Monthly Archives: August 2014
To say that Ruff Yeager is a Tennessee Williams “enthusiast” might be an understatement. As someone who has spent most of his life studying the work of this particular playwright, “authoritative scholar” might be a more appropriate descriptor for the director of Monday evening’s staged reading of Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
“Milk Train is a very rarely seen play from a very important American playwright,” says Ruff of Tennessee Williams, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. “From 1945-1963, Williams had a play on Broadway almost every season – sometimes two. No other American playwright has ever been so produced.”
While Milk Train may be one of his more underperformed plays, the brilliance of Tennessee Williams’ stunning dialogue and hard-hitting thematic resonance is consistent with the plays that more quickly come to mind, such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire.
“At this point in his career [in 1963], Williams had begun to experiment with form in small ways, which was a bit ahead of his time,” says Ruff. “The American theater was still in the conservative, nuclear family, atomic age. It wouldn’t be until the late 60s when the theatre would catch up to the social revolutions that were occurring in the country and the artistic revolutions that had already occurred in Europe.”
Based on a short story that Williams wrote earlier, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore introduces Flora Goforth, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl who has retired to a private Italian island for the remainder of her days, which are waning in number. She is kept company by the Witch of Capri, a gossipy busybody, and her assistant, Blackie. The story takes a turn when Christopher Flanders, also known as the “Angel of Death,” arrives to befriend Flora. Chris is known for his relationships with older women…and for his tendency to be mentioned in their wills after they have died.
Dagmar Fields, recently seen on the Intrepid stage in I Hate Hamlet, will be portraying the juicy, layered role of Flora Goforth and Spencer Smith will take on the role of the mischievous Christopher Flanders. In “true Tennessee Williams motif,” according to Ruff, Ralph Johnson will be portraying the Witch of Capri, a role originally written for a woman, but which has been played throughout history by such famous names as Noël Coward.
Rounding out the cast are Faeren Adams as Blackie and Fred Harlow and Celeste Innocenti as the Ensemble Members.
“He casts two actors as what he calls ‘stage assistants,’” Ruff says, “They come out in a kabuki fashion and announce scenes, scene changes, comment ironically on the action. They guide us through the action unseen by the other characters. We weren’t seeing that kind of thing done here in the States. Williams knew the theatre landscape was changing.”
Aside from being ahead of its time in form, Milk Train also offers audiences a unique glimpse into Williams’ development as a writer. Whereas his previous catalogue dealt with themes of life, love and death in a very metaphorical manner, Milk Train addresses the same ideas with astonishing honesty and realism, especially as the play was written in the aftermath of the death of Frank Merlo, Williams’ longtime partner.
“This play lets us see his characters grow,” says Ruff. “Flora is much more honest and self-knowing than Blanche from Streetcar. She knows what life is about. She’s not self-deluded. As Williams grew older, his female characters really shifted.”
The language of this play reflects that honesty. Not only does it contain Williams’ beautiful poetic qualities, but it is also quite humorous in its realism.
“Williams is looking very hard into the eyes of death and dealing with it very honestly. It’s gallows humor, but there is also the idea of the ‘liberating laugh’ of absurdism – the laughter that allows us to be free for a moment. I think this play provides that moment.” — T.T.
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by Tennessee Williams, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, August 25. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. $15. Rsvp to firstname.lastname@example.org and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase a reading series subscription.
Merriam-Webster merely defines omertà as “a code of silence,” although the cultural implications of this Sicilian term are perhaps much broader, much more Godfather-ish than that tiny definition suggests.
This unspoken cultural code, prevalently infused into aspects of Italian culture throughout history, was one of the things that inspired Richard Baird, director of Intrepid’s current production of Much Ado About Nothing, when he considered setting this production in 1931. In fact, it might be one of the reasons why it works so well there.
“Two things men were highly concerned with,” explains Richard about this period of Italian history, “were their honor and their wives’ chastity.”
Given that the play addresses both of these themes – and also places them against a militaristic backdrop – it is no wonder that the politically charged climate of the 1930s enhances this particular story.
“Though this is not a play that delves into questions about tyranny, we thought the background of a dictatorship provided interesting parallels,” says Richard. “People often forget that Elizabeth I for all of her talents was accused by many of being or becoming a tyrant. Plays such as Richard II had to have heavy cuts – especially where he abdicates the crown – for fear of imprisonment.”
When the threat of repercussions – both spoken and unspoken – sits heavily in the air, the choice to play fast and loose with ideas such as honor and integrity must be deliberate and unwavering. It is no wonder that no one blinks an eye when young Hero’s maidenhood is questioned, considering that the accusations come from the pedigree of officers who would understand the consequences of making a mistake.
However, this wouldn’t be Much Ado About Nothing without some falsehoods flying about. The idea of conspiring, eavesdropping and gossiping is literally written into the title, after all.
