book review: Othello by William Shakespeare

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OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
★★★★☆
first published 1603

 

Othello is undoubtedly a brilliant piece of literature and theatre; it’s a riveting story about the worst parts of human nature that culminates in a satisfyingly tragic conclusion.  And Iago is undeniably a brilliant character; his masterclass in manipulation is mesmerizing to watch.  But it was also a particularly interesting play to read amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as discussions about Black representation in the media are currently in our cultural foreground.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of Othello that makes for unsettling reading: Iago, while ostensibly the villain to Othello’s tragic hero, is also the character that the audience has the strongest connection with through a series of prominent soliloquies (that Othello himself is denied); Iago is also a flagrant racist.  Reconciling these two truths about Iago is a challenge, and no matter which way you look at it, it doesn’t sit comfortably as we circle the ‘is this play racist’ question.

On the one hand it’s easy to argue that because Othello is the hero and Iago is the villain, the play itself has (what we would call in our contemporary terminology) anti-racist intentions.  But I also think that largely discounts the shocking, brutally violent act that Othello commits on stage in (spoiler) killing his white wife Desdemona, the archetype of the waify ingenue.  Even if you know it’s coming, the optics of this scene are shocking and hard to stomach.  In the 1990s British-Ghanaian RSC actor Hugh Quarshie actually argued that Othello is the one Shakespeare role that should never be played by a Black actor; he then surprisingly went on to play Othello in 2015 (incidentally in the first RSC production to cast a Black actor as Iago as well), stating “Only by black actors playing the role can we address some of the racist traditions and assumptions that the play is based on.”

If there are any hard and fast conclusions to be drawn here regarding Othello and representation, they’re certainly not meant to be drawn by me as a white person.  This was just on my mind as I read and I’d find it disingenuous to pretend my overall feelings on the play weren’t at all affected by considering this question and its implications.

However, on an entirely separate note: one thing I don’t love about this play is how utterly ambivalent I am to the characters’ inner lives.  I do think there’s depth to be added to these characters by good actors and good directors, but I also think a lot of that depth is not necessarily present in the text itself.  What’s compelling about this play is the interpersonal dynamics, not the characters individually.  I almost feel like everyone’s character is inextricably tied to the events of the play, in a way that feels almost the antithesis of Hamlet or Lear, where all of the characters’ inner lives and motives are so intricate.

But, as I said, the interpersonal really shines here.  Othello and Iago positioned as mirrors to one another’s jealousy is done expertly.  And Emilia is a fascinating character to me as well as she relates to Iago and Desdemona, with the apparent contradiction in her actions and loyalties.  Anyway to say I have mixed feelings on Othello is an understatement, but that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it or haven’t enjoyed the time I’ve spent wrestling with it.


NB.  Project Shakespeare, in which a small group of friends and I perform a different Shakespeare play each week over Zoom, is mostly all-white, which is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, and we have collectively made the decision to not perform the plays with non-white characters: Othello, Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, and Antony & Cleopatra.  I was planning on making a single blog post about these 4 plays in the vein that I’ve been doing my monthly Project Shakespeare wrap ups.  But this weekend some of us from our group had a mini book club session on Othello and it got my mind racing and I knew if I held off until I read all 4 of these plays I’d have a lot less to say – SO, it looks like you’re getting individual reviews!

book review: Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson

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UNDERGROUND, MONROE, & THE MAMALOGUES: THREE PLAYS by Lisa B. Thompson
★★★★☆
Northwestern University Press, August 15, 2020

 

This is a brilliant collection of three plays from scholar and playwright Lisa B. Thompson, each of which navigates issues of racism and trauma as they particularly pertain to the Black middle class.  Each play is distinct both in style and subject, but all thematically cohere into a sharp, savvy collection that makes for fantastic reading, though I imagine seeing any of these come to life on the stage with the right actors would be an even more entrancing experience.

