Sunday, November 29, 2015

HAMLET presented by National Theatre Live

Another Hamlet, this time the Cumberbatch performance on screen, reviewed by Frances, our president.

A few weeks ago I went to see 'yet another' Hamlet, this one the film of the National Theatre’s production starring Benedict Cumberbatch and, I must add, many other very fine performers. And what an extraordinary experience it was. I have held a mental conversation with myself about it ever since.

The central motivation for the whole action appeared in the simple opening scene — Hamlet sitting on the floor, leafing through an old family photograph album and listening to Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ on a portable record player. The depth and intensity of his grief was apparent and it was soon explained in his welcome to Horatio, who in turn reported the visitation of the ghost. It was an engrossing and very efficient entry to the rest of the play.

Then of course in Scene 2 we were into the action, with all the main characters stablishing themselves with vivid individuality. This scene also brought us the first of the great soliloquies, presented so imaginatively by allowing the surrounding action to fade into dimness and slow motion, and all attention to be focussed on Hamlet.

The other soliloquies followed the same style, perfectly creating the sense of the speaker’s inner concentration, completely oblivious to external events. The speeches were all beautifully delivered with attention to every subtle detail of meaning and emotional nuance. With close-ups on Cumberbatch’s face, we could literally follow the working of his mind. The speeches arose so naturally within their contexts that it was possible to believe that we were sharing silent thoughts, with none of the possible “stage-iness” that can sometimes dilute their effect.

This was particularly the case with ‘To be, or not to be…’ which in this production followed Hamlet’s dismissing Polonius with the words: ‘You cannot, sir, take from me any thing that I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life’, which made a perfectly natural lead in to the soliloquy’s questions. The usual placing of this speech in the Nunnery scene, with Hamlet apparently but not very believably failing to notice Ophelia, must make it much more difficult for the actor to make clear what has prompted these thoughts.

All the soliloquies were retained, even the one from Act 4 scene 4, (How all occasions do inform against me) which is sometimes omitted. This was part of the well-defined sub-plot relating to the political and military relations between Denmark and Norway. In Act 1 scene 2 Claudius (Ciaran Hinds) gave a masterly exposition of the background story, which is often difficult to grasp, finishing with dispatching Cornelius and Voltimand on their mission to Norway. Then to accompany Marcellus’ query about the nightly toiling and 'daily cast of brazen cannon' there was an amazing Sound and Light impression of huge ironworks and mass production of heavy armaments. I cannot imagine how this was achieved, but it was a stunningly impressionistic momentary picture of preparations for war. Later the successful return of the ambassadors was given due emphasis; and then we met Fortinbras and his army as they marched towards Poland, reminding us of the futility of so much military action. Without this clear story line, Fortinbras could seem to have little relevance at the end of the play.
Photo from
The actors were nearly all very fine, with some interesting characterisations. Claudius was a powerful and ambitious man, who knew what he wanted and how to get it; Gertrude (Anastasia Hille) grew in stature as the play progressed. At first apparently colourless, she showed powerful responses to Hamlet’s upbraidings in the Bedroom scene, and came into her own during Ophelia’s madness, particularly as the possibility of Ophelia’s suicide suddenly occurred to her. She delivered the news of Ophelia’s death quite beautifully, in that very difficult speech: ‘There is a willow grows aslant a brook….’ I did wonder, though, why Gertrude was robbed of her very last line, and why it was decided that Horatio should say that the drink was poisoned. This was her moment to show finally that she recognised the nature of the man she had married, and to make a desperate bid to save her son.

Horatio (Leo Bill) was a slightly eccentric but entirely devoted friend, unaffected by the grandeur of the court and always to be relied upon. He created a tenderly touching moment as he farewelled his friend, at Hamlet’s death.

Ophelia was unusual. From the start she was jittery and it appeared that it would take little to provoke a breakdown. The mad scene omitted the St. Valentine’s Day song, which left the impression that her distress arose almost entirely from her father’s death, with little reference to Hamlet’s treatment of her. A detail of the mad scene was the inclusion of lines spoken by other characters in other scenes, but here spoken by Ophelia. Her ever-present camera was an unexpected symbol, which served to remind us of the lack of privacy in the castle, and the constant sense of surveillance.

