Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Iphiegnia in Aulis: The lives of 10,000

Laura Hartle as Iphigenia
Photo by RIchard Termine
Every night in the theater, there is a moment which I know will get an audible reaction, sometimes a gasp, sometimes a snicker. After she has made the decision to let herself be sacrificed, Iphigenia proudly declares: "One man’s life is worth more than the lives of ten thousand women."

Of course, it sounds ridiculous to us. It sounded ridiculous to me, as I translated the play, and I briefly considered if there was a way to make it more...palatable.

There wasn't.

But in rehearsals, I became fond of the line, in a perverse way.

In order for Iphigenia to make the transition from sacrifice to willing martyr, she has to truly believe and buy into everything she has been taught by her father and her society. That the Trojans are barbarians. That war means freedom. That a human sacrifice is a heroic martyrdom. And that a man's life is worth ten thousand women.

Somehow, we accept the other statements, because they are closer to statements we hear in our own society. But when we hear a statement that is clearly from another era, another mindset, it is jarring. It should be jarring. But it is of a piece. Just because some propaganda is longer lasting than others doesn't mean it isn't equally propaganda. Snicker at it, perhaps, but then ask whether in a thousand years someone will be snickering at us.

Is Iphigenia in Aulis misogynist? Perhaps. It certainly is from a somewhat misogynist society, though there are aspects of the play, from Klytemnestra to the chorus, that have a more feminist outlook. The blaming and shaming of Helen has a sexist tinge, though it is of a piece of the societal shaming of adulterers; even Jason suffered for his betrayal of Medea.

But that one line, to me, isn't misogynist. That line is a wake up call. Clearly, we see before us a woman whose life is worth at least as much as any man, perhaps more than many. Yet she has been formed by the society she is in, and she believes what the society believes.

In a play about the power of the mob, this is in fact the mob's greatest power. It lies not in its strength of arms, but in its conventional wisdom, in the banal but dangerous things everyone accepts, without questioning. Unless, perhaps, one had two and a half thousand years in which to reflect.

Monday, February 18, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: A Shylock

Uma Incrocci and John Blaylock in
Fairy Tales of the Absurd
John Blaylock, who first performed with us back in 1996, when he played the lead, Jacob Levy, in A Shylock, tells of his memory of his first day with UTC61.  In a side note:  I had been listening to actors read a monologue from the play all day, and I was feeling in despair by time he arrived, thinking perhaps it was the fault of the monologue, not the actors.  Then John came in and let me live longer in the delusion that I should be a writer...

Well, although I go back pretty far with UTC61, there are certainly folks who go back farther than I do, and also have done far more than I have with the company. Still, I guess it's best to start RIGHT at the beginning, and it's not a stretch for me to do so with, literally, my first day on the job…

I had been cast as Dr. Jacob Levy in the UTC61 production of A Shylock back in 1996. As fate, (or perhaps more accurately, my own particular reverse luck) would have it, I had only just recently moved to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side. The first rehearsal for A Shylock was to be held at a location on, you guessed it, the Upper West Side. Had I still lived on West 75th Street, I could have taken a leisurely stroll into the 90's for the rehearsal. Instead, on this Saturday morning, I had to hike it in from the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Not that this is a big deal, but we all know what the subways can be like, particularly on the weekends. Good native New Yorker that I am, I allowed PLENTY of extra travel time but, needless to say, to no avail. At 5 minutes after the appointed time for our first reading, I'm fast-walking down the block to the rehearsal location. Just as I spy the correct address, I also notice a tall, chisel-featured gent dismounting from a motorcycle in front of the same address. He calls out to me when I turn onto the steps, asking if I'm there for the Shylock rehearsal. When I reply that I am, he introduces himself as Dan Leventritt, who will be playing the titular character. I introduce myself along with my own character name, and we enter the building together. Naturally, I'm silently pleased that while I still feel like an idiot for being late to the first rehearsal, at least I'm not alone. Once we're in the rehearsal room, Edward Einhorn greets us both pleasantly and it's clear that he and Dan have worked together before. I'm thinking this is more good luck, because Edward's not going to chastise me for being late when here I am walking in with someone who is clearly both friend and colleague. As we are settling ourselves down at the table with the rest of the cast -- no mention whatsoever having been made of our tardiness at this point -- and I am breathing a SERIOUS inner sigh of relief, Mr. Leventritt announces to the group, "Sorry we were a bit late, everyone. Actually, I would have been on time, but Blaylock over here was talking my ear off outside, like, forever and so, well, here we are." To this day I hope that the laughter that ensued masked the redness of my face, but that little episode set the tone for the work on that show and every one that I've done with Edward Einhorn and the UTC61 since that day. Namely, that it's always been that all-too-rare combination of some of the best fun and most rewarding theatrical work that I've had the pleasure to experience in my career.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: Linguish

