes. “My baby’s gone . . . My husband’s gone, gone now, all gone . . . , ” she laments. Raw almost to the point of bloody, Bazaka’s performance impacts like an elemental force. Watching her is like witnessing the origins of acting.

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The 48th Annual Obie Awards

“I just love the Obies,” announced poised co-host Charlayne Woodard at the 2003 Obie Awards, Monday May 19. “Because the whole room is a winner!” With the emphasis on creativity over competition, more than a few recipients acknowledged a distinctly warm theater-family feeling at Webster Hall. “I’m so grateful to live and work with this amazing community,” affirmed Take Me Out‘s Denis O’Hare. And what a family. From singing penguins and polar bears (Cynthia Hopkins and friends), to a bow-tied and crooning Bill Irwin (“I want to prove to you all that Irish people also has jazz”), to the foot-stompin’ country ballads of Jason Petty and the Hank Williams: Lost Highway company, this exuberant and far-flung clan turned the evening into their splendid reunion.

Proud New York native Mos Def made a point of thanking the entire borough of Brooklyn, while Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw were among many to applaud the Brooklyn Academy of Music (“your national theater”) for bringing their Irish Medea to these shores. (Presenter Eddie Izzard commended the European tragedians with speculation that Euripides wrote the first “snuff play.”) The Blacks‘s Ty Jones and J. Kyle Manzay back-flipped their way to the podium—”We were basically hating white people the whole time we were doing this show and now we have an award for it!” Not to be outdone, the radiantly beautiful Rosemary Harris hoisted herself from her front-row seat onto the stage to accept her award for All Over from its author, Edward Albee. Jaws dropped for unexpected honors: dramaturg-agent Morgan Jenness said awarding her for supporting writers is “kind of like the moon getting a citation for shining.”

Not all the feting was fuzzy: Talking Heads‘s Christine Ebersole cautioned that “we’re all a big family because we all have the same Big Brother now” and invited George and Rummy to come up from Washington to see “anything” Off-Broadway. Dramatist-actor David Greenspan, reflecting on his She Stoops to Comedy‘s success, summed up the spirit of the evening: “We had so much fun doing this,” he said, “and fun is no small thing.” Playwright Mac Wellman held up his Lifetime Achievement award, cast his eye over the room, and declared: “May no good come of any of this—and that should be the motto of our theater.”

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The Greats of Wrath

She enters quietly, controlled—not straining to hold her hysteria from gushing forth, but emotionally spent. Sunglasses hide her cried-out eyes; the studied steadiness of her voice masks the disorientation of her raging grief. This first image of Medea is one of many revelations offered by director Deborah Warner and actor Fiona Shaw in their insightful, modern-dress production set on a half-finished suburban patio, running only through Saturday as part of BAM’s 20th-anniversary Next Wave Festival.

In most stagings, Medea starts out ranting: She’s hell-bent on avenging Jason for taking a new wife; she froths like a rabid animal as she vows to murder her children. But as they’ve done in their collaborations on other classics—Electra, Richard II, Hedda Gabler—Warner and Shaw peel away the thick layers of traditional interpretation and grapple anew with the text (using a stunning translation by Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael). They present a frank, fresh look at a character we only thought we knew.

Euripides makes it clear enough that Medea’s decision to kill the children is long in coming and difficult for her to fulfill—yet inevitable, egged on by Jason’s arrogant dismissal of her grievance and by Kreon’s preemptive strike of banishment. Medea argues with herself about the best course of action throughout the play. Seizing on the contradictory impulses and disjointed logic of Medea’s pain-addled mind, Shaw brilliantly illuminates Medea’s process of hatching outrageous ideas, contemplating their effects, justifying them to herself, and testing them out self-consciously before the onstage audience of busybodies, the chorus.

After Kreon pronounces Medea’s exile, for instance, Shaw sits down-center on the lip of the stage, the blood draining from her face, as the chorus offers its empty sympathies. Her expression is blank, stunned, as if the wind has been knocked out of her. She thinks, comes up with a scheme, and her features become enlivened again. She’s back on her feet, indignant. “I have one day to make all three chopped meat: Father, daughter, and the man I hate,” she blurts, then quickly realizes that she’ll have no place of refuge once that deed is done. She reconsiders, only to urge herself forward. “Do it!” she commands herself, striking a fist into her gut. We see the desperation that drives her.

Presenting Medea’s process with such luminous clarity liberates the character—and the play—from the limiting, age-old interpretation of the woman scorned as monstrous barbarian. That view, Warner and Shaw make plain, is to see Medea through Jason’s eyes. He recognizes only her erotic jealousy as the issue. “You killed them for sex,” he spits at play’s end, still not getting it, yet supplying part of the deeper motivation in his next, absurd remark: “What Greek would have done such things?”

Medea’s anguish comes not, of course, just from the romantic betrayal—though the erotic charge between her and Jason (the hunky and perfectly condescending Jonathan Cake) remains palpable here. She simply has no life without him: first, as she explains in one of her self-justifying speeches, because no wife in their milieu has, and second, because she not only left her family and country behind to follow him to Corinth, but killed those she loved to save him. “I am alone,” she laments. “I am despised by my husband, a souvenir from foreign parts.”