Polonius (Jim Norton) suggested a careful and reliable elder statesman; he even made notes to refer to when giving his son farewell advice. His role was considerably reduced, so that we did not see his nasty little plans to spy on Laertes and there was little of Hamlet’s baiting and ridicule of him as a senile has-been.

The Ghost (Karl Johnson) was unlike many versions I have seen: no weird distortions of his voice, no vaporous trails and eerie lighting. This was a middle-aged man, cut off in his prime, exceedingly cross about it, and clearly suffering all the pains of Purgatory that he hints of to Hamlet. A striking moment was when he tore open his military tunic to reveal his skin “bark’d about most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust” as he described the effects of the poison. Johnson also played delightfully a quick-witted Gravedigger, bringing just the right amount of light relief before the final horrors.

An interesting feature of the production was the attention given to the visiting Players, particularly the full Pyrrhus speech and the description of Hecuba. This gave a perfect entry to the ‘Oh what a rogue…’ soliloquy. We could see in Hamlet’s eyes the precise moment when he linked Hecuba with his own mother. Later, in preparing for the performance of The Mousetrap, the ‘Speak the speech’ instructions were delightful, with Hamlet suddenly realising that he really shouldn’t be telling these professionals how to do their jobs.

Throughout, there was tactful modernisation of the language, most of which worked smoothly, but substitutions were noticeable in the very well-known speeches. So, in the final scene, the King put a ‘jewel’ in the cup instead of ‘an union’, without violence to rhythm or meaning; but I thought it a pity, for instance, to sacrifice the peculiarly evocative phrase ‘in hugger-mugger to inter him’ referring to Polonius’s death, to be replaced by a dry legalistic description of what was done.

The entire performance was marked by superb clarity of speech and meticulous attention to the detail of the meaning, without ever losing a wonderful spontaneity. This attention to detail applied even to the minor characters: there was a perfect example when Horatio and the two guards tried to dissuade Hamlet from following the ghost. In their few short sentences they managed to suggest three differing personalities and therefore different attitudes to the situation.

The staging was impressive, with a huge set well used to suggest the various locations of the action. However, the introduction, for the second half, of piles of what I assume were supposed to be cinders, in great drifts all through the palace, was inexplicable to me and a distraction during the last scenes. It was obviously difficult for the actors to walk on them, and of course they had to be pushed aside for the duel scene. If it was intended to suggest the dissolution of Claudius’s reign I found it unnecessary, since he did after all remain king and in charge until the moment of his death. However, I hope somebody will explain to me what I have missed here. It is a small quibble about what was such a satisfying performance in so many ways.

The exciting duel displayed excellent fencing skills; it was short and sharp, with a clear increasingly deadly intent. The ferocity was thoroughly convincing.

Supported as he was by a fine team, this production belonged undeniably to Benedict Cumberbatch. Quite apart from the obvious magnitude of the role, he was Hamlet and he shared with his audience all his technical skill and emotional range to give us a memorable interpretation. In a pre-show interview with Melvyn Bragg Cumberbatch described his conviction that an actor has to ‘find the need to say’ his lines, to make the words fresh, and spoken as if for the first time. He did exactly that.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bell Shakespeare's Hamlet

A couple of months ago, a small group of club members went to see the Bell Shakespeare Company's production of Hamlet at the State Theatre of Western Australia. Apologies for this late posting - the excitement of getting the sonnet competition up and running completely overwhelmed my intention to post this earlier!

Frances, as usual, submitted a thoughtful, considered  and quite detailed response for this post. She says: 'It is over a month since we saw Hamlet at the State Theatre and it's an interesting exercise to look back now and recall what are the lasting impressions left by the production.

Fight scene - photo courtesy Whitsunday Times
'The elegant, many-windowed wall, placed diagonally across the stage, struck me immediately.  It was beautiful and functional.  At first it was the exterior of a possibly 18th century palace, reminiscent of the houses of the present-day Danish royal family and suitable for a modern-dress production, far from the craggy fastness of Elsinore.  The audience and the lone sentry on guard looked in from the cold through the windows to a warm and roistering wedding celebration.  It was a great start, and clever to make part of Scene 2 a sort of prologue.

