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.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ashland Festival 2015 – part the first

Our American friend Jeff Burdick, an academic with a particular interest in Shakespeare, has again been lucky enough to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. He saw nine plays, not all of them by Shakespeare. It seems to have been a fantastic season, played in three theatres, so I shall break his wonderfully detailed critique into three sections. Today we’ll visit Jeff’s take on the plays at the Thomas Theater. (Naturally, Jeff uses American spelling!) The photos are from the Ashland website. I hope they don't mind our 'borrowing' them!

This year begins the Shakespeare Decade, an ambitious project to mount all 37 plays in the next ten years. Assuming I don’t keel over, drool uncontrollably, or forget who I am, I’d like to be here for nine more years and see it all. We’ll see.

I’m going to record the plays by theater because the theater environment makes so much happen. The first is the Thomas Theater, a remarkable black box where no one sits more than 7 rows from the stage, which is generally a thrust but can be reconfigured into a central square surrounded by audience. It seats around 300, depending on configuration. It is a beautiful venue. Stage spray is a danger, of course, but being able to see every muscle in an actor’s face, every ripple of emotion across the eyes – there can’t be a better way to see theater. Two plays this year in the Thomas: Pericles and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I sat in the third row for Pericles, the second for LDJIN.

There are several elevator trap doors, extensive ceiling structures for dropping things down – all quite invisible to the audience. State of the art lights are used to great effect.

Pericles is strange in several ways. Shakespeare did not write the first two acts but did write the final three. The big question here is what did he see that made him want to complete the play? Perhaps money, perhaps he saw something in the frenetic introduction of characters and events that he could untangle into something that made sense. What results is one of the more popular plays he wrote, often performed, often talked about in his own time. And one of the few plays that almost no contemporary theater attempts.

The stage is bare. A series of platforms that seem to mimic waves, royal steps, a temple’s steps. A flat thrust toward the end where two elevator trap doors will figure large.

The play opens with a king offering his daughter for marriage. But there is a secret, a riddle. The answer, we know, is that the king has been sleeping with his own daughter, and the suitor who guesses that will be victorious for her hand. Of course, we’re bewildered from the beginning. Why would the king embed the disastrous secret in a riddle to be solved? Many have tried, many have died. The King wants his domination to be known, apparently. Our hero, Pericles, also a king, will attempt the riddle. The daughter is paraded out. Her gown is sleek and modest, rising high on her neck, but also quite sexy since it is a clinging, full-length gown, and she is beautiful. When it comes time for the riddle, she turns her back on Pericles: her gown’s back plunges all the way down to reveal her long and beautiful back – tattooed with the riddle, which is in elegant script.

Remember that this outrage is performed within feet of the audience – gasps of horror.

Her father has literally violated her body for life, and this is the body she offers to her suitor. Pericles, no dummy, solves the riddle almost immediately but couches his answer so he won’t enrage the king. (Yes, it continues to make little sense that the king wants to reveal and hide the truth). Pericles has won; Pericles must leave because he perceives that his life is in danger. And so begins a life of wandering, ship wrecks, a marriage and the loss of his wife at sea in childbirth, the loss of his child. Pericles seems to be cursed, storm tossed (literally and figuratively), and fully in the hands of fate, which is cruel.

The rest of the play will follow his journey and, in the very end, in what feels like grace, represented by a goddess, the daughter who was lost at sea and the wife who died at sea are, in fact, alive and well and reunited. The closing scenes gripped our hearts. I wasn’t alone in having tears in my eyes. Powerful stuff.

Alert: one must simply accept the fact that I identify with actors and events so much that I am frequently wiping my eyes. I am not stoic. One should not sit next to me if one is easily embarrassed. Or lacking a box of Kleenex.

So, what sets this apart? Music: each act opens with a chorus (If you’ve seen  Henry V you know how effective that can be) who sums up action, introduces the next phase, etc., certainly a helpful device in a play with 5,000 separate plot shifts. The opening chorus was sung, songs intervened at many points, sometimes actually taking the form of sung dialogue but more often in extended soliloquy or intervals. Following the intermission, the entire cast sings together, rounding up the plot points, setting the tone for the second half, when reconciliations begin. The music was a tiny bit too modern sounding rather than appropriate to the time but it was well done, and it was effective. The discoveries at the end of the play are caused by reprisals of earlier songs – a beautiful touch.

