Bologna’s “Rigoletto”: an orgy with its highs and lows

Audiences who went to see Rigoletto at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna on November 13th, 2016, were in for a rare treat. During Act III, the audience broke out in cheer, praising Vladimir Stoyanov and Irina Lungu, who played Rigoletto and Gilda respectfully, for their duet. Surprisingly, they responded with an encore and performed their duet again. Though an encore in an opera would generally ruin the momentum of the story, this was not the case here. This is because the true highlight of the opera was its singers who gracefully and seemingly effortlessly sang Verdi’s libretto. I was particularly interested to see how the Duke (Celso Abelo) would execute “la donna e’ mobile,” and indeed he made it seem easy. Irinia Lungu had a powerful and mature voice playing Gilda. One could almost hear her voice begging for a moment of coloratura, which unfortunately Verdi does not make much room for in his opera. The real let down of the show, however, was in the direction. The director, Alessio Pizzech, decided to set Verdi’s Rigoletto in what seemed to be a brothel with doll-like women or perhaps a cheap hotel room. Pizzech makes a clear point to show how the Duke objectifies women by presenting them as existing on stage solely for the pleasure of him and his courtiers. Their costumes seemed cheap compared to the courtiers, and coupled with their doll-like make-up they seem other-worldly, as if they emerged out of a Tim Burton illustration. Even Gilda (Irina Lungu) is depicted as a doll, which can be seen as a straightforward interpretation that shows her as a daughter unwilling, or perhaps refrained, from growing up. It was an interesting choice to have her enter the cabinet and pose as one of her own dolls while she is being kidnapped, however this makes it seem as though she willing accepts being taken away by the men. According to this direction, the event does not seem traumatic, as Gilda expresses it to be in Act II.


Gilda represented as a doll, Rigoletto standing in the foreground

The background, which seemed stunning at first in the opening scene, quickly became a disappointment. Aside from presence of a plain tacky red curtain, the main problem with the set was that there was no real sense of place. At times, the backdrop was even partially raised to reveal the red curtain behind it, which seemed utterly unnecessary and contributed to a lack of context to the scenes. Of particular disappointment, was the scene where Rigoletto meets Sparafucile for the first time. Dramatically, the choice to have Rigoletto change from his heels to his suit was clever, and contributes to a clear understanding of his duel identity; of how his daughter has no idea of who he is and what he does. However, when he adorns his suit and then proceeds to meet Sparafucile, this sense of a private moment is disturbed. Is he changing in private, or is he doing so in public? There is no context as to where he meets Sparafucile with the background being completely black. Michael Mayer’s production of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera, which premiered in 2013, sets Verdi’s opera in Las Vegas in the 1960s. Rigoletto (Željko Lučić) meets Sparafucile (Stefan Kocan) at a bar, which is actually believable and is the ideal context for a contemporary setting. However, in the production at Bologna, Pizzech relies on the audience’s familiarity with the libretto. It seems as though he relied on the libretto to move the opera forward rather than attempting to fully contextualize the opera with his vision.

While I love to see operas that are reimagined in more contemporary settings, I believe changing the setting is unnecessary if it does not contribute to the plot in any way. At the heart of Verdi’s Rigoletto is a story of a father’s love for his daughter. Unfortunately in Pizzech’s version, poor choreography of the characters that partake in the orgy and the inability to define the settings of the scenes inhibits a full appreciation for Rigoletto. Characters lose a sense of purpose in the performance. If Pizzech was trying to play to a heightened sense of sexuality contrasted with innocence, he should have pushed it further. Of the main characters, perhaps the weakest was Maddalena (Rossana Rinaldi). It is almost as if the set, being a simple yet stunningly designed ship, overshadows her character. She could have pushed her sexuality and sense of trying to seduce the Duke even further. What more, she seemed vocally weak in the quartet because of how powerful and clear Gilda’s voice is.

The principal singers, especially Vladimir Stoyanov whom the audience adored, should be praised as they vocally did justice to Verdi’s piece. It is also worth noting the conductor, Renato Palumbo who justly orchestrated the music. Of particular excitement was the way the orchestra handled the storm, which was brilliantly executed. Rigoletto is a story that can be adapted to many contexts, however in this case, Pizzech’s direction falls short.



Death as a theme in Dino Risi’s ‘Il Sorpasso’ (1962)

Dino Risi’s Il Sorpasso (1962) is a commedia all’italiana film that presents two male characters that go on an unexpected journey together and bond with each other in spite of their differences. The fact that Bruno (Vittorio Gassman) and Roberto (Jean-Louis Trintignant) come from two different worlds and have distinctly opposite personalities is highlighted in their individual introductions. The opening sequence is of Bruno driving in his car on the hunt for a telephone. He is therefore associated with openness, a wild life. The first scene of Roberto, however, is an incredibly isolating and empty scene and one in which he almost appears like a ghost. He is seen looking at Bruno through the window of a brick walled building. This shot can be seen as characterizing the introvert Roberto is; closed off, hiding in the confines of his own home.

Bruno dominates each scene physically and verbally as he is the extrovert. With Roberto being an introvert, his thoughts are expressed through a voice over and his conflicting sense of self is revealed through the contrast between what he thinks and what he says. For instance, when he decides he does not want to partake in Bruno’s journey, he agrees to it anyway. When Bruno tells Roberto to “enjoy yourself for once,” it’s as if they have known each other for years rather than a matter of minutes.

Risi integrates ideas of death through the script. In the beginning, Bruno first describes Rome to be “a graveyard,” because of how empty it is. When they meet Roberto’s family, Bruno leaves calling the place “a morgue”. In fact, one of the first things they encounter on their journey together is a roadside accident, and a body lies covered by a white sheet. Being that the film is a of the ‘commedia all’italiana’, death is ever imminent but Risi integrates ideas of mortality subtly through the script so that it remains an ever present theme. The close-up of the speedometer and the good luck charms in Bruno’s car are images that appear in the beginning of the film. When these are cut to in the last scene, it becomes clear with how fast the car is moving that something tragic is about to occur. The use of sound is also important, with the incessantly annoying horn of the car dominating every moment of transit in their journey. Like the body under the white sheet at the roadside accident, Risi gives the audiences images that imply death but he never reveals an actual dead body. The tragedy of the ending is enough to dramatize and overturn the comedy of the film.

‘Semiramide’ at Opera di Firenze: notable, but not memorable

Semiramide was my first opera experience in Italy, but the second opera I’ve ever seen, my first one being Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail (which I can never seem to pronounce) at the Metropolitan Opera in New York earlier this year. This was actually pretty funny, mostly because of the orientalist way the Ottoman Empire were portrayed through the costumes (namely of the Pasha) and the two-dimensional set. The set was actually quite a disappointment compared to other grandeur productions at the Met Opera (I’ve been able to watch a few online. The sets are absolutely stunning! My personal favourite so far: their production of Simon Boccanegra). Opera is certainly different to the kinds of theater I’ve been exposed to. I’d love to be able to understand it musically (my knowledge of music is close to nothing but hey, I’m trying to learn), since opera is of course nothing without music. Semiramide was a lengthy experience, to say the least. They made some interesting choices (let’s not talk about Semiramide’s hair though) but it just wasn’t exciting. This is one of those operas where you have to come prepared already knowing the plot and the plot twists, else nothing is going to make sense. Quite frankly though, kudos to you if you’re able to follow the synopsis of an opera because golly – them plot twists are really something (it’s like a soap opera…. oh wait. Well that makes sense now….). Here’s my short review of Semiramide, which kicked off the season 2016-17 for Opera di Firenze.


