Margaret: a Tiger’s Heart

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Oct. 25, 2011

margaret

Margaret (Caitlin Partridge) morphs from helpless woman to conniving villain over the course of the play’s three hours.

Margaret of Anjou has the most lines of any woman in the entire Shakespearean canon. She is different from most of the playwright’s female characters in that she is powerful in her own right. As her character is fleshed out, it becomes clear that she is also quite conniving and sly, as opposed to the many demure or lovesick ladies that fill the pages of other plays, such as Romeo and Juliet or Othello.

Margaret: a Tiger’s Heart, the semester’s first Hold Thy Peace and Brandeis Players show, whittles down the 11 hours it would have taken to cover all three of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays as well as the opening of Richard III, covering only the scenes that pertain to Margaret. This still leaves a two and a half hour production, but one that is more compelling and character-driven than Shakespeare’s other histories.

The play opens with a battle scene interrupted by the Duke of Bedford (Abigail Clarke ’12) singing out the opening lines of the play. At first I was confused by this musical touch, but I came to enjoy Director Dave Benger’s ’14 unexpected choice. Bedford acted as a sort of Greek chorus, singing again at Margaret’s final scene. It also allowed Clarke to show off her talented vocal abilities while adding a theatrical element to the proceedings.

Margaret (Caitlin Partridge ’13) is undoubtedly one of the most interesting characters I have seen in a Shakespearean work. At first, she seems to be a powerless female, a pawn in her father’s plans to obtain more wealth. Upon her marriage to King Henry VI of England (Julian Seltzer ’15), however, Margaret quickly shows that she knows how to scheme with the best of them. She begins an affair with the Duke of Suffolk (Jonathan Plesser ’12) and also entraps the Duchess of Gloucester (StephanieKarol ’12) and forces her into banishment.

Margaret speaks the most lines of any woman in the Shakespearean canon.

It is not until the second act, however, that the audience discovers how cruel Margaret actually is. After the Duke of York (Alex Davis ’15) unseats Henry from the throne, Margaret becomes wild with ambition, doing anything necessary to win back her title as queen. The actress fully committed to the character and seemed to relish the grizzly deeds that Margaret performs, pushing her character’s emotional limits during scenes filled alternatively with crying, shouting and killing. The scene that made the greatest impression on the audience is when Margaret clearly takes pleasure in taunting York with his murdered son’s bloodied handkerchief. The zeal with which Margaret takes innocent life is quite shocking, and Partridge did not hold back. It was true when York referred to the character as a “tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide.”

There is another character in Margaret who was equally thrilling to watch, more so because he is barely seen on stage until the second act: Richard (Stephen Baldras ’13). The character eventually becomes the subject of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Richard is well known for his ambition and cruelty later in life, but in Margaret he appears as a young man, and the audience watches his malevolence grow as he ages and endures the loss of his father and brother, as well as his chance at the throne.

Baldras is quite chilling in the role. He makes it clear that, by the end of the play, Richard has gone mad with desire for power. He declares that he has “no pity, love or fear,” and goes so far as to kill his brother’s infant child to prove his point. Baldras’ maniacal laughter and his hunched appearance make his one of the best performances of the production.

Margaret: a Tiger’s Heart demonstrates that Shakespeare can be more than just beautiful words and funny costumes. Benger’s production created dynamic and engrossing characters and also managed to produce quite a few grizzly images that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

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Jenin Freedom Theater

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

Oct. 18, 2011

An outer wall of the Jenin Freedom Theater in

An outer wall of the Jenin Freedom Theater in the West Bank

A refugee camp isn’t the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of creative or nurturing environments. And it’s not. But the performers of the Jenin Freedom Theater, located in the Jenin Refugee Camp in the West Bank, have created a space where art flourishes amid strife and squalor.

Last Tuesday evening, four performers from the Jenin Freedom Theater came to the atrium of Mandel Center for the Humanities. They had each been personally affected by the violence that they have seen as refugees living in the camp, which covers an area of two square miles and houses about 16,000 people. The performers were angry with the Israeli Army for its brutal treatment of the inhabitants of Jenin. They hoped to create positive change through their art.

