W.B. Yeats did for modern theater what Stonehenge did for the rock, what Hitler did for hate.
Get the memo: Yeats isn’t just a poet, as is his overwhelming identity to the intellectual bourgeoisie. Just ask John Raimo ’08 or co-director Courtny Hopen about their Cuchulain Comforted, the name they’ll given for a selection of At the Hawk’s Well, On Baile’s Strand, and The Death of Cuchulain—three plays in a series of five Yeats wrote about the virile Irish mythical hero.
Go ahead, ask, perhaps as Raimo is casually wedged on the arm of a theater seat talking to his lead actor Jordan Bubin ’09. It’s Tuesday night, some 48 hours before opening, and actors are running around, easing each other through scenes, getting dressed. Raimo, though, tenses his brow only in directorial pensiveness, raises his tone only in understated excitement in the Murray-Dodge’s craggy semi-darkness.
Raimo, with little first-hand theatrical involvement, describes himself as an “amateur, an interested spectator, one in the crowd of people you usually see at shows.” For someone who loves the theater he views it with distanced perspicacity, and perhaps a hint of disdain.
The conception for this theatrical event came during a trip Raimo and Hopen took to Thomas Sweet with Paul Muldoon last April. And this production seems even more appropriate with the Irish Theater Symposium the following week. It is of the essence.
The directors pitched the idea to the Theatare Intime board to success, but still had work to do with the very text. They first cut the five-play series down into three for time purposes, and juggled On Baile’s Strand, one of the first plays Yeats ever wrote, to come after At the Hawk’s Well, written in the middle of Yeats’s career. Making for a complete sampling of Yeats at all stages of his career, Yeats ironically penned The Death of Cuchulain only a few days before his own death, Raimo says.
“Yeats was one of the first and most Western playwrights to break with realism,” Raimo explains. “That set the stage for Modern theater…dream theater, such as in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall in which everything happens in the protagonist’s head. Then you have Beckett…Yeats really breaks with drawing room drama…In Yeats, you get a sense of where [modern drama] was moving.”
Bubin is looking for somewhere to jump in to the conversation, and some techie needs to run something by Raimo—the director wants a more realistic hawk-screech for the first play. Raimo’s looking for his main thespian to take over.
“Say something about the language,” Raimo says to his lead actor, as Bubin looks for what precisely to say. “It’s so important to you that you even have to be prompted,” Raimo adds with a grin, adjusting his zipper- down fleece. Bubin grimaces.
“Well, the language is very convoluted,” Bubin says. “There’s a lot more too it than first meets the eye.” The language is poetic; it’s pedantic and vernacular. It’s both distant and easily accessible.
Lights on the stage are flashing green, aquamarine, fuchsia. Hopen’s down in the dressing room with most of the actors, and stragglers are asking Raimo what they should do. “Caroline, go downstairs to get painted,” Raimo calls.
He looks askance at the stage, which features a long maroon banner featuring a hawk and a white backdrop that gets lit a variety of greens, blues, and reds throughout the performance. Hopen and he have created a project committed to minimalism, with the plays set in a barren wilderness, a royal court, and a field. The wilderness features a beautiful blue cloth to serve as the well from which Cuchulain and the Old Man (Christopher Simpson) drink, a simple chair serves as the court’s throne.
The play exists in this spooky nethersphere, this faux-terra that remains unable to be placed. All that is clear is that it is an epic land, an unfamiliar land to which we become theatrical tourists.
And it’s no surprise that Raimo and Hopen emphasize the Japanese “Noh aesthetic” in Yeats’s drama, because in this minimalism, the actors much be that more expressive and have the slow grace characteristic of this type of theater.
“I’ve been used to big sets,” Bubin says, typically in Shakespearian productions, “but this works or so well. It forces us to mimic motions…it makes us show through the body.”
It is also in this aspect of mimeses and intimations that Raimo and Hopen have remained faithful to this Noh element to Yeats’s drama. This is why this play hinges on the performance aspect of Irish theater in an impressive range in this production.
A sudden bow; the great wings beating still Shannon Lee Clair ’09 in At the Hawk’s Well plays the tempting Irish sidhe—in this instance an avian spirit acting seductress to draw Cuchulain away from his drinking water. She’s part siren, part banshee, but all soul in her dancing.
“In Irish dance you’re not supposed to move your arms,” Clair, who has studied Irish dance for four and a half years, says. Her leg is up on the counter as she stretches out her hamstring. “It’s very forward,” she continues, kicking up a leg. “It has jumping, skipping,
During the dance, the contours of her body become one with the angles of the stage; the negative space between her elbow, the hand on her hip, and her torso plays perfectly off of the lit background. As the rhythm catches tempo, she tightens her body and releases when appropriate.
