The show must go on

Drama: At the Globe Theatre in London, Shakespeare's poetry becomes a prayer.

Theater

Terrorism Strikes America

September 20, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

While attending a musical on London's West End last week, an American friend who has lived in London for two decades turned to me and said, "Now I know why it was so important for Britain to keep the theaters open during the Blitz."

The show-must-go-on tradition is about a lot more than mere perseverance. It's about the resilience of the human spirit and the importance of community, and it harks back to theater's ancient roots in religion.

I gained a new appreciation for this tradition on Sept. 11. When the World Trade Center and Pentagon were hit, I was at a matinee of Shakespeare's Cymbeline at the reconstructed Globe Theatre on the south bank of the Thames. At the start of the production, actor Mark Rylance came out and made the usual pre-show announcement about turning off cell phones (or, as he put it: "non-Elizabethan communicating devices"). He and the other five cast members then introduced each of the many characters they would portray.

Because of this format, when Rylance (who is also artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe) stepped forward to make a second announcement at the end of intermission, I assumed this was another part of the production. What he went on to say, however, was beyond anything Shakespeare could have imagined.

Rylance began by reminding the audience that the final word of Cymbeline is "peace" and that much of Shakespeare's writing is about peace. He then read a news account of the horrific events. The audience gasped.

The British-born, American-raised Rylance said that violence tends to breed violence and asked us to spend five minutes in silence, after which the play would continue "in hope and intense prayer for peace." Most theatergoers bowed their heads. Some cried. In the large open area in front of the stage, a few of the "groundlings," who stand for the performance, wrapped their arms around each other.

When the five minutes had passed, Rylance said the company would wait another five minutes, to allow anyone who wished to leave to do so. Some 800 to 900 people attended the performance. Only about a quarter left.

Cymbeline is a play in which Shakespeare combined aspects of a number of his previous works - the fairy tale sensibility of his other late romances; cross-dressing from such comedies as As You Like It and Twelfth Night; and even the tragic dismissal of a daughter by a father, similar to the event at the beginning of King Lear. After intermission, a far more somber audience greeted the actors, and the dire elements seemed to take on added weight.

Nor was that the only shift in perception. The Globe, which is largely an open-air theater, attempts to give audiences and actors a sense of what performances might have been like in Shakespeare's day. But there are certain unavoidable reminders of modern times. Chief among these is the buzz of airplanes overhead. In the first half of the production, the sound and sight of planes was amusing. After intermission, planes produced a shudder among audience members.

Although Cymbeline was first published as The Tragedie of Cymbeline, the play concludes happily. That ending was especially welcome on that terrible Tuesday afternoon. In the final scene, the character of the Soothsayer predicts that Britain will "be fortunate and flourish in peace and plenty," adding a bit later, "The fingers of the pow'rs above do tune/The harmony of this peace." Those words were more than mere poetry that day. They were, indeed, a prayer.

Postponements

Not every show will go on in the aftermath of last week's events, however. The Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's 1991 musical, Assassins, has been postponed indefinitely. The show - which includes the line: "I'm gonna drop a 747 on the White House and incinerate Dick Nixon" - was to have opened Nov. 29.(Theatre Hopkins, which has its own production of Assassins scheduled for the end of the season, hopes to proceed, according to Todd Pearthree, the show's director. "We're hopeful that by the time June rolls around the situation won't quite be so hot," he said.)

Meanwhile, back on Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber's By Jeeves, which had announced an Oct. 28 opening, also has been indefinitely postponed. The producer has said economic concerns arising from the terrorist attacks led two primary investors to withdraw from the small-scale show, which is based on stories by P.G. Wodehouse.

Personnel changes

The Baltimore Theatre Alliance has a new executive director - Mickey Mullany, a free-lance grant writer, actress, director and manager of Joyous Voices, a local caroling group. A Washington native, Mullany was managing director of the former Blackfriars Theatre in San Diego before moving to Baltimore six years ago. She succeeds Claire Braswell, who left the Alliance to become managing director of Everyman Theatre.

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