William Shakespeare’s Richard III opens with the seasonal observation, “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer.” It’s much too soon to predict if this summer—and its theatrical offerings—will prove at all glorious. But Sulayman Al-Bassam’s provocative play Richard III: An Arab Tragedy will heat up the Brooklyn Academy of Music stage when it opens on June 9.
Al-Bassam’s Richard III—part of BAM’s Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas Festival—begins differently from Shakespeare’s: Its first lines are not spoken by Richard and don’t concern the weather. Instead, they emerge from the mouth of Queen Margaret, a black-robed woman who crosses the stage while thrusting bloodied clothing into a suitcase. “I am Margaret,” she tells the audience. “You needn’t be concerned about me—we lost. It is your right to ignore me. I would ignore myself if my history let me.”
Al-Bassam does not ignore any of Shakespeare’s characters. His version echoes Shakespeare’s language and structure, while relocating the story to the contemporary Middle East and reflecting an Arab milieu. Clarence quotes from the Koran; other characters refer to rosewater, henna, kohl, camels, jinn. Controversially, Al-Bassam has pictured the devilish Richard not as a deformed creature, but as a forceful man in military dress. Parallels to Saddam Hussein are somewhat intended; Al-Bassam had originally titled the piece The Baghdad Richard.
The child of a Kuwaiti father and British mother, Al-Bassam, now 36, spent his early youth in Kuwait and his teens and twenties in Europe, eventually returning to Kuwait in 2002. While in London, he founded the Zaoum Theatre Company and created work exploring “relations between identity and modernity with significant reference to Kuwait, to the Gulf, to the Arab world.” His Al-Hamlet Summit, which featured Ophelia as a suicide bomber, attracted the notice of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who asked him to create a production of Richard III to run alongside a more traditional rendering in their Complete Works Festival.
Initially, Al-Bassam said, “It seemed to me a neat arrangement that Richard III could be used as a hook for an exploration of . . . the Saddam biography, Baathist Iraq, the rise and fall.” As work progressed, though, he discarded that original impulse: “It seemed to be oversimplifying both histories”—Richard III’s and Saddam Hussein’s—to try and combine them. For the 2007 RSC premiere, he expanded the play’s concerns and altered its setting: The language, costumes, music, and performers drew from regions as diverse as Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
Though Al-Bassam weakened the analogues to Iraq, a play that portrays the Arab characters as either helpless victims or vile perpetrators makes it a challenging choice for a festival celebrating “Muslim Voices.” Margaret Litvin, a professor of Arabic and comparative literature at Boston University who has written on Al-Bassam’s work, says that in his Richard III—even more so than in Shakespeare’s—”Everyone has blood on their hands. Everyone is trapped in a historical cycle. . . . There’s no decent politics here.” She also worries that Western audiences might miss the piece’s satirical elements. But BAM’s Joseph Melillo, who selected the production for inclusion, doesn’t seem concerned, insisting, “I searched for a universal story told within the Muslim context and found it in this production of Richard III.”
Richard III: An Arab Tragedy attracted almost universal acclaim while touring through Europe and the Middle East, and audiences have varied widely. The actors have performed for Stratford’s Shakespeare purists, a gathering of elite women in the United Arab Emirates, and a Damascus crowd that included Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. “That was an interesting evening,” says Al-Bassam, with some understatement. The potentate “seemed to enjoy” it. That’s fortunate: If ever a play discussed the dangers of displeasing a leader, it’s Richard III.
June 9–12, BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, Brooklyn, bam.org
Performances begin June 1
In David Adjmi’s latest play, cleanliness is next to something far more sinister than godliness. This unhygienic drama concerns a maid named Blanche (Charlayne Woodard), an African-American woman with a feminist pedigree and academic credentials—or so she claims—who finds employment in the home of Lily (Laura Heisler), a Syrian-Jewish child bride. Their relationship threatens Lily’s insular Brooklyn community (the same Brooklyn community that, incidentally, birthed Adjmi). Anne Kauffman directs this chamber of domestic horrors. The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, lincolncentertheater.org
Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines Machines
Performances begin June 2
Hats off to Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford, who return to Here following the success of their Beckettian vaudeville All Wear Bowlers. They’ve teamed with Quinn Bauriedel to offer a comedic evening, which takes prop comedy to terrifying heights and depths. The three gents will play three “geniuses” who offer vexed interaction with “the world’s most complicated machines set to perform the simplest tasks.” Think Rube Goldberg—only much, much messier. Here Arts Center, 145 Sixth Avenue, here.org
The Antidepressant Festival
Performances Begin June 5