Semiramide and Arsace in Act II – I really love the shattered mirrors, but does it really add anything to the plot? Does a set need to extend from the plot or can it just be cool? (that green hair though)

Rossini’s Semiramide concludes its run at the Opera di Firenze on October 4th, 2016. The opera is directed by Marina Bianchi and Marie Lambert, though they adapt the direction of the late Luca Ronconi as a tribute to him.

When the curtain opened, my breath was taken away by the magnificence of the stage. It is daring in its simplicity, but the set design coupled with the costumes and presence of the attendants seen to be emerging from the earth, is striking. Oroe (Oleg Tsybulko) is as white as a marble statue, standing on a pillar with a flame hanging above him. The backdrop looks like a cracked stone wall, giving the sense that the opera seria is set in another world and another time.

Oroe, with his costume resembling that of a statue, represents the trajectory of the entire direction taken with the opera because of its static nature. The opera lacks movement; characters frequently cross the stage by being moved by the floor of the stage but their bodies remain still. This can be seen as interpreting a kind of pure opera, where singers would stand still and face the audience. However I found this interpretation of Semiramide to be quite stale. In fact, the singers are at times upstaged by the conductor in the pit who moves with such passion in directing the orchestra. There is no real purpose for characters to be moved by the stage itself. Such a technical decision works well between scene changes, but serves little purpose to emphasizing any meaning to the opera. This reminded me of a production I saw of A Streetcar Named Desire earlier in the year at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. For the entirely of the performance, the set, which was staged as theatre in the round, rotated. This I believe added no meaning to the play. The only thing it did was to add a dynamism to the performance that was lacking between the actors. It seemed as though the director did not trust in the ability for his actors to deliver, and so had to turn the actual set into a dynamic spectacle. Much like Semiramide, the moving cubes the singers would stand upon and be transported by, does nothing to elevate the plot. There is no real purpose for the stage floor to move; what it does is simply make obvious how still the opera is. Azema (Tonia Langella) makes her entrance and exit by simply lying and sitting down on a block that moves along the stage. It is as if her body is rendered useless, her voice being of sole value. Perhaps the only real effective use of this is when Semiramide (Jessica Pratt) and Arsace (Silvia Tro Santafe) embrace, and then are instantly torn apart by the floor. Though effective, such a scene shows how necessary movement is to a contemporary adaptation of Rossini’s piece.

The characters that intrigued me the most were the attendants, their bodies half sunken into the earth. I particularly recall when Jessica Pratt makes her entrance as Semiramide, and behind her are the attendants reaching out to her as though she was a Goddess of the seas and they the waves kissing the shoreline. I admired the physicality of their near-naked crawling bodies and outstretched arms. They added a dynamic quality to the opera that was lacking. The choice to leave the chorus physically absent, hearing their voices offstage, is an interesting one. Their absence however is made up for by the presence of the attendants, who speak no words. Whenever they make an appearance, one can assume that an aria with the chorus will commence within the scene.

I was impressed by Silvia Tro Santafe as the contralto. She instantly grasped my attention as Arsace when she began her cavatina and opening aria, “Ah! quel giorno ognor rammento”. She had such power to her voice, more so than the male opera singers, and had a presence that truly commanded the stage. Perhaps her most striking aria with fine coloratura was in Act II when she sung “In si barbara sciagura”.

Act I ends with an impressive stage with the introduction of Nino’s ghost. Nino’s ghost was physically represented on stage with a body in a tomb or coffin, suspended over the stage. Changyoung Lee however, who sung the part of the ghost, was in the pit unseen with the chorus. The second act commences with a memorable duet between Semiramide and Assur (Mirco Palazzi). At the opening of Act II, there is a confrontation between them where they sing “Se la vita ancor t’e cara”. This is also likely the scene with the most movement taking place in that the actors physically move their bodies. Assur climbs on the structure of broken mirrors Semiramide stands upon, and she in turns climbs down. Their physical movements depict the sense of a confrontation between them. Their voices work well together as a duet between a soprano and bass.

The revival of Semiramide by Opera di Firenze is notable, but perhaps not memorable. Although the directors treated the performance as a tribute to the direction of Ronconi, the opera is let down by some of the decisions in stage design that make such a long opera seem stale.



Desperation in Vittorio de Sica’s “Bicycle Thieves” (1948)

I’ve recently moved to Florence in Italy and one of the classes I’m taking is “History of Italian Cinema”. We’ve been focussing on Italian neorealism, which has been absolutely exciting for me. Analyzing the films and writing reviews on them has been quite a joyous experience because once I have an idea, all these connections start to appear and the film(s) takes on a whole new meaning filled with intertextuality, symbolism, and greater depth to the chosen shots I hadn’t considered before.

It’s not so great when your professor hands you back your essay, having underlined terminology and interesting points and written “ok” in the margin. So I thought I’d use my theater blog to spend some time looking at Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette, or as it is known in English, Bicycle Thieves (1948) and put my two cents in (the title is often mistakenly translated as Bicycle Thief, minor but significant detail). My ideas may or may not be original, but dang it – I had things I wanted to say. This is by no means extensive because really an entire book should be written about the film, but it’s a snippet looking at particular shots. So here we go:


What struck me about Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) was the portrayal of desperation. There is a sheer feeling of desperation in the reality that Ricci faces, knowing that the bicycle affects his entire life. In a snowball effect, the loss of his bicycle means he is unable to work and therefore unable to provide for his family.

As much as the story follows Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) in his quest to find his bike, it is also about following his son, Bruno (Enzo Staiola), and observing their relationship. When Ricci is about to head off for his first day at work, there is a two shot of him with Bruno as they put their omelets into their pocket. They dress almost similarly, and the gaze they exchange between them within this shot depicts a loving relationship between them. This two shot is important, as it is the first shot where the audience has a look at both of them as father and son, without a bike between them (see featured image of the post). Prior to this, dialogue between them has had them existing on different frames. Bruno actually works on cleaning the bicycle and talks to his father, but they are never in the same shot with the bike before stepping out of the house. Though most of the film proceeds to revolve around finding the bicycle rather than it being constantly seen visually, the bicycle is present in the psychology of Ricci, which then slowly creates a sense of distance between father and son. Finding the bicycle becomes more important than the immediate care of Bruno, who is seen falling down and even almost getting hit by a car.

De Sica employs the use of wide-angle shots in order for the audience to follow the action and contextualize the scenario with the location, Rome. This then creates a visual emphasis of trying to find a needle in a haystack, of trying to find one bicycle in the city of Rome. These wide shots, however, are also an opportunity to see Ricci’s son trailing behind him. The first moment Bruno is first seen following his father, is when Ricci carries his bike out of the house. Bruno trails behind him for an instant, before turning back to realize that his baby sister lies on the bed. He closes the window so his sister (I assume sister for some reason) will not feel cold, a moment that also alienates the audience and creates this sense that the viewer is observing the lives of Ricci and Bruno unfold. The second instant that the audience is alienated, which is almost immediately after the first, is when there is a two shot of Ricci and Bruno standing by the door of their house. Ricci bids his wife farewell and closes the door. Both moments of alienation, first by the son then by the father, serve to inform the audience that both characters are equally important to the story. They also are used by De Sica to emphasize the role of the audience as an observer.