Jospehine Cashman, Max Zener, and Ken Simon in Linguish
Actor and Artistic Board member Josephine Cashman writes about Linguish:

My friends have often (and fairly) accused me of being a word nerd. It is fitting, therefore, that I was cast in Untitled Theater Company’s play about language and communication. I cheerfully told my friends that Linguish was like No Exit with a dash of The Outer Limits, but it’s core, I believe that this play is about the need for human communication. That need is so strong that in the absence of one language, humans will create another one.

In Linguish, (part of UTC’61s Neurofest), four people catch a contagious form of Aphasia and are quarantined together. I enjoyed investigating the precise and delicate text of Edward’s delicious word salad, and playing Beth became a very rewarding experience for me. Our characters may have been unwillingly forced to deal with each another, but I think it’s safe to say that the cast bonded quite happily. Onstage our characters tickled, kissed, fought, laughed and quibbled over Latin pronunciation (classical or medieval?). Offstage we had fiery conversations about the rules of our onstage card game “pinochle” (nothing like the actual game). Even though Edward told us there were no rules to the game, we made them up anyway. During one rehearsal, the “Linguish” language took on a life of its own as one day I mistakenly renamed our “Pinochle” game as “Neepocle.” Somehow, the nickname stuck and became a part of the show. It was a hilarious but telling moment about how fluid language can be, and how easily we took to the new name.

also had a second life, when we went to Chicago to perform for rooms full of neurologists. A heady experience indeed. Imagine performing the different forms of aphasia for a room full of experts, studying our every movement and the language we used. Happily, they not only understood what the play was about, but they enthusiastically participated in the discussions afterwards. I remember having a talk with a doctor after a performance, trying to explain the rules of our fictional; Neepocle/Pinochle game, simply because he thought it looked fun to play. From Mirroring Neurons to made-up card games, acting Linguish was an amazing experience; I got to work with actors I admired in a play full of delicious challenges. What more could an actor want?

Monday, February 11, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: The Velvet Oratorio

Tony Torn and Peter Bean in The Velvet Oratorio
Tony Torn (soon appearing on Broadway in Breakfast at Tiffany's) tells his memory of The Velvet Oratorio, performed in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  We had a performance at the Walter Bruno Theater at the Lincoln Center Library, then at the beautiful Bohemian National Hall, for a Czech audience.  We plan to revive the show for the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution!

When we performed The Velvet Oratorio at the Bohemian National Hall, we were all very nervous to perform before a Czech audience, many of whom had lived through the events depicted. The show itself was full of gremlins that night. Lots of small things went wrong.  In my scene as a drunken police interrogator, I set down my glass of beer a little too hard and the entire table flipped over. Fortunately the glass was plastic and the smell of spilled beer gave the whole scene a atmospheric veracity. But later, in a climactic moment, the chorus in which I was part got confused and completely lost the choreography that Henry had so painstakingly mapped out. It was a hair raising night on stage for sure. But the ovation was so warm, and the gratitude of the crowd so overwhelming, that this performance became one of my most cherished experiences in the theater.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: Ken Simon