Stagecraft. My favorite moments, outside of acting genius, are the magic that can be done on stage, the illusions. Certainly the tattooed back was one of those. But two others stood out in this play. The first is the storm that washes Pericles onto shore. An enormous silk scrim covered the entire stage, painted splotchy with sea colors. Stage hands at each side rippled, sometimes violently, the cloth so it looked like the surface of the ocean. Pericles, who was drowning, pops up through a slit and with swimming motions (and submerging motions) struggles against the sea. Very effective with lots of sound effects and flashing lightning – but then something miraculous happened. As he approached shore, the scrim suddenly was withdrawn to the back of the stage and as its trailing edge retreated, it was lit to look like tumbling waves. Pericles is left on the shore with the waves retreating. Magic.

The storm at sea was a sight to behold. Again with the lights and the noise. Pericles stands on a swinging platform. The rigging where his crew are hanging on for life is swinging violently. Men trying to hold down ropes are unfooted and swing out over the abyss. I would not have been surprised to discover that my own chair was in motion.

The same swinging platform was stilled for a late scene when a goddess, who has suddenly intervened to set everything right (deus ex machina), is ensconced in her temple, and the platform is raised high so she appears as a statue.

The acting at Ashland is always excellent. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone, right down to the spear carriers, who was not fully dedicated and focused. This play was no exception. Wayne Carr played the lead and Amando Duran played the chorus – the two standouts here.

Unfortunately, costuming was poor. People were draped in layers and layers of mostly white linen cloth, pants that didn’t fit and that made them look fat and unkempt – very weird. At one point, Pericles entered wearing what appeared to be a Coco Chanel white fitted jacket with bright gold buttons. It did not fit, physically or any other way.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a harrowing journey. Four hours of claustrophobia. It is, in my opinion, one of the two greatest plays in the American theater: Glass Menagerie is the other. Streetcar named Desire probably should also sit in the pantheon, but it is of a different nature. LDJ requires, at a minimum, four great actors; five if you can get them. Ashland found five. Even the maid had us mesmerized. The staging was quite conventional: an old home, fairly shabby and old fashioned, though once grand. And all within inches of the audience. We could see every bead of sweat, every tear (and there are many), every ripple of a nerve across the face.

James Tyrone is a famous actor whose career stalled on the Count of Monte Cristo, which he bought as a convenient box-office draw and which he spent his entire career taking across the country, thereby destroying his art and his reputation. He is stingy, always afraid of the poor house. (These are based on O’Neill’s real family, though in a strange turn, he names himself Edmund and a dead baby as himself, Eugene – opposite the real names). His wife is an opium addict who has relapsed after a stint in the asylum. Two sons: Jamie is also an actor though prefers drinking and whoring, Edmund is the younger, more obviously sensitive brother who is dying of consumption. All three men spend much of the play under the influence of alcohol. The past haunts them; the future seems only to hold destruction. We watch one day as these four people who love each other desperately injure each other viciously time after time.

[Note that I’m also attending a production of the Count of Monte Cristo, the same version that O’Neill starred in.]

In four hours, I saw not one moment that I did not believe completely. The boys want to rescue the family. Jamie does it through drinking it away; Edmund is convinced that he can restore his mother to health – as she slips away into her own past. It is a tragedy and an unrelenting one. There is no redemption, no hope. I walked out of the theater reciting Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” speech – full nihilism, staring into the abyss.

“Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf” isn’t actually more destructive than this play is, though I’ve heard it described as the most destructive play.

Simply an amazing four hours that slipped by and lingered on at the same time. 

Cast: Michael Winters (Last year’s Prospero, whom I did not especially like in that role, but perfect in this one), Judith-Marie Bergan (what an amazing actress she is. Every ripple of nerve and muscle in her face showed, her hands almost separate characters as she used them to absorb her shame and fear), Jonathan Haugen (Jamie), and Danforth Comins (Edmund), who is on stage virtually every moment and has to go through laughter and drunkenness and complete collapse – and everything was spot on. Autumn Buck as the maid, who stood up to this household and humanized it, seeing the quality that they did not see themselves.

Jamie is a drunk, and so one is tempted to see him as a toss away, nothing but a foil. But it is clear that he cares so deeply that he can’t do what Edmund does, and that is try. He has lived in this hell longer and with greater perception and without the optimism that Edmund brings. A devastating portrait – often funny, often so honest that it hurts to watch.

I identify with Edmund, and in fact one of his monologues was a piece I used for auditions back in my acting days. In some ways, his story parallels my own, so I come at this play with emotions on the edge. I told a colleague last night that if Edmund had keeled over from his consumption during the play,  I could have completed it for him, not because I know all the lines but because I lived much of this, too.

Comins was amazing in every way. He is on stage for virtually every minute of this play, and it is an extraordinarily taxing acting job. He can’t be just one thing. He must be funny and sober and drunk and destroyed and ill and angry and optimistic– one after another in such quick succession that it is amazing that any actor can pull this off. And he does.

