Word Domination

The Party’s over: Tony Torn and Jay Smith in Foreman’s Communism.
photo: Paula Court

"The question," said Humpty Dumpty, "is which is to be master, that's all." And Lewis Carroll was right to make Humpty say so. The big egg on the wall, after all, was talking about words, and nothing could prove his point better than the way the words in a dramatic text are used these days: Do they mean what the playwright thinks, or what the director and actors find in them, or do they convey some sense entirely irrelevant to the event for which they provide the nominal excuse? Today's interpreters set themselves up as supervisors of texts that have lived happily unsupervised for centuries, "translating" from languages they don't know, "adapting" scripts that need no adaptation, revising, condensing, subverting, footnoting.

At the same time, these theatrical games at the text's expense often have a peculiar counterweight of pure apathy where speaking and acting are concerned, as if the director's images were required to keep their distance not only from the script but from the cast as well. There are evenings when the actors appear to drift, glassy-eyed, in a world of their own, oblivious to the scene shifts and light cues around them. I often wonder what audiences, who have been known to rise and scream their approval at the end, can possibly think they derive from such occasions. We've come a long way from the century when Dr. Johnson could write, "The drama's laws the drama's patrons give/And we that live to please must please to live."

Not that the audience should be the absolute arbiter, any more than the artists; my point is that the whole event is a transaction. What's most disquieting is the contemporary theater's seeming desire to short-circuit any connection between the transacting parties: the play over there, in one corner; directing in the middle, maneuvering actors, whose focus appears to be somewhere else; in another corner, the audience, befuddled but willing. Probably without meaning to be, Target Margin's production of Dido, Queen of Carthage is a prime example of this systematic distancing. Which is a pity, because it was an unexampled opportunity to create exactly the opposite effect. No prior expectations weigh down this virtually unknown early play of Marlowe's. (Nobody's even sure if he wrote it alone or with Thomas Nashe.) The physical production's elaborate and not unattractive. The cast is young, multiracial, and eager. A lot of care, intelligence, and love for Marlowe's text have clearly gone into David Herskovits's staging. Why, then, is the effect of the evening distant, off-putting, and sterile?

For starts, Dido's a peculiar play—short and thinly textured for an Elizabethan drama, with only the gilded eloquence of its poetry to give it excitement. The tragic love of Dido and Aeneas, in this version, is either human and spontaneous, or an elaborate scheme visited on them by the complex alliances and disputes of the gods. If it's the former, life is sad but so what? If the latter, which Marlowe seems to lean toward, life's a big absurd camp, which makes Dido's tragic fate look pretty silly. But maybe he thought heterosexual love was silly: The prologue shows us Jupiter caressing Ganymede. Juno, resentful because Venus doesn't object, picks on Venus's mortal son, Aeneas, making his ships run aground at Carthage. All through, the gods interfere, take mortals' places, and manipulate to get Aeneas to Italy so Rome can begin, thrive, and inspire the English Renaissance.

In David Zinn's set, the gods appear, like bas-reliefs, in a sort of gilded rectangular box, which slides away to reveal the shipwrecked Trojans on the stage floor. For their arrival at Carthage, Dido's palace rolls out in the form of that un-Elizabethan phenomenon, an 18th-century proscenium stage. On and around this anachronistic obstacle, Herskovits's staging tries to evolve a contemporary set of conventions for the play through stylized movement—lots of sidewise skittering and walk-like-an-Egyptian hand gestures. When Marlowe's phrasing turns fancy, other people onstage shout explanatory footnotes across the speaker's lines. Like other parts of Herskovits's approach, these aural explications interfere with the event, simultaneously condescending to the audience (like, we couldn't guess from the context that "the Punic kingdom" means Carthage?) and breaking any possible hold the play might have on us. Thanks to Marlowe, we're already unsure whether to take the ups and downs of this love affair on human terms or shrug it off as one of Destiny's rotten tricks. Edging the actors toward a face-front deadpan that unavoidably slides into camp, Herskovits barely gives us a minute to relish the Marlovian doubts.

This ornately self-conscious approach might make more sense with actors who could match its florid style. New York is filled with young actors who, at the very least, can count the beats in a line of blank verse. (How can you listen to all that hip-hop and have no feel for rhythm?) But little concern, apart from those intrusive footnotes, has been taken with the text. If actors aren't going to focus the emotions, and equally aren't going to paint the colors and pulses of the verse, Marlowe is wasted on them. I exaggerate my case for emphasis. Actually, a few of the principals—Mary Neufeld, Rinne Groff, Greig Sargent—don't do so badly. And the problem faced by Nicole Halmos and Adrian LaTourelle, as Dido and Aeneas, is bigger than a matter of speaking—it's how to make these characters larger than life without first finding their living essence. LaTourelle leans on the "stalwart" button; Halmos, when in doubt, resorts to blank put-on. Both, like their colleagues, could probably do better in a context that asked them to create, and not just fill a directorial space with spoken lines. (One wonders how Herskovits would deal with a company trained as Renaissance or 18th-century actors were, to invent their own "business" and work their speeches for maximum rhetorical effect.)

For all my complaints, Dido, Queen of Carthage is a good deal more pleasurable than many such contemporary evenings. Zinn's set and Kaye Voyce's ingenious costumes give it a lavish look, most of the play is audible, and the company gives off a friendly aura. Even the staging, with its constant irritants and cutenesses, at least always shows a desire to convey the dramatic action. What sinks the whole thing, I suspect, is a desire to go for results instead of arriving at them, to make a comment on Marlowe without having tested the material Marlowe offers. One thing Herskovits never does is carry out an action indicated by the text: Dido says she'll give Cupid her fan, but then doesn't. Is this meant to rebuke our expectations, to comment on Dido's character, or just to show how modern the style is? I actually don't care if she gives him the fan or not (it's not a vital dramatic point), nor do I particularly want to know Herskovits's reason for having her not do it. What I want—and I want it from every form of theater, in every style—is the ability to trust his reason. And I can't give that; the theater has to earn it. Which is what Dr. Johnson really meant by the second line of that famous couplet.

Richard Foreman must know what I mean. The elaborate set of staging conventions he's built up, over the years, for his own plays can leave its mark on scripts by others without blocking their sense. But he seems happiest, as am I, when the conventions meet the other half of the mind from which they grew. Communism, as we'll short-title his new work, is literally such a meeting: The characters are Fred (Jay Smith) and Freddie (Tony Torn), a power and a power-doubter. Though naturally, those roles are switched in due course. And there's a third, unseen figure: the author's voice, which contrives to doubt and contradict itself. "I am not a Communist," it declares, usually as someone runs by waving a red flag.

Oppression, spying, mass manipulation, and elite privilege—the whole repertoire of communist and anti-communist totalitarianism runs through the piece. One recurring image deals with a dog in a box, fed through its single drawer: Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? The characters' angle on the fall of the Evil Empire is largely American, tangled up with childhood memories of pie in the sky and "we all have to share." Without adumbrating tragedy for more than the merest flash, Foreman's highly vaudevillian comedy is always as painful as it is funny. Occasionally it's even witty: "I have here some permanently sealed envelopes." Abetted and tempted by a harem of five young girls and one bare-chested male in a yashmak, Smith and Torn make a fetching Didi-and-Gogo pair. Okie-accented, wily, and red-nosed, Torn is especially fine, a sweetly malevolent right brain ready to subvert whatever cerebration his left-brain partner supplies. Untheoretical and unimperious, Foreman's theater asserts its mastery in the noblest way—by questioning itself.

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