Monday, February 27, 2012

Blog #28: What she wants makes her funny, poor thing: Phoebe from As You Like It.

Now, to continue our discussion of Comedy, a few notes on Paloma – my student who was preparing auditions for college programs - and her discoveries while researching Phoebe, the shepherdess from As You Like It.  Shakespeare’s dramas are difficult enough, but his comedies –and the comic moments in his tragedies – often defy the ingenuity of even the most accomplished actors and directors, because humor partly depends for its ability to amuse on the mores of the times in which it is conceived.  For example, after very few years, even jokes about G.W. Bush have dwindled to a trickle….
What is a shepherdess exactly? They’re more exalted than shepherds, that’s for sure; even in the time of Marie Antoinette, shepherdesses were mythical, poetical beings. How many of us have heard of a shepherdess shepherding all by herself?  In literature and painting she is usually romantically linked to a shepherd, never alone with the sheep. Okay, shepherdesses do exist, I just googled it.  But the leading contenders are fictitious, appearing only as artistic inspiration.  Before going into any more generalizations about these bucolic females, let us take a look at the specifics of Shakespeare’s Phoebe.
After Paloma and I wrestled with the language of her speech (Act 3, lines 109-135) and figured out what Phoebe is actually saying about Rosalind – with whom she has fallen in love, Rosalind having disguised herself as a man named Ganymede. Of course, in Shakespeare’s day Rosalind is actually played by a man, who is supposed to be a woman dressed as a man. But for the purposes of this particular writing, I’m going to leave that to another discussion of ‘pants parts’ in Shakespeare. 
Phoebe’s problem is the insults that her beloved Rosalind has been hurling at her, for ignoring and belittling Silvius, the shepherd who, in turn, is in love with Phoebe and follows her around like a puppy. Paloma was exhibiting the same determination and ability for hard work that she had put into Juliet, but initially the result was ponderous and not very funny. Phoebe was turning into a schizophrenic, a girl who both hates and loves a man who has insulted her, switching back and forth on practically every line she utters. At least the objective was clear: conning Silvius into doing her dirty work for her – in other words getting him to go after his rival and bring him back to Phoebe!  Cruelty and humor make difficult bedfellows! Phoebe’s monologue begins thus:
Think not I love him though I ask for him.
Tis but a peevish boy, yet he talks well.
But what care I for words? Yet words do well
When he who speaks them pleases those that hear.
So many contradictions! And she goes on and on in this vein. Of course, she is expressing herself in the same manner as all comic characters when they talk about love; feeling and reason crashing into one another. On the one hand, being overwhelmed and possessed by the tsunami of desire, while grasping the fact that one is being treated shabbily by the love object. A modern example would be a very funny scene in Theresa Rebeck’s ‘Loose Knit:’
Margie: Well, I do think it’s nice to have beautiful things. In your life. I wish I had beautiful things in my life. I wish I had your car in my life… And I find you fascinating, but I also want to tell you to fuck off. Do you know what I mean?  I don’t really want to tell you to fuck off, really what I want to do is have sex in the back seat of that amazing car, but frankly, I don’t know…
Although there is a four-hundred year gap between these passages, the inconsistencies in both Margie’s and Phoebe’s points of view create comedy. Here’s another way of putting it: the underlying truth about desire and the confusion it creates remains consistent throughout time. Please stay with me, I know how confusing this is – I’m figuring out how to write about it as I go along…  The question we have to ask ourselves is this: why isn’t this working out? Why can’t the character figure out what’s going on? Remember that the character is written by a playwright, who is concerned with specific issues.
Let us first concern ourselves with Rebeck’s character, Margie, since the contemporary language is more accessible.  Margie likes the car belonging to the man she’s addressing. In spite of disliking him, she wants to have sex with him in his car – so she must feel herself lacking in status and material things. The rhythm and content of the lines make them funny, so if the actress personalizes the car as something she, herself, deeply craves the monologue will work.
We need to apply the same principle to Phoebe, although the application is more complicated, partly because of the language and also because it’s Shakespeare, and he’s, well… very, very deep. The key to this, I think,  is why Phoebe is obsessed with Rosalind, when she already has Silvius, a much more suitable suitor, already in the bag. Her complaints about Rosalind /Ganymede point to a desire to better herself and her life. She doesn’t like being confined to her ’shepherdess existence.’  Although Rosalind is disguised in ‘poor and mean attire,’ she speaks as one who is educated. Phoebe, later in her monologue to Silvius, both attacks and praises Rosalind’s arrogance:
I have more cause to hate him than to love him,
For what had he to do to chide at me?
He said my eyes were black and my hair black,
And now I am remembered scorned at me.
Then she proceeds to write a letter to Rosalind – a bit of poetic license on Shakespeare’s part since it would seem unlikely in those days that a shepherdess would been able to read and write. She fights back; she doesn’t give up. In the end, Rosalind makes fun of the badly written prose, heaping further humiliation on poor Phoebe, but then, because it’s a comedy, Ganymede turns back into Rosalind and Phoebe ends up accepting her lot with Silvius. Underlying the favorable disentangling of this knotty situation is something sad. Phoebe could never have Rosalind, whether man or woman, because of the class difference –
Rosalind’s scornful attitude toward Phoebe is based on the latter’s cruelty toward Silvius. Phoebe is as irritated with Silvius’ attentions as Rosalind is with Phoebe’s.   But Phoebe utterly depends on Silvius – rather like a sibling, when parental support is lacking.  This is the question the actress playing Phoebe must ask herself: what do I want in my life that I can never have…

