Spite for Spite

Writers’ Theatre Chicago


CollaborAction Theatre Company

at Chicago Dramatists

By Justin Hayford

If you ever find yourself alone with Michael Halberstam, don’t get him talking about the theater unless you’re prepared for a graduate seminar’s worth of information in half an hour: the theatergoing habits of Elizabethan audiences, the similarities between Shakespeare’s semi-Cornish English and today’s standard American dialect, the thematic concerns of Spain’s golden age of theater, Tyrone Guthrie’s seminal influence on contemporary readings of act three, scene two, of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Halberstam’s pedagogical compulsiveness might easily have turned him into an anachronism in the world of contemporary American theater, where history, tradition, and dramaturgy don’t stand a chance beside marketability. Perhaps that’s why he’s holed up in the back of a Glencoe bookstore, where he’s created his own little world in Writers’ Theatre Chicago. As the only game in town, he can dig into any odd corner of Gogol, Chekhov, Flaubert, Shaw, Blake, or Shakespeare and be assured he’ll sell at least half his 50-seat theater.

In fact his theater’s subscriber base has grown to 2,300 in only eight years. And the entire six-week run of the current production, Agustin Moreto y Cabana’s 1654 comedy Spite for Spite, is now sold out. With packed houses, Halberstam can delight in a bit of pedagogy each night, explaining in a curtain speech that Moreto’s play, like most plays from the Spanish golden age, is divided into three acts, “the first concerned with debate, the second with comic action, and the third with resolution.” Audiences of Moreto’s day would come into the theater expecting form over substance, he adds, and wouldn’t be satisfied unless the playwright obliged them with a virtuoso monologue early in the first act. Halberstam even includes a four-page study guide in the program.

Some might dismiss Halberstam as a tiresome pedant, although knowing the basics of Moreto’s theatrical conventions actually goes a long way toward enjoying an evening of his work. And unlike most scholarly theater types, who can point out all the errant dactyls and spondees in Twelfth Night but can’t tell you why it’s funny, Halberstam knows how to turn his book learning into lively, passionate performance.

In Spite for Spite he’s taught his cast well. But then he’s working with advanced pupils: any director fortunate enough to snare Sean Fortunato and Karen Janes Woditsch as his leads has half his work done for him. Halberstam and his nine cast members have clearly pored over every syllable of Dakin Matthews’s translation, being given its world premiere, and are able to offer a bright, brisk, heartfelt reading, making this mannered, formulaic 350-year-old comedy feel perfectly contemporary.

Set in the court of the Count of Barcelona (the Countess of Barcelona in this production, perhaps so that Halberstam could cast the elegant Joanna Maclay in the role), it tells the story of Diana, the Count’s beautiful daughter. She’s locked her heart against love, she explains, after an exhaustive study of the topic revealing that love inevitably leads to heartache, loneliness, and/or despair. It’s only reasonable for her to turn her back on the whole sordid mess despite the chivalrous if fanatic attentions of her two suitors. The more elaborately they woo her, the more disdain she heaps on their heads.

Into this romantic impasse stumbles the unremarkable Carlos, who elaborates upon the nonsensical nature of his own desire for Diana in a deadly difficult 311-line monologue early in act one. After declaring that she’s merely “pretty enough, / A little too cool, not overripe, / Or underfed, not coarse or common, / But not the exotically gorgeous type,” he tears himself to shreds trying to understand why her perfect indifference to love has inflamed his passion to life-threatening intensity. “Reason can only ascribe / It to je ne sais quoi, or just dumb luck,” he asserts.

With this early, tumultuous monologue, Moreto blockades every avenue in his play except the one that leads to love. Carlos goes on forever about his newly inflamed passions; nothing else matters to him or to the playwright. Matthews may characterize Spite for Spite as one of Moreto’s “comedies of ideas,” but everyone in this world has only one thing on his or her mind, and Carlos has it in spades. Accordingly, a production of the play will live or die on the basis of Carlos’s monologue: his tortured, comical musings must convince the audience that nothing is worth thinking about for the next two and a half hours but unrequited love between 17th-century Spanish aristocrats.

