Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Not Such Stuff

Go see the world premiere of the play Not Such Stuff. It's on stage through March 29, 2009, Thursday to Saturday at 8:00 pm, Sunday matinees at 3:00 pm. Written by Chris Wind, it was directed by Deborah Randall and produced by Venus Theatre.

Not Such Stuff challenges us to rethink some of our responses to Shakespeare's plays and opens up new ways of experiencing them.

In this production what could be a static and didactic work has been granted great emotional range and dramatic fluidity. The play opens with all characters on stage, grouped together but each clearly isolated in her own unwaking torment. They speak, but in a cacophony of monologues, not as a unified chorus. Gradually each character emerges, the one opening up space for the next, and as more awaken, the amount of interaction increases. With little dialogue the women make tentative contact with each other.

By means of the characters' costuming and this growing personal interaction the audience gradually becomes aware of developing patterns within patterns. For example the group of eight contains three like doubles: the sensuous Juliet and Ophelia, the assertive Kate and Portia, the afflicted Regan and Marina, leaving Lady M and Miranda — first and last to speak — as the bracketing pair. Assertive characters balance more passive ones; ones that have been physically overpowered counter ones that have been emotionally overwhelmed. The eight move through space on the stage as they find their voices, interchange places, and establish more and more dramatic connections.

As one voice gives way to another, it also becomes apparent that they are in the process not just of seeking outlet for the wrongs they have suffered, but also of awakening to new ways of seeing the world. This is most clearly seen in the unfolding character of Ophelia, who behaves with womanly honor and gradually comes to understand the degree to which this is not answered by honorable behavior among the men in her life.

Far from becoming an orgy of blame, the play shows its characters' quest first to understand then to explain and finally to accept and come to terms with the misunderstandings, injustices, and betrayals they have endured and, in some cases, rebelled against.

The actors reveal the variety of character, circumstance, and plight of the women they play:
Lady MacBeth — a woman who urged on her husband to crime; she complains that she was not the weaker of the pair; she did not go crazy and commit suicide.

Juliet — she was alleged to have fallen madly in love and died of lover's grief, but tells us her primary motive was full expression of her sensuous self; she lusted after Romeo and marriage was secondary to her.

Kate — she was coerced into seeming compliance with Petruchio's bullying; she sees him for the knave he truly is, but is caught in a trap which she can only partially escape through pretense. She also corrects a misunderstanding about the play: it's really only a male dominance fantasy done, in fact, as a play within a play — the bracketing scenes being a practical joke which reveals another sort of male fantasy.

Portia — Shakespeare gives her the privilege of revealing the shallow hypocricy of the men in her life, but she says he shouldn't have forced her into transvestism to make this achievement. How much better, she says, were he to have allowed her to show them up in her true form.

Regan — She doesn't try to excuse her toadying to her father, but tells the extenuating circumstance: though Shakespeare doesn't let on, there's an ugly secret at the heart of the play — Lear has molested all his daughters; none are pure. Cordelia is not better than her sisters, only more contrary and repressed.

Ophelia — She is not weakly and passively dutiful, but fully self-aware, articulate, and observant. She listens, reflects, and speaks out. She warns her brother and father against accusing her of the very flaws from which they themselves suffer. Far from committing suicide in despair, she is simply the victim of a tragic accident.

Marina — She appears in Pericles, a play that's less well-known that the others. Although Shakespeare has given her a saintly virtue which transcends the evils to which she is exposed, Marina tells us that this myth is yet another male fantasy. She was raped and enslaved and her life in a prison-like brothel is a living hell.

Miranda — She is well-educated and uncorrupted by the coercion of contemporary social conventions. She knows little of men and nothing of their deceits. It shocks her the more, therefore, when she finds that she is not really valued for herself or any of her attributes but her virginity.
The acting is excellent. Chemeeka Joi Bradley is superb in the difficult role of Lady MacBeth. Although she has by far the fewest lines in the play, she has great physical presence and the directing gives her primacy both at beginning and end. Angela McLaughlin is a sinuously sensuous Juliet. She shows her character's great yearning and unfulfilled capacity for physical pleasure. Heather V. Whitpan as Kate does not only explain but also demonstrates what it is to be a strong-minded woman whose assertiveness is no match for the brutality of an immoral masculine power. Carol Wilson convincingly conveys Portia's skillful male impersonation and its companion, her own equally-admirable female self. Tina Renay Fulp shows us a wholly unsuspected side of Regan. She is able to bring out both the tragedy of Regan's molestation and the glimmers of hope that accompany her painful recovery. Julia Heynen lets Ophelia's voice speak out as Shakespeare should have done. She lets us see the conflicting emotions of a girl learning to see the world with a woman's eyes; one who, in aiming to do right, comes to see that the duty of listening, reflecting, and obeying can be less important than the acts of observing, questioning, and seeking to correct the errors committed by oneself and others. Given the longest segment in the play, this character shows the most complexity and personal development on stage and the actor gives the role all that it needs to succeed both dramatically and intellectually. Lisa Hill-Corley's brings to life the physical and emotional torments of Marina (from Pericles). And, finally, Tiffany Garfinkle, as Miranda, brings the play to a close, and doing so enables Lady MacBeth and the rest of the characters to, at last, realize their disparate unity, becoming the chorus that they have implicitly been throughout the play.

Staged as one continuous drama, in a simple black box with minimal scenery, the play builds and sustains an emotional resonance with the audience. Clearly and concisely presented, it challenges and provokes reflection while it give the pleasure we hope to experience from theatrical performance and rarely do.

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