The Servant of two Masters at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival took the stage in the manner of a melting parfait during last week’s mini heat wave.

Miserly fathers called Pantalone, pompous latin-spouting medics, a quartet of lovers – one silly pair and one romantic – the inn-keeper Brighella, the crafty servant Trufaldino and his female counterpart Smeraldina, lots of Lazzis, sequences of bits, takes, asides, and one-two-three gags, and there you have the crazy zany world of Commedia Dell’Arte.

Commedia took its rise from the Italian street theatre of the late 16th and early 17th century, by the time Carlo Goldini was writing in the mid 18th century the form had got a lot more, well, formal. Which is perhaps why in this show, I’m wearing a wig which is first cousin to a dead sheep. Or maybe it’s because whenever they need a rotund character man with dead-sheep-wearing abilities McPhillamy’s name rises first in the rolodex, second time round in garb like this here at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (first time was two years ago in Amadeus). It’s wigs like these that give us the phrase: pull the wool over one’s eyes.

But my first time ever on an out door stage. We are playing at the Greek amphitheatre in the grounds of the Convent of St. Elizabeth. I’m delighted to report that it’s been a hugely pleasant experience. And I can say that in spite of the sun, the heat, the bugs which safely graze, and the aeroplanes which fly over from the nearby flying school about every ten minutes.

How so pleasant in spite of the inconveniences listed above? The theatre sits on the side of a high slope looking across a wide wooded valley. During production week when endless technical rehearsals involving sets and props, lights and sound, intersperse with director’s minutiae regarding staging, text, and timing, I bought an inflatable kiddie pool and filled it with water. Pink faced cast members would appear and dunk head or whole body. That helped in the heat management. The possibility of summer rain adds excitement. Don’t get me wrong I still enjoy the job, but there’s nothing as interesting as free money, as in, in this case getting paid for not acting if the show gets rained off.

This amphitheatre was built in the 1930s. The risers on the three aisle stairways are concrete. And the steps where the audience sits are turf with a concrete lip (not all that comfortable). The semi-circular shape of the auditorium and the rise in it means that if you stand upstage centre, you can whisper and be heard. A happy acoustic rarely found in indoor performing spaces outside the classic Victorian horseshoe shapes that still grace most of London’s West End.

My guy, Il Dottore to give him his traditional Commedia name, is a pompous spouter of ersatz classical language, usually getting the latin wrong and never knowing what he’s talking about. As a sometime dabbler in Sanskrit and a current student of contemporary Chinese, and traveling that road from the total knowledge one had in youth to the growing uncertainty of middle age, I feel I can relate to this archetype. Il Dottore has also stayed too long at fair like Sir Toby Belch, but his faux classical erudition also makes him a close relation to the latin scholar Holofernes in Loves Labour’s Lost.

To say to a company of contemporary actors: ‘right, Commedia Dell’Arte. Begin now, go.’ would be on a par with requiring them to emulate a troupe of Kabuki or Noh players. Folk study for years to reproduce the traditional comic physicalities of these characters, and there is a strong box of traditional gags and tricks some of which require equally long and diligent study. We spent a morning’s rehearsal adjusting our pelvic tilt, turning feet in and out, looking left while walking right, and playing strong simple intentions based on universal human needs: food, money, sex.

Fascinating though this exploration was, we were never going to achieve anything more than a received reproduction of forms that none of us had ever experienced first hand, nor understood from the inside. The first weeks of our production went in the direction of say Saturday Night Live and sketch comedy. But right in the middle of the rehearsal process, the production took a turn toward the style comedies of the Restoration.

One of my early theatre going experiences was when I saw She Stoops to Conquer at the Young Vic Theatre in London. A young Nicky Henson in his virile prime played Marlowe and it was a revelation to me that an actor could be so juicy while spouting formal text. It was one of the performances that made me want to become an actor – another was Tom Courteney in Brandon Thomas’s stand alone late 19th century smash hit, Charley’s Aunt. Congreve’s masterpiece, and say Sheridan’s, The Rivals, and many other plays of the late 18th century live at a higher level of verbal dexterity than Goldoni’s plays – at least as far as scholars can tell. Goldoni wrote in 18th century Venetian dialect and what certain lines mean is a subject of academic treatise.

So our production is a hybrid. But the story works, and if the weather doesn’t deliver wilting heat, and if there are sufficient numbers (audiences need the confidence of other people’s amusement) then it’s a very enjoyable evening under the stars.