'The wall became increasingly permeable as the action moved into the palace and through various apartments, and with subtle lighting changes almost disappeared during the graveyard scene.  It was a brilliantly flexible set which served the movement of the plot perfectly, combined with the skilfully unobtrusive placing and removal of props and furniture.

'The actors were admirable, performing with vigour and understanding.  I particularly appreciated both Claudius (Sean O'Shea) and Gertrude (Doris Younane) for their subtly insightful phrasing.  Hamlet (Josh McConville) was a strong presence throughout, Ophelia's (Matilda Ridgeway) mad scene was touchingly convincing and Polonius (Philip Dodd) portrayed effectively the elder statesman who was definitely not gaga.  I felt that Horatio (Ivan Donato) was somewhat overlooked; he did not come across as quite the reliable friend who is Hamlet's staunch adviser and only confidant.  The character who raised most questions for me was the Ghost (Sean O'Shea).  This was no martial figure sure to evoke fear and awe in the onlookers, but rather a poor old person shuffling about in his pyjamas, not matching Hamlet's description of him, to Gertrude.

'I would have liked to ask the director why the "play within the play" was performed in Italian.  It seemed unnecessary and the supertext a distraction.  The huge bed which served as stage filled much of the acting area, confining the "audience" to a corner upstage.  Consequently Claudius was denied his dramatic exit, calling for lights.  He was already almost offstage, and the impact of his response to the play was weakened.  Right afterwards, though, the murder of Polonius was the most convincing I think I have seen, both for the action and for the clear motivation behind it.

'The whole performance maintained a powerful pace, and the final scene was full of drama.  It is a great credit to the actors that they could create and sustain such intense suspense through the long duel, when the outcome is so universally known, and I am sure that the entire audience felt as I did, the need to relax the shoulders and take a few deep breaths when the end was finally reached.'

Jon says: 'I left the theatre feeling somewhat underwhelmed, but I'm not sure the production is entirely to blame. Being the first time I'd ever seen the play live, I think I would have rather experienced a more traditional, unabridged version. Even allowing for a difference in tastes though, I feel like this version over-emphasised Hamlet's destructive actions to the detriment of the story. Hamlet is arguably a hero-villain, but I don't think he can be allowed to lose the audience's favour lest we cease to care about the existential crisis at the heart of the play. This Hamlet is a bit too much of a brute for me to care all that much about why he's acting so outrageously.'

Elaine says: 'Bell Shakespeare company never amazes me and always amazes me. It never amazes me because I know I will always come away satisfied, and always amazes me because of its interpretation and its intensity. Hamlet was no exception. The scenery which was SO simple but so evocative and multilayered. The acting has left the impression of homogeny. Characters coming to the fore and then blending seamlessly into the background. No individual egos: more a team ethos. I have to confess to being a Bell tragic.'

Satima says: 'Like Elaine, I am a bit of a Bell tragic. The company is not afraid to see Shakespeare as entertainment rather than Holy Writ. Like many productions today, they took what a few years ago would have been regarded as "liberties" with the scripts, and are not afraid to modernise the characters and settings. I loved this version of Hamlet and would willingly see it again.'

Comments welcome!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Sonnet Writing Competition is Live!

Next year is the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death, and like other Shakespeare lovers worldwide, the Shakespeare Club of Western Australia plans a celebration of the bard's life.


We are going to commemorate the anniversary with a sonnet-writing competition for adults and secondary school students, open to would-be writers and experienced poets alike.


We want your entries! There are separate sections for secondary students and adults with decent prize money in both categories. Why not try your hand at composing a Shakespearean Sonnet on a Western Australian theme?


The Student Category is open to any student of any secondary school in Western Australia. The Adult Category is open to any Australian Resident (excepting members of the Shakespeare Club of WA). Everything you need to know about where to send entries and so forth can be found in the Competition Rules.


In both sections, there will be a 1st Prize of $300, a 2nd Prize of $200 and a 3rd Prize of $100


Competition Rules: Click here! 


Adult Entry Form:  Click here!


Student Entry Form: Click here!