The camera often stays with Bruno, catching the moments when he is on his own. The audience is also frequently shown his point of view. This has a strong emotional weight to the film, most notably when Ricci decided to steal a bicycle. This moment is marked by an asymmetrical shot divided by a street post, making it seem as though Ricci is literally crossing the line from victim to thief and there is no going back when he does. Bruno sees his father riding off with the bike and then getting caught. Bruno makes his way through the crowd of people to be near his father, tight shot which serves to elevate the anxiety of the scene. As they hold hands and walk through the crowd of people around them, De Sica restrains using a two shot for this scene and only does so from behind them. They walk with a crowd of people, a moment that recalls the beginning of the film where Ricci stood amongst a crowd waiting for news of work. Seeing individual shots of the father crying and the boy in despair heighten the desperation and sense of complete loss that a two shot would shatter. What is important is to see them holding hands together, their faces visibly showing their utter loss and uncertainty of what is to come.

Screen Shot 2016-09-25 at 10.14.07 PM.png

The moment before Ricci steals a bicycle. The composition reminds me of some of Lee Friedlander’s photographs.



When technology gets in the way of performance – a review of Close to the Bone

This past year I realized that one of the things I would really love to do is use technology to bridge the gap between film and theatre. This is also driven by my desire to turn an audience member into a spect-actor. So when I heard about Colomboscope’s immersive theatre show titled Close to the Bone, I thought: wait a second, immersive theatre in Sri Lanka when I happen to be here?

To give you some background, Colomboscope is a multidisciplinary arts festival which has been around since 2013. I was super excited though because a) half of the festival coincided with the time I’d spend back in Colombo and b) it was a digital arts festival, so much excitement indeed.

This particular post though isn’t about the festival, but specifically about their immersive theatre show. Close to the Bone was held at the presidential suite of Cinnamon Lakeside (such a good location). The performance involved using your own smartphone (and earphones they’d provide) to access a link whereby during the course of the performance you’d be able to hear the thoughts of the characters in the play. The show would loop and start again, and you’d have the chance to follow another character and listen to their thoughts. Sounds neat, but did it work? Not quite. And there are several reasons for this, but I shall control my ranting by presenting them in list format:

  1. So what’s the show about?
    Like many theatre goers, I didn’t know what the show was going to be about before going to see it. But after reading the description, I don’t think it would have changed my experience in any way. As far as I could tell, it was basically the story of how one man deals with the wrong crowd of people, likely in borrowing money, and now he fears for his life and puts his family in danger as a consequence. But, here’s the actual log-line of the show:

    “Paranoia grabs hold of a bourgeois Colombo couple when a series of strange encounters interrupt their lives. From the outside, Kusal and Tania are the golden young urban couple living in their brand new apartment in the newly gentrified Slave Island, but when Tania begins to notice an older woman stalking her and Kusal starts receiving a series of mysterious phone calls, they each begin to suspect their own indiscretions have come back to haunt them. Visited upon by Kusal’s sister, Yasodha, and her girlfriend, Sanchia, the interruptions begin to bleed into the events of the night and the relationships of the couples present begins to fray, as the line between victim and predator becomes increasingly blurred.”

    And after reading this, it seems like it was written with a completely different script in mind. Firstly, what ‘older woman’? There was no older woman stalking Tania, Kusal’s wife, nor was one ever mentioned (why is this important it to the story even it was mentioned?). Secondly, ‘a series’ should really be three or more calls, and I believe there was only one call. Also in the show, there was a man who knocked at the door of the apartment and said his name was Kusal (insert last name that apparently is the same name as the male character). My reaction to this is simple: what?? To the script, it makes absolutely no sense that someone would show up at the door and claim the identity of one of the characters. This moment only aided in making Kusal’s wife even more worried and anxious.

  2. The script was flat 
    Everyone’s pretty much worried and fed up with Kusal for about 90% of the show. The remaining 10% goes towards the beginning when everyone is chilling on the couch, and to moments of intimacy like when Yasodha convinces Tania to have a little fun, just jump on the bed and play a game. But for the most part, there is no real sense of an arc. In this hour long show (which loops, so it’s two hours long), there’s just a consistent sense of tension and spite towards Kusal. This is broken up though with moments when the characters are on their own, which presents moments of quietness which is broken by the fact that you can hear their thoughts.
  3. You can hear their thoughts
    This goes hand in hand with my earlier point. Though I was excited about going to an immersive show, as soon as I heard that it would involve hearing the character’s thoughts, I sighed in exasperation. My biggest fear was that using technology in this way, would eliminate all subtext within the script. And if this is the aim of the writer/director, then that’s fair. However, listening to the audio did not enhance my experience in any way. Having said that, I didn’t engage with the audio for most of the show because it didn’t work with my device, but my mom was able to listen to most of the show.
    When Tania steps out into the balcony (amazing view by the way), I thought rather exasperatingly: oh God, she’s contemplating suicide. My mom, who was able to listen to Tania’s thoughts at this moment, confirmed that she was.
    When Kusal is alone in his bedroom breathing heavily and clearly worried and fearful, I was hoping that the audio would have some insight into what he’s thinking about. I borrowed my mother’s device momentarily, and heard that really all he was saying to himself was “breathe…. breathe….” Great. That was informative.
  4. Don’t produce a show that relies on internet in Sri Lanka
    This is a big one. We have serious internet issues, no matter how close you are to the WiFi router. Whereas likely anywhere else the idea of creating a private link accessible only by connecting to a specific WiFi signal and then being able to choose a character and press ‘play’ would work, it doesn’t quite work in Sri Lanka. The buffer time was excruciating, and even when I’d finally hear something, it would just keep buffering. This also meant that I couldn’t alternate between different characters because it would take majorly long for their audio to load up. I’d have loved to listen to the thoughts of Sanchia whom I thought was a relatively tranquil character, but sadly the audio would not load.

    This reminded me though, of a silent disco I had gone to in Queens, NY. Everyone would have a set of wireless headphones which were connected via Bluetooth to three DJ booths. The headphones would also light up in different colours according to which DJ you were listening to. So if you were listening to the DJ in Blue and your friend, whose headphones are red ,starts grooving, with a flick of a switch you’d be able to change your DJ from blue to red. You can imagine this is insanely fun, especially when everyone listening to channel blue starts forming a conga line.
    In the same way, a long term and definitely more expensive (because you’d’ have to import these devices) version of the show could be that they use wireless headsets that are connected via bluetooth to the system playing the recordings. Participants would be able to easily alternate between different characters and because we’re not relying on anything to load up but rather a kind of connection, there should be a minimal lag time. Just an idea.

  5. The sound design was distracting and below par
    When the internet keeps buffering, it doesn’t really work to have an audio recording with silences between thoughts. The audio would literally just stop, rather than fade out. As sound designers for film will tell you, even in a scene of absolute stillness and quiet, you need sound. Every room and space has its own ‘air’.
    Additionally the sound design incorporated this strange noise which sounded similar to Logic’s ‘marble in a glass’ sound. I liked the idea of this eerie, rolling-in-a-wine-glass sense to the sound, but it prevented me from hearing the actual dialogue spoken between the characters. And whenever a thought could be heard, it was spoken excruciatingly slowly. The sound design distracting, and didn’t contribute to my understanding of the show. It seemed as though it was completely separate to the performance.

