REVIEW: Yerma

The lead has an amazingly strong voice, full and deep and unquestionable. All the women do, unfaltering in their convictions. It’s such a weird quality for these women to have, given that all but a few are totally accepting of strict gender roles and woman’s mere purposes. Still, when together, they put an unwavering voice to what they think, even when their opinions reinforce structures that force them to compete with other women, to stay trapped under man’s thumb. The women speak in extremes, graphically referencing the terrible pains of pregnancy and raising a child, then reassure themselves that this is some kind of gift to them. How quickly they flip from horror to ecstasy here is almost comical.

I saw it as Federico García Lorca, the playwright, reversing feminist theory in order to point out the ridiculousness of misogynistic society’s values. If this was his vision, it’s a commentary well before its time. This guess seems likely, given my research on the man. Since his youth, he was an artist, and was until his probable murder by Fascist forces in 1936. He traveled widely and made friends in high places, joining an artist group called Generación del 27, of which the great Salvador Dalí was also a member. Given his enlightened lifestyle, he was surely unbound by overly-structured concepts of gender like the ones explored in Yerma. His work with the famed surrealist was an obvious influence in the visceral language and design in this dramaIts modern iterations like this production follow those roots with beautifully disconcerting set, lighting, and costume design.

Most interesting to me was the background (and often foreground) presence of the gaggle of mothers. There was a lot of complexity in their mixing of being threatening while caring (however genuinely is unclear), passive while bubbling with activity. Their ideologies are cult-like, their group singing more like a chant. They’re representative of the ever-present, stifling cage that gender expectations create for women. Maybe they’re not always vocal, but their eyes are watching.

The singing was beautiful, both the Spanish and English, though the Spanish seemed to make the theatre more silent as we all sat rapt. It could be a little pitchy at times, but this is understandable given the minimal or complete absence of instrumentals. Watching the stage lights reflect off a soloist’s focused eyes reminded me of a song off an old Tracy Chapman tape my mom used to have–“Behind the Wall.” Singing alone is terrifying despite how powerful it is, making it the perfect medium for many of the scenes in this production.

There are a million more qualities of this show I could talk about. I’m not a frequent theatre-goer; it takes a specific type of person to really be into drama, and I am not that. But when I watch a play that’s good, I become attached to it. Yerma and all the actors and crew involved in this production are now a part of my heart.

 

PREVIEW: Yerma

Late-week drama that makes you think? For me, it’s always on the agenda. The trap of the crumbling mind is most dangerous around that time, especially in mid-February as the snow blows round in aimless wind. I, too, wander and float in no particular direction. Brain destined to be liquified through stress and its resulting apathy.

Theatre is an excellent way to mitigate such debilitating effects. This week at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre, U-M’s Department of Theatre and Drama presents Yerma, the artful, tragic story of a barren woman of rural Spain tormented by her inability to conceive. It’s a journey, it’s a statement about gender roles, it’s a reaction to our reasons for living.

Showtimes include the following:

Thursday, February 20, 7:30 PM

Friday, February 21, 8:00 PM

Saturday, February 22, 8:00 PM

Sunday, February 23, 2:00 PM.

Get your tickets here. 

REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre in the round? Kind of. But, like, more than that.

The University Musical Society brought this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Michigan Theatre as a National Theatre Live streaming on Sunday, November 24. 

Director Nicholas Hytner’s take on the classic is comical, enchanting, and the most entertaining Shakespeare I have seen performed. During an intermission interview Hytner stated he began work on the play with some very strong ideas. First was the use of silks and aerial performance, as well as modeling the world of Athens after that of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale to reinforce the contrast between the repressive culture of the city and the freedom of the forest. The most effective directorial decision made by Hytner was to switch many of Titania and Oberon’s lines, changing the usual plot so that Titania is the one to trick Oberon, instead of the other way around.