Il Dottore is the alter-ego of Pantalone, played brilliantly in our production by Bill Metzo. During rehearsals our double act argument scenes were referred to as: the ‘old men’, I remonstrated with our young director over this title, and we settled on a comprise where these scenes and the actors playing went by the name ‘Living National Treasure’. However, I still wonder in Commedia fashion, whether enough diet and exercise could recapture the vigour of my earlier youth and change the casting to some other archetype… watch this space.


May 2010

The first time I went to the Chinese embassy in New York to apply for a visa, I gave my profession as ‘writer’. A hopeful move on my part probably influenced by some pop metaphysician – one of the ones that tell you to announce your intentions to the universe and then watch happily as the stars line up – the lady behind the glass paused.

‘What kind writer? Politcal?’

It crossed my mind to quip as follows: ‘Political!? No way. I don’t even vote.’

This was another one on the long list of witty things I could have said but didn’t. Perhaps it was for the best this time as a protest non vote cuts little ice with someone from a country where voting is not widely practised.

So far so good, but immersed as I am in a fascinating volume called ‘When China Rules The World’, and noting a well-observed article in the New York Times commenting on the increasing compliance of anyone with any profile when pronouncing publically on China, I will use more restraint than I’d like but less than is prudent when talking about the man at the end of this month’s entry here.

What has caught my interest this May is the complex question of presence onstage. I began rehearsal three days ago for a play called Servant of two Masters by Goldini. When I tell people this, sometimes they say ‘Ah Commedia dell’arte isn’t it.’

And I say, ‘yes.’

And usually in the above exchange there is a tacit agreement that we actually know what that means.

My fellow cast members on this one are a delightful, gifted, and above all comically talented group. There is as much humourous ability per square inch of actor in this cast than in any I’ve shared a stage with these thirty years – with the possible exception of British actor Martin Chamberlain who could draw a laugh from a dead man – digression here; on the second preview of The Constant Wife in the last season at the old Guthrie in Minneapolis, one of the audience members did actually pass on in about the middle of the performance. His family graciously assured the theatre that for this gentleman, a life-long theatre going enthusiast, there could not have been a better way to go, and as that play was a comedy, one hopes that he died laughing.

So I’m delighted that the cast is made up of funny people. Our director is an enthusiast and has studied Commedia formally. But do any of us actually know what the form demands? Not so much. Stock characters abound everywhere in life of course. I happen to play a doctor in the piece, and given the current vogue in television advertising for male enhancement or readiness or whatever they call the hard-on drugs they peddle these days, I guess my best move is to prepare a list of asides based on making the crucial phone call at 4 hours of tumnescence precisely. Not 3.59 because should one subside in the final crucial minute, and call out the medics unnecessarily surely (and even after healthcare reform) you could be letting yourself in for a lot of deductible. Not 4.01 neither, because then a clever lawyer could litigate on the basis on irresponsible delay. No, 4 hours is the decreed exact threshold. With Servant of two Masters if comic ability meets viable comic mode, we’ll have a show, but if the forms are too esoteric, not the funniest people in the world will raise laughter.

I took in a performance of the little-known-here French farce (ish) play, Dr. Knock, produced off-Braodway at The Mint. Written 7 or 8 decades ago, still a perennial in France and a money maker when managements are looking to pack them in, this too, surely a play for our times. If I was a psychologist (which I’m not), I might say that in the closing days of Western Patriality, folk cling like ivy to oak, to the idea that the animus authority figures of the professions can show the way. Madison Avenue understands this thoroughly and three words are uttered in paid-for public airspace more frequently than any others: doctor, your, ask. Not necessarily in that order.

The Mint theatre in Manhattan N.Y. has the most fabulous policy of producing the lessor known works of the cannon, and there is often some undiscovered gem on offer there. Jenny Harmon gave a quintessential concierge in act three, the star of act one was the motor car, and fine ensemble comedy throughout.

Favourable review for Dr. Knock in the kingmaker New York Times, but a love letter of a review for Gabriel at the Atlantic – a production I have watched from the sidelines because of my affiliation with the actress playing Mrs Lake – result: instant sellout. I have seen excellent productions closed or clobbered by poor adverse, so it’s nice to witness a positive effect. But is it really sensible that the fate of many months’ work from skilled professionals, and multiple six or seven figure investment, hangs in the balance and is subject to the mood of one man? Maybe it would work if that man were the Dalai Lama, who played to a packed house at Radio City Music Hall this month.

His Holiness pottered on to the stage and did a few details of outrageous schtick; pretending to be surprised the audience was there, pretending to forget his homage to the Buddha, and at the lunchtime break waving a dismissing hand at the crowd. He got laughs each time. I’ve been a fan for 40 years and this was the first time I had seen him. The body of the show was a technical discourse on an ancient text. Challenging for some of us to follow(I admit to dropping off for a few minutes).

