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.

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