When she addresses the chorus upon her entrance, Medea’s first line foreshadows the theme. “Ladies,” she says in greeting, then with just a hint of spite, “Corinthians.”

Like all of Euripides’ choruses, this one can’t think beyond homiletic clichés. Warner makes a bold and fascinating choice by figuring them as housewifely gossips—neighboring women who live for the next issue of the tabloids and try to hide their salacious interest in Medea’s woes behind Tupperware offerings of homemade cakes. The trouble is, the five actors in the chorus strive to individuate themselves with fussy business and pointless props. Each seems determined to build a full-bodied character from her slices of the choral odes. But there’s no basis in the text for such elaborations, so their disparate activities—wiping the upstage sliding glass door with a cloth, for instance—are just so much distraction. (A center-stage pool of water and a variety of strewn-about children’s toys similarly set Shaw up for some needlessly cutesy, or downright mystifying, actions.)

More important, there’s one devastating way in which Warner does not solve (and maybe nobody can) the problem of the chorus for a modern production: Knowing that Medea is about to go off and slay her sons, they do not intervene (though Warner lets one barf onto the edge of the stage). For audiences some 2500 years ago, the chorus’s vow not to reveal Medea’s plan—along with the steeped tradition of the chorus’s external role—would likely have been enough to keep the question of their failure to act from coming up. But once Warner puts the chorus inside the action, there’s no way not to expect them to do something.

Nonetheless, the appalling act is no less disturbing—indeed, all the more so because Shaw has shown it to issue so uncontrollably out of her desperation. Her Medea becomes, through a process we can’t fail to understand and even sympathize with, as shockingly resolute as a suicide bomber. Warner shows the outcome unsparingly, violating the old classical decorum effectively by nearly depicting the murder onstage.

Through the upstage glass door, we see Medea take the boys off. Under a crash of electronic screeches, blood splashes onto the inside of the door, then one of the boys runs terrified into view and Medea chases him down and carries him back into the wings. The noise abates. For the first time in the 90-minute production, the stage goes silent, save for the dim hum of a banal song playing on a radio somewhere. Medea returns with each corpse, and quietly washes the boys’ feet in the pool as Jason weeps.

No chariot comes to sweep her off to Athens, as Euripides supplies. In a more Beckettian vision, she and Jason, the closest of enemies, are left with each other to go on.


The primal passions of the Greek tragedies have made them repeated sources for opera, of course. The Richard Strauss Elektra in the current Metropolitan Opera season, starring Deborah Polaski and Karita Mattila, is a thrilling masterpiece of tragic inexorability, for instance. Postmodern operas, on the other hand, have made an insistent point of being less, well, operatic. In the worst instances—and sad to say, Philip Glass’s Galileo Galilei at BAM is one of them—the works are cold and empty. That’s especially disheartening given Glass’s rich subject, a morally complicated genius, and the director (and primary librettist), the wondrously imaginative Mary Zimmerman.

This Galileo tells the astronomer’s biography backward—from his old age, to his recantation, to the publication of his discoveries, to his childhood—but makes no other intervention in the basic narrative. There’s no issue or conflict or idea or obsession that takes on life through this musical telling of his tale: It is the story of Galileo, but not his drama. Zimmerman’s masterful staging and gorgeous, elaborate sets by Daniel Ostling—Palladian archways, marble floor, astrological projections on a giant scrim—and all the arpeggios in the world cannot make up for the lack of action.

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Theater

Cold Comfort

In the opening moments of Uncle Vanya, the disaffected Doctor Astrov wonders, as Chekhov characters often do, “What are people going to say a hundred years from now? We’re supposed to be paving the way for them. You think they’ll admire us for the way we live now?” Within the context of the work Chekhov subtitled “Scenes of Country Life”— scenes that lay bare “the way we live now”— the question sets in motion the subtle rhythms of time that undulate through the play, as the characters look expectantly to the future for some kind of salve (if not salvation) to alleviate their grief.

In the context of the Lincoln Center Festival, which is currently presenting an adaptation of Vanya by the Irish playwright Brian Friel, a version of Astrov’s question finds an uneasy answer in the festival’s other major theatrical offerings: two contemporary plays by Friel, and Robert Wilson’s first U.S. premiere since 1986, THE DAYS BEFORE death, destruction & Detroit III. Both talk back to the turn of the last century— if not directly to the way Vanya‘s characters lived, at least to the way Chekhov wrote them. Friel represents, both in his own work (two Festival productions have not yet been seen for review) and in his milky rendering of Vanya, a naturalism that has curdled over the last 100 years, while Wilson offers the antithesis, famously and frequently sneering that “naturalism is based on a lie.”

That was hardly news a century ago. And it may as well be said of any art form, or at least of any interesting art form. But it is true that the perfunctory naturalism that dominates mainstream theater today has lost its self-consciousness, winding up its plots ever more mechanically, and explaining (and expiating) its characters ever more tediously. Chekhov’s plays, on the other hand, are digressive, mysterious, and lyrically lacking in forward drive. Friel, unfortunately, seems to want to bring Chekhov up to date. He fills in the open questions that give Vanya its rhythm and depth; he turns its delicate humor into cheap gags.