I’ve discussed the cons in depth,  but there was some pros as well. Immersive theatre is uncommon in Sri Lanka, and they really made an effort to instruct the audience of how a show like that works. They made it a point that the audience could move around anywhere and ideally, they should pick a character to follow. Though given how flat the script was, I would have cut the show down to 20 minutes so that within just over an hour, the play loops four times so that everyone in the audience has the chance to follow every character. I make this comment not to judge the show for what it is, but to make a suggestion that could be applied given that there is no progressional arc to the show for a story like this. Unlike The Grand Paradise in Bushwick, they made it a point that the show was about “interaction not interruption”. This was an interesting use of Brecht’s alienation effect. In the Grand Paradise, one would dance with the characters or be lured into secret rooms by them. Here, Close to the Bone relied on the audience being an observant spectator, silently intrusive with the ability to hear their thoughts. What I find interesting about the show is the choice to present an elite family and also a homosexual couple (homosexuality is still illegal in Sri Lanka, the choice thereby showing how the elite can do whatever they want). The elite are there own peculiar class of people in Sri Lanka, and I felt the use of Brecht’s alienation effect to have the audience ignored by the characters contributed to emphasizing how distant the elite are from ‘the others’.

It was wonderful to see the audience really invested in the show, moving with the characters to separate rooms. But the use of technology, if it doesn’t enhance the show, might have been a bit too much for some of the audience members to handle.

Giacometti and his portrayal of the body and space

Earlier this year in January 2016, I had the opportunity to visit an exhibition of work by Alberto Giacometti at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In fact I was so struck by the collection on display that I paid a second visit. I wrote an essay for a class of mine, comparing two works by Giacometti and looking at them through the lens of performance art. I spent hours looking at his work, but the two that I spent the greatest deal of time on were his Portrait of Annette (1954) and Woman of Venice VIII (1956).

So though this post is related to painting and sculptural work, Giacometti’s pieces struck me on a theatrical level. His final pieces showcase the process by which he worked and every decision he made through each stroke; his work isn’t about the final subject alone but his own act of representation. Beyond this performative element where his work embodies his very process of working, I couldn’t resist thinking about the relationship between body and space in his pieces (and as any theatre major knows, the topic of ‘body and space’ comes up quite frequently).

And of course, I can’t even begin to explain how I felt when I found out that Giacometti was close friends with Samuel Beckett and designed the set for Waiting for Godot.


I have not been able to get his work out of my head, and so I’ve decided to revisit what I wrote for my class, make minor changes, and post it on here. At the very end, I digress into a short reflection (I apologize if I ramble, but as much as I am very much a visual person, writing is also a means by which I figure things out).

I should give credit to Professor Shamoon Zamir. It is in his class, Idea of the Portrait, whereby I was introduced to the work of Giacometti and as the title suggests, ways to think about portraiture.

Oh, and kindly excuse the lengthy title of the essay. As you can probably guess, I had a lot to say.

The Inseparability of Body and Space:

The Relationship Between the Body and Space in Negotiating the Co-Existence of Life and Death in Giacometti’s Portrait of Annette (1954) and Woman of Venice VIII (1956).


The body is affected by the cultural, social and historical conditions that surround it. It was Merleau-Ponty who stated that the body is “an historical idea” (Butler 1). Having bore witness to “the maimed bodies, the severed body parts…. after the Bombardment of Moulins” in 1944, Alberto Giacometti’s work is often seen as a testament to the fragility and resilience of human existence (Genge and Sterken 65). He has an extensive, “unbroken” fascination with portraiture from the years of 1914 to 1966 (Moorhouse). Giacometti’s work conveys the unity between the body and the space that surrounds it. He portrays a relationship between the body and space that negotiates the parallel existence of life and death. This notion will be examined through Giacometti’s oil painting Portrait of Annette 1954 and his bronze sculpture Woman of Venice VIII made in 1956.

Giacometti draws attention to the external, physical body as opposed to the ‘inner being’ of the sitter. Annette was Giacometti’s primary model in his work in the post-war period. Having married him in 1949, Annette would help look after his studio and also sit on a daily basis as a subject for her husband’s portrait. In Giacometti’s oil painting titled Portrait of Annette 1954, Annette is seen seated slouched and in the nude. Her nipples are unseen, and her right hand crosses over her left subsequently covering her vagina. She is visibly a female figure, however, “Giacometti avoid[s] elevating matter to the status of objective sensualism, substantial plenitude, complete presence” (Finburgh 91). Focus is placed on the active state of her body as Annette is presented in a universal physical state: sitting. Sylvester notes that figures in Giacometti’s work “are never engaged in activities of their own at which they are caught unawares, but are posed facing the beholder, posed so that they can clearly be seen” (Sylvester 19). The body thus becomes an object with the intention of being seen. The depiction of Annette in the nude and in a full frontal position indicates the intimacy of her relationship with Giacometti. The openness of her pose has also been “accorded with her very open, receptive personality” (Moorhouse). Yet in the portrait, Annette has a ghostly presence. From afar, Annette appears to be gazing out into the distance, her eye-line above the head of the viewer. Giacometti once commented on how “all the living were dead” (Lord, ch 39). This remark can be said to describe the social and economic conditions of Europe after the Second World War. When one approaches Annette, her eyes appear hollow because of their lack of detail, and the vertical lines that appear thinly painted over her face. Her body faces the viewer, but her eyes make no attempt to meet the spectator’s gaze. The hollowness of Annette’s eyes complements the depth of the background itself. The physical body exists within the space, however it breathes both life and still death.

Giacometti makes a conscious acknowledgement of empty space. Compositionally, Annette sits towards the right of the frame. There is an acknowledgement of the physical body because of the number of lines that contribute to her summation as a physical presence. Giacometti creates “a substructure of verticals, horizontals and diagonals scored into the canvas” (Finburgh 86). Lines that define the background overlap onto the figure of Annette. These lines contribute to the representation of Annette as a ghostly figure, her body nothing more than an illusion. This illusive quality is also seen with Giacometti’s Woman of Venice VIII (1956). Like several of his sculptures, it is an elongated, almost skeletal representation of the body. The nude sculpture appears almost enveloped by its surrounding space, its thinness alluring to a sense of fragility. The anonymous figure is both “upright and self assured, but on the other [hand] is fragile and vulnerable” (Alberto3). In profile view, the sculpture appears to be leaning forward, as if trying to escape the weight that holds her. Like the painting of Annette, the subject is firmly and almost passively fixed in place. With the brushwork on the painting or the textural material of the bronze sculpture, it is clear where the body exists in relation to negative space. However, the sculpture exists as an object within the space, whereas the painting is an object that defines space within itself. Though there are objects of the studio depicted in the painting, there is no apparent wall behind the subject. Through the angular position of the object and their partial concealment, “it is uncertain where solid form ends and space begins” (Sylvester 4). In Giacometti’s sculpture, the finite space surrounding the physical sculpture is an essential part of the sculpture. The women in both works are thus inseparable from empty space. They transcend notions of life and death, as their physical bodies are made both visible and inseparable from this space. The space preserves the subjects’ presence and acknowledges their absence.

