Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Not in the review

So I wrote many things about Henley Street Theatre Company’s “The Spanish Tragedy” in my review. Among them are some comments that echo Mary’s: I had a great deal of trouble with the costumes – I may have been more distracted by them than any other production I can remember. I also thought the use of fake blood at the end was a problematic choice. It was certainly a dramatic moment but I ended up feeling manipulated. My full review should appear in Style soon – maybe as early as this week – and you’ll get the full story then.

But until then, here are some things that didn’t end up in the review:

The set. I ended up feeling a bit mixed about the set. Like many aspects of the production, I think the ambition exceeded the execution. The second level with the tower room where Bel-Imperia is locked was pretty impressive. But the little chambers under the second level were odd and the façade of the whole thing, while it didn’t look as bad as cardboard building blocks, also didn’t quite convey “brick” convincingly.

I liked Anthony Santiago as Balthazar, though not quite as much as I liked him in “Spinning into Butter.” I didn’t really get a strong impression of Brad Tuggle as Horatio. I like the chemistry between him and Frank Creasy’s Hieronimo in their brief moments together, but I would echo Mary again and say I wasn’t quite feeling the fire between him and Kerry McGee’s Bel-Imperia.

I enjoyed Dean Knight as Lorenzo’s page a lot. I wish he was given more to do and more stage time in which to do it.

Sorry to say but the entire Portuguese court kind of left me flat. The whole subplot involving political infighting at the Portuguese court was a time-waster in my opinion, adding far too little to the show for the time and focus it demanded. Not to be mean about it but that was how I felt.

I touch on this in the review, but I think the text of the play is problematic. Until the trial of Pedringano, there is a deathly lack of humor or distraction from the grim main events. There were some moments of lightness after that, but the whole piece is a pretty grim affair. Hamlet’s no party either but I think I laughed at least four times as often the last time I saw that. Also, whereas Shakespeare has such moving and soaring poetry, I didn’t think there was much inspiration to be found in Kyd’s rhymes. There was a fairly large proportion of “moon/June” kind of poetry (or at least “tale / nightingale” which is really just about as bad).

The one soliloquy that approached poignancy was Hieronimo’s “What good is a son?” speech. It was a good speech but almost a little too bittersweet. I also didn’t get at all why Hieronimo first discovers his son, is distraught, then apparently refuses to accept that it’s his son, and then “re-discovers” him and falls again into pain and rage. Why go through that circle? It was confusing to me.

Though I’ve written a fair amount of negative stuff above, I did like many things about the production. But you’ll read about those in my review, when it comes out and if you are inclined to pick up a copy. In the meantime, I'm open to opinions both contradictory and complementary...


Dave T said...

I just double-checked my notes and I think Hieronimo's speech actually started out "What is there yet in a son?" I may not have gotten that right and haven't found a text for it online so hopefully that's a close approximation...

Frank Creasy said...

Hey Dave - the "what is there yet in son" reference is correct, and Hieronimo repeats that in the speech. It is a poignant speech and one of my favorite moments.

As for Hieronimo's denial of his own eyes after finding his son brutally murdered, yes, it's one of many very tricky elements. We settled on it being a matter of shock and temporary insensibility or lack of reason, which is resolved by his wife Isabella's admonition.

Surely, the text presents many challenges - Kyd's influence on Shakespeare is unmistakeable, but Kyd is not the Bard. There is a definite lack of humor; we worked to mine whatever we could, and Dean and Alison manage it very effectively, but the text itself gives few such opportunities.

The whole production is an enormous challenge, as you noted, for ANY company. This company is starting out on a very tight budget and the season is ambitious, no doubt, and this production perhaps most ambitious of all. We knew from the start what we were facing, and there was only one thing to do: Throw ourselves fully into it. After last weekend, we all breathed a sigh of relief knowing we had presented the best production possible under the current circumstances.

I'm proud to be a part of this production, and just thrilled to get to perform such a complex role. Each one of us has probably wondered, at some time - what we would do if a loved one was brutally killed? How would we respond? For Hieronimo, rage and grief drive him mad. He bargains with both heaven and hell, his speeches are continously pitched with emotion, verse lines often beginning "Oh, sacred heavens" or containing numerous rhyming or repeated words. His wife, the only character more emotionally distraught than Hieronimo for her entire performance as Becky Spence so ably demonstrates, ultimately cannot wait for revenge to be meted out before killing herself. Characters not involved in the brutal murders precipitating the revenge continue blithely along their everyday existence, eventually getting pulled into the proceedings knowingly or not.

The bloody ending? From a safety perspective you can't very well splash around a lot of blood in the first act without cleaning it up, so there's that. I believe the ending both matches the climactic conclusion and heightens the built-in ambivalence the audience probably SHOULD feel as they leave the theatre. Hieronimo may be justified in seeking his revenge, but even though we know it's a play, a close-up representation of ultra-violence should shock our sensibilities. We aren't satisfied by the results, and the inexplicable murder of the Duke of Castile heightens the notion that all this killing is despicable. Our humanity is restored, our compassion confirmed as good and noble.

Sure, we can discuss points of difference about costumes, sets, performance, direction, etc. I do feel that a production of this type generates a great deal of discussion and thought long after the bows are taken. In that sense, I am satisfied this qualifies as a highly successful theatrical experience, and that is testament to the collective efforts of cast and crew who - I can assure you - worked tirelessly for weeks to realize this vision.

Thanks to Style for getting the review in so quickly - I never thought it would make THIS week's edition!

Andrew Hamm said...

