Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stop Wondering Already

Oh all right. I'm seeing Jude Law's Hamlet this weekend.

But only because I'm getting comped in by the producers. They seem to think that a positive review from me might help business.

The last time I gave a play a positive review was when I saw Marlowe's The Maid's Holiday. Bets thing he ever wrote. Two days later it got censored, a week later all its copies were destroyed, and today only Marlowe scholars know the name of it.

That's what a positive review from me will do to a play.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In Case You Were Still Wondering

Everybody keeps asking me when I’m going to see Jude Law’s Hamlet.

I have no intention of seeing Jude Law’s Hamlet, or anybody else’s Hamlet for that matter.

I will not see another production of Hamlet until somebody actually does the play I wrote, as opposed to the play that a bunch of stage-illiterate professors have created from the various drafts of what I wrote.

Monday, November 2, 2009

In Case You Were Wondering

Everybody keeps asking me if I’ve seen Jude Law’s Hamlet.

The answer is: “No.”

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Twelfth Night in the Park: Part 2

During the intermission, I do an interview with an entertainment reporter from New York 1. This is the complete transcript:

INTERVIEWER: So -– have you met Anne Hathaway?
ME: Are you kidding? I married Anne Hathaway!
INTERVIEWER: I meant this Anne Hathaway.
ME: Ah. No. Not yet. But I did send her a note backstage.
INTERVIEWER: Really! Can I ask what you wrote in the note?
ME: Of course you can.
INTERVIEWER: So, uhm, uhh, what did you write in the note?
ME: I’m not telling.
INTERVIEWER: Was it a poem?
ME: Why would I write her a poem?
INTERVIEWER: Because you’re a poet.
ME: No, I’m an actor.
INTERVIEWER: But you wrote in blank verse.
ME: Blank verse is not poetry. Blank verse is dialogue.
INTERVIEWER: So what kind of dialogue would you like to have with Anne Hathaway?
ME: Something actor to actor.
INTERVIEWER: Actor to actor then –- if she asked you, “What do you think of this production?” what would you say?
ME: I would say, I love outdoor theatre. But I’m biased. I spent most of my professional life performing outdoor theatre.
INTERVIEWER: You mean writing for outdoor theatre.
ME: No, I mean performing. The writing was just a way to make more money. Acting was what I did seven days a week. Well, all right, six. They didn’t let us perform on Sundays, unless we got a special license.
INTERVIEWER: What else do you like about tonight’s production?
ME: The fact that all the actors are in the same play. You’d be surprised at how rare this is. The live music. The singing. I love Orsino and Viola singing along to “Come Away Death.” I love it because it fits the mood. I love it because it says something very specific about each character. I love it because it says these characters share something between them, whether they know it or not. And I love it because it’s what we used to do when we created or assigned parts in a play. We said “What can you do?” and staged the scene to highlight to the talents of each actor. Which is what Dan Sullivan is doing tonight. You have actors who can sing in the cast? Then find a way to get them singing. Makes me want to write more songs.
INTERVIEWER: And Anne Hathaway's performance?
ME: I still have a hard time seeing women play the female parts in my plays. But I think she's doing a wonderful job.
INTERVIEWER: Is there anything you don’t like about the play?
ME: The fact that my son never lived to see it. He was a twin. He and Judith.
INTERVIEWER: So you wrote the part with him in mind?
ME: Oh yes. I wrote it with my son in mind, and I wrote it for his uncle Edmund to play.
ME: My brother Edmund.
INTERVIEWER: He was an actor?
ME: He was a very good actor. Who knows how far he would have gone, if he hadn’t died of the plague? Actually, I know how far. I wrote the part of Edmund in Lear for him. In the first draft he was called something completely different. Can’t even remember now what it was. But after he died? It was always Edmund.
INTERVIEWER: And you wrote Sebastian for him?
ME: Of course. Same way I wrote Antonio for myself.
INTERVIEWER: So you acted in the original production of Twelfth Night?
ME: Oh yes. All the sharers did.
INTERVIEWER: And you played Antonio?
ME: I always played the Antonio parts. This play, Merchant of Venice, . . .
INTERVIEWER: You played Antonio in Merchant of Venice?
ME: You're having a hard time with this, aren't you.
INTERVIEWER: That’s a rather large role for you, isn’t it?
ME: Not as large as Iago.
INTERVIEWER: You played Iago?
ME: Well of course. If you wrote Iago, wouldn’t you want to play him?
INTERVIEWER: I’m sorry, I’m having a hard time with this.
ME: I know, I know -- everybody says I was a writer first and an actor second. Everybody meaning a bunch of old men who think that I scribbled those plays to be read rather than performed, and revised, and ad-libbed around, and generally treated like, oh, the written equivalent of a trampoline. I didn’t write plays for them to be read; I wrote them for actors to perform.
INTERVIEWER: So what other parts did you play?
ME: Prospero, of course. Buckingham. Jacques. The Friar in Romeo & Juliet. Don Pedro in Much Ado. Banquo in The Play We Don’t Mention. Claudius.
ME: And the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father.
INTERVIEWER: So, if you were doing Hamlet tomorrow, say, would you cast Anne Hathaway as Ophelia?
ME: “Cast.” Oh yes, that thing you do now where an actor gets jobbed in to play a part. We never did that. We assigned parts. Or else the parts were written with the actors in mind.
INTERVIEWER: So who was Ophelia written for?
ME: Lauren Ambrose.