Underground – 5 stars

Originally performed in 2017, Underground is the standout play from this collection, which focuses on the tension between two friends, two middle-aged, middle class Black men who had both been activists for the Black Panther movement, but who have drifted apart in life and in ideologies.  This play is razor-sharp and startlingly prescient; reading it amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was a rather humbling experience, to be reminded so starkly that the movement’s catalysts have been decades, centuries in the making.  This exchange in particular drove home a relevant piece of discourse that’s been in the news a lot lately:

MASON: Wait. This is not just sensational journalism. They are out here bombing shit, man.
KYLE: Things. Not people. Statues of long dead white men can’t die again.

Monroe – 5 stars

Set in 1940s Lousiana, Monroe follows the impact of a lynching on a small-town community, including one young woman, the victim’s sister, who believes herself to be pregnant like the Virgin Mary.  Monroe has a sort of mystical, fable-like quality to it which makes it stand apart from the other two plays in this collection, but it’s all the more resonant for its examination of the timelessness of anti-Black violence in America.

The Mamalogues – 2 stars

This one’s tricky, because here’s the thing; I was never going to like this play.  I don’t like books (and films, and plays, and stories, more broadly) about motherhood and that’s what this is.  Three Black middle class single mothers compare their lived experiences in this sort of vignette-style play.  When you’re already disinterested in motherhood as a theme and there’s no actual narrative to sustain the play, it’s not fun reading.  But that criticism is very much on me so I won’t hold it against this collection too much.  Lisa B. Thompson is a brilliant writer and this is worth the price of admission for the first two plays alone.

Thank you to Netgalley and Northwestern University Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

Project Shakespeare: month #4 wrap up

I know I start all of these wrap ups by going ‘how are we already x months into this’ but HOW ARE WE ALREADY FOUR MONTHS INTO THIS?!  That is absolutely wild.  Well, let’s jump straight in, shall we?  Previous wrap ups here.

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Romeo & Juliet
★★★★★
my role (first show): Chorus, Lady Montague, Servant, Third Musician, Page
my role (second show): Romeo

I wholeheartedly love this play, and it’s fine if you don’t but honestly I’ve never heard a single criticism of it that I don’t find inane (‘it’s just instalove!’ completely disregards the fact that theatre has different storytelling conventions than novels and that you can’t be sat there for eleven hours while a slow-burn romance unfolds before your eyes; not to mention – the fact that they’re rash young teenagers is one of the play’s significant themes; their romance isn’t narratively treated as Rational).  Anyway, to each his own, but Romeo & Juliet is very much my cup of tea – compelling characters, engaging story, beautiful language, and a devastating yet inevitable conclusion that reads like a punch to the gut every time.

This probably sounds silly given that we are not performing these on stage but rather to a group of about 10-15 people (friends) on Zoom, but playing Romeo is literally one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life.  I was petrified.  The thing about Project Shakespeare that makes it so fun and magical is that people actually try; everyone allows themselves to be vulnerable and actually act rather than sitting there and reading the lines with a straight face.  As I’ve talked about before, I’m not an actor, this is all new territory for me.  So the morning of the second performance, I was just hit by the most crushing self-doubt, because… I asked to play Romeo?  Romeo?  I actually asked for thisWho the hell do I think I am?!  So, it was hard, but it was also one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done.  I just adore this character so much and I would be kicking myself for the rest of my life if I had chickened out of doing this.  Plus I played Romeo opposite my good friend Will (of Books and Bao)’s Juliet (+ the night before we had a female Romeo and female Juliet), so we kind of just gender-fucked the whole play all weekend and that was a fantastic choice.  Just, amazing times all around, this was one of my favorite weekends.

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All’s Well That Ends Well
★★☆☆☆
my role: Widow, First Soldier

In contrast, I… do not love this play!  In fact, it’s solidly my least favorite of all 19 I’ve now read.  I’ve talked about this before, but in general the comedies really do not do it for me; I rarely find them amusing and find that they lack a certain heart, which I feel is the case with All’s Well.  It has some great characters, I’ll give it that, but it really doesn’t come to life for me on the page, and reading it was a pretty massive chore.  Which is why it surprised me that our performance of this ended up being one of my favorites yet – it was just so damn camp and delightful.  Our talented Helena and talented Countess were giving Broadway-worthy performances while the rest of us just acted like complete clowns for a couple of hours, and I just had the best time.  I still don’t love the play and I don’t think I’d even enjoy watching it on stage, but getting to be a part of it (in peak melodrama form as the Widow) was a delight.

