Wednesday, October 22, 2014

“Something of Great Constancy”: Shakespeare to Sondheim: Part 2

By Gregory Kable, dramaturg, Into the Woods

The Red Riding Hood/Wolf illustration. By Gustave Dore;1883.
If Sondheim had a partial debt to Hammerstein, he was also consciously challenging himself to emulate the triumphant construction of a Hollywood favorite, The Wizard of Oz, a work whose score he lauded as inextricable from its action. Lapine would bring an equal enthusiasm as well as a sympathy for the writings of psychologist Carl Jung, whose ideas Lapine initially investigated in his acclaimed play Twelve Dreams. If such firm foundations afforded the collaborators a promise of navigating the hazards of musical fantasy, they gained further confidence in the tradition itself, which is defined by its state of constant reinvention. From the initial core stories gathered by Charles Perrault in the 17th century, to the 18th century publication of forty volumes of French fairy tales, the 19th century collections of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, on through the imaginative literature of E.T.A. Hoffmann, Lewis Carroll, and James M. Barrie, down to our present age of Walt Disney, Jean Cocteau, Angela Carter and J.K. Rowling, the polyphonic nature of the genre warmly welcomes all comers.

The project emerged, too, in another period of social transition, which always inspires a hunger for myth; stories which explore and explain the reasons we all must enter the thickets of the self--daring the dark path, doing battle with ogres and witches, erecting or being locked within lonely towers, seeking dragons and true love’s tokens, watching desire pass into dread and fear into bliss--encountering the magic of absolute freedom and learning the virtues of healthy restraint. These patterns shaping Sondheim and Lapine’s process were also reemerging in public consciousness throughout the musical’s development. Bruno Bettelheim1976 study The Uses of Enchantment popularized both psychoanalytic perspectives on fairy tales and wider respect for the genre as a significant form of children’s literature. From a complementary vantage point, public television’s high-profile series of interviews between journalist Bill Moyers and Jungian mythologist Joseph Campbell, entitled The Power of Myth, were expansive discussions on the place of religion and myth in contemporary culture and respectfully included fairy tales among their subjects. These dominant interpretive schools, a reading of fairy tales as personifications of psychological forces or as timeless archetypes from the collective unconscious, with competing perspectives on their meaning rooted in the individual or the group, both find their way into Sondheim and Lapine. 

To be continued Friday...

Come see Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night's Dream at PlayMakers November 1 - December 7. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

“Something of Great Constancy”: Shakespeare to Sondheim: Part 1


By Gregory Kable, dramaturg, Into the Woods

The children about to enter the forest.
By Kay Nielsen; 1925.
Among the many rich connections between A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Into the Woods is their uncommon fusion of multiple sources. Shakespeare drew upon characters and influences from as diverse an array as Greek mythology, Italian romance, English folklore and Elizabethan social life, and his success in weaving these threads into a coherent whole stands as a testament to his mastery of dramatic form. The same can be said of Into the Woods, but there’s something else their pairing in repertory reinforces: both Shakespeare and the team of Sondheim and Lapine create works which are twin meditations on the nature and importance of storytelling itself.

Befitting a musical based around journeys, Sondheim and Lapine’s own progress toward their piece was circuitous rather than linear. Having happily collaborated on Sunday in the Park with George, a chamber musical about creativity and its discontents in reaction to the disastrous reception met by Sondheim’s previous effort, Merrily We Roll Along, the partners submitted an idea for a television musical involving a car accident which would enable plot collisions among beloved small screen characters from situation comedies, police dramas, and medical shows. While this particular project never materialized, the pair transplanted its sampling concept from television into the fertile ground of fantasy. Given the adventurousness and sensibilities of its authors, the resulting work, Into the Woods, would be much more than a simple retelling of familiar tales in the style of an extravaganza like 1903’s Babes in Toyland or a charming confection such as 1959’s Once Upon a Mattress. In this piece, as in many others, Sondheim draws upon examples of his mentor, librettist Oscar Hammerstein II whose partnership with composer Richard Rodgers yielded a precedent in the watershed 1957 fairy tale musical Cinderella, a live television broadcast which both honored and subtly subverted its source tale, expertly balancing sincerity and wit, with the effect of inhabiting both a storybook and modern world simultaneously. Sondheim and Lapine would revisit and extend that approach in a manner that would yield consistent delight while increasingly tapping deep wells of emotion.

 To be continued Wednesday...

