Reimagining a Classic

Reimagining a Classic

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What I found most interesting about Organs, Tissues, and Candy Games, the recent NYUAD student production created in collaboration with the Zoukak Theater Company from Lebanon, was its exploration of the ways in which the human body can be appropriated for purposes beyond its initial, native intent.

The play was structured as a kind of collage of ideas, or like a wheel with the idea of Frankenstein as the hub and all of the other ideas that interested the students becoming spokes for that wheel. So, for example, there was a meditation on the Frankenstein idea of re-appropriating organs and tissues and cells for the purpose of creating life where there was not life before. And then there was a lot of text around the idea of cloning. The played explored contemporary ideas about stem cell research and cloning, and then tied that to the idea of the creation of a monster. There was a lot of material about the intent, initially, to use human organs and cells to save people from disease, to elongate and perpetuate life, and the way that resulted in the creation of something monstrous.

So the Frankenstein monster in the play was not physically deformed. It didn’t start out monstrous, but became monstrous in its humanity. It was played by two actors who were dressed identically and very innocently: completely in white with white knee socks and little sneakers and little white shorts and little white polo shirts. They were these seemingly innocent children, a pair of cloned humans, who very cheerfully moved throughout the play while speaking of the most horribly monstrous ideas and taking delight in methods of violence toward other people, including their maker-father.

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The play as whole was framed by the idea of a corporation whose aim was to collect the organs and tissues and cells of young children in order to create an army of soldier children who could not be destroyed and who would take over and dominate the Earth. So there was a lot of language, both words and images, about innocence and the monstrosity of what happens to an innocent body or an innocent mind—when science intervenes in natural, biological processes. And there was also a lot of conversation in the play about the idea of science leading to progress versus the idea of science bringing about destruction, and how blurry the line between those two ideas can become.

There was a section in which Victor Frankenstein asks, “Why is it always the mad scientist?” Why is it that so many portrayals of the scientist in fiction show us this crazy guy who’s doing something terrible and evil, as opposed to doing research in an effort to better humanity and society and perpetuate life in some way? And then this Victor goes on and creates his monstrous child clone.

In addition to cloning, the play also made use of imagery related to cancer, especially the idea of the tumor, a growth in the body that is diseased, and our attempts to dispel it or at least perpetuate life despite it – and constantly failing. This idea was framed by the fact of Mary Shelley’s dying of a brain tumor. Ultimately, the entire of idea of the monstrosity of Frankenstein that we were watching play out onstage in various ways was presented as a product of the monstrosity in the author’s own brain, a deformity of thought that’s related to the tumor that she has.

There were other instances in which cancer is spoken about or plays a role in the characters’ lives. So the entire play was pervaded by this sense of being eaten alive from the inside: both in terms of the sense of the monstrosity and propensity for violence that lies buried within humanity and also organically, physically, this idea of cells kind of running amok and eating the body from the inside.

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One of the more important things to me in watching the piece was something that Rubén Polendo pointed out right before the final dress rehearsal, was that if you come into it looking for the narrative line of the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, you are going to be confused and frustrated and disappointed.

That’s not what Organs, Tissues, and Candy Games was going to be. Instead, it was using Frankenstein as a lens through which to talk about a number of troubling things. And I think the play was really successful in reimagining a classic story and thinking about how a story like Frankenstein be brought into a contemporary conversations about science and body, about violence, and about the psychological monstrosity that so easily develops in children.

 

[Photos from Organs, Tissues, and Candy Games courtesy of the NYUAD Theater Program.]

Becoming a Monster

Becoming a Monster

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Monsters do not only reside under the childhood bed or closet, nor is their habitat constrained to horror films and nightmares. Monsters, creatures that elicit a shiver from even the most apathetic intellectual, walk among us, live inside us, because we are the monsters.

The auditions for Organs, Tissues, and Candy Games, NYU Abu Dhabi’s fall semester student production. that students at NYUAD do indeed believe that all of us are the monsters creeping around corners.

Lebanon’s Zoukak Theater Company and Cultural Association, which is collaborating with the students on this adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, split the actors into around seven groups. The first assignment was to create a one-minute improvisational piece including one death and one song. There were no other restrictions.