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Pericles
★★★★★
my roles: Lysimachus, Lychorida, Lord, Escanes

The biggest surprise for me so far as I make my way through the Complete Works – and probably my biggest Unpopular Opinion to date – is that I FUCKING LOVE PERICLES.  This is – and I cannot stress this enough – the stupidest, most absurd play I have ever read.  It starts with a comically unnecessary riddle about incest; it takes place over twenty years in approximately twelve different countries and it feels like it’s trying to be about eight different genres along the way; at one point a major character is about to be killed and right as the murderer draws his knife she’s kidnapped by pirates who then leave the play about two seconds after they deliver her to a brothel… this play is just a hot mess all around.  So, why do I love it?  You know the lack of heart that I was just talking about; I find the opposite of Pericles – I think it has heart in abundance.  The titular character’s journey is really quite devastating, but it culminates in two beautiful reunions and the final scene is one of my favorite things that Shakespeare wrote (there are plenty of authorship questions surrounding Pericles but it’s generally believed that the first two acts were written by George Wilkins and the final three by Shakespeare).  I also just think it’s an unapologetically fun time – I dare anyone to read this and not be entertained.

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Measure for Measure
★★★★☆
my role: Escalus

Measure for Measure was also a pretty big surprise though, I must say.  Only a comedy by technicality, this is genuinely… one of the darkest plays I’ve read so far.  I knew nothing about this play going in, but interestingly, though it’s set in Vienna, I could tell within two minutes of reading that the source material it’s based off is Italian (not just the character names – the setting and the themes in particular are undeniably Italian).  I have a (useless!) major in Italian Lit and this brought me back to… literally every novel I ever had to read in college, so there was something sort of comfortably familiar about it that I think endeared me to it.  It’s not my favorite play and I won’t be in a hurry to read it again any time soon, but I also found it rather interesting and unsettling in a way that stuck with me for days.  Performing it was good fun too and it was a rather cathartic choice to do the ultimate ACAB play on the 4th of July.


Up next: King John, which I read for the first time a few weeks ago and which is one of my new favorite plays!  I’m really looking forward to this.

Also, before I go, I just want to briefly comment on the fact that I’ve been rather terrible at blogging lately.  I had a week off work last week and I thought I mind find my blogging motivation then, but that didn’t happen; but upon reflection I actually think I work blogging into my life more easily when my days have more structure.  So, I’m sorry that I haven’t been more active on here – not only on my own blog, but especially everyone else’s – but quarantine has been weird times.  I’m optimistic I’ll soon get back on this horse, but, I’m sorry again – I do miss all of you guys.

Anyway, leave a comment to talk about Shakespeare or anything else!

Project Shakespeare: month #2 wrap up

As you’ve probably noticed, Shakespeare has utterly taken over my life lately, in the form of weekly readings over Zoom.  If you missed my first Project Shakespeare wrap up you can read that here, but now we’re done with month #2, which is a little surreal to think about.  Anyway, let’s talk through these plays:

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As You Like It
★★★☆☆
my role: Celia

The thing about As You Like It is that it’s… really fucking weird?! The conflict that’s set up in the first act never really materializes into anything (what even happens to Frederick?), character development happens entirely off-stage or without reason (Oliver’s a good guy now! because… Celia needs a husband!), there is an OFF-STAGE LION ATTACK? IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FRENCH FOREST?, there’s a wedding in which two people are married by… an actual god?! What even is this play???!  (Potentially a satire of the pastoral genre, I know; still, regardless of its intentions, it’s weird as hell and it’s hard to totally warm up to.)

