Short Attention Span Theater? – Laura Shea

April may not be the cruelest month, but on the Broadway stage, it is definitely the busiest. Almost nightly there is another opening, another show. To be considered for a Tony Award, and everyone on Broadway wants to be considered for a Tony Award, shows must open by the Tony deadline, which this year is April 27. The Tony Award may exist to reward artistic excellence, but it is also a marketing tool, a stamped seal of approval for potential ticket buyers debating which show to see this season.

What several shows have in common, whether musical or straight play, is the distinct lack of an intermission. Ninety minutes, you’re in, you’re out. In 1879, when Henrik Ibsen wrote a controversial play called A Doll’s House, after three full acts, and following the most famous door slam in literature, Nora Helmer leaves her husband and children to become her own person rather than exist as the dancing doll she is expected to be, merely an ornamental feature of the household. Twenty years after the play was written, Ibsen was still disclaiming that he consciously worked for women’s rights, saying, “I am not even quite sure what women’s rights really are. To me it has been a question of human rights.” If the play is interpreted as an argument for the basic human rights of those who lack them in the nineteenth century, that would certainly include women.

In A Doll’s House, Part 2, a new play by Lucas Hnath, Nora (played by Laurie Metcalf) returns after 15 years to see the family she left behind. It’s not so much an emotional journey as a practical one, and each of the four characters (Nora, her husband Torvald, Anne Marie, the nanny, and Emmy, Nora’s grown daughter) have their say. Although a recent online ad described the play as “A Mother’s Day Gift Every Family Can Enjoy” (I guess it would depend on the family), the discussion ends after ninety minutes whether or not issues have been resolved. Does that leave room for a Doll’s House, Part 3?

A very different show that goes intermissionless is Amelie, a musical based on the quirky 2001 French romantic comedy, with Phillipa Soo, who originated the role of Eliza Hamilton in the musical Hamilton, in the title role. Amelie is a shy and isolated waitress in Montmartre, who begins to engage with the world when she is inspired by the philanthropic work of Princess Diana, and decide to improve the lives of those around her.

Musicals usually have a running time of two and a half to two and three quarters hours (after three hours, there’s overtime to pay). Imagine my surprise when the running time of Amelie was listed as ninety minutes. How do they get everything in, including the music? Answer: They run. The role of Amelie is beautifully sung by Ms. Soo, who moves non stop through most of those ninety minutes, with multiple trips up and down a staircase that curves above the stage. She is followed in hot pursuit by the rest of the cast who inject an energy into those ninety minutes that never flags.

So whom can we thank or blame for this recent mini-trend? Producers love ninety-minute productions. That usually means a single set instead of expensive scenery that must find its way to the stage, probably mechanically but possible under human power, and has a tendency to get stuck, especially during previews. But plays are written and musicals assembled long before a producer is attached. We can always blame technology for shortening our attention spans and our willingness to sit still for over two hours. In reality, the current audience member who can afford a ticket to a Broadway show is closer to Social Security than Snapchat. While baby boomers have mastered their smartphones, they grew up without them, and are not conditioned to check them as frequently as millennials do. And is the intermissionless evening in the theater really such a bad thing? I must admit, I was a little relieved to find out the Amelie would be a fleet ninety minutes than a lumbering two-plus hours. In no way did I feel cheated by this production or by the equally speedy A Doll’s House, Part 2.

Another show on my theatergoing schedule is the revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, in which Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternate in the roles of Regina, the rapacious Southern belle who will do anything to gain the money that is her only route to power, and Birdie, her sweet, sad, defeated sister in law. Written in 1939, Hellman’s play relies on melodrama to make its points, but it does offer different portraits of female characters and the choices available to them. Somewhat surprising is the fact that the two-hour play manages to include two intermissions. Act I and Act II are thirty-five minutes, each act followed by an intermission. A seventy-minute first act would not have strained anyone’s attention span, but Hellman included the intermissions to serve the play, and the play is performed as written. But the multiple intermissions reminded me of a time when people went to the theater for the intermissions as much as the play, to see and be seen. Now there are other platforms on which to make our presence felt.

Conferences – T.J. Moretti

My conferences over the past week have been all about the weather.

Friday, 4/7, I “present” my second conference paper in the span of one week.

I go to conferences for two reasons: to try out and learn about new ways of reading literature, and to hang out with other academics who are also managing responsibilities like teaching, scholarship, college service, home life, maybe partnership or marriage, maybe kids, or pets, or plants (you know, tending the garden), inner work, physical health, community work, civic engagement.

Well, anyway, first, what I tried out at those two conferences.

Last week I presented at the Renaissance Society of America’s conference in Chicago: to about a dozen or so people, I read my paper on the early modern bible, the problem of Christian rule, and the weak, dithering Henry VI in Shakespeare and company’s Henry VI, Part 2. This week, I participated in a seminar called “Terrestrial Shakespeare” at the Shakespeare Association of America’s conference in Atlanta, with a paper on ecological fantasies in Henry V.

In each essay, I investigate early modern fantasies that in some curious, frightening ways might broadly parallel our own. The first is the fantasy that a truly religious person—in Henry VI’s case, a devout Christian—could uphold central tenets of their faith even as they assert and maintain political power over their subjects. The second is the fantasy that humans can invade territory in war or can penetrate the earth for sustenance and economic benefit without harming themselves in the process.

I like to ask, how can Shakespeare and his contemporaries deepen our concern over current issues? What does it mean to read a play in a way that draws our attention to some of the political, social, economic, and ecological crises of our day? At the same time, I do not want to fall into the trap of superimposing current concerns onto literary texts written at a distant time in a distant place for a distant group of people. So, I try to root my close reading of texts within a well researched historical context. But whenever I notice concerns similar to our own, I feel like my work is helping me process my own anxieties and frustrations over the issues of our moment, and I hope that by sharing my work with others that they too can deepen their engagements with those issues.

