Feb 20 2015

Cold Sweat gets a lighting designer

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Derek Jones is joining Uranium Madhouse after recently moving to Los Angeles from Washington, DC.  In DC, he was mostly recently an assistant lighting designer at Arena Stage and the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center and was the master electrician and lighting coordinator for the Capital Fringe Festival.  Derek was also the lighting designer at the Arundel Barn Playhouse in Maine this past summer.  He has designed lighting for several theatre and dance companies as well as been a lighting consultant for architectural applications and event production in DC and New York.  Derek has an MFA in Lighting Design from Indiana University and a BA in Theatre and a BS in Physics from The George Washington University.  He currently is a lighting designer at Vortex Lighting, an architectural and themed entertainment lighting company in Los Angeles.  Visit www.derekjonesdesignarts.com for more information.

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Feb 12 2015

Cold Sweat gets a set designer

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Thrilled to announce that Yee Eun Nam, who designed props for our production of The Duchess of Malfi, will be designing the set for Cold Sweat.

Yee Eun Nam was born and raised in South Korea and moved to LA in 2011. She recently received an MFA in scenic and projection design from the School of Theater, Film and Entertainment Media at UCLA. She holds a BFA from SNU in South Korea. Her most recent design work includes scenic and projection design for Macbeth at the Edgmar Center for the Performing Arts, directed by Peter Richards, set design for Don Giovanni at the Freud Playhouse, directed by Jeffrey Buchman, and at Little Theater directed by Shirley Jo Finny. Yee Eun is the recipient of the Gilbert Cates Award and the Cirque du Soleil Fellowship Award, and worked at LOVE and Ka in Las Vegas as a props/projection fellow in 2013;

Some of Yee Eun’s previous design work:

Macbeth at Edgmar Center for the Arts:
yee eun's design for macbeth

Don Giovanni at the Freud Theater at UCLA:

We are incredibly excited to be welcoming Yee Eun back to the Madhouse!

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Feb 02 2015

who is this neal bell fellow?

Published by under Cold Sweat

The author of the play we are about to produce, among other things.

In the ten years I have been teaching acting, I have worked on his plays, and in particular his play Cold Sweat, more than any other. So Andrew Wood alumni know who I’m talking about, but if not…

Let me me introduce to you…

Neal Bell’s plays, including SPATTER PATTERN (Edgar Award), MONSTER, TWO SMALL BODIES, RAW YOUTH, COLD SWEAT, READY FOR THE RIVER, SLEEPING DOGS, RAGGED DICK, ON THE BUM, and SOMEWHERE IN THE PACIFIC, have appeared at Playwrights Horizons and Classic Stage Company in New York, and at regional theaters including Berkeley Repertory, Mark Taper Forum, South Coast Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, and Actors Theater of Louisville, where his ten-minute play OUT THE WINDOW was a co-winner of the 1990 Heideman Award. Mr Bell has been a playwright-in-residence at the Yale School of Drama, and has taught playwriting at New York University, Playwrights Horizons Theater School, and the 42nd Street Collective. He is currently a member of the Theater Department faculty at Duke University. A recipient of fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment and the Guggenheim Foundation, Mr Bell was awarded an Obie Award in 1992 for sustained achievement in playwriting. His adaptation of Emile Zola’s THERESE RAQUIN was recently made into the major feature film IN SECRET, starring Jessica Lange and Oscar Isaac.

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Feb 02 2015

family struggles with right-to-die questions

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This NPR story about a Chicago family wrestling with the moral and legal questions regarding the hard decisions they will face should the father’s pain become chronically excruciating shows just how powerfully topical Cold Sweat is. (Cold Sweat is the play we are producing this spring. More on that soon!)

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May 18 2014

The Duchess and Early Modern Playhouses

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The King’s Men first performed The Duchess of Malfi at the Blackfriars Theatre, their indoor theatre. The company acquired the theatre, located in the former Blackfriars priory, in 1608, and it became their winter home.

A higher admission price meant a higher class of clientele, and gentlemen would come to seventeenth-century indoor theatres to see and be seen. They might even purchase a seat upon the stage. Playwrights wrote with this new audience in mind, either catering to or liberated by more “sophisticated” tastes.

