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Category Archives: The Theatre-Going Life

Theatre’s Aesthetic Appeal

I like looking at pretty things. Nay, I love looking at pretty things. If I had to choose, I’d say ‘sight’ is my favourite and most essential sense (followed closely by hearing and touch). So, it follows that one of my favourite parts of theatre is how it adds up visually. Sometimes, I find it hard to concentrate on what the actors are saying, much less figure out what their character’s names are, because I’m so distracted by everything there is to see.

This is also true of films, but in movies the illusion holds up more. It’s easier not to notice the ‘inauthenticity’ of the sets and costumes and everything else that went into making it beautiful. They’re more seamlessly lifelike.

Whereas, in theatre, even when you get lost in the illusion — as I often do — it’s still pretty obvious that you’re looking at sets on a stage. But I actually adore this distinction between film and theatre. When it’s a play, I notice the aesthetics — and little makes me happier than a well-dressed stage and cast.

Furthermore, the costumes and sets say so much about the tone of the piece. In the past year I saw productions of Our Town and The Matchmaker, both by Thornton Wilder. Though they were by the same writer, they had different tones and therefore the costumes and sets were nothing alike. And because the visuals fit the content and tone perfectly, they were both stunning and added loads of depth.

Because the visuals are such an important part of my theatre-viewing experience, it really bothers me when the visuals don’t live up to my high standards and ideals. This has mostly happened in the Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. Oftentimes, the directors try to update Shakespeare’s plays, and their favourite way to do this is by modernizing the costumes. Period costumes are my favourite kind. And it bothers me when the costumes aren’t right. Either in tone, or geography or time period.

But, when I do see a play with costumes and sets that I adore, and approve of, it is euphoric. Last night I had one such experience. Our school took us to see the play 1776 last week and some of my friends and I liked it so much that we decided to see it again. It’s a ‘musical play’ about the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Despite how lame it sounds (and how lame I thought it would be) it was divine. Aesthetically speaking anyways. The set was somewhat simple, yet elegant — complete with a large turntable to accommodate both indoor and outdoor scenes.

What I also liked was that the ‘congressional janitors’ did all of the between-scene furniture moving, in charactor — so that scene changes were completely integrated into the play itself.

And then there were the actors. You’ll have to pardon me for a moment while I wipe the drool off my keyboard. The nearly all male cast was clad in beautiful, late 18th century attire — complete with pony-tailed wigs and white stockings. I’m aware that this might not sound too appealing, but you’ll have to take my word for it — my friends and I did go back for seconds.

And oh, the colours! Don’t even get me started on the colours. It was a beautiful mix between drab browns for the less haughty, less affluent state representatives and deep, bright hues for the more haughty, more affluent state representatives. And of course there were several shades in between. The two ladies in the play wore elegant, full-skirted, tightly-corseted dresses.

And the (younger) actors themselves aren’t half bad. My gap year program is girls only, so, being a group of male-deprived teenage girls, we were very interested in the actors behind the characters. After last week’s performance, there was much Facebook stalking of these young gentlemen. Also much violent, melodramatic fanning of ourselves. And last evening we waited around after the show to get some autographs. (Which, I must say, made the actors very happy — although it was a little awkward when they had to remind us who they had played because they looked a little different in their street clothes.)

You wouldn’t think it, but Thomas Jefferson is fine. He’s literally tall, dark and handsome. And he has beautiful eyes. Andashirtlesspictureonfacebook. And I MET him, in person, in real life and discovered what it is to swoon.

And then there’s the representative from South Carolina whose name I can’t recall — my friends and I refer to him simply as “South Carolina”. Blue eyes. Pretty face. Southern accent. Bonus: he’s really from New Zealand, so he even has a beautiful accent in real life.

When I swoonfully related all this to my bestest friend (who isn’t as insane as I am), she laughed at me (in a ‘with me’ kind of way) and questioned the point of all this. She’s right, of course. These actors are way older than I am and besides, a several of them are (presumably) a tad homosexual. But, in reality, neither of these facts have any practical effect on my life. It’s not as though anything would happen without these ‘hinderances’.

I generally don’t go mad like this over real people, just fictitious ones. And that’s exactly what these guys are, despite the fact that they’re theatre actors whom I actually met, not film actors who live in a faraway place I’ve dubbed Movieland. The emotional energy I expend on these guys is no less theoretical than the emotional energy I expend on the likes of Mr. Darcy or Gilbert Blythe.

Because, after all, there’s a great difference between actors and the characters they play. And the guys whom my friends and I have lately ‘fallen madly in love with’ are really nothing more than illusions. Visually pleasing illusions, that is.

