Sunday, January 25, 2009

Figaro in DC: Let's Play... Master and Servant

A couple quick notes about Constellation Theatre Company's production of The Marriage of Figaro, which I saw last night at The Source Theater over on 14th Street in Washington, D.C.

The first note is go see it. This production has the twin virtues of aiming high (it's not the easiest play to do in 2009) and doing so with irrepressible high spirits.

The second note is why I threw out a bit of Depeche Mode in the title to this post. There are a few paths that a director can take when tackling The Marriage of Figaro in the early 21st Century. One is to accentuate some of the items that I ticked off in my preview post: the forebodings of tumult and revolution, the perversions and terrors of the vulgar aristocracy, the sense of a society that's just about to have the gaudy ribbons and flecks of gold paint stripped off of its surface to reveal the cesspool underneath.

But The Marriage of Figaro (or perhaps the "Mar-i-ahh-ge," to steal a bit of comic phrasing from this production's Marceline -- Nanna Ingvarsson) is also a sturdy and subversive sex farce -- and director Allison Ardell Stockman unleashes the comedy and confrontation of sexual politics in her take on the play. The play of high and low class -- and especially gender politics -- is what animates Stockman's take on Beaumarchais.

As I mentioned, this Figaro boasts a casts that romps high-spiritedly through the doors and windows and sculptures crafted by scenic and lighting designer A.J. Guban. The women -- Katy Carkuff's Suzanne, Mistory Demory's Countess Almaviva, Rachel Lee Poole's Fanchette and Ingvarsson's Marceline -- are fully in control of the situation and play it that way. And the men -- especially Jonathon Church's Count Almaviva and Joe Brack's Figaro -- make the act of finding themselves in holes and making further (and futile) use of their shovels very entertaining.

The two and a half hours of Constellation's Figaro fly by -- and the cuts made by Stockman and dramaturg Christy Denny keep things moving along at a speedy clip without sacrificing too many twists and turns. It's a boisterous production that's brimming with great performances and even greater collective fun. Tickets here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Constellation: Beaumarchais' Figaro in D.C.

I have been reading plays by 18th century French dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais to get ready for Constellation Theatre Company's imminent production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Source Theater in Washington, D.C. (I'll post again after I see the production on Saturday night.)

It's rare to see the play itself, which inspired one of Mozart's greatest operas. And the Balkans via Bohemia connection here? Well, Odon von Horvath's 1936 play Figaro Gets a Divorce is the brilliant Austrian playwright's updating of the comic world of Beaumarchais into post-revolutionary confusion and squalor.

Re-reading Beaumarchais reminded me that The Marriage of Figaro was a play with immense transformative power. It has revolution and, perhaps, a few specks of the blood of the Reign of Terror on the Countess' dainty ribbon -- snatched from Suzanne by Cherubin early in the play. (Even Napoleon famously said so: "If I had been a king, a man such as he [Beaumarchais] would have been locked up… The Marriage of Figaro is already the revolution in action.")

There are so many moments in which Beaumarchais upends the social and political order -- and does so deftly with the pinprick of humor. (The play was written in 1778, passed censorship in 1781, but was banned until 1784 by Louis XVI.) There's Figaro's justly-famous monologue in the fifth act (I'm using the 1964 translation by John Wood published by Penguin), which glowers and burns in a fusion of Figaro's political frustration and sexual jealousy:

Nobility, fortune, rank, position! How proud they make a man feel! What have you done to deserve such advantages? Put yourself to the trouble of being born -- nothing more!

But there are dozens of lines and exchanges in the play that chip away at the aristocratic order -- and by Suzanne as well as Figaro:

THE COUNT: But with your brains and character you could hope for advancement in the service?
FIGARO: Brains a means to advancement! Your Highness is pleased to make fun of me. Mediocrity and subservience -- those are the qualities one needs. Given them a man can get anywhere.
SUZANNE (shyly): The Mistress has the vapours. I was coming to ask you to lend us your smelling-salts. I'll return them immediately.
THE COUNT (handing her the vial): Keep them for yourself. No doubt you'll soon find them useful.
SUZANNE: Do you imagine that women of my class have the vapours? It's a genteel malady. They only catch it in drawing-rooms.

