Tag Archives: theater

The Synge Festival – Quintessence Theatre Group, October 2019

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Last weekend I attended The Synge Festival at Quintessence Theatre Group. In one day, I saw all of John Millington Synge’s plays, with the exception of the unfinished Diedre of the Sorrows. Synge died at age 37, having published five plays and some poetry. Synge was so controversial that riots broke out after some early performances. In Philadelphia, authorities arrested actors and served an injunction against Playboy of the Western World in 1912, after Synge was dead.

Why was Synge controversial? Many of his characters are immoral or at least conniving, but Synge portrays them as comical and often sympathetic, not necessarily detestable. And Synge was wildly anti-clerical. His priests are clownish. Catholics and others found this offensive.

Synge’s best known work is Playboy of the Western World. It’s a sardonic comedy. The young farmer Christopher Mahon assaults his father and leaves him for dead. After more than a week on the run, he stops in a tavern, begging for shelter. The locals (especially the young women) are impressed and begin to compete for Christopher’s attention. Suddenly, his father turns up, unexpectedly alive, complicating the action. Soon father and son flee the outraged community.

The other plays were also comedy, except for Riders to the Sea, one of his first dramas. It is a snapshot of loss and grief, as if someone had told Synge to write the saddest play he could imagine. An old woman loses her last surviving son to the violent ocean. It’s a brief one-act play. Perhaps it would have engaged me more if we learned more about the characters, especially the sons.

Synge set his works in rural Ireland and wrote in an old fashioned rural northern Irish dialect which is almost incomprehensible to the modern, English speaking ear. The theatre program contained an extensive glossary of terms, but it’s helpful to follow a printed script if possible or to see each play more than once.

Synge loved the unrefined language of rural Ireland. In the theatre program he is quoted as follows:

When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen…I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen.

Listening to Synge is a challenge, but, like listening to Shakespear, it’s well worth the effort.

QUINTESSENCE Theatre Group

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The Quintessence theatre Group operates in the lively Germantown section of Philadelphia. Their specialty is classical theatrical texts, which they define as works over one hundred years old. They are housed in the 90 year old Sedgewick Theatre, a giant art deco movie palace. The current performance space occupies only a small part of the sprawling building (there’s a warehouse to the rear). Architecturally, I’m glad at least part of the building can be maintained and used for entertainment purposes. The neighborhood provides convenient restaurants and bars (and a thrift shop). Check it out, friends! Live theater is such a treat! Accessible by SEPTA. Free parking.

“The Man in the Iron Mask” by Alexandre Dumas, adapted for staged by Ben and Peter Cunis.

I attended this performance at Synetic Theater in Washington, DC, on June 9, 2016.

As usual, I came to the theater ready to give myself over to whatever was put before me – minimal expectations coupled with willing suspension of disbelief. Give me illusion! I’ll buy in. My other predisposition was to like the show because my nephew (stage name Will Hayes) was performing. So… I walked in with a positive attitude, and I was not disappointed! In fact, I was completely delighted.

The Man in the Iron Mask is pure adventure drama. Good guys, bad guys, intrigue and plenty of action.

Synetic Theater falls into the category of “physical theater”, which I never heard of before. It has a Wikipedia entry, so I guess it really exists… Synetic has produced plays without dialog, most recently a version of Romeo and Juliet. I wish I had seen that!

“Physical theater” (according to Wikipedia) is characterized by story telling that involves physical communication, like dance, stage fighting, gestures or mime. The Man in the Iron Mask featured the first two, along with a “normal” amount of dialog. The dance scenes were beautifully lush, and the stage fighting was the best I’ve ever seen. For sheer energy, this production can’t be topped.

For those not familiar with the novels of Dumas, the plot of The Man in the Iron Mask comes from the end of his Three Musketeers trilogy. The four heroes have drifted apart, one to farming, another to religion, and so forth. Reunited in Paris, they plot to take King Louis XIV from his throne, for the good of the French nation.

Too bad The Man in the Iron Mask will run for just a few more days. But Synetic has an ambitious program scheduled for next year (starting with Dante’s Inferno and ending with Carmen – Bizet is not mentioned) and Washington is not so far away.

“The Tempest” by Shakespeare

Every once in a while, I just need a dose of Shakespeare. It wakes up my brain and tickles my fancy, like a tonic. So I was very happy to attend a performance of The Tempest at Stockton University this week. This was a production by students, University staff and community members.

The Tempest is a comedy (nobody dies), but it deals with serious themes. Prospero, the Duke of Milan, has lost his office to his perfidious brother and suffered 12 years of exile on a desolate island. (Bermuda?!) A scholarly man, he has passed his time studying the magical arts, and is ready to retake his realm and take his young daughter back to her birthplace.

