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kottke.org posts about theater

The Mass Delusion of the Pandemic Being Over

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 21, 2022

Theater historian Debra Caplan published a Twitter thread yesterday about Eugene Ionesco’s 1959 play, Rhinoceros.

In 1959, Eugene Ionesco wrote the absurdist play Rhinoceros in which one by one, an entire town of people suddenly transform into rhinos. At first, people are horrified but as the contagion spreads, (almost) everyone comes to accept that turning into a rhinoceros is fine.

Rhinoceros is a play about conformity and mob mentality and mass delusion, about how easy it is for people to accept outrageous/unacceptable things simply because everyone else is doing it.

In the end, the protagonist Berenger is the only human left.

Even reading that first bit of the thread, my mind jumped immediately to the pandemic, particularly the present moment we’re in with falling mask mandates and other discarded and ignored public safety protections. And that’s Caplan’s take too:

Over the last few weeks, as mitigation measures drop, millions of Americans who were previously cautious about Covid (and millions more who never were) have decided that it’s time to move on and pretend that it’s 2019 again.

Bars and restaurants are packed with unmasked people, mask mandates hardly exist anywhere and are no longer tied to infection rates, the new CDC map makes it look like everything is under control, and we seem to have all collectively decided that Covid is “over.”

Let’s be clear about what is actually happening here.

The idea that we can live with Covid WITHOUT any mitigation measures and expect things to turn out ok (both for individuals and as a society) is a lie.

We are watching an astounding mass delusion unfold in real time.

See also The New Normal, about shifting baselines.

Fear tends to diminish over time when a risk remains constant. You can only respond for so long. After a while, it recedes to the background, seemingly no matter how bad it is.

Al Hirschfeld’s Drawings of Steven Sondheim’s Musicals

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Al Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment from Steven Sondheim's play Into the Woods

Writing for the New York Times, theater critic emeritus Ben Brantley praises caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s depictions of the late Steven Sondheim’s work:

These seemingly simple pen strokes — and the ellipsis of the white space, which your own, happily collaborative mind fills in — are anything but static. They tremble with energy, tension and, above all, character, as it is conjured in real time on a stage.

Hirschfeld always said he would rather be called a “characterist” than a caricaturist. His illustrations of Sondheim, the most complex character portraitist in the Broadway songbook, make you understand why. Caricatures are a shorthand for the physical traits that make stars distinctive: Angela Lansbury’s immense Tweety Bird eyes, for example, or Bernadette Peters’s Cupid’s bow mouth.

Hirschfeld nails such elements of physiognomy. He also endows them with the exciting emotional temperature that heats up every Sondheim song. The Lansbury he draws as the corrupt mayor Cora Hoover Hooper of “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964) and as the cannibal pie-maker Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd” are recognizably the same woman.

I particularly like the great energy swirling all around the lead characters in Hirschfeld’s take on “West Side Story”:

Hirschfeld's caricature of a moment in West Side Story

The Second and a Half Dimension

posted by Tim Carmody   Dec 09, 2021

Cast

I had never heard the phrase “2.5-D fandom” before, but it’s the subject of Japanese scholar Akiko Sugawa-Shimada’s work:

The term 2.5-D was coined by anime fans in Japan in the 1980s to refer to animes voice actors, but in the 2000s it began to refer to some cultural practices exercised in a space between 2-D fiction and 3-D reality. Thus, the 2.5-D culture is cultural practices which produce the fictional space of contemporary popular cultural products (such as manga, anime, and videogames) along with the fans interplay between the real and fictional spaces. Its examples are: 2.5-D theaters (theatrical adaptation of anime, manga, and videogames), cosplay, contents tourism (pop-culture-induced tourism), character/voice actor concerts (ex. concerts of Love Live! and Ensemble Stars, etc.), enjoei (a cheer-a-long style of movie screening), and V-tubers (virtual YouTubers). What matters in these cultural products are active interactions between the reality of characters of anime/manga/videogames and the virtuality of the human bodies of practitioners (actors and fans). As in Henry Jenkins’s ‘convergence culture,’ 2.5-D culture is generated across multiple transmedia platforms, cooperation of multiple media industries, and fans migratory behaviors. Fans actively migrate among the fictional, cyber, and physical worlds.”

If I’ve got it, it’s a kind of cosplay slash Rocky Horror-style performance theater, but raised to the level of a pop musical industry.

The first successful manga-based musical production was The Rose of Versailles in 1974 by the Takarazuka Revue. At the time, these plays were simply known as “musicals” or “anime musicals.” Around the 1990s, a number of musicals and small stage skits produced were based on anime and manga series aimed at elementary school girls, such as Sailor Moon, Akazukin Chacha, and Hime-chan’s Ribbon, which performed moderately well, but were not popular and were known as “musicals for elementary school girls” (, joji mono). However, in 2000, Hunter x Hunter was considered revolutionary for the time because the voice cast for the original anime series had also played the characters onstage.