So get those notebooks out and start scribbling! Note that entries must be received by 1 March 2016.  Entrants will be invited to attend the Awards Ceremony in Perth on 23 April 2016.


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Guest Speaker for September|By Wiziwiz dot biz
Next meeting - Saturday September 12, a week earlier than usual - we have a guest speaker, Wendy MacPhee. She has suggested that we look at the archival web-site for her theatre company, Theatre Set-Up, which she formed in 1976 and toured for some 35 years.

Theatre Set-Up was known for its resourceful approach to the plays,  uncovering mysteries of construction and meaning while always offering audiences robust and accessible versions. Its lavishly costumed, well-projected performances were also much commended. 

Bravo! (John Thaxter - The Stage 2006)

We'll get back to our reading of The Taming of the Shrew in October.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ashland Festival - part the third

Jeff Burdick concludes his commentary on the Ashland Festival for 2015.

The Globe was the first reproduction in America of the original Globe, though it has been rebuilt and modernized since then. The stage is quite similar to the original, though the audience section is much larger, less compartmentalized. It seats about 1200, under the stars (and often in rain or wind or, as this year, intense heat). It is grand in many ways: many ways to come in and out, many levels for players, ramps from the audience into the stage, etc. The sound, if one is in the groundlings section (naturally, the most expensive, contrary to history) is impeccable: every syllable is distinct. They use amplification, but one is completely unaware of it. There is no misdirection of sound, no sense of voices coming from other than the actors themselves. However, I was chatting with a colleague who was on the ground floor but under the balcony, and the sound there was not good at all.

The festivities begin with a trumpet and the raising of a flag, always a welcomed event: cheers and the electricity of excitement.

Antony and Cleopatra. This is a very conventional Shakespeare play. It is a history with all of the short interruptions of battle reports, etc. But it is also occasion for grand spectacle. The court of Cleopatra is exotic, as is she. The stage was stripped down to its essentials: the backdrop of a typical Globe-style theater with multiple levels and doors and windows and all that – dressed up with a double gold pyramid shape in outline. The thrust was triangular with the point at downstage center; the shape was echoed vertically so the backdrop was outlined in the pyramid. This concentrated the action in the upper decks to good effect. It periodically glowed, and I wasn’t sure whether it was reflection or internal lighting. Either way, quite effective. All other sets were carried in: a great bed, thrones, camp chairs, etc.

Costumes were beautiful, but reflected an overall weirdness to this production. It was clear that the director was unsure whether to stage this as an ancient Egyptian thing or a 21st century thing, so he split the difference, which was a little bit off putting, though certainly not fatal to the production. The court was in beautiful Egyptian-inspired costumes; the military (including Antony when he was in battle) were wearing 21st century fatigues. When Antony is at sea, he receives a walkie-talkie communication.  Giggles in the audience. At the wrong time for giggles. 

Cleo’s court costume was astounding and deserved an ovation of its own. She had wings that seemed at first (and distant glance) like stained glass. Closer in, when she was at the front of the stage, it was clear that the first impression was wrong – but it was stunning.

As was she. Miriam Laube was a beautiful, seductive, playful Cleo. She was girlish – and powerful. Flighty but focused. We believed that she was queen. Derek Weedon played Antony. To me, a bit old acting for the part, not quite believable as the lusty male he is meant to be, but his performance was spot on. Also powerful. I sensed a disconnect between the bedchamber romps and the reality as he presented himself – don’t think you’re young/fit enough for the gymnastics, guy. The cast, right down to the servants who waved ostrich feather fans over the court heads, was focused and serious, always on point. Pacing was good until the end.

But it is, finally, not a play that creates the fireworks we need as it winds down. After Antony dies, it is Cleopatra’s turn, yet instead of the immediacy we get with R&J, for example, it is pages and pages of talk before the snake shows up to do her in. Late at night 11:00 p.m. in very hot weather – and the folk around me were getting impatient. Die already, lady! And that’s not exactly the mood one wants as the Queen of the Nile sacrifices herself.  That’s a playwright error, but directorial leeway should have figured out how to get there with the energy of the earlier scenes.