Ken Simon in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Actor and Artistic Board Member Ken Simon shares his memories of Rhinoceros, Linguish, The Memo, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

My association with Untitled Theater Company #61 began in 2001, with the production of Rhinoceros as part of UTC61's Ionesco Festival (my first of three UTC61 festivals [actually four, if you count the 24/7 Fest - EE]). From a carnival-looking Cafe Proprietor to an officious Office Manager to a green-skinned rhinoceros (don't ask), it was a very enjoyable show (as was the reading we did of translated French conversation lessons that Eugene Ionesco had written for a friend...when UTC61 festivals, it festivals) and the start of an important part of my performing career.

There was the production of Linguish in January 2006 written and directed by Edward Einhorn, Artistic Director of UTC61 (and for whom people have been mistaking me since I have known him) as part of UTC61's NeuroFest, a festival of original plays about neurological conditions. It was a play about four people quarantined with a virus (fictional) that caused various types of aphasia (real neurological disorder). I was cast as Michael, a lawyer so snarky and sarcastic that after one scene rehearsal, I told my other castmates that I didn't understand why they just didn't kill me and eat me. In fact, a castmate, Uma, told me that one of her friend's said, "That guy who played the lawyer, he must be a real jerk." To which Uma said that she told them, "No, he's really very nice." Which is an amazing things for an actor to hear...and maybe why non-actors have a hard time knowing how to compliment actors. And we were invited to perform the show again at the American Academy of Neurology's 60th Annual Meeting in 2008. You just never know where UTC61 will take you.

In the same year as Linguish, November 2006, I had the privilege of working on an original translation of The Memo by Vaclav Havel as part of UTC61's Havel Fest (did I mention we've done a number of festivals?) The Memo was my first introduction to President Havel's work and even more, to President Havel himself, as he was an audience member for one of our performances. I was at first confused why everyone else was running to the dressing room when the show was over...until I heard the former President of the Czech Republic had been in the audience and then I joined the running mob (it was a large cast) for him to sign my script as well. I've had the opportunity to meet Elie Wiesel (late '90s) and formed a theory then about truly great people; that theory was further cemented in meeting this playwright/world leader: a distinguishing characteristic of the truly great is their humility and appreciation of people. So not only do you not know where UTC61 will take you, but you don't know who will be brought to you by UTC61.

In December 2010, I was part of the Edward's original adaptation of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for Ridley Scott's movie, Blade Runner) by Philip K. Dick. I played Isidore. A shorthand way I described him was as "a radiation-affected moron" (which is actually kinder than the nickname given to him throughout the script, ie, "chickenhead", which was used to great delight during rehearsal by one of my castmates, Alex, who played Deckard. But underneath this bantering, and possibly to offset the necessary approach, was a great affection I felt for my character. Part of his backstory that led to these terms was that he is a man degraded by the radiation of the Earth's last world war to the point that his cognitive abilities are weakening and likely to grow weaker. But what I loved about him, and the way Edward had written him that fed into portraying him, was a sense of ever-present courage that expressed itself in optimism and perseverance. Of all the characters I've portrayed, I think I care most about Isidore. And that may be why it was also easy, and maybe necessary, to joke about him, because getting too caught up in pathos for one's character actually detracts from it. I wanted to honor the character by making sure he stayed a human being, who lusted and eventually fell in love with the android using him; who experienced anger and despair when he found out the philosophy upon which he based his whole life and hopes was a lie; who with all his limitations and the pain he experiences, ends the play sadder but maybe a little wiser. Which is a pretty amazing thing when you're degrading from the radiation around you. It was an honor to play Isidore, a transcendent experience for me as a performer, and I will be forever grateful to Edward and UTC61 for the opportunity.

Happy 20th Anniversary, Untitled Theater Company #61. As my relatives would say, "May you live to be 120, and never know a day of suffering."