The groups created vastly distinct scenes. One group chose to act out a scene from a post-apocalyptic world in which a family was heading to the last transport off the dead and ravaged world. The ferryman was shouting only two more could fit on the barge, but they were a family of three. After many histrionics the young adults decided it best to leave their grandfather in the lifeless old world to die. These actors put a focus on body politics, whether one human has more value than another because of age or condition.

Another group brought senseless violence to the forefront by depicting a bar scene where a group of inebriated youths beat up a random passerby for sport,  reminiscent of the game “knockout” that gained infamy in New York City this past year. In knockout youths in New York would target random pedestrians, anyone from a woman pushing a carriage to an elder, and try to knock them out with one punch. This scene was the least subtle in its depiction of our society as monstrous, a society where senseless violence thrives.

Every group had its own political microcosm, and questions it wanted to raise. These questions are the different limbs that will be sewn together to create this interpretation of Frankenstein. The fully fleshed-out version will be on display from November 13 through 15 at NYU Abu Dhabi’s Arts Center on Saadiyat Island.

[Photo credit: Goffredo Puccetti. Poster for Organs, Tissues and Candy Games by Prof. Puccetti’s Graphic Design Studio class.]

Video-Game Puppetry and the Sieges of Rome

Video-Game Puppetry and the Sieges of Rome

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On the theater’s back wall a menu pops up, interrupting an animated scene from the Wild West.  In the action’s pause, the cursor drifts down a list of weapons before clicking “shotgun.”  The action resumes and—as the epic voiceover describes the Roman pillage—this cowboy opens fire on a donkey.  The scene then cuts to the medieval-fantasy world of Golden Axe II, but according to the narration it seems we remain on the destroyed outskirts of Rome.

For ten years, Eddie Kim has been producing machinima theater with his current and former students from the Pierrepont School in Connecticut.  With machinima, artists manipulate video-game worlds to produce more-or-less cinematic sequences, usually to be shared online.  Kim’s EK Theater is distinctive in that they produce live performances using video-game characters as puppets.  Adding to the significant technical challenges, EK Theater draws on classical literature for its inspiration, retelling episodes from Ovid for example or adapting the Japanese ghost stories of Kwaidan.  The company, which now includes middle schoolers as well as college students in its ranks, has drawn curiosity and acclaim while showing their work at venues such as the Brick in Brooklyn and the ART in Cambridge.

In their latest piece Legendary, Maybe, the six puppeteers—“gamers,” as they call themselves—sit at a long working table, their backs to the audience; in silhouette, they are effectively in the front row.  In front of them are six monitors as well as a dizzying web of wires that link mismatched laptops, X-Boxes, controllers, and keyboards; the room feels a bit like a TV control room.  The “finished” drama, edited live from the table’s monitors, is projected on a screen at the back the black box, with the theater’s conventional playing space between table and screen left empty.  The performance is in the relation of these separate worlds, the scrambling ensemble here and what is projected out there.

Legendary, Maybe is Kim’s adaptation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, a two-thousand-year-old, fragmentary history of Rome.  Eddie’s version—based on his colleague Carrie Thomas’s new translation—stitches together a number of Livy’s episodes with particular attention to acts of heroism, a theme suited to both classical theater and video games.  His adaptation’s abrupt shifts in story, place, and character are made even more startling as the production cuts across gaming platforms.  As Rome is alternately protected and seized—the details of Livy’s plot were a bit of blur for me—the image vocabulary departs from the initial faux-mytho-classical World of Warcraft. On a Cold War base in Call of Duty: Black Ops there is an execution scene, and more lightheartedly, Mario’s full-screen mouth is pulled and stretched to ventrilloquize narration.

There is a consistent voiceover of the text, an epic recalling of heroic deeds performed in the voices of these young gamers.  One of the more experienced players splices together the many machines’ work to match this sound, to cut across scenes, to shift optical perspective.  There is a strange delight in the incongruities of the cuts across fantasy-kitsch, realistic violence, goofy-cartoon nostalgia.  The gamers type and click, they lean with their controllers’ movements, they pull and plug wires, they whisper urgently to one another.  The seeming innocence of their work is then sobered by the eruptions of hyper-violent imagery on-screen.