And this is what gets broadcast later that night:

INTERVIEWER: So -– have you met Anne Hathaway?
ME: No. Not yet. But I did send her a note backstage.
INTERVIEWER: Really! Can I ask what you wrote in the note? Was it a poem?
ME: I’m not telling. But I think she's doing a wonderful job.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Twelfth Night in the Park: Part 1

June 20, 2009. To the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park to see the Public’s Me-In-The-Park production of Twelfth Night with that young actress who has my wife’s name. Because it is Father’s Day weekend, I take the Da as my plus one, which does not go as badly as I feared, or as well as I hoped. But it never does. At least this time he doesn’t give me a lecture about the plot, as he did last year during Hamlet. “I never got that pirates shite,” he said. “Why pirates? And why don’t we see them? If you’re going to have pirates, then show them to us.” “Yes, Da.” “Aren’t you the one who’s always saying, Don’t tell us -- show us?” “No, that’s Ben, Da.” “Ben?” “Ben Jonson, Da.” “Ah, Ben. How is Ben?” “He’s good.” “Is he here tonight?” “No, he’s probably at The Dead Poet. He thinks any play with pirates in it is a mouldy tale.” “I like pirates,” says the Da. “Pirates are fun. Not many plays out there which wouldn’t be better off with a crew of pirates in ‘em.” “Not many, Da,” I said, and mentally made a note to give him Captain Blood for his birthday.

When tonight’s play begins (with live music; well done, Daniel Sullivan) the Da, as usual sits there with his arms across his chest, now and then reacting with a harrumph or a grunt or a wry grin and a shake of his head, which is the closest he ever gets to admitting that he wants to laugh at one of my jokes. I know all this and yet I am still looking for him to do something different whenever he sees one of my plays. I keep hoping for a conversation, even though I know that this is a man who does not string more than five words together at a time unless he is under the influence of either anger or drink. Or talking about pirates. I do not know why, after several centuries, I still look for his approval. But I do. It’s the opposite with the Mum. When I took her to see Mary Stuart on Mother's Day, I was the one with my arms folded across my chest, and she was the one walking on eggshells because she could tell I was jealous of the translation.

So I try to ignore the Da and appreciate the actors, which is only made difficult by an intense little man in the third row who appears to be mouthing all the lines along with the actors, and shaking his head now and then at a missed word or anything remotely resembling an ad-lib. Whereas I am enjoying every little ad-lib and bit of business because I wish I’d thought of it first. The company is extremely talented. There is more music than in most productions, and more harmonized singing, with both Viola and Orsino joining in on the songs. It makes me wish I had written them a duet. And (yes) it is extremely odd to see a woman with my wife’s name playing a part I wrote with my daughter Judith in mind. But she is quite good for someone who has learned to act in front of a camera instead of an actual audience, and while her Viola is neither as funny nor as vulnerable as it could be (there is a reason she’s always making jokes about her cross-dressing, Anne dear) she is certainly better in the part of Viola than Julia Stiles was a few years ago. Or for that matter Sam Gilburne, for whom I wrote the part. You can guess at his strengths and limitations during his scene with Olivia, which was written for the other Sam, Sam Crosse (as was Rosalinde; as was Gertrude).

