MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Speak What We Feel: King Lear at Seattle Shakes

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!

“Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” Dan Kremer as King Lear; photo by John Ulman

To grapple with the challenge of staging King Lear has to be the Shakespearean equivalent of trying to produce an entire Ring cycle. The play is so vast, so all-encompassing, its web of theatrical and emotional motifs so intricately woven, that it’s no wonder old-fashioned — well, OK, ancient — critical opinion deemed the play simply “too huge for the stage” (A.C. Bradley).

But visionary productions over the past century have dispelled that misgiving. Or maybe it’s just that the course the world itself has undergone makes us more receptive to Lear‘s devastating dramatic truths. Sometimes it almost seems as if Shakespeare had written the script for our times — and we’re just bumbling along, trying to act it out. Things don’t just fall apart; they coil toward entropy.

In Seattle Shakespeare’s new production, the play’s apocalyptic dimensions are essentially eclipsed by the familial — and all-too-familiar — realism of dysfunctional relationships and personal psychology.

Linda K. Morris, Patrick Allcorn, and Dan Kremer; photo  by John Ulman

Linda K. Morris, Patrick Allcorn, and Dan Kremer; photo by John Ulman

Director Sheila Daniels conceives the tragedy as an intimate echo chamber of unstable characters who are progressively losing it. What they undergo entails a series of variations on the theme of Lear’s crack-up. Scene by scene (with the whole divided here into three acts), their attempts to impose order on events, to get closer to their desires, become increasingly desperate. The overriding impression isn’t so much of the grim inevitability of consequences — Shakespeare’s merciless updating of classical “fate” — as of psychological meltdown.

As the ex-monarch, Dan Kremer underscores this approach through the unpredictable variability of his temper. It works very well for the first sections of the play — particularly in how it clarifies the relationship between Lear and his daughters that has already charted the course of the tragedy long before it begins.

We see how Goneril (Linda K. Morris) and Regan (Debra Pralle), given neatly differentiated portrayals here, aren’t just self-serving but have been brought up to fear daddy’s mercurial outbursts. Elinor Gunn’s Cordelia shows a steely stubbornness she must have learned first-hand. That’s what keeps her from seeing the danger she puts herself in — not a martyr complex to speak truth to power.

As for their husbands, while the Duke of Cornwall compresses into a sadistic psychopath (Gordon Carpenter), Shakespeare gives amplitude to the Duke of Albany (Patrick Allcorn) to grow in self-awareness and influence.

What lacks the needed emotional force are the actual climaxes marking each way-station in Lear’s descent. Kremer’s scene on the heath becomes just another fit, his verbal torrent more a fest of self-pity. By the same token, the Lear Kremer depicts in the final scenes fails to stir any deeper pity than he already has at the beginning of his long humiliation.

Kremer is more compelling in his interactions with “the other half” — with the fellow victims of ruin who never seem to faze him as they cross his path and all head toward the final confrontations at Dover. His reunion scene with the blinded Gloucester (Michael Winters) is especially resonant in its unsettling blend of horror and comic absurdity.

Dan Kremer and Michael Winters in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear.” Photo by John Ulman

Dan Kremer and Michael Winters; photo by John Ulman

Some stand-out performances by others in the cast tilt the focus of the play in interestingly unexpected directions. Eric Riedmann’s chillingly embittered Edmund — possibly the most accomplished single interpretation — conveys the malign intelligence of a Iago yet always feels human. It’s one of Daniels’ strengths to clarify each character’s motivations in a way that makes them psychologically persuasive, further emphasizing the intimacy of family connections in this production.

Riedmann moreover revels in Shakespeare’s poetry, articulating its sonorities and rhythms with a relish and variety I wish were not otherwise the exception in this cast. The only misstep is the close-to-campy exaggeration of the sexual dalliance between him and Regan.

Linda K. Morris and Eric Riedmann in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear.” Photo by John Ulman

Linda K. Morris and Eric Riedmann; photo by John Ulman

Winters makes Gloucester’s wishful gullibility work, and the scenes with his two sons are among the most vividly realized. In his guise as Poor Tom, Jorge Chacon draws on physical hints he’s shown us as the nervous if good-natured Edgar.

King Lear is notable for the overdetermination of the fool archetype. Along with the official fool (Todd Jefferson Moore), the disguised Kent (played as a “Duchess” by the splendid Amy Thone) and Poor Tom on the heath reinforce the fool’s function of bearing witness to the truth as they retreat most deeply into their roles. Thone and Jefferson have a winning dynamic together and help re-introduce some of the play’s larger perspectives — particularly, its obsession with the power of language to shape reality, both positively and negatively. This is what gives the humor they interject its edge.