Come see Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night's Dream at PlayMakers November 1 - December 7. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

About The Bard

By Adam Versényi, Dramaturg, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Droeshout portrait of William Shakespeare. By Martin Droeshout; 1623.
William Shakespeare's origins are obscure but the little evidence that we have suggests that he was christened in Stratford-on-Avon, April 26, 1564. Tradition holds that Shakespeare was born on April 23rd. The eldest of six children, Shakespeare came from the merchant class. His father was a tradesman who was elected Bailiff, or Mayor, of Stratford in 1568, his mother was from a small landowning family. His father's position afforded the young Shakespeare the possibility of a formal education in the town school. By 1582, Shakespeare had married Ann Hathaway, and by 1585 fathered three children. Shakespeare's family having fallen upon hard times, he was forced to seek employment outside of Stratford.

While it is quite possible that Shakespeare saw medieval pageants and traveling players as a boy in Stratford, only in the years after he left his hometown did he immerse himself in the theater, becoming both an actor and a playwright. By 1592 he was established in London, and by 1594 had joined the prominent company the Chamberlain's Men (which in 1603 changed its name to the King's Men), linked in most people's minds to the Globe Theatre built on the banks of the Thames in 1599. Shakespeare was a joint owner of the Globe and as such shared in its profits and losses. One of his great strengths as a writer came from his ability to gain both popular and critical praise. He wrote his plays considering every aspect of them through the eyes of an actor, a playwright, a businessman, a tradesman's son, and possibly an ex-soldier, evaluating their success or failure utilizing all the facets of his professional life as well. By 1611 Shakespeare had become prosperous enough to retire to Stratford. He died in 1616 on the date of his birth, April 23. He was buried in the same Stratford church where he had been christened. 

Come see Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night's Dream at PlayMakers November 1 - December 7. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"A Midsummer Night's Dream": Part 2

By  Adam Versényi, Dramaturg, A Midsummer Night's Dream 

The critic Northrup Frye in “The Mythos of Spring” forcefully articulated this contrast between imagination and authority. Frye points out that in the initial wintry world of Athens, Hermia must face either death or a sterile convent life if she defies parental and legal authority. But in the fertile world of the woods, everything and everyone is reborn.

The regenerative world of the forest is not without dangers. Witness Hermia’s serpent dream in Midsummer or Orlando and Oliver’s battle with the lion in As You Like It. However, coping with that danger is also the way the characters mature. Their time in the woods is transformative, and they are different when they re-integrate into human society. The trees of the forest--whose sap flows or lies dormant as they follow the cycle of the seasons—are themselves a physical manifestation of and a wonderful metaphor for the transformation undergone by Shakespeare’s characters.

As the play proceeds, we move deeper into the woods and deeper into the dream. When the play begins both the mortal and fairy worlds are fractured communities. Everything -- from the weather to filial relations -- is out of whack. Through the depiction of multiple couples in the mortal realm, the fairy realm, and a blending of the two, Shakespeare layers our experience. We enter the forest at night, a time when the presence of magic and the supernatural is at its height. Characters dream, exposing what lurks in the unconscious, and revealing acts of magic as our own needs, fears, and desires unleashed. While Oberon, Puck, and Titania all have more than mortal power, none of them can make happen anything that mortals don’t think or feel themselves. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream the human and fairy worlds are in symbiosis. The human world needs the fairies’ good will to be well even as the fairies need humans in order to function.

Our journey through the woods is a dream within a dream within a dream. By the play’s end, multiple dreams have been dreamed and discarded. The artisans dream of performing before the Duke, and Bottom awakens to ponder the extraordinary power of dreams and the ability of each of us have to transform and grow through the power of the imagination. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps the most actively theatrical of all of Shakespeare’s plays and theatre, of course, depends upon our imagination. As we journey through the various worlds of A Midsummer Night’s Dream the lines between them become blurred, the play itself ends, and we are sent out of the woods and into the world where we will need to employ our own imaginations to be whole.

Come see Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night's Dream at PlayMakers November 1 - December 7. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

"A Midsummer Night's Dream": Part 1


By Adam Versényi, Dramaturg, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Titania and Bottom (A Midsummer Night's Dream, IV-1) (c. 1790) oil on canvas. By Henry Fuseli . London, Tate Gallery
Both James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream trade upon the familiar. Into the Woods draws upon our familiarity with various fairytales, while A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6) is perhaps the most familiar of Shakespeare’s comedies. How many reading these notes have heard of the play, studied the lines or performed them on stage, heard Mendelssohn’s music, viewed Fuseli’s painting, seen Balanchine’s ballet or Reinhardt’s film? Such familiarity creates a sense of expectation as we encounter each new rendition. 

But familiarity also poses a danger. Will our memories too heavily shape our reception, blinding us as thoroughly as the juice of the magical flower blinds the eyes of the midsummer’s night lovers? With this new production, rehearsed and prepared for you, PlayMakers Repertory Company invites you to re-hear and revisit the play with us. If this is your first time viewing A Midsummer Night’s Dream of the play, welcome to its world.