Thinking of those long-dead boys makes me think of how much the play has changed since the original version, the one just titled What You Will, in which there was no Malvolio subplot, but a cross-plot romance in which Sebastian married Olivia, Viola married Antonio, and Leonato wound up alone (because someone must always end up alone). There was much more confusion between the twins in that version, which meant much more for my brother Edmund to do as Sebastian. But then Elizabeth wanted a play to honor that pompous fool Don Virginio Orsino, so I cut the cross-plot to shreds, changed Leonato to Orsino, added Toby and Andrew and Malvolio, and gave Sam Gilburne a little more to do by creating Maria as a double-part with Viola. (So odd to see them on stage together in modern productions.) That took all of two weeks to write and rehearse, and by the time it was over, the play had turned into another Midsummer, where the chief company actors got the small beer parts and the groundlings in the company got the meat and potatoes, which fit the Twelfth Night occasion well.

This production is very much in that vein, with the weight coming down heavily on the Malvolio side of the scales. And because the actors are so good, I cannot help but rewrite the play in my head with them in mind. Raul Esparza is too strong to be wasted as Orsino; we need to see more of him, and in this script Orsino disappears for the theatrical equivalent of days. I would beef up his part, and cut the foolery between Toby and Andrew, most of which is clever references to topical events of 1600, such as that stinker about the lady of the Strachy marrying the yeoman of the wardrobe. (Memo to self: nothing dies faster than a topical reference. Better yet: memo to Stephen King.) I don't even remember who was the butt of that joke; all I do remember is that it got the biggest laugh of the day when we did it in front of Elizabeth. It reminds me of all the references to Lord Strange's Men in Love's Labor's Lost. Talk about the funniest play in history. Not a single in-joke was lost the first time we did it. It was like an industrial for the Elizabethan nobility But now? Nobody within twenty miles of me even knows who Lord Strange's Men were. Well, possibly that little man in the third row who's mouthing all the lines. He probably knows. He probably even knows who the lady of the Strachy was. Which means he’s one of those bardolaters who thinks I was a poet first, an actor tenth, and a crowd-pleaser last of all. I have the intense desire to go up to him during intermission, and give him a heart attack by telling him that, if I was writing this play now? I’d be making Britney Spears jokes. (And memo to self or not? You know I would. I would be making bad puns on her last name for days.)

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Matinee for the Misbegotten

5/24/09. To the St James with Eugene O’Neill to see the final performance of Desire Under The Elms. O’Neill warns me that there will be too much of one and not enough of the other, and based on this era’s preference for set declaration over emotional declarations, I assume that I will be watching very little Desire under a forest of Elms. It turns out to be the other way around. The set is Early Director’s Statement. There are no trees anywhere, only rocks, and several boulders hanging from the flies by knotted lengths of anchor ropes. Even the house is hanging over everybody’s head, which is to blatant symbolism what fourth-stage cancer is to the common cold.

The play begins with two yokels shifting a cart of stones from off right to stage left, which makes no mining sense at all. Shouldn’t they be taking the rocks away and clearing the land? But no. That would be realistic. And realistic is not on the menu tonight. We are dining on symbolic. Today’s main course will be an interpretation, not a play. This is only slightly less painful than watching (a) a production of As You Like It where the royalty are all Nazis and the forest dwellers are resistance fighters; or (b) Rebecca Hall in anything. Oh well. At least it’s not set in a jail.

And then the actors start shouting at each other, and jail is exactly where I feel like I am. Especially since the play is performed without an intermission. We are four lines into the thing and everyone is screaming casual remarks like “Hello” and “How are you?” to let the audience know that this is a play about PASSION, GOD DAMN IT. It’s like listening to John Barrymore through a bullhorn. After two minutes of this, my ear drums cover their own ears and curl up into a fetal ball of pain and yell: “You try and figure out what they’re saying--we can’t!”

Poor Eugene is beside himself. He so rarely gets produced, and when he does, his plays are rarely done well. Ten minutes in, he’s halfway through a flask of whiskey and muttering about the Tony Awards.

O’NEILL: I’m Eugene Fucking O’Neill and my play didn’t even get a nomination. Not one. A play about Beethoven’s ghost got nominations, for Chrissakes. I could write a play about Beethoven’s ghost during a two-day bender. And if I did, Moises Kaufman would ask my actors what it was about, tape record their answers, and then write his own play—and it would STILL be twenty times better than the piece of crap he DID write.

It doesn’t take long for Gene to become titanically inebriated. Every time he exhales, fumes of whiskey curl out from our box seat like the animated tendrils of cartoon perfume, lifting up people in the orchestra by their noses and making them sigh with pleasure. It is the only sound of happiness for the first thirty minutes of the play. By that time, O’Neill’s muttering has grown to an audible grumble. “Why do they do this?” he says loud enough for Brian Dennehy to hear. “Why do these God damn actors all equate anger with shouting? Shouting is not anger. Shouting is a TECHNIQUE!” “Not the way I shout!” yells Dennehy. Which is what I think he said. Hat I actually heard was “NAA THAA AY EYE OW!”