Head over Heels. So, tonight’s play was great fun, if slight and silly – perhaps because it was slight and silly. It began with a bit of a mystery. As I noted above, every performance begins with the blaring of trumpets and the raising of a flag over the theater. Tonight, a grand fanfare – and no flag. The cast, in fantastic “Elizabethan” garb, wandered the aisles and chatted us up. The play began with a “host” who bore a striking resemblance in actions to the narrator of Cabaret crossed with the appearance of a punk Puck. Charmingly seductive and sarcastic. He introduced the usual reminders: turn off your phone, don’t crinkle your candy wrappers, and if you get up to go outside, he will stop the play dead and everyone will point at you – and then wait until you return before resuming. (Apparently no one left!)

Once that was done, he noted that the flag needed raising and (because today was the supreme court decision that finally recognized that gay people are people) the rainbow flag was unfurled to a standing ovation and more fanfares. Great fun.

Describing the play is simply impossible: zany, silly, etc. But it is a mash up of a very, very loose adaptation of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia using the music from a group called the Go-Gos. It is a mark of my “trendiness” that I had heard only one of the songs (something about blue heaven or true heaven or something like that) and had no idea who/what they were. Nevertheless, the play was a hoot. Much of it was in rhymed couplets! Actors were frequently in the audience, addressing the audience. At one point, the king had to abdicate, so they chose a fellow in the front row to become king, brought him onto stage, coronated him, and then left him in the front row to oversee the production. The music was loud and raucous. Some fine voices. A totally silly farce-type script with crossed lovers and fights based on misunderstandings, etc. And it was accomplished with all of us laughing even as we went up the aisles and into the night. A thoroughly enjoyable evening. Yes, everyone got married in the end, so they had read Shakespeare well.

Oh, but the heat. It was 104 degrees when the play started, and it was stifling and muggy all evening long. Even the birds, who usually flit through the lighting were silent and still.

The Green Show. Before each performance, there is a Green Show on the lawn on the theater campus. The groups are variously professional or amateur. Some are quite good, others not – and all are greeted with great enthusiasm. Dance troops, jugglers, short plays, choirs, etc. One night, a local college theater group put on a show to explain the Renaissance to the 21st century, with songs and period dances and musical instruments, etc. But the highlight of the week (I am writing this Saturday morning, so there is more to come) was a local improvisational theater group. 6 actors and a keyboardist. They asked the audience for two professions (lumberjack and preacher were the audience choices) and proceeded to perform a 40 minute musical off the cuff. The music was obviously written before but they had to improvise the plot, the jokes, the song lyrics, and even the dancing to include trees to fell, rhymes for the lyrics they were making up on the fly. It was hilarious and amazing. One actor would have an idea and the entire troop was suddenly dancing backup (sometimes swinging imaginary axes) or a song would begin to falter and someone else would pick it up, composing the lines and rhyming (often hilariously). We laughed ourselves silly.

The Count of Monte Christo was the last thing for me this festival. Sails rigged for the ocean voyages, but other than that, mostly props moved about by actors. Fun, overly dramatic as it should be, slapsticks and blue lights to set aside the direct addresses to the audience (and there are many). For some reason, my seat was in the very front row (I just asked for best available, and I guess this was “best”), so actors were within inches sometimes, often I was pulling my feet back from the tromping of toes. But fun to watch from that angle for once. One loses perspective but gains immediacy. For the festival, it seems odd that two of the big productions were merely entertainments (head over heels and this). Yes, good entertainments and quite a bit of laughter, though I think if I were to direct this, I’d go whole hog into the silliness of it all. It is a ridiculous play. However, because it was paired with Long Day’s Journey, it was probably right to play it square so we could see what Eugene O’Neill’s father actually acted in (they used the script he used).

Anyway, a tiring fun and enriching week. Tomorrow I have a quiet day and a visit with a colleague who lives here in town. Then home on Monday. Jury duty starts immediately.

The revels now have ended.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Ashland Festival 2015 – part the second

Our American Friend, Jeff Burdick, continues his take on this year's Ashland Festival. This week he looks at the three very different plays he saw in the Bowmer Theater.