“The title of Much Ado about Nothing seems at first a light-hearted throwaway,” says Dramaturge Gideon Rappaport. “In reality, it conveys a deeper theme of the play. In this case, the depth lies in the multiple meanings of the word nothing. In Shakespeare’s time nothing meant what we mean by it…But also the word was pronounced exactly like the word noting, which itself had several meanings: observing, paying attention, and – a meaning we no longer use – denouncing someone in public.”
Even though Richard has worked on Much Ado About Nothing numerous times as both an actor and a director, he admits that balancing the gravity of the plot twists with the lighter love stories presents an interesting challenge.
“This time, I was reminded how dark some of the aspects of the play really are,” he explains. “Finding that balance of dark with the romcom nature of the play is challenging but very rewarding.”
As is always the case with Shakespeare, the text provides the clues and the answers to striking this balance. With the majority of the dialogue written in prose, the love story between Beatrice and Benedick becomes more real, more honest, he says.
“They know one another and there is a trust that they have to find their way back too,” says Richard. “It isn’t sappy or intense.”
The prose also gives context to the “nothing” – in this case, the scheming and the subterfuge.
“There are many tricks and plots in Much Ado” Richard explains. ”Virtually every character spies and becomes a form of intelligencer. Many of the schemer roles are written in blunt straightforward language. For instance, Iago [from Othello] speaks in quite a bit of prose, as does Edmund [King Lear] and Falstaff.”
The language, then, offers a context in which both the main characters – and their love story – can flourish, while tackling both the weight and the humor of the play. After all, Beatrice and Benedick find their way to each other over the tragedy of young Hero’s nuptials and even the darkest moments are offset by the investigations of the delightfully comic Constable Dogberry.
And, of course, the main component in pulling off this tricky balance is the talent of the actors on the stage.
“I have an incredibly talented and hard working cast,” says Richard. “They have all acquitted themselves with professional excellence and helped craft a very fun and hopefully thought-provoking production.” – T.T.
Much Ado About Nothing runs through August 17. Showtimes: Thursday 8pm / Friday 8pm / Saturday 4pm & 8pm / Sunday 2pm.
Tickets are available here.
“There is a merry war betwixt them.”
Sean Yael-Cox can’t help but smile as he reflects on his recent rehearsals with leading lady Shana Wride, the Beatrice to his Benedick in Intrepid Shakespeare Company’s upcoming production of Much Ado About Nothing.
“They love to fight,” says Sean. “They have this fantastic energy and there’s this terrific word play between the two of them. We are having a lot of fun sparring.”
Much Ado About Nothing previewed July 24 in Intrepid’s black box space, just a week after the closing of “I Hate Hamlet,” making this summer season in Encinitas a double header of comedy, romance and spicy verbal jousting.
“Not to give too much away,” confides Shana Wride, “but I think Beatrice has a crush on Benedick.”
One of Shakespeare’s most produced comedies, Much Ado About Nothing was written in the last years of the 16th century and although many of the story lines in this play were inspired from previous literary lore, the fireworks of elevated verbal banter between Benedick and Beatrice is quite singular among the Bard’s canon. While other Shakespearean couples may have their arguments and power struggles, Much Ado presents this duo in a very different light.
“Beatrice is not like other women,” says Shana, who describes her character as a ‘confirmed bachelor.’ “She doesn’t subscribe to the mores of the time period. She dances to her own drum.”
The balance, then, lies in how to ground the characters in their own truth, while allowing for the possibility of love. The clues to this balance might be found in the text, specifically, in the moments when the poetry kicks in.
“[Beatrice] speaks only in prose, until the point in the play where she hides in the arras, and overhears Hero and Ursula speaking of Benedick’s ‘love’ for her,” scholar Patrick Tucker writes. “This is not an insignificant moment in the play.”
Indeed, the back and forth between prose (how we regular people talk) and poetry (that flowery, rhyming stuff) in Much Ado might mirror the back and forth of the intentions of these two would-be lovers, which means the audience will sometimes have more insight into what is happening in the story than the characters themselves – if they listen closely enough.
“The prose, like the verse, is alive, witty, rhythmic, in places lyrical, always appropriate to the character who is speaking and to the particular mood of the scene,” says Dramaturge Gideon Rappaport. “Beatrice and Benedick may be ‘too wise to woo peaceably,’ but their ‘kind of merry war’ in words scintillates with life.”
For Sean and Shana, it is these words that will help them find their way from merry war to married love, a journey punctuated by the comedy, drama and wit of Shakespeare’s dialogue.
“The thing that makes the text amazing is that when you line up with it, and with the character, and with the other people onstage, it is like nothing else you are going to experience,” says Shana. “Shakespeare is sort of a visceral, exciting ride that you can’t duplicate.”
“The comedy is incredibly smart in this play and yet it’s very fun and it’s very physical,” says Sean. “It’s the kind of play that whether you are new to Shakespeare, or you’ve been watching Shakespeare plays for years, it really offers something for everybody.”
Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Richard Baird, runs through August 16. Showtimes: Thursday 8pm / Friday 8pm / Saturday 4pm & 8pm / Sunday 2pm.
Tickets are available here.