Not inclined to lose the potential revenue of one of their more popular plays, the King’s Men brought the Duchess and company to the Globe as well.

— Megan Smith, dramaturg

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May 05 2014

Commendatory Verses

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In early modern literary culture, poets would write “commendatory verses” for their peers, short poems of praise in honor of a new publication. The first edition of The Duchess of Malfi appeared with poems written by several of the other noteworthy playwrights of the London stage. John Ford and William Rowley contributed, but Thomas Middleton wrote the longest of the pieces:

In the just worth of the well-deserver, Mr. John Webster, and upon this masterpiece of tragedy

In this thou imitat’st one rich and wise,

That sees his good deed done before he dies;

As he by works, thou by this work of fame,

Hast well provided for thy living name.

To trust to others’ honorings is worth’s crime—

Thy monument is rais’d in thy life-time;

And ‘tis most just; for every worthy man

Is his own marble and his merit can

Cut him to any figure, and express

More art than Death’s cathedral palaces

Where royal ashes keep their court. Thy note

Be ever plainness, ‘tis the richest coat.

Thy epitaph only the title be—

Write “Duchess,” that will fetch a tear for thee,

For who’er saw this Duchess live and die,

That could get off under a bleeding eye?


— Megan Smith, dramaturg


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Apr 22 2014

Whispers of Immortality

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I figured I’d let T.S. Eliot write a post. As a literary critic, the man was largely responsible for renewing interest in all of the Renaissance writers (other than Shakespeare) that I study.  But his most eloquent, and most quoted, study of John Webster opens the poem “Whispers of Immortality”:

Webster was much possessed by death

And saw the skull beneath the skin;

And breastless creatures under ground

Leaned backward with a lipless grin.


Daffodil bulbs instead of balls

Stared from the sockets of the eyes!

He knew that thought clings round dead limbs

Tightening its lusts and luxuries.


— Megan Smith, dramaturg


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Apr 17 2014

Duchess Revivals

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BOSOLA. What would I do, were this to do again? (4.2.26)

The Duchess of Malfi was an instant hit with London audiences. The King’s Men (Shakespeare’s theatre company) debuted the play at their indoor theatre, the Blackfriars. The play quickly became part of their stock, frequently revived both at Blackfriars and at the Globe. The Civil War saw the general closing of the theatres, but the play was revived with the Restoration of Charles II. The play still resonated with the theatre-loving Cavaliers that made up Charles’s court, and it proved popular in the 1660s and 70s. By the late seventeenth century, companies had started liberally to adapt the play to align better with “modern” sensibilities. The eighteenth century never saw the play professionally revived with its original script, and even its literary offspring, adaptations such as The Fatal Secret, suffered decreasing popularity.

Samuel Phelps at Sadler’s Wells brought the play back in the mid-nineteenth century, its enormous success demonstrating that the piece could still be commercially viable. The production participated in an ongoing trend for “authentic” revivals of Shakespeare and his peers, but the scripts were still heavily altered. In 1892, William Poehl and the Independent Theatre Society delivered a production that adhered much more closely to the original script, but even this was bowdlerized, many of the play’s most shocking moments taking place offstage. The Duchess was seen as simply too much for the modern stage. The full text only found its niche in the ‘Little Theatre’ movement, the early twentieth-century development of an art theatre separate from the commercial West End. These amateur and semi-professional productions opened to mixed reviews; even as critics celebrated Webster’s poetry for its continued relevance, they saw the play’s staging conventions as grotesque and rooted in an irretrievable historical moment.

The landmark production of the twentieth century came when George Rylands directed Peggy Ashcroft and John Gielgud at the Haymarket Theatre in 1945. As Edmund Wilson suggests in his “Notes on London at the End of the War,” much of the play’s success arose from a sense that it spoke feelingly to a community reeling from its confrontation with man’s inhumanity:

“And they somehow get the emotion of wartime into…The Duchess: the speeding up of crime and horror, the cumulative obsession with grievance and revenge…One sees… in The Duchess of Malfi, the scene where her doom is announced to the Duchess amidst the driveling of the liberated madmen, at the moment of the exposé of the German Concentration camps.”

