This rough magic I here abjure… I’ll break my staff, bury it certain fathoms in the earth, and deeper than did ever plummet sound, I’ll drown my book.
So says Shakespeare’s Prospero, as he prepares to resign artistic directorship of his tiny island nation in "The Tempest." Mark Lamos, ending a 17-year tenure as artistic director of the Hartford Stage Company, has no such intentions. Lamos is widely credited as an individual who has exposed more people to Shakespeare than any other person working in American theater since Joseph Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival. And Lamos will need all the
"rough magic" he can muster as he enters his new life as an independent artist; his directorial services are booked nearly solid through the millennium.
Lamos is in Princeton to direct Shakespeare’s "Cymbeline" at McCarter Theater, with a production and cast he has brought from the Hartford Stage featuring Felicity Jones as Imogen. Opening night is Friday, January 23, for the play that runs through February 15. In an artistic touch of symmetry, "Cymbeline," which closed Lamos’s 17 years at Hartford in December, was also the first
Shakespeare play he directed there in 1980.
His reprise production won critical acclaim there, described as a fitting closing to a "luminous reign," and one that "displays his trademark gift for filling his classical productions with glorious sights and sounds." Lamos will return to Hartford briefly this spring at the request of playwright Edward Albee and lead actor Richard Thomas, to direct a revival of Albee’s "Tiny Alice." In 1989 Lamos led the Hartford Stage to a Tony award for Outstanding Regional Theater.
Lamos says that Hartford effectively made him a Shakespeare specialist; and that his time there gave him the valuable chance to revisit some plays more than once. "In Hartford, if I put together a season that didn’t include Shakespeare I would get letters because the audience was always hungry for more," says Lamos. "There was tremendous audience demand."
Shakespeare has not been widely presented at McCarter under artistic director Emily Mann, the only previous one being "Much Ado About Nothing" in 1992-’93. Over the theater’s long history, however, Shakespeare has been a staple. The most popular titles have been "Macbeth," with six productions beginning in 1931, and "Hamlet," also with six productions, including Nagle Jackson’s 1982 "Hamlet" that featured Harry Hamlin in the title role. This week’s opening
marks the McCarter debut of "Cymbeline."
"Cymbeline" presents a unique combination of fantasy and reality, tragedy and comedy, intimacy and spectacle that continues to challenge its players and directors. Lamos calls it "a fantasy, an experimental exercise in virtuosity."
"I wanted to revisit this play after 17 years for a number of reasons," says Lamos. "I thought it would give me a chance to see how and if I had matured in the 17 years between productions. It felt natural for me to touch the play’s affirmations and joys again as I completed a personal cycle of years as artistic director. And I was eager to reintroduce the play to a generation that I didn’t think had seen it." Probably written around 1610, "Cymbeline" comprises — with "The Tempest," "Pericles," and "The Winter’s Tale" — part of Shakespeare’s final quartet of plays.
"I’m surprised it isn’t produced more," says Lamos. "I think it’s every bit as fascinating and mysterious as the other final three. It has a greater narrative sweep than either `Tempest’ or `Winter’s Tale,’ and in an odd way it’s the most expressive of the four plays."
"I think Shakespeare was pretty much always an experimental writer," he continues, noting that "Cymbeline" presents a series of experiments in form and narrative flow. "It’s peopled by extremely simple characters, very easy to grasp, and the brilliance of it lies precisely in the way he takes these characters and utilizes their simplicity. It’s like Matisse’s late cut-outs — big, primary forms in bold color. As the artist aged, the more bold and simple he got."
Lamos says "Cymbeline" has the magical, charming quality of a fairy tale or a fable. "As such, it leads us into a sort of labyrinthine forest of wondrous and strange events and ultimately, and most importantly, to its sense of a happy ending being as important as the tragic catharsis of the earlier plays."
"If you look at the happy endings of the comedies, they’re almost always cast with some kind of shadow — the happiest of the comedies seem always to end with a bit of a shadow. Yet this one unites not only families but nations," says Lamos, who compares the sweep of "Cymbeline" to the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
First printed in the 1623 Folio, "Cymbeline" tells a complex and implausible tale of events in the court of the legendary British king Cymbeline. It is a tale fraught with unlikely trials, miraculous reunions, and sweet reconciliations. The final appearance of Jupiter — a scene that was suppressed from performances throughout the 18th and 19th centuries — leads the action to the heights of implausibility, to an extraordinary series of revelations which in turn lead to an impossibly happy ending.
The title character, Cymbeline, is King of Britain during the reign of Augustus Caesar in Rome. By a first marriage Cymbeline has a daughter, Imogen. He also had two sons who were stolen away at birth and are believed to be dead. The king has married a new queen who brings, from her own first marriage, her grown son, Cloten.
