A Provok’d Audience Member: “The Provok’d Wife” by Sir John Vanbrugh

*Content warning: rape, sexual assault*

The best part of Sir John Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife was the final 40 minutes or so. This is not because of the crystalline beauty of the timeless writing, not because of the inarguable talent displayed by all actors involved, not because of the professionalism which all technical elements of the show demonstrated in the celerity of set transitions and the aesthetic appeal of every tableau.

 

It’s because we left a few scenes into the second act.

 

Perhaps the production was bound to fail for us: my classmates and I were seated in the house-right gallery, where two sturdy wooden railings blocked more than half of the view of the stage from a normal upright sitting position. To accommodate this, we had to choose between leaning over the railing at the edges of our seats until our backs ached, peering through the bars of the railing from a semi-upright position, or simply sitting up like human beings and missing all of the downstage action. We were also (once again) not the intended audience for this show: we were younger than 95% of the audience by about 40 years, and our group had within it the only black person in the crowd. Nevertheless, I know that we all approached the show with our eyes and ears open and our minds ready to be scintillated by some good ole Restoration comedy.

 

This production, however, just didn’t want us. Though the prologue had some fantastic lines and was delivered with the self-awareness necessary to play the misogynistic and racist scenes of 18th-century theatre in the modern day, the show was altogether an exercise in reaching backwards, asking the audience to remember the old days when you could beat and “ravish” your wife and the worst you might get is a tad of ridicule. Interestingly, the actors seemed to mimic the progression of the show from self-aware to not, as they went from making occasional eye contact with us up in the balcony to ignoring us completely, turning from Restoration-comedy farce to gritty realism from pre-interval to post.

 

Now, the actors were phenomenal: I believed all of the tactics they played and all of the goals they pursued. But the actors also seemed like they had never been put in the same room together until the time the curtain rose on this performance. The director (Phillip Breen) must have been feeling pretty moody over the past couple months, as he directed the redheaded vain mistress to perform as though she were a clown while directing the alcoholic, abusive husband to pursue his wife with all of the violence and sliminess befitting a proper serial killer. The musical numbers are gorgeous (if tired as all hell), but again, they are as tonally relevant as the sporadic moments of improvised direct audience interaction. By the time we reach the interval after 90 minutes, one is exhausted — and not just literally. Of the sorry gender politics in the play, Dr. Essin tells me right before the second half begins, “I’m just tired.”

 

As the audience cackled and hooted with laughter at the cross-dressing of the alcoholic husband, I could not help but see what she meant. Is it really all that funny for a man to wear a dress? That funny? Is it really all that funny for the policeman to be offered the chance to rape this man and to, astonished, reply “I ravish her??” Is it really all that funny for a man to force his wife to kiss him, force his wife to kiss him again and harder, and then to force his wife onto the table and —

 

This is where we left. The alcoholic husband comes home to his wife and makes her kiss him once on the lips. She does so. She begins walking away. Then he demands, “Again.” And so she does. This time, he ravenously makes out with her for an uncomfortable 20 seconds or so, grabbing her bottom and rubbing himself on her throughout. She is freed at last. She is at the door. She is about to leave. And then, he runs to her, grabs her by both arms, throws her onto the table, hikes up her skirt, lowers his pants, and thrusts into her while her face is pressed hard against the tabletop. As the audience laughs.

 

My classmate stood up first. Then Dr. Essin. After the actor lowered his pants, I did, as well. The three of us stood against the back wall as the scene unfolded. Dr. Essin asked my classmate if she wanted to leave. She said no. And then, Dr. Essin left. She just walked right out. There was a moment or two, when I believe my classmate and I had more or less the same thought: “You can do that?” At the Royal Shakespeare Company? In the middle of a renowned show?? Soon, I was following Dr. Essin out the door, with two of my classmates now right behind. We met Dr. Essin, left the building, walked to the nearby pond, and wept. We wept and wept. My classmate has just said, “I’m so scared that that’s going to happen to me, forever.”

 

I have, in the past, questioned the value of trigger warnings. Art is supposed to confront you, to make you think, to make you feel. I have argued that trigger warnings lessen the capacity of art to reach its full potential for impact, as it provides one the opportunity to opt out of thought. But that line of reasoning cannot work here, for that’s not what this was. This was a director electing to depict rape and sexual violence in the most gruesome and realistic way possible in the dead middle of a farce, without a hint of warning. It was almost designed to be as traumatic as possible. The play was making no statement, no artistic commentary on anything at all. Phillip Breen just wanted to direct a good rape scene. That his artistic avarice so hurt the women in my life simply infuriates me. And it makes me call as loudly as I can for trigger warnings to preface all similar content.

