Thursday, February 22, 2018

MADNESS in GREAT ONES: 2018 Season Perspective

The Object of Art: Artistic Director Vincent Carlson-Brown gives an inside look at the 2018 season, an introspective focus on the themes of madness and greatness in this year's productions:

"Madness in Great Ones"

For the Greeks and Romans of antiquity, madness was seen in the outsider individuals, the "other," the outcasts of society. The lunatics, however, of those civilizations were not completely ostracized, but rather revered. The mad ones had access to the gods; they were regarded as priests; they were conduits to a very specific spirituality. These "others" were believed to have the sight towards and perception of another reality. So in turn, they had special wisdom about and insight into the current state of life. They had a prescient knowledge of the future, and these individuals were eagerly sought out in order to decipher signs and omens. Madness, in this time, was not merely an infliction, but a touch of divinity, and those who spoke incomprehensibly or acted inconsequentially had access to a unique power that was not normative.

For those in Shakespeare's time, madness was viewed as an unbalance of feelings, an extreme of passions. The Elizabethans believed the emotions and personalities of a person were controlled by four humors. These humors were connected to an element within the body, and these elements created different dispositions. An excess of black bile would present a melancholic humor or feeling. Phlegm would exhibit phlegmatic or stubborn traits. Too much hot and moist blood would give the person a sanguine personality. And yellow bile would reveal itself in a choleric disposition. The excess of these fluids would cause an unbalance within the body and in turn lead to an extreme emotion. So "lunacy" or mental anguish and instability could actually be traced back to a flush of yellow bile which would lead to a choleric temperament. And what caused an excess of yellow bile? Eating too much red meat. The cholera would cause anger and rash feelings. This distemper ("dis-temper" - as in "not tempered, not balanced") taken to the extremes would cause madness. The Elizabethans thought that madness/mental instability came from a prolonged state of anger/madness; from existing in an excessive duration of extreme passion.

For the Victorians, madness was an abnormal oddity that required medical attention. The desire to cure these afflictions often superceded rational thought and reasonable action. The scientific community had acquired the ability to label patterns of behavior as specific diseases. Once a disease had a name, a cure could be sought. (It is interesting that the Victorian "disease" came from the Elizabethan "dis-ease" [uneasiness]) The Victorian cures for these behaviors were often more horrific than the symptoms they sought to eliminate. One might question the effectiveness of lobotomies and electro-shock, and doubt that the survivors of these procedures remained alive in any meaningful way.

For us, in the contemporary world, our own awareness of mental health and how we treat and support individuals that are affected is still in process. The relationship between chemical and emotional and mental and circumstantial states is in a period of inspection and discovery. What we do believe now is that modern madness is a real and substantial mental health issue that requires attention; medically, socially, culturally. And it must be stated that the term itself, madness, has become taboo. We can certainly explore the history of madness and what different societal and scientific constructs teach us about ourselves and how we deal with each other. And we can look to examples in literature, in Shakespeare's plays, for the presentations of mad and great characters. We should, without fear, pandering, or equivocation, share these stories on the stage, and discuss them in the bar after, or in the classroom or the kitchen. What is it that we see, in delight and terror? What are these stories and these moments, these characters and these behaviors able to teach us about the human condition?

Shakespeare's plays, comedy, history, and tragedy, are full of characters who come into contact with bouts of madness. Hamlet famously puts on an "antic disposition" in order to flush out a confession from his murderous father-uncle. Both the audience off the stage as well as those on it (his fellow characters) bear witness to the extent to which Hamlet dives down into (pretend) lunacy. Hamlet himself questions his own mental state periodically throughout the play in soliloquies and dialogue alike. "What a rogue and peasant slave am I!" (II.2) "I am but mad north-northwest." (II.2)  Does the act of putting on madness inevitably lead one to the very thing itself? We are left to wonder if Hamlet's playacting has gotten the better of him as we yearn to decipher the truth in his double-speak. Certainly his behavior catches the attention of its intended, as the new King Claudius intimates to his closest court advisor, "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go." (III.1)

What is meant by "great ones"? Large in space? How a character commands attention or fills up a room? Great in personality? A charming or mysterious attractor? A leader, either by example or by appointment? Great as in extreme? Large feelings and large passions? Great words and ideas expressed? I would say yes to all of the above. Certainly Hamlet exhibits these qualities, as does King Lear, another famous character who flirts with insanity. King Lear and the topic of madness has been inspected in detail both on stage and on the page; in epic performance and critical discussion; in theatres and in scholarly journals. Perhaps King Lear's saddest tragedy is his self-recognition as it arrives too late. He confesses to his Fool, "O, Let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! I would not be mad." (I.5) King Lear's fight with his impending madness is indeed a great battle, as the tempest-tossed storm scene in the real world creates a metaphor for the storm in Lear's own mind. Hamlet is great in many ways, so too is King Lear. But in what other of Shakespeare's characters can we find threats of madness? Who else is as great as the Danish Prince or the Mad King of Albion? How do we define madness and greatness as we explore our own human condition? For Nebraska Shakespeare's 2018 season, I wanted to explore these ideas in every offering. I wanted to tie our performance slate together with a unifying theme, so that we may reveal "Madness in Great Ones."