There is a complex feeling of isolation and the ability to relate between the subjects Giacometti portrays and the spectators. In Portrait of Annette 1954 Annette sits, presumably on a stool, her legs being cut by the frame painted by Giacometti, which is then contained within the frame of the painting itself. The painted frame creates a separation between the spectator and the subject in much the same way some of Titian’s paintings do. Taking Titian’s La Schiavona (1510-12) as an example, light “washes [the lady’s] very pale skin with reddish cheeks, [which] gives the presence of a pulsating animal” (Titian’s). Giacometti employs a neutral colour palette, painting a tinge pink within the layers of lines that define Annette’s body, the pink becoming most concentrated at her hands. The pink visibly stands out, however the painting’s neutral colour palette and the hollowness of Annette’s eyes create ambiguity as to whether the body is alive or simply a corpse. A similar ambiguity exists with Woman of Venice VIII. The skeletal figure lacks detail, creating a sense of unease as to whether the figure is representative of a live being. This sense of unease also stems from the very fact that, like several of Giacometti’s works, the figure is based on a memory of an individual. However, Giacometti titles this figure anonymously. In doing so, Genet comments, “that Giacometti renders our universe ‘even more unbearable’ because he strips away the trappings of character” (Finburgh 80). This can be seen as a testament to the shared human experiences, such as that of war, which can generate a collective sense of pain and loss in a community. Giacometti once commented on the fragility of his sculptures saying that, “I am always aware of the vulnerability of living creatures as if it costs them enormous energy to remain upright every moment, and they are always likely to collapse” (Reveals). His depiction of a human as a physical body and intentional exclusion of in representing an inner self, isolates the figure. The figure is stripped materialistically as she does not bear any clothes. Standing in the nude, Giacometti makes slight references to the femininity of her body with lines indicating her bodily crevices. This complicates the relationship between the spectator and the subject, as she might be perceived as a priestess, goddess, or prostitute. This does not hold true for the portrait of Annette as the sitter is named. Additionally, Annette’s body is comprised of several curved lines. Her stomach is round, and her thighs are thick. However both the painting and sculpture gaze above the head of the spectator. Whether the body is alive or not, seems to matter less than the actual acknowledgement of the figure being a human body.

Giacometti is not only painting or sculpting a portrait, but rather he is capturing the relationship of the body to its surrounding space. Beyond being husband and wife, the painting of Annette becomes an object that is representative of the intimacy between the sitter and the painter. It is through this intimacy, given the posture of Annette, that a viewer is confronted with the dichotomy of life and death. Using an understated colour palette and painting lines that unify the background and the figure, the body is seen as inseparable from space. With the sculpture titled Woman of Venice VIII, the actual space that separates a spectator from the figure is a part of the physical definition of the sculptural figure. The woman stands both poised and on the verge of movement. Though Giacometti denies his work as intentionally concerning ideas of human existence, the temporal context of his work cannot be excluded. In his work is the portrayal of the impact of war on the body. In choosing to focus on the external physical self as opposed to the inner self, Giacometti presents work that becomes about the shared human experience of what it means to be physically caught in a place of violence and conflict. Merleau-Ponty believes the body and, “its appearance in the world, for perception, is not predetermined by some manner of interior essence” (Butler 2). In portraying the body, the historical and social context of Giacometti’s work in the post-war period cannot be excluded. Both works examined convey a relationship between the body and space that is inseparable, and to some extent transcendent. Life and death are a part of reality and exist simultaneously, rather than the latter coming after the former. In Giacometti’s work, he presents how the body and its existence in space, constantly shows signs of the co-existence of life and death.


I ended up drawing a charcoal sketch of Giacometti’s Woman of Venice VIII sculpture. Thinking back on it now, what touched me on some level and still does was the idea that the figure wasn’t of anybody. It was created with the idea of someone in mind, and yet over time came to represent his memories of several others. In stripping “away the trappings of character,” the sculpture can be seen as representing a shared human experience.

In my film work, I’ve struggled with writing characters that are whole. I avoid revealing any personal background to the character in an attempt, I’ve realized, for the audience to connect with them on an emotional level. In short, it’s about the feels. It’s about how the seemingly ordinary carry a weight of pain. There’s a sense that they’re preoccupied with something. Which is why I feel I was so drawn to Giacometti’s work in that, the characters I portrayed on screen were meant to have a sense of universality to them. You as the audience know how they feel because you’ve been through something similar, as opposed to you can understand what they feel because the circumstances have been laid out for you. In this approach, that I am continuously reflecting on the whys and hows I choose to do this, it means that my films are not as strong as they can be in terms of story. For now, I’m in my stubborn student-filmmaker phase where I create what I want to because of what I see. What I see though, isn’t always clear. And like how Giacometti’s work is representative of the process by which he remembers, feels, creates, represents and remembers again, I think I need to find a way by which my film work can also be representative of a process and not a sense of finality. Hence the allure of performance art and theatre, where you never know what to expect.

It’s all about the feels.

Works Cited:
“Alberto Giacometti Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story. The Art Story Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Jan. 2016.
“Alberto Giacometti Reveals.” YouTube. The Flow, 17 July 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
“Alberto Giacometti, Woman from Venice I, 1956.”YouTube. Museum of Fine Arts Bern, 10 June 2014. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
Butler, Judith. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40.4 (1988): 519. Web.
French Forum 27.3 (2002): 73-98. Web. 17 Jan. 2016.
Genge, Gabriele, and Angela Stercken. Art History and Fetishism Abroad: Global Shiftings in Media and Methods. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2014. Print.
Giacometti: Pure Presence. The National Portrait Gallery, London. 8 Jan. 2016. Exhibition.
Lord, James. Giacometti: A Biography. New York: Farrar, 1985. Print.
Moorhouse, Paul. “Curator’s Introduction to Giacometti: Pure Presence.” YouTube. National Portrait Gallery, 2 June 2015. Web. 16 Jan. 2016.
Sylvester, David. Looking at Giacometti. New York: Henry Holt, 1996. Print.
Titian’s Early Portraits. Perf. Antonio Mazotta. The National Gallery. The National Gallery, n.d. Web. 15 Jan. 2016




I’ll never forget this moment. One of the images that really sticks in my mind from Fuerza Bruta: Wayra. Somehow, I felt identified with this particular moment. I felt like this moment perfectly described how I was feeling in my first week in New York; like an outsider looking in, in a world of fantasy, trying to escape and feeling like I was alone yet with so much happening around me.

Also, the main actor was really cute.

Escapism, spectacles and migration – the collective experience of Fuerza Bruta: Wayra (NYC)

I had never experienced anything quite like Fuerza Bruta: Wayra. Dragged by a friend of mine so I could start being optimistic about living in New York, I had no clue what I was getting myself into. So walking into a bar was interesting. Then descending downstairs into what felt like a basement was also interesting. Then being in a dark room lit only by what I can remember to be magenta shining lights and the text “Fuerza Bruta Wayra” being projected onto a wall – I was already excited.

Needless to say, I loved it. I loved it so much that I wrote an essay on it for my Performance and New York class (nerd moment, I know). Diqui James would hate me for trying to intellectualize the show. But I really can’t help it – it was one of the most incredible experiences EVER. While I think it funny that most articles about the show are written by older white men who found the show boring because they see it simply as a party, I urge you not to buy into their critique. Firstly, who doesn’t love a good party? And secondly, FB is more than just that. As I left the theatre, I could not help but think about how the performance revolved on the theme of escapism.

