Friday, April 2, 2010

Girl fight

Ken Cheeseman and Jason Bowen look to the Goddess in Othello. Photo by Stratton McCrady.

These days the Actors' Shakespeare Project finds itself in the rather unusual position of having disproved its own founding thesis. The group coalesced around a sensible reaction to the pretentious, director-driven theatre of the A.R.T. (from which its founder, Benjamin Evett, was downsized); the idea was to emulate the conditions of Shakespeare's own troupe, which somehow did pretty well all on its own without the likes of Peter Sellars, et. al., swooping in, kimono aflutter, to teach us all about ecology. Let "regietheater" rage on in Europe and New York, went the ASP mantra - Shakespeare is sourced in the actor, so us actors will just burrow down with the texts and do it our way. We'll even do it without our own theatre (ASP wanders gypsy-like through various impromptu theatre spaces across the city; Mike Daisey would no doubt approve).

A great deal of grant money went chasing after this proposition (ASP raised something like $300,000 its first year), and the troupe has certainly found an audience among the crunchier collegiate types. But steady artistic success has eluded them, and most acute Shakespeare fans secretly consider them something of a noble failure.

Because it turned out that sourcing things in the actor had its downsides, too. ASP seems to make most of its decisions via insider consensus - and I mean all its decisions: play choice, director choice, even casting. And unsurprisingly, this mindset of art-by-committee (or clique) has led to a mushy convergence of attitudes, stances, and political trade-offs that never seems to quite cohere into a vision. Bizarre casting is by now a staple of the troupe (because, you know, actors want to grow - somehow always into lead roles that are wrong for them), and issues of contemporary identity politics tend to obscure the deeper meanings of the plays. Most troubling is the obvious fact that the ASP actors aren't, actually, growing, at least not technically; nobody could argue that their verse-speaking is top-notch (to be fair, it's been announced they'll be working on that next season), and few of them have really learned how to handle a foil or sword (even though they're heavy on fight choreography); nobody seems to know how to dance (and almost all the comedies, and, incredibly, perhaps even the tragedies, "should" end with a dance); and as for singing, or general musicianship - again, fuhgeddaboudit, and listen to the recorded soundscape instead. In short, even though ASP is supposedly devoted to Shakespearean acting, they've pretty much off-loaded all the technical accomplishments that used to justify the prestige of that endeavor.

What we get instead is something people like to call "edge," or "intensity," but which usually means gonzo identity politics - which usually, for ASP, means feminism. Of course Shakespeare is both catnip and poison to feminists, because while he's pretty much the source template in our culture for women's rights, he also flouts those rights repeatedly in the surface of his plays. Thus women are relentlessly drawn to him, because, let's face it, most of the greatest roles ever written for them are to be found in his work, but then they're driven crazy by the subsidiary political roles he forces those great characters into.

I myself long ago made peace with the fact that Shakespeare wasn't only not a "progressive," but may have actually been a monarchist, so I don't look to him for specific advice on whom to vote for, or what to think about this or that public policy. What I look to him for are his thoughts on what it means to be human, and on that score he never fails me. That the overarching message of his work is about freedom and dignity for everyone seems too obvious to require comment. That his plays were the popular art of his day, and thus operated within the sexist and racist conventions of his era, and likewise reflect his own masculine flaws and foibles, also seems too obvious for words.

And yet that second issue seems to obsess many of his modern interpreters. At the ASP, for instance, there's almost a mania for powerful women stomping about (usually in literal boots) making a great show of the fact that they're essentially flailing away at a text that, in the end, they cannot change (or improve). In this Othello, even Desdemona prefers boots, or at least booties, and she's surrounded by female power-brokers: her father "Brabantio" has been transformed into her mother, "Brabantia," who appeals not to the Duke of Venice but the Duchess, whose honor guard seems to be largely women, and whose ambassador is not Ludovico but Ludovica. Who knew Venice was actually run by Hillary and a squad of Amazons? You'd think, given the preponderance of estrogen at the top of the pecking order, that Desdemona might stand more of a chance against her masculine accusers, but no such luck; the power grrls of Venice and Cyprus seem to be down with doing it old-boy as well as old-school. And the fact that Desdemona seems somehow content within her subjection - indeed, that she trades a father's dominance for a husband's - is a troubling facet of her character that doesn't seem to have entered anybody's head.