Imagination is the driving force of the play. Theseus and Hippolyta imagine a new relationship based upon harmony and concord rather than conquest and heated battle. The four young lovers imagine and enact a constantly shifting web of relationships between themselves. Meanwhile, the Athenian craftsmen imagine something quite different for themselves as they prepare to perform Pyramus and Thisbe for the Duke’s wedding. Finally, Oberon and Titania imagine a fairy realm that replaces disjunction and discord with amity and love.

But in the world of Athens, where the humans come from, the imagination is largely constrained. The city is a rectilinear place ruled by law and absolute parental and governmental authority. A number of Shakespeare’s plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It being the most prominent, depict worlds in which his characters escape parental and governmental authority by fleeing to the forest. The characters’ sojourn in “the green world” changes both them and the authoritarian environment they have fled. By the time they return, the characters have grown and the strictures of society have been loosened to the benefit of all. 

To be continued Thursday...

Come see Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night's Dream at PlayMakers November 1 - December 7. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Special Events for "Into the Woods" & "A Midsummer Night's Dream"


PlayMakers takes audiences into the darker reaches of the forest with two tales of magic and transformation in the theater’s annual rotating repertory event with Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Nov. 1 to Dec. 7.

Into the Woods is a multiple Tony Award-winning musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine. The show was originally directed on Broadway by James Lapine with orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick.

Into the Woods is paired with A Midsummer Night’s Dream reputed to be the theater’s first “fairy tale.” Shakespeare’s lyrical comedy weaves together a trio of stories set in a magical wood. During the course of a moonlit evening, four young lovers escape to the forest on a fantastic adventure, changing them forever.

Special events will include:

 
  • Oct. 13, 6 p.m.: a discussion with the directors and cast at McIntyre’s Books, Fearrington Village, Pittsboro;
  • Oct. 22, 6:30 p.m.: “The Vision Series-Directors in Conversation,” a behind-the-scenes preview with directors Haj and Cooper, in the Paul Green Theatre.
  • Nov. 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7: preview performances at 7:30 p.m.;
  • Nov. 8: opening day performances with Woods at 2 p.m. and Dream at 7:30 p.m.;
  • Nov. 11 (Woods) and 18 (Dream): all-access performances for attendees with special needs, with sign language interpretation and audio description;
  • Nov. 12 and 30 (Woods) and 19 and 23 (Dream): free post-show discussions with the creative team;
  • Nov. 13, 6 p.m.: "Table Talk: A Journey Inside Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods’,” an evening of dinner, drinks and conversation at the Rizzo Conference Center in Chapel Hill. The event pairs a four-course meal with stimulating conversation exploring fairy tales, the meaning of wilderness, magic and producing the musical. Tickets are $80. Pre-registration is required, call (919)962-1544.
  • Nov. 22 (Woods) and 23 (Dream): open captioned performances; and,
  • Dec. 6 (Woods) and 7 (Dream): free post-show “Mindplay” discussions sponsored by the North Carolina Psychoanalytic Society. 
 
Come see Into the Woods and A Midsummer Night's Dream at PlayMakers November 1 - December 7. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.
 

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Michael Dempsey weighs in on scenic design


By Michael Dempsey, Scenic Designer, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Michael Dempsey
Scenic design is much more than a clever solution to the challenge of providing for the physical requirements of a text. Its purpose is often subversive, supporting plot, theme, rhythm, and style while creating a world unique to the production.

We are storytellers. As members of the ensemble we are active participants in the telling of the story. We provide location and context for the action.  As developers of the physical world of the production we can create obstacles and pathways for the movement of characters and action.

We endow spaces with specificity for both audience and actor. Scenic designers provide a veneer of authenticity and emotional connection. While sometimes only as deep as a coat of paint, when successful, heightens the experience of the viewer.

Not only are designers called upon to provide a space rich with context and emotional connection for the audience, one that speaks to viewers sometimes hundreds of feet away, we also have a responsibility to provide a similar experience for the performer who must believably inhabit the environment.

Scene from Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Photo by Jon Gardiner

The scenic designer sculpts the environment. In a larger context, the scenic designer composes a dramatic installation; one that echoes the composition of the text, story, and theme.

Finally it is important to note that the work of the scenic designer is nothing but ideas and it is only with the dedicated work of the artisans and craftspersons who bring those ideas to life, the carpenters, painters, properties artisans, and technical directors, that the world represented in the set exists as a participant in the storytelling.

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike will be performed at PlayMakers through October 5, 2014. For tickets, call 919.962.PLAY (7529) or visit our website.