The 14th Dalai Lama is a living testament to grace under pressure. To forbearance under abuse. To patience in adversity and strength in loss. And the healing power of laughter. If I ever get into some challenge that seems overwhelming I try to remember him. But apart from everything else that is incredible about him, the man knows the human Commedia and he knows what he is doing on a stage.


April 2010

For the past several years I’ve been on the road one way another, and finally the penny has dropped. By which I mean I know now why the majority of New York based theatre people like to stay in New York. I knew it before of course, in theory, but now I know it in my bones. Not only can you earn a lot more money in New York (and a lot less if you work below 14th Street, say), but in a country with no national theatre, it remains the nation’s theatrical centre. There’s more theatre on offer in New York than in the rest of the State capitals put together.

New York is a special case.

The Encore series gets ever more ambitious and ever starrier as the years go by. This year’s production of ‘Anyone Can Whistle’, starring Donna Murphy and Sutton Foster, and directed by Casey Nicolau was a triumph of energy and skill over an incomprehensible book. Everyone said so, and as a late coming enthusiast in musical theatre and one with very little knowledge on the subject (except that I know what I like), I agreed. I certainly enjoyed the perf. Ms. Murphy took command from the first hip twist of the first number. There’s a thing that happens when a supremely accomplished performer hits the marks – you relax, and you relish each moment. Equally accomplished, though completely different in quality and style, Sutton Foster slinked around the stage in a form fitting red cocktail dress and red wig with matching feather boa (expertly deployed at all times), and a form fitting French accent to match, a revealing couterpoint to her plain-jane act – the one she usually gets cast in.

They rehearsed for a week, maybe ten days, certainly no more than that. The result was the usual accomplished high energy inventiveness that you just take for granted in the New York scene. This is the stuff where the chorus gives 120% and the featured players, in this case including some razor-sharp definition from Edward Hibbert, are like stilletos stealthing steadily – alright too much alliteration – what I’m getting at is that this level of finish and professionalism is not technicallly possible to achieve in a week or so. But they do, of course they do. Why? Because New York is the big time, but its theatrical community is also a village too. While the people who know and love you will see your work in this venue, it’s also just possible that some life-changing thing will happen and you will be plucked from the back or the middle of the stage and elevated. And that is one explanation why the sheer commitment in the dancing and the singing, and the elan in the style is just the best in the world.

Another great feature of the new York theatrical scene is the Anglophilia that obtains on Broadway. Every season Broadway’s theatres fill up with transfers from London’s West End, sometimes direct from The Royal National Theatre. It’s hard to imagine that the drive behind these imports is not a commercial one. It’s all subtly reinforced by the baroque taste and style of the principle New York Times reviewers and their enormous influence. It’s not that I don’t enjoy British theatre (except when they try to do American accents), I do. It’s not that I don’t think British actors are among the finest in the world – they are. What dismays me is that the commerically driven Anglophilia on the Great White Way, and the conditioning of the audience to come and see plays from another culture, must have retarded new American playwriting for about half a century (and counting).

But one British play which has zero chance of being produced on Broadway since it’s last outing there in 1969, is T.S. Elliots verse homage to J.B. Priestly’s ‘An Inspector Calls’, ‘The Cocktail Party’. And an astonishly fine production was offered by TACT – a company which specializes in lesser known works. Led by Simon Jones, the cast gave a textured ensemble performance, with some of the best accent work I’ve seen in this country. Americans doing Brits and vice versa presents special challenges to do with rhythm, culture, and expectation – as in an audience hears what it expects to hear – too frequently you get a sub-masterpiece-theatre version of the accent minus any bass notes. But the work here was fine, detailed, and accurate.

Yet another British transfer is ‘Gabriel’ by British playwright Moira Buffini. She, currently with another production at the National Theatre in London, and a film on the way, has found a producer in The Atlantic Theatre (off-Broadway) here. The play treats on the German occupation of Guernsey (one of the Channel Islands) during the Second World War. It’s not a story often told in Britain, although there was an excellent (if incomplete) television series called ‘Island at Wat’ from the BBC some years back. Another verse play, and excellently well spoken by the cast of six, including the incomparable Ms Patricia Conolly of my acquaintance; this piece falls somewhere between Tolstoy’s short story ‘What Men Live By’ and ‘Inglorious Basterds’.
So yes the Brits are all over Broadway still. I even had a chance to join in myself, being part of a reading for the Acting Company of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘You Never Can Tell’ – Another very enjoyable evening on offer in the salon series the company fields every year.