 

The box office manager at the Royal Shakespeare Company comped our tickets for the production later that evening, Taming of the Shrew, thanks also in large part to Dr. Essin. Though the workers here seemed to understand that “That happens a lot” (a direct quote from an usher), re. people having to step out during or immediately following the sexual violence scene, they don’t seem to grasp the breadth of the trauma or of the error of their ways in depicting same. It is my sincere hope that they listen to women like my classmate and Dr. Essin, both of whom intend to write letters to the Company, and remedy their practices before another trauma like this has to be unearthed again.

 

My classmate rated the show 0 out of 10 — many times over. I don’t necessarily believe that’s fair to those involved in the show: the actors were phenomenal, the musicians incredible, the designers extremely talented. The only things which deserve a rating of 0 out of 10 are director Phillip Breen, the producers who let him do this, and each and every audience member who laughed at the horrific rape which was put on the stage for their placated enjoyment.

A Show about Rainfall of Ambiguous Stature: “The Half God of Rainfall” by Inua Ellams

It may well be that Inua Ellam’s The Half God of Rainfall will turn out to be the play that forever stopped me from numerically rating plays. What it comes down to is this: as a white, American ( and Jewish? and agnostic?) audience member, this was not a play written for me. In America, and especially on the Broadway circuit, I’m used to nearly every show including me in its intended audience — if not explicitly so, I can almost inevitably find some way to enter into the production. However, at this Kiln Theatre production, I could find no way in: the Nigerian accents were heavy and often indecipherable to my ears, the complex Nigerian-Greek mythology rooted itself in a logic and a worldview vastly disparate from my own, and the staging was far from the systems with which I am familiar. I can speak to whether or not I enjoyed the show — I didn’t — but it’s not really my place to say that this show was a 3 out of 10, as, from the sound of it, there were many, many audience members for whom the show was an utter delight. Who am I to come in to this theatre with my white skin, sit in the back with my British notepad, scribble away with my Jewish pencil, and then pronounce this show a failure?

 

There are certainly some elements that worked well. For one, the theatre in and of itself works well, as Kiln does lots of work by traditionally suppressed artists (especially black writers and members of the LGBTQ+ community) and attracts younger and more diverse audiences than any theatre which we’ve visited so far. For another, the sound design in this show is the most technically complicated and best executed we’ve encountered; an actor will suddenly reach his left hand into the air, and right at the moment his arm reaches full extension, the sound cue will ring. Whoever was running sound ought to get an award. And furthermore, whoever orchestrated the small, black, circular stage on which they were performing breaking into several pieces and its place being assumed by a riverbank of real water ought to get a hug. It was visually beautiful and thematically relevant, the perfect combination for good set design. Finally, the actress playing Modupe ought to be given a grand trophy — playing Zeus and the women Zeus raped, as well as a mother, a daughter, a basketball coach, and everything in between, she had an enormously hard job and did an enormously good job with it. She shone brightly during this production and rightfully earned the standing ovation with which the audience rewarded her.

 

There were certainly some elements that did not work well, however. Mainly for me, it all comes down to direction. If you’re going to have a bare stage with two actors who don’t change costumes more than twice (as this show does), you better have some fascinating staging. These actors better move around, and these actors better transform, in such a way as to keep the show lively and to keep the audience members awake. Sadly, this was not the case, and the amount of straight-at-the-audience presentation got tiresome within two scenes. This was compounded by a stunning lack of vocal variety, creating something of a white noise to lull at least this audience member into a doze. On top of this, when I was awake, I could barely understand at least 50% of what was being said as a result of the thick Nigerian accents which the actors assumed (and which the male actor often marred into a semi-British/semi-New York/semi-Nigerian one anyway). My emotional engagement was null as a result of the sheer boredom and confusion which I was experiencing — and this is a show which demands emotional engagement for sudden scenes (such as the woman’s rape by Zeus) to land. These sudden scenes, without any indication of a trigger warning anywhere in the theatre, seem to come out of nowhere, and they are lost in the web of the play’s own weaving more than not. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt this way, as, at the emotional climax of the play, when Modupe kills her rapist, Zeus, and wails as rain falls on her from above, some audience members were laughing. (I don’t think they even knew she had been raped! I hardly did!) The epilogue to the play has her and the male actor sitting and summarizing the ever-after while laughing, as well, so I guess the audience can’t really be faulted for not comprehending what I thought was the intended tone.