Bowmer theater is a conventional proscenium stage with a thrust. It seats 600 and no one is more than 55 feet from the stage according to their web page. It looks a bit more to me, but they probably are right.  Very comfortable, by the way. Beautiful facilities, comfortable seating, perfect acoustics.

Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land is touted as the most popular play in the Chinese speaking world. It wasn’t the most popular play in my world. It is a collision of two plays (quite literally). Two theater troops have booked the Bowmer theater for the same night (the play was translated for Ashland, so many references, some of them sly, some of them I probably missed since I’m not a native, are local), and Bill Rauch, the beloved Artistic Director of the festival, is blamed for the confusion. Great laughter came after that – he isn’t known for goofing.

One play is a slight but touching drama: two young people fall in love before the civil war in China has destroyed the country. The young man’s family flees to Taiwan. The  young woman vanishes. He goes on to live a life: marriage for 40 years, children, etc. But he never forgets his first love.  China has reabsorbed Taiwan and it is possible to visit. In the final scene, he has advertised on the front page of prominent papers that are distributed everywhere to find her because he is dying and wants to see her one last time. In fact, they have been living in the same city for 40 years, both thinking the other one was far away in China. She shows up, and they have a conversation that is full of lost opportunities. She too had a family, grandchildren. She too thought of him every day.

The acting is superb, especially Cristofer Jean, who is completely believable as a young man in love and completely believable as a man on his deathbed full of regrets. His first love was played by Kate Hurster.

And so this play is in dress rehearsal and we gets bits and pieces, often interrupted. It is a testament to the power of this simple play and its actors that we are immediately inside the emotion when it is on stage.

The other play intervenes, sometimes between scenes, sometimes simultaneously with both plays occurring at the same time on the same stage, lines sometimes crossing from one dialogue to the other, sometimes one on top of the other. The play is a Chinese opera, which is sort of the Three Stooges kind of acting. Stupid, silly, vulgar. Frequently stylized gestures that one might borrow from Kabuki – but slapstick. I find slapstick funny for about 3 minutes and then I just want it to go away. We got two hours of it, and I was restless and bored through much of it.

The story is of a cuckolded fisherman who goes upstream to find big fish and finds the “peach blossom land” which is a utopia. Everyone dresses in white and speaks softly and captures injured butterflies to nurse them back to health. The man’s wife in the real world (a harridan) is transformed into perfect peace in this utopia; the man’s wife’s lover (a bawd) becomes the husband’s mentor in this utopia.
I was glad when it was over.

There was one fun moment that confronted the race-blind casting that is common here. The play, all Chinese in content, was performed by a multi-racial cast. The director (a character who mirrors the actual director and writer of the play) complains that non-Asians simply can’t get the play the way Asians can. Some hilarity ensures and the audience loved it – probably the first time that race-blind casting was a central issue in a play. The good humor slides on the top of something that I suspect many audience members (many of whom are elderly) struggle with: love stories that aren’t typical. I sometimes think  I hear a squirm in the audience when a couple is mixed race. (Note: in the next play, Fingersmith, the squirming wasn’t very hidden. The lesbian theme made many people visibly upset – they didn’t know what they were getting into, I guess. Beatrice and Benedict are also a mixed couple: black and white. This looks like the 21st century, folks, so get used to it).

There was one other bright point. An on-stage assistant director for the Chinese opera was a young, gangly man on a skateboard. He periodically skated through the plays, delivering props, picking up things, cleaning up problems – all with the bewildered delight of being there so that he stole every moment he was on stage. He threw himself into the silliness with all the abandon of someone throwing himself off a cliff to see what was on the other side. Great fun, and a reminder that there are no small parts.

Fingersmith. This is based on a highly touted novel by Sarah Waters, and I’m tempted to read it just so I can figure out what I just saw. It was fun. The set was absolutely gorgeous and huge – far bigger than the stage would seem to allow. There was an inset roundabout in the floor, stairways to a bridge across the stage, multiple doorways into various buildings that doubled as asylum, homes, baby farmer facilities, etc.

One must pause for a moment on that last one because I had never heard the term, but it is basically what we frequently do with children now: they are born, spend a week at home with mom who is eager to get back to work and someone somewhere takes care of the children – those are baby farmers. It went further in the Victorian period when people could surrender their babies to a farmer for a fee and never see the kids again. Or, it might be a short term solution (one thinks of Les Miz).

