The good folks at Elevator Repair Service are doing text-driven theater in a very contemporary mode; over at their still-new home at the Lucille Lortel, Red Bull Theater (whose board – full disclosure – I recently joined) makes a much more old-fashioned approach seem just as contemporary. Red Bull’s mission is to stage the lesser-known classics of the Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, and, more generally, to stage plays from any period that rely on “heightened” language. So they’ve staged Fletcher and Middleton and Ford and Ben Jonson – but they’ve also done Strindberg and Genet and this year will be doing Joe Orton and Charles Ludlam. By focusing on the language, they connect us back with the origins of our theatrical tradition, and with the much-devalued word, but their approach is the opposite of antiquarian or stuffy.

One of the glories of the company is their reading series, which runs on many Monday nights from October through May. They get truly phenomenal casts for these, and the theatrical experience can be just as powerful or even more powerful than many full-scale productions, notwithstanding that the actors typically have only a few hours to rehearse before they must perform.

Their kickoff reading for the series this year was John Ford’s, Tis Pity She’s a Whore, a fascinating document of the Jacobean mind. It’s a tragic romance, like Romeo and Juliet – except that the lovers in this case are brother and sister. They carry on their incestuous affair in secret, until pregnancy makes further secrecy impossible, and she agrees to be married off to hide her dishonor. But the brother turns out to be jealous, and he fulfills the oath the mutually made earlier in the play, to kill each other if they cannot be together. He doesn’t just kill her, though: he cuts out her heart and carries it into the next scene where much of the rest of the cast meets its doom.

It’s fully as twisted as anything contemporary cable television could cook up. But it’s also very foreign, particularly in the degree to which everyone in the play sees the incestuous love as just another instance (if a rather extreme one) of out-of-control lust, rather than evidence of some more intractable malady. And that’s one reason to explore these works: to learn how little changes over time, and also how much does.

Their second offering was Milton’s Samson Agonistes, a dramatic poem that the author expressly stated should never be performed. It’s a dense and difficult text to follow – I wish I’d had the chance to read it closely before attending the performance. And it’s also a fascinating document of Milton’s mind. Milton melds the conventions of Greek tragedy with a Puritan sensibility and world-view that really isn’t very compatible (to begin with, the Puritans closed the theaters). The chorus wavers between resembling a Greek chorus and resembling Job’s comforters; Samson himself appears to be a tragic figure in epilogue, like Oedipus at Colonus, but then his final act is not cathartic to the audience but redemptive to him personally.

Or so his father avers. There’s that pervasive sense with Milton that he was in perpetual agon with himself. He wrote this poem apparently to glorify Samson (and, as it was paired with Paradise Regained, to compare him implicitly to Jesus), but the closing words by Samson’s father and the chorus feel grossly false, just as Milton’s Satan is a more approachable figure than his God.

I found myself, after the reading (which was followed by an excellent talkback with the director, members of the cast, and a professor from Montclair State University), musing on the possible relationship between Milton’s poem and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

  • Both are tragedies with a rising rather than a falling action – Hamlet starts his tragedy a mess, unable even to articulate a clear speech much less do what his father’s ghost demands, and slowly works his way towards his “readiness is all” moment of serenity; so, too, Milton’s Samson starts out wailing, blaming himself, doubting his destiny and God’s providence, and over the course of the poem comes to a point where he knows what he must do, and does it.
  • Both are invited to their fatal ends by foppish messengers – indeed, the actor who played the messenger in the Red Bull reading seemed, I thought, to be channeling Osric.
  • Hamlet contemplates suicide continuously through the play; Samson ultimately commits suicide, albeit he’s exonerated from the charge of such by the argument that his death was not the object of his action but merely unavoidable collateral damage.
  • And both, in their deaths, are described as having become who they were finally destined to be, achieving an elusive selfhood at the price of ending the self altogether.

I don’t know whether there’s been anything written about a connection there, but I’d be curious. It certainly seemed like a vivid possibility to me in the moment.

In any event, I cannot recommend the series highly enough. The next four readings that round out this calendar year are:

  • November 4th:DINNER+
    by Moira Buffini
    The dinner party as revenge – served up in a deliciously dark contemporary British comedy.
    Directed by David Esbjornson
    With Mercedes Ruehl, J. Smith-Cameron, Daniel Gerroll, Laura Campbell, Brian Hutchison, and David Pittu
  • November 18th:PROMETHEUS UNBOUND
    by Percy Bysshe Shelley
    The defiant, tormented Prometheus is released to the world in this exquisite romantic fantasia.
    Directed by Craig Baldwin
    With John Douglas Thompson and Jennifer Ikeda
  • December 9th:THE TRAGEDY OF MR. MORN
    New York Premiere of a play by Vladimir Nabokov
    A dazzling verse romance by the precocious 24-year old author, responding to Revolution with a bloody tale of desire.
    Translated by Thomas Karshan and Anastasia Tolstoy
    Directed by Rachel Chavkin
    With Quincy Tyler Bernstine and David Greenspan
  • December 16th:TOO CLEVER BY HALF
    by Alexander Ostrovsky
    An anarchic, side-splitting satire about a smooth-talking opportunist and his ruthless climb to the top.
    Directed by Daniel Sullivan
    With Stephen Spinella