Theatre Review: Revisiting Classical Theatre

In today’s arts and entertainment markets, theatres distinguish them by specializing in different eras and styles of productions. In the Washington, D.C. region Arena Stage is the flagship of American drama, with additional niches in plays about politics and African-American themes. The Shakespeare Theatre revives the classics from Greek drama to Shakespeare’s canon, to Victorian satire such as Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw, and angst driven Southern Gothic (Tennessee Williams) and New England Puritanism (Eugene O’Neil). Studio Theatre produces avante-guarde and gay theatre. Wooly Mammoth pushes the envelop as it’s name implies. An additional genre is new plays which revisit classic plays, either through referencing or setting the plot and characters into contemporary situations.

You may be wonder where I disappeared to since returning from Rome. Besides working & setting up the garden, and beside reading through all those museum and church guides that we brought home, we have attended six plays recently. Too much activity to sit and write. Two pairs of the plays interested us because they matched a classic play with a new play.

The Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, VA staged three plays with connected characters, Wittenburg, Dr. Faustus, and Hamlet. David Davalos’ Wittenburg, premired in 2008. Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus was probably staged in 1592, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet around 1599.

We are familiar with Hamlet (and opted to not attend this production for the sake of time), in which Hamlet investigates and avenges his father’s death, to his own detriment, P1020419as well as most everyone in the Danish royal family. Most of us know the gist of Dr. Faustus in which Faust bargains his soul for magic that Lucifer can provide him. Davalos noticed the common elements of these two classics: Hamlet returns to Denmark from the University at Wittenburg, and Dr. Faustus taught at the university, and to enhance the debate between theology and philosophy, he brings in Martin Luther, who preached in Wittenburg, posting his 95 Thesis against Indulgences on the door of the church in 1517. Thus, Wittenburg covers Hamlet’s final year at the university, while he, Fautus, and Luther deliberate about life, before a series of events would propel each to their respective fates and places in history (or at least theatrical history, as Luther was the only one to places his feet outside of the stage).

P1020421Jim Warren directed all three plays, and cast the actors such that they play the same characters in each play. Patrick Earl portrays the undecided student Hamlet in Wittenburg and the brilliant to insane prince of Denmark in Hamlet. He also plays Lucifer in Dr. Fautus adding a wink at who is really in control in educational situations (student or professor?).

Andrew Goldwasser performs the philosophy infussed Dr. Faustus in Wittenburg prior to selling his soul, and the magic obsessed professor in Dr. Faustus. In Hamelt, he plays Guildernstern, one of Hamlet’s friends, solicited by the King Claudius to find out what is troubling Hamlet. Again, this may be a subtle parallel to the relationship between Dr. Fautus and Hamlet in Wittenburg, in which Dr. Faustus converses with Hamlet about his late adolescent ambivalence about what major to declare to finish is studies.

Josh Innerst strides on stage as Martin Luther in Wittenburg, whether he is making theological arguments, conveying a sermon, and downing a pint (or two or three) of beer in a tavern with Faustus and Hamlet. He plays a variety of characters in Hamlet and Dr. Faustus. Most notable is his role as Evil Angel, who wanders in frequently to tempt Faustus to continue to indulge his desires for power through magic. One may argue points of theology as persuasively for good as for evil.

Female roles are limited in all of these plays, as 16th century universities, churches, and thrones were the domain of men. Stephanie Holladay Earl fills out the majority of these, with costume changes off and on stage as clever as any magic that Dr. Faustus can recite from the texts that Lucifer provides. In Wittenburg, she is a dutchess, a bar maid, Helen of Troy, and the Virgin Mary. Again, the threshold between good and evil can be crossed by the same actress. In Dr. Faustus, she fulfills every whim of Dr. Faustus, in the form of Mephistopheles, after he has contracted for 24 years of Lucifer’s power. In Hamlet she is the queen and Hamlet’s mother.

Writing a pre-quil is always easier after the follow up play has been a hit… for 400 years. Davalon must have been having a good time re-twisting the lines from both Hamlet and Dr. Faustus. The too-famous lines about “To be, or not to be” come out, not as ambiguous lines about royal succession, life-or-death, or apparent insanity, but musing about which major a student should declare. Unknown backstories about known events are the playground of fun, such as when Dr. Faustus nails Luther’s 95 Thesis on the door of the church, without Luther’s awareness nor consent (not to mention the suggestion that Luther wrote them in Latin, but Faustus translated them into German so that the common folk knew what was going on in the church).

