Thursday, December 20, 2007
ON THE WAY TO TIMBUKTU
This is not a review. It's more of a rumination on making a play from Shakespeare's sonnets.
Dispensing with the review part: On the Way to Timbuktu is a fierce one-woman play about a professor of Shakespeare and her history. It's an interesting play, very, very well performed by Petronia Paley, in an intense performance that never flags. See it! Friday (12/21) is the last night in this run at EST (the Ensemble Studio Theater) , but it was described as a "work-in-progress," so keep in mind to see it when "progress" next produces a public performance.
Now the commentary:
A few years ago, I staged a two character short play ("Love Is My Sin" at TSI / PlayTime -- in their “Seven Deadly Sins from Shakespeare” series) with dialog consisting entirely of sonnets. The characters were an Older Man (OM) and a Younger Woman (YW). (I played the OM and Amy Quint played the YW.) They had a strong relationship and, when they are separated, the man has a brief, torrid affair with "The Dark Lady (DL)." When it ends, he returns to YW, but reconciliation is difficult. Originally, the Dark Lady (DL) was also a character in my adaptation, but when the (foreign born) actress who was to be DL got a part in her native country, she left abruptly just before the run, and I had to cut the sonnets which showed the explicit affair, and left that sequence as an implied event.
I'm currently starting to rehearse a full-length, three character version of this story. It's a musical -- but an unusual one: a classical music musical. It is to have dialog constructed entirely from the sonnets, plus Elizabethan instrumental music, song and dance.
The sonnets are enticing, and enigmatic. They seem to be trying to tell a story, but it is not complete, it is not in order, and it is tantalizing. The 154 sonnets, taken as a group, might best be described as if its printing resulted from the following scenario: It was to be a complete story (like Shakespeare’s other long, narrative poems), written this time in the form of sonnets, about an older man (a poet), a young man, (the lover of the poet), a rival poet, and a sexy, black haired, black eyed, possibly black, promiscuous woman (who had affairs with at least two of the other characters). Then, before it was completely finished, while still in draft form (with some elements of the story yet to be written, and variant versions of some story line sonnets still in the manuscript), the document was snatched. But, on the way to be taken to the printer, the manuscript was dropped, with pages scattered to the winds, some blown away and lost, and others gathered up in the wrong order.
The challenge has always been to understand the nature of the sonnets: are they autobiographical? If so, who is The Dark Lady? And the Young Man? Why are they in this order? Are there other sonnets? Why are so many in pairs? Etc.
Of course, if the sonnets are to be taken and performed as autobiographical, then they must all be spoken in an older male voice. If they are to be performed by various men and women of various ages, then one can – in fact must -- take advantage of the fact that some of the sonnets contain some information about the speaker and the subject of the poem, and many do not, so each sonnet can be given a context grounded on what it does or does not say, and can be coupled with other sonnets to create a new context and a new meaning (much the way, in film editing, each image – each shot, each scene -- colors those before and after it with new meaning, by defining a context.)
There is a love triangle in the sonnets, which is suggested (by the context in the original order) to be the Young Man (YM), the Older Man (OM) and DL. (There may even be a love rectangle -- with the Other Poet (OP) – though, here, the sonnets provide rather sparse material for constructing a story.)
But there is also enough information and lack of information in the sonnets to rearrange them to construct a love triangle consisting of the Older Man, DL and a Younger Woman, instead of the Young Man: the Man-Woman-Lady or MWL triangle, rather than the MML triangle. I thought this would be more fun (at least for me) when I wrote the adaptation, so this is what I did. (Rearranging the sonnets also justifies the speaking of some sonnets by people other than Shakespeare; and it reveals new meanings and shades of meanings in the sonnets.)
For example, the first group of sonnets, taken in context to be Shakespeare or the OM encouraging the Young Man to have children, yields many sonnets that can be taken in MWL context as the YW encouraging the OM to have a child (with her!) before he is too old and it is too late (ie. before he dies single). There are several other story lines implicit and explicit in the sonnets: the love triangle -- three relationships are described, with love, as well as jealousy, and breakups. Aging is an issue, as are music, and art.