In the crowd, there’s delight at what seem to be in-jokes.  Some things appeal to video-game players (of various generations), others to those familiar with the history, occasionally something clicks for everyone.  To me, the appeal was in the intricate unfolding, and in the bringing together of twelve- and fifty-year olds for something both serious and decidedly playful.  With its mixed vocabularies, it is a hard form for anyone to feel quite at home with, and perhaps that’s part of the point.  On the big screen the animated bodies graze what psychologists call the uncanny valley; the characters somehow resemble us while remaining infinitely foreign.  In the tradition of all good puppetry, EK Theater produces this new-media Unheimilchkeit, the sense of not-at-home-ness that reminds you there might not have been a home in the first place.  The pixelated mouths, like in dubbed film, teeter close but often just behind or ahead of the story’s speaking.  The timing wavers like an old radio needle; occasionally, it’s just right.  Whether or not the audience knows the games or cares about Livy, in these moments they laugh together, they watch wide-eyed.  Mario is telling a grave story.  Somehow, in this melding of people, machines, and geographies—Ancient Rome, the Wild West, a dark theater in Brooklyn—Legendary, Maybe produces that weird kind of shared present to which live performance aspires.

 

Photo courtesy of author

Global Shakespeare Blogging

Rowe2_000_cropOne of the co-directors of this year’s “Global Shakespeare Student Festival,” Katherine Rowe, has been blogging about the Festival as it unfolds. Rowe is Chair and Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College, and together with her colleague Catharine Slusar, she is the leader of a troupe of student actors attending the Festival from the Tri-College Consortium (Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore).

She is the author of Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern (Stanford University Press, 19990 and New Wave Shakespeare on Screen (with Thomas Cartelli; Polity Press, 2007). She has served on the editorial board of Shakespeare Quarterly and currently inflects her study of Shakespearean theater with work in the areas of digital humanities and media change. You can get a sense of what that means by reading her article “Crowd-Sourcing Shakespeare: Screen Work and Screen Play in Second Life®,” which is available online here.

The Global Shakespeare Student Festival Blog is available at http://performance360.blogs.brynmawr.edu/.

 

Theater in Abu Dhabi

Theater in Abu Dhabi

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“As an intensely collaborative and inherently local art form, the theater offers a way of creating community.” So states the NYU Abu Dhabi website. But it turns out that creating community is a tricky business: where to start, and how? Conversations pave the way, but sometimes conversations can be difficult to initiate.

Theater, however, can be a wonderful way to begin that dialogue. Abu Dhabi is a city that does not easily engage in conversation, but lately it has begun to engage with theater. In the past few decades, the government has built numerous theaters, including the magnificent Abu Dhabi Theater on the breakwater. More recently, the government has invested money in touring companies like the Bedouin Shakespeare Company as well as in institutions like NYU Abu Dhabi, which brings theater and drama with it as part of its educational mandate.

These past few months have seen three productions open to the general public: Theatre Mitu’s A Dream Play at NYU Abu Dhabi, Resuscitation Theatre’s Playboy of the Western Region at Café Arabia, and a musical adaptation of the story of Pinocchio for children at the National Theater. These productions seem so incongruent alongside each other that it is difficult to imagine what kind of community could be created from such a mélange of styles and stories. Regardless of history or aims, however, each of these productions changed the landscape of theatre in Abu Dhabi and, in some small way, is contributing to the shape of the city’s community and its cultural life.  Theater Mitu, in particular, offers an interesting way to think about the role of theater in the creation of both a theater-going culture and an ongoing, city-wide conversation about the experience of performance and art.

Theater Mitu is a professional theater company based in New York as well as Abu Dhabi. Its artistic director, Rubén Polendo, heads the Theater program at NYU Abu Dhabi and has been involved in the development of the arts curriculum at the university. Like all of the faculty at NYU Abu Dhabi, Polendo has faced the difficulties of building a program from the ground up, a process complicated by the fact that NYUAD is a “global university” situated in a cosmopolitan city. Eng-Beng Lim, in “Performing the Global University,” writes that the “ramifications” of faculty decisions may be “monumental for liberal arts education as a whole in the coming decades.” Polendo faces the additional challenge of “contextualizing theater and performance studies within the global university.”  In other words, the NYUAD theater program must situate itself not only within the confines of the university but also within the city where the work is performed.