In Russian theatre, Anton Chekhov, is an icon of pre-Revolutionary stage. The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, and The Three Sisters address contemporary issues about social change as the gentry class lose their wealth and land, while the liberated serfs take control through hard work and cunning schemes to get the gentry to relinquish their possessions and status. Whereas we associate Oscar Wilde’s drawing room comedies, with similar social themes about the British, French and Germans, as filled with witty comupance lines, we usually think of Chekhov as morose and sordid.

P1020416Thus, when we attended Arena Stage’s production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the sit-com style on stage seems over-the-top. Christopher Durang’s contemporary play, won a 2013 Tony Award for Best Play, and is the most produced play in the USA in the 2014-15 season. Durang has created a contemporary family of characters named by their scholar parents after Chekhov characters. They live in a big house in Bucks County, PA. As with Chekhov’s gentry class they talk around in circles about the expense of maintaining the family home, but not wanting the price to do such: working.

But, Durang pulls out all the stops for this no-holds-barred farce. There is enough energy to suggest that their are cooking meth in the kitchen to finance themselves and their prophesying housekeeper (named Cassandra, after the Greek character whom Apollo gives the gift of prophesy, but with the caution that no one will listen to her). Such is the play: everyone vying for attention while no one listens. So Vanya (Eric Hissom) and Sonia (Sherri L. Elelen) lament their unfulfilled lives. Masha (Grace Gonglewski), the famous slasher-movie heroine, fauns for attention, especially from her boy-toy current love-interest, Spike (Jefferson Farber), who is mostly into himself and his lust of the moment, whether skinny dipping in the lake or jumping into bed to demonstrate his sexual prowess. Would Chekhov be rolling in his grave knowing that 100+ years later, audiences want laughs not a slap-in-the-face realism?

By circumstance, the week after we saw Vanya and Sonia and Marsha and Spike the drama department at James Madison University was preforming The Cherry Orchard. What a coincidence! We could follow up Durang’s play with one of the originals. In the meantime, a little research about Chekhov revealed that he intended The Cherry Orchard to be a drawing room farce, but with tragic elements. The original director of The Cherry Orchard, Constanin Stanislavski (1904), took a different direction, focusing on the downfall of the characters, without consulting with Chekhov. Thus, Chekhov’s legacy may have been shaped not by his script but by a director’s decision.

With the prior sit-com style play and this knowledge in mind, while watching the JMU production, the farcical lines jumped out. Chekhov’s character are zany, with squeaky boots, magic tricks, self-indulgent whims, and complete lack of concern other than finding out how to avoid working to pay for their lifestyle. Eventually, they sell their estate and escape back to civilization in Paris, without regard for how they will pay the bills once they spend through their newly acquired funds.

Durang, again, had the advantage of knowing Chekhov’s plays and characters well, when he fashioned his Bucks County family. I’m sure there were references that I did not catch. At intermission, I turned to the woman next to me and inquired “Are you catching all the Chekhov references?” as an ice-breaker questions. She replied, “My husband did his PhD on Chekhov plays, including performing in Russian several of his plays in Moscow.” Oops.

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About hermitsdoor

Up here in the mountains, we have a saying, "You can't get there from here", which really means "We wouldn't go the trouble to do that". Another concept is that "If you don't know, we ain't telling." For the rest, you'll have to read between the lines.
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5 Responses to Theatre Review: Revisiting Classical Theatre

  1. Barneysday says:

    Thats a great “oops” moment. The follow up is to ask her to explain the finer points of the play. Well done, and I can see why you’ve been out of touch. You’ve been in touch with the intellectual side.

    • hermitsdoor says:

      While such situations are gold-mines for information, they remind me of how much I do not know… or will have the time and experiences to know. Of course, with today’s information-overload, this begs the question could anyone ever get to Dr. Faustus’ dilemma of wanting more than all the knowledge in the world! 😉

  2. Mother Suzanna says:

    AH, you are BACK! Outstanding, Oscar! Did you really come from the loins of the Norwegian Larsons? Well, Hamlet did go to U of Denmark. Faustus reminded me of my ushering caper at the SF Opera. They did Faust one year. All I can remember is the NAKED women (hired “off the street”, as I recall) climbing up the web of ropes attached to the back wall! Undoubtedly showing Faust’s tortured soul! I was so glad my Russian friends did not take me up on my invitation to come to the opera that night. Oops!

    • hermitsdoor says:

      Every production tries its hand at interpreting the drama. We have not seen the operatic rendition of the story. I could see where a naked women who represent a number of symbols in the play… or just be a naked woman…

      • Mother Suzanna says:

        Not “A” WOMEN! About TWENTY naked women, like worms, crawling up this wall of cargo netting! It was memorable!! I don’t believe SF Opera has done Faust since!

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