This is a tale of two girls in the Victorian era who started off life with a baby farmer; one was adopted by her uncle to become a secretary and oral reader of his pornography collection to at-home evenings with his buds, a pornography collection that is extensive; one was left to the streets to become known as “Fingersmith” – a pickpocket in other words. There are confusions about which girl is which as they grow up, an inheritance is involved, a shady fellow is out to fleece everyone and proceeds to fleece one girl, with the help of the other girl who is fleeced by the same girl with the help of the shady fellow – and all are fleeced by the baby farmer who, apparently is the mother of one of them. Hidden in all this is a touching (sometimes) lesbian affair as the two girls (not related) find one another and awaken love in one another.

Oh, is it confusing. At one point, one of the narrators (the girls narrate different parts of the story: two sections are nearly identical except by changing the narrator and finding out what is really going on, we see the same scene rashomon–wise. Well, I lost my sentence there: at one point, one of the narrators actually suggests that the audience get out pencils and record the steps so they can understand. It was good advice, though I had no pencil. A scorecard would have been helpful. This is the only time so far this year when there was talking in the audience (Ashland audiences really are good), and the talking all seemed to be, “What was that? Who is she? Why did . . . “  So, what’s wrong with the direction and the play if the audience can’t follow?

Really, if they know this is so confusing, why not add something to clarify?

I really wanted to like this play, and the energy and the good humor of it all was infectious. But finally, my failing: I simply got lost in the rapid changes and didn’t understand what was going on. I’m trying to remember if that has ever happened to me before, and nothing comes to mind.

Much Ado About Nothing. This is my favorite comedy. I’ve seen way too many productions to count, including some fun movie versions, but I’ve never seen one this good. The play depends on Benedict and Beatrice, and these were the two best I’ve seen. Absolutely hilarious. As always, describing comedy is impossible without making the whole thing sound ridiculous, and finally this was ridiculously funny. At one point, Benedict, overhearing the praises of Beatrice, crawled under the feet of audience members, slid down a stairway, crawled until the lip of the stage, and then got a can of beer “accidentally” tossed onto him by his buddies; When it was Beatrice’s turn, she did almost the same and had a champagne bucket’s ice dumped onto her. Only Claudio was weak; everyone else played beautifully.

But what was truly amazing to me was that the best Benedict I’ve ever seen was also the Edmund from Long Day’s Journey, Danforth Comins.. Two roles that are extremely difficult and requiring vastly different ranges – both excellent. Beatrice was also amazing, Christiana Clark.  (photos below).

Near the end of the play, perhaps 15 minutes or so before the end, the house lights flickered and came on, the stage went to some sort of general rehearsal lighting. Apparently the air conditioner, over taxed (it was exactly eleventy-hundred degrees Farenheit –my converter doesn’t cover this in centigrade –outside), blew the circuits and we were on some sort of auxiliary power.  Benedict (Comins) effortlessly (sprezzatura comes to mind) worked the fact of the broken air conditioner into his next speech and the play went on without a single hitch. Oh, but there were no lights, no music and the play was to end in a dance – so it did. Again, Comins invited the audience to clap, and the dance went on as planned to clapping instead of music. I’m not even sure much of the audience realized that it was all improvised on the fly. (They had to cancel the performance for last night in that theater; I’m hoping it is fixed in the next few hours because I’m scheduled there this afternoon). (Later note: it was!)

Guys and Dolls is a popular musical, and here it was done very well: good acting, good staging and all the rest. But two years ago, this festival set the bar high by reinventing My Fair Lady entirely, and this production of Guys and Dolls could have been done by any regional theater in the nation. Good, fun and entertaining, and certainly a fun way to spend an afternoon. But it is hard to get too enthused by something we’ve seen before. The highlight of my afternoon was a chatty lady (before, during the interval, and after – not during) who graduated from Stanford in 1958 and was there with a dozen of her classmates, something they do every single year. Great fun, full of life. She mentioned that they’d lost two of their group this year, “Two moved on this  year.” And that was that.