Thus the publicity surrounding Theater Mitu productions means that their performances are seen as representative of NYU Abu Dhabi, just as all theater productions in the city are seen as representative of the city as a whole. A Dream Play had to perform two roles: both immediately as a production of NYU Abu Dhabi, but also as a feature of Abu Dhabi’s cityscape. The success of Theater Mitu’s various productions marks not only an appetite for theater in the city, but also a genuine enthusiasm for the dramatic arts. Theater is a defining art form, and Abu Dhabi as a city has not shied away from this definition.

DP - Corey-croppedAbu Dhabi seems to want theater, but not necessarily theater that “speaks to Abu Dhabi” or “tells the Abu Dhabi story.” The contextualization of theater that Lim describes does not mean that all plays performed in Abu Dhabi need to be set in or be about Abu Dhabi. But any show produced in the city must be aware that it is at the vanguard of the theater in this city. Theater is a powerful force for the development of a community, and every play will have an effect. That responsibility is not to be shouldered lightly.

Theater Mitu’s production of August Strindberg’s A Dream Play was a reinterpretation of the text under Polendo’s direction. His adaptation of the script was reminiscent of Caryl Churchill’s own reworking of the script for London’s National Theatre a decade or so ago, in its simplification of some of the original’s obtuseness and obscurity. The rest of the staging was similarly beautiful in its simplicity: the set and costumes were almost wholly white, with symbolic video projections and atmospheric music that conjured up the dream-like world that these actors and their audience were entering.

The play’s underlying themes were undoubtedly universal. The audience witnessed an anxious love story set against a backdrop of human futility. Universality may be one requisite of how to perform the global university, as a way of offering the creation of community. The audience walked away from the auditorium that evening discussing, critiquing and – perhaps – dreaming. On a university level, the production gave students the chance to engage with a professional theater company. On a city level, A Dream Play gave Abu Dhabi the chance to engage with theater. These chances are coming more often, and the city proves more receptive to these provocations with each production. Conversations are starting, and communities are growing. New York University claims that it is “in and of the city”; in the same way, theater in Abu Dhabi must be “intensely collaborative and inherently local.” Only with such engagement can the city perform as a global city on a global stage.

[Photos courtesy of Theater Mitu. Top: A Dream Play at NYU Abu Dhabi; bottom: Corey Sullivan in A Dream Play.]

 

The Global Shakespeare Student Festival

The Global Shakespeare Student Festival

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From March 15 through 19, NYU Abu Dhabi will be hosting troupes of students from NYU, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swarthmore, Cairo University, American University of Sharjah, and UAE University in Al Ain for its first Global Shakespeare Student Festival. Part of the NYUAD Global Shakespeare Project (co-directors Cyrus Patell and Rubén Polendo), this year’s festival focuses on the contributions that undergraduate performer-scholars can make to the construction of a field of study and performance known as “Global Shakespeare.”

The festival includes master classes in performance and scholarship for the student-participants, as well as two evenings of performance, in which the students will perform their works-in-progress for one another. We will be featuring glimpses of the festival and interviews with participants here on Electra Street.

 

SUNDAY, March 17

7:30 p.m.
Introductions

7:40 p.m.
NYU Gallatin

Rough, Raw and Playful: Twelfth Night, 2.3

An exploration of the wide range of possibilities and variety within a scene through dynamic play instead of resorting to fixed choices (such as blocking, etc). The primary mode of exploration is physicality and how it might inform or be led by thought and language. How can play help us find out what’s possible within a scene? How can it help us locate shifts in mode?

Students: Annie Attanasio, Charlie Kennedy IV, C.J. Leede, Beth Pollack, Mike Walsh
Team Leader: Kristin Horton

8:10 p.m.
Cairo University

Macbeth: Turning Points

The short scenes presented are creating a microcosm of Shakespeare’s Macbeth showing scenes that move the play forward. Whether they are through fate or personal choice, this performance focuses on those turning points in the arcs of the characters that are most interesting to see on stage. The interactions with the text, space and the characters themselves are based on the importance of the turning point – on the levels of both text and character – in any dramatic text/performance.