Harold Bloom, in his book, The Invention of the Human, describes Shakespearean greatness by the acts and spirits of the characters. Great characters are seen by the "excess [that] marks them. [Their] souls cannot be extinguished." For Shakespeare on the Silver Screen, I wanted to show a great and expressive character, an individual whose largest passion drives an inextinguishable soul. Ralph Fiennes' film, Coriolanus, puts Shakespeare's great Roman warrior front and center, into a contemporary war-torn military state. Coriolanus was born and bred a great soldier, but his struggle comes when his family and government attempt to force him into public service as a politician. This does not go well for the man whose great authority in arms does not translate to the floors of civil debate. A great character, an excess tour-de-force, who wrestles with his duty and the maddening confrontation of assumed political ambition. "This Coriolanus is grown from man to dragon. He has wings; he's more than a creeping thing." (V.4) Coriolanus is a tragic epic, a fit story to be told with the greatness of cinematic scale. It is especially timely and relevant for today's political minefield. 


On The Silver Screen
Aksarben Cinema
February 21 & 28
Our second showing for Shakespeare on the Silver Screen is the Royal Shakespeare Company's filmed staged production of Love's Labour's Won. This production is an alternate title to Much Ado About Nothing, and plays into the questions and curiosity surrounding the lost sequel to Shakespeare's poetic comedy Love's Labour's Lost. Filmed as a two-part production, the same cast and production team took on both plays, Lost and Won, in an attempt to show the similarities in theme and character arc between Shakespeare's dynamic battle(s) of wits. Berowne becomes Benedick in the second part, and Princess Katharine is Beatrice. This casting trajectory certainly gives additional weight and greater impact to the shared history of the pair of reluctant lovers. And the title/authorship debate is a unique angle in which to tackle the tale of Shakespeare's dueling linguists. This film serves as a preview for our production On the Green. February 28th, 2018: Aksarben Cinema, 6pm. A discussion with myself and D. Scott Glasser, Artistic Director of the UNO Theatre Department will follow each film showing.
Edward III
Corkscrew Blackstone
April 22 | 3 PM

In April, the Director's Reading Series will feature the lesser-known history play, Edward III. Shakespeare was believed to have doctored at least a handful of scenes for this play, writing alongside fellow Elizabethan playwrights, a practice that was actually typical of the time. This story kicks off the multi-play history cycles which Shakespeare alone details in his Hollow Crown and War of Roses plays. From Richard II (grandson of Edward III), through Falstaff and Henry IV, heroic Henry V, to Margaret, Henry VI, and concluding with the famous hunchback Richard III, the dynastic cycle of family wars and grabs for the throne points to its origins in Edward III. Rarely produced because of questionable authorship, the play explores the first steps of English nationalism against the French on a great and vast scale, while allowing a peek into the troubling individual expressions of the mad and salacious King Edward III as he attempts to woo the wife of his closest ally, the noble Earl of Salisbury. A staged reading with Nebraska Shakespeare actors will feature a discussion on Shakespeare authorship and potential conceptual treatment following the play.