Monday, February 20, 2012

Blog 27: Enjoying the comic acting in Rx at Primary Stages

Comedy is on my mind today, and I’d like to mention my pleasure at seeing Rx, currently running at ‘Primary Stages.’ I thought a lot about it afterwards – and there was much to chew on. Thank goodness the Times critic, Christopher Isherwood, agreed with me – but ‘actors and critics’ is a subject for another set of thoughts…
What do I like best about this ‘comedy of the workplace’?  It did two things for me that I appreciate, and it manages to do them simultaneously. What makes it funny is precisely what makes it meaningful; the inherent paradoxes in the things we choose to do – in this play, actual jobs – versus the things we really want, like love or power.  In other words, Kate Fodor, the skilled and insightful playwright, creates characters just like us, only more fun – so we feel with them when they go bananas.  
Their situations are awful in precise proportion to their lack of self-awareness – and the playwright exploits their naivete about themselves for the purposes of comedy, but also to make important statements about matters that concern all of us – success in the world vs. primordial guilt. For example, the character of the leading lady has a problem with her sensible job, which has an aspect of animal exploitation attached to it.  Whenever this subject comes up, the character is supposed to overreact, becoming instantly upset, sometimes to the point of tears.
The acting is complicated because in playing this ‘comic adjustment’ of ‘overreacting’ the actress, herself, has to avoid ‘overacting.’  By making this abrupt shift from her devotion to the job to her love of animals completely believable, she can tweak her reactions beyond naturalism into absurdity. However, she must convey genuine pain, or the viewer won’t be able to follow her emotional shift. When the acting and the writing are both as good as this, we think and feel simultaneously. We look at our own lives, the needs involved in making a living, but also how far we’re willing to compromise our principles to have a comfortable life. It isn’t just happen in our heads, our hearts also are jolted – and that’s why we go to the theatre and watch movies…
The leading man plays a doctor, who is frenetically pedantic and organized, but as love begins to change him, the actor makes a fairly swift and radical transition; his behavior becomes gentle, thoughtful, loving. In other words, he ends up as his polar opposite, all the while clinging to his right brain point of view– until he loses his way completely.  It’s enjoyable because you see someone who is overly scientific trying desperately to apply the same criteria to his new obsession, which fills him with feeling. His bewilderment is delicious!       
The most difficult role, a mine field for overacting, is a woman, fanatically involved in her job as the sales manager of the kind of pharmaceutical company we all love to hate.  I confess that I have a familial connection to the actress who plays her, and she had been my student during the early years of her acting training.  But all the same, I would have been riveted by this particular character and performance.  Anyone working in a large organization has come up against this Gorgon – excruciatingly enthusiastic about details that bore everyone else to death, full of praise one second and delivering elephantine put-downs the next.  By giving this monster a heart chock full of enthusiasm for her work - and love for the people who slave under her, as long as they maintain a perfect record - we find a weird sort of identification with her awfulness. When things start falling apart, we know her heart is genuinely bursting with woe and all the dreadful things she is doing, even more than ever, to everybody else can’t be helped because, well, we’ve been there ourselves.  And she makes us laugh, to boot! Isherwood said in The Times that this actress plays the character with ‘hilarious verve’ - but all that acting wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans if each moment weren’t totally sincere.
As usual, I have run on longer than intended about the comic acting in this amusing and relevant show. If you want to learn about good comic acting and writing, Rx is an excellent model. Next week we’ll continue the discussion of Comedy, in this instance relating it to my student, Paloma, and our mutual discovery of the key to acting the delightfully skittish but oddly pathetic character of Phoebe in As You Like It.