After all, they continue to subject Lear to the treatment that outraged him when it came from Cordelia. But even to “speak what we feel” is a kind of rhetoric, if the mirror side of Lear’s fulminations and curses. Language is the one thing the dispossessed king is left with — the very language he obviously abused throughout his reign.

Dan Kremer, Craig Peterson, Sophie Paterson, Amy Thone, and Jonathan Crimeni in Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of “King Lear.” Photo by John Ulman.

Dan Kremer, Craig Peterson, Sophie Paterson, Amy Thone, and Jonathan Crimeni; photo by John Ulman

The scenic conception is notably weak and lags far behind the many fine nuances of the ensemble’s acting. Daniels, who collaborated with set designer Craig Wollam, opts for a colorless, ultra-minimalist playing space with a backdrop of hanging plastic and linen sheets and a scaffold that rolls to and fro. It is a way of making the stage the world, but the process of stripping away so essential to the play’s arc has already happened by the start.

Melanie Burgess’s abstract-pattern, cheerless costumes seem out of sync with the high contrasts of Jessica Trundy’s lighting. I do like the effect of cruel illumination upon the arrival at Dover, but the veer toward a horizontal Rothko glow at the end puzzles. Robertson Witmer picks up on the script’s references to drums to create a sternly percussive sound design.

Seattle Shakespeare Company’s production of King Lear plays through May 17 at the Cornish Playhouse (formerly Intiman) at Seattle Center, Wed. – Sun. Tickets here or call 206 733-8222.

(c)2014 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: directors, review, Shakespeare, theater

In Praise of the Duke

It’s the birthday of one of my musical heroes, Duke Ellington (born on this day in my former hometown in 1899).

In his review of Terry Teachout’s new biography of the master, James Gavin describes the secret of his band’s sound:

Ellington played piano, but his real instrument was the orchestra. The sound he created was a tapestry of bluesy textures, lowdown swing and solo instrumental voices that growled, cried or wailed. Ellington led the band with a majesty that made him seem truly royal.

And here’s an excerpt from my essay for the National Symphony’s upcoming New Moves orchestral-ballet festival featuring music of the Duke — in this case, the giddy and infectious “Giggling Rapids”:

“Giggling Rapids” is a brief scene from Ellington’s belated debut as a ballet composer, The River. It dates from late in his career (1970) and was commissioned by American Ballet Theatre, with choreography by Alvin Ailey — his first large-scale collaboration with Ellington. The composer — uncharacteristically, notes Terry Teachout in his new biography — immersed himself in famous classical depictions of water to fuel his inspiration (think La mer, the “Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes, Smetana’s own “river music,” the Moldau).

Like the mighty Mississippi, The River encompasses a multitude of meanings and perspectives. Ellington, in his memoir Music Is My Mistress, describes a guiding metaphor of life’s passage from birth to death and rebirth as the river courses on down to the sea. He likens the development of an individual to the river’s passage. “Giggling Rapids,” with its restless energy and catchy, joyous, ever-repeated motif, occurs more or less at the toddler stage, when this imaginary Everyman “races and runs and dances and skips and trips all over the backyard until, exhausted, he relaxes and rolls down the Lake” (the ensuing section).

Filed under: American music, jazz

Rossini’s Comic Genius in Barber

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Marie-Noëlle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet/Teatro Real Marie-Noëlle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet/Teatro Real

Here’s my latest essay for San Francisco Opera, which is staging a production of The Barber of Seville directed by Emilio Sagi (fresh from his enjoyable work on Seattle Opera’s Daughter of the Regiment):

If Gioachino Rossini were to revisit today’s opera scene, he’d probably have mixed feelings about the remarkable tenacity of The Barber of Seville in the repertoire. (Rossini loved to joke about the advantage of being born on February 29, which would make him a middle-aged man of 55.25 in leap year terms, not a Methuselah of 221.) Mixed because, though he certainly recognized Barber as a work di qualità—as Figaro asserts of his own profession—its popularity still distorts Rossini’s versatile legacy.

By now we’ve had the better part of a century of the Rossini renaissance to regale us with one rediscovery after another. The result has been to bring…

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A New View of Forster’s Room

Photo of Jeffrey Stock (l) and Marc Acito (r) by Jeff Carpenter.

Photo of Jeffrey Stock (l) and Marc Acito (r) by Jeff Carpenter.