Friday, February 8, 2013

Agamemnon's Prologue from Iphigenia in Aulis

Michael Bertolini as Agamemnon
Lynn Berg as the Servant
Like many Greek dramas, Iphigenia in Aulis starts off with a monologue of exposition...sort of The Story So Far of the Trojan War.  However, in most translations, this exposition is stuck in the middle of Scene One.  Most scholars agree that this is an error of transcription, and many believe that the majority of Scene One was written by another author besides Euripides.  Later, those two sections, the prologue and the first scene, were awkwardly tied together.  Essentially, the Servant says to Agamemnon, "tell me what's wrong," and in response Agamemnon provides a lengthy narrative.

In my version, I bring the prologue to the top of the show, where I believe it began.  This did create a few logistical problems.  The first line(s) of the prologue are lost, and I needed to tie together the Servant's question and the next portion of the dialogue.  The latter section was a little tricky, but I accomplished it by preserving a few lines of the prologue in the scene, and then played a little with the wording of my translation to make it flow more smoothly.  And for the opening words...I added three.  "I am Agamemnon."  Thus do I improve on Euripides.

Here is the prologue, for those interested:

I am Agamemnon. My wife Klytemnestra was one of three daughters born to Leda, daughter of Thestius, the other two being Phoebe and Helen. As Helen was the most beautiful of the three, she had every young man of any distinction in Achaea vying for her hand. The competition frequently became so violent that some of her suitors came close to murdering each other. Helen’s father wasn’t sure how he could choose a suitor, and he began to wonder whether he should marry her off at all. Finally, a solution came to him. He made all of Helen’s suitors take an unbreakable oath. They joined hands, poured offerings of wine, and burned a sacrifice. “Whoever wins Helen as his wife,” they swore, “will have our allegiance. Should any man try to steal Helen away from her husband, we will all join as one to chase him down, whoever he is, whether Achaean or foreign, and we will make war upon his city until it is burned to the ground.” Once Helen’s father had cleverly engineered this oath, he told his daughter to go wherever love’s sweet breath might lead. It led her to my brother, Menelaus, though I dearly wish it hadn’t.

After some time, a Trojan man named Paris arrived in Sparta. It was said that Paris had once judged a beauty contest in which Aphrodite herself had taken part. He was dressed in elaborate barbarian robes, covered with jewels and flowers. He declared his love for Helen. She declared her love for him. So, while Menelaus was occupied elsewhere, Paris stole away with Helen, bringing her to Troy. Menelaus was beside himself in fury. He roared through Achaea and demanded that all of Helen’s onetime suitors should remember their oath and help him hunt down Paris. Soon all of Achaea was in arms.

And now here we are at the straits of Aulis, with our ships, our troops, our horses, and our armaments. Because Menelaus is my brother, I have been given the honor of being the general. It is an honor I would gladly give away, if I could.

But we cannot move from here. The wind thwarts us. We cannot sail. In despair, we turned to Kalchas, a great prophet, who told us there is only one hope, if we wished to ever leave this place. My daughter, Iphigenia, must be sacrificed to Artemis. Then, and only then, he said, would the wind blow us in the direction of Troy, which would fall beneath our might.

“Sound the trumpet,” I told my herald. “Our war is done. I will not kill my daughter.” But my brother overwhelmed me with his pleas and his demands until I agreed to commit this horror, this unspeakable act. I sent a message to my wife. It told her to bring our daughter here to Aulis. I wrote that Iphigenia would be wed to Achilles, our greatest soldier. I wrote that Achilles would not sail with us unless he was married to my own daughter, unless he could one day go home to her.It was a lie, a fake marriage, a base trick. Only Kalchas, Odysseus, Menelaus, and I know the truth. And now I realize that I have made a grave error, an error that must immediately be remedied.