Meanwhile, the city remains highly convenient. The compact geography of midtown Manhattan and the subway mean that you can get anywhere in ten minutes (twenty at the outside). New York, though not, to quote that great American author John Steinbeck, a model of neatness is a miracle of supply.

And in a city which contains something like 165 ethnicities and nationalities – from a possible 182, in a place where literally everyone is here, surely too in the cultural smorgassbord that is the city that never sleeps, there is something for everyone.


March 2010

Consider our electronic communicative potential. I mean yours and mine. If you wish to commicate inexpensively with a large number of people there has never been a better time to be alive. Speaking for myself; I blog, I experiment with the odd video, I don’t tweet although I might, and next month I will publish the second edition of my book, The Tree House and other Stories. In doing so I will join a long list of distinguished names that published and promoted their own work – among them; Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, Louisa May Alcott.

Of course, I will also join a much longer list of names that none of us have ever heard of.

Self – publishing used to mean a certain financial risk. Not so much these days. It will cost me a few hundred dollars to make this book available. There will be no inventory because of the miracles of print on demand and drop shipping. The outfit that made all this possible can be found at: their operation offers a masterpiece of convenience for the emerging author. Now if only someone would come up with the self-writing book…

But here’s a problem I have when listening to impassioned mass communication: I find that my ideological boundaries are more pourous than ideally I would care to admit in public. I am susceptible to a well turned message, no it goes further than that, if I watch some of the louder, less plausible infotainment channels on cable, I find myself (usually in full awarenss of how absurd it is) conceeding validity in their argument. And then shortly after I turn off or switch to another channel, I find it ridiculous to have been so influenced.

The best of this feature is (I think) that an actor should be able to inhabit any viewpoint, and have some professional ability to understand something about why people do what they do or say what they say; the worst of it is that my opinion is bidable and subject to persuasive argument; or persistent argument, or loud, or pervasive noise that calls itself ‘news’.

What I’m grappling with is the whole question of how the little guy empowered by technology fits in among the booming voices of the 24/7 media jungle.

I recently started learning Chinese Mandarin formally – this after a year or so struggling informally. I found an excellent teacher here in New York and I go to a weekly class. The material is well presented and leads the student at a fast pace. There is a lot to absorb though and it was soon clear that I would need to practice if I was going to keep up. Just this last week I came across a website: here you can find native speakers of almost any language who wish to improve their English. I posted a profile and within a few days had more responses than I can get to. Communication technologies like Skype, also means that the conversations can happen intercontinentally.

And then there’s the phone question. I have a steam-age cell phone, which I am now embarrased to use in public. I feel deeply under-accessorized when I’m with people who own one of those sleek rectangles that can make movies and translate and calculate and play music. Rumour says that in the summer here in the USA the company with the biggest network is going to team up with the company with the best phone design. A couple of corporations getting together… hmn, if this continues will we move to a time when ‘all the world is one speech.’?

The National Geographic reported that the recent earthquake in Chile was powerful enough to shake the Earth into a new rotational speed, thereby decreasing the amount of time in a day by something like 1.26 millionths of a second. It doesn’t sound like much I know, but I think it’s something to keep an eye on when you think of how our personal days are always getting shorter than they used to be. Not only that the forward march of time means that as each day passes, a day becomes a smaller fraction of the total number of days lived. But also that there was a time when nobody could text, email, or call you while you were out and about – not to mention that no one in those wildly distant days knew where you were unless you told them. And wasn’t there a time before that when we all had to rely on our answering machines? And in the even more distant past a time when the question: does the phone still ring if there’s no one to hear it? Simply could not be answered.

And what about silence? I heard once of a man who went around the world recording what was left of silence. It’s in short supply apparantly. Apparantly there are so few places beyond the reach of the noisy world that we’d better bottle what remains before it disappears. And does more talk mean more listening? And in amongst it all do we really need one more book? Except that print on demand means less waste. And could we imagine a world without physical books? – Sure, when now a single Kindle can hold an entire library. And maybe the day will come when the contents of a book are just streamed to some cyber device planted internally and then everyone will have read everything.

