Other Realities: Two approaches to Shakespeare. One works, one doesn't.

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A pair of surgical gloves and a baby buggy got me thinking, recently, about what we can and can’t be expected to believe in when it comes to staging Shakespeare. The occasion was the Classic Stage Company production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Barry Edelstein. The surgical gloves figured in the scene where Hermione’s gentlewoman Emilia informs Paulina that the jailed queen has given birth to a daughter, the buggy in the scene where Paulina forces her way into King Leontes’ presence with the baby.

It wasn’t just that the actress playing Emilia made a commotion with the gloves, or that the pram continued to move slowly forward even after Paulina had stopped pushing it. There are objects you cannot bring onstage without breaking the illusion that theater exists to create. They are too resonant–either because of reality or because of some art that has gone before. Surgical gloves are inherently farcical. They inspire amusement (or perhaps discomfort). Baby carriages make us think of Eisenstein, or the movie version of The Untouchables, or of Edward Bond’s Saved.

Edelstein wasn’t trying to break the illusion with the surgical gloves–far from it. Nor was he trying to create a diversion–although that’s arguably what he was doing later, when he had guests at the sheep-shearing utter
catcalls and lewd laughter in response to the sexual innuendoes in Perdita’s disquisition on flowers. There he probably was trying to distract us–from that tangle of a speech, or from the fact that he himself couldn’t think what else to do with the scene.

With the surgical gloves, though, Edelstein was trying to engage us more viscerally. He wanted to remind us of what’s really involved in childbirth–the pain, the gore, the danger. So he had Emilia rush onstage wearing a seemingly blood-soaked garment and a brow furrowed with medical anxiety, and bark her news with urgent authority, like a contract player on ER, snapping away at the old polyurethane. It didn’t work. Why?

Edelstein, who recently announced his departure from CSC after five years as artistic director, isn’t the worst sort of director of Shakespeare. But he is the sort of director who seems more interested in his own ideas about a play than in finding a way of realizing it for us theatrically and dynamically. He has clearly thought a great deal about The Winter’s Tale. He has observed, for instance, that both time and music figure prominently in it. Accordingly, he has hit upon the idea of the metronome as an object that unifies both themes. There’s one ticking away on top of a toy piano as we file into the theater. It isn’t a bad idea.

Nor is it a bad idea to kick things off with a little pantomime prologue: the child Mamillius studiously performing a piece while the king and queen, who have clearly been caught in the middle of dressing for the evening ("Mom, Dad? Listen to this."), look on indulgently. But the family tableau becomes a bad idea when the director has Leontes exchange a loving glance with Hermione over the boy’s head, then beam lovingly back down at the child, then gaze back lovingly up at Hermione, and place a hand (lovingly) on her belly. Similarly, the ticking metronome becomes a bad idea after the act break, when Edelstein has every single member of the company come out onstage brandishing one. And when he has every single reference to Time in the Act IV prologue repeated by a succession of different actors ("…the argument of Time–" "–Time." "–Time." "–Time."), we may be forgiven if we find ourselves thinking, "This is stupid."

We don’t need Edelstein to drive home the point that Hermione is pregnant: we can see that. We don’t need him to establish that Hermione and Leontes love each other or that Leontes is proud of his son–that’s in the text, in the lines that Shakespeare has given the characters to speak. We don’t need Edelstein to tell us that childbirth is an urgent and messy business or that jailhouse deliveries are rough. They’re rough on the mother, rough on the child, rough on the midwife. We know.

It would be wrong to say that The Winter’s Tale has nothing going for it. It has David Strathairn, an actor who is always welcome, even under the direst circumstances, and who here plays Leontes with a professionalism that is totally out of keeping with the rest of the production. It also has a reasonably unaffected Perdita (Elisabeth Reaser) who clearly has it in her not to seem shallow. But it has a banal, flat Hermione, a Paulina who seems to be reprising a performance from some earlier production of the play, and an Autolycus who’s been encouraged to project a series of offensive black stereotypes. It also has a score (by Michael Torke) that positively reeks of "composition."

Most of what ails the production is a function of poor taste and judgment. But some of it isn’t. Some of it, like the surgical gloves, is representative of an approach to Shakespeare that we really shouldn’t be seeing any more. It’s an essentially narrative approach that uses "realistic" business in a bid for verisimilitude. It’s probably best typified by the bit player who thinks it’s a good idea to "react" to what is happening onstage, assuming pantomime expressions of shock or concern, making eye-contact with other actors onstage, making as if to speak or rush forward at a crucial moment. Actors in sophisticated productions of Shakespeare don’t do that sort of thing. They haven’t for about forty years.