 

A fellow survivor of sexual assault rated the play a 10 out of 10, and my classmate said at a cocktail bar later that night, “We all really loved the play.” Again, this tells me I should not ruin the party with an arbitrary numerical rating, as clearly it worked for a lot of people. But, in evaluating how well the work accomplished what it seemed intent on doing, as well as the enjoyability of the viewing experience, I cannot say this play scores very high at all.

 

Revived and Reinspired: “Follies” by Stephen Sondheim

I’ve given the National Theatre production of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies a 10 out of 10 — not necessarily because it’s perfect. I’ve given it this score because, if this doesn’t earn the 10, what does?

 

When the crowd enters into the impressive, ampitheatrical Olivier, the facade of the old Follies theatre is set at a perpendicular angle to us. There is detritus from another demolished building upstage-left of this, and a nondescript wall upstage-right. Lights illuminate the scene, as well as the air, permeated by dust. The nondescript wall is never really clarified, but the rest of this set will push, pull, and revolve in an extraordinary display of both artistic enterprise and the technology possessed by the Olivier. As I said after curtain call, the designers ought to have come out onstage and shared the warmth of the audience’s applause for the phenomenal work and clear dedication they put into this show.

 

At 7:34 PM, the 7:30 PM show began — I suppose with an audience of 1,600, this is more than understandable. There is one woman in a feather headdress standing at a balcony, and she dances with the music. Well, she tries to dance with the music; she is indeed noticeably out of time with the pit orchestra’s opening instrumentation. But the choreography immediately improves in quality as the revolve begins to spin, and the whole overture is accompanied by a visual spectacle to remember. Mr. Weismann asks the first words of the show, “Young man, are we ready for the party?”, and is answered by a waiter’s “Yes sir, Mr. Weismann.” Or, to put it as the actor playing this waiter so grotesquely delivered it last night, “Yes, sir! Mr. Weismann!”

 

It is in the opening number that the central theatrical gesture of the show can first be seen: the simultaneous action of the Follies players in the present day and of their younger selves from the past. Typically, the present players are downstage, with the past players hanging around at different points around the circumference of the stage, but occasionally, the past players dance through and even interact with their present selves. This is a beautiful manifestation of the power of time and all of the joys and tragedies present therein, and it is executed masterfully. My only question asks what the younger selves are supposed to do when they’re watching their present selves and not interacting. Often, they seem to stare blankly: at these moments, I wished they were just offstage. But aside from a few awkward motivationless moves, this conceit proved formidable throughout.

 

The first real singing we hear in the show is from the basso MC, and his voice rings as heartily and beautifully as any I have ever heard. His is the first demonstration of the unbelievable talent of the actors involved in this production — any of these cast members could dominate any talent show in America and easily carry a one-man show. I write this after having seen the second act (or, without an intermission, second half) version of Phyllis, not after seeing only her first-act version, in which she was delivering her lines as though she were a literal robot. (They are incredibly well-written lines by James Goldman, and the actress saying them seemed to know that too well.) But as the show continued, the audience support prodded her into taking ownership of the words leaving her mouth. (In fact, she’d become what amounted to the audience favorite by the conclusion. So go figure.)

 

Every musical number between the opening and “Who’s That Woman?” could use some work. In my opinion, this is classic Sondheim-smelling-his-own-rear-end, with the music unnecessarily complex and therefore boring to the point of slumber. But, when tap dancing explodes the auditorium in “Who’s That Woman?”, suddenly the show springs to life. Quite literally everything from this point to the final curtain works at a level of 95% and higher — it just begs the question of what happened in the first segment. Certainly, those first numbers are necessary for exposition and narrative construction; it just seems that they could have been handled with some more creative staging and some more speed. Every number in the latter two thirds of the show moves with such celerity, is lit so interestingly, and is performed so vivaciously, that it outdoes even itself.

 

(One note before we move on: after “Who’s That Woman?”, the lead singer of the number shouted “I love life!” I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an actor say a truer line after a showstopper.)

 

(Wait, one more note: after “I’m Here,” the actress who has just brought down the house turns her back to the audience, jumps up and down, and reaches with all the height in her body to the spotlight hanging from the rafters. This is the second truest thing I’ve seen an actor do after a showstopper.)