And so yes, I wrote an essay because I couldn’t get the show out of my mind. To be honest, I make vast generalizations in my essay because a) I had zero motivation to turn in this assignment and b) I was making obscure links in my head with things I had read for class. So maybe some things are farfetched but in my mind, it’s all connected in some way. SO, to begin:


Fuerza Bruta: Wayra  is the third showcase of the off-Broadway show Fuerza Bruta (FB), running at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square, New York City since 2007. Conceived by Argentinian director Diqui James, FB premiered in 2003 in Buenos Aires.

Think immersive theatre, music, lights, projection mapping and party.

The performance has travelled the world and received mixed reactions from the audience. In countries in Asia, such as China, where physical contact is not a part of the culture, there were certain cues added to the performance to encourage people to move and dance. By contrast in South America, a culture that demands physical contact, the audience would be open to moving wildly in the space. Likewise in New York, the audience has been open to being involved in the performance. FB has a special place in NY, and is more than just another spectacular show. It becomes a significant theatre piece to run when placing it around the social and historical context of New York being a place of migration. FB turns the act of spectatorship into a performance in order to create a sense of community.

(Warning you now – SPOILER ALERT from here on.)

A group of performers play drums with a tribal upbeat quality to them, the energy instantly affecting the audience (to this day, I cannot get this beat out of my mind it’s so good). Performers emerge swinging from the ceiling, seemingly desperate to touch the hands of the audience members, the desperation shifting onto the audience members who eagerly try to touch the hands of the performers. Soon, the audience is introduced to a mysterious man on a treadmill, who becomes the protagonist of the show. He walks on the wrong side of a makeshift treadmill in the center of the room. He starts walking, dressed in all white. As he picks up the pace, a shot is fired. He reacts, seemingly hurt, and eventually he falls over– but not before stagehands can get a soft landing under him. He later continues walking against the direction of the treadmill, passing people and props. He appears to be resisting mundane work, conforming to a group of people, and violence in general. Perhaps the single most important thing to note, is how stagehands are made a part of the whole performance. There are individuals dressed in black who guide the audience within the space, and work swiftly in placing and removing props and equipment needed for particular scenes, like chairs and tables, or a wind machine. It is remarkable how FB is able to make an audience believe in a world where escapism is possible, while still bearing witness to the obvious theatrical elements of theatre.

Richard Schechner discusses how ‘performance studies’ as a discipline is difficult to explain because it resists or rejects definition. The field itself “cannot be mapped effectively because it transgresses boundaries, it goes where it is not expected to be” (Schechner 360). It becomes interesting to examine the discipline as a way of mapping one’s own world. Andrew Schneider’s recent “YOUARENOWHERE” performance art piece is essentially a depiction of the creator’s own world and the existential crises he faces, the creator being Schneider. FB on the other hand tries to encompass a much larger world. Whereas Schneider uses his personal experiences and thoughts to relate to the audience, FB resists specificity. By trying to create an experience that is raw and dependent on the movement of one’s body and the feelings one experiences during the course of the performance, FB maps a world unlike any other. It is able to depict problems of the real world, such as violence or stress, whilst creating the sense of the possibility to escape to a fantastical world filled with movement and music, and where one is not tied to any labels, social or otherwise. Schechner continues to discuss how performance studies “is inherently ‘in between’ and therefore cannot be pinned down or located exactly” (Schechner 360). This falls into a discussion on the power of theatre, and how theatre creates a suspension of disbelief; that in a particular time and space, what is seen as pretend is made to be real. This is further heightened in FB because of audience involvement being integral to the performance, thereby turning the audience into a ‘spect actor’.

What follows during the course of the performance is a descent into a world of fantasy. Performers suspend above everyone or swim on a transparent ceiling that drops down low enough for the audience to make contact with it, and a series of performers who release confetti and keep the audience moving. If one goes on a Friday night, there is even an after party that follows. Throughout the night, FB plays with desire and temptation. It is fascinating to witness the reactions of other audience members, as some will extend their arms towards the suspended performers. The question arises as to whether people are reaching out to be a part of the world or for the chance at human contact.  Growing up, Diqui James had an immense love for carnivals because of the energy in the streets and the feeling that everyone was together (James2). James calls the performance “a celebration”, creating a space where one is granted permission to let go; to drink to the heart’s content, and dance like one has never danced before.  This is interesting to consider when juxtaposed to the concept of amusement and spaces of entertainment. It is easy to understand why New York becomes a hub for experimental arts and theatre because of its historic ties with entertainment and the establishment of amusement parks such as Coney Island. Historians Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace wrote of how “Coney’s rides and beaches [was where] diverse peoples swam, ate, played, and rode together” (Burrows and Wallace1).  Such places offered a sense of contained freedom, as rides like “the roller coaster momentarily relieved riders of their inhibitions, providing welcome opportunities for romance” (Burrows and Wallace1).  James talks about how the show’s “main thing is that it’s a collective experience. You are interacting with people, sharing that space” (Watson).

Creating an experience that is collective and shared addresses notions of the power of theatre and its ability to bridge social and cultural barriers. In 2001, Nancy Foner noted that “in the past four decades, a massive wave of immigration has been transforming the United States, the vast majority of the new arrivals coming from Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean” (Foner 27).  She continues to discuss how there is “a popular fear is that [immigrants] will have trouble, indeed often resists, fitting in; that their origins in non-Western cultures are poor preparation for American life” (Foner 27). However, what truly defines the ‘American life’? With migration being rooted in the history of the United States, there has for decades been a need for new citizens to adjust and adapt. This allows for the constant reshaping of the culture of the city, especially with regards to the arts.  Looking specifically at variety shows, such a genre had only emerged as a distinct part of the entertainment industry in the 1870s and 1880s (Burrows and Wallace1). This coincides with the period when New York City saw some of its highest numbers of migration, with “between 1865 and 1873  “over two hundred thousand immigrants [arriving] in New York City each year” from 1865 to 1873 (Burrows and Wallace2). FB can be seen as falling under the genre of Latin American theatre because it was produced by an Argentinian theatre company. However it resists being defined as exclusively Argentinian or Latin American. Though physical contact and celebration are fundamental aspects of Latin American culture, to confine FB to a genre that is regionally and culturally specific is to limit the audience.

In FB, everyone in the space is equal. Here is a space where one can let go, and be separated from any labels attached to the self.  The performance is able to unite people of differing economic and cultural classes. Diqui James talks about the disparity between the rich and the poor in Argentina, as in several parts of the world and how he wanted “”to do the type of theater that anyone can understand, not just the type that those reading Shakespeare would like” (James1). To James, the show was not about creating something that was exclusively Argentinian, but about instilling a feeling and emotion. The rawness of the show allows for the possibility for human connection to be instilled in the audience.

FB is an immersive theater piece that goes beyond the audience becoming spect-actors. More than an interaction between the audience and the performers, it is an immersive piece rooted in the desire for human connection. In creating a space with a heightened sense of desire and fantasy, where escape from the real world seems possible, FB brings together audience members into a collective emotional and physical experience. With the show running every night for almost ten years in New York City, it resists being merely a spectacle and it becomes part of the social construct of the city. It becomes part of the city’s history and adds to the narrative of the city being a place of attraction. New York’s history from as far back as the 19th century to the present, revolves around narratives of movement, migration and community. It is a culturally diverse city, but one which also feels divisive. Yet for a short period of time anyone at FB, audience members can forget about the world beyond the theatre’s walls and live in a moment of raw energy and communal celebration.