Sophisticated productions of Shakespeare are informed by an approach that is nonliteral and nonrealistic, even antirealistic, that refuses to pretend we are not watching a play. Indeed, it goes out of its way to draw our attention to the fact that we are. Antirealism knows that bit players who pretend to be the characters they are playing even when they’re not speaking merely look foolish and insult our intelligence. It scorns to stoop to such antics. It says to us: "I am not an asshole, and I refuse to behave like one–and I don’t expect you to either. We’re all grownups here."

From a theatrical standpoint, there’s something almost illiterate about Edelstein’s production. The fact that realistic interstitial acting and staging don’t belong in Shakespeare is probably the single most important thing that post-war British theater had to teach us. They don’t belong because they are unnecessary, and because they’re unnecessary, they draw attention to themselves and break the illusion. There are, in America, a handful of stage directors who do know this, including Karin Coonrod, Daniel Fish, Michael Greif, Julie Taymor, Scott Wentworth and Mary Zimmerman.

Antirealism can take an infinite number of different forms. In general, though, an antirealistic piece of staging will tend to accomplish two or more things simultaneously and to have the effect of momentarily disorienting–disillusioning–us in a way that gets us thinking about the process of theater. It’s a setup, of course. Antirealism tells us it isn’t going to try to fool us, and then proceeds to do exactly that. That it works has something to do with an implicit pact that those moments of "disillusion" seem to entail. They leave us vulnerable in a place we didn’t think needed to be defended. We weren’t expecting to be fooled that way.

Antirealism is partly a way of giving a director control over those moments of disillusion. There’s a lovely example of this in Karin Coonrod’s production of Julius Caesar, which Theatre for a New Audience is presenting at the Lucille Lortel through March 2. If you go to see it, you will find that Coonrod has turned the figure of the Soothsayer into an almost continuous antirealistic presence who, long after he’s had his say, remains onstage, watching events unfold. Sometimes he seems to be eavesdropping on the characters in the play, conspiring against the conspirators. Sometimes he seems like a sort of Prospero, controlling events. Sometimes he takes on the aspect of a stage manager or a director. At one point, seated in a chair on the far right of the stage, he seems like an extension of the audience. But his attention is always riveted on the action of the play, and whenever we notice him, our own attention wavers for an instant, before we go back to looking where he is looking.

Except in one crucial aspect, the production–which runs, in a judiciously trimmed version, two hours without an intermission–is totally antirealistic, with nonliteral props and actors making no attempt to disguise the fact that they play multiple roles and monochrome costumes that evoke an idea of past or present without referring to any particular time or place. Coonrod uses flashes of light to represent battle sequences and stylized speech and movement to deal with the problem of staging Roman crowd scenes in a post-Monty-Python world.

Only the acting is realistic. Coonrod has assembled a company of exceptionally skilled and intelligent actors. Earl Hindman’s Caesar perfectly captures the air of benign menace one finds in extremely powerful politicians; Thomas M. Hammond’s Brutus is a subtle construct of well-intended righteous self-delusion. Graham Winton, as Mark Antony, makes a masterful performance look effortless and unassuming, and Daniel Oreskes’ Cassius goes light years beyond the interpretation we’re given in grade school–a sort of Iago-Lite.

There’s a pair of book-ended scenes, toward the end of the play, that are difficult to stage. They show us the assisted suicides of Cassius and Brutus, respectively–and violence is always a tough thing to make us believe in. Coonrod does something ingenious here, presenting them in two entirely different theatrical idioms. It’s not just that Cassius’ death is highly stylized while Brutus’ isn’t. It’s that at a crucial moment in the first scene, a movement of the Soothsayer draws our attention in a way that intensifies our focus on the staging. The effect is to lull us into a double complacency. We’re not curious anymore when it comes time for Brutus’ death. So we’re deeply shocked and unnerved by a series of quiet, naturalistic gestures that Brutus goes through before falling on his sword. He puts his hands on his friend’s shoulders. He repositions the sword. He draws a few deep breaths. It’s agonizing.

The interesting thing is not just that Coonrod makes us believe something we wouldn’t have thought anyone could ask us to believe, but how crucial that bit of staging turns out to be. Our ability to believe in Brutus’ death utterly–viscerally, in just the way that Edelstein failed to make us believe viscerally in Perdita’s birth–transforms our experience of Anthony’s eulogy. For once, we actually understand what the guy is talking about.

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