Josh Perlstein ’79, one of the organizers of the event, shared his view of the goal of the Freedom Theater in a phone interview with justArts. “The goal of the theater is to use theater as a means of liberation, for Palestinians and for all people. If people could focus their fear through a process of creation, it would move people in a positive direction. They are trying to humanize the people in the theater and anyone who they interact with. If you act as a liberator, you liberate all people, not justyourself.”

The theater’s first incarnation was known as the Stone Theater. An Israeli woman named Arna Mer came to the Jenin Refugee Camp originally as the founder of the relief organization Defense of Children under Occupation. One of the Jenin actors, Mustapha, recounted the story of Mer’s first days in the camp: “Arna showed up one day, an Israeli woman in the middle of the West Bank. She just came with papers and other arts supplies and started engaging with the young children in the street. At first, people thought she was a spy. Then, a woman named Samira decided, ‘I will host this woman. She will live in my house.’ She could see that Arna was just [trying to help the children]. From that day on, everyone trusted Arna.”

Established in 1992 during the first Intifada, a guerilla war between Israel and its Palestinian inhabitants, the Stone Theater was the first public theater to be built in the West Bank. The theater,  along with much of the camp, was destroyed by Israeli soldiers in 2000, during the second Intifada. Most of the theater students died in the attack.

Members of the Jenin Freedom Theater hope to provide an artistic outlet for their people’s fear and anger.

Members of the Jenin Freedom Theater hope to provide an artistic outlet for their people’s fear and anger.

Mer’s son, Juliano Mer-Khamis, rebuilt the theater in 2006 and renamed it the Jenin Freedom Theater. (Mer-Khamis was an established Israeli actor and director. In 2002, he was nominated for an Ophir Award (the Israeli version of an Oscar) for Best Actor in the film Kedma, which was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.)

After the death of his mother in 1995, Mer-Khamis became personally involved in the Stone Theater’s work. After rebuilding the theater, he moved to Jenin to become more involved. The performers couldn’t speak highly enough of their mentor on Tuesday night. “Juliano was creating individual freedom in the Jenin Refugee Camp. That can be very dangerous,” said one speaker. The others agreed that they would still be “street punks” or small-time criminals if it wasn’t for Mer-Khamis. These comments were overshadowed by a depressed spirit among the Jenin representatives: Mer-Khamis was assassinated by an unknown gunman on April 4 this year. The theater community is still recovering from the shocking murder.

As part of the talk, the performers showed clips from some of their recent performances, including a retelling of Alice in Wonderland and an original production called Fragments of Palestine. These clips did not show dialogue from the plays (which are written in or translated into Arabic) but rather dances, fight scenes or scenes set to music.

“The performers chose material that fits with the theme of liberation,” Perlstein clarified. “They assigned different characters in the play that are analogous to characters from their lives. They translate or adapt various works to fit with their own experiences.”

Some of the members of the audience at the event (mostly older people from outside of Brandeis) criticized the clips for containing too much violence. One woman asked if the theater was trying to end the violence in the camp or if they were just promoting it in a different medium.

“I don’t think you understood the clips if you think we are promoting violence,” Mustapha responded. “The actors in the theater take what they see in their daily lives and put it on stage.” Another performer agreed, “Theater becomes a refugee for … the people of Jenin. It’s therapy. When people come to the theater, they see what is in their heads.”

The Jenin Freedom Theater staged their adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”

The four performers themselves have all been “saved” by the theater. One performer recalled that he was a petty criminal, stealing cars and selling drugs, but that he really wanted to be an actor. So he went to Mer-Khamis for a part in the theater. Since then, the young man has immersed his life entirely in acting. He recounted that he would go about his day and “go to parties in costume and in-character.” It became a part of his daily life.

Perlstein added his own view of the work the theater has accomplished in Jenin: “You can tell just from the people who came to speak how much the Theater has affected them. Their options were very limited. They were all headed down a negative path, and the Theater gave them options to see different ways to live their lives. In a community-based theater, it becomes inspirational. In the largest sense for the people involved but also for the audience. If they keep going the way they are they could have a huge impact on the neighborhood.”