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“He Have His Goodness Now”

The other day I went to see Arthur Miller’s The Crucible put on by Soulpepper in Toronto’s Distillery District. It was phenomenal, incredible, stupendous. The sets were perfect in that they were subtle and fitting, the costumes seemed just right and the acting was amazing. There isn’t much more than that to say. When something is subpar, I can wax on forever about its flaws, but when I truly enjoy something, I find it hard to say anything. Not, I imagine, because there isn’t anything to be said, but because it just doesn’t seem to need saying. When something is done well, that generally appears seamless; you don’t sit pondering what makes it so good, you just take it for granted and become engrossed. Which is probably why it’s easier to criticize than to compliment. When something is done well, it is less noticeable, it’s simply as it should be; however, when it is done poorly, that’s what sticks out. This is probably why we’re quicker to notice (and punish) children when they misbehave, than to notice (and reward) children who behave properly.

But, life is more complicated than just good and bad, approval and disapproval. Not everything is all good and must be put on a pedestal, or all bad and to be put to shame. At least according to The Crucible. If something (or someone) is completely good or completely bad, that’s boring. It doesn’t seem worth talking about. It’s the tension between good and bad and the capacity for good and bad that make life (and people) interesting.

So, overall, the play was incredible, but there was one flaw that stuck out for me. I really didn’t like Abigail Williams. I understand that the character herself is not a likable person — we’re not supposed to like her. But I can’t figure out if I disliked her because the actress did such a good job playing her and I didn’t like her because I wasn’t supposed to or if it was because she really didn’t do a good job and that bothered me. I’m inclined to think the latter.

Abigail isn’t a nice person. She had an affair with John Proctor before the play began, and while he’s seen that it was wrong and put an end to it, she refuses to move on. She’s jealous of Proctor’s wife, Elizabeth, and wants her dead, with hopes of taking her place. She uses the witch trials as an opportunity to have Elizabeth accused and hanged for her own corrupt, selfish purposes. She’s a controlling, manipulative liar who gains power through the messed up system created by the trials and leads all the other (previously powerless) teenage girls in accusing many innocent people of “consorting with the devil”. The thing about her, though, is that she’s a really awful character who I just love to hate. She’s deliciously bad and has few to no redeeming qualities.

But I didn’t really get that from the girl who played her. She didn’t really seem so conniving and cruel and malicious. She was just kind of annoying. And her affected innocence didn’t feel enough like affectation. Maybe she didn’t do such a bad job. Maybe the actress or the director had a different interpretation of Abigail’s character than I did. But, because the rest of the play was so good, this one flaw was not only more noticeable, but it also bothered me more and made more of an impact.

Abigail Williams annoyingly portrayed by Hannah Miller.
Photo credit: Soulpepper.ca

The opposite applies as well, goodness has more value when it’s put next to badness. This is illustrated with John Proctor’s character. The play ends with *spoiler alert* his hanging. He chooses to be hanged rather than sign his name to lies and perpetuate the brutal witch trials, which he knows to be senseless, unjust and unfounded in real factual evidence. If he was just a perfect person, if he were a noble, just, well-behaved man from the start of the play, his self-sacrifice in the end wouldn’t be all that spectacular. What else would he do? Rebecca Nurse, an extremely calm, sensible, moral character shares the same fate. But no one really notices. It’s expected of her.

What’s so outstanding about Proctor is that he isn’t perfect from the start but still does the right thing in the end. He’s a good person, but he’s done wrong. He has an incredible reputation, and is respected in his community (which is why his final decision to die honourably rather than live because of a self-preserving falsehood actually matters and helps his society). But seven months before the play even began, he had that affair with Abigail. As far as he’s concerned, that one mistake makes him a terrible person and it was an error in judgment from which he can never recover. He does the right thing in the end, but literally up until the moment that he does, he isn’t sure if he’s going to — partly because he feels that since he’s already done one wrong thing, there’s no point in losing his life to do the right thing. But then he realizes that goodness and badness don’t have to be mutually exclusive. He sees that he does have some goodness in him and he chooses to do the right thing, because having done wrong previously is no excuse to do wrong again.

Patricia Fagan and Stuart Hughes as Elizabeth and John Proctor

The thing that makes him heroic, is that he has done bad but changes and does something good. That’s why he matters. That’s why he’s interesting. That’s why we love him. When something is all good or all bad, it’s boring — or at least boring to talk about. There isn’t necessarily much to say about a play that’s done perfectly or a man who behaves perfectly. But what really sticks out — whether in a bad way or in a good way — is when a play that’s superb has a flaw or when a not so ideal person does something truly noble. Because it’s the inconsistencies in life that are interesting and that really get people talking.

Of course, I’d rather a play that’s executed perfectly or a person who’s always good, but life’s more complicated than that and there’s good and bad in everything. And “there is nothing,” as Hamlet says (in Hamlet, act 2, scene II) “either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”. So maybe what I’m really getting at with this, is what do you focus on? The awesomeness of the rest of the play or the less-than-awesomeness of how Abigail was portrayed? The fact that John Proctor cheated on his wife or that fact that he was able to repent, move past that and do good in the end?