Having only seen YouTube clips of these plays, I guess I wonder mostly about the name: why 2.5-dimensional? Obviously these are plays that try to split the difference between an original two-dimensional work and a three-dimensional performance, and fidelity to the original is considered a primary virtue… thus keeping the performances somewhat “two-dimensional”? But I wonder if there is something more than this, something in the staging or craft of the theater that intentionally either restricts or enhances the dimensionality of the experience. At any rate, it has my attention.

Tom Stoppard and the Last Crusade

posted by Tim Carmody   Nov 21, 2020

Tom Stoppard - Young.jpg

Hermione Lee has written an authorized biography of playwright, screenwriter, translator, and man of letters Tom Stoppard, called Tom Stoppard: A Life. It was released in the United Kingdom on October 1st and should appear in the United States on February 23, 2021.

Here’s an excerpt from the core of Kate Kellaway’s glowing review in The Guardian:

“He put on Englishness like a coat,” Lee writes - and one imagines a particularly dashing coat because Stoppard compensated for his reserve by being an unretiring dresser (a recent photograph shows him, in his 80s, still modishly draped). But the English coat was possibly over-buttoned. Stoppard had an exile’s gratitude to England. He found his boarding school in 18th-century Okeover Hall “paradise”. Yet Lee qualifies the received idea - an oversimplified, dismissive slur - of Stoppard as unswervingly conservative. For a start, he is too entertaining to be stuffy…

His championing of political causes is shown to have stemmed more from empathy with individuals than from abstract ideals. His support for Belarus Free Theatre makes particularly fascinating reading, as does the account of his friendship with Václav Havel, Czech playwright and president. Havel is presented as the person Stoppard might have been had he not become an Englishman.

Lee’s studies of the plays are masterly - especially of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) and Arcadia (1993) - and her book will be a formidable resource for Stoppard enthusiasts. She makes a persuasive case for the importance of emotion, challenging - even in the early work - the old complaint that Stoppard is all head and no heart. Jumpers is “a sensational exercise in mental acrobatics” but also “a play of grief and love. It carries the sadness and the guilt of living in a malfunctioning marriage with a wife who is having a breakdown and it opened two days after his divorce.”

The British edition from Faber & Faber is 992 pages long and weighs 1.33 kilograms (about three pounds). It also retails for £30 in the UK, about 40 USD (used to be more, but the exchange rate has been low—point is, it’s an expensive book). Mercifully, Knopf’s US hardcover will be only 897 pages and cost $37.50, with weight unchanged.

It’s a big book by a biographer known for big books about major literary figures, sadly mostly dead. Stoppard is very much alive, and although quite private, agreed to sit for hours of interviews over a course of years. Lee was also able to interview Stoppard’s friends and colleagues, including actress Felicity Kendal (who starred in multiple Stoppard plays, including in roles written for her), director Trevor Nunn (in charge of three of Stoppard’s world premieres), and filmmaker Steven Spielberg.

This last might seem like an odd choice, but Spielberg and Stoppard have multiple points of contact. Stoppard wrote the screenplay for Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun, and served as an uncredited ghostwriter on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In fact, not only was Stoppard not credited, the lack of credit was actually given to a pseudonym, “Barry Watson.”

Everything suggests that Stoppard’s contributions to the film were substantial. In a brief oral history of The Last Crusade, now lost to linkrot but still preserved by the Wayback Machine, Spielberg says, “Tom is pretty much responsible for every line of dialogue.”

Last year, narrative analyst Mike Fitzgerald broke down in detail differences between a draft version of the screenplay by credited writer Jeffrey Boam and the published draft, including revisions by Spielberg and a heavy rewrite by Stoppard. (You can actually download both versions of the screenplay on Fitzgerald’s site.) Again, Stoppard contributed not just lines of dialogue, but new scenes, a new structure, and changes in characterization.

Vast enhancements were made to every element of the story - character, plot, pace, humor, action, tone, clarity, dialogue. The result is a markedly more coherent, charming, and enduring script that truly belongs in a museum. I suspect that, absent the final revisions, this film would have been regarded by audiences as inferior to its antecedent sequel THE TEMPLE OF DOOM in tone, wit, and entertainment value…

TIGHTENING: The revised draft is 15 pages shorter, though material was not arbitrarily removed just to cut pages. I found 19 instances of scenes or beats being cut, 6 superfluous characters removed, several jokes deleted, and dialogue often pared down. Each of these extractions had a clear purpose to it, whether streamlining the plot, quickening the pace, avoiding redundancies, or simply that the material in question was superfluous and distracting. Note that the revised draft has also ADDED a substantial amount of new scenes, beats, jokes, and dialogue, so in order to counterbalance the new material and cut 15 pages, an ample sum of script was removed…

DIALOGUE: One of Stoppard’s most obvious revisions is to vastly refine the dialogue, and only by reading both drafts side by side is it possible to study those differences. I would ballpark that 80% of the lines have been substantially changed.