At the end of the play, for instance, when Astrov is preparing to leave Vanya’s home, presumably forever, he notices a map on the wall and suddenly remarks, “It must be hot in Africa right now. Really hot.” Vanya mumbles a “probably” and that’s all. Chekhov makes a musical gesture here, guiding the tempo of Astrov’s uneasy departure even as he underscores Astrov’s surging irrelevance to the household. Friel, however, adds several excruciatingly explicatory lines, in which the characters wonder how a globe ever came into the room and then joke about what Telegin, a family friend who lives with them, might have to say about Africa, thus reiterating the punch lines that Telegin has repeated half a dozen times already. This joking further beefs up the substantial additions Friel has made to exaggerate Telegin into a pathetic buffoon.

Director Ben Barnes is Friel’s reliable henchman. Chekhov gives us a Sonya who says not a word about her love for Astrov once she learns that he does not love her in return, allowing her woe to sift silently into the atmosphere and linger like a cloud over the fourth act; Barnes sends her into the
upstage-center doorway as Astrov exists, and leaves her standing there, frozen, for a good long while, a spotlight on her intensifying as the surrounding lights fade to blue. Drowned out, perhaps, by such bald emotional effects, the actors drum up precious little feeling between them in this cold, cloying Vanya. Indeed, this is a naturalism that can match Robert Wilson for chill.

Unavoidably, Wilson’s work, too, is based on a lie: the supposition that people can experience sound, text, and human movement without teasing out — or at least projecting— some kind of discursive meaning. Indeed, this has been a most productive lie, pulsing like a muscle within Wilson’s most thrilling extravaganzas. Over the last several decades, they have done nothing less than teach us new ways to perceive theatrical space and time and our own inevitable role in shaping them.

In THE DAYS BEFORE, however, Wilson heaps on so much discursive material— primarily sections of Umberto Eco’s The Island of the Day Before— that there’s hardly room to see what his cast of some 20 actors and dancers is doing. The constant buzz of narrative, albeit beautifully delivered by Fiona Shaw, frequently overwhelms Wilson’s stage paintings, and one can’t help reading the images as simpleminded, if abstract, illustrations of the text, a tangled epic romance set in the 17th century, about a man shipwrecked as he searches for the meridian that divides yesterday from today. Headless black figures wander about the stage as Shaw speaks of human carnage and annihilation. Actors in costumes that suggest a cross between samurai warriors and Star Trek villains walk geometric patterns across the floor and then combat each other in a sword fight of clanging pipes, while Shaw talks of barbarism and images of the czar’s family are projected onto fluttering pieces of scrim. The accelerating chug-chug of a train, pierced by an occasional whistle, crescendos through the sound system as three upstage screens show fuzzy black-and-white footage of people who look like refugees, carrying bundles and enduring occasional random shoves from a man in a uniform.

Wilson says in program notes that THE DAYS BEFORE was inspired by myths of Apocalypse: “Shifting between ancient and modern times, visions of the end of the world in the second millennium reflect those which appear in the first millennium.” When matched with Eco’s text, which waxes like a sophomore reading Descartes for the first time— “I would go on seeking the atom to infinity. The action would lead me to the moment where matter would be infinite divisibility . . . “— the production comes off as a pretty pageant of despair, in which Eco’s labored rhetoric is Eurythmically interpreted. Yes, it’s often that boring and that silly. What’s worse, evocations of the Hiroshima bombing and the Nazi Holocaust are reduced to aesthetic elements in the careful construction of lovely stage pictures.

Still, there are some arresting moments: It’s Wilson, after all. A.J. Weissbard’s lighting is never anything but gorgeous and Ryuichi Sakamato’s constant score— droning undertones, smashing glass, crashing surf, braying cows, flattened-out Barry Manilow, wailing cellos, thumping disco bass— lends the production its most coherent structure. A 90-year-old opera singer, Semiha Berksoy, got up in gold lamé, rhinestones, and feathers, reclines on a red divan that glides across the stage as she rasps out Isolde’s “Liebestod” with throaty confidence. I can’t help reading the campy moment as a comment on decadence in the face of disaster, but I rather suspect— and felt in one of only two emotional catches of the 100-minute performance— that the scene celebrates creativity as humanity’s only possible answer to its violence.

The other time my heart quickened came at the end, when a tiny, ancient, white-bearded man appeared. This frail Beckettian figure was so compelling, exuding such presence and energy as he wondered at the company assembled in tidy tableau, that he nearly upstaged all the commotion around him.

But these two scenes can hardly puncture the holiness that encases the solemn proceedings. I have heard a few colleagues describe THE DAYS BEFORE as an unintentional self-parody, trotting out, as it does, so many of the familiar Wilsonian devices— slo-mo movement, Kabuki-ish blocking, flying-in horizontal bar, abrupt stops to crescendoing sound and accelerating motion. It reminds me, however, of the sorts of plays mocked a hundred years ago by Chekhov, in the first act of The Seagull.