But it’s equally hard not to be at least a little charmed by it. The friendship between Rosalind and Celia is one of the most pure and touching female friendships that Shakespeare wrote, and I had a blast playing Celia, who starts out sweet and simple and becomes increasingly more jaded and frustrated by Rosalind’s shenanigans, while still lending her support.  Celia is truly the unsung MVP of this play.  Though, shout-out to Patrick for his minute-long dramatic entrance as Jaques (Jay-kweez).

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Hamlet
★★★★★
my role: Laertes

I mean… it’s Hamlet.  This is actually only one of two Shakespeare plays I ever studied in school (the other being Macbeth), so I feel like I have a stronger grasp on it than some others, and I do enjoy it immensely.

As a group, I think we were all a little nervous about Hamlet – it was only the second tragedy we’ve done after Macbeth, and Macbeth is still a ‘fun’ play in a way that Hamlet isn’t.  The prospect of putting on a 3+ hour Zoom production of Hamlet was a little daunting, but those 3+ hours positively flew by.  We divided the role of Hamlet into two (everyone knows that Hamlet is a massive role, but for context, he has twice as many lines as Prospero in The Tempest, which is… already a massive role), jokingly into Ham and Let, and both halves of our Ham/Let duo brought so much heart and passion (and sass) that it was a joy to watch.  The two other clear stars that emerged were our Claudius and Ophelia; two characters I’ve never given much thought to, Claudius being so easy to portray as a mustache-twirling villain and Ophelia being The Generic Tragic Ingenue.  But Abby brought such a pathos and humanity to Claudius that this monologue gave us all chills, and Pamela broke all of our hearts with her tender portrayal of Ophelia.  Really incredible acting all around this week.

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Comedy of Errors
★★★★☆
my role: Solinus

Following Hamlet, we opted for the shortest play.  And what an unexpected breath of fresh air this was!  All I knew going into this was that it was one of Shakespeare’s earlier plays and that it was about two sets of twins and mistaken identity, and, indeed, that’s pretty much all there is to it.  Heavy on the commedia dell’arte vibes, Comedy of Errors is just an unapologetically stupid romp, and I enjoyed every second of it.  Its short length is absolutely part of its charm, because it smartly does not overstay its welcome (these dumb characters already take far too long to catch on to what’s happening), but by the time it ended I think everyone wanted another hour of it.

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King Lear
★★★★★
my role: Edmund

I actually have no words for this experience but I’ll try to come up with something.  King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play – I’m utterly obsessed with the high-stakes drama and scale of tragedy.  It’s also thematically satisfying and narratively ambiguous in a way that REALLY works to my tastes, and I think it has the most devastating ending of any Shakespeare play.  Edmund is my favorite character – he’s the one I’ve always been the most compelled by, and I think he’s one of Shakespeare’s more interesting villains.  Because in a lot of ways, he’s set up to be a sort of underdog hero – most of his ‘thou nature art my goddess’ monologue appeals directly to the audience and is actually disturbingly compelling.  Because yes, who among us has not been screwed out of something we deserve; why shouldn’t he fight for what’s been denied to him by unjust social custom?  Of course, that’s up until his line ‘well then, legitimate Edgar’ when the monologue takes a turn for the sinister and you realize that Edmund’s ambitions are naturally at the expense of his own family.  But even after he is set up as the play’s chief antagonist (along with Goneril and Regan), his motives remain clear and cogent and perversely sympathetic – and his dying moments show a flicker of tenderness toward his brother that suggest that power for power’s sake was never the goal so much as being accepted by the family that he betrays – and I am unendingly interested in untangling the knot that is his character.

Anyway, much as I love Edmund, I felt nervous about requesting him.  If you’ve been following the roles I’ve been taking, you will see a very clear pattern: Straight Good Men and ingenues.  Both of which I’ve had a lot of fun with, but neither of which require a whole lot of… acting?  (Or at least, you can get away with less acting; I should put it that way.)  But I decided fuck it, I would never have this opportunity again and I would be kicking myself if I requested Cordelia out of fear (though I do quite like Cordelia).