If you’re suffering from the summertime blues and have exhausted such options as Prozac, Zoloft, Saint-John’s-wort, and several sleeves of Oreos, you might turn to plays at this carnival of gloom, sponsored by the Brick. This SSRI fest devotes itself to cheering works: Your mood may be improved by The Happy Pill Cabaret; Booze, Sports, and Romance; The Glee Club; and Schadenfreude. A doctor’s prescription is not required. The Brick, 575 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn, bricktheater.com
Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 8 & 9)
Performances begin June 5
Playwright Suzan-Lori Parks was top dog on stages around the country last season. Theaters performed her “365 Days/365 Plays” pieces from Austin to Alberta, Seattle to St. Paul, Burning Man to the Berkshires. Now she’s returned with a longer play that borrows its title from one of those daily shows. Set in the Civil War era and the present, it contrasts the adventures of a slave angling for freedom and a Poet-General preparing for death. The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, publictheater.org
Performances begin June 7
While we’re working on getting our figures bikini- and board-short-ready, Clubbed Thumb has busied itself whipping plays into shape. The 14th annual Summerworks—their warm weather celebration of new drama—features Kristin Newbom’s Dunkin’ Donuts–set Telethon, Madeleine George’s linguistically difficult Precious Little, and Gregory Moss’s Punk Play. That last concerns two boys who discover punk rock and find it “hot and fast and angry and alive”—an excellent description of Summerworks itself. Ohio Theatre, 66 Wooster Street, clubbedthumb.org
Performances begin June 10
Anne Hathaway has played a princess, a cowgirl, a belligerent bride, a dipsomaniacal sister, and Jane Austen—but she’s not known for breeches parts. And, despite sharing a name with Shakespeare’s wife, her résumé is bare of the bard. Hathaway will remedy both deficiencies when she stars in the Shakespeare in the Park revival of Twelfth Night. In Illyria, Hathaway will play Viola, a capable and cross-dressed young woman. Director Daniel Sullivan may command where he adores. Delacorte Theater, Central Park, publictheater.org
The Tin Pan Alley Rag
Performances begin June 12
Come on and hear, come on and hear Mark Saltzman’s musical, which posits a meeting between ragtime composer Scott Joplin and popular songsmith Irving Berlin. The African-American Joplin and the Jewish Berlin, unacquainted in real life, develop a fictional friendship, enlivened by selections from their back catalog. They discuss heartbreak, art versus commerce, and the fortunes of Joplin’s opera, Treemonisha. As Irving Berlin once sang, “The song is ended/But the melody lingers on.” Laura Pels Theatre, 111 West 46th Street, roundabouttheatre.org
Performances begin June 12
In 2005, the r&b sensation Ashanti appeared in The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz, beating out teen queens Hilary Duff and Jessica Simpson for the role of Dorothy. If Ashanti could triumph over them—to say nothing of Miss Piggy’s Wicked Witch—she seems a natural fit for the ruby slippers in the Encores! presentation of The Wiz. Thomas Kail and Andy Blankenbuehler, late of In the Heights, will direct and choreograph their way down the yellow brick road. New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, nycitycenter.org
Performances begin July 7
This year, New York audiences have enjoyed notable performances of Anton Chekhov’s Seagull, Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, and Uncle Vanya. Happily, the Hungarian director Tamas Ascher arrives, courtesy of the Lincoln Center Festival, to present Chekhov’s first major play, Ivanov, a tale of a superfluous man and his inconvenient wife. (Other festival highlights include Ariane Mnouchkine’s Les Éphémères, Maly Drama Theatre’s Life and Fate, and Declan Donnellan’s Boris Godunov.) Now who’ll stage The Wood Demon? Gerald W. Lynch Theater, 899 Tenth Avenue, lincolncenter.org
Trilogia della villeGgiatura
Performances begin July 22
In 1754, while returning to Venice, playwright Carlo Goldoni noted a cluster of villas “where luxury becomes truly sumptuous. . . . These villas offer gambling, open tables, dancing and entertainment,” and ample opportunity for adultery. Seven years later, Goldoni relied on this locale as inspiration for this mordant, comic trilogy of country life. The extraordinary Italian actor Toni Servillo directs this satire of bourgeois holidaymakers who squander money and morals. Rose Theater, Broadway and 60th Street, fifth floor, lincolncenter.org
Performances begin August 11
At the opening of Euripides’ tragedy, the god Dionysus returns to Thebes to wreak havoc on the city that denied his talents and fame. You could draw some uncomfortable parallels between this and director JoAnne Akalaitis: This production marks Akalaitis’s return to the Public Theater, which once ousted her from artistic directorship—but she likely has revenge on her mind only as it concerns Euripides’ play. Akalaitis’s former husband, the composer Philip Glass, provides a new score for this divine drama. Delacorte Theater, Central Park, publictheater.org
New York International Fringe Festival
Performances begin August 14
Every week, statisticians release another dismal number: Unemployment is up, spending is down, and home prices have yet to stabilize. But don’t expect a similar downturn to afflict New York’s 13th annual Fringe Festival. Thirteen may not be the luckiest integer, but our Fringe still intends to uphold its status as the largest multi-arts festival in North America. It’ll do so with a multiplicity of shows—a range of low-budget plays, musicals, performance pieces, kiddie shows, and a plentitude of genre defiers. Various venues, fringenyc.org
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 13, 2009