Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (1948) remains among the greatest American musicals but finds itself on the endangered species list. When its source, The Taming of the Shrew (ca. 1594), was tapped for the Shakespeare in the Park series three years ago, its sexual politics were considered so pestilential that the director, Phyllida Lloyd (best known for the film version of Mamma Mia!), reconceived it as a ghastly all-female production featuring a gang of bluff lesbians who micturated standing up. Kiss Me, Kate is today adjudged by prominent critics to be “irretrievably dated,” which is the precursor stage to full-on radioactivity. It is, of course, the opposite of dated. It is timeless. Its supposedly outmoded aspects are, at their core, true, even obvious; yet our moment is defined by hostility to the truth, however obvious. Fight the commissars and buy a ticket (at Studio 54 through June 30).
Kiss Me, Kate relies on the conventions of what was, until perhaps twenty years ago, a staple genre: the battle-of-the-sexes comedy. Fond misandry is followed by equally hearty misogyny, few make the mistake of getting angry about any of it, and all the couples in the theater go out for a flirtatious drink afterward. Even in an auditorium of the superannuated—many of my neighbors in the stalls looked old enough to remember the 1948 production, and I think a few might have been present for the 1594 original—it was a relief to hear the diva Lilli Vanessi (Kelli O’Hara), in character as Kate in a Baltimore production of The Taming of the Shrew, let loose with “I Hate Men.” “This Kate fights!,” thinks the audience. “Far from being a mere shrew, she’s tantalizingly aggressive and spirited.” As if it were ever otherwise. The riposte comes in near the end, via “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” one of the wittiest songs in the history of musicals and Porter’s ode to toxic masculinity:
If she fights when her clothes you are mussin’
What are clothes? much ado about nussin’! . . .
If she says your behavior is heinous
Kick her right in the Coriolanus!
Dated? No. Hilarious? Yes. Yet in 2019 this is very much Material That Must Not Be Joked About, and if any young feminist writers on Twitter discover “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” exists, you may begin to count the days until this number gets excised from the show, or perhaps rewritten by Phyllida Lloyd.
Kiss Me, Kate is, of course, the opposite of dated. It is timeless.
It’s the alternately lusty and loathing charge between ex-spouses Fred (an amusing Will Chase) and Lilli that will keep the plot fresh for another five hundred years. He, the star and director of the Shrew production within the play, is smitten with the younger, more vivacious actress, named Lois Lane, who is playing Bianca—Stephanie Styles is brilliant in the role, the true standout in the cast—and woos the girl with flowers. The bouquet mistakenly gets delivered to Lilli, from whom he has been divorced for exactly a year, and she melts in the ballad “So in Love,” one of Porter’s most gorgeous melodies. When she discovers the card addressed to Lois, however, hell hath no fury, etc.
Hardly constant, though, the seemingly wronged Lilli is, like many other women, eager to pursue whatever higher-status mating options present themselves, and so she is preparing to marry the pompous fathead General Harrison Howell, a subplot that plays out wittily in the dextrous hands of the librettists, the married journalists Sam and Bella Spewack, who also wrote the classic 1940 film My Favorite Wife. Their contribution gets too little attention but is just as sharp as Porter’s lyrics: Fred, fretting about the many empty seats at a tryout in Baltimore, says dryly, “There’ll be deer running around the balcony. Next time I open a show here, I’ll bring my shotgun. At least we’ll eat.”
That book, and Porter’s miraculous array of songs, make the show a nonstop pleasure, even when the actors are merely adequate. O’Hara, who has a tendency to use her voice as a blasting device, is better when playing up the diva side of Lilli/Kate than she is when the role turns soft and sweet; much of her face appears to be so artificially frozen that at times it’s like looking at a hockey mask with two blue pools. As Fred, Chase is funny enough but plays the role in a slightly fey way instead of channeling the strutting machismo Howard Keel famously brought to the role in the 1953 film version (the poster for which depicted Fred vigorously spanking Lilli). There isn’t a great deal of sexual voltage between the leads, but Porter makes up for it. Not only are his lyrics some of the best he ever wrote, but the power of the melodies is breathtaking, even after all these years. “Another Op’nin’, Another Show,” “Why Can’t You Behave?,” “So in Love,” “Wunderbar,” “We Open in Venice,” “Tom, Dick or Harry,” “Always True to You in My Fashion”—did ever a composer deliver this many standards at once? “Too Darn Hot,” one of the least lyrically engaging numbers, is nevertheless a supremely catchy one, and it’s presented with a smorgasbord of a dance sequence that stops the show. This is only the fourth production of Kiss Me, Kate to appear on Broadway; the last one was in 1999. By the time twenty more years have passed, Broadway may have decided the show is too appalling to attempt.
