Thoughts after Marlowe

I am returned from seeing the Theatre Pro Rata’s production of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Short version: I liked it, it made me think interesting things, and if you’re in the Twin Cities, and have free time before the end of the run, I recommend it to your attention.

[It is running Sunday, the 13th at 2pm, then the 17th, 18th, 19th at 7:30pm, and Sunday the 20th at 2pm. Tickets are on a sliding scale, $14-41  (cash or check only) and you can call and reserve tickets in advance. As my friend Liza found out: to reserve, you call, leave a message, and they’ll call you if there’s a problem. More at their website.]

I incidentally very much like the tag line in their program and on their mission statement: “We want you to love the play as much as we do.” As you might guess from the length of the following, I do indeed!

Now on to the more involved thoughts. (I am going to discuss things like how the play ends below, because I figure that spoilers on a story that’s been kicking around for the better part of two millenia is just sort of silly. I do make mention of the pace of the ending of another work – Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn, but not what actually happens.)

The play itself:

The play itself has certain delights, and I must admit hits several of my narrative fascinations. I’ve long been a fan of the story of Troy in its various forms, the play has an interesting interweaving of the plots of the Gods with the wills of the mortals they manipulate, and there are lots of different kinds of interactions here.

It’s the last one that appears to get a lot of commentary in discussion of the play, and for good reason.  Besides the obvious (albeit God-forced) romance between Dido and Aeneas, you also have (in order of appearance) the romance between Jove and Ganymede, the mother/son relationship between Venus and Aeneas, the father/son relationship between Aeneas and Aescanius, the unrequited love of Anna (Dido’s sister) for Iarbus, and of Iarbus’s love for Dido, the collaboraton of Juno and Venus, the relationship of Cupid (disguised as Aescanius) and the nurse who is assigned to watch him. Oh, yes, and the relationships between Anna and Dido, and Aeneas and his second-in-command, Achates.

Some of these relationships are more conventional than others. Some of them work better than others, too, and not always the ones you’d expect.

The play has some places which are .. erm, less effective writing than they might have been, but I’m going to discuss that below, because I liked how they were handled on stage, by and large. It runs almost exactly 2 hours: I had a quick look at the play, and I am not seeing substantial cuts (I’m certainly not seeing speeches that I don’t remember hearing.) This is good: it felt like a slow build, and then a fast run to a really abrupt end.

I’m still trying to decide how I feel about that. It’s certainly effective, and I can’t really think of a less abrupt solution. It reminds me, for those of my readers who are also SF genre readers, of the problem of Lois McMaster Bujold’s latest work, Cryoburn, which has a similar pacing feel to me: abrupt, but really, what more do you say, because that’s the end it needs.

The overall production:

The staging for the TPR production is understated: large fabric wings down stage right, of blue and white cloth sewn together, trailing out onto the floor, split in three parts. At various times, they are the waves that people swim to shore through. Stage left, there is a corner created from parchment/sand colored cloth. There’s a small L shaped bench stage right, a platform with a little tower thing stage left, in that corner – all flexible points that allow for a variety of different feels and actions without needing to change scene.

The costuming fascinated me. I’d listened to the interview I linked in my previous post, which talks about a number of the artistic design decisions, including the looser draping fabric of the Gods (who are not tied down with mortal cares) versus the much more bound up (often literally, with belts and closed clothing and lacing) clothing of the mortals. (Some parts are doubled, but there are no major costume changes within characters, barring a bit of Dido – everything else is easily put on or taken off on stage.)

But I was also very intrigued by the colors: the Gods have pastels and jeweltones, many with masks or half-masks (Venus gets a headdress, and Juno doesn’t have a mask at all). The Trojans have the sort of miss-matched but servicable clothes you’d expect of anyone who’d been off fighting a war for ten years, and wandering around the Mediterranean since.

But I found the Carthaginians particularly interesting. Dido first appears on stage carrying a lengthy spear, and wearing a series of layered loose sleeveless shirts in dark greens and teals, over a short skirt, burnt orange leggings, and some burnt orange and orangey-amber colored accessories (including her crown). It all works quite tightly together and the color choices are precise. She is very clearly and active and energetic queen who goes out and does things.

Her sister, Anna, is dressed quite differently: far more stereotypically feminine clothes, in a sort of late 17th century mode (square bodice, a bodice/jacket that falls to the knees on the side, but is split in front over a longer skirt.) Her colors are much more muted dusty blue and faded browns, in a way that echoed Dido’s colors, almost as if seen through water. (Her hair is also quite different: long and pinned up, with strands of pearls draped across, compared to Dido’s short and rumpled hair.)

Iarbus (and the attendant) both wear pretty generic velvet doublets and slacks – but I found it a nice touch that Iarbus’ dark olive green was picked out with small details that matched other parts of his outfit: a belt with a dark red stripe that matched both a stripe in his knee-length socks, and a ring on one of his fingers.) Both the color and simpler design meant he didn’t attract a lot of visual attention on stage away from Dido and from Anna, but did mean that he looked like a king, not a random bystander.

The sound design is quite similar: I knew from that interview to listen to the various effects (wind chimes, storm sounds, and flame sounds are all used to good effect!) Thoughtful, but not invasive: they assist an understanding of the text, not overwhelm it.

