Lord Byron’s Manfred on Stage in New York City: A Rare and Rewarding Experience. Reviewed by Lee Nevitt
On Thursday, April 20, 2017, the Red Bull Theater of New York City produced a dramatic reading of Lord Byron’s Manfred. This performance preceded a day-long international symposium on the play at New York University. The two-day event brought local theater-goers together with Byron scholars from around the world in celebration of the bicentenary of the play’s publication in 1817. As the organizer of both events, Omar F. Miranda (University of San Francisco), remarked: “In order to commemorate Manfred’s 200th anniversary, I was fortunate enough to bring together some of the very best theater experts and literary critics. We collaborated with one of the greatest classical theater companies of New York City for the play’s production. I also invited several distinguished Byron scholars from across the globe (including Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia) to offer new critical perspectives at our #Romantics200 symposium. Broadview Press even agreed to print a special bicentenary publication of Manfred for the occasion. I don’t believe the events could have turned out any better.” Miranda managed to organize not only an engaging and fruitful scholarly symposium but also a striking performance that will live on as an important influence on Byron studies.
The Red Bull team of professional actors and directors delivered a stunning and distinctive staging of this rarely-performed mental drama. Fitting for the experimental nature of this work, the stage was bare except for a series of black chairs and music stands. There were no costumes, nor was there any set design or any of the trappings of your average theater production. The bareness of the stage design did not deter from the quality of the performance, however. It enhanced the mood of the play by creating a minimalist atmosphere that strikes a compromise between the private reading of poetry and the public space of the theater. Without the readymade distractions of objects and time-period costumes, one could listen attentively to Byron’s darkly seductive language and revel in the ways that the play explores the occult and the philosophical. The clash between the Romantic language of the text and the contemporary clothes worn by the actors added to the allure of this brilliant staging, as it brought one of the original Byronic heroes into a twenty-first century setting. The casting decisions made by the director also provided new ways of reading the romantic text in our contemporary world.
Michael Barakiva, the production’s director, decided to reimagine the play’s relationship to gender by casting all the mortals as men and all the immortals as women. When asked about this decision at the post-show talk, Barakiva said that the decision was motivated by his opinion that women are “immortal.” While this statement’s intended meaning may be enigmatic and ultimately unsatisfying, the shift in balance between male and female roles raises interesting new questions. For example, how does the collective group of women alter our ways of understanding Manfred’s dark secret love for Astarte (presumably based on Augusta Leigh, Byron’s half-sister)? One sees how this allows women a more expansive role than simply being the object of male reverence and contemplation. The director’s decision undermines the misogynistic discourse of ascribing rationality and the singular insights of spiritual vision to masculinity, which gets drawn out by catalyzing a conflict between what is an ambiguous position held by Manfred between earthly and spiritual, perhaps even masculine and feminine, and a cast of all women as the ultimate arbiters of supernatural authority. These issues were highlighted even more by the superb acting of the cast as a whole.
Jason Butler Harner, dressed in casual clothes and sneakers, played the eponymous role with equal measures of irony and sincerity. The casual dress gave a charming, everyman tinge to a character otherwise distinguished by his supernatural ability and philosophical depth. With his expressive range and noteworthy command of Byron’s diction, Harner seized the audience’s attention from the beginning of the play with a strong but subtle stage presence. Manfred’s centrality was foregrounded, since Harner was the only actor who stood throughout the entire performance. Another standout feature was what the actresses did with the lines of the Spirits (including Nemesis and Arimanes). They uttered their lines with urgency, intensity, and sibilant tones that sustained the gothic tone of the play.
The stage performance emphasized the play’s humor, a pleasant and welcome surprise noted by Jerome McGann (University of Virginia) and Miranda in the post-show discussion. A second welcome surprise was the post-show discussion itself, which provided ample historical background and a wealth of perspectives from notable literary scholars and performers alike. Unfortunately, Barakiva made significant cuts in the text of the play and argued that doing so produced a more direct and engaging storyline. However, this decision felt odd given that the audience was largely an international group of scholars who had come to New York to participate in a symposium devoted to Manfred. But in spite of this decision, the performance delighted the audience and gave literary critics a rare opportunity to see this work staged.