O’NEILL: What? What did you say? I can’t understand a misbegotten thing you said!
DENNEHY: You’re drunk, O’Neill.
O'NEILL: And you were a better ACTOR when you were drunk.
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
CARLA GUGINO: Brian, please, it’s the author.
CARLA GUGINO: Oh, go take your shirt off.
DENNEHY: I don’t give a damn if it’s the author.
DENNEHY: Nobody tells ME he can’t understand a word I say.
O’NEILL: What?
DENNEHY: I said, nobody--
O’NEILL: What?
DENNEHY: I said, --
O’NEILL: ENUNCIATE, you feckless coffee-drinker.
DENNEHY: What do you know about enunciating, you long-winded Mick?
O’NEILL: What the hell are you even doing on this stage?
DENNEHY: Come down here and say that.
O’NEILL: You’re a dumb ex-cop who only did one good movie.
DENNEHY: And you’re a beat-me-over-the-head-with-the-obvious hack whose best play never got performed in his lifetime.
O’NEILL: Come up here and say that !

It's at this point that Dennehy picks up one of the stage stones and throws it at O'Neill's head. O'Neill ducks and throws his empty flask at Dennehy. The flask hits Dennehy in the chest at about the same time the stone bounces off the wall behind us and lands on an old woman who's been asleep since the play began. She jumps up with a yell and her flailing arms whack the head of a producer type in the row in front of her, rearranging his perfectly white toupee so that it looks like a jaunty sailor cap. He starts yelling, the old woman starts yelling, O'Neill and Dennehy continue yelling, and when somebody in the balcony yells for everybody to shut up, Dennehy tosses a stage rock at him, too, and that's when the afternoon turns into the Irish version of the end of Hair, with everyone storming the stage not to dance, but to fight.

This is when I leave. I've seen this happen enough times before to know that the riot police will be called in and arrest everybody, after which O'Neill will wave his Nobel Prize and offer to buy everybody drinks, after which they will all adjourn to The Bucket Of Blood and drain the place of cheap whiskey (unless Dennehy stays on the wagon, in which case he'll drain the place of cheap tonic water), after which O'Neill will tie the director and the actors to a row of chairs and perform the entire play himself (including stage directions), after which he'll untie them and buy them more drinks and they'll all sing Sondheim numbers until they pass out.

DARK LADY: Sondheim numbers?
ME: Oh yes. O'Neill loves them. He's even turned one of his plays into a Sondheim musical.
DARK LADY: You're joking. Which one?
ME: Long Day's Journey Into Night Music.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Merchant of Venice at BAM

Continued from here and here.)

5/14/09. As the lights come up for intermission, the following conversation takes place behind me:

FIRST WOMAN: We’re going home.
MAN: Honey?
FIRST WOMAN: I am so confused. I’m going home.
SECOND WOMAN: What’s wrong?
FIRST WOMAN: I don’t know what’s going on! I’m completely lost and it seems like a waste of time.
SECOND WOMAN: It’s artistic license.
FIRST WOMAN: It’s a license to confuse.
SECOND WOMAN: Like Double-Oh Seven?
FIRST WOMAN: Like Double-Oh What The Fuck.
MAN: What does the program say?
SECOND WOMAN: It’s very dark in here, I can’t read the program.
FIRST WOMAN: You shouldn’t have to read the program to understand what you’re seeing. I don’t understand what I’m seeing. Why jail? I don’t get it. It works against the play.
I have no clue what’s going on. As much as the actors are brilliant, it’s a waste of time. The interpretation obscures the play.

I can’t resist; I turn around and offer a correction over my shoulder:

ME: The alleged interpretation.
FIRST WOMAN: Yes! Thank you! Even the author admits it! The alleged interpretation! Is it saying anything about mercy? Is it saying anything about justice and vengeance? No -- all this play is saying is, “I am the balls -- I’m directing Merchant of Venice like it’s an episode of Oz.”
ME: We never had directors back then, you know. Just stage managers.
FIRST WOMAN: Like Peter Quince in Midsummer’s?
ME: [nodding] Exactly. Just somebody who tells the actors when to enter and exit. The rest was up to us.
FIRST WOMAN: Well that couldn’t have been easy.
ME: It was a lot easier than this.
FIRST WOMAN: I’ll bet. [Standing up; to Second Woman:] Let me know how it ends.
MAN: You mean we’re going?
FIRST WOMAN: Of course we’re going. This is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in my life. [To me:] No offense.
ME: None taken.