The talk on Tuesday was part of a tour the company is doing to promote their work overseas. They will next be performing Waiting for Godot at Columbia University and will be appearing at a benefit at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, hosted by the celebrated playwright Tony Kushner.

Othello

Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice

April 5, 2011

Freeplay's version of "Othello" featured robotic characters performing in steampunk getups.

Freeplay’s version of “Othello” featured robotic characters performing in steampunk getups.

Many theater companies and film directors have reinterpreted Shakespeare’s plays. The Bard’s work has been set in many time periods from the 1500s to the modern day and everywhere from Miami to Japan. Jane Becker ’11 and Emily Dunning ’11, the co-directors of Hold Thy Peace and the Brandeis Pluralism Alliance’s production of Othello, decided to follow in this tradition when developing their version of the classic tragedy. They brought the Moor of Venice to a steampunk-inspired future world inhabited by mechanically-enhanced humans. Styling Othello with steampunk elements is quite an original take on the play.

Originally coined in the 1980s, the term “steampunk” refers to a genre of science-fiction literature that portrays the future the way people of the Victorian era would have envisioned it. Steam-powered machinery and futuristic gadgets are mainstays of the genre, and its plots typically include societal breakdowns and the formation of anarchistic or totalitarian governments. Steampunk has also come to include styles of clothing, design and architecture, which often feature leather, brass and wooden elements.

The theme of otherness is central to the plot of Othello. The titular character (Jonathon Plesser ’12), a Moor who comes to reside in Venice, is different in physical appearance, religion and heritage from those who surround him. Originally, and still in most productions, Othello is cast as a black man, though the term Moor refers to anyone of Arab descent. However, in HTP’s production, Othello is not black. Instead, he is the only human being residing in a community of cyborgs, or humans who have had mechanical parts implanted into their bodies.

Because visuals are so important to the play, it was necessary to clearly demonstrate the characters’ robotic amplifications. Makeup designer Rachel Feldman ’11 and costume designer Marissa Linzi ’11 created each character’s look to correspond to his or her profession and status. Higher-class individuals, including Othello’s bride Desdemona (Caitlin Partridge ’13), were painted with decorative headgear. Soldiers and workers, on the other hand, received apparatuses that aided them in their professions, such as jet packs and goggle-like monocles.

Hold Thy Peace's production of 'Othello' depicted the famous Moor as a human in a world of cyborgs.

Hold Thy Peace’s production of “Othello” downplays racial tensions in favor of sci-fi spectacle.

These physical additions made for a unique look onstage, and I applaud Feldman and Linzi’s creativity and craftsmanship. However, the visual difference between Plesser and the rest of the cast was not striking enough to truly demonstrate Othello’s otherness. Much of the characters’ makeup was only visible from one side, so if they were facing the opposite direction, it wasn’t clear that they were electronically altered. Additionally, a lot of the characters’ mechanical elements were too refined to make a strong visual impact. Iago (Lenny Somervell ’13), the villain of the play, had only a few small circles painted on one cheek to signify his non-human status. Because race is so central to the plot of Othello, the physical differences between the Venetians and Othello should have been more apparent to stress this point.

Despite these issues, the play was put together well and entertaining overall. Partridge and Somervell, in particular, acted quite well, playing their characters’ expressions of tenderness and deceit, respectively, with intense sincerity. Though the play is titled Othello, it is Iago who serves as the audience’s guide, sharing his plot to drive Othello mad with jealousy and narrating the play’s events through multiple long monologues. There was no mention of the reversed-gender casting in the play itself, and after the initial scene it was generally possible to forget that a woman was playing Iago, though at times it proved somewhat distracting.

In past productions, Hold Thy Peace has presented Shakespeare’s works with new and alternative interpretations. In this instance, they chose to portray a “different kind of otherness” than race, according to Becker in a talkback after the performance. Producer Kiernan Bagge ’12 added, “Today, if there is someone who is an other, they can be admired for a skill or talent. But if they ever mess up, they can be very quickly turned on [by the majority].”