Second, I go to conferences to socialize, have fun, hang out with people I only get to see face-to-face once a year, because socializing online doesn’t get me much, I’m afraid. I still post and tweet to colleagues and fellow academics, but what’s really beneficial about conferencing—heck, about any personal interaction in my mind—is the kind of shared feeling found in face-to-face interactions, a feeling that can be shared in an instant with a look, a gesture, a hug, a frown, a laugh. When posting something on Twitter or Facebook, I wait for a future acknowledgment: a response, a like or something. When I interact with someone face-to-face, I can feel the future in an instant.

Oh, and I go to conferences for the stories. This year’s major story: the weather. Want to know about it? Let me know, and I’ll tell you about it, face to face.

I LOVE LIMMY – Dean Defino

I have always believed that the best scholarship grows out of passion, not intellect. That it begins with falling in love, and wanting to tell the world. The application of reason and critical framing is merely a way of justifying, or amplifying that declaration of love. Over the past few years, I have been immersed in a massive, shapeless writing project having to do with comedy—specifically, UK television and stand-up comedy–because I want to share my love of such TV programs as PEEP SHOW, IT CROWD, and REV., and the brilliant stand-up of Stewart Lee, Daniel Kitson, and Josie Long.

Today I want to declare my deep and abiding love for Limmy. Not Lemmy, the recently deceased front man for the seminal British metal band, Motorhead, but Limmy (a.k.a., Brian Limond), a Scottish comedian, author, and TV and Internet phenomenon, known to only a select few in America. This is understandable. We import virtually no Scottish comedy into this country, and he speaks in a heavy Glaswegian accent that, without subtitles, would be nearly impossible for most American ears to understand. But it is a profound shame. The world would surely be a better place if we all knew Limmy.

The best introduction to Limmy Is his sketch program, LIMMY’S SHOW, all three seasons of which are currently streaming on Netflix. It is, hands down, the best sketch program I have ever seen, and a contender for my favorite comedy program, period. In a genre that tends to have far more misses that hits, Limmy never lapses, never disappoints. Often personal, sometimes surreal, occasionally satirical, Limmy’s humor is at once hilarious, sad, angry, kind, and full of wonder. It is not always laugh out loud funny (though there are plenty of those moments), nor does it always abide by the basic narrative structures of the joke (set-up, complication, resolution; call-backs; punch lines; etc.), but it is always distinctive, generous, and wise in subtle, surprising, and occasionally breathtaking ways.

This is partly due to the abundance of extraordinary characters Limmy has created, and inhabits himself. The pilot episode of LIMMY’s SHOW introduces you to such memorable figures as the crudely-drawn cartoon schoolyard gangster/entrepreneur, Wee Gary (illustrated and voiced by Limmy), who scams fellow children out of money, and when they refuse to pay, has the class bullies mete out a cruel punishment known as the “pole crusher” (which needs to be seen to be believed); or the ex-junkie, Jacqueline McCaffrey, who has a massive chip on her shoulder because polite society does not seem to fully embrace her, and her sordid tale of addiction and recovery (Jackie is played with deadpan sincerity by an unshaven Limmy in pumps and a flowing platinum wig); or Falconhoof, a fantasy role-playing character in a call-in game, whose callers are less interested in playing the game than complaining about it, or airing petty grievances; or the psychic medium, Raymond Day, who seems only to commune with spirits bringing bad news to their loved ones (many clearly communicating from Hell). While at first glance these might appear to be of a piece with the outsized, absurd, overblown types sketch shows like PORTLANDIA or KEY AND PEELE trade upon, Limmy is deeply interested in his characters, and never plays for easy laughs. He wants us to know the people who inhabit his fictional world, to sympathize with them, and to recognize ourselves in them. More often than not, the laugh catches in one’s throat as one realizes the full implications of characters’ circumstances and actions. LIMMY’S SHOW constantly reminds us that all great comedy comes from, and returns to pathos.

Besides playing all of the key roles in the series, Limmy writes, produces, and directs. This is DIY TV at its finest. The series was commissioned by the BBC after they had seen scores of Limmy’s homemade videos, posted on the Internet over the previous half dozen years: most notably on his popular vodcast, LIMMY’S WORLD OF GLASGOW. He began making these short pieces to amuse himself, and to cope with his life-long, often crippling bouts of depression. In some cases, the characters embody an aspect of his own personality (a stoner named Dee-Dee, who slips in and out of hallucinatory reveries, is Limmy’s version of himself in the throes of depression-think); in others, they simply evoke the tiny dissonances and misunderstandings that prevent us from fully connecting with each other on a social or personal level (a man takes inexplicable pleasure from covering his face with a lampshade, and the habit eventually destroys his marriage; another believes that it is the generosity of his smile, rather than his grotesque facial features, that convinces others to do his bidding). Though the sketches are often built upon silly, flimsy formulations, they rarely fail to convey deep, and deeply human feelings.

Which is why I, and so many who know his work, genuinely love Limmy. By which I do not simply mean that we love his work, and love his sensibility. We love him. We love that he exists, and chooses to share his existence, and his perspective on it with us. In a time when it is easy to see media as something that disconnects us, and displaces analogue communities with virtual ones, Limmy manages to reach through. Never sentimental or mawkish, often dark and disturbing, his comedy nonetheless touches us, if we let it.

So let it. And don’t forget to turn on the subtitles.