With grim determination, on July 14, 2016, the members of the Gift Theater performed a stage adaptation of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath at their storefront venue in Jefferson Park, on the northwest edge of Chicago near Des Plaines. The theater occupies an improbable space, an old shoe store, in one of those Chicago neighborhoods almost inaccessible because of torrents of traffic at 6:00 pm and, thereafter, eerily still and deserted. North Milwaukee Avenue in this area is tending toward Polish-Guatamalan or, possibly, Lithuania - Balinese, but there is a Chicago eating institution near the intersection -- the Gale House Inn -- and artist Ed Paschke maintains a studio in the neighborhood. The Gift seats 50 patrons, arranged in three low bleachers against one wall of the long, narrow, and stifling space -- to see the show, you are perpetually turning your head sharply in one direction or the other since the action is stretched our Cinerama-style across one-half of the freight-car shaped room. I've been to this theater twice and intimacy doesn't begin to describe the experience -- in the front row, you are within two-feet of the actors and, frequently, have to shift your legs to keep from tripping them as they pass back and forth. The Grapes of Wrath features a large cast, almost Shakespearean in size: there are 19 speaking parts and, when everyone is on-stage, the audience is confronted with a frieze of Okies, shabbily dressed and half-maddened by heat and despair, arrayed across two levels -- on the level of the audience, the actors move alongside and behind a big ruinous truck, the vehicle that transports twelve or thirteen of them from the dust bowl to the promised land of California; above the floor, there is a kind of catwalk big and solid enough to support half the cast; the walls are painted with images of badlands, blazing sun, and stunted crops. One of the dirty tires of the truck was about 18 inches from my toes and created a bottleneck through which the actors had to squeeze when moved from one side of the set to the other.
The story, as everyone knows, concerns Tom Joad, recently paroled from prison where he has done three years for a homicide committed in barroom brawl. Joad encounters a half-crazed preacher, a character that serves as a vehicle for Steinbeck's weird transcendentally-inflected Communism -- every man, the preacher maintains, is a little scrap of the whole, a fragment of the divine, and, therefore, all action is necessarily collective since each of us acts for, and on behalf of, all others. The preacher describes hard times in the country and Joad finds that his family's farm has been foreclosed and the entire tribe gathered for an exodus to California. Aspects of the show run the risk of being unintentionally comical -- the Joads are numerous and all of them have to cram into (or onto the top of) the rattletrap truck imparting a vague clown-car feeling to some of the action. After debating the merits of leaving Oklahoma, the Joads depart on their desperate journey, a trip that kills the two elder members of the family -- grandpa is buried roadside and grandma, who dies in the Mojave desert, is smuggled into California since the Okies are too poor and harried to stop to inter her. One of the Joad boys goes mad and wanders off into the Colorado river. All of this action is accompanied by music sung by a balladeer perched high above the action -- mournful tunes about poverty and hard times sung in the high and lonesome style. In the second half of the show, the Joads encounter vicious agricultural contractors who lure them into migrant camps and, then, exploit their labor -- Hoovervilles are set afire and people get beaten with ax and pick-handles. In one affray, a thug is killed and the preacher agrees to take the rap so that Tom Joad who has knocked the man down can stay with his family. The preacher later appears as a Red, a labor organizer, working rather ineffectually with a Hispanic guy -- there are more speeches about how everyone is a just a part of the whole, a spectacular hoe-down in which the miserable and ragged peasants entertain one another with booze and skirt-chasing, and, then, Tom Joad, on the run, delivers his famous speech, the business about always being there when children are hungry or a labor organizer is being beaten or when men are fighting for a better life, a great specimen of eloquence that on close inspection doesn't mean much of anything -- you'll always be there, but doing what? This is the speech (memorably delivered by Henry Fonda) that closes John Ford's