The Griegol

This very fine story of mystery and mourning opens with a walk to a funeral home—and then gets darker (and funnier) from there. But this is also a story about growing up, and hence it ends on notes of hope. And there’s a cat!

Trick of the Light Theatre brings The Griegol to life for a nearly wordless 60 minutes with some of my favorite low tech theatricality, including shadow play, bunraku-style puppets, and opaque projectors, as well as live actors and a musician. A terrifying smoke monster left us wondering, How did they do that? Was that a trick with iron filings?, but the team in a post-show Q&A fessed up that it was pre-produced stop motion video with sand (apparently an unforgiving medium).

A subplot introduced late in the piece confused us for a moment, but it was quickly integrated into the main story. We glad that the company of five was able to make the long trip from Aoteoroa/New Zealand.

Kia ora! (easier to write than it is to pronounce)

Julius Caesar

Kathleen Akerley is one of the few playwrights working today who bravely peels open her own dramaturgy. In her 90-minute remix of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, she accomplishes this by various means, among them

  • a docent (frequent collaborator Séamus Miller) waltzing a bemused group of museum-goers across the set;
  • a dour editor (Miller again) pulling pages from a huge copy of the working script, dismissing each cut page as not relevant to her purposes;
  • via video projection, a trio of friends parked on the couch, watching/pausing the play as if it were a Netflix adaptation;
  • two gods (?) commenting on and trying to shape the narrative;
  • and yet more.

Despite the play’s heritage as a fixture of high school English literature classes, Akerley exposes the work for the “problem play” that it might be. After the assassination in Act III, why does a completely new faction of characters appear?

In Akerley’s version, the death of Caesar is not the point. Indeed, Caesar is never played by an actor, and his dead body is only represented by a bloodied mantle. The calculations that Cassius and Brutus make are still relevant today, and provoke discussion. But Akerley doesn’t take the easy road; early in her script, a character quickly dismisses any parallels to a recent disgraced American president.

  • Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare, a modern retelling by Kathleen Akerley, directed by Kathleen Akerley, Avant Bard Theatre, Arlington, Va.

How the Light Gets in

Even though Grace is a successful travel writer, she is so alone and vulnerable that unpleasant news sends her tumbling, grasping at anything to make her feel safe. Keeping up a good front (she says, “Usually I only cry in parking garages”), Grace (as realized by the excellent Tonya Beckman) embarks on a journey that propels this intimate story, well suited to the confines of 1st Stage’s playing space. Unexpectedly, she finds support from a runaway (Madeline Regina), a tattoo artist (Joel Ashur) with a bit of mystic mystery about him, and a Japanese architect with a huge case of designer’s block. Jacob Yeh as Haruki, the flummoxed architect, brings a solidity that enfolds Grace (yes, there is some sweet origami) and proves to be what she needs to move forward.

This 90-minute tale has a bit of whimsy that brings to mind the work of Sarah Ruhl; Ashur and Regina serve as narrators and Greek chorus to keep the story clicking along.

Kathryn Kawecki’s set design is exceptional, giving us an enchanting, cozy Japanese garden that doubles as various other spaces.

  • How the Light Gets in, by E. M. Lewis, directed by Alex Levy, 1st Stage, Tysons, Va.

seven methods of killing kylie jenner

I don’t know of a graceful way to put this: this play will resonate more with audiences who are different from me. Many of the work’s themes—prejudices in favor of light-skinned BIPOC, the shameful treatment of Sara Baartman (the so-called “Hottentot Venus”), an offhand homophobic remark unearthed from the deep social media timeline—have been elaborated elsewhere. And let us retire the trope of bringing up the house lights to implicate the audience.

The play does make it clear that, and why, Cleo (Leanne Henlon) is enraged. And the strongest element is the theatricalizing of the chaotic cacophony that is a viral thread, realized by Henlon and Tia Bannon as her friend Kara. Their physicalizing of emojis is quite the thing. Don’t understand current British slang and internet initialisms? It doesn’t matter. The playing is there.

  • seven methods of killing kylie jenner, by Jasmine Lee-Jones, directed by Milli Bhatia. Royal Court Theatre’s production, presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington

Personally, I have never understood the mania for all things Jenner-Kardashian. But that’s easy for me to say.

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

HOTSPUR. Nay, I will. That’s flat!
[King Henry IV] said he would not ransom Mortimer,
Forbade my tongue to speak of Mortimer.
But I will find him when he lies asleep,
And in his ear I’ll hollo “Mortimer.”
Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak
Nothing but “Mortimer,” and give it him
To keep his anger still in motion.

Henry IV, Part 1, I:3

It’s fair to say that the ecological consequences of the introduction of European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris, EUST) into North America have been a (mostly adverse) mixed blessing. I’ve been told that EUSTs are favored by groundskeepers for golf courses, because the birds eat turf-destroying grubs—make of that what you will. And my grandmother had a particular animus against them; make of that what you will. I certainly wouldn’t knowingly park my car under a roost.

But perhaps we can retire the canard that the introduction happened at one place, at one time, by one man: Eugene Schieffelin, a drugmaker and socialite in New York. Research by Lauren Fugate and John MacNeill Miller, as reported by Jason Bittel, confirms that Schieffelin wasn’t the only American to release EUSTs, nor was he by any means the first. By the 1870s, “introductions were well underway,” decades before Schieffelin’s activity in 1890-1891.