King John
June 28-30, July 1, 6, 8 | 8 PM
The Bastard from Shakespeare's history, King John, issues a challenge, "Be great in act as you have been in thought." (V.1) For our 32nd season of Shakespeare on the Green, we feature characters who boldly answer that call. In King John, the Bastard himself is emblematic of this choice. Near the beginning of the play, Philip Faulconbridge is the son of a lowly landowner. But questionable parentage takes him to court to find out that he is actually the bastard child of the great Richard Lionheart, King of England. Here, he is presented with a choice: stay a farmer's son and receive land and money accordingly, or acknowledge your hereditary rights and become the noble progeny of a mighty king, albeit a bastard. Philip does not hesitate in becoming The Bastard, and proudly wears that title for the remainder of the play, his former name and position forgotten and dismissed. In this, the Bastard chooses greatness. His act was given opportunity to match his thought, and he seized upon it. He willingly accepted his place as a mythic character over being merely respectable. The Bastard exemplifies greatness in diverse ways, as if fulfilling the role call of Malvolio's quote from Twelfth Night. "Some are born great (he is the the son of a King), some achieve greatness (he avenges his father's death triumphantly on the battlefield), and some have greatness thrust upon them (he alone is left to carry the English standard into war after King John's untimely death at the hands of peach-poisoning monks)." (II.5) The Bastard thinks and acts with supreme greatness. He is Shakespeare's literary forerunner to Iago and Macbeth, the template for the bastard in King Lear, Edmund. The Bastard carries weight in the play; his word is impact; his actions are gravitational pulls. He is supremely self-aware and gleefully points out the irony of such a corrupt and fragile state as England. "Mad world! Mad kings! Mad composition!" (II.1) For the world of King John is indeed composed of intense, extreme, and prolonged passions. The play is a case study of unbalanced humors. King John himself sets the scene at the beginning of the play, mad-Hatter like, "Why, what a madcap hath God lent us here." Madness and greatness seem to chase each other around the castle in this play, jockeying for attention. Constance is grief personified as she teeters on the brink of madness, expressing hysterical rants about her beloved child, the dejected Prince Arthur. "Grief fills the room up of my absent child!" (III.4) At the climax of the story, the cult-Prophet Peter unveils a three-mooned prophecy that sets the stage for a final showdown between the overwhelmed English, the ambitious French, and an impious Cardinal, spokesperson of Pope (not-that) Innocent III. The play is high on furious family drama, theatrical spectacle, and stunning violent encounters that will help alleviate the stressful wait for the final season of Game of Thrones

Much Ado About Nothing
June 21-24, July 2, 5, 7
To balance the historical epic for Shakespeare On the Green, we present one of Shakespeare's finest, certainly his smartest comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. Beatrice and Benedick exemplify the entanglements of mad-love as they navigate not just their onstage encounters with tricks, allusions, and witticisms, but also their shared history off the stage, unseen. There is much more going on in this world than appears on the surface. Beatrice and Benedick "know each other of old." They have a past together, seemingly complicated, and their public boasts betray the pain below. While they push and pull and snarl and bite and dive and fly at each other's softest parts, the time turns and they scramble to catch up and play along. They are beguiled as much as they attempt to beguile, and their greatness is seen in their capacity to feel in such great extremes, with such range. Joy and delight spar with anger and betrayal, and expressions of love escape from inside accusations and threats of death. There is a bastard in this play too, John, who proliferates as much trouble as he can muster while young Hero and Claudio fall smitten at first sight. The zany Dogberry, his Barney-Fife lieutenant Verges, and their odd rabble of enforced underlings known as The Watch lead the twists of the second half of this play as it weaves its way from wily wordplay to tragic impact. It is not the identities as much as the truth that is mistaken in this play. And as all true Shakespeare comedies end, we wonder how many of the lovers will succumb to the madness that eagerly awaits, knocking on the threshold of communion, tugging at the heartstrings of connection.
Julius Caesar
Blue Barn Theatre | July

Juno's Swans, our all-female performance program continues in its third year with a production of Julius Caesar. Perhaps no other play in Shakespeare's canon features a character that is too great, too epic for its own story. Indeed, it is the central conflict between the Roman senators and the all-encompassing Emperor of the free world. What do we the people do if a single individual's rise appears to spell doom for the good of the republic. Are we loyal to the position and the process? Do we respect and heed the tyrant? What change can be affected if we are dissatisfied with the oppression of an idiosyncratic ideology that has grown too great for containment?And what consequences are faced if we "kill the snake in its nest" to prevent the portends of a dangerous future. As conspirators Brutus and Cassius seek to topple the proud and dominant Caesar, the supernatural omens stack parallel to the foreboding events, and what remains after assassination is a maddening sequence of events that demand an answer from the actions of the few for the professed good of the many.


A Midsummer Night's Dream
September and October
Our 13th annual Fall Tour will conclude the 2018 season by taking an abridged version of A Midsummer Night's Dream on the road in September and October to middles schools, high schools, and communities across Omaha, Lincoln, and the Greater Nebraska area. Our eight-person ensemble will explore the twisted nightmare of the forest, a depiction of magical haunts under a dark moon in this 75-minute adaptation. As a unique look into the great expressiveness of the four lovers, our production will feature gender-swapped characters. The boys will now be female: Lysandre and Demetria; the ladies are now male: Hermian and Helenus. Switching the gender of these four mad lovers allows us a chance to enjoy and unravel the complicated extremes of these transformative pursuits without being shackled to traditional and/or normative gender roles. We want to explore what the chased and the chaser, the desired and the disregarded feel and sound like in different bodies and with different voices. Our Midsummer will take place in Athens; a city that thrives in darkness and breeds fear. Escape into the Fairyland Forest, populated with hobgoblins and changeling children with upside down magic of their own, is the only chance of liberation. This production of A Midsummer Night's Dream presents the oddities and mischievous lore of a mad world, a world where we can find Madness in Great Ones.

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