Everything about this production was magical.  I know it probably sounds hyperbolic to call it a production, but the caliber of everyone involved blew me away.  (You can watch the eye gouging scene here; I truly cannot recommend it highly enough.)  Abby and Rachel choreographed that scene beautifully and Abby, who was a brilliant Gloucester, played the rest of the show with a blindfold onMaggie played Kent’s disguise with an Irish accent; Ashley played Edgar with FOUR ACCENTS.  And Pamela and Chelsea were the absolute heart and soul of this production as Lear and Cordelia respectively; I have chills just thinking about the final act and how much the two of them broke my heart (and has there ever been a more chilling line than ‘Never, never, never, never, never’).  Anyway, it’s hard to evaluate your own performance with any kind of objectivity, but I am proud of having pushed myself out of my comfort zone for this, as playing Edmund was an absolute dream and I would do it again in a heartbeat.  Doing a play a week has been brilliant but I’m finding it a little hard to move on from this one!


So that’s that!  Up next: Much Ado About Nothing.  Stay tuned for the next installment in a month.

Shakespeare question of the day and in honor of me memorizing both ‘thou nature art my goddess’ and ‘this is the excellent foppery of the world’ this week – what’s your favorite Shakespeare monologue?  Comment and tell me!

Project Shakespeare: month #1 wrap up

Since Shakespeare has been dominating my reading of late, and because I suck at writing up full-length reviews of classics, I thought I’d take you through the first month of this #ProjectShakespeare experience with me.

Project Shakespeare, if you didn’t see me mention it before, was an idea that my friend Abby came up with, to gather a group of friends and read/perform a different Shakespeare play every Saturday night until we’re out of quarantine.  We’ve done four plays so far, so let’s go through them:

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A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
★★★★★
my roles: Hippolyta, Snug, Moth

A Midsummer Night’s Dream and I go way back.  My acting debut (and also… the last time I acted) was in a performance of Midsummer that my fifth grade class put on.  At the time I desperately wanted to play Puck, and given the fact that in fifth grade MY NICKNAME WAS PUCK, not being given the role of Puck felt like a personal attack that I’m still not sure I’ve recovered from.  (I spitefully memorized Puck’s if we shadows have offended monologue, which I can still recite to this day.)

Despite this traumatic event, I have a very strong fondness for Midsummer.  Being eleven at the time this was obviously my first exposure to Shakespeare, and I found it weird and enchanting.  Fairies, mischief, a play within a play… what’s not to love?  What struck me as an adult is how good of an ensemble play this is – is there even a main character?! – it’s no wonder that so many schools and community theatres opt for this one.  It’s also just unabashedly fun in a way that entertains rather than grates.

And shoutout to my friend Patrick for serving us the hammiest portrayal of Bottom that the (virtual) stage has ever seen.

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THE TEMPEST
★★★★☆
my role: Miranda

In contrast, The Tempest was new to me!  I knew it was Abby’s favorite play and had been looking for a good excuse to read it for a while now, and I’m glad I did.  Before I read it she predicted ‘you’ll like it but it won’t be your new favorite’ and I’d say that’s an accurate assessment.  Though I suppose it can technically classified as a comedy, it’s decidedly less comedic than Shakespeare’s more carefree plays – there’s a real thematic heft to it that compelled me so much that I think if the ending had culminated in tragedy and bloodshed, it would have been a new favorite after all (sorry, I’m predictable).

Reading the script a few days before requesting a role, I was most drawn to Miranda, so I decided to throw my name in the hat for the play’s only canonical female character, who I did end up playing.  Miranda has been my favorite character to play so far – in some ways she’s the archetype of The Ingenue; innocent, loving, trusting, filled with more compassion than experience.  But her upbringing adds a layer of complexity – she’s never seen the face of another woman, she’s lived a life entirely subservient to her father in the microcosmically patriarchal society that he’s created on this island.  Still she shows an inherent moral goodness which at times is in conflict with her father’s own agenda; in fact, the first time we’re introduced to Miranda it’s in the context of her challenging her father; the play’s hero automatically taken down a peg by his teenaged daughter.  (The scene that results from this argument also reminded me so strongly of the dynamic between Valjean and Cosette in Les Misérables that it tugged at my heartstrings.)