Monday, February 13, 2012

BLOG #26 A: An Attempt to Define Talent; Paloma Finds Juliet

A couple of weeks ago, I introduced Paloma from South America, who was spending January in NYC preparing and auditioning for college acting programs.  Her Shakespeare choices – she needed one dramatic and one comic for Juilliard - were Juliet, the ‘potion’ speech, and Phoebe from As You like It. I mentioned that I had trepidations about both speeches, but Paloma, herself, had chosen Juliet for her serious piece and I came up with Phoebe because I was making an educated guess that somehow Paloma would manage to find the comedy amongst all the archaic verbiage and bizarre points of view.
There is no question that Paloma has talent, but what is ‘talent’ exactly? The dictionary describes it thus; talent implies an apparently native ability for a specific pursuit and connotes either that it is or can be cultivated by the one possessing it. Great! That’s a big help – I love the use of the words ‘implies and ‘apparently,’ which apparently implies that even the dictionary isn’t sure. But the latter half of the definition is helpful, ‘that it is or can be cultivated by the one possessing it.’  That is true, but in my experience, very rarely.  It’s like saying that someone has the talent to be president of a bank – that may be true, but it’s unlikely they would arrive at that position without a thorough business education. What I would say about talent and actors is that they have to do a lot of work on their own, but generally it helps an actor to have his/her nose pointed in the right direction.  In my case, I had help from various teachers, but only one major breakthrough occurred directly from a teacher/student – Grotowski and the Polish Lab Theatre.  Being a good actor comes from a virtually untraceable combination of outside influences, courage and the cultivation of deep awareness about oneself and others.
Most beginning actors when asked either what they think acting is or what they like about it will describe its identity and attraction as coming from ‘being able to be or play someone else.’  Actually, it’s sort of the opposite – how’s that for a definition! What I mean is; you don’t just magically flip into being someone else!  What you actually do is delve so deeply into yourself – usually a very difficult, occasionally exhilarating and frequently extremely confusing and painful process – that the character finally shows up. All along it was just a part of yourself, you were trying to engage.
Now, some lucky people I’m sure are able make that terrifying journey without any help. But they are extremely rare, and who knows whether they have help or not, since they don’t have anything to compare it to. In other words, not having the necessity to go through the tortuous process 99% of the rest of us have to, how would they really know?  It’s kind of like trying to get the 1% to empathize with us lesser mortals.  That’s why some actors can say, “Why do that ‘acting technique stuff?’” and look at you as if you’re retarded because you have to actually work at it.
Anyway, to get back to the ‘talented’ Paloma, who has the ability to relate to Juliet more easily than most of the people I know can relate to their best friend.  After only a few sessions focusing on sense memory exercises, many hours spent in her hotel room working on her own and several rambling discussions on how the problems in Romeo and Juliet reflect Shakespeare’s culture and historical context – more on that in a moment - she had grasped the ‘character.’  As Paloma’s teacher and audience, after many decades of regarding Juliet as ‘a little sappy,’ I finally recognized her immense courage and strength. I realized why this is the most recognized love story of all time, engendering several films, at least one magnificent ballet, and many couples to follow their hearts, for better or worse.
How did this change in perception come about? Partly because of Paloma’s ability to listen and incorporate the brilliance of the text. This is a particularly difficult speech to explain by quoting passages. It begins, “Come vial,” which has a whole line to itself, indicating that Juliet is examining this mysterious fluid and thinking about the magnitude of what she is about to do. For the next eight lines she considers whether Friar Lawrence may have tricked her in one way or another – either the potion may not work or might be a poison preventing him from being dishonored by marrying her to a second man when she already had a husband.  She quickly dismisses these considerations, because they don’t make sense. She is sure enough in her assessment of Friar Lawrence to go through with the act of putting her life in his hands. This decisiveness is very important in playing Juliet’s character – she believes in herself, Friar Lawrence and Romeo. But then, in the second beat of the monologue, she goes into a long build – twenty-five lines - which ends in a terrific climax of pure terror: 

Oh look! Methinks I see my cousin’s ghost
Seeking out Romeo that did spit his body
Upon a rapier’s point. Stay, Tybalt, stay!  