The best title to appear on a Broadway marquee this season is Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus (at the Booth Theatre through August 4). Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, the critic Frank Scheck dubbed the piece “the most batshit-crazy thing to be seen on Broadway in many a moon.” Intriguing. Also, given that Gary runs only ninety-five minutes, the risk seemed low. My amusement didn’t survive more than a few minutes into this error of comedies. The play is a loopy mess, a swirly hurly-burly, a knaves’ rodeo. Its reach is huge, but its grasp nonexistent.
Gary is a gory farce by the gay cabaret artist and drag queen Taylor Mac Bower, who writes under the name Taylor Mac and whose preferred gender pronoun, we are told, is “judy.” Lowercase. To honor Judy Garland. In 2017 Mac won a MacArthur “genius grant” and was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for drama on the strength of a twenty-four-hour performance art piece called A 24-Decade History of Popular Music that the Los Angeles Times dubbed “a necessary 246-song attack on the heteronormative narrative” that accomplishes a “queering of American history” via outlandish drag costumes and patrons being “brought up to the stage for all kinds of humiliating, sexual or otherwise, escapades.” Apparently the performance included a large penis-shaped balloon decorated with the stars and stripes and a funeral procession for Judy Garland’s corpse. It’s a pity I was busy that night/day.
Gary has a frisky, footloose attitude, but that’s almost all it has. It doesn’t wrestle with ideas so much as lightly wave the tips of its fingers at them in the hazy distance. If a twenty-year-old wrote this play, you’d at least be impressed by its energy and dare to hope that the writer might mold his impulses into something resembling a work of art. Yet Taylor Mac is forty-five years old, and considering the acclaim that’s been heaped upon him, he is perhaps disinclined to think he’s heading in the wrong direction, or indeed that any direction he might choose to head in could conceivably be wrong.
Gary has a frisky, footloose attitude, but that’s almost all it has.
Though Gary is the longest of long shots for Broadway success (and is doing badly at the box office), one can (almost) fathom the source of producers’ interest in mounting it. It combines the most outlandish physical gags—dancing corpses, squirting arteries, and bursting effluvia—with ruminations on how art might remake the world by revealing the truth to the powerful through the prism of comedy. The gags and the ideas, however, don’t harmonize so much as take turns being grating. Though Mac seems inspired by, inter alia, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, he cannot approach Stoppard’s literate, high-flown wit. Gary is merely an evening of dim scatology and unearned pretension. It is a theatrical cognate for the work of the ink-blotch artist Ralph Steadman (who designed its poster and playbill and marked its opening by emptying a can of paint upon the doors of the theater). Mac splatters notions everywhere.
In the title role, Nathan Lane is the formerly anonymous clown from Titus Andronicus who is last seen being led off to be hanged. Instead, he has survived to be “promoted,” as he sees it, to maid. This is an unfortunate day to begin a new job, the first assignment for which is the duty of dealing with some of the corpses produced by the climactic banquet massacre in Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, set in Rome around 400 A.D. When the curtain goes up, the set elicits a sharp intake of breath: Santo Loquasto’s dizzying production design imagines the banquet room as a storage space piled two stories high with bodies, or at least gray, lumpy mannequins that serve the idea without being too revolting. An old hand in these matters, Janice (Kristine Nielsen), instructs Gary in the ways of preparing the bodies: first you have to squeeze all the gas out of them (cue lots of work for the offstage fellow in charge of flatulence sound effects), then you must empty the bowels, and finally the circulatory system. This last is performed with oral suction applied through a hose. Lane makes the most of this material with funny line readings, but when another anonymous doomed figure from Titus Andronicus shows up—she’s a nurse-midwife (Julie White) who was ordered to be killed because she was present for the birth of a black baby born to a white woman, and is here dubbed Carol—her shrieking and carrying-on adds nothing to the play.
“Farce goes to graduate school” seems to be the general mood, as Mac makes glancing references to racism, classism, the needless brutality of man, and the transformative powers of art and beauty. There’s no structure to hold it together, though, as Mac leans on the tiresome cop-outs of avant-garde theater, in which playwrights “interrogate” and “explore” their concepts but fail to organize them, much less make them dramatically satisfying. The man to my left promptly fell asleep and the man to my right spent twenty minutes clearing his throat, then turned on his phone to see if there was anything interesting going on within it. Mac is billed as one of those “exciting” new voices in theater. From where I sat, his work seemed a colossal bore.
What is Lear’s storm-savaged heath? A wilderness of the psyche, a battleground for the soul, an anarchic realm where the imagination poisons and turns against itself. Deeply buried selves rise to the surface, their follies and fears nakedly on display. All sense is abandoned in a gale that is more psychological than meteorological. The king laments, “the tempest in my mind/ Doth from my senses take all feeling else/ save what beats there.” The storm lashes the king, and the king lashes out with his tongue.
For the heath, substitute today’s New York stage. Driven mad by the storm raging around them, a tempest that is quite possibly confined to their own imaginations, theater directors allow, and even encourage, their follies and fancies to run wild. Maintaining a grasp on the basics (reality, logic, sense) is, for some, no longer conceivable or desirable. Which brings us to the director Sam Gold’s production of King Lear (at the Cort Theatre through July 7). It’s a curiously sloppy thing, a kind of Jackson Pollock canvas of the angry and inchoate. Gold is inviting his subconscious to take over.
Gold’s monarch is played by Glenda Jackson, a British former politician who has performed in three productions since retiring from Westminster in 2015. Two of those plays are King Lear. The earlier one, in London in 2016, had nothing in common with this one except the lead actress, who won acclaim for the thunder she brought to the role. Although I didn’t see Jackson’s other Lear, I can report that at eighty-three she remains physically impressive, having no difficulties with the immense quantity of dialogue in the three-and-a-half-hour production. Jackson’s stamina and concentration are laudable. Her performance, however, put me in mind of a soapbox crank in Hyde Park Corner barking at passersby. I decline to practice critical affirmative action and grant Jackson special dispensation for being a member of a disfavored group, by which I mean the elderly—not former Labour MPs and certainly not women. The plain truth is that Jackson is either completely wrong for this part or is playing it completely wrong. There is not a single moment in which it is possible to have sympathy for this Lear, unless one really works at it, but since I am the one paying the money here, I expect the actors to be the ones doing the work.
Glenda Jackson is tiny, far too small and frail to carry Cordelia’s body at the end and possibly too weak to carry a dead cat.
Jackson’s Lear is cross and bilious from the opening moments of the first scene, more of a shrew than a sovereign. She’s also tiny, far too small and frail to carry Cordelia’s body at the end and possibly too weak to carry a dead cat. The voice, which is of sufficient volume and abrasiveness to strip the paint off any passing cabs in the area, doesn’t roar like a king; it whirs like a dental instrument. The performance is wholly unpleasant, and other actors are so purposely ill-matched to their parts that Gold’s direction amounts to a kind of malpractice. Jayne Houdyshell, a blustery woman of sixty-five, plays Gloucester, whom we first encounter boasting about how much fun he had rogering the woman who gave birth to the bastard Edmund. Is this supposed to be absurd? The casting of Jackson seems intended as a statement that girls can play this game too, but throwing in Houdyshell just seems bizarre. It’s not like the play lacks for important female roles. Nor is Gold using other elements in the play to make a coherent statement about gender politics. Cornwall is played by a deaf actor, Russell Harvard, which necessitates having a sign-language interpreter on stage for all of his scenes, both signing the other actors’ words for Harvard and speaking his words aloud for the benefit of the audience. Cornwall is considerably less frightening when the actor playing him has a disability, and the scene in which he orders the blinding of Gloucester loses all dramatic energy in the long pauses for translating in and out of sign-language. As Oswald we have Matthew Maher, a favorite of Gold. Maher is a strange, hairless man who speaks in a high-pitched lisp (he had surgery for a cleft palate) and plays Oswald’s death scene for laughs. Several other not obviously funny scenes have also been reconfigured for comedic purposes. Meanwhile, a string quartet, playing an original score by Philip Glass, jumps in at intervals with foreboding, sometimes overbearing tones that obstruct the dialogue.
It all adds up to a calamitous, unmoored effect, even down to the costumes, some of which are sober (evening dress) and others silly (Oswald sports a powder-blue-on-royal-blue suit suggesting a 1970s game-show host or a Las Vegas lounge singer; Edgar wraps duct tape around his thighs when he runs madly on the heath). Casting is insistently random, with black and white actors playing members of the same family, some with English accents, others with American ones. It’s unclear whether Gold has any guiding principles here at all, unless “anything goes” is a principle.
Beneath it all lies the usual source of sudden-onset artistic derangement,. The single set, with burnished-gold wallpaper suggesting the banquet room at an expensive but taste-challenged hotel, is, of course, meant to suggest a Trump property, with the director contriving an opportunity for the Fool to make the point explicit:
When priests are more in word than matter;
When brewers mar their malt with water . . .
And bawds and whores do churches build;
Then shall the realm of Albion
Come to great confusion.
Gold changes “Albion” to “this nation,” and punctuates the remark by having the Fool lift the hems of his/her trousers to reveal . . . American flag socks. Hello, a Trump joke. Haven’t heard one of those lately. Trump references these days are barging in uninvited everywhere, having turned up in two Shakespeare in the Park productions, not to mention, in this season alone, in such productions as The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (off-Broadway), The Pain of My Belligerence (off-Broadway), and Network (Broadway). Trump is the electrical storm that is blowing the sense out of theater people’s heads.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 10, on page 35
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