Fortunato is up to the task even though he delivers nearly every word of the monologue directly to his clown, Polilla–all but ignoring the audience during what should be their invitation into Moreto’s world. But Fortunato’s comic flare, ferocious intellect, and expertly exaggerated passions make up for his unintended snub to the audience. He sprints gracefully over the surface of the text, pirouetting upon each twisted thought or contorted emotion until he’s completely tangled in Carlos’s rhetoric. At that point all he can do is tear an imaginary heart from his chest and begin berating it. In Fortunato’s most inspired moment, he sets that imaginary heart on an imaginary shelf so that he can yell at it while gesticulating with both hands.

This ridiculous yet touching moment of pure clowning, like everything else in Fortunato’s engrossing performance, sets just the right tone for the evening: playful, almost caricatured, yet rooted in real human needs. No matter how absurdly Fortunato swoons, he conveys real infatuation, the kind that turns us all into raving fools from time to time. So when he decides to give Diana the cold shoulder, hoping to poison her with a bit of her own medicine, it’s difficult not to root for him with all you’ve got.

Most of the cast share Fortunato’s skill at keeping real hearts beating in their cartoonish characters, from Diana’s pompous suitors to her vapid ladies-in-waiting, who drape themselves around her as though perpetually posing for the court portrait artist. But it’s Woditsch as Diana who turns in a truly awe-inspiring performance, if only because the task before her is the most daunting. She must follow a circuitous, unpredictable course from the heights of haughty disdain to the depths of simpering love once she witnesses Carlos’s indifference and decides she must make him fall in love with her at any cost. She never imagines the transformation her heart might undergo in the process.

To manage this feat Woditsch, like Fortunato, maintains a certain lightness of touch, allowing her to navigate sudden shifts in emotion effortlessly. She’s also thought through every step of Diana’s journey, never missing an opportunity to run logical circles around her opponent or to run headfirst into her own brick wall of irrationality. To top it off, she has the kind of chops that allow an audience to read her every thought through the slightest change of expression.

A smart director, Halberstam has cleared everything out of the way for Fortunato and Woditsch, minimizing stage business and keeping the play’s subplots firmly in the background. So when Carlos and Diana finally end up head-to-head, trying to one-up each other in spitefulness even as they collapse into lovelorn gelatin the moment the other’s back is turned, the production reaches giddy heights.

It also achieves an unexpected profundity, especially when Diana turns introspective in the play’s waning moments. For over two hours it’s been a silly romp as she and Carlos have insisted they were on the verge of dying for love. But when Woditsch drops Diana’s facade and allows her lover’s feigned rejection to shatter her, love is revealed as the life-or-death issue we all know it to be, and Moreto’s insular world expands to fill every inch of our hearts.

Spite and love are also closely intertwined in Jessica Goldberg’s 1999 Refuge, the story of three siblings capriciously abandoned by their parents years ago and now struggling on the brink of poverty. Amy, the oldest, must care for her raver drug-addict sister, Becca, as well as her brain-damaged brother, Nat, neither of whom has the wherewithal to survive without her. Crushed under the weight of this responsibility and oppressed by the love that keeps her tied to her siblings, she picks up an out-of-work carpenter, Sam, one night at a bar. He provides not only an emotional release but a potential escape, as she plans to abandon her family in his pickup.

Goldberg paints a compelling portrait of lives teetering on the verge of collapse and displays an almost limitless capacity for empathy in sketching these profoundly flawed characters. But she’s only 27 and still green. Her characters’ crises are often stated and restated–in italics–and her conclusion is so forced and simplistic you can’t help but wonder if it was written by a committee of eighth-graders. Most disappointing, she writes nearly all her scenes with made-for-TV brevity, making Amy’s life-changing journey feel too neatly packaged and ready for commercial interruption.

But despite these weaknesses Goldberg manages to create relationships more complex and consequential than most I’ve seen on contemporary American stages, suggesting that once she learns how to differentiate between a play and a collection of scenes she’ll be a major force. Goldberg is aided by director Anthony Moseley, who’s gathered four smart, sensitive actors seemingly born to play their roles. They don’t so much perform this work as inhabit it, conveying the same impression of intense effortlessness that’s become the hallmark of Steppenwolf and Roadworks. No one seems to be working at the play, but Amy Carle least of all: she barely moves a muscle to show the crushing weight that nearly destroys Amy. Even in Goldberg’s most stilted moments, the depth of the siblings’ tragic predicament is palpably real.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ann Boyd.