Meanwhile what does it mean to live in a time when anybody can attempt to commicate anything to anybody anywhere in the world anytime? And what about me with my mind that can be influenced, will I change my point of view more frequently as more communication comes my way? And talking of media will I be able to distinguish between the messages of the corporate and or governmental oligargies that control what has come to be called ‘the narative’ or ‘the national conversation’, from the quality works of self-published authors such as, for example, Gertrude Stein, Deepak Chopra, D.H. Lawrence? These and other questions…


February 2010

I’m back in New York City this month to find that the global-warming-induced severe snows are being hotly bruited about in the infotainment venues of cable television that you can’t always access when on the road. Will there be theatre when the ice caps have gone? It’s a question that no one seems to be asking; meanwhile I’ve enjoyed three very different plays, thinking it a good idea to take in some culture while there’s still time.

‘You Can’t Take It With You’ was part of the Salon series of readings put up and hosted by The Acting Company. The Acting Company is something (as all theatrical ventures are) of a triumph of the improbable over the impossible – by which I mean the fact that it exists at all, let alone that it has flourished since 1972. Their website gives full background and current details.

‘You Can’t Take It With You’ was written in 1936 George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, and filmed by Frank Capra in 1938. It is gem from the golden age of the well-made play. The reading was given by a cast of New York theatre stars and veterans including Ms. Patricia Conolly of my acquaintance, at Playwrights Horizons. Trish (Conolly) played Gaye Wellington early on in her American career for the legendry APA Phoenix Repertory Company under the direction of the equally legendary Ellis Rabb. Later Trish played Penny, job-sharing the role with Rosemary Harris. In this reading she graduated to play the Countess Olga, and got a round of applause on her line ‘The Czar said to me: never stint on your blintzes.’

The APA was the only independent theatrical company which managed to offer a repertoire on Broadway in the last fifty years. Charles Isherwood in his recent New York Times article seemed unaware of the fact in his article calling for another permanent theatre space in Manhattan.

Well made is a 19th century term which generally means a tightly constructed plot leading to a final climax late in the play. A British equivalent might be J.B. Priestly’s comedies. The well made comedies of Kaufman and Hart have a joke rate-per-page to rival any sitcom, and this crack cast gave expert delivery.

A different kind of laughter went with a performance of ‘Thunderstorm’ which I saw at a high school in New England. ‘Thunderstorm’ was written in 1933 by Cao Yu and was the beginning of modern Chinese drama. The play deals with a prosperous family with Ibsenesque skeletons and secrets in its closet. There is something amazing about watching a teenage company dealing with challenging themes. The cast showed a sophisticated understanding and compassion, and my younger son Nick who happened to be in the cast turned in a truly excellent performance.

The audience was touched by the delicacy of some moments, but found itself hooting with laughter as the plot built with ever greater speed to the more shocking revelations. In our family discussion afterwards we wondered if this is a function of a post-Jerry-Springer world. There is no question that when first performed this play would have devastated its audience. To date it remains China’s most famous play.

In the early 1970s I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet that I saw in London at The Young Vic. I was about 14 or 15 and it was a life changer. The Young Vic is a small studio theatre with a thust stage. It was the first time I saw actors up close and personal, the first time I saw that play, another time when I thought ‘that’s what I want to do.’

So it was a pleasure to see another fine production of that exquisite tragedy, The Acting Company again, this time a full production. Set in an Italian summer, with all the heat, and light, and style that suggests. Praise for a clear telling of the story, well spoken in terms of sense, though one could have wished for a little more vocal variety all around. It was a production with a strong ensemble, but also featuring lovely work from the principals. Juliet nearly floated off the stage in her first blush of love for Romeo. Romeo was love-struck to a point beyond dizziness. The balcony scenes had their usual problems because Juliet is looking at the stage from above and Romeo is looking up into the lighting grid, but an enchantment of chemistry between them. There were feisty contributions from Mercutio and all the young men, bursting with testosterone, calling each other to fight. And the family dynamic in the Capulet household beautifully clear, a lovely performance from the nurse too. The play sure does work. This was a production fine for its straightforwardness. It trusted the story and told it well. Consequently the story was allowed to work simply. The best way.

One time backstage in Beijing during the tech of King Lear, I was having a whispered conversation about philosophy with one of the students at Beida University. This kid was a specially bright guy (in an environment populated by specially bright people. Beida is known as the Harvard of the east) his knowledge of 19th century European philosophers out distanced mine within a few sentences. Changing the subject, I asked him if he thought that theatre could make a social contribution and bring about political change. His answer was immediate and confident, ‘No.’ he said.

Then I agreed despondantly when I thought of say, David Hare’s ‘Stuff Happens’ written after the fact of the recent illegal wars. That play played to capacity in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Sydney but it never had the slightest chance of changing policy because few of the executive ever goes to the theatre.

But today I remember that when you’ve spent an evening laughing as I did at ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ you feel better, don’t you?