This Is Who I Am

Some of you have seen ads for the Woolly Mammoth online theater, which is being sponsored in association with 5 regional theater companies, including the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

We saw the current production, This is Who I Am, the other night, and liked it a lot. It’s a two-character play, featuring an estranged father and son who are trying to repair their relationship by cooking a family dish together via Zoom. It’s a great topic for a cooking group!  The director, Evren Odcikin, is the new Associate Artistic Director of OSF. 

The play is 70 minutes and is done live – no replay.  The live performance gives you some of the impact of live theater, but not all of it (no real time audience feedback).  The intimacy of a small screen was good though – it was easy to see that one of the characters was much more experienced at cooking than the other, which would have been hard to see in a stage production, even in a small theater.

Tickets are $15 for one screen – we bought two tickets so we could listen on separate screens via headphones.

Theaters are working very hard right now to create alternatives for theater loves, and this is a worthy effort. 

Check it out! https://www.woollymammoth.net/

Hamilton

(Theatre review – note in 2020, Disney+ released a streaming version.)

This is one of those rare cases where the reality lives up to the hype — even exceeds it. This musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton is both an excellent drama and a terrific piece of entertainment.

Unlike many musicals, which are standard plays where people occasionally burst into sung, this play is almost entirely sung.  It’s more like an opera than a traditional American musical.

The music is excelllent, and includes a variety of styles.   While there’s a lot of rap (which functions like the traditional opera “recitative”) there are also show tunes and some honest-to-god arias.  There aren’t so many singable tunes, but some of the tag lines (“Immigrants — they get the job done”) have already become memes.  The use of rap allows for some amazingly dense lyrics, which not only move the plot forward but also provide plenty of humor to various species of nerds:  musical nerds (Gilbert & Sullivan), Shakespeare nerds (the “Scottish play”) and even history nerds — the name of the scene about the battle of Yorktown, “The World Turned Upside Down,” is the actual song played (at least according to legend) by the British military band at the surrender.

Staging is almost Shakespearean minimalist — a table and chair here, a moving staircase there.  There are no traditional “scenes” — the action moves continuously from one part of the stage to another.  Movement is accomplished by the innovative use of lighting (something not available to our friend Will) and a cast of extras who move about the stage adding and subtracting props, in what is obviously some enormously complicated choreography.

The much-ballyhoo’ed mixed race casting is not mentioned during the performance and is not even noticeable after about 5 minutes — which is probably the point.

The story is reasonably close to historical reality, with a few quirks.  Jefferson appears as an entitled jerk, and Adams doesn’t appear at all — probably defensible, since the play presents Hamilton’s point of view.  I like the fact that the Founders were portrayed as human beings instead of quasi-Biblical figures.  It was also helpful to remember that the people who founded this country had deep disagreements about some pretty important stuff — slavery, the banking system, the role of the federal government — yet found a way to work together.

The cast of the travelling show was terrific. The show is basically sold out for its 4-month run here (although spare tickets appear online) and will then move to LA.

For those who won’t be able to get to a live show, there are plenty of excerpts available for free on YouTube.  I particularly enjoyed this clip of Lin-Manual Miranda at the White House in 2009, in which he previews “a new musical I am working on about the life of Alexander Hamilton” (the piece became the opening number of the show).  Listen to the laughter of the White House audience — they think Miranda is making a joke — and you can almost feel the mood of the room change as folks realize that not only is this a deadly serious project, but also really good.

Equivocation (play)

post-Festival runs in Seattle (in the fall) and off-Broadway in NY (next spring), there’s a chance a production will be coming soon to a venue near you.  If it does appear, check it out — this complex and intellectually interesting drama is rare in modern theater.

The premise:  Robert Cecil, chief councillor to King James, asks Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot.  Shakespeare agrees, but wants to interview the conspirators to get a sense of what happened.  What he finds disturb him — there was no tunnel, no gunpowder, maybe even no plot. So Will faces a dilemma — does he write the truth, and likely lose his life, or give Cecil the story he asks for, portraying the plotters as a group of religious terrorists?

The heart of the play is the imagined relationship between Shakespeare and the other members of his acting company — a “cooperative venture” of five men who want to make money producing successful plays, but who want to make art too.  We get amusing glimpses of the acting company rehearsing plays that were “works in progress” at the time; much scenery is chewed. We also see Shakespeare interacting with his daughter Judith, who was her father’s London housekeeper and who, it is suggested, had more than a little to do with rescuing some of Shakespeare’s better efforts from the garbage.  

The play is a tour de force for the actors, each of whom play several roles.  You never know whether an actor is playing, for example, the actual Lord Cecil or the actor playing Lord Cecil in rehearsals for the “Gunpowder Plot” play.  It keeps the audience on its toes.

Towards the end of the play, Shakespeare visits Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest implicated in the plot, in prison.  Garnet had written an essay on “equivocation,” or the art of telling the truth in difficult circumstances.  If you are harboring the king against a foreign enemy, and a soldier of that power comes to your door and asks you to swear that the king is not hiding there, how do you respond?  The answer to that dilemma, said Garnet, was to answer the question that was really being asked — in this case, “Can we come in and kill the king?”  Garnet used that reasoning to refuse to discuss what he knew of the plot, which he had learned under the seal of the confessional. This type of reasoning, predictably, enraged the English authorities of Shakespeare’s day (Garnet was tortured and ultimately executed for treason), but it makes more sense in a post-Rwanda world.

Shakespeare resolves his dilemma by giving Cecil what he really wants — a play about bringing a regicide to justice that will please King James.  That play, of course, is Macbeth. Ironically, comments about equivocation in that play (most of which appear in the comedic porter’s scene) are usually cut as incomprehensible to a modern audience.

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. (Macbeth, Act 2, Scene 3)

The playwright, Bill Cain, visited the Tower of London and was told that “no one was ever tortured for their religion in the Tower” — a nice piece of equivocation that he tries to rectify with this play.

Amusing historical footnote:  Several times in the play, King James refers to Cecil as “Beagle,” which I thought was an oblique reference to Karl Rove but apparently was historically accurate.  Apparently George W., Bush’s bullying nicknames have quite a historical pedigree.