At times, The Marriage of Figaro plunges into sheer philosophic profundity undergirded by Figaro's fierce pragmatism-- a current of thought that Horvath picked up on and deepened in Figaro Gets a Divorce:

SUZANNE: You are beginning to exaggerate! Stick to the truth.
FIGARO: My truth is the truth.
SUZANNE: Fie! You rascal! Is there more than one sort?
FIGARO: Why yes! Of course! Ever since someone first noticed that in the course of time old follies become wisdom and little seeds of falsehood blossom from modest beginnings into great truths there have been a thousand varieties.

I'm really excited that Constellation is going to do this play. (It runs from January 22 to February 22.) As the Washington Post pointed out earlier this week, the company is getting a reputation for doing challenging, large ensemble work -- as they did earlier this year with an excellent production of Vaclav Havel's Temptation. Figaro tickets are available here.

This 1775 portrait of Beaumarchais is in the public domain.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Let Freedom Ring!

Yes, as you can see at right, I was one of the 1.8 or 2 million or so folks on the National Mall today to watch Barack Obama sworn in as president.

I was an early supporter of Obama, but also not afraid to say that I've been underwhelmed by a number of his appointments so far. I hope I'm wrong about that. There's just way too much at stake.

Today for me, however, was also a chance to watch the end of an absolutely devastating eight years of American politics in person. It is impossible to sum up the havoc wreaked on our country and the world by the Bush Administration -- from the recount shenanigans of 2000 in Florida to the squandering of national unity after September 11 to the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses (and pretenses known by the perpetrators to be false) to the shredding of our constitution and the commission of manifold war crimes to the orgy of greed and financial brinksmanship that's left millions of ordinary people suffering.

And it was all done in our name -- to our enduring shame. That is the legacy of George W. Bush. And to be there as it was swept away, peacefully, so that healing and rebuilding can begin, was a privilege that I was not going to miss -- despite the frigid weather.

We're starting out in hope. We desperately need the promised change. The opportunity to start again began today. And I was thinking that amidst all the pomp on the Mall, maybe the most fitting soundtrack would have been the best American political song of the last 30 years, a song that takes in the repression and viciousness that we've been suffering through and holds out the promise that it can be undone -- REM's "Begin the Begin":

Lets begin again begin the begin
Lets begin again!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mike Daisey and American Theater's EPIC FAIL

Washington D.C.'s theatre scene has been atwitter and aflitter over the past week or so. Why? Because monologist Mike Daisey's broadside -- How Theater Failed America -- has been in town at Woolly Mammoth, kicking up dust and forcing artistic directors and arts bureaucrats into defensive crouches.

The American Prospect just published my take on the show -- and in particular just how government might be able to embrace Daisey's vision of nurturing ensembles without pumping scads of money into the arts. (Which ain't gonna happen anyway, even with the promise of billions teetering on a trillion dollars worth of taxpayer-funded stimulus.)

I enjoyed the show, though I do wish Daisey had provided answers past a full-throated exhortation to revalue the present priorities of American theater by putting the artists at its center (actors, directors, technical staffers) ahead of capital campaigns to establish snazzy new buildings. But he's kicked off the discussion and where we -- the people who work in this art form -- take it from here is the important thing.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Laura Rozen to Foreign Policy Magazine

This is really terrific news: Laura Rozen, one of the best national security writers in DC, is joining the newly revved-up Foreign Policy website, starting Monday.

Laura runs the must-read War and Piece blog, which often breaks news on all sorts of international fronts -- from Israel to Iran to the Balkans to Foggy Bottom. She has been a correspondent for Mother Jones, and had the difficult task of writing an investigative afterword to Valerie Plame's memoir, Fair Game, without any real help from the author (who was constrained in various ways by by her former employer, the Central Intelligence Agency.)

Laura will write a reported blog for Foreign Policy called "The Cable" which will definitely be as mandatory a daily read as War and Piece -- which will continue in a slightly diminished capacity -- has been over the past few years. Congratulations (i ziveli), Laura!

UPDATE: Laura's new blog is live: