Monday, April 21, 2014

Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical

Lots of gangland shootings take place in director/choreographer Susan Stroman’s Bullets Over Broadway: The Musical, but the most tragic killing of all is her murder of Woody Allen’s hilarious 1994 movie from which this Broadway musical, at the St. James Theatre, has been adapted.

The humor of the movie is too often overwhelmed by the musical numbers, which interrupt this crazy story of an unsuccessful playwright, David Shayne (Zach Braff, left in photo), who gets the backing for a Broadway production of one of his plays from a mob boss, Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore), who insists his dumb-as-a-post girl friend Olive Neal (Helene Yorke), a stripper who aspires to be an actress, be given a part.

I loved the movie and was happy to see it peak through from time to time. But just when I got involved, Stroman, a five-time Tony Award winner, would bring on a flashy dance number, many of which were reminiscent of her choreography in The Producers. (More dancing weiners.) The choreography wasn’t just unoriginal, it was tedious.

I had this same objection to the Broadway version of Ghost. In that case, the musical numbers came barreling on every time a tender moment occurred, thus squashing the charm of the movie.

Set in New York City in 1929, Bullets features songs drawn mainly from the 1920s American Songbook — with adaptations and additional lyrics by Glen Kelly — but I felt two shows were vying with each other — a musical program and a funny play. They didn’t mesh. Included are "Tain't Nobody's Bus'ness," "Running Wild," "Let's Misbehave," "I Found A New Baby.”

The tap dancing gangsters number was the standout of the musical part, largely because it featured Nick Cordero (right in photo) who did the best job of recreating the movie’s humor as Cheech, Olive’s thug of a body guard, who in typical Woody Allen fashion, ends up giving Shayne advice on how to rewrite his play and turns it into a hit.

I also liked Yorke’s Olive, but I did not like Marin Mazzie’s portrayal of the stage diva Helen Sinclair. She has a beautiful voice, but I found her performance to be large without being funny. It would be hard to compare with my memory of Dianne Wiest in her Academy Award-winning role in the film.

Allen wrote the musical’s book, as he had written the movie (with Douglas McGrath).

With 17 Broadway shows opening in these few hectic weeks known as voting season for theatre critics, it stands to reason they aren’t all going to be good, but I was really disappointed in this one, being a huge (for the most part) Woody fan. I would have liked more Woody Allen and less Susan Stroman.

My advice, order the movie and stay home.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Denzel Washington Brings Another Powerful Performance to Broadway in A Raisin in the Sun

What becomes of a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
              -- Langston Hughes

Director Kenny Leon and his strong cast, headed by Denzel Washington, do a first-rate job of presenting the humor as well as drama in the well-paced Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play, A Raisin in the Sun, now through June 15 at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where the original production opened in 1959. This tale of three generations of a struggling black family, the Youngers, on Chicago’s South Side in the 1950s, is still timely with its themes of the working class poor, racism, ethnic identity and the redeeming power of family love.

The longest held deferred dream in the play belongs to Lena, the family matriarch played by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. It was her great hope to raise her two children, Walter Lee (Washington, in photo) and Beneatha (an engaging Anika Noni Rose), in a house, but she and her husband could never make enough to get them out of the cramped, shabby two-bedroom, roach-infested apartment where she still lives, now as a widow, with her grown children and Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Sophie Okonedo, in photo), and their son, Travis (Bryce Clyde Jenkins). All share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor of this walk-up tenement. (Sets by Mark Thompson).

Lena sees a chance for her dream to finally be realized thanks to a $10,000 check from Walter senior’s life insurance policy. But she is not the only one with a dream. Walter Lee wants to quit his job as a chauffeur for a white man and open his own liquor store and Beneatha wants to go to medical school.

What will happen to this money is one of the dramas of the play. The other is the racism the family encounters after Lena puts a down payment on a house in the all-white Clybourne Park neighborhood. Together these will be the breaking and the making of Walter Lee.

When Raisin premiered in 1959, it was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry died five years later of cancer at the age of 34. Author James Baldwin, who said he had never seen so many black people in the theater, wrote about the play’s importance, that “never in the history of the American theater had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage. Black people ignored the theater because the theater had always ignored them.”

But Hansberry captured the world as they knew it. Lena introduces the deferred dream theme early on, referring to her late husband: “Big Walter used to say, he’d get right wet in his eyes sometimes, lean his head back with the water standing in his eyes and say, ‘Seems like God didn’t see fit to give the black man nothing but dreams, but he did give us children to make them dreams seem worthwhile.'”

Unfortunately, Big Walter “just couldn’t never catch up with his dreams.”

Walter Lee shares this frustration. “Sometimes it’s like I can see the future stretched out in front of me, just plain as day. … Just waiting for me, a big, looming blank space, full of nothing. Just waiting for me.”

His obsession worries Lena. “You something new, boy. In my time we was worried about not being lynched and getting to the North if we could and to stay alive and still have a pinch of dignity too. … Now here come you and Beneatha talking ‘bout things we ain’t never even thought about hardly, me and your daddy. You ain’t satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean that you had a home; that we kept you out of trouble till you was grown; that you don’t have to ride to work on the back of nobody’s streetcar. You my children, but how different we done become.”

The world hasn’t become that different, though. As the family members are packing to move to their new home, they are visited by a representative of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, Karl Lindner (David Cromer), who offers them money to stay away. He assures them “race prejudice simply doesn't enter into it,” but that people there believe “for the happiness of all concerned that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.” Somewhat sadly he tells Walter Lee, “You just can’t force people to change their hearts, son.”

But the situations of the play do force Walter Lee to change his heart. Washington is at his best when he portrays a Walter Lee broken by his foolishness in losing most of the insurance money and the pain of his humiliation. The joking and occasional drunk Walter Lee of Act One is gone. Washington shows us a crushed Walter Lee and it is powerful. But he then creates a Walter Lee who rises to the challenge and leaves us cheering for his triumph.

The production also brings us plenty of comic scenes. Two of my favorites involve Ann Roth’s costumes. In one, Beneatha, inspired by her Nigerian friend Joseph Asagai (Sean Patrick Thomas), appears in colorful African dress and dances around the room. Rose is a joy to watch, as is Jackson when she models a gardening hat dripping in fake flowers given to her by Travis. Both actors are a delight in these scenes.

And all of the scenes are heightened by Branford Marsalis’s jazz and blues compositions that provide transition.

Robert Nemiroff, Hansberry’s husband and literary executor, wrote in 1988 about why plays like Raisin, which has been translated into more than 30 languages, continue to touch people, even if the circumstances portrayed have changed. “For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration and human relationships — the persistence of dreams, of the bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever form it may take, for individual fulfillment, recognition and liberation — that are at the heart of such plays,” he wrote. “It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.”

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Caring for the Caregivers

I wrote this feature for the March 23, 2014 issue of The Living Church magazine. Photo by Scott Wynn.

In a storefront office steps from Harlem’s legendary Appollo Theater in one direction and the Clinton Foundation in the other, the Rev. Gregory Johnson chats with Joel Rogers, who holds his year-old niece, Malia, while Malia’s mom seeks advice in an inner room. With life buzzing along outside on 125th Street, the community’s busiest commercial thoroughfare, Johnson is ministry in motion inside, though he doesn’t mentions the name of God, has no idea if Rogers believes and doesn’t need to know. In fact, few people know Johnson is an ordained minister.

Johnson’s “congregation” is one of the largest in the city, or anywhere else for that matter. Nationwide they number 65.7 million. Years ago they had no name, though they faithfully toiled long and hard. But for the last 13 years Johnson has made it his mission to make their identity known. They are family caregivers and Johnson wants employers, corporations and, most of all the caregivers themselves, to recognize that identity and claim it because, as he says repeatedly, they are “the backbone of the health care industry” and it is his calling to see that their physical, spiritual and emotional needs are met.

“It’s been a circuitous road directed by God,” said Johnson, 67, sitting behind his iPad in his tiny office in this EmblemHealth Neighborhood Care facility, one of three established by EmblemHealth in diverse New York City neighborhoods. Johnson serves as the creator/director of the company’s Care for the Family Caregiver Initiative.

It was an unlikely road for this Racine, WI, native who grew up Lutheran, moved to New York to study at Union Theological Seminary’s School of Sacred Music and The Juilliard School, knowing nothing about the health care industry, much less a major health and wellness corporation like New York-based EmblemHealth. But when a friend who was an executive of the company suggested Johnson help it establish an outreach to family caregivers, be they members of Emblem or not, he saw an unexpected pastoral opportunity.

“Talk about the gospel in action,” he said. “It’s a huge investment and I am so grateful.”

With three supporting staff members, Johnson gives caregiving workshops, lectures throughout the city, the region, this country and internationally. With his team he has compiled resource information booklets and an 80-minute DVD, all free regardless of membership through EmblemHealth’s Initiative has many auxiliary partners, one of which is the Episcopal Diocese of New York.

“Most people don’t know all the wonderful things that are available,” Johnson says.

But if he has a chance, he will tell them. Johnson jokes that his staff says he would show up at a garage door opening if he were asked to talk about family caregiving.

The joke may not be too far from the truth. Last year Johnson and his team put together 745 events, serving 213,000 people at civic presentations, health fairs and in faith communities.

“I would have never defined ministry in this way, yet it’s the core of it -- serving others.”

After beginning his day around 7 a.m. at EmblemHealth’s headquarters in the financial district, Johnson heads out for meetings, presentations, community gatherings, seminars, city, state and national committee meetings, the UN, the International Federation on Aging  and so many other adjunct partners where he brings the voice of the family caregiver. In addition, Johnson does many one-on-one counseling sessions for employees, members, partner associates and frankly anyone with family caregiving issues.

For all of his work he draws upon his Episcopal/Anglican spirituality. He was received into the tradition in the mid-80s and is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Greenwich Village where he is a devoted supporter of the music program. He also is a substitute organist at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church in the theatre district. And although he was ordained as an interfaith minister, he identifies as an Anglican and says it was the prayer book that helped him get through his times as a family caregiver, for his son who died of cancer in 2005 and for his partner of 41 years who died of cancer in 2011.

As if all of that isn’t enough, Johnson also holds a dual membership at Marble Collegiate Church, which is probably one of the most famous Protestant churches in America thanks to its former senior minister Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, who preached there for more than half a century. Johnson serves as the leader of Marble’s pre-service Sunday Prayer Circle.

He also managed to find time to draw on his Anglican spirituality for his just-released book, Peace, Be Still: Prayers and Affirmations: Inspiration for Family Caregivers, co-written with the Rev. Marion A. Gambardella. All of the 30 sections, each just a page and a half, include a prayer, affirmations and a scripture reading, covering such topics as Faith, Gratitude, Anger, Acceptance, Healing and Renewal. Only a few mention family caregivers specifically, so the book is helpful for anyone going through a trying time.

Recognizing the needs of family caregivers -- and family can be defined by blood relationship or through families of choice like friends, neighbors or a faith community -- is more important than ever, Johnson says, because people are living longer. The old concept of a family caregiver -- an adult child in charge of an elderly parent -- is still intact, except that now the child might be a senior citizen as well, caring for a parent who is 90 or older. It’s also tending to a spouse with a chronic illness, people caring for veterans and many other configurations as medicine has increased life spans.

These family caregivers represent a donation of services valued at more than $450 billion, Johnson says. They also can represent a loss of between $17 to $34 billion to corporations as their caregiving duties conflict with work responsibilities, which is why Johnson says it makes sense for a company like EmblemHealth to invest in their needs, bringing potential solutions, resources and tools.

“The caregiver is often the silent patient,” Johnson says. “I didn’t know a thing about insurance. My background was in theology and theatre, but I was given a blank sheet of paper and told to bring awareness to their needs. It has blessed me. I find great ideas in listening to others. It’s the great gift of sharing our weaknesses. That’s a great gift of life. It gives me more appreciation of the doctrine of the communion of saints.”

He makes sure the caregiver looks out for her or his own needs, and assures them that “it is not something you are going through, but something you are growing through.” That’s what he discovered during his periods as a family caregiver.

“I kept finding God in the journey,” he says.

Johnson’s next big effort is for a free day-long seminar on family caregiving, “Name It: Know Its Many Faces,” at the New York Academy of Medicine on April 30, sponsored by EmblemHealth, New York City Partnership for Family Caregiving Corp. Topics will include legal and financial issues as well as self-care. Details and registration are on the web site,

While the seminar will consider contemporary challenges, Johnson likes to keep in mind examples from scripture to motivate him. He mentions Jesus’s final words as he was dying, when he looked to John and told him to behold Mary as his mother.

 “That’s caregiving from the cross. Can I do less?”

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Singer-Songwriter Carrie Newcomer Releases New CD and Companion Book: A Permeable Life

I love this new CD from Carrie. Thought you would too. Here are the details: 

Singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer will release her 12th studio recording this spring. A Permeable Life, produced by Paul Mahern, will be out on April 1 from Available Light Records, distributed by MRI/Sony RED Music. She also will release a companion book, A Permeable Life: Poems and Essays.

Newcomer has attracted a devoted following with her warm voice, exquisite melodies, and an irreverent yet spiritual view of the world. As in the work of poets Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry, Newcomer’s songs are based in the ordinary, and infused with images from the natural world.

A Permeable Life is about what presses out from the heart, what comes in at a slant and what shimmers below the surface of things,” Newcomer says. “To live permeably is to be openhearted and audacious, to risk showing up as our truest self, and embracing a willingness to be astonished.”

On the album, Newcomer’s signature deep voice—which the Austin American-Statesman called “as rich as Godiva chocolate”—takes on a quiet conversational tone, close and intimate. Open and elegant arrangements showcase lyrics that balance introspection and interior monologue with love and fascination for the shared human story in songs such as:

• “Every Little Bit of It,” “A Light in the Window,” and “Writing You a Letter,” in which small experiences take on the glow of knowing we do not live days, but moments.

• “The Ten O’clock Line” and “Abide” (co-written with author Parker J. Palmer), explore themes of loss and new thresholds, musing on the possibility that what may look like a hole in one’s life, may be only a space.

• “A Room at the Table” and “An Empty Chair” call us to allow the troubled world to transform and move us to action.

• “Forever Ray” and “Don’t Put Me On Hold” reflect Newcomer’s mischievous humor, the first celebrating love and lawn ornaments and the latter bemoaning customer service lines. 

“This album was a real labor of love,” Newcomer says. “It required me to stretch my artistic edges. The vocals on this album were sung as if I were sitting at the kitchen table with the listener. It gave the songs an intimacy and authority. To me, they feel fearlessly tender.” 

About Carrie Newcomer 

Recording artist Carrie Newcomer’s work cuts across secular and spiritual boundaries. She has had many artistic collaborations with notable authors such as Parker J. Palmer, Barbara Kingsolver, Jill Bolte Taylor, Philip Gulley, Scott Russell Sanders and Rabbi Sandy Sasso. She facilitates workshops on songwriting, creative writing, spirituality, vocation and activism. Newcomer, who tours throughout the U.S. and Europe, has also toured with Alison Krauss. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Les Misérables -- Again!

I wondered as I sat in the Imperial Theatre before the start of the latest revival of Les Misérables if anyone in that packed house was actually seeing the show for the first time. It would seem hard to believe, what with all the productions staged around the world, not to mention the original 16-year-run on Broadway, which I saw at least four times, the 2006 revival, which I saw once, and the movie, which I also saw once. The original London production is still running after 29 years.

Perhaps a child or two who wasn’t old enough to have seen it the last time around was present, but judging by the reaction of the audience, I’d say we all knew this show well. Before even the first note of the orchestra, just the dimming of the house lights set off loud cheers and applause. So, I wondered, would it live up to all this expectation?

I thought so at first. At intermission, I turned to my friend Mary and said, “I’m enjoying it all over again.” It’s definitely the kind of story I go for — a man’s life redeemed by grace and lived out faithfully doing good and trying to follow God’s will. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, with book and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and adaptations by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, it is the sweeping tale of Jean Valjean (Ramin Karimloo, in photo), who has just been released after being imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. He jumps parole and spends the rest of his life trying to evade the by-the-law Inspector Javert (Will Swenson). Managing to create a new and prosperous life for himself in 1800s France, his life is further redeemed by raising Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a prostitute who had once worked in a factory he owned.

I love the music, by Claude-Michel Schönberg with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and had been singing the songs in my head as I walked to the theatre. I have one of the cast recordings and have played it many times throughout the years. So, like the rest of the audience, I was ready to enjoy Les Miz all over again.

But the second act dragged for me, even though it’s shorter than the original. I missed the drama of the turntable that swept the story along in the previous productions. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have opted for a traditional staging, with sets by Matt Kinley. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. 

The cast is strong, though one major character seems decidedly miscast. (More about her later.) I liked Karimloo’s Valjean, with one exception, and it was a big one. His interpretation of “Bring Him Home,” one of the many stand-out songs in the show, was completely out of keeping with his character. This song is a prayer by a humble man who repeatedly turns to God for guidance. “God on high, hear by prayer, in my need, you have always been there.” Karimloo skipped the humble part, sounding more as if he were bargaining with and finally challenging God. And with his excessive hand gestures, he seemed as if he were doing a nightclub act. I have heard this song sung many times live and on numerous recordings, but never have I heard an interpretation anything like his. I did not like it.

Luckily I bought into the rest of his Valjean, and the death scene is as moving as always. Swenson’s Javert is delightfully self-righteous and unrelenting. Caisse Levy is a passionate Fantine, Cosette’s mother who was forced to turn to prostitution to support her child who lives in the care of an innkeeper and his wife, those delightfully unscrupulous Thenardiers (Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle) who add the comic relief to this tale of love and misery set among a deadly student-led revolt against the aristocracy. Samantha Hill is a feistier adult Cosette than I remember and I liked that, and Andy Mientus as Marius, an aristocratic school boy turned revolutionary who is Cosette’s love interest, captures the role with ease.

The one main player who misses the mark by a mile or more is Nikki M. James as Eponine, a young woman suffering the heartache of her unrequited love for Marius. At least that’s how the character is should be portrayed. I kept feeling James was supposed to be in another play nearby but had somehow wandered onto the stage at the Imperial and was startled to find herself in 19th century France. She appeared clueless as to her involvement in the show. And in her big number, “On My Own,” when she should be pouring out her pain over the fact that she will never have Marius, she sounds more petulant than heartbroken. I kept expecting her to stomp her foot like a child. This song is meant to connect her to the audience by creating sympathy, but I felt no emotional draw toward her. I just wished she would wander back out and find the show where she belonged. Her death scene was redundant. She was already dead.

I’m curious to see how long this latest revival will last. Is there an endless market of people who want to see Les Miz again and again? I was happy to see it, but if I weren’t a critic with free tickets, I’m sure I’d spend my money to see something new. Or at least a revival I haven’t seen within the last decade. Time will tell.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Rocky -- Yo, Broadway

If you liked “Rocky” the movie you'll like Rocky the musical.  Sylvester Stallone, who wrote and starred in the former, has teamed with veteran Broadway writer Thomas Meehan to pen the book and recreate the 1976 Academy Award-winning hit in as close an imitation as you can get.  Luckily I liked both, and seemed to be in good company with the audience at the Winter Garden Theatre whose enthusiasm poured out from beginning to end.

The familiar elements are present at the start.  Rocky (Andy Karl) shares his dumpy apartment in south Philadelphia with Cuff and Link -- "Yo, turtles."  At 29, he's a small-time boxer who makes his living collecting debts for a loan shark. Sent to get $200 from the butcher or break this thumbs, Rocky says he'll rough him up but won't break any bones.  He’s a nice guy, going nowhere fast.

This gentle lug has another soft spot, Adrian (Margo Seibert), a mousy salesclerk in a pet shop who lives with her nasty brother, Paulie (Danny Mastrogiorgio). Even if you haven't seen the movies you know these two outwardly seeming losers are going to end up together.  While Karl more or less channels Stallone in his performance, which is fine, Seibert is an extrovert compared to Talia Shire's Adrian. The intimacy of the camera captured a Shire who looked terrified anytime Rocky was near and shrunk herself in as much as possible.  She was so lovable, and won a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for her performance.  Those small gestures and facial expressions wouldn’t work onstage, so Seibert creates an Adrian who is a bit more in touch with with world, even as she leads a spinster existence with Paulie.

What I kept waiting for from the movie and was disappointed not to hear was the questions Rocky's friends used to ask him and his constant answer --  Are you going out with Paulie's sister?  She's retarded, isn't she?  And Stallone's Rocky always mumbled in the same tone each time, "No, she's not retarded.  She's just shy." 

I kept listening for that but it never came. But that was about the only thing missing that I noticed.  Paulie’s brutality with Adrian’s Thanksgiving turkey is there, as is the funny scene when Adrian first visits Rocky’s apartment and asks if he has a phone. He says no, and asks her why she wants one. She says she’d like to tell Paulie where she is. I waited with happy anticipation for Rocky to walk across the room, open the window and shout out, Hey, Paulie, your sister’s with me. You don’t have to worry.

It’s those little moments that made the movie so sweet. I had been saying at intermission that I was waiting for the raw eggs and after the curtain rose on Act Two I knew I wasn't alone.  We see Rocky's dark bedroom and I waited for the clock radio to go off at 4 a.m., announcing how cold it is.  Rocky stumbles out of bed to the refrigerator, pulls out the eggs, which can't really be seen in the dark but we all knew what they were.  At the sound of the first one being cracked into a bowl, the audience applauded. When Rocky begins to swallow, the audience applauded and cheered.  We know our "Rocky."

Same reaction when the beginning of the long flight of steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art appears.  Yes, we know this story.

So, OK, let's get to the obvious difference between the movie and the Broadway show -- the music, which I'm sorry to say is disappointing. Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (music) are one of my favorite contemporary songwriting teams.  After I saw Ragtime originally, with their powerful songs, I went out the next morning and bought the cast recording.  Those songs conveyed so many emotions -- pain, anger, love, hope -- but these sounded more or less alike.  And as for that energetic movie music that finally propels Rocky up that flight of steps, with the sun rising over Philly in the background (what a fabulous scene), it would be next to impossible for any composer to compete with Bill Conti's, which is one of the most memorable scores in movie history.  It's symphonic and soaring, while Flaherty's is pulsing rock that is loud rather than memorable.  In fact, none of the music was with me after I left the theatre.  I walked home with Conti's score playing in my head, so closely is that music linked with the mere mention of the word Rocky.

Luckily the story carries the evening. Director Alex Timbers does a nifty job of creating the fight scene, the play’s climax, in which Rocky, chosen to represent the American Everyman, is pitted against the heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed (Terence Archie), in a bicentennial exhibition match. Audience members in the first half dozen or so rows move to seats at the back of the stage and the front portion is then thrust out into the theatre, so the boxing ring is surrounded by spectators. The up-close feeling is enhanced by two large TV screens portraying the fight, nicely choreographed by Steven Hoggett and Kelly Devine.

