The Public and Labyrinth Theater, NYU Skirball Center
“Mercury is in retrograde” is a real thing, people. Last Thursday morning someone in my acting class cited “Mercury is in retrograde” as a possible explanation for a fellow classmate’s lateness. I’d never been quite sure what that phrase meant, so I asked for clarification. Apparently this particular planetary phenomenon is thought to cause mishaps in communication and disruptions of technical gadgetry. Trains get messed up, I was told, emails go missing, cell phones break. That sort thing.
Well, apparently so. For that evening I attended the Labyrinth production of Othello and there were some major technical difficulties going on. The actors, poor things, spent half the first act in near complete darkness. At first I didn’t quite register it as an error, but I soon decided that Peter Sellars could not have intended for this play to be performed under work lights. Oh it was sad. Over and over again, specials would go out on actors in mid-soliloquy, leaving them in the pitch black, mustering all their worth for the task of relaying Shakespeare’s story as if it were a radio play. Then the upstage work lights come on, giving everyone a grayish halo around their darkened faces, but at least allowing us to see their limbs move. And onward ho the valiant actors go, maintaining their focus admirably, until hallelujah the lights are restored! Philip Seymour Hoffman is revealed in all his pale Iagoan glory, and we all enjoy some blessedly visible theater – until once again the lights fail. Darkness overcomes the stage, work lights come up, and so on. I felt awful for everyone.
I hate to admit it, but I left at intermission. I know! I’m sorry! It’s terrible, but I couldn’t endure Mercury’s influence any longer. It was too distracting. And it was a long play – four hours total, and I lasted two. Even so, I still found myself thinking of this production for days afterward. Here’s some of what was trolling through my head:
- Cell phones are alienating. Not only when they ring unbidden from the audience, but also when they are used as a device in a modern-day Shakespeare production. I can understand the logic of using them – we don’t use horse-riding messengers anymore, we conference call and text. It should make things more accessible. But I found that watching two actors play a scene on opposite sides of stage, facing the audience and speaking into cell phones (rather than engaged with and speaking to one another) distanced me from the action of the play. Now that may very well have been the intent, as the production does make use of several other alienating technologies – microphones, blinding flood lights (they were among the few instruments that were working), and a giant television-screen bed. But I experienced the cell phone thing as an obstacle between me and the story. And that's kind of a big deal when Shakespeare's language is already a major obstacle for many folks.
- Speaking of language, it is one of my greatest sorrows as an actor that people find Shakespeare’s language so obfuscating and obscure. My boyfriend claims to hate Shakespeare and it kills me. I guess I felt nearly the same way for a while, until I learned how to play it. How to unlock the language. To use the meter, the consonants and vowels, and the imagery to inform the character’s actions and motivations. How to ride the rhythm of the language – allowing it to carry you forward – so that a long, winding, rhetorical text clips along, revealing itself as a cohesive, comprehensible, musical whole. The language seems so clear when you know how to play it. So why is it so hard to convey that clarity to an audience? Sure, you could say that there are too many “bad” productions of Shakespeare, where the text isn’t treated “correctly.” But Anna the Good Student thinks she knows how to “do it right” and yet when I rehearse Lady Percy for my boyfriend, I still sweat bullets trying to get him to feel the same vitality he feels watching me do a contemporary monologue. It drives me nuts. It’s a puzzle. I’ll keep working at it. Hopefully everyone will.
- I find famous people shiny. Meaning they literally seem (can you literally seem?) to shine out to me more than average people. My friends know this about me, that I’m completely susceptible to the specious allure of fame. So whether it was for this reason or some other that I couldn’t keep my eyes off of Phil Hoffman I do not know. Nonetheless, I was drawn to his every move.