The crux of the play is the question of revenge. Prospero, an accomplished sorcerer, gains power over this enemies, power enough to kill them if he chooses. But he grants forgiveness.

The audience is reminded throughout the play that Shakespeare lived at the end of the age of magic. (Is it past? Do you encounter magical thinking? Indulge in it?) The supernatural elements (spells and sprites) are a large part of the play’s charm.

This Stockton production was highly successful. I was swept away by the poetry, music and plot. The acting, especially Rodger Jackson as Prospero, was first class. I loved Ryan Gorman as poor, bad Caliban and Erica Delbury as Prospero’s daughter Miranda. The entire cast deserves commendation.

So… South Jersey residents don’t need to leave home to enjoy good theater. And this probably applies to anyone who lives within striking distance of a college or university with a drama department. Support your local thespians! And remember the Bard.

“The Half Sisters” by Geraldine Jewsbury

I love a good used book store! Halfway between a library and a “regular” book store, it can make me think I died and went to heaven. The Bookshop on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, qualifies. I visited there last week.

I limited myself to two purchases. One was The Half Sisters by Geraldine Jewsbury. A winner! I got the Oxford World Classics 1994 paperback edition of this book, which was originally published in 1848. Jewsbury was simultaneously way ahead of her time and all over the map. But it adds up to a GREAT story!

We first meet the half sisters when they are about 15 years old. Bianca was the illegitimate daughter of an Englishman who had an affair in Italy just before settling into a highly conventional English marriage. Alice was the only child of the marriage. Neither sister knows of the others existence.

Bianca’s Italian mother brings her teenaged daughter to England, expecting to present her triumphantly to her father. But the father has died, and Bianca’s shocked mother suddenly becomes a helpless and senile.

Bianca is in deep trouble, on her own in a country where she barely speaks the language, with an invalid mother to support. Three men collaborate to help her out, and she (literally) joins the circus. Over time, it becomes clear that she has a gift for acting, and, again with help, she becomes an accomplished and reasonably wealthy actress. Improbable, but it works well enough for fiction. Jewsbury is much more interested in Bianca’s moral development and affairs of the heart, and in commenting on the role of women in 19th century England.

The sisters meet and establish a limited friendship, with only Bianca aware of their shared paternity. Alice marries a businessman who is kind and distant. She suffers from boredom and anxiety.

I won’t go into more of the plot, but it surprised me several times. The whole story would make a great BBC drama or movie. The books covers a ten year period, at the end of which Bianca finds love and marriage. Alice dies prematurely of “brain fever”, or possibly a broken heart.

Modern feminists will be disappointed that Bianca retires from acting after her marriage, but Jewsbury makes so many interesting observations and comments in the course of the novel that I think it is correct to describe The Half Sisters as an early feminist classic. And it reads very well!

“The Hard Problem” by Tom Stoppard, at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia

Tom Stoppard never caught my attention before. Everyone but me has read or seen “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”.

I went to see “The Hard Problem” because a friend was performing. Not acting, but providing musical accompaniment on the saxophone, mostly improvised. Good enough reason for a Sunday afternoon venture to Philadelphia.

I watched the play with no expectations whatsoever. That’s how I like theater. I’m ready to buy into whatever the playwright and producer offer. I love to see the curtain rise on the unknown and unexpected.

Part of the plot framework for this play is an Institute for Brain Science, a think tank that employs the heroine, a young woman named Hilary. At the beginning, I was afraid the whole play would be about evolutionary neurobiology, which could have been pedantic. But Hilary has a habit that surprises some of her acquaintances. She PRAYS. This makes no sense to those who believe that “consciousness” is physically determined.

That’s the “hard problem” of the title. What is consciousness? If it is as predetermined as quantum physics, how does one explain love, or sorrow?

The music that accompanies parts of the play is intended to reflect Hilary’s inner life, which includes emotions that can’t be explained by any theory of consciousness and which are revealed to the audience only slowly. Apparently, the musical accompaniment was an addition by the Artistic Director of this particular production of “The Hard Problem”, a relatively new work. I’m curious how the playwright feels about it, and whether it will be included in future productions. I vote “yes”.

I liked the music, but don’t feel I got the maximum from it. The dialogue was dense and required all my attention, so I think I tuned out the music some of the time. If I were to see the play again, I might react differently, and I do assume I might see it again. After all, I watch Shakespeare over and over.

At the end of the play, Hilary is giving up neurobiology for the study of philosophy. Does this tell us what Stoppard thinks about consciousness?