In addition to his role as director of this production Hytner is also the co-founder of Bridge Theatre, a new 900-seat performance venue in London designed with a high degree of adaptability. As director he takes great advantage of this unique space to create the magical world of the forest. Production designer Bunny Christie uses this canvas masterfully as platforms are raised, lowered, and shifted through a standing audience to create an immersive and magical world. Beds that signify actual sleeping quarters in Athens return festooned with moss, vines, and leaves to represent the trees and landscape of the forest. The fairies’ domain is made of flying aerial silks which the actors use to great effect, spinning, twisting, and posing to illustrate their prowess in magic and spellcasting. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The lighting design of Bruno Poet and sound design of Paul Arditti both work with the scenic design to create a wonderful sense of atmosphere. While the lighting in Athens is stark and monochromatic, it shifts to deep greens and ethereal purples once the story shifts to the forest. Poet also does a great job of creating focus on specific areas. While holding Titania in a spotlight, a burst of light reveals Puck, having sprung up on the opposite platform. Arditti’s well-chosen sound combines with these lighting effects to create an almost tangible magic in the air, reinforcing the omnipresent nature of the mischievous fae. His atmospheric soundscape is near perfect. The best sound atmosphere is one that goes unnoticed. It is felt but never inserts itself into the scene. The low synth chords of Athens and the lilting strings of the forest do just that. They imbue the audience with a feeling that not only fits the words of the playwright but also justify the other design elements. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Christina Cunningham’s designs also reinforce the director’s visions. The stark and simplistic grey dresses of the Helena and Hermia in the city, combined with their white head coverings produce a broadly dystopian impression. The plain black suits of Theseus, Egeus, Demetrius, and Lysander are a uniform of masculine power. It is in these elements that Hytner’s inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale is most evident. The Rude Mechanicals are costumed in jumpsuits, highly reminiscent of the party uniform of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, the most striking Athenian costume is Gwendoline Christie’s first as Hippolyta. Her black gown is beautiful in its simplicity and powerful in its monastic silhouette. She is striking, posed as a stark statue in a glass cage, placed there by Theseus. The costumes of the forest characters present a more fun, whimsical image. Puck flits in and out of scenes in patchwork jeans, graphic tank, and colorful armbands. The other fairies have faces painted with glitter and look more like acrobats or fashion models than beings of nature. Oberon, cast by Hytner as a frivolous playboy, is perfectly gorgeous for most of the play in long flowing gold silk robe, often shirtless underneath. 

The one pitfall in the costume design is Christie’s green gown as Titania. This dress is emerald green, silky, more than floor-length, and one-shouldered. The asymmetrical floral detail on the bust contributes to a hyper-feminine and soft picture. This picture directly contrasts the headstrong, vengeful Queen that arises with Hytner’s line arrangements. What would make sense in a traditional rendering of Midsummer just doesn’t work here. 

The sheer amount of talent, wit, comedy, and spectacle in this show had me thinking back to it constantly. It made me glad to have seen it and glad to be studying theatre. If there’s one major objection I have, it’s that there’s almost too many ideas in this production. The audience participation and reaction is a riot to watch, the aerial work is amazing, the acting top-notch, and the designs gorgeous. But I at times felt lost in the concept of it. While likening Athens to the theocracy of Gilead creates a striking stage picture, the extremely heavy real-world consequences of that dystopia doesn’t seem to fit in the comedic, self-aware romp of the rest of the production. The aerial acrobatics are well-integrated until Gwendoline Christie spends her time as Titania just sitting on a silk, buckled in, drawing attention to the fact that she is not an aerial artist. The comedy is refreshing until the Rude Mechanicals’ performance near the end is so drawn out that people are checking their watches. 

But don’t get me wrong- this is a fantastic production. I haven’t read Midsummer for years and my memory of the plot was fuzzy, so this was a refreshing dip back into the story. And there’s so much more I could write about. Before this my favorite Shakespeare play was Twelfth Night, but Puck may have just bewitched me into changing my mind.