Monday, February 4, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: The Good Woman of Setzuan

Peter Brown in To Prepare a Hard Boiled Egg
Peter Brown, an actor who was with us from day one and has perhaps logged the most acting miles overall with the company, tells his memories of a very early production (our second in New York), The Good Woman of Setzuan.  I have often thought of revisiting it; I was very happy with the overall concept, though I would definitely tweak the audience interactive parts and probably bring in more music.

Of the many UTC61 productions I've had the pleasure to be part of over the past two decades, the one that's most distinctive for me is the 1994 staging of Brecht's (and Steffin and Berlau's) The Good Woman of Setzuan. I say "most distinctive" because it would be impossible to write about the most enjoyable one. There is none. They were all wretched experiences and I'm glad to...no. They were all highly enjoyable and fulfilling theatrical experiences, with Edward's trademark intelligence, humor, and deep trust of his actors unfailingly present. That goes for Good Woman, as well. Yet it was in Good Woman that I first encountered the kind of challenging thinking on Edward's part that would make UTC61 truly a "theater of ideas."

In a nutshell, Edward believed that in the many years since Good Woman's 1943 premiere, Brecht's so-called "alienation" techniques (actors directly addressing the audience, unflattering lighting, interrupting the action with songs) had become dull from overuse, and were no longer sufficient to accomplish Brecht's original intention of reminding the audience that they were watching a play, purposely disrupting the willful suspension of disbelief on which theater is based. Edward, in effect, sought to put the alienation back into Brecht. He conceived of a production of The Good Woman of Setzuan set on a bare black-box stage, with floor-tape outlines of the basic playing areas and a few simple wooden cubes for occasional furniture or levels. The lighting would be only the room's fluorescent lights, shining equally on stage and house, and the play's sixteen characters were to be played by five actors, in mildly distinctive rehearsal clothes, each wearing removable placards with the name of the character they were portraying at a given moment. As there are several scenes in which more than five characters appear, the name-placards would sometimes be hung on music stands literally "standing in" for the character, while the actor voicing the character moved from one stand to another (and from one voice and physicalization to another) as the dialogue of the scene required. In addition, at certain points in the play, the action would stop altogether and one of the five actors would address the audience directly, as him or herself, the actor, and offer extemporaneous thoughts or questions about the play and its ideas. The audience was encouraged to do the same, and not only at the pre-arranged pauses set by the director, but, ideally, whenever they felt so moved.

Now I'd be lying if I said this wasn't a thrill for the cast. We each got to play multiple parts, some voiced by different actors in different scenes. I think three of us played the Unemployed Man over the course of the play. And there was a lot of manic fun in having to shift, on a dime, from one music stand/character to another as the dialogue required. I imagine (hope) that for the audience it was a bit like watching the voice-over recording sessions for a really good animated TV series. Each of us also had at least one lead role which we alone played. The young pilot Yang Sun, Wong the water-carrier/chorus figure, Shu Fu the unctuous barber/capitalist. I, myself, played Shu Fu, as well as all three of the Gods as a sort of Robin Williams-ish schizophrenic having conversations with himself. Interestingly, Edward went against the only doubling up that Brecht himself had assigned, that of Shen Te and Shui Ta. The chief conceit of the play is in the soft-hearted prostitute Shen Te's creation of a hardass, male cousin alter-ego, Shui Ta, to save her fledgling tobacco shop from moochers and layabouts. Yet Edward had one actor play Shen Te, throughout, and another play Shui Ta.

Feeling alienated, yet? Some of the audience seemed to. I don't recall a performance of the run in which we didn't lose at least a few people at the intermission. The spontaneous talk-back they'd been encouraged to initiate didn't materialize, apart from a few brave attempts by Edward's dear brother David, a lawyer, who at one performance, stood up in the middle of a scene to ask if one of the characters needed a lawyer, and held out his business card. One of the actors, staying in character, grabbed the card and claimed it was "no good, here," tore it up, and continued with the scene. Another night, an actor, during his pre-arranged moment of addressing the audience, concluded his remarks by turning off the room's fluorescent lights, plunging the house into darkness, and leaving the stage bathed in the comparatively warm yellow wash of a couple fresnels that had been added for front-lighting. A cast member sitting next to me gasped quietly, the scene resumed, and for a moment it felt like the "real" play had begun, like Judy Garland first opening that door onto the full color land of Oz after the lengthy black-and-white intro...until Edward quietly walked to the back of the house and turned the fluorescents back on.