Such is the plot of Othello. Becker said that she has been met with negative comments about portraying Othello as anything other than black. I have to say that, ultimately, I agree with these criticisms. Though Plesser did a fine job in the role, the play didn’t have as much resonance with me as a traditional production would have. I didn’t care about discrimination against cyborgs. I care about racial tensions that exist, not in a mythical world of the future, but in our own today.

Vagina Monologues

Students performed Eve Ensler’s emotional stories at the show.

March 15, 2011

Vagina. There are many euphemisms for it, but after seeing The Vagina Monologues performed this weekend in the Carl J. Shapiro Theater, I’ve learned a few more to add to my vocabulary. Eighteen monologues were performed in all–some as solo pieces and some in groups of two or more. The actors didn’t simply stand on stage and recite, as I had first thought they would. Each monologue was more like a performance art piece. There was dancing, movement, screams and whispers. Each performance had a different feel to it and exposed a different way that women view themselves and their vaginas.

There were stories of losing virginities, of women changing themselves for men, of learning to orgasm, of lesbian experiences, of domination and even of transgendered women who didn’t always have vaginas. There were also stories of birth, rape, abuse and fear. A common theme among the stories was that many women don’t actually like their vaginas. They’re hidden, they’re ugly and they aren’t talked about much. That was one of the reasons The Vagina Monologues was created: to teach women to understand and appreciate a thing that is so inherent about themselves and yet so often overlooked.

The Vagina Monologues was written by Eve Ensler to “celebrate the vagina” and premiered off-Broadway in 1996. Since then, individual monologues have been added and removed. The play also inspired the creation of the V-Day Movement, which works to stop violence against women and campaigns for pro-female legislature. The monologues are based on testimony from over 200 women Ensler interviewed before she wrote the play. These women were of various races, ages, professions and lifestyles, and the resulting monologues are thus extremely diverse in viewpoint and content.

This performance, sponsored by the Vagina Club, opened with a monologue by director Asa Bhuiyan ’11 and coordinator Ashni Davé ’12. The first speech, also performed by Bhuiyan, concerned a woman named Myriam, a Haitian women’s rights activist who died in the earthquake last year. Each season Ensler adds one new speech to The Vagina Monologues, usually about an issue currently facing women. This year, Myriam was honored in the show as a woman who worked to change legislature in her country and made it a safer, better and more equal place for females.

After the opening, the full cast of nearly 30 women appeared to introduce the show. Each character described what their vagina would wear and what it would say, if given the chance. These characterizations were often funny, sometimes sad and definitely relatable. The audience was predominately women, though individual men were sprinkled here and there. After all, this is a show about women learning to love their lady parts for themselves, not for any further end. Men weren’t the focus.

What impressed me most about this performance of the Monologues was how comprehensive it was. Women of all colors, body types and backgrounds appeared on stage together. What they created was remarkable; the show was inspiring. The individual monologues were funny or painful, depending on the subject, but as a single play they created an almost euphoric appreciation for women and a desire to love our bodies and ourselves. These were stories of women taking back what belonged to them, shaking off what advertisers, mothers and general society had taught them. Instead, they embraced what made them women.

Living on a liberal campus, we forget that women aren’t always respected and seen equally. Beyond outright abuse or intolerance, women are still controlled by the ideas of what others think they should be and how they should act. Too many females give in to these static definitions of beauty and femininity, often willingly or because they don’t know there are any other options.

The Vagina Monologues encourages women to look inside themselves and find what it is that gives them pleasure and happiness without reliance on anyone else. Hopefully the women in the audience have been inspired enough to try it for themselves.

The Wild Party

From left to right, Alia Goldfarb ’13, Levi Squier ’14 and Eliza Dumais ’14 are onstage in ‘Wild Party.’

Nov. 2, 2010

In advertisements for The Wild Party, put on this week by Tympanium Euphorium, a warning reads: “PARENTAL ADVISORY: This show is not suitable for viewers under the age of 16.” Could there be a better way to get college students to go see a musical? And they’re right; This show isn’t really suitable for those under 16. But not for the reasons you’re thinking. While watching the show last Thursday evening, I realized that its themes and ultimate message really relate to the issues college-aged people begin to explore. Casual drugs and casual sex, yes–but on a deeper level, the consequences of whom one chooses to love and make love to (hint: they’re not always the same). Drugs and booze fuel the night of the aforementioned wild party, during which the entire musical takes place. When the night wears on and the cocaine wears off is where the real heart of this musical lives.

