Harlem Duet: intriguing, but (for me) muffled music

publicity photo for Harlem Duet

Marci T. House and Donald Sales (Photo by Tim Matheson)

Something is out of focus here. Maybe it’s me.

Djanet Sears’s 1997 script Harlem Duet riffs on Othello — and it takes on a lot.

The action of Sears’s play unfolds in three time periods. In the core narrative, we’re in Harlem in 1997. In the event that triggers the play, the central character, Billie, who’s a grad student in psychology, gets dumped by Othello, her partner of nine years. He’s a prof at Columbia. Billie and Othello are both Black and Othello is leaving Billie because he’s fallen for a white colleague named Mona. Billie sees Othello as both a romantic traitor and, significantly, a race traitor. Othello’s betrayal strikes at the most fundamental levels of her identity. “Is her skin softer?”, she asks.

The brief scenes that exist in other time periods leave the impression that this pattern of abandonment is enduring, at least centuries old. In 1860, an enslaved woman dreams of escaping to Canada with her man, but he feels held back by his devotion to their white mistress: he thinks she needs him. In 1928, during the Harlem Renaissance, a Black vaudevillian leaves his partner when he, too, falls in love with a white woman.

The play presents this male fecklessness as a form of aspirational whiteness. The actor longs to perform the great roles from the European canon, including Othello. And Billie’s sister-in-law Amah refers to an old story about a Black man who wanted to become white, so he tried the “magic” of having sex with a white woman: “In one single, shining moment,” she says, “he became her, her and her whiteness.” [Read more…]

Done/Undone: half done

publicity photo for Done/Undone (Bard on the Beach)

Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu in Done/Undone (Photos by Emily Cooper)

For me, the two most personalized passages in Done/Undone, screenwriter Kate Besworth’s new film about the current relevancy — or irrelevancy — of Shakespeare’s work, are also the most successful.

In Done/Undone, which was initially commissioned by Bard on the Beach as a stage play, Besworth offers a series of vignettes. Two actors, Charlie Gallant and Harveen Sandhu, play all the roles. The core characters are a pair of academics who are engaged in a formal debate. They are defined through their ideas.

The characters who are the most compelling are defined by their lived experience. In the first, Gallant plays a neurosurgeon who has just joined the Board of a Shakespeare festival. Giving a toast on an opening night, he talks about how he had nowhere to process his grief after losing a patient during surgery — until a friend took him to a production of King Lear. Although he hadn’t been a theatregoer until that night, Cordelia’s death unexpectedly afforded the surgeon the release he needed. “I don’t give myself the space to feel out here,” he says. “But when I go in there and I sit down in the dark, there is a space that’s made for me.” [Read more…]

If you’ve ever suspected I’m an idiot, here’s confirmation

King Lear, Bard on the Beach, Benedict Campbell, Scott Bellis

If you mount King Lear, make sure to get enthusiastic and ongoing consent

Okay, this is at my own expense, but it’s so hilarious that I have to share. In my original review of King Lear, which was posted on straight.com last Friday, I wrote the most epic fail of a lead ever.

Here it is: “If you mount King Lear and you don’t go deep, the results can make for a very long night.”

Ai yi yi. I think I’ve got a dirty mind, but I must have read that lead a dozen times before I submitted the review, and the unintentional innuendo sailed right past me. Fortunately, an online commenter pointed it out and I managed to change it before the print copy came out.

So phew. But still, unbelievable, right? I pray that I will never top it—so to speak.

The thing Bard does that bugs me

The Comedy of Errors, Bard on the Beach

A squid makes an unscripted, unwelcome, and witless appearance in The Comedy of Errors

I am a big, big fan of Bard on the Beach. Every year, I look forward to Bard’s season and I’m very picky about who I take to those shows: the tickets are like gold as far as I’m concerned.

Artistic director Christopher Gaze and the rest of the company have built a strong and important institution. Gaze provides lots of opportunities for young artists—especially actors and directors—to advance their skills. And Bard has brought me some of the most transcendent theatrical experiences of my life. I’m thinking about Dean Paul Gibson’s first mounting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years ago, for instance.

But there’s something that Bard does that really bugs me: too often, the company dumbs down Shakespeare’s comedies.  [Read more…]

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