But then director Judy Braha doesn't really try to put together an interpretation to explain her production's ass-backward gender politics; the girls are just there, dressed in "near future" duds that hint at African sources, but sometimes seem to have drifted in from an old Star Trek episode on some arid, styrofoam planet. Just to confuse things further, the set looks vaguely Islamic, and features a set of guide-wires stretching from its center that might be a symbol for Iago's tangled web, but then again - might not. Add to this unwieldy mix the unlikely casting of Ken Cheeseman as Iago, and what you have, at least for the production's first half, is a recipe for a slowly-unfolding artistic disaster.

I was seriously considering bailing at intermission, in fact, when suddenly something in the show turned around. I could pinpoint the line, in fact (Othello's "All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven,") and the following Lady-Macbeth-like incantation, in which the Moor attempts to convert all his love for Desdemona into hate. Up until then, Jason Bowen had seemed too young, and too inexperienced, for the role of the Moor; his exotic accent had intrigued, but he had neither constructed the weary carapace of the professional soldier, nor the hints of hidden psychological fissures beneath it, that mark a truly great Othello. What's more, he didn't seem to understand that that was what he was supposed to be doing (Othello is one of the few jealous males in Shakespeare who is not a portrait of callowness).

Nevertheless, once Bowen threw himself headlong into the Moor's fits of misogyny, the entire production became compelling. It's true that Othello's appalling behavior toward Desdemona almost always gives productions a creepy, Act-Four kick, but this time the presence of a powerless white-female power structure - along with Bowen's weird confidence in his abuse, and Braha's emphasis on Iago's own jealous delusions - turned the piece into a strange meditation on the oft-commented-on "emasculation" of the "gangsta" ethos, with its insistence that women are either "bitches" or "ho's."

Now I suppose you can't really argue with a contemporary sexual-racial gambit like this one, particularly one that rivets an audience - and Bowen was memorably intense until the terrible finale. Still, I think you can quibble. I wished, for instance, that Bowen could have suggested what Shakespeare intended - that Othello was not a factotum for frustrated gangsta attitude, but rather a deeply flawed soul in torment, suffering himself even as he abused the woman he loved most. I mean how, really, can you connect "bitches and ho's" with the brooding, insane depth of lines like "It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul. Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!" You can't. Because what rapper could have written that? None; it comes to us from springs and sources that pop culture no longer can tap.

And beyond the question of the interpretation of Othello, there was the problem of Ken Cheeseman's Iago. As noted, actor and director seemed to have settled on Iago's own jealous delusion (that his wife Emilia had betrayed him with the Moor) as the "explanation" of his malice, which is certainly a telling point about the character, and sets up a neat parallel between villain and victim. But at the same time, it reduces one of Shakespeare's greatest villains, who by now, after centuries of critical exegesis, looms as a kind of totem of inexplicable evil. There is simply so much more to reveal about Iago than seems to be dream't of in this production's philosophy. Likewise Paula Langton made rather a weepy stick-figure of the usually protean Emilia (to be fair, she was far better as the pant-suited "Duchess" of Venice). Other ASP stalwarts like Michael Forden Walker and Doug Lockwood did rather indifferent work, I thought, and newcomer Brooke Hardman seemed a bit lost as Desdemona - although she's certainly an appealing and resourceful actress, whom I hope to see in other roles (she's a natural Beatrice or Rosaline). There was one sudden burst of acting interest late in the production, in Denise Marie's passionate turn as Bianca. Ms. Marie, who somehow survived training at the A.R.T., has been little seen on local stages (she's been on Broadway instead, in The Lion King). Let's hope that changes soon.