The story works because we love to cheer for the little guy, especially when he’s as likable as Rocky. The story behind the film is a “Rocky” tale of its own. Stallone was an unknown actor trying to sell his screenplay (written in three days) to Hollywood studios, with the insistence that he star in the movie He had some nibbles on the script, but all the movie bigwigs wanted to hire a major name for the lead. They even offered Stallone good money, which would have led many — most — starving actors to cave, but Stallone said he didn’t have any money anyway so he was used to that. He held out until he was offered just a little over $1 million, small potatoes. Shot in 28 days, the movie went on to earn $225 million in global receipts and received three Oscars, including the one for Best Picture. It made Stallone a major Hollywood star and spawned five sequels. And now that little “Rocky” story is up for yet another round. Yo, Rocky.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shakespeare and Religion

Scholars have probed Shakespeare’s plays for centuries, hoping to seize a look into the Bard’s soul, to determine if he was a man of faith. The latest academic to take this journey, or at least to write a book about it, is David Kastan, a Yale University English professor who concludes in A Will to Believe: Shakespeare and Religion that the plays are not keys to Shakespeare’s own faith, but rather register the ways religion changed his world.

“One thing we know nothing about is what Shakespeare believed,” he told an audience of about 130 gathered one bitterly cold night in early March in Manhattan. “We know lots of what he said. He lived in a culture where religion just saturated the culture. Religion is the way culture expressed its fundamental values for Shakespeare.”

The discussion was presented by the Pearl Theatre Company, one of New York’s most respected off-Broadway companies, and The Shakespeare Society, whose artistic director, Michael Sexton, moderated the 90-minute onstage talk at the theatre.

“It’s interesting why scholars have for so long been determined to find out what Shakespeare believed,” he said, adding that that quest partly informed his book’s title. “It’s our will to believe we can know something that intimate about Shakespeare. We can’t.”

What we do know is that he was a popular playwright who didn’t “become Shakespeare as we know him until the 1790s when he becomes the voice of our shared humanity. He becomes the image of British inventiveness.” This reflected the 18th century’s enlightenment and devaluation of religion. 

"Critics started to turn Shakespeare into this voice. He becomes our secular Bible.”

This assessment of Shakespeare continued through the 19th century, Kastan said, with scholars claiming Shakespeare’s greatness was that he didn’t get trapped in religion, that he wasn’t interested in religious distinctions.

But in the 20th century, especially in the 1990s, scholars began to raise the question of Was Shakespeare Catholic? They point to an incident in 1592 when Shakespeare’s father was fined for not attending church -- weekly Anglican church attendance was required by law -- as proof the family was Catholic. Kastan said it was just as likely he was in debt and didn’t want to encounter a creditor. 

“I think it’s a dumb question,” Kastan said. “I don’t think so. He had the ability to register the moment. That’s what he does well. He engages what it means to be human. Religion was inexplicable.”

But it certainly was felt in Shakespeare’s time.

“They would have smelt the burning flesh of the burned heretics. That was so much a part of his world.”

The Reformation had separated Catholics from Anglicans, but the Catholics were still there.

“If you were living in the 16th century your grandparents were Catholic,” Kastan said. “There were powerful pockets of Catholics. If nothing intensified the difference, it was not a problem. As long as it didn’t become public.”

He summed it up with a line from Measure for Measure: “Grace is grace despite of all controversy.” “When you think about the plays, he’s interested in the things of this world. This isn’t Dante. He doesn’t have that kind of piety, devotion.”

Kastan said another reason people have speculated that Shakespeare was Catholic is because he created friars in several plays, but those plays were set in Italy, Kastan said. “What’s the option? The Catholicism is not so much consciously pro-Catholic as neutral.”

Even plays that seem now to be about religion were not necessarily viewed that way by Shakespeare’s audiences. The depiction's of Judaism and Christianity in The Merchant of Venice strike us differently in our post-World War II viewings than they would have in Shakespeare’s days when the play would have been seen as a romantic comedy, Kastan said.

“It sets up religion as a term,” he said. “To me, it’s how much alike everyone is. Christian generosity turns out to be hardly generous It exposes the values of Venice.”

In Elizabethan England, nobody wanted to look too deeply in to religion, he said.

But people could put their belief in the theatre, the art of it, just as they do now.

“What happens in the theatre is the audience is always having to engage its belief,” he said. “You allow your self to forget these are four people living in Manhattan. They become these beings. We as an audience are exerting our will to believe.”