Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Friday, August 28, 2015

Scammers, or "The Alchemist" by Ben Jonson (aka Summer Vacation Part the Second)

"Three con artists use pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo to fleece all the greedy, lustful fools in London. A rare chance to see an uproarious satire by the same Shakespearean contemporary who wrote Bartholomew Fair."

Our second foray into the Stratford experience was a play whose chief draw for me was the presence in the cast of Stephen Ouimette, whose work I absolutely adored in the Canadian TV show "Slings and Arrows."

What? You say you've never seen "Slings and Arrows"? The fabulously funny three-season show about a fictional "New Burbage Theatre Festival" in Canada, the backstage goings on between actors, business managers, and at least one ghostly artistic director? Well, you must remedy that now, don't you think?

Back to the play. "The Alchemist," staged in Stratford's black-box Tom Patterson Theatre, begins in a tumult and roar, with the sound of glass breaking and the three principals falling onto the stage. Their names are Face (a conman), Doll Common (a prostitute), and Subtle (another conman, the sketchy alchemist of the title, brilliantly played by Ouimette).  As is often the case with this genre (not to mention with the figures we find in the bible), names are everything. They tell us (nearly) all we need to know about each character, from Lovewit, to Dapper, to Sir Epicure Mammon. The rest we need to know, we learn from their interactions with the conmen and woman, whose job is to wheedle the money out of their pockets.

As I write this, my daughter is filling out job applications. She received a reply to an inquiry on Craigslist telling her that they needed to do an immediate background check, and would she please send her social security number? I don't know that "The Alchemist" provided her with the smarts she needed to know that this was a scam. I do know that only one of the Londoners who enter the rented dwelling of the confolk questions what he is seeing... Surly, who watches his friend Mammon fall hook, line, and sinker for the promise of the Philosopher's stone.

In the background of all this, is the plague. The apartment the three confolk are renting was vacated by someone fleeing its scourge. And so the absurd and bawdy humor, the gullibility of all the patrons of this shady establishment, and the urgent motivation to make a quick quid: all are played out against the backdrop of terror, and death.

We don't see that, maybe we don't even get it, but the Londoners in Jonson's 1610 audience surely did. For me, the experience was one of watching human foibles at their most naked, and I'd be lying if I didn't see aspects of my own character here and there. Maybe that's how these satires were most effective. Show me Dame Pliant, a thoroughly outrageous example of an impulsive woman with questionable judgment in matters of love, and I might be able to see some of her foibles in myself. Maybe.

"The Alchemist" was a breathless kind of experience, in which you look at your theater companions as the lights come up for intermission, and you all burst into laughter simultaneously as you try to process what. Just. Happened!?

Another Stratford gem. Another glorious experience of our summer vacation.

And, seriously, "Slings and Arrows." If you like Shakespeare. Or if you like theatre. Or if you like good comedy. And Shakespeare.

Cast and production info on "The Alchemist" can be found here.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Kierkegaard on Worship as Theater

Of course, being a pastor, I can't help thinking of the connections between theater and worship. A friend reminded me today of Kierkegaard's musings on that subject.

“Alas, in regard to things spiritual, the foolish of many is this, that they in the secular sense look upon the speaker as the actor, and the listeners  as  theatergoers  who  are  to  pass  judgment  upon  the  artist. But the speaker is not the actor–not in the remotest sense. No, the speaker is the prompter. There are no mere theatergoers present, for each  listener  will  be  looking  into  his  own  heart.  The stage  is eternity, and the listener, if his is the true listener (and if he is not, he  is  at  fault)  stands  before  God  during  the  talk.  The prompter whispers to the actor what he is to say, but the actor’s repetition of it is the main concern –is the solemn charm of the art. The speaker whispers  the  word  to  the  listeners. But  the  main  concern  is earnestness: that the listeners by themselves, with themselves, and to themselves, in the silence before God, may speak with the help of the address. The address is not given for the speaker’s sake, in order that men may praise or blame him. The listener’s repetition of it is what is aimed for. If the speaker has that responsibility for what he whispers, then the listener has an equally great responsibility not to fall  short  in  his  task.  In  the  theater,  the  play  is  staged  before  an audience  who  are  called  theatergoers;  but  at  the  devotional  address, God himself is present. In the most earnest sense God is the critical theatergoer,  who  looks  on  to  see  how  the  lines  are  spoken  and  how they  are  listened  to:  hence  here  the  customary  audience  is  wanting. The  speaker  then  is  the  prompter,  and  the  listener  stands  openly before  God.  The  listener,  if  I  may  say  so,  is  the  actor,  who  in  all truth acts before God.”

It is natural to think of worship as a kind of performance, with the liturgist, musicians, preacher, etc., as the actors, and the congregation as the theatergoers. Not so, Kierkegaard says. The liturgist, the ushers, the choirs, the pastor, the organist et al, are the prompters. The congregation are the performers-- they listen and observe the worship and stand before God as they do so. It is God who is the audience, the one for whom our worship takes place.

And this too makes me think about my experience of getting hung up with/ lost in "my own stuff" while attending a play. Can that happen during worship? Of course.

In 2008 I attended the Festival of Homiletics (Preaching) in Minneapolis. The first preacher was a legend, Tom Long, and he preached on the very passage on which I preached for the very first time as a Master's student in Boston, John 4, the story of Jesus' encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

As I listened to the opening words of the sermon, my inner monologue went something like this:

"Hmmmm... this is interesting. I wonder why he started there? Huh.