Bravo to Style for getting the review in so quickly!

Anonymous said...

I too was pleased that Style reviewed the show so quickly! Dave & Mary...did you have anything to do with that? Or are they starting to see the light?

Anonymous said...


Why would you expect something called The Spanish Tragedy to have some humor in it?


ps. Congrats on whoever Henley Street Theatre is for doing that play, I love it and next to Edward II it is my favorite pre-Bard Elizabethan play...good for you guys, hope you get some audiences!!

Dave T said...

Mr. St. Peter,
I can't tell whether you are being facetious or not so I'll just tell you that the tragedies I've enjoyed the most have included judicious applications of comic relief.

I appreciate your illuminating comments, Frank. And as far as Style's scheduling, I don't know whether the quick appearance of the "Tragedy" review signals any change. As far as I know, Mr. Reynolds has always fit reviews in as best as he could. And I am certainly glad he's back after a well-deserved break.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Timberline-

I am not at all being facetious (however I am right now by addressing you as Mr. Timberline) but I don't believe a lack of humor in a pure tragedy is something worth commenting on. "There were some moments of lightness after that, but the whole piece is a pretty grim affair. Hamlet’s no party either but I think I laughed at least four times as often the last time I saw that." I honestly don't believe that is a valid piece of criticism, particularly since it really wasn't till Shakespeare that playwrights began to freely mix comedic and tragic elements. For instance, I don't believe you would laugh too much during a production of The Trojan Women or Medea but that doesn't discount the fact that they are great plays. I am perhaps comparing apples and oranges when talking about Greek tragedy vs Elizabethan tragedy, but The Spanish Tragedy is in fact a tragedy...If you were going to see The Odd Couple and you found it to lack humor, that is worth commenting on...

This once again gets us into the tricky territory of criticism...do you owe it to your readers to let them know that "tragedies you've enjoyed most have included judicious applications of humor"?? I only ask because the tragedies I've enjoyed most perhaps don't (The Trojan Women being a prime example)...I am asking in all honesty because I think it is a valid area of discussion....Does anyone else think so or am I making much ado about nothing...???


Dave T said...

Hey Rick,
I love this line of discussion, my only disappointment being that we aren’t having it over brews at The Lighthouse. I think we could travel down two paths here – the inclusion of comic elements in tragedy and your assertion about what is valid criticism.

On the former, I would refer to the line from my review, which says, “Kyd’s play has little of the Bard’s leavening humor.” I think that statement is just plain fact as I think you have acknowledged by pointing out that comic relief was not a regular aspect of early Elizabethan drama. I am sure there are many great plays that are almost strictly tragic and that have nearly no humor in them. As I have said, I personally like tragedies better that include humor when the humor is judiciously applied, just as I like comedies better that are grounded in some form of realistic angst.

But beyond my personal preference, I would further argue that these plays are more ‘successful,’ and I mean that in many senses. I think tragedies that don’t include comic relief tend to be more ponderous and simply more boring and are therefore less appealing to a general audience. For an analogy, you could look at the recent Iraq-oriented movies that have been critically lauded but not well attended. In another sense, I think they are more successful because they reflect life more accurately in some ways and they comment on life more profoundly in other ways. In reflecting life, I just think about certain tragic circumstances in my life – in the days after my father died, my sisters and I laughed together all the time, including quite giddily when we were picking out coffins. We HAD to laugh or else we would have spent the time relentlessly crying. On the profundity aspect: I think artistically successful plays juxtapose comedy and tragedy in a way that shows the essential vitality of life. If life weren’t a joy and a privilege, it wouldn’t be as devastatingly horrible to lose it. That is part of what makes the Hamlet / gravedigger scene so essential and transcendent. In Heironimo’s case, if Horatio hadn’t made his father swell so much with pride, his death would not have been as poignant.

Now on the point of what is valid criticism, I think you are on some slippery ground there my friend. It’s ironic that you mention “The Odd Couple,” because one of the reasons I liked the recent Barksdale production was because David Bridgewater actually made Oscar’s telephone conversations with his estranged wife and daughters real and a bit heart-tugging. I’ll have to go back and look at whether I mentioned that specifically in my review, but I think (hope) you would agree that this effective use of a painful element is a valid topic of critical discussion. So why wouldn’t the use of comic elements in a tragedy be valid? I could go pretty broadly with this one and say that anything associated with a production that affects a theatergoer’s experience is valid – I have commented on the weather before in reviews about Richmond Shakespeare productions and shows at Dogwood Dell. But these were pretty specific occurrences.

Still, even taking a more narrow view, I would say that any element of a play’s text is pretty wide-open to critical consideration, including the lack of some things. For instance, some plays are based on real-life events. If such a play does not include essential background information that leads to a significantly skewed representation of a character, I think that is worth mentioning (I seem to remember that several reviewers of “I am my own wife” felt it necessary to delve into the ‘real’ life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. I didn’t but I also didn’t think there was a lack of validity in their interest.)

I should equivocate in this way: while I think many things are ‘valid’ for criticism, I personally don’t think all of them are worthy of criticism. And I think that is what determines whether you like a certain critic or not. In the past (when I read him), I had noticed that my pal Mr. Neman at the T-D was a stickler for the locations where a movie was shot – if there was something incongruous about a location, you were almost assured to see it mentioned. While I think that’s valid for criticism, I felt he harped on it to excess and it was one of the many reasons why I stopped reading him regularly.

I’ll be looking for contrasting and conflicting opinions on the above, particularly from the Kentucky contingent!