Anyway, The Tempest was a joy to read and perform, and one that I’d heartily recommend to anyone who’s a little intimidated by Shakespeare and isn’t sure where to start.  The language was some of the most accessible yet beautiful that I’ve read in any Shakespeare play – O brave new world, That has such people in’t!

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TWELFTH NIGHT
★★★☆☆
my roles: First Officer, Curio

Twelfth Night is not my favorite, and not just because my first exposure to it was an incredibly bizarre community production which was entirely period except for the unexplained choice to make Fabian a surfer dude.  (Who is Fabian, anyway?)  The thing about Twelfth Night is that none of the couples are particularly worth rooting for – Viola is great, and naturally we want her happiness, but Orsino is such a dunce it’s hard to be thrilled about that conclusion.  It’s also hard to rejoice in Malvolio’s comeuppance, because what has Malvolio even done that that’s outrageous other than be a bit of a Squidward?!  (High literary analysis you’re getting here.)

Nevertheless, I enjoy it.  It’s gay, it’s chaotic, it’s got some strong characters (I particularly love Viola and Olivia) and great comedic moments.  I just find it curiously cold overall.  Still, another strong week for Project Shakespeare, with people going harder and harder each week both with props and acting choices.

[changed my 4 star rating to 3 stars a few weeks later – I need to be honest with myself, I am not a big Twelfth Night fan.]

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MACBETH x2!
★★★★★
my roles (first show): Lady Macduff, Gentlewoman, Angus, Lord, Third Apparition, Soldiers
my role (second show): Malcolm

That’s right – we put on TWO performances of Macbeth.  Since there were so many requests to play Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and since it’s everyone’s favorite play (I’m not going to say you’re lying if you say your favorite play isn’t Macbeth, but…), we decided to do our usual Saturday evening show and then put on a Sunday matinee.  I think five or six of us did both shows, with our roles incredibly shuffled up on the two days, but some people just did one or the other.  On Sunday we were joined by my friends Will and Jess who were a most welcome addition – Will played Macbeth and put on a Scottish accent whose authenticity is dubious but which utterly charmed the group of Americans who were watching it.  And I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to my college roommate Rachel for getting into her bathtub and slathering herself in fake blood for her role of Lady Macbeth – the commitment bar has been raised so high I’m not sure how we’re ever going to top it.

Anyway, Macbeth, what is there even to say?  Another fun thing about this is that it’s the first time I’ve read the play since becoming utterly obsessed with Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, an avant-garde Macbeth retelling set in an abandoned hotel in Chelsea (Manhattan).  Hearing lines read aloud by my friends which have been whispered into my ear by performers in the McKittrick was chilling (‘blood will have blood!’)

I also had an excellent time playing Malcolm, a rather uninspiring character for the fact that he’s one of the four characters with the most lines – still, I tried very very hard to breathe some life into him and I had a great time doing it.


I feel like I can’t talk about any of this without talking about the fact that – and I don’t think this comes through very well with my online persona, so I do have to stress this – I am painfully shy.  Something like this even five years ago would have mortified me so much that the thought of participating would have made me physically ill.  I don’t know what it is that inspired me to finally put myself out there and actually try at something for once in my life that I’m not naturally gifted at, but I think the fact that the stakes are so remarkably low has been soothing my anxiety.  Project Shakespeare has also been the one constant in my life that has broken up the monotony of the weeks, so I think I really needed something like this to occupy me as I struggle to concentrate on most other things.

Anyway, that’s all.  Tomorrow night we’re doing As You Like It (I’m Celia) and the week after, Hamlet.  I will report back in another four weeks on how those went.

Tell me two things in the comments: what’s your favorite Shakespeare play, and what’s the silliest, lowest-stakes thing that’s been a comfort to you during quarantine?

And if you have a group of nerdy friends who could join you as you read early modern plays over Zoom, I cannot recommend something like this highly enough.