Oh. Oh, ok. 

OH, now I see where he's...

Oh, niiiiiiiiice. Well done.

Oooh... oohh, yeah...."

(I realize that the sentences typed above could describe... let's just say.... a number of different kinds of human experiences.)

Somewhere around this time, the "Me that is Preacher and Wants to Do It Better" switched off, mercifully. That is because the art of the sermon, finally, captivated me. It lifted me out of myself, and helped me to turn off my critical, self-conscious, observing self, and to simply be, in the presence of the Word proclaimed. I stood before God. Long wasn't performing for me. He was the prompter, so that I might have an experience of the Living Word-- or, as the passage would have it, Living Water.

And I did.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Hills Are Alive with "The Sound of Music"! Or, What I Did on My Summer Vaction, Part the First-Edited

Stephanie Rothenberg as Maria Rainer

Also, the Festival Theatre in Stratford, ON, where my children and I spent last week. We were celebrating my daughter Joan's graduation from Oberlin College with a splurge of 5 nights, 6 days, and 7 plays at one of the most beloved and well-regarded theater festivals in North America. Start to finish, it was stupendous-- the trip, the company, and the theater.

On our last night, Ned, Joan and I dined at an Ontario Street eatery in the heart of the downtown area, and decided to do our "Top Seven" of the Festival, by which I mean: We talked through each production, in ascending order of our ardor. That's a bit tongue-in-cheek. In fact, we loved every play we saw. But I thought it might be fun to share here my impressions, before they have faded into the mists of my middle-aged memory. I'll start, as you may have guessed, with "The Sound of Music."

In the way of background, I need to tell you my relationship with the film of "The Sound of Music." That movie, with the eternally fabulous Julie Andrews as Maria Rainer, opened in the US when I was four years old. I cannot honestly say I remember the first time I saw it in the theater. I can honestly say that I must have fallen head-over-heels in love with it, as I pestered my family to take me back... again, and again, and again. All told, I saw the movie thirteen times. This, before the age of video or DVD, before the age of streaming movies on Netflix. Thirteen trips to the movies, yessirree.

Why all the love? To the best I can understand:

1. The nuns. I was a little Catholic girl, whose family was very involved with church, and though I wasn't yet attending, in two short years I would be in a parochial school classroom with Sister Hubert, a wonderful and patient Dominican sister who would oversee my (brief) time in the first grade. I loved their habits. I loved the Gregorian chant (beautifully and effectively imitated by Rodgers and Hammerstein). I loved the depiction of Nonnberg Abbey in Salzburg, which I would eventually visit when I was in my twenties (attending mass on August 15, the Feast of the Assumption). The nuns held a mystique for me that did not easily let me go until... well, maybe it never did. (When I played Sister Sophia in my high school production, one of my teachers told me he had never seen a more nun-like nun, on or off the stage.)

2. The children! Of course, a movie with a cast of seven children is always a plus for one who is, herself, a child. And I was immediately captivated by Gretl. Gretl! A little girl who was, often, at the center of the story! At least, she was in my eyes. My family loved referring to me as "Gretl" for a time, until...

3. It became clear I could actually do a creditable imitation of Julie Andrews. Ah, Dame Jules. She was, of course, the heart and soul of the film, with that glorious voice (and British accent, which I also loved). It might not be an exaggeration to say, she taught me to sing.

Suffice to say, I came to this production with a lot of love. I was not disappointed.

The traditional overtur fades into evening prayer at the Abbey. The nuns file onstage singing chant, ending in the traditional doxology. Then they break into (eight?) parts, for the stunning "Rex admirabilis." Goosebumps. Really thrilling sound.

And the rest of the production followed suit. Gorgeous singing by every lead and supporting cast member. Lovely simple but effective choreography for the children. Inventive set-change choreography, including a troupe of tipsy gardeners. A version of the Laendler (a traditional Austrian folk-dance) between Maria and Captain Von Trapp that evoked the heat between them while remaining utterly sweet and innocent. (How did they do that? It was quite brilliant.)

And, in the climactic scene of the family's escape from Nazi storm-troopers, staging that put my heart in my mouth. Liesl's erstwhile boyfriend Rolf, gun drawn, races towards her father. Liesl throws herself between her father and her Nazi bf, his pistol in her face for a long, breath-holding moment.

And "Climb Every Mountain." A song that ought to be sung regularly-- a statute ought to be drawn up. Every play should end with this song. So beautifully sung.

If you are looking for deep analysis of Austria and the politics leading up to the Nazi takeover, this is not your play. If you are looking for some acknowledgement of the Holocaust, ditto. The program describes "TSoM" as a fable, a story that tells the truth, though it is not exactly history. That truth has to do with honor, with love, with family, and even with a nod to the church as sanctuary (certainly a hot topic even now, in this country).

I loved it. I recommend it.

Edited to add:

I have been pondering something else. I noticed in my "top seven" conversation with Ned and Joan that I  tended to rate as more excellent and thrilling experiences, those times when I was completely taken out of myself. If I had self-consciousness during a performance... for instance, thinking intensely about my childhood experience of the movie while watching the play... it seemed a less wonderful experience. I don't go to theater to think about myself, I go to be taken out of myself.

And all this makes me think of Kierkegaard's musings on theater and worship... more on that later.

More on the rest of the plays as my schedule allows....

Info about the 2015 Stratford Festival production of "The Sound of Music" can be found here....