Students:   Aya el Shafel, Julie Khiry, Zainab Magdy, Abdelrahman Nasser, Adham Sayed
Team Leader: Dina Amin

8:40 p.m.
Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Swarthmore Ensemble

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A deep sleep. A multilingual unraveling of a life full noises, sounds and sweet airs that delight and hurt. Not just from the dreams of Shakespeare, but of Caliban dreamed again in each of us.

Students: Monique Alfonso, Madeline Brady, Linnae Bullard-Werner, Camilla Dely, Amelia Dombush, Cory Downing, Jacqueline Handy, Katherine Littrell, Joseph Ramirez, Maria Russo
Team Leaders: Katherine Rowe, Catharine Slusar

9:10 p.m.
UAE University

The Enchanted Island of Love and Tempest

A 20-minute adaptation of the 75-minute January 21, 2013, production at UAEU which incorporated original material and scenes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Davenant & Dryden’s The Tempest; or, The Enchanted Isle. The musical motif of the play featured a range of musical selections from The Beach Boys, Fontella Bass, and Meatloaf, as well as other past and contemporary artists.

Students: Maryam Abdulla, Asma Abdullah, Bshsayer Ahmed, Nouf Ahmed, Noora Ahmed, Fatima Husain Ali, Fatma Ali, Ohood Ali, Alya Haidar, Asma Ibrahem, Fatma Ibrahim, Marwa Khaled, Mahra G. Khalfan, Shamma Khalfan, Fatmah Kindi, Sarah Mohammed, Maryam Rabeea, Nouf Saeed, Hajar Salem, Maha Salem
Other Performers: Zena Al Nazer, Zarina Cabailo, Prabhath Dhevindra, Rosanna May Fajardo, Rhomina Natividad, Rommel Perico, Kristine Quintos, Assyl Yacine
Team Leader: Jim Mirrione

9:30 p.m.
Talkback, Rubén Polendo (moderator)

 

MONDAY, March 18

7:30 p.m.
Introductions

7:40 p.m.
American University of Sharjah

Macbeth Arabia Deconstructed

In fall 2011, AUS Theatre presented Macbeth in a 9th-century Arabian context, exploring cultural traditions through the text. This presentation is a deconstruction of that piece, a nightmare of Macbeth. Primary emphasis has been given to the rich cultural traditions of the Arabian Peninsula. With explorations of movement, dance and ceremony, it explores a union between Shakespeare and the Bedouins of Arabia.

Students: Hala Albassar, Meera Al Midfa, Sami Ismat,Razmig Bedirian, Helmi Chehab, Mona Eldahshoury, Farah Morra, Abishek Nair, Raiaan Yafi
Team Leaders: Anthony Tassa,  Ken East, Cate Moran

8:10 p.m.
NYU Tisch

Macbeth/”The Wanderer”

This workshop is an attempt to dramatize Macbeth’s witches as something closer to how they are described in the histories Shakespeare appropriated, rather than as the wart-nosed hags that Shakespeare crafted to appeal to his contemporary audience.  Using text from Act I scene 3 and Act IV scene 1, we applied the fundamental techniques of Butoh in our approach to the witches, striving for an ethereal, spectral aesthetic. This excerpt also incorporates a fragment of the epic Norse poem “The Wanderer” in our exploration of Macbeth’s friendship with and betrayal of Banquo.

Students: Jenna Dioguardi, Luke Eisemann, Alexandra Laird, Michael Norton, Victoria Sumrall
Team Leaders: Victoria Flores, Tomi Tsunoda

8:40 p.m.
NYU Abu Dhabi

Páramo    

A combination of visual arts and sound and projection technology explores the intricacies of character and relationship by juxtaposing the texts of Othello and King Lear. This theatrical condensation explores concepts of love, gender, violence, and family units in two of Shakespeare’s major plays. This collaboration of international artist and students finds a common ground in timeless and global topics within Shakespeare’s work

Students: Nikolai Kozak, Alexandra Lenihan, Oscar Lozano, Bhavna Menon, Valentina Vela, Nia Wilson
Team Leaders: Nikolai Kozak, Valentina Vela

9:00 p.m.
Talkback, Rubén Polendo (moderator)

For more information about the Global Shakespeare Student Festival, contact Electra Street at electra.nyuad@gmail.com

[Updated 16 March 2013]

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