Stay safe and stay inside if you can.  xx

mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

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WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor’s life when there isn’t documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like ‘Noor was worried about this’). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor’s life and contextualizing her legacy.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

In this book’s introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book (play script) review: Faith Healer by Brian Friel

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FAITH HEALER by Brian Friel
★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2016
originally published in 1979

 

When I was reading Faith Healer, this script got two distinctions from me: (1) being one of the most depressing things I have ever read, and (2) probably being the first play I’ve encountered where I actually wondered whether or not it would work on stage as well as it does on the page. I mean, it must work, because it’s seen a number of illustrious and well-reviewed revivals over the years, but it reads comfortably like a novella, and if you are planning on seeing it on stage (in the upcoming Los Angeles production, for example) I would highly recommend familiarizing yourself with the script first, because I imagine a lot could be lost in translation to the unfamiliar viewer.

Written in four monologues, this play tells the story of faith healer Frank Hardy. Frank’s two monologues (each about ten pages long) open and close the play, and in between we also hear from Frank’s wife, or maybe his mistress, Grace, and his stage manager Teddy. Together they chronicle the downfall of Frank’s faith healing act, but less focus is given to the narrative itself than the relationship between these three characters and the way it has disintegrated over time.

This play’s magic is all in the details. If you’re reading or watching this just trying to glean the overall gist, so much is going to be lost. Friel expertly navigates three conflicting accounts of the same events; each character tells essentially the same stories, with at times heartbreaking variations. The biggest punch to the gut was after hearing Grace’s account of her newborn baby dying, and hearing how Frank fashioned a makeshift cross for the grave, we then get Teddy’s account that Frank was nowhere to be found when Grace went into labor, and how Teddy was the one to build the cross and say a prayer over the grave. The fallibility of memory is probably one of my favorite themes in literature and when it’s rendered with the same kind of subtlety as it is here, it’s hard not to be deeply affected and unsettled. The other salient theme running through this play is Frank’s unreliable gift for faith healing – with noticeable parallels to artists’ creativity, the whole play reads as an allegory. Can truth exist in a vacuum or is it always shaped by the stories we tell?

If you aren’t someone who ordinarily enjoys reading play scripts, I’d still recommend checking this out if it interests you, as again, it reads very much like a novella. Friel’s writing is sharp and lyrical and this leaves no question as to why he’s one of the most influential playwrights to come out of Northern Ireland.


You can pick up a copy of Faith Healer here on Book Depository.

book (play script) review: The Beauty Queen of Leenane by Martin McDonagh

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THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE by Martin McDonagh
★★★★☆
originally published 1996

 

This was my sixth Martin McDonagh play and actually my third and final read from his Leenane trilogy (despite it being the first Leenane installment – but these plays are only very loosely connected and you do not need to read them in order). Here I was thinking that McDonagh couldn’t possibly shock me any more than he has in the past – I do consider myself familiar enough with his style of black comedy that my continued reading of his plays has more to do with their comfortable familiarity than with unearthing a facet of his writing that I feel I haven’t already uncovered.

But what I hadn’t counted on with The Beauty Queen of Leenane was how immeasurably sad it was going to be. For once McDonagh’s characters aren’t memorable for their immorality as much as for how pitiable they are, and though the dialogue is as sharp and irreverent as ever, the humor in this one doesn’t hit its mark quite as much as the more somber undercurrents do. Isolation, wasted youth, mental illness, and domestic claustrophobia are all at the heart of this deceptively dark story about an elderly mother and middle aged daughter living in a cottage together in rural Ireland. I think it shows that this is McDonagh’s first play – his craft of dark comedy doesn’t feel sufficiently honed and there are some dissonant elements that don’t fully come together, but my god is this haunting.

mini reviews #1: Wave, Mary Rose, Bluets, Another Brooklyn, Eurydice

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, so, no time like the present.  I don’t always feel like writing multi-paragraph long reviews for every single book I read, but when my reviews are this short I don’t usually bother cross-posting them from Goodreads to WordPress.  So, I shall begin transferring them over here in a series of mini review posts.  Also, reminder that you’re welcome to add me on Goodreads!

