Editor's note: The following is an open letter to Justine Lambert, director of Laodamia: Queen of Epirus now playing at the Looking Glass Theatre, from TheaterMania reviewer John DeVore.
Dear Ms. Lambert,
I spent the weekend considering the reasons the Looking Glass Theatre's production of Laodamia: Queen of Epirus worked, and why it didn't. Although Shakespeare seems to be in a perpetual state of popularity, it is still no easy task to engage a contemporary audience with classical texts. But with your agile and talented cast, you discovered and sucked the passionate marrow of what otherwise might have been a dead bone of an obscure 17th century play.
Without offering forced, external concepts that cloud the integrity of a script (I have seen, Justine, a gender-bending King Lear set in a post-apocalyptic biker colony--it still makes me shudder), you chose instead to sift through the emotional grains of a 400-year-old text in search of modern day resonance. But I take issue with your gimmickry, specifically the three cumbersome "emotional areas" that are festooned with bejeweled ribbons and glow when actors enter. I understand that these areas are supposed to expose raw human emotion, but instead, they distracted me for a number of reasons.
In keeping with the mission of Looking Glass, a company founded to nurture and promote works of theater written by women, choosing Laodamia: Queen of Epirus was perfect. The first play written by a woman for the Comedie Francaise, it's themes of loyalty, love, and honor showcase women trapped in a man's game. The central characters of the play, the Queen and her sister, are bound to each other and their lives through love--familial, carnal, and unrequited--while the masculine engines of ambition and power threaten to grind them into powder. The Queen loves whom she should not, allows her passion to overpower her judgment, and nobly pays the ultimate price. But it is the process of breaking heart and kingdom that allows her to save both. This is juicy, fervent stuff: an emotional T-bone that actors and audience alike can sharpen their canines on.
And you and your cast are up to the challenge. Jocelyn Rose, a strong actress and able foundation on which to set an ensemble, plays Queen Laodamia vulnerably and unyieldingly. As her sister, Christianna Nelson performance is as light as a feather one minute, charged like a lightening bolt the next. These two female leads bristle when on stage together. As the backstabbing Sostrate, Doug Simpson makes for a treacherous plotting vulture, and Jordan Matthew Smith plays the somewhat duplicitous Phoenix with articulate righteousness, especially when championing unwilling Gelon's ascension to the throne. Again, a stellar cast whose collective performance is due in part to apt direction.
This leads me again to your clumsy concept of "emotional areas". It seems the areas were intended to help you to explore how emotion is controlled and released, and to reveal the proverbial chaotic waters running underneath a rivers calm façade. But instead, the device muddled your efforts on stage and distracted from performances. It seemed redundant for you to provide these areas when the actors themselves conveyed all the rage, pain, and heart ache perfectly. It also interrupted your staging (actors walked into, through--sometimes became tangled in--these unnecessary playing areas).
I always worry when directors offer long notes in the program, as if to say, "Sorry if my ideas aren't clear. Let me spell them out for you." If a director's concept is not discernable on stage, then it may be inherently flawed. I do not know if it was your intent, but the "emotional area" device acted as a distancing technique, diffusing the emotional states you strove to explore. I was in especially frustrated by these moments because you had already proved your directing skill with the performances you elicited and with your creative staging. The play's the thing, and you should focus on it, instead of forcing abstract ideas on to it.
Still, your creative dedication to obscure and potentially dull material is admirable, and it is this fortitude that makes for a more exciting Off-Off Broadway community. The Looking Glass Theatre has talent to spare; do not squander these gifts on ultimately alienating, quasi-academic gimmicks.