Since 1945, the play has been a staple “classic,” continually revived in both amateur and professional productions.

Peggy Ashcroft as the Duchess (1940s)

— Megan Smith, dramaturg

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Apr 08 2014

John Webster (c. 1580 – c. 1634)

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John Webster, the dramatist, was born to John Webster, the London coach and wagon maker, at a time when the coach industry was rapidly expanding. The industry being too new to have its own guild, John Webster Sr. joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild and became one of its most prominent members. As a member, he could (and most likely did) send his son to the Merchant Taylor’s School, the most prestigious preparatory school of the time. Our John Webster would have thus come under the influence of Richard Mulcaster, the headmaster and a noted humanist. Mulcaster is perhaps best known as the author of the quote, “Nature makes the boy toward, nurture sees him forward,” the first known instance of the distinction between “nature” and “nurture” (though we should note that Mulcaster suggests the two are distinct but allied properties rather than opposed). Mulcaster also strongly believed in the pedagogical function of drama, and school exercises may well have served as Webster’s introduction to playwriting. At some point in his adulthood, Webster, too, joined the Merchant Taylor’s Guild—as odd as it is for us to think of a dramatist as a member.

Webster moved from school to school, studying at the Inns of Court, a rough contemporary equivalent of law school. Like so many law students, he abandoned the law for greener pastures. By the time he hastily married his very pregnant bride Sara Peniall in 1606, Webster had already left the Inns for the stage. (Webster’s son was born two months after his marriage. Exercising the remarkable creativity that informs his literary endeavors, this Webster also named his son “John.”)

As was common practice, Webster’s early work for the theater was collaborative. “His” first known play (Caesar’s Fall) had a total of four writers. These dramatists would generally sketch out the general structure of a piece as a team and then apportion individual scenes amongst themselves. The prevalence of collaboration in part results from the need for speed in early modern playwriting, the need to constantly change up the repertory of the various dramatic companies. No one would have been more astonished than Shakespeare or Webster to find their plays the objects of intense literary study four centuries later; theater, unlike poetry, was merely popular entertainment. (Ben Jonson, whose arrogance was matched only by his blubber, actually would be indignant at his perceived lack of prominence in comparison to pal Shakespeare.)

As described by his contemporaries, Webster was a very slow writer, one of the reasons that we don’t have much of his work today. His modern reputation entirely rests on three plays: the tragicomedy, The Devil’s Law Case; the tragedy, The White Devil; and his acknowledged masterpiece, The Duchess of Malfi.

— Megan Smith, dramaturg

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Apr 02 2014

Mandrakes and Madness

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FERDINAND. I have this night digged up a mandrake.

CARDINAL.                                                                       Say you?

FERDINAND. And I am grown mad with’t. (2.5.1-2)


DUCHESS.                               Come, violent death –

Serve for mandragora to make me sleep. (4.2.226-27)

Practical advice for when you find yourself by a gallows in the dead of night with a yen to dig up large roots: don’t. Renaissance superstitions about the mandrake abound and contradict one another. The mandrake was said to grow under the gallows, to feed on blood, and to utter a shriek when pulled from the ground that could kill or madden those who heard it. And yet it was also used in amulets to avert misfortune. In part, those past peddlers of ghoulish mysteries drew on a perceived resemblance between the mandrake root and the human body, one somewhat exploited by the artist of the picture below:

In my quest for knowledge about the mandrake, I perused many images, and I will admit that one was definitely creepy. I have chosen not to share that image in an effort to preserve others from the dreams of fiendish roots that I am sure will now haunt me. The exact shape of the mandrake varies. The picture below reminds me of a mini squid monster:

Should you wish to add the mandrake to your own collection of herbal remedies, you should know that it has been used variously as a hallucinogenic, anesthetic, aphrodisiac, emetic, and sleep aid—the use that the duchess invokes above. (I beg to add that I cannot vouch for any of these applications.) It belongs to the same family as belladonna, and you might also use it to poison your enemy/friend/lover/relative—but you would probably encounter difficulty convincing your victim to ingest the quantity that it would take.

— Megan Smith, dramaturg

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