Andrew Lippa wrote The Wild Party‘s book, music and lyrics based off of a long-form poem by Joseph Moncure March. The show originally debuted in New York City in 1997, but it is set in 1929, just before the stock market crash that set off the Great Depression. Prohibition has been enacted and jazz is all the rage.

The first aspects of the production I noticed–even before the action really began–were the costumes and set design, created by Jessica Rasp ’13 and Robert Orzalli ’11, respectively. The apartment in which the entire show takes place is complete with a bedroom, bathroom and bar, though no walls separate these different spheres.

A yellow couch dominates the center of the stage. Girls in garters and guys wearing boxers provide a Greek-style chorus for the show’s opening number, titled “Queenie was a Blonde.” This song refers to the female lead, played by Anneke Reich ’13, whose brassy voice seemed made for the character of a sultry nightclub performer. These singers then morph into the party guests, each with his or her own baggage and romantic partner.

Only 13 actors appear in The Wild Party, and all but two remain onstage throughout the entire performance. Though nearly all get to perform their own solos or duets, this cast impressed me most with its ability to act as an ensemble. Even when a scene was tightly focused on a few characters, the rest never stopped being “in character.” The party’s frantic pace is believable because background action is always occurring. Characters have their own full-on interactions without the use of dialogue and often act as a backdrop to the main action of the scene.

I credit the director, Abby Armstong ’13, with this achievement. She manages various story arcs with a chaotic control that suits the tone of the musical just right. It’s a party, after all. Everyone is constantly singing, dancing, drinking, flirting and always, always performing. The characters could have easily become secondary to the sheer debauchery that occurs were it not for Armstrong’s key ability to rein in the fracas. Armstrong said she “worked individually with each actor to create believable characters with their own dark motivations” but said the final product was only possible due to “this unique circumstance where each person gave 110 percent and cared more about the outcome of the show than about getting his or her own time in the spotlight.” Reich agreed, adding, “Not only actors, but the production staff, crew, orchestra members and everyone who worked on the production were extremely dedicated and passionate. The show could not have [been] done without them.”

The show’s dance routines (a mix of burlesque and jazz) choreographed by Kayla Dinces ’12, were another highlight. This was Dinces’ first time choreographing, but she clearly has a knack for it. The singing and dancing doesn’t ever really stop throughout The Wild Party, and even when full-on musical numbers aren’t being performed, individual lines of dialogue are sung and danced to. The choreography kept the show lively and entertaining, as well as reflecting its historical context. Dinces was also able to transition into a more melancholy tone when required, as the show moved into its more compelling second act.

The plot of The Wild Party focuses on the developing love triangle between Queenie, her lover Burrs (Zach Greenberg ’12) and Black (Nick Maletta ’13), a stranger who joins the party and instantly catches Queenie’s eye. For the most part, I found their characterizations believable, though all three seemed to lack the sexual tension so well portrayed by the rest of the cast. The performance that struck me most intensely was Zoey Hart’s ’13. She played the second female lead, Kate, who is Queenie’s prostitute best friend.

Hart looks like a young Helena Bonham Carter who had waded through a lake of liquor the night before. As Kate, who tries desperately to get Burrs to sleep with her throughout the evening, Hart flops and stumbles about the stage, looking woebegone and bedraggled, though undeniably sexy. Her despair at being “the life of the party,” but never attaining true romantic affection, was palpable, and I believe she gave the best performance of the show.

The best song, however, goes to Jason Dick ’14 and Dotan Horowitz ’12, who play (related) lovers Phil and Oscar D’Armano, respectively. The pair ask Queenie and Burrs to perform their latest musical creation, a song titled “A Wild, Wild Party.” Though the entire cast participates in this number, it is the D’Armanos who easily steal the show, camping it up, though not offensively. This number was also the most jubilant and boisterous of an otherwise dark and dangerous production, creating the feeling that we in the audience received an invitation to The Wild Party as well.