The loutish and vicious Cloten seeks Imogen’s affection. Yet Imogen, against her father’s wishes, has secretly married Posthumus, a commoner whom her father raised and educated in his court. For this marriage, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus to Rome. There he meets Iachimo who, hearing Posthumus praise Imogen for her fidelity and chastity, wagers that he can seduce her. All this time, the kingdom is being menaced by Rome’s armies, threatening to invade Britain because of Cymbeline’s refusal to pay tribute.
The convoluted plot includes one of Shakespeare’s most gory scenes in which the princess Imogen mistakes Cloten’s headless body for that of her beloved. Two well-meaning strangers have set Imogen, whom they believe dead, beside the headless corpse. Her waking speech is known as one of Shakespeare’s most challenging to the performer.
In another touch of symmetry that embellishes the current production, Lamos and artistic director Emily Mann have professional ties that go back more than 25 years. In the mid-’70s, Lamos taught Mann, then an actress, at the University of Minnesota. "Although I knew she wanted to be a director, she was a bewitching actress, very talented," he says. Mann then took on the directorial job at the second space of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater when Lamos vacated
it for the Hartford Stage.
As an actor himself, Lamos returned to the Guthrie to play Dr. Rank in Mann’s production of "A Doll House." "I didn’t want the role," Lamos recalls. "I said `I hate Ibsen.’ Emily singlehandedly made me realize what a genius Ibsen was — so I have a lot to be thankful for." After this conversion, Lamos produced Ibsen’s "Hedda Gabler," "Peer Gynt," "Master Builder," and "Ghosts" at Hartford. "I was like a born-again Christian," he quips, adding that he invited Mann to Hartford twice to direct Ibsen’s "A Doll House."
This is Lamos’ first time directing at McCarter, although he did appear here as an actor during Michael Kahn’s years as artistic director in a production of "A Month in the County" with Tammy Grimes and Amanda Plummer. "It was Amanda Plummer’s debut," Lamos recalls, "But I think anybody who saw it would be dead by now."
Over the course of his career, Lamos has matched his interest in theater with that of music. An accomplished musician, he has been praised by actor Richard Thomas for the depth of this experience. "It’s not just because he knows his Shakespeare," says Thomas. "He loves and knows dance and movement and music as well as text, and those are always a part of his approach."
For almost a decade, Lamos has been active in directing opera, primarily opera by living composers and librettists. Lamos will direct three new operas by three new composers in 1999, 2000, and 2002, including the world premiere of "The Great Gatsby" by Princeton-bred composer John Harbison at the Metropolitan Opera.
"What I love about opera is that I get to use my musical skills," says Lamos. "I spent all my youth and college years studying the violin." He says opera and its notoriously long lead times are part of the reason his independent work is so tightly scheduled through the 2000. Lamos and Jerry Jones, his partner of almost 20 years, recently purchased a house in Litchfield County, Connecticut, for its promise of rural peace and quiet between the crush of future projects. Lamos says it was also the opportunities in opera that led to his decision to leave the Hartford Stage.
Lamos has chosen opera at a time when it is riding high in audience popularity. And unlike much classical music, opera is attracting young audiences. Is opera, then, the next big thing? "I don’t know why it is appealing so much to modern audiences, but it’s thrilling that it is," Lamos replies. "But I hope it’s not
a fad like dance that was intriguing people in the ’70s and ’80s. Dance had its boom, but then found its own audience again and stayed there."
Lamos thinks the addition of surtitles and television broadcasts have helped to demystify opera. "They’re great stories, the good ones," he says, "and now audiences can follow them. Knowing what they’re singing seems to help. The worst thing about opera is when different groups have made it a cult.
"Although it was elitist originally, at the court, opera is wonderful mass entertainment. In the 19th century Italian opera was made for the working people of Palermo," says Lamos. "And an opera house is an exciting place for an audience to be. There’s a give and take with the audience that you don’t often find in the theater. You really can cheer here the way you do at a baseball game."
And how does a theatrical director make the transition from directing legitimate theater" to "grand opera"? Grandly, it seems. "Given the budgetary constraints and the size of the cast, in opera you have to work very quickly with large numbers of people. You’re really the general of an army in an opera production. It’s as if you’re on your horse — with a sword in your hand."
Cymbeline, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-683-8000. Opening night for Shakespeare’s romantic tale that runs through February 15. $31 & $35. Friday, January 23, 8 p.m.
Stage Trial of the Century?
For two decades playwright Leslie Lee has had his ear close to the pulse of American culture. Not surprisingly then, his latest play shares a site with America’s most riveting recent dramas, the criminal courtroom. While actual high-profile murder cases have arguably become one of the nation’s most popular forms of entertainment, Lee has created a fictional crime for a play that examines crucial contemporary issues of truth, race, and justice.
"Spirit North," which receives its world premiere at Crossroads Theater, is a courtroom drama that explores an incendiary case of a black youth on trial for the murder of a white youth. Opening night is Saturday, January 24. The production that continues to February 15.