Side note: He also pays Benedict in Much Ado (next post!). Also brilliant.

The final scene with Bergen, as she finally retreats back to a time before her children who ruined her life (who are listening in while their hearts break) gave me chills that lasted well beyond the curtain call. Absolutely believable as she put off her age and her damaged self to be the young woman she started out to be. I don’t know how old Bergen is, but I would guess well into her 70s. During this last scene, she sits on a couch with her knees pulled to her chest like an 18 year old, her eyes bright with the promise of a life as a concert pianist or, her other dream, being a nun – without the husband and children in the room.

Certainly one of the finest productions I’ve seen of any play. The play ended around 5 p.m.; I was still awake at midnight, thinking about it. 

Next week we'll see Jeff Burdick's take on the plays at the Bowmer Theater.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Is Much Ado really Love's Labours Won?

As an interesting sequel to her last post, Frances, our president, discusses the Royal Shakespeare Company's approach to Much Ado about Nothing - or should that be 'Love's Labour's Won'?

What an interesting idea to consider: in a pre-show interview the director, Christopher Luscombe, made a strong case for regarding Much Ado About Nothing as the missing Love’s Labour’s Won and treating it as a sequel to Love’s Labour’s Lost.

We usually expect a sequel to follow the fortunes of characters we met in the earlier story, in much the same setting. Well, Luscombe had already changed Navarre to Warwickshire, so in the second play 'sunny Sicily' was changed to 'chilly England', the action in the same beautiful country house. However, the cast was now playing completely new characters entirely unconnected with the first play. This gave me an additional pleasure: observing the skill and versatility of the performers in their different roles, notably Sam Alexander, who turned from the superbly eccentric Don Adriano to the authoritative and soldierly, but kindly, Don Pedro. The two leads, Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry, moved from their fine portrayals of the youthful Biron and Rosaline to even more admirable performances as the more mature Benedick and Beatrice. Although Love’s Labour’s Lost was the last film I had seen (and therefore fresh in my mind) I accepted these new acquaintances immediately, greatly to the credit of the actors.

The decision to place the action in the immediate post-WW1 period allowed perhaps more than usual emphasis on pathos and the darker aspects of the play. Beatrice’s chatter was less light-hearted and her exchanges with Benedick had an edge suggesting past disappointment or misunderstanding. She frequently evoked a sense of loneliness behind her outward bravado, while Benedick at times appeared at a loss to understand her and their current relationship.

Iqbal Khan's 2012 production with Meera Syal as Beatrice and Amara Karan as Hero. By Ellie Kurttz.
There were nevertheless some lovely comic scenes, particularly the gulling of Benedick, when he performed amazing contortions behind the window curtains, and survived a near-electrocution in the Christmas tree. Another gloriously funny scene was performed in solemn silence, as the sexton tried to leave Dogberry’s kitchen, but found himself hemmed in by people, furniture and assorted domestic paraphernalia while everyone milled about trying to clear the way. The gulling of Beatrice was treated far more seriously with her listening at the window of a high tower. I thought her stillness and sadness (rather than affronted umbrage) contrasted rather too strongly with the actions of Hero and Ursula, who appeared to try a little too hard in their search for the comedy of the scene.

The audience had been told in advance that the characters of Don John and Dogberry were to be understood as resulting from trauma during the war. I found some difficulty with this. Don John’s use of a crutch and his marked limp tended to evoke sympathy and to reduce the impact of his malevolence, but did not give any clearer explanation of his motives. Dogberry was to be seen as suffering PTSD to account for his mis-use of words. My feeling is that comedy allows us to laugh sometimes at things which polite society does not permit in daily life, and that we can enjoy Dogberry’s extraordinary vocabulary just as later generations enjoyed Mrs Malaprop. I see Dogberry as smugly complacent about his own authority and position and entirely happily unaware of his deficiencies. To give him the extra tics and limps of a disastrous war made it difficult for me simply to enjoy his character.

The build-up to Hero’s wedding was charming, with a pretty scene in her bedroom, the girls in negligee and pyjamas, all excitement and warmth. It led nicely into the fine church setting, with stained glass, choir and guests ready for the big moment. However, this scene for me was perhaps the least successful of the play. Claudio needed more fire and shock-power in his denunciation, and the long and vituperative speech of Hero’s father, Leonato, was accompanied by a distinct drop in the high and engaging intensity of the rest of the performance.

Beatrice and Benedick were outstanding in their interaction. Sensitive timing and well-judged emphases and facial expressions drew from their lines every last nuance of thought and feeling. They moved from some sense of disgruntlement at the start to the joyous surrender to mutual love at the end with charm and a lovely balance of fun and seriousness. The conclusion of the play was a warmly and satisfyingly happy one.