famous film. The play, unfortunately, has another 15 minutes and in these scenes the trials and tribulations of the miserable Joads reach such a level of calamity that the whole thing risks becoming risible -- Rose of Sharon has her baby, but the child is still-born; this occurs during a horrific thunderstorm that floods the camp and forces the men into collective action (they apparently dig a diversionary ditch or build an embankment); in the aftermath of the storm, the semi-catatonic Rose of Sharon offers her breast to a dying hobo, an example of so-called "Roman Charity" and the cast comes out to sing a commentary about all this misery, a forceful hymn-like song that concludes with this question about political change: "If not now, when?" All of this wretchedness is gripping enough and the huge multi-racial cast generally performed very effectively -- there are so many people on-stage, however, that a lot of the time, the actors have nothing to do but scowl and look put-upon while others declaim their lines. The preacher was excitingly wild-eyed and manic and the dance scene had an infectious liveliness. The adaptation updates and makes topical several aspects of the old show -- for instance, one of the characters is gay and we get a nice male-on-male smooch at one point, although bizarrely enough, the script isn't changed and the he-she genders in the original are retained, a confusing touch. There is no question that the show is remarkably current to the sorrows of today -- the Joads are the archetypal migrants, the same ragged families fleeing Syria and North Africa leaving their corpses scattered all over the beaches of the Mediterranean and they encounter the same mindless and xenophobic fury in the places where they seek refuge. Steinbeck and his adaptor casts the whole thing in elevated, hyper-poetic language and this aspect of the play has dated -- it's Hollywood demotic, the lingo you find in antiquated stuff by William Saroyan and Clifford Odets and a little annoying. About half-way through the enterprise, I longed for a little bit of Brecht -- the show is too naively dire and grim without an admixture of alienation effects: we need more analysis, more song and dance, more humor. Brecht, it seems, has made a whole genre of sincere and well-meaning plays of this sort seem unduly overcast and unnecessarily graphic -- do we really need to see Rose of Sharon shrieking in child-birth or giving her breast to the dying hobo? I understand that Brecht's cynicism is not really in the American vein, but you long for a little bit of distance between you and the characters suffering two feet away. The temperature in the theater became close to unbearable before the show was over, the seats are uncomfortable and the strain of watching the Ping-Pong of actors across the narrow, stretched space takes its toll -- the toilets are inadequate and, after a couple of hours of this, you feel your age and wonder whether it is worth it to suffer in this way to see a show that is undeniably moving, beautifully acted, and, ultimately, simply designed to make you feel bad.
By contrast, on a breezy and cool summer night, First Folio's venue, far west of downtown in the suburb of Oak Brook, is just about as pleasant can be imagined. First Folio presents its shows on a stage at the foot of a grassy slope on the Peabody Mays Lake Estate -- a wooded area with a forest and swamp full of very loquacious bullfrogs and a big Tudor-style mansion looming somewhere over your shoulder. For two dollars you can rent a chair and perch it on the slope --you have to brake yourself with your feet -- to watch the show presented in the open-air on a huge wooden stage erected on the edge of the marsh. There is a chapel painted with a religious fresco up the hill a little and a sixty yards to the side a 'tiring house, as Shakespeare would have it, to which the cast retreats at intermission. The venue is served by five porta-potties, an adequate number of toilets, and you can buy a box-lunch to eat picnic style before the show. When we arrived for an 8:15 curtain time almost ninety minutes early, the hillside was already thronged with people, all of them white, well-to-do and casually, if elegantly, dressed -- the same kind of folk you see sprawled out on the grass at Ravinia listening to a Mendelssohn concert or symphonies by Mozart. (I noticed some competitive picnicking, people vying it seems to have the most elaborate 'spreads' -- I saw champagne, many bottles of wine, with picnickers setting up tables on the hillside groaning with fried chicken, grapes, and pastries.)