The chorus of Laurel Lathrop ’08, Caroline Brody ’08, and Gerogie Sherrington ’08 stands as spooky with their uttered words floating aloft through the craggy theater. Much of the feel for the folklore comes out in the decorative face-paint with jewels (and thank God the masks from Venice fell through) specifically and spectacularly applied by Yvon Wang ’08, the makeup artist for the show.
The existence of two directors can be particularly challenging—what with the different aesthetic tastes and decisions implicit in bringing a dramatic work to fruition. Any sort of tension though that could exist went unnoticed through the process, it seems, by even those most intimately involved in the project.
Raimo and Hopen appeared to be akin to a good married couple, shrouding their disputes from their children on the cast. “If there are any disagreements between them,” Bubin says, “they go on behind the scenes. They never show it.”
Suppressing a smirk, Raimo speaks of his co-director with such sincerity as he ventures the topic of disputes. “Every time we argued, one of us had to take the other out to dessert or tea.” He pauses, adjusts the mechanical pencil he has in his right ear. “So you really had to have conviction if you wanted to spend the money. I won most of [the arguments], but then things got expensive.” A smile crosses his face.
The disputes come over “silly things,” Raimo insists, such as whether to have the theater windows open during the performance. He feels the most important debate came over whether or not to have Bubin as Cuchulain drag Stefan Mikhail ’08 as Conchubar off-stage.
The decision to keep the dragging proves stupendous, as Mikhail plays a type of Yeats in his character called the Producer; Raimo argued that this was “one of the few lighter moments” of three plays, but Hopen wasn’t sure. After all was said and done, the scene came to glory. And after pontificating against “pickpockets and opinionated bitches” and waxing meta-theatrical, Mikhail unveils the comedic moment with poise.
Mikail’s monologue here in The Death of Cuchulain as an incarnation of Yeats makes the trip to the theater worth it itself. It’s an inspired soliloquy with insight into Yeats’s aesthetic and a perfect selection for the combination of the pedantic and the vernacular that makes Yeats’s language so diverse.
Georgie Sherrington ’08, one of the biggest names in the show, comes rushing through the dark theater over to Raimo and Hopen with an idea. She crouches, and they smile in the gloom of the theater. Right before the dress rehearsal, the actors get in a circle, and to cue senses and creativity, they, one at a time, pretend to hit each other with a sword as they call out sighs of “Wah!” The person hit, then goes for the next victim, and the cycle continues until the directors call for a start.
Simpson plays a creepy version of the Old Man; his voice is ice, an effect also attained by Lovell Holder ’09 as the Blind Man. The large, bent walking stick that Holder totes brings into relief my fears of impotence as he trembles, and stoops with his rickety, geriatric frame.
So mastered by the brute blood of the air, Dubin and Mikhail trounce around the stage with so much virility. Mikhail’s voice, with its deep, flat Jamaican vowels resonates throughout the theater to establish his hegemony over the theatrical scene.
The sexual imagery and implications is pleasantly overwhelming. In On Baile’s Strand, for example, Cuchulain says to Conchubar in vilifying Conchubar’s children, “And they shall lie soft where you and I lie hard. The sword in Yeats, as in so much literature, becomes a metonym for masculinity, and the topics of bravado and macho attitudes add to this charged, indeed sexually forceful, drama of Irish theater.
Laurel Lathrop ’08 has some brilliant moments as the catatonic Fool in On Baile’s Strand in which she reveals to us the troubled psyche of her character, in the frenetic movements, quips, bitten-lips, and timing of a seasoned actress.
Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them. For Raimo and Hopen, it has indisputably been the latter. Their passion for Yeats, first thrust upon them before loved and cherished, is evident in their deep textual understanding and their commitment to performing an unorthodox show, by Intime standards.
Ambition is an often overlooked characteristic in any play with. Critics tend to concentrate too much on the good or the bad, the success and failures, when really an ambitious and unique production can come out glorious even with the occasional snafu.
Yes, in this production, you’ll find the rookie directorial mistake of too many attempts to convey meaning with the lights. In the first play, the hawk tapestry becomes the pawn in a flash-on, flash-off game in which distraction is the victor. But for minor errors, the uniqueness will trump all in bringing to life something you may never see again. The production is a triumph for the underdog, as all of the odds were against it.
Take obscure plays and start the production and rehearsal two weeks before opening night. One may not be incline to bet on Raimo and Hopen: the production is still working out kinks on Tuesday night. But the foibles are so minor with all of the passion Raimo and Hopen pour into this production—committed to bringing the text they love to life.
So what the hell.. When else will you get exposure to solid Yeats drama? Where else can you easily go to the theater to see and be seen. It’s refreshingly new. It’s not lacking in talent, just experience. And what a show it turns out to be, what a spectacle.