I don't know the genesis of On the Way to Timbuktu (OtWtT). (It started in EST's Going to the River series, but that is not what I mean.) Selene (the central character) is a professor, teaching Shakespeare's sonnets. There are several elements in the play. There is the lecture and discussion Selene gives about the sonnets; there is, in particular, a discussion of the role of the DL as a black woman in Elizabethan times. There is Selene’s love history; there is, in particular a love triangle she is involved with – here, a black woman (a student who is first involved with Selene, then with Selene and her husband in a threesome), who leaves with Selene’s husband. There is Selene’s performance of the sonnets, some in the context of her character speaking in class, some as her character speaking in the context of this love triangle. (The sonnets used are essentially limited to those appropriate to the YM commenting on the love triangle.)
I am not sure whether to take the play as a story about this woman, who then uses the sonnets to express herself; or whether to imagine that it had its genesis in a thought process much like that for the plays I am working on: how do you provide a context for a performance of some of the sonnets? What can you say about – or how can you construct -- a story from which the sonnets emerge? From this point of view, the play, OtWtT, provides the back story of the Younger Woman, explaining her life as she comes into this love triangle in which – as a professor teaching the sonnets – she uses them to express herself. (In the play, she is now, actually, a no-longer-younger woman, looking back over her life.)
Talking more about OtWtT for a moment: This is quintessential "experimental" theater. The set is just one slightly raised area in a black box theater, with an object on it that serves ingeniously as a bed, a couch, a chair, a make-up stand, and a closet. There is but one actress. She is dressed in a white pajama-like outfit, which makes a striking contrast with the black set. She is well lit and makes the most of her physical life on the stage, providing a series of visual tableau, that bring a variety of places around the globe to life.
Somewhat less successful are semi-abstract images projected on the wall behind her -- they are interesting, but mostly not very interesting. Sometimes the text of sonnets she is performing are projected on the back wall; but they don't really help clarify what she is saying, because it is easier and more satisfying to watch and listen to her, than it is to try to read the sonnets on the wall. And, I confess, I did not understand the end, when she puts on black-face, and dons an Elizabethan gown over her white outfit.
A musical background composed and performed -- on a Chinese instrument called the pipa -- by Min Xiao-Fen is quite beautiful and special, and never fails to be interesting and appropriate, although the insturment has no special direct relevance (so far as the play reveals) either to Shakespeare (as it might be if the instrument or the music were Elizabethan) or to the character (as it might be if it were African) . (The instrument does seem to have some sort of distant resemblance to both a lute and African instruments.)
The OtWtT script is well written, and interesting. Much of the play consists of stories the character tells, the actress shifting clearly and flawlessly from one person’s voice to another. It does contain a few too many clichés for my taste – most of which seem to be there deliberately, though, as something the character would say.
The script often centers on Selene’s sexual life with language that is unflinching; as a one-woman show, the sexuality is essentially in the words and the stories, not on stage in the action.
In talking about the possibly autobiographical nature of the sonnets and the role of the DL in Shakespeare as either symbolic or as a historical black woman, I think it should probably be noted that some sonnets contain strong echoes of dialog from some of Shakespeare's plays, suggesting that the sonnets could reasonably be taken as speeches by characters, rather than by Shakespeare himself. In particular, there could be a relation between the DL sonnets and Othello, casting some light on what Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote about the DL. Also, while a replica of (the fossil) Lucy’s skull (as black woman/ancestor/eve) makes an arresting prop, the most interesting ancestor -- according to current scholarship -- is probably not Lucy, (who lived about 3 million years ago, and was not a direct ancestor) but a woman (or at most a few women) who lived a few hundred thousand years ago, from whom all modern humans may be descendent.
OtWtT, then, crafts a very effective one-woman play around the notion that Shakespeare’s sonnets – those that describe an affair between a man and the DL, disrupting the relationship the speaker has had with each of them -- can be performed as being spoken by the woman who is the man’s long time friend/lover and the DL’s lover as well. And OtWtT is the story of her life.
The short play I did, and the new play I am developing, involves similar characters, but focuses exclusively on the sonnets as dialog, and the description of their lives as revealed in the sonnets. There is no back-story described, other than what is in the sonnets; and all the words are those of the sonnets themselves, telling the story of this intense triangular affair.
One thing is clear about the sonnets: they tell a fierce, sexual and powerful story, in eloquent and beautiful and poetic language; to realize the sonnets on the stage, the performance must engage each of those elements and reach the heights for all of them.
There have been other plays inspired by the sonnets, including Shaw’s “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” and a collection of short plays done at The Public Theater a few years ago, called “Love’s Fire.” More about these later.