PREVIEW: CSEAS Film Screening–Thai Movie Night. Ploy / ‘พลอย’

It’s always good to break up the tedium of the school week with something a little more interesting than differential equations. Too often we get stuck in the poisonous mindset not just of continuous labor, but of reliance on the same tired relaxants–rewatching The Office for the twentieth time, stress-eating entire loaves of day-old bread from Jimmy Johns, compulsively list-making in your agenda.

This week, expose yourself to something a little different, and a little more mind-enriching: foreign film! As a part of CSEAS’s continuing Thai movie night series, Ploy (2007) will be shown in North Quadrangle’s Video Viewing Room in the Language Resources Center at 7PM this Thursday, September 26th.

The movie follows a couple trapped in a hotel room with a stranger, whose behavior begins to sneakily find cracks in their relationship. It’s a story of the fragility of trust inside the seemingly strong walls of love and marriage, and it leads viewers to wonder whether anything is built to last.

REVIEW: Transit

Christian’s Petzold’s Transit is a sprawling, moral adventure that examines questions of loyalty, morality, and the modern global order in the face of fascism. Set primarily in the French seaside town of Marseille, the background to the drama is a façade of gorgeous pastel storefronts that police vans race past in a flurry of sound and light. The setting is noticeably modern; the outfits chosen by the characters, the ships in the harbor, the vehicles in the streets all clearly belong to the modern era, and it’s also clear that Petzold wants it that way. The ambiguity of eras is only one part of the ambiguity that Petzold has carefully constructed for his film, as he places grand amounts of trust in the viewer to think critically about and understand the messages he wants to send.

The ambiguous setting contains both undertones of the Nazi occupation of France, and the modern rise of fascism in Europe. Most of the characters in Marseille trying to flee are German, and although the identity of those occupying the country goes unsaid, references to Jews, “the occupation” and “cleansings” evokes strong similarities to the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. Yet there is also a modern twist. A family of African descent that the protagonist, Georg, befriends is described as “illegal”, living a careful life in avoidance of the authorities. Their entire apartment complex is revealed to be a haven for cautious, illegal families largely of African or Middle Eastern descent, mirroring the current refugee crisis in Europe. Petzold carefully draws the comparison between the historical threats we have learned to fear and the more modern ones we may have not.

The ambiguity stretches into the exposition of the characters and the choices they make. The narrator, who appears partway into the story, goes deliberately unnamed and largely unidentified for much of the saga, but he is identifiable as an outside observer, someone witnessing the events but not privy to the inner thoughts of the main characters themselves. Petzold also avoids the potential easy moralizing of his characters. They act in unpredictable and frequently selfish ways, given opportunities to act in a clear, ethical manner, they abstain for sometimes selfish reasons, and sometimes reasons wholly unclear and never explained. Petzold’s characters are constructed as complex, whole people, with rich, unexplained inner lives. And that is what makes Transitultimately worth seeing. The characters are rich, real people, with real, complex desires, who refuse to fall into the mold of action heroes or love interests. The film artfully touches on serious modern issues while simultaneously immersing the viewer in a carefully constructed world of drama and tension, the one the unexpected ending ultimately topples.

PREVIEW: Transit

Transit, a film directed by Christian Petzold and based on the 1940s novel by Anna Seghers, opens at the Michigan Theatre April 1st. Ms. Seghers’ novel is a depiction of a German in Paris desperately trying to escape the country during the Nazi occupation in the 1940s, by assuming the identity of a dead writer and seeking a ship to take out of the port city of Marseilles. Petzold takes this World War II drama and puts a unique spin on it, transporting it to the present where the threat isn’t as clearly defined as the Nazi occupation, but is something more modern and ambiguous. The film’s plot offers a tantalizing array of elements, from the dramatic action of a wartime saga, to a complex accidental love interest that jeopardizes the lead character’s plans, to a more philosophical look at the mirror 1940s Nazi France can hold up to today’s society. Transit is being shown in German, with English subtitles.