It was just a little over a century ago that E.M. Forster published A Room with a View, neatly bookmarking the end of the strictly organized Edwardian era he so memorably satirizes. But amid its social critique, the novel traces a journey of romantic discovery. This is the journey undertaken by the heroine, Lucy Honeychurch, as the promise of love prompts her to challenge the code of conventional behavior she has been brought up to obey.

The success of the 1985 film A Room with a View, produced with characteristic opulence by the Merchant-Ivory team, won a new generation of fans over to Forster’s elegant fiction. After all, Lucy’s awakening begins during an actual journey, and the stunning Italian and English landscapes of the novel’s setting lend themselves naturally to cinematography.

But writer Marc Acito and composer-lyricist Jeffrey Stock decided that Forster’s vision is also ideally suited to the medium of musical comedy, and their hunch quickly attracted the interest of theaters devoted to nurturing new works. Following initial incubation at the Musical Theatre Lab at Running Deer Ranch (located at the base of Mt. Adams), Acito and Stock were invited by San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre to audition what they’d come up with. Nine months later, A Room with a View received its world premiere there in March 2012.

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Filed under: musicals, theater

Suit the Accent to the Word

MEMETERIA by Thomas May


The British Library Board has released some online samples illustrating recent theories about the kind of pronunciation that would have been current in Shakespeare’s time. And it’s a far cry from the Very Serious Accent that sounds so at home among the aristos at Downton Abbey.

David Crystal, a British linguist who has also written about the social impact of texting, is a prominent expert in the field known as “original pronunciation.” OP is about putting the theory of how Shakespeare and his colleagues would have pronounced the Bard’s words into practice. You might think of it as a sort of linguistic equivalent to the historically informed performance practice movement familiar from early music. OP has been going strong for about a decade, starting with landmark productions of Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida at the Globe Theatre in London.

(David Crystal)

On his website devoted to information…

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The Misinformation Age

MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Dame Edna Jeunehomme
Dame Edna or “Miss Jeunehomme”?

We all know about the paradox of the New Media Age: information everywhere, our memories now downloaded onto our phones, instant access to any fact, but…is this overflow of info making us less critical? Just which of those “facts” are actually true?

Nowadays it’s not just the ocean of information that’s the problem: it’s how much bad information is out there, from dangerously misguided “medical” advice to half-baked assertions and those incorrect/half-correct little memettes on which music writers rely far too much — and in the process keep in circulation.

This is where the new media ironically end up working against the diffusion of knowledge. The problem is that certain factoids that sprouted up somewhere eons ago, in a seriously outdated book or note, might have represented the best knowledge back then (or sometimes just a brazen guess), but these end up getting repeated thanks…

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Shakespeare at 450


“Time … thou ceaseless lackey to eternity.” Today, by convention, the world celebrates Shakespeare’s birthday.

Here are some ways to pay tribute to the Bard:

–Take a look at a list of familiar phrases that may have been coined by Shakespeare. A sample:

A dish fit for the gods
A plague on both your houses
fair play
good riddance
salad days
love is blind
set your teeth on edge
up in arms

–Take a Shakespeare quiz

–As the Globe Theatre launches its ambitious Globe to Globe Hamlet initiative, enjoy this portfolio of 45 Hamlets selected by Michael Billington. Some of his choices: John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Richard O’Toole, Ralph Fiennes, Sarah Bernhardt.

–Listen to the Sonnets:

Filed under: Shakespeare

Earth Day 2014

Two musical selections for this day:

An overview of the world of John Luther Adams:

and a journey with Beethoven:

Filed under: Beethoven, John Luther Adams, nature

The Golden City and Its Opera

photo by  Mike Hofmann

photo by Mike Hofmann

My cover story on San Francisco Opera and how it reflects the city’s love affair with the art is now online in the Spring issue of Opera America magazine.

On October 15, 1932, while the country was sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand of the Great Depression, San Franciscans took time out to ignore the prevailing gloom and celebrate the official opening of the long-coveted home for their new opera company, the $5.5 million War Memorial Opera House. The Naples-born conductor and cultural impresario Gaetano Merola, who had founded San Francisco Opera and inaugurated its first season nine years previously with La bohème, turned once again to Puccini for the occasion and led a performance of Tosca. Addressing the packed audience during intermission, Wallace M. Alexander, the company’s new president, proudly announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your opera house, your own rich heritage.”

[Reprinted by permission of Opera America, the quarterly magazine of the national service organization for opera.]

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Filed under: American opera, essay, San Francisco Opera

Music for the Day: J.S. Bach/Easter Cantata

Der Himmel lacht, die Erde jubiliert, BWV 31: Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien :

Filed under: Bach

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