I would see FB again in a heartbeat. So the next time someone calls it a party, interject and say well, it’s an experience. An experience where everyone is equal, and where you can escape the outside world in a chance to lose yourself in a moment of fantasy. And indeed the act of escape and the search of an ‘other’ world is, I feel, part of the narrative.

(PS. Go on a Friday night – there’s an after-party when the show’s over.)



Works Cited

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. “The New Immigrants.” Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 1111-131. Print.

Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. “That’s Entertainment!” Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford UP, 1999. 1132-154. Print.

Foner, Nancy. “Immigrant Commitment to America, Then and Now: Myths and Realities.” Citizenship Studies 5.1 (2001): 27-40. Routledge Taylor & Francis Group. Web. 20 Mar. 2016. <>.

James, Diqui. “10 Years on a Natural Buzz: An Interview with FUERZA BRUTA’s Diqui James.” Interview by Ryan Leeds. Manhattan Digest. ManhattanDigest, LLC, 31 July 2015. Web. 14 Mar. 2016.

James, Diqui. “Diqui James Creates Something for Everyone.” Interview by Yue Xu and CCTV News. Youtube. N.p., 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 17 Mar. 2016.

Schechner, Richard. “What Is Performance Studies Anyway?” The Ends of Performance. By Peggy Phelan and Jill Lane. New York: New York UP, 1998. 357-63. Print.

Watson, Keith. “Diqui James: Fuerzabruta Is Wilder Now, It’s Raw.” Metro: News… but Not as You Know It., 20 Dec. 2012. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.


Quotes and Contemplations on Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying”

Thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s “The Decay of Lying: An Observation” (1889). All pages according to the book, Theatre in Theory 1900 – 2000: An Anthology, edited by David Krasner (2008).


People tell me that  art makes us love Nature more than we loved her before; that it reveals her secrets to us…. My own experience is that the more we study Art, the less we care for Nature. What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design, her curious crudities, her extraordinary monotony, her absolutely unfinished condition…. It is fortunate for us that Nature is so imperfect, as otherwise we should have had no art at all.” (47)

Art begins with abstract decoration…. then Life becomes fascinated by this new wonder, and asks to be admitted into the charmed circle. Art takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams….” (48)

Art finds its own perfection within, and not outside of, herself. She is not to be judged by any external standard of resemblance. She is a veil, rather than a mirror. She has flowers that no forests know of, birds no woodland possesses. She makes and unmakes many worlds, can draw the moon from heaven with a scarlet thread. Hers are the forms more real than living man, and hers the great archetypes of which things that have the existence are but unfinished copies. Nature has, no laws, no uniformity.” (49)

Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.” (50)


At first I found Wilde’s writing so beautifully engaging. Then the more I thought about it, the more some phrases did not make sense to me: “What Art really reveals to us is Nature’s lack of design” and that “Nature has, no laws, no uniformity”. I find these words quite puzzling as to me, Nature is so wonderfully crafted. And who is to deny the reappearance of the fibonacci sequence in many of Nature’s form, ergo showing a sense of pattern, design and uniformity in some respects? ‘Nature’ in itself is a broad term, almost all encompassing as the physical world is made of the living animals, plants and beings as well.

I believe Wilde is trying to redefine our notion of reality. What if ‘reality’ was in fact our imagined world, as opposed to our perceived one? What if true perfection was all that we could imagine, and nothing that really exists? Art is not solely about finding a perfection Art can exist within, but rather by confronting the very idea of perfection. I find that when the world does offer a sense of uniformity, Art is our chance at escape. Art offers a means of rebellion. Perhaps the perfection to Art that Wilde contemplates, is the idea that Art exists both within and outside of Nature; for Art is perfect in its own right because at its core, it serves only as a means of representation. Can there ever be such a thing as a perfect representation? No, but neither does Nature for it presents us a representation of perfection. Both Nature and Art admit to their flaws, and neither exist without each other as there would be no Art without Nature, and no Nature to be fed by Art.


We merely exist

in a world

of lies

Lies that try

and try

to keep us



And through this sanity

This insanity of conformity

of rules

we follow

like fools

not knowing what





But I beg you,

to tell me a story.

A story so that I

may finally


my eyes

and peacefully,


to all these


that lie




Maybe Wilde is right about Art when he says its aim is to tell beautiful untrue things. But not all Art has to be beautiful, and sometimes there is beauty that can be found in the Lie.

Wonderfully tragic, why ‘The Woodsman’ was one of the best things I saw in NY

I gather than when texts usually begin with the phrase “on the night of Friday the 13th,” it usually precludes to something ominous or horrific. Trust that, for this post, this is certainly not the case. In fact, for me, it was one of the happiest of days.

For on the night of Friday the 13th in the month of May, I went to New World Stages, a theatre on 50th street in NYC, to see Strangemen and Co.’s The Woodsman, a journey to Oz telling the origin story of the Tin Man through the use of puppetry. I will start by saying, that after the show had ended I left the theatre with so much joy, with such an unimaginable love for theatre. The only other time I have felt such overwhelming emotion which might be pinned as happiness was after seeing As You Like It at the National Theatre (which I shall now refer to as AYLI) in London earlier this year. In fact, both productions have similar qualities to them which I will delve into later as I reflect on, as it would seem, a particular style of theatre I am drawn to.

I do recall a frantic desperation to get to the theatre on time for the show. I had taken a nap, likely waking up at around 7:30pm (the shows starts at 8pm), exclaiming “oh, crap” at my realization that I might be late to the show. There was a short debate in my head as I contemplated whether it was still worth it to go, before resolving “What the hell. I paid $37 for the show, I only have less than a week left in this city, and it’s theatre.” I grabbed by keys and headed out the door, leaving my roommate unsurprised that I was out to another show.

I hate being late to the theatre. I think it’s really terribly disrespectful if being late was avoidable. (The worst is when you have to go with a friend who you have to be nice to and even though you’re already barely about to make it he decides to get a doughnut and you can’t yell at him because he made you breakfast that day. True story.) But thankfully the show started late and the space was small so really, any seat was ideal. Anyways, I digress). Even worse, is when you’re navigationally handicapped at trying to find places and maps on your phone cans out on you, just because. For what it’s worth, I was in my seat sharply at 8pm.

As I placed my bag and jacket under my seat, and recomposed myself in my seat from the mad dash to make it on time, I took a deep breath and scanned the stage I had forgotten that I had booked a front row seat near the middle (it’s nice when you surprise yourself with such treats simply because you forget). So the stage was right there, within arm’s reach. And it resembled a quiet forest (oh yeah, ‘The Woodsman’, of course). There were just enough branches used to conjure up the imagination, but even more beautiful were the dainty the bulbs of orange light that were wrapped with little jars. For sake of production design, I made sure to note that not all of them were lit because not all of them needed to be. The set wasn’t over the top, it was just right. Even more surprising, was how it extended off stage and into the side of the audience, the magical forest reaching out along the aisles on the side.

It was perfect. And I was already completely enthralled (following my new found love for set design).

The lights dimmed, and the sounds of the forest were heard.