According to the former president of the Acclimation Society of Cincinnati, between 1872 and 1874 the society released about four thousand European birds, including starlings.

“Acclimation” or “acclimitization” was a particularly boneheaded piece of nineteenth-century ecology that held that introduced species could improve an ecosystem.

Anglophone countries… focused instead on the ways importing species could increase the beauty, diversity, and economic yield of the local environment—sometimes because they themselves had destroyed it.

Most importantly—to answer a question that Rick Wright asked in a 2014 blog post— Schieffelin had no particular interest in the birds of Shakespeare. He just liked starlings. Fugate and Miller lay the myth on the desk of Edwin Way Teale, in an essay from 1948.

“[The starling’s] coming was the result of one man’s fancy,” he writes of Schieffelin: “His curious hobby was the introduction into America of all the birds mentioned in the works of William Shakespeare.” Published more than forty years after Schieffelin’s death this sentence is the first time Shakespeare enters the story. It is hard to say where Teale got the idea.

Perhaps Teale was bemused by Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden, begun in 1913, years after Schieffelin’s death.

As Wright wryly observes,

With a Horatian eye to their capacity to delight and to profit, the [American Acclimatization] Society’s introductions over the years included everything from brook trout to Java finches, neither of which, if memory serves, ever trod the boards at the Globe.

Shakespeare’s one reference to Sturnus vulgaris (above) isn’t even pejorative; rather, the bird is recognized as a good mimic. Make of that what you will.


Jennifer Tipton at the light board for a show of her own making:

When computer controls came in, for example, she was surprised by how much she liked them.

“You can program cues with a liquid movement you could never have with human beings pushing levers and knobs,” she said. “Before the computer, I can’t remember a cue that lasted more than 30 seconds, but now you can have something happening across the full hour of a program. I thought I would miss the ability to call cues in the way I was taught — vocally, you can speed it up and slow it down — but I was thrilled that it happened the same way every time.”

New equipment can alter color and orientation automatically — so if she wants to change something, “you don’t have to stop the rehearsal and have a guy get the ladder out and change it,” she said. But many of the new high-tech colors aren’t to her liking — “they aren’t full spectrum, like the sun” — and the fact that the manufacturers keep changing them makes it difficult to maintain the consistency of her designs for older works still in repertory.

I’m OK with “yinz”

One more nuance in Shakespeare to look out for: pronoun choice. From John McWhorter’s latest column for the Times:

In Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” Benedick, likely wanting to connote intimacy to Beatrice, tells her, “Come, bid me do anything for thee.” But a bit later, when he is addressing a more formal and even menacing matter, he switches to “you”: “Think you in your soul the Count Claudio hath wronged Hero?”

And an opportunity missed:

Old English’s pronoun for “she” was “heo,” which sounded so much like “he” that by the time Middle English was widespread in the 1200s, some dialects were using “he” to address both men and women. Yes, even long before the births of Geoffrey Chaucer and William Shakespeare, English was on its way to developing a new gender-neutral pronoun. But apparently that did not feel quite right to many speakers. Thus, speakers recruited one of several words that meant “the” at the time, “seo,” which became today’s “she.”

And shoeboxes

Doors, lumber, lighting instruments: theaters are grappling with supply chain issues.

The Crossing the Line festival presented by French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) came back for its fifteenth year, and this was the first year since the pandemic that they brought all international productions. Typically, they would ship their set pieces from France, but with the price of fuel so hiked up by inflation, the freight was out of their budget. “We decided to rebuild the sets here,” says programming manager Clementine Guinchat. “That’s when we realized the shop situation in New York was so crazy.”

A mystery: 26

In “The Contest”, in the first act of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney matches skills and egos with Pirelli, with Beadle Bamford looking on, at barbering—and then (in the original Broadway production in 1979) in a second section, at dentistry (tooth pulling, no more no less). The tooth pulling section doesn’t appear in later productions. Why did Sondheim delete it? It serves to underscore what a louse Pirelli is, because he has to conscript a healthy Toby in order to have a patient to work on, and hence we have no sympathy for Pirelli when Sweeney offs him. It has one of my favorite Sondheim rhymes: saliva and drive-a you mad. And it’s not like Pirelli gets all that much stage time.

Some links: 89

Upcoming: 57

WATCH assignments are out for the calendar year, and after a run of 2002-2019, I do not have a year’s worth of shows to judge. I am sitting out until the COVID-19 situation calms down, if it ever does. Hard same from two of my other judges, and my fourth has departed the metro for Albany. Fortunately, through the grapevine I’ve been able to recruit four judges for Silver Spring Stage. I remain ambivalent about all this: the last thing we should be doing is sitting in a box with a bunch of strangers projecting. Anyway, among other shows, my team will be seeing A Little Night Music (Sondheim/Wheeler) and Prelude to a Kiss (Lucas).


Best use of inset text, Snark Division:

You can find the title of this show rendered in different official places as Diana: The Musical; Diana, The Musical; and even Diana the Musical, as if Diana were either the name of the musical (like Garfield the Cat) or Diana were something you were encouraged to do to the musical (like Pat The Bunny). I have gone with Diana, The Musical.

Plus Oxford semicolons! How did that get past the copy editors?