“Well you should take offense,” says the Dark Lady as they walk out. She’s sitting with her arms crossed and her head down, like she’s preparing to gore a matador. “‘Artistic interpretation.’ It’s artistic bollocks, is what it is. It’s a director jumping and down saying ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ Why do they do that?” I shrug. “In my experience, it’s part of the job description,” I say mildly. But the DL is still fuming. “Well you know what? If it was his job to make me sit here for two hours saying to myself ‘What’s that pain in my heel? Oh—right-it’s a shoehorn,’ then he should be promoted.”

I have to agree with her. It is quite possibly one of the most misguided interpretations of Merchant that I have ever seen. It is set entirely in a prison, where the Christians and the Jews go at it like the Aryan Brotherhood versus the Crips and Bloods. Which makes for (a) some interesting byplay between the prisoners and the so-called guards, which becomes totally confusing when (b) the play switches to Belmont, and instead of it being somewhere outside this Venetian jail (a country club prison maybe? Where the Wall Street types hang out and have lesser restrictions and more freedom?), it’s just another cell block on another floor. Why would you need three thousand ducats to bribe a guard to get you access to a different part of the same jail? And if you’re actually asking that question while the scene is happening, doesn’t that mean the interpretation is a total failure?

Well, not total. Everybody tries to make Merchant realistic, when it has more in common with Pericles than it does with Measure for Measure. It’s a fairy tale –- three fairy tales, in fact –- and it’s always been misunderstood. Even when I played Shylock, it was misunderstood. Nobody ever wants it to be about the story –- they want it to be about the character. It’s the Jew play. Shakespeare’s Jew play, as opposed to Marlowe’s Jew play. (Fucking Marlowe. I’ll never get out of his shadow.) It’s the same with Hamlet; the same with Falstaff. Like the character is more important than the story. That upsets me a great deal more than a production which replaces Denmark with Venice in the phrase “Denmark’s a prison.” Making Shylock the center of attention has ruined the play from the beginning. By the time I finished rewriting it in ’96 to make Shylock more rounded, Kempe wasn’t speaking to me and Burbage insisted that we trade roles and I play Bassanio so he could do Shylock. I said no, but I was outvoted. So Shylock became another Humpbacked Dick, and I did Bassanio about as well as Claude Rains would have done Errol Flynn if they had switched roles in Robin Hood -- and Gus Phillips, between his scenes as Antonio, could be heard muttering in the wings, “Now if we could only get rid of those fooking fairy tale subplots.”

But the Shylock in this production does not tower over everyone else. Because it’s all about the director’s interpretation, and not “Anti-Semitism: Pro or Con -– Discuss,” this Shylock is that rarity of rarities: just another actor in an ensemble piece, who has his part to play and plays it without doing the Full Pacino, which is an Italian meal consisting of three courses of scenery followed by scenery a la mode. This Shylock is just another potentially violent prisoner, which is the only refreshing thing in an otherwise confusing evening.

During intermission, a good quarter of the audience has decided to go home and watch the equivalent of bear-baiting (aka American Idol) rather than the second half of my play, which is a pity, because this is the part where the director throws up his hands, cries: “I don’t get this God damn jail thing either!” and just stages the play, period. Which is why it works much better than the first half. If you ignore all the prison cells. And the moments where Portia calls out “Oh jailer!” to Gobbo-doubling-as-Balthasar. And the final scene, which should have taken place as far from Alcatraz as possible.

“It’s the fucking Shylock Redemption,” says the DL as we leave. “All it’s missing is Tim Robbins and a Rita Hayworth poster.” I roar with laughter; Roz is one of the few people who can always make me laugh out loud. Which means of course that I have to top her joke, because I can never let anyone have either the last word or the last laugh.

“In such a night,” I say, “Did Shaxpere’s Jew get twenty-five-to-life, For crimes against artistic truth, which put, The shiv in shivah.” Roz snorts, which is as close as she ever comes to admitting that I’ve said something she thinks is clever. “I can’t believe you’re making jokes about this,” she says. “My dear Roz,” I reply, “when you’ve seen Measure for Measure staged in Auschwitz? You learn to take things with a grain of salt, and not a pound of flesh.” “You’re much more merciful than I am,” says the DL. To which I refrain from telling her, “If this is true, then it is not my nature, but my experience that makes me so forgiving. You too could be this way, my sweet, if you but put yourself in someone else’s place.”