Scene from The Woodsman

I’m not going to spoil it, I really will try not to. I will say though, that the show started with a tale, a prologue, narrated by the lead (James Ortiz) who would become our Tin Man. We are also introduced to The Witch, our villain and first puppet on stage. I remember being so taken aback by the quality of the costumes (they were amazing). After the prologue though, the play is completely reliant on non-verbal dialogue (by this I miss ‘words’), making use of body language, music and sounds. All sounds were made by the actual actors on stage, much like how in NT’s AYLI had actors suspended in their forest making the sounds of the birds and the wind. I was completely taken by this, and moved by the moments of melody (and indeed slightly envious of the fact that I personally don’t know how to whistle). What really struck me however, because I personally had never seen it before, was how the actors also controlled the lighting. In a sense that, they were sort of their own lighting crew. Aside from very few stage lights overhead, and the lights behind the set that would flash and become lightning for the scene, the actors would hold flashlights. These were used to emphasize a particular character in a moment, or to convey time of day. They would also use tiny LED lights as fireflies. So there would be a scene with our two main characters, and the other actors around them would gracefully move and blink their lights. I was fascinated by this, and totally captivated. I recall one scene where the theatre was pitch black (I assume the lights behind me had also been turned off as I was in the front row. So what am I to know). The girl (Eliza Martin Simpson) who is the romantic interest of our Huntsman, also the maidservant of The Witch, sat at the edge of the stage shining a flashlight on her face. She looked around, afraid and expectant of the dangers of the forest. And from the corner of her eye, snarled a giant tiger (another puppet, a huge one at that). She screamed, the theatre became pitch black again. It was an extremely cinematic moment, one that I treasure because a) huzzah for being in the front row and b) of my interest in the intersection of film and theatre.

Now, the play was the advertised as a puppet show. I will admit that I arrived being totally prepared to be completely skeptical. I was skeptical simply because I had seen the Czech-American Marionette Theatre’s show, The New World Symphony: Dvořák in America, where they used puppets. I had also been taking a workshop with Phantom Limb Company on how to make a marionette, and so I was interested to see the kinds of puppets Strangemen and Co. would use. Although The Woodsman is hyped as being a puppet show, I wouldn’t call it that. In a sense that, if I were to write a cast list, then the puppets would seem secondary. My only reasoning for this is simply because ,me having very little experience with puppetry as an art and theatre form, I define a “puppet show” quantitatively to mean that most of the show involves puppets being alive on stage. Neither would I say that the production used puppets. Rather, puppets were a part of the human world. They existed to further emphasize the magical realm of Oz. The puppets were otherworldly, they were other beings and I feel a subtle cringe to call them puppets because it objectifies them. Yes, they are objects, but on the stage they weren’t – they breathed life.

They weren’t super extravagant. They were simple, but well made. Part of this sense of life having breathe into the is not only how they were effectively incorporated into the show, but the form in which they were. The puppets were controlled by the actors – who, I should’ve mentioned earlier, are always present on stage and take on many roles – in a way that made them synonymous to each other. What I mean by this is that, the actors weren’t simply controlling the puppet, but they were embodying the puppet’s character, and that’s something I had never seen before. A prime example to take would be The Witch. What initially intrigued me was the decision to have two actresses control The Witch. Such a character could be designed in a way whereby it is only maneuvered by one actor, but it wasn’t. Here, having two actresses elevated the character particularly by the use of their voices. The actresses would hiss and gasp and exclaim as one, creating the eerie sense of The Witch’s voiced being comprised of multiple voices. Super creepy, and so well executed. The actresses were constantly animated – again, they weren’t controlling The Witch, they were The Witch.


Image from

The same goes for the Tin Man. As he loses his real limbs and is fitted with his suit of tin, the Huntsman eventually leaves his body. At first, Ortiz moves along with two other actors who help control his limbs. Eventually, Ortiz becomes a ghostly figure on stage, not playing the Huntsman or the Tin Man, but embodying his spirited. As a group of actors now maneuver the Tin Man, it could easily have been the case that it simply looks messy on stage. On the contrary, because of the camaraderie between actors and the fact that they embody the characters of the puppets, I believed I was seeing the Tin Man and not a group of actors play him. Eventually, because he is completely made out of Tin and ashamed of what he has become, he leaves the love of his life. A controller/crutch appears from the ceiling, and the actors string the Tin Man until he in held in place. And there he stands, alone on stage, the first time a puppet is completely without a living body behind it. Completely without spirit.

When I talk to peers about this show and they ask me whether it was a funny show or a sad one, I reply saying that it’s tragic. It pulls your heart out, but it’s still super funny. They in turn, as expected, give me a really confused look. It is a tragic story, but humour is embedded in it (so at least you don’t feel like your heart has been torn to pieces by the end of it). And if I may add, my favourite character is the caterpillar-like doctor, played in fact by three actors (so characters? Or team?).

The Woodsman was ever so masterfully executed. It is clear that every decision made was thought of carefully and thought of in a way that would make sense to the whole production and not just a particular moment.


Photo by author. I just couldn’t resist, even though I rarely take pictures at the theatre.

With the biggest smile on my face for the love of theatre, I called a friend (indeed the same one that stopped for a doughnut) because I just had to have a conversation about everything I had just seen. He too had just seen a show that he loved. So there I was aimlessly walking around Times Square talking at a million miles an hour on my phone about the magic I had just witnessed, occasionally stopping in my tracks or even jumping with glee.

He urged me to immediately write down everything I was feeling. And so I wrote, a thick paragraph with no interest whatsoever in being grammatically correct, my intention being to record how excited I was and what in particular about the show excited me. So below, for my own sake really, I will write down a more coherent form of what kind of aesthetics I discovered that I personally like.

  1. As it turns out, I’m interested in folklore. I do have a faint recollection as a child of being interested in melodies which I can only now describe as being Irish-tunes. I didn’t realize that ‘folklore’ was the word I was looking for. I previously connoted it with folk tales, which where I come from are old tales involving the personification of animals. I hadn’t really realize that folk tales were really stories that had been passed on and that folklore, as I have recently found out, means “the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth” (thanks, Google). I have AYLI in mind when thinking about this, especially the final scene with the communal dance in the forest. Key words to remember: mysticism and magic.
  2. Actors as stagehands. In The Woodsman, the actors we meet the entire cast in the prologue and they are all always on stage, save for a few moments. For the most part, they control the lighting and the sound (like having flashlights and whistling).
  3. You don’t really have to have wind, you can represent it. And I mean this for all other things and not just the wind as well. Being a film major, one of the things that I’m concerned about is making things seem ‘real’. In theatre though we can employ Brechtian techniques whereby a spectator is always aware that the performance is a representation of reality, and not reality itself (all hail Brecht). I wonder what happens if Brechtian techniques are applied to film?
  4. Something about the show was cinematic. I’m still thinking about this one, being someone who is interested in the intersection of film and theatre. I can pick out certain moments, like the moment when the theatre was pitch black and the tiger jumps out.
  5. You don’t need words to convey feeling. The Woodsman is super clever about the moments they choose to have the characters say something and moments where there are lyrics to the music.
  6. Live music on stage and keeping it simple. I just realized that most of the time, if not all, there was a violinist on stage. And only a violinist. So beautiful, so powerful, and just the right instrument for the mood of the play.
  7. No set genre. Does a show really need to have a set genre? It is what it is. To me, this was part physical theatre and part musical theatre. The physicality of the body and the power of the voice are two things that really intrigued me about this play.


After this long post, I really have only one thing to say: I loved it so, so much. Seeing The Woodsman in my final week in NYC was a perfect reminder as to why I am studying theatre, and a realization for certain aesthetics I am drawn to.

I would just like to thank Strangemen and Co., for taking me on a journey to Oz that spanned years, and for making me believe in magic.