 

Several stunning tableaux are constructed by this director, and the presence of younger selves is treated with such care that one’s heart cannot help but break at the clinging onto youth by the elders of our own day. The direction drives home the show’s themes of love and life, hatred and death, and it makes one wonder why the marketing campaign for this production had nothing to do with any of these, instead depicting a sole blue eye crying in line with Orwell’s 1984. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose: the most incredible transition I’ve ever seen in and of itself could earn this show 7 out of the 10 points I’ve given it, as the conflicts boil into a cacophony of voices until the vaudeville section kicks off the finale numbers at 11:00 on the show clock. An awe-inspiring clashing of life and death, youth and age, hate and love, it all ends in folly — this is the show. This is the best possible version of the show, too. Each character arc’s ending is poignant and moving in a distinct way, and I’m not sure my face was dry for the rest of the production. Set against luxurious set pieces and draped in gorgeous costuming, every performer is at the top of their game, and it can be felt even this morning in the belly of the breakfast room of the London House Hotel in Notting Hill.

 

The last-scene line “For tomorrow?” Oh God… IT IS TOMORROW!” stopped my heart, and should have stopped the show finally. It doesn’t, but it’s so good, that I’ll say it does anyway. The impact of the show and of this line is not easily describable — I’ll work on my critical skills for the future. For now, all I can say is: this is theatre at its zenith. This is the standard for which all productions should strive (even those without the millions of pounds, 41 cast members, 21 pit orchestra members, and freelance professional designers of the National Theatre). I can only hope to someday be a part of a production as brilliant as this one.

Average Girls, I’d Argue: “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill

I was in the middle of journaling in my little red notebook when Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls began. Without ceremony, without fanfare, and without an introduction, the curtain simply went up — onstage was a long, long table, right in front of a long, long painting. This would be the set for a long, long, long, long scene. Sitting in the audience of mainly Britons at the National Theatre, there were multiple rounds of recognition laughter as the characters assumed the stage. Clearly, these famous women were particularly famous to this hearty British audience — tragically, though, they were not at all that famous for the one from Vanderbilt. A cocktail of confusion on our part and less-than-stimulating staging on their part left me and my roommate on the verge of sleep; and when we both came to at the end of the first scene, we were sure that the play was over. It felt like an hour and a half had easily passed us by.

 

But the play was only just beginning.

 

And indeed, the theatre of the play only started after the first scene had ended. Some striking moments from the second scene included a young girl sticking her finger in her vagina and holding it up to another young girl, the second one licking that same bloody finger. In addition to this was a raised brick — just a plain, old brick — and the power it held over an audience sweating over whether this plain, old brick was about to be used to murder the mother of the young girl (why don’t we call her “Angie”). Resulting from the intensity of this scene (made only more vivid by the compact space in which it unfolded), I was hooked for the rest of the show. I also immediately made the decision that, while the first scene might work as a brief prologue or a truncated preshow, the play must cut the first scene if it wishes to pull in (let alone to keep) any young audience.

 

The third scene, wherein we meet the so-called “Top Girls,” was brightly lit and refulgent of a hopeful future. The Second Wave of feminism could be heard rushing in at full force, and the dialogue was fascinating, if heavy-handed. We were afforded the opportunity to see many different women with distinctly different worldviews, and each more or less seemed to believe in their respective worldview (for which I commend Churchill deeply). Unfortunately, it felt as though we were never given enough time with each character to do anything with the scintillating characterizations, fostering a lot of disappointment in at least this viewer. However, this cannot be said for Howard’s wife, who comes in for the latter part of the scene and implicitly demands that Marlene give up her job to her husband because… well, because. This segment felt as real as it could in 2019, and I could not help but wonder how over-the-top and tongue-in-cheek it might have been played at Vanderbilt (which, evidently, it was, six years ago. Dr. Essin says of it: “People were confused.”).

 

At intermission, everyone sitting next to me thought the play was over and began to leave. They were not happy to discover it was not. But troopers as we are, we sat through the second act — a lot less lionous of a task, given the weirdly disparate lengths of the determined acts. This act featured some extraordinary acting from Marlene and sister Joyce; never have I truly believed actors more than in this scene, I’d imagine. Much like the first scene, this act could stand as its own play, and perhaps it ought to. Here, the themes of Thatcherite politics and the costs of ambition to feminism are really given room to flourish. Here, as elsewhere, one wonders whether the play would read better and more interestingly than it looks. My inclination is yes, especially in light of the final Heart of Darkness-esque “Frightening… Frightening!” (thanks to my classmate for the comparison) appearing as utterly ridiculous to my peers. At curtain, there was rightly no standing ovation, and I announced my rating of 5 out of 10.
In our post-viewing discussion, someone reflected, “I think it’s a play I really enjoy thinking about afterwards, but not one I enjoyed so much while watching.” To that, then, I say: you watched a bad play. If you make theatre only to make people think, you ought to be a columnist or a philosopher instead. There is no need for a stage if that is your sole goal — in fact, the false promise of the theatrical frame just leaves audience members interested in theatre underwhelmed and resentful. I understand that the political gravitas of this play necessitated a lot of extra words and ham-fisted sociopolitical dialogue. But this was supposed to be a play, not a treatise. It is for this reason (and the fact that such a work can never recover from a scene which drags and drowns as much as its first) that this show cannot score above a 5 for me. However, the phenomenal performances of the actresses playing Marlene and Joyce and the stunning moments of theatricality which landmarked the show suffice to supply the 5 points which it for me has earned.

