François Truffaut once said of Hitchcock’s movies, “The love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes.” The same could be done with comedy and tragedy in the theater; it would be nice to see Twelfth Night, considering all its darker elements, staged as a tragedy and to see Hamlet, loaded with all that dramatic irony, staged as a comedy. And at first, John Kurzynowski’s Doctor Faustus seems to effectively follow this idea; the eponymous character (played by Matt Carr) is presented as an arrogant self-aggrandizer, someone whose ambitions far outreach his intellect—every time he mispronounces “Württemberg,” for example, his assistant Wagner (Tina Shepard) quickly responds, “Vürttemberg.” There is also an endearing hand-made quality to the production, with angels’ detached wings being flapped by actors standing behind them, recalling the self-conscious theatricality of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
Love’s Labor’s Lost is a strikingly knowing play. Centered on four friends who rashly swear off women—only to fall in love, or think they fall in love, almost immediately afterwards—it unfolds with gentle irony, laughingly observing the absurdly narcissistic nature of most romantic tropes. The play closes—like Shakespeare’s later works The Winter’s Tale and Cymbeline—on a mixed note; in fact, it is the only one of his comedies besides The Comedy of Errors that does not result in a wedding, and perhaps the only one with a patently unhappy ending. Love’s Labor’s Lost also runs wild with wordplay—Harold Bloom described it as “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display in which Shakespeare seems to seek the limits of his verbal resources, and discovers that there are none.”
There is a moment in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—possibly the pinnacle of white liberal guilt—in which Agee accidentally startles a young Black couple: “I was trying in some fool way to keep it somehow relatively light, because I could not bear that they should receive from me any added reflection of the shattering of their grace and dignity, and of the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and of my horror and pity and self-hatred; and so, smiling, and so distressed that I wanted only that they should be restored, and should know I was their friend, and that I might melt from existence: ‘I’m very sorry! I’m very sorry if I scared you! I didn’t mean to scare you at all. I wouldn’t have done any such thing for anything.’ … The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet.”
Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano is a difficult masterpiece. Subtitled Anti-play, it is, along with Waiting for Godot, a quintessential work of Theatre of the Absurd. The action is set in a living room on an “English evening” in which the Smiths are having the Martins over for dinner—the drama is essentially plotless, and consists mostly of the couples’ struggle to have any kind of meaningful conversation; their chatter is interrupted once—by a fire chief aimlessly searching for a fire to extinguish.
A six-person Shakespearean production is a tricky thing to stage. Actors and costume designers struggle with creating distinct characters, kings are executed only to reappear as rogues, and, since the small cast is often a monetary necessity, players tend to botch the language and confuse the action; the end result is the kind of stultifying mess that turns people off of Shakespeare in the first place.
Anything but a thoroughly horrendous production of King John would be worth seeing simply by virtue of the fact that the play is unfairly under-produced: its last run on Broadway lasted for under a month back in 1915 and in almost sixty years it has only been staged four times at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
The stage is plain and simple—a chair with some ladders and rafters—and the actors are clearly visible from the seats. Completely dismissing the fourth wall, they walk through the audience in costume to greet friends, they joke loudly to each other backstage, and when director Jenny Bennett shows up, one theatrically bellows, “There is my directress!” My first impression of the Classical Theater of Harlem’s new production of Henry V was one of unpretentious, self-conscious perfection. But sloppiness that first seemed premeditated and fitting became mere slop, and I, in turn, became disenchanted.