Looking back, though, I wonder if moments such as these were, in fact, the very lightning Edward was trying to capture in a bottle. Moments when the stark difference between the theatrical and the real, the planned and the unplanned, became abruptly evident. At the time, and for some years afterward, I had a stumbling block with Edward's concept in that it seemed to only be about the difference between theatrical realities. Theater about theater was still theater. If Edward, like Brecht, wanted to break through the easy sentiment of traditional narrative theater, and expose the emotional manipulation at the heart of theatrical performance, why not just write an essay? It seemed that we were fighting fire with fire.

Or maybe I just wanted more flattering lighting. The truth is, now, as I re-read the paragraphs above, I can't help but think, "That sounds like a really neat Good Woman of Setzuan."

Happy 20th, UTC61!

Friday, February 1, 2013

20th Anniversary Memories: Fairy Tales of the Absurd

A short story about Fairy Tales of the Absurd, by actor and Artistic Board member Uma Incrocci.

Fairy Tales of the Absurd played at the Ionesco Festival, FringeNYC and eventually Off-Broadway at Theater 80. I was lucky enough to be in all three productions. It was the best kind of children’s show, the kind that brings out the kid in everyone.

Once there was a girl who loved to do plays.

She read a newspaper called Backstage, where there were jobs for actors.

She answered an ad, and she felt very lucky, because she got a job in a play.

In this play, she got to play a little girl. A very little girl, who was less than three years old.

Since she was a big girl, the director (who is in charge of doing all the deciding for a play) decided that she would use a puppet to play the little girl.

This puppet was very cute. Her hair was made of yarn and her dress was pink and she had blue bows in her hair. The girl also wore a dress that was pink and had blue bows in her hair. Her hair was not made of yarn.

Together, the puppet girl and the real girl had many adventures. When they were together, their name was Josette.

The play was written by a man named Eugene Ionesco. He had a BIG imagination and saw the world in his own way. He liked to remind serious grown-ups that really, life can be pretty silly. The play was very funny and sweet, and in it Josette had a wonderful father who told her all sorts of wonderful stories, and a housekeeper who wore a flowered dress. There was an elevator ride, a moon made of cheese and a whole pile of dolls all named Jacqueline.

There was a time in September 2001 when the people of New York City were very sad. They were sad because the Twin Towers were destroyed and there was a hole left in all of their hearts. This was the same time when the play was happening. It was hard but all the actors and the director decided that the play had to go on – and the show made the children and their grown-ups who came to it laugh and it made them all feel just a little bit better.

Then, two years later, the girl got to be Josette again, this time in big celebration of many plays called the Fringe Festival. This time, the girl also got to be a Princess. This was not a frilly pink princess, but a princess from another planet whose face was blue. In the play, she grew another head! But in the end she grew to love her second head and there was a happy ending. And a talking pudding.

The people at the Fringe Festival loved it so much that the director had to make another decision. He decided that more people should see this play and get a chance to see the talking pudding.

The play moved to a bigger theater and all the actors in the play got to join Actors Equity. This meant that doing this play was finally a real job. This made the actors very happy, especially the girl. They got to do the show every night for many weeks and make all sorts of people laugh.

The sad thing about plays is one day they are over. The props and costumes get put away. Everyone hugs and says good-bye. But this is also one thing that makes plays so special.

Josette and the girl and the director and all the lovely people who worked on the show went out for a beer. They toasted to a wonderful play and hoped they would work together again soon. In fact, they did. There were many plays to come.