I’d say, learn from Proctor and choose goodness. There’s badness in each of us and there’s badness in the world around us. But maybe we shouldn’t focus on that. Maybe we should focus on the good and — despite our own or other people’s bad choices — try to do the right thing.

Where are all the “words, words, words”?

Today I went to see the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Hamlet. It was only the second ballet I’ve ever seen, the first being something along the lines of Cinderella with a great aunt, when I was really small, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Nonetheless, I was very excited, especially as I loved reading Hamlet for school this year and I just finished re-reading it to prepare for last week’s English exam.

It turns out that they don’t talk much in ballets. Who would’ve thunk it? Probably someone who knows a thing or two about dance, or is at all cultured or who has been to the ballet a few times. Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned qualities are true of me, so while I had an inkling, I really wasn’t so sure what I was getting myself into. Of course, that isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy it — I did — or that I don’t have some thoughts on the affair — I do. However, bear in mind, that I know nothing about ballet or even dance in general, beyond occasionally watching “Dance Moms” on Slice instead of doing my homework, so this is a pretty uneducated opinion, with more of a literary-minded take on the performance than an assessment of its value as a ballet — mostly because I would have no idea how to assess its value as a ballet.

“Dost thou think Alexander [the Great] looked o’ this fashion in’th’ earth?” (5.1.182-3).
Photo credit: http://national.ballet.ca

In the “Ballet Talk”, before the performance started, the speaker talked about the importance of Shakespeare’s use of language, and in outlining the play’s plot, she touched upon the fact that Shakespeare’s plots where often unoriginal, and what matters more is his language and how he portrays these plots. That being said, she talked about converting Shakespeare’s language and sentiments into movement. I, as someone who apparently doesn’t speak ‘the language of dance’, just didn’t really get it and (for me) a lot was lost in the translation. Of course, it could be argued that there was also a ton gained in translation, and, to someone who can appreciate that medium, it may have been far more powerful than a traditional, theatrical production would be for them. Unfortunately I’m not one of those people.

I’m a words person, I like how they sound, how they feel lolling around on the tip of your tongue, how they can make you ache or laugh ’till you’re in tears. I find music and movement to be beautiful, as the performance certainly was, but it just didn’t move me to the degree I expected, and wanted, to be moved. I saw the silent film The Artist earlier this year, and surprisingly I didn’t miss the talking at all. For some reason, however, I strongly felt the absence of the spoken word in this performance.

That being said, it’s interesting to look at the choice to translate Shakespeare from the theatre stage to the ballet stage. Watching Hamlet play out his inner conflict just physically really got me thinking. Yes, it was an interesting and compelling way to get his turmoil across, but I think that this can be done just as effectively by marrying body language to verbal expression. The woman talking about the ballet mentioned that each movement has deep meaning and serves a creative purpose. Perhaps someone who speaks the language might understand the difference between one hip thrust and another, but I cannot and I felt that much of Hamlet’s “soliloquy dancing” took up more time than necessary. Yes, Hamlet, I get that you’re upset and you’re conflicted, but I understood that five minutes ago, what does this move do to add to my knowledge of your grief? Again, perhaps these physical soliloquys meant more to more discerning audience members, but to me I would have gotten the gist of it in half the stage time.


That’s Hamlet, just being his usual, conflicted, angst-y self.
Photo credit: http://national.ballet.ca

For me, words and imagery paired with that body language would have been far more effective. While I was watching (and my mind was wandering) I was reminded of a child throwing a temper tantrum because she is having difficulty organizing and expressing her feelings. Her mother of course urges her to use her words to explain and work through what’s bothering her. I think that this analogy brings the ballet into a new light. Perhaps this expression through movement is an authentic manifestation of raw emotion, making it a thoroughly appropriate medium for conveying Hamlet’s intensely emotional strain.

That being said, it can also be looked at from the other side, where the mother, or the voice of reason, points out the importance of using one’s words. In the real world, those of us who are emotionally mature express our feeling and interact with one another using spoken language. Of course it is not the only mode of expression, but it seems more mature than just a physical burst of angst and pain. Also, I think that, on its own, movement can only go so far to convey messages. I understood the angst, the slight humour and the love and lust they were depicting, but Shakespeare is about so much more than raw emotions and his words allow him to convey many things on as many levels. From my slight understanding of the ballet, much of Shakespeare’s thematic significance, symbolism and even humour was lost.

This isn’t an argument against the ballet, and I still found myself enjoying the performance quite a bit. While I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have liked, I’m sure this would have been a completely different review if I had some knowledge and understanding of the art form. Is anyone a fan of the ballet (as a whole or with regards to Shakespeare adaptations)? Any challengers want to refute my claims? Any ballets you would recommend? I’d love to hear the other side of the argument, so leave some comments, people!

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