Here we have the heart and soul of the play. It is an insoluble problem for Juliet; how can she love her family’s enemy? And it becomes incrementally more difficult after Romeo kills her cousin, Tybalt.  However, overcome it she does by taking action. “Romeo, Romeo, Romeo, Here’s drink – I drink to thee!” is the final beat of the speech contained in one line.  Love transforms her fear into action. In this, she proves that love can conquer all, in the right hands, even when it exacts the greatest price, not only her death but even more to the point for her - sacrifice of family honor.
Paloma managed to put these parts together into a convincingly actable whole.  I looked at other speeches of Juliet’s and realized that she constantly runs the excruciatingly painful gamut between ‘love of Romeo’ and ‘love of family.’ But she consistently cleaves to Romeo, because that is the path she has chosen.
Next week, I’ll discuss Paloma’s ‘talent’ from another angle – her work on the comedic character of Phoebe in As You Like It, and say a few words about comedy, in general.       

Monday, February 6, 2012

Blog #25: Shakespeare via the Caribbean

If Shakespeare’s soul is viewing his work today, from wherever he is, above or below, he must be delighted by the scholarly interest and audience appreciation his plays continue to engender all over the world. Especially if his ghost attended St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn for Kevin Spacey’s recent rendition of Richard the Third.  Very sadly, I missed it, but read various rave reviews and heard Spacey on Charlie Rose spreading his enjoyment at playing the role.  But the Bard must also be saddened by students who wish to play his characters but are terrified by the ‘sanctity’ of his archaic vocabulary and the complexities of rendering justice to his verse – and he probably hates the teachers who make it even more inaccessible by scaring and demeaning their students’ capacity for grasping both the form and content of his plays.
After a lifetime of viewing and working with Shakespeare, I can confidently agree when he puts these words into Polonius’ mouth in Hamlet:

‘This above all: to thine own self be true                                      And it must follow, as the night the day,                                      Thou canst not then be false to any man.

It’s the magnificent irony of Shakespeare that the man who expresses himself so wisely is utterly false, himself  - blindness? stupidity? both, probably – and through his disastrous council at a decisive moment gives major impetus to the fall of the tottering House of Hamlet and the deaths of nearly everyone in it!
To divine the meaning of Shakespeare’s poetry and then convey it theatrically is a process that adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  Actors who manage to get this far and directors/designers who bring about successful productions know that the supreme effort it requires to ‘understand’ the material energizes the mind, body and heart, and awakens the soul in non-believer.  After putting in all that work, the plays take over and begin to explain themselves, like magic writing on a blackboard.
Years ago, I was teaching a young man, Dejon, who originally hailed from the Caribbean.   He was a good musician, like his father, a professional player of  the cuatro, in his native country.  In coming to America, Dejon Senior had hoped to make his living by playing with a band, and was bitterly disappointed to find that the cuatro, which resembles a ukulele in appearance only, didn’t exist in his new home.
Dejon Junior had been a slow learner in school and a discipline problem. When I first met him, he still had a strong native accent and lived at home.  One thing lead to another and in return for doing chores, etc. he moved in with my family. Every day he practiced the trumpet, which helped him to vent his many frustrations. Classes improved his voice production dramatically and before long his accent began disappearing. Acting was quite a challenge; relating to characters was difficult for him.   He was tall and good looking, light-skinned like his mother, and because of his voice work, I decided to assign him a monologue of Oberon’s from A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his speech class.  The results were astonishing; without any previous experience he understood what he was saying and how to make it flow. Eventually, I cast him in a Showcase performing the scene where Oberon commands Puck to place an enchantment on Titania.  

That very time I saw, but thou couldst not,                                Flying between the cold moon and the earth,                            Cupid all arm’d; a certain aim he took                                            At a fair vestal throned by the west,                                              And loos’d his love-shaft smartly from his bow,                              As it should pierce a hundred-thousand hearts…

Not easy stuff! But Dejon found Oberon’s arrogance, elegance and above all his sheer need of to bend Titania to his whim.  After that, something began to shift in this young man with talent but no sense of how his life could take him where he wanted to go. He vanished from my life for a decade, and then recently I got an invitation to ‘friend’ him on Facebook. It turns out that Dejon has returned in triumph to his island, taking his family with him. He has risen to the top of his chosen field, which includes daily appearances on television, bringing him respect and fame throughout the whole country!  Shakespeare conjured up a lot of magic words on Dejon’s  blackboard, I think…
In my last entry, I mentioned Paloma from South America and her experience preparing Shakespeare monologues for college auditions. More on that next week…