The staging:

One of the challenges of the text is that there are several periods where there is a lot of talking going on, without much action – the most notable being when Dido basically says “Tell me what happened at Troy.” and Aeneas does. At length. (It’s about 150 lines, almost all Aeneas with very occasional interjections.)

TPR’s solution was a very nice one: from the beginning, they’d include a brief tableau vivant as part of the scene changes, or to illustrate a particular example in the story. At the beginning, I was somewhat less sure about these. (And some of them, it was more clear what the point of the tableau was than others.)

But when Aeneas started explaining the fall of Troy, it really worked: the actors quietly slipped off from the circle surrounding Aeneas and Dido, and took up positions on the stage to illustrate what was going on. Some of the tableaux were visually interesting, but some added deeply to the clarity of the action: I found the bit of Polyxena on the shore particularly heartrending.

For the rest of it, the play is again complicated by the fact that you have the agency of the characters being subsumed by the will of the Gods, in both overt and subtle ways. Dido spends quite a lot of time obviously cycling between the “But I love you.” and “But wait, this doesn’t make sense”, and various other characters get the job of responding to that in their own ways.

It’s a hard play for female agency: Dido, who has been ruling this country quite nicely by herself, for example, has this sudden massive downward slide into being all about her love for Aeneas, all the time. That’s a tough sell to a modern audience, but the fact that it’s so clearly external to her in some ways makes that easier to buy, and this production helps make that more clear through some of the costuming and body language choices.

One of the things that was discussed on the interview is about the challenge of making the final scene, where Dido, (then Iarbus, then Anna), fling themselves into the burning pyre, suitably dramatic. Since it’s also the absolute end of the play, you have the challenge of picking a practical (and safe) method that can carry the emotion beyond the last line. In this case, they made excellent use of moving fabric (dark red silk, with lighter orange net of some kind underneath) moved and twisted by the Gods for the effect, and it was stylised but quite visually impressive and effective.

The acting:

The first question, for me, in any play with period language, is “Are the actors getting the point across?” I never had a problem with that here: it was clear the actors all understood what they were saying, what it meant, and they were taking steps to make sure that the less-accessible bits had some kind of supporting gesture or hint so that people who are not well-versed in mythology  or the story can still follow along. (Granted, I’m not the best judge of this, having been steeped in classical mythology from birth, and having spent enough time with Chaucer that Elizabethan English is simple in comparison.)

I found all of the acting competent and thoughtful. I really liked Dido’s energy and movement (played by Becka Linder), and I found Aeneas (Christopher Kehoe) very believable as someone who would be a very physical fighter and leader.

The two who really got my attention, though, were Achates (Ben Tallen)  and Anna (Amber Bjork). Achates did the single best version of ‘much put-upon second-in-command’ I’ve seen in a very long time, having the perfect timing with raised eyebrow, subtle movement, and “Oh, right, this again” to various commands, needs to step in and smooth something over, and generally make things work out when Aeneas got tangled. Anna, likewise, comes across as subtle but competent, and as having a personality of her own beyond being her sister’s assistant. (Given that the play doesn’t give her a whole lot to work with, in terms of lines.)

The role of Venus  (Nicole Joy Frethem) also interested me. In this play and production, she’s clearly self-confident and all about the ideals of pleasure and desire, but in a way that’s very pragmatic at the same time: she’s very focused on getting her son where she thinks he should go. She uses the tools at her disposal to do that, and she’s not above some underhanded methods, but it’s a lot more believable than some approaches to the story I’ve seen. This last bit was true in general: the Gods are petty, and have their own desires and foibles, but at the same time, they’re about as consistent about them as the humans rather than merely serving as disconnected plot points.

Other thoughts and ponderings:

One of the things my friend and I talked about, both at the intermission and driving home was the ethnicity and race question. It got us talking about what both the original cast would have looked like, and about what the historical expectations would have been (because there are certain parallels to Titus Andronicus or Othello in terms of location of the characters and implications about their likely skin color and background.) No answers here, but worth some additional thought.

The play also got me thinking along generational line: there was something in the way Dido asked about what happened at Troy that made me think about the broader relationships in the Mediterranean kingdoms that fit into that mythos. There’s the older generation at Troy – Priam, Hecuba, Menelaus, Agamemnon who have grown children, or who are clearly somewhat older. There’s a middle generation – Odysseus, for example – who are old enough to have young children, but who are more settled than the youngest fighters. And then there are those who’ve grown up during the war (including, arguably, Aeneas, who has a son who is clearly not grown yet, and who’s been wandering after the fall of Troy anyway), who knew all those movers and shakers, but who at the same time, weren’t them.

There’s something in the relationship of that youngest generation – which Dido’s comment comes across as – that made me think about both our current generation of children, but also about what Marlowe’s own perspective on the world when he was writing this was: of being in his early 20s, and knowing some things about the world, but of not being one of the ones making substantial decisions directly by any stretch of the imagination. The play is, in short, in part about what happens when your parents and aunts and uncles and community elders are suddenly no longer around (or not reliable in terms of advice, as Venus is here), and you have to make your own way in a vastly changed world.

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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