In a providential coincidence of anniversaries, Lee’s association with Crossroads dates from the theater’s first season and from the beginning of his professional career. "The First Breeze of Summer," which Lee describes as the first notable play he wrote, was also the first play produced at Crossroads. Now in this, Crossroads’ 20th anniversary season, the theater presents the fifth of Lee’s plays about the black experience in America. And Crossroads is the place Lee is pleased to call his artistic home.
"Leslie Lee has been one of the most important voices in America’s black theater movement, and has been an essential ingredient in the making of this theater," says Crossroads co-founder and artistic director Ricardo Khan. "`Spirit North’ marks Lee’s first project with Crossroads since `Black Eagles’ in 1990; and the first time in our new space, a space he helped build."
After producing Lee’s "First Breeze of Summer" in 1978, Crossroads went on to produce "Hannah Davis" in 1987, "The Rabbit Foot" in 1989, and "Black Eagles" in 1990. "Black Eagles," the story of the Tuskegee airmen, toured extensively
for Crossroads to the Manhattan Theater Club and also to Ford’s Theater in Washington, where the play was seen by General Colin Powell and President Bush. This resulted in an invitation for Crossroads and for the original Tuskegee airmen to the White House.
Set in the context of an incendiary murder trial, "Spirit North" tells the story of a married couple, Paul and Leila, and their personal experience of race and the criminal justice system. "The play is designed to evoke as much controversy and conversation as possible. I want people to talk about it," says Lee. Within the drama, Paul and Leila find themselves on opposite sides of the controversy, yet both may be right.
Paul is a lawyer who has "landed" a high-profile criminal case, defending a black teenager, Malik Robinson, accused of murdering a white teenager. The black community rallies behind the accused Robinson, although Paul’s wife, Leila, thinks he might be guilty. Complicating the controversy and family dynamic is Paul’s grandfather, Ben, a retired vaudevillian who has both the greatest distance from the case and most clarity of vision. Yet his partial senility interferes with his ability to be heard.
"The grandfather in the play represents the past and the present in its most positive form," explains Lee. "My heroes are some of those old folks. The grandfather has wisdom despite the fact that he’s losing it. He says he’s going to take his spirit north, meaning to a place of enlightenment.
"Maybe it’s my own need to rectify my own sort of ignorance of the works of my own grandparents, and maybe it’s a tribute to them, but basically, for me, he represents our history and he also represents the fact that all of us in our community — no matter how old — Even in the midst of his own seeming senility and mental dysfunction, he represents stability."
Lee teaches at NYU, Westbury College, and at the New School. "Recently I took a survey and said, `If your father committed a crime and murdered your mother, your sister, or brother, or some decent person, could you turn him in?’ And nine out of ten said they could not. And those were blacks as well as whites. So `Spirit North’ really comes out of that. "It also comes out of what I feel is my need to talk about intellectual diversity among our people, and to present another way of thinking about any of us; that we are all subject to
responsibility to each other, to our society, and to our own people."
"There’s an old Yiddish proverb which says that in an argument both sides are right. And what I want to present in the play is that both Paul and Leila are right. Paul is a race man — and certainly we need race men — but Leila also has a position that is equally strong. So the idea that I want to introduce into this is that there are two opinions, and other opinions are equally important, and we must honor both opinions."
Born and raised in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Lee says his family was one of only about 20 black families in a community that he characterizes as "very racist." Effectively the family was evicted, along with several other black families, by a landlady who didn’t want blacks living on the street. Lee’s father relocated the family to West Conshohocken.
"We were poor, but we were determined," says Lee. "The thing I loved about my past is that this was a community of poor black folks from the south. I’m from the north, but I was brought up with southern traditions, and I treasure those traditions. They have formed the basis of who I am." Lee is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania. He received his master’s degree in theater at Villanova where he met and roomed with playwright David Rabe. After graduation, both won Rockefeller playwriting grants.
Having grown up poor, making the career path switch from medicine to the theater was not a simple one for Lee. "When I got out of college, something told me I didn’t want to go to medical school, although I had the opportunity. My father was giving me angry looks, and he had already advertised me as being his `son the doctor.’ So I became a medical technician and then a bacteriologist for the state of Pennsylvania." Gradually, he says, his "desire to write began to supersede my need to express myself through the microscope."
The play is directed by Harold Scott, whose productions of "Paul Robeson" with Avery Brooks and "The Mighty Gents" starring Morgan Freeman received wide critical acclaim on Broadway. At Crossroads he has directed "The Talented Tenth," "The Disappearance," "Coming of the Hurricane," and "The Meeting."
"Spirit North," which stars Victor Love, Ran Aranha, Joy DeMichelle Moore,
and Marc Walton, also features original music commissioned from veteran
African-American folk singer Odetta.
Spirit North, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-249-5560. Opening for the world premiere of Leslie Lee’s work that runs to February 15. $22.50 to $32.50. Opening night $45 includes reception. Saturday, January 24, 8 p.m. To continue the dialogue, "Discussion Salons" moderated by
community leaders follow performances on Friday, January 30, at 8 p.m.; and Friday, February 6, at 8 p.m.