Coming from Away: “Come from Away” by David Hein and Irene Sankoff

Is it right to include an assessment of the theatre’s bathroom in the review? I must, even if not: the bathrooms sucked. Get better bathrooms, Phoenix Theatre. I had to hold the stall door closed with one hand while wiping with the other. And the toilet seat was ripped from the toilet and tossed on the floor.

And everything was wet.

 

 

I sat in the Stalls for Come from Away, which means “Orchestra,” which must mean something more, in the grand scheme of things, right? How can your seat not impact your viewing experience? On the stage were: several tree trunks with lights affixed to them, two desks, 12 chairs placed at jaunty angles, and a wooden backdrop. The pit orchestra was also visible — with some neck straining — which would prove to be important later.

 

The audience clapped when the lights went down, which told us beyond doubt into which of the Commercial-State-Independent categories this experience would fall. The first words were sung with heavy Newfoundland accents, which I mistook for mere difficult British accents at the outset. These accents would change drastically and often throughout the show, with mixed success in terms of both audience comprehension and performer accuracy. The opening song, “Welcome to the Rock,” was sung directly to the audience, immersing everyone immediately in the world of the play and of the ensemble onstage. There was a lot of jumping up and down and synchronous movement, with all cast members landing on the final musical hit of the number. This would be one of the three numbers which distinguished themselves as “songs” throughout the evening.

 

In the first book scene, every character’s name is said (with intentional comedy) roughly five times. We get to know their names, as a result. A first-day-on-the-job reporter serves as a further expositional vessel, as do several everyone-in-the-cast-plays-variations-on-the-same-archetype sequences. The writing of the book is quite stilted and on-the-nose — the major weakness of the show — but it is supplemented by an incredible use of levels and of the stage as a whole. Its major strength indeed is the synchronous movement of the actors throughout the space, bolstering the sense of community which is to be the major thrust of the piece.

 

Two weird things happened around 30 minutes in: first, there was an unnecessary stereotype of a Spanish man, complete with fast-strummed Spanish guitar and a highly-charged libido. This was odd for a show so intent on bringing people together. The second odd thing was that they started employing the stage’s turntable after 30 minutes (of the 100-minute show) had elapsed, and not at all in a climactic moment. It seems to me that in a show where the image of the globe is so central, a lot more could have been done to make that matter.

 

More than anything else, what this show did for me was answer the question “Why this show now?” better than any I have recently seen. This story of unity, of community, and of the goodness of mankind was a sound for sore ears if there ever was one, and moreover, the tragedy of 9/11 has reached an age where our elders need to pass on what happened so that we truly don’t forget. (For that matter, no kids should be allowed to perform this show. As the character Aly says of being strip-searched in the presence of a female, “You can’t understand.”)

 

There were two mini-rounds of applause during this show, and one of them was earned. The first punctuated the random introduction of eight sexy cardiologists who had arrived to clean up bathrooms filled to the brim with fecal matter. The second was the one that was earned — that following “Become a Newfoundlander,” or, as it is mistakenly titled on the soundtrack, “In the Bar/Heave Away.” In this number, the pit joins the cast of characters whom we already know, and they dance and sing together. This is a song which I had heard before and cared not for; but, at its place in the show, and at this show’s place in time, it was simply perfect.

 

To conclude with two commendations: first, the performance of the woman playing the pilot was remarkable, moving, brilliant, and all the like. Her song “Me and the Sky” moved many to tears, I’m sure, and rightly so. Second, they were damn smart not to include an intermission. This is a short show built on a short idea, with only a couple defined songs and no solid book to back them up. We got in, we got out, and a lot of us left moved all about.

I would rank this show 6.5/10. It was a pleasant evening of entertainment, with major flaws in the writing (but thankfully not one of which was an overindulgence in the words “nine eleven”). It is not a show I would see a second time (as my roommate has one), but evidently, it is a show I would see a first.