HUMOR: This manifests largely in the dialogue, but also in sight gags, character actions, edit points, and streamlining moments to make the jokes land with more precision. The quality of humor is also refined, by removing coarse innuendo and making the jokes smarter and less predictable.

Stoppard was responsible for reshaping one of my favorite scenes in the film. At one point, Henry (Sean Connery’s character) was going to use Indy’s gun (down to just one bullet) to shoot at the seagulls, who would in turn fly into the engines of the plane pursuing them and make it crash. Stoppard had Henry chase them with his umbrella instead.

(The Charlemagne quote is totally made up. Unclear whether Henry Jones is supposed to believe that it’s real.)

Stoppard emphasized elements of faith and history in the story. For example, he rewrote the character of Kazim, changing him from a Nazi stooge to a protector of the grail, and invented the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword.

Stoppard also rewrote Henry’s dialogue during the cavern collapse to have him finally call his son by his chosen name, Indiana.

One last thing: if you watch The Last Crusade now, as opposed to thirty years ago, certain things stand out. They used a lot of projected backgrounds. Those don’t look great. More substantively, the Nazis, while generally faithful to their portrayal in Raiders of the Lost Ark, plus some updates, feel pretty… thin. They’re bad guys, evil and a little scary, but you’d be forgiven if you came away from the movie thinking the problem with the Nazis was that they liked to burn books and despoil antiquities, while good people love libraries and museums. That ain’t it.

Stoppard was born Tomás Straüssler, in 1937, in Zlín, Czechoslovakia. In 1939, his parents, nonpracticing Jews, fled the Nazi invasion to Singapore. His father was killed in 1942 when the Japanese Air Force bombed Singapore, and Stoppard has no memory of him; Tom, his mother Marta, and his brother succeeded in reaching India, where he lived until 1946. His new stepfather, Major Kenneth Stoppard, was an antisemite; his mother hid her and her children’s Jewishness to be accepted by him and his circle, now in England.

Three of Stoppard’s aunts, all four of his grandparents, and his great-grandmother all died in the Holocaust. And Stoppard did not know this about his extended family until 1993, four years after the release of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

It is tempting to ask, if Stoppard had been fully aware of and fully embraced his central European and Jewish roots, as he was when he wrote his new play Leopoldstadt, whether his approach to the Nazis, or the very Christian, very English themes of the Grail legend, or even the son striving to be reconciled to his father, might have been substantively different.

In many ways, the Grail legend was perfect for Stoppard: more English than the English, but still a little resistant, a little outside the nation’s own history. A crusade, a quest, a reclamation, a reconciliation.

Mary(s) Seacole tells the powerful story of forgotten black women

posted by Chrysanthe Tenentes   Apr 08, 2019

I was lucky enough to see Marys Seacole last week at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater and immediately regretted not seeing it sooner so I could tell everyone I know about this important show. The friend who brought me called it “woke theater,” but I’d describe it as humane activism. It whispered when it could have shouted and shouted when it could have whispered, and blew me away with its sensitivity and power when addressing race, womanhood, colonialism, and interconnection.

At least now I know about Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury so I can tell you not to miss her next production.

Do read up on the fascinating life of Jamaican nurse/businesswoman Mary Seacole, who spent significant time tending wounded soldiers during the Crimean War, but who has long been overlooked in British colonial history. And please tell me about other emerging playwrights I should know about!

Shakespeare In Its Original Pronunciation

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 09, 2013

Speaking of inexpensive time travel, listen as David and Ben Crystal perform selections from Shakespeare in the original accent, as it would have been heard at the Globe in the early 1600s. (via @KBAndersen)

“Jake Shears” of the Scissor Sisters is

posted by Choire Sicha   Jan 18, 2008

“Jake Shears” of the Scissor Sisters is working with Jeff Whitty (of “Avenue Q”) (both former go-go boys!) on a musical of “Tales of the City.” Musical theater just somehow got a whole lot gayer!

“Rent,” the worst musical in the history

posted by Choire Sicha   Jan 16, 2008

“Rent,” the worst musical in the history of musicals, grossed more than $280 million dollars on Broadway since April, 1996—and grossed another $330 million in national tours. (The 2005 movie version of “Rent,” by the way, only grossed $31 million worldwide.) Because I’m a terrible judge of everything, I was convinced at the time that it would close in workshops. Now, at last, “Rent” will close on Broadway this June. Too late!