15797917WAVE by Sonali Deraniyagala
★★★★☆
Knopf, 2013
date read: July 11, 2018

In Sonali Deraniyagala’s frank and candid memoir, she recounts the loss of her parents, husband, and two sons who were all killed in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Wave is every bit as harrowing as you’d imagine, but it’s also refreshingly sincere and devoid of sensationalism – instead it rather beautifully captures one woman’s honest and occasionally ugly experience with grief. Although it’s at times a bit meandering and repetitive in execution it is utterly gripping from start to finish. There isn’t much hope or resolution here, but there is hardly a scarcity of gratitude or resilience.

36072356MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard
★★☆☆☆
Adaptive Books, April 2018
date read: June 29, 2018

This was… fine? I guess? I would not recommend listening to the audiobook. The narrator infuses it with a lot of melodrama and bad accents, and hearing the name ‘Mary Rose’ spoken aloud approximately eighty-five million times is grating. I don’t know. I just felt impatient listening to this. For the fact that about 95% of it was character development, none of the characters were particularly well developed. The 5% of actual story was fine, just not enough to really hold my interest. I’d like to read the JM Barrie play at some point though.

6798263BLUETS by Maggie Nelson
★★★☆☆
Wave Books, 2009
date read: June 22, 2018

Bluets had a lot of the same sharp wit and similar pithy observations that I enjoyed in The Argonauts but I think this one was just a bit too abstract for my tastes. I also didn’t do myself any favors by reading this in short bursts over the span of two weeks when I think Nelson’s writing best lends itself to a more immersive reading experience. Still enjoyed it, still looking forward to checking out her other works.

30064150ANOTHER BROOKLYN by Jacqueline Woodson
★★☆☆☆
Amistad, 2016
date read: June 8, 2018

I listened to this on audio and… got pretty much nothing out of it. The narrator did a good job, but I just never felt grounded enough in this story, which to me felt more like it wanted to be a slice of life/coming of age poetry collection than a novel. But at the same time I do understand why others have loved this – I think it comes down to whether or not you click with Woodson’s flowery style of prose.

 

5661021EURYDICE by Sarah Ruhl
★★★☆☆
Samuel French, originally published in 2003
date read: April 16, 2018

There’s an undeniable pathos at the heart of this play that I think is informed so strongly by Ruhl’s personal experiences it almost made me question the need for this to be disguised as Eurydice’s story. This felt more like I was reading a poetry collection than a play, which was fine, albeit not what I thought I’d signed up for. The climactic scene between Orpheus and Eurydice was the highlight for me, though clearly there was so much tenderness put into the relationship between Eurydice and her father. Ruhl’s dialogue is incisive and dreamlike all at once and this was a pleasure to read in many ways, but ultimately where it didn’t totally connect for me was that it didn’t feel grounded enough in its source material.

Have you guys read any of these?  Feel free to comment down below if you’d like to talk about any of them in more detail!

book (play script) review: By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr

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BY THE BOG OF CATS by Marina Carr
★★★★★
originally published in 1998

One of the many reasons I love Irish lit is that its signature fusion of comedy and tragedy is something I find so shockingly, painfully honest. I love reading something that has me laughing out loud on one page, and has me covering my mouth in horror on the next. Mastering that tonal shift is a fine line to walk, but Marina Carr manages it with aplomb here.

By the Bog of Cats is a play about a traveller woman called Hester, who feels a deep connection with the bog she lives on, but who’s being forced to leave because her former partner is now marrying a younger woman and the two of them forced Hester to sign over the rights to her property. Throughout the course of the play we see Hester defend her relationship to the land, while she’s also tormented by memories of the mother who abandoned her.

Though there are more than a fair share of comedic moments, the heart of By the Bog of Cats is pitch-black, and the conclusion is absolutely harrowing. It’s also a deliberate nod to Greek tragedy, and I am nothing if not predictable. I absolutely loved this. I read it in an hour this weekend, but I’d love to see it performed live one day. Until then, I can only recommend the script very highly to those who love stories which are in turns shocking, disturbing, and darkly funny.