The First Folio company presented A Midsummer Night's Dream, emerging from the attiring shed and walking in a procession, their swords and lutes and lyres slung over their shoulders, to the rear of the stage, a two story construction. At first, as is often the case with Shakespeare, the actors seemed close to inaudible -- it's a combination of unfamiliar language, tentative pronunciation on the part of the thespians, and, in this case, the open-air setting -- cicadas roaring like chainsaws in the trees, those amorous frogs, and planes descending to O'Hare periodically outroaring the actors. In the darkness, the setting is romantic-looking, with the orange glow of the vast city permanently arrayed across the wooded horizon -- this is the Garden District of Chicago --like an immense, unending sunset. As you settle into the show, the actors do better, they speak more loudly it seems, and you understand more and, after fifteen minutes of what was mostly complicated exposition in any event, the action slips into place and you can generally hear the speeches and appreciate them. The cast was uneven and, I thought, the actor playing the role of Theseus seemed particularly outgunned and overwhelmed by the elaborate Shakespearian diction that he was required to pronounce -- some of the female characters, particularly Hermia, were a bit screechy, spoke too quickly and were unintelligible. (Although the tall woman playing Helena was particularly good.) The "rude mechanicals" were very funny and the broad-faced and merry comedian playing Nick Bottom was particularly brilliant. Indeed, I thought that this actor's rendering of the beautiful prose soliloquy in which Bottom recounts the events of his night as a dream could not be bettered -- in this performance, Bottom pauses significantly as he recalls his encounter with Titania, the Queen of the fairies and, then, shows a tinge of plaintive melancholy when he says: "Methought I was and methought I had -- but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had." Unspoken, of course, is Bottom's memory that he had, and held in his arms, the Queen of fairyland and that he was, perhaps, the most fortunate all mortals during her embrace. (Shakespeare insists on the idea that the fairies are immortal unlike the mere humans with whom they interact.) The idea of something rare and extraordinary, some paramount gift of the imagination vouchsafed to the "rude mechanical" Bottom is extraordinarily moving and, in this performance, all the pathos of this revelation to him is made wonderful clear and emotionally powerful.
Directors of A Midsummer Night's Dream, generally, regard the fairies as an opportunity to impress their interpretative stamp on the play. It isn't exactly obvious what the fairies represent and how we are to view their hijinks and so these figures always offer the director an opportunity to improvise on the material provided by the text. In the Folio One production, the fairies are sexually ambiguous hipsters, casually decadent, for whom existence is a continuous round of lovemaking, drinking, and dancing. Oberon wears shades and dresses like Hugh Hefner and Puck is played by a transgender person so queer that in the program this actor requires that "they" be addressed by the pronouns "they," "them," and "theirs." The fairies dart around at high speed, appear from cisterns in the middle of the stage, and, led by a DJ with a boom box, dance conga lines around the mortals or cakewalk to Prince's song "Kiss." It's all very effective and amusing and these rather depraved and louche fairies are a highlight of the production.
Of course, A Midsummer Night's Dream is a very familiar play to theater-goers, perhaps over-familiar. And I think it beneficial to step back a few paces from antics that we have come to regard, perhaps, as commonplace. In fact, the play is extremely strange and contains many elements that are impossible to reconcile. Why, for instance, does Theseus interrupt the action with a lengthy discourse on the merits of his hunting dogs? This section in Act IV, scene 1 contains some of the play's most distinguished poetic effects, but it is, in effect, an essay on the respective merits of different types of hounds. The bizarre custody battle that motivates the dispute between Theseus and Hippolyta is very hard to understand -- Theseus wants a half-mortal changeling boy as his "henchman" while Hippolyta clings to the infant with almost desperate fury. What is this about? Is this a trope for the unhappiness in the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta that seems to rage just beneath the surface of play? Once again, Shakespeare's account of the boy's origin involves some of the most ravishing poetry in the text, but it's very unclear just exactly what is at stake in the controversy. Furthermore, we don't understand how the dispute is settled -- in a couple of lines, Theseus cursorily informs us that the quarrel no longer exists and that he has the boy. But how does this happen in light of Hippolyta's previous adamant denial of Theseus' demand for the child? Of course, Theseus says that he will torment Hippolyta with her love for the ass-headed Bottom until she relents but, in fact, Hippolyta seems to relinquish her claim on the boy before there is any real negotiation on the subject. (Perhaps, her love for Bottom has distracted her from her proprietary and, seemingly, maternal claim on the child.) Something mysterious and very strange is embodied in this quarrel but whatever it is remains an enigma. Finally, the double action of the play requires some consideration: why does Shakespeare couple a play about the misadventures of lovers with a very probing, and profound, analysis of the nature of theater, the subject of the plot involving Peter Quince and his players? This deserves close consideration. In the most moving lines of the play, inexplicably omitted from the First Folio production, Theseus excuses the errors of the "rude mechanicals" by saying: "The best of this kind (actors) are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them." (See Act V, scene 1, 224-225). This statement, together with the comment that the lover, the poet and the madman are of one imagination compact, seems to me to be absolutely central to the play. Love represents to Shakespeare the addition of the imagination to what is otherwise a shadowy world of mere facts. Theater and love, accordingly, represent the world as amended and revised by the addition of the imagination -- this, I think, explains the basis for the parallels implicit between the love stories and the work presented by Peter Quince and his "mechanicals."