August 4th, 2013

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

I’ve seen a good many Lears in the years we’ve been visiting Ashland – medieval and modern, spare and opulent, willful and wan.  But I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so accessible a King Lear as this year’s production.

Not coincidentally, this version is being staged in the Festival’s newest space – it’s finally been named the Thomas Theater, after several seasons of being called simply the “New Theater”.  It’s a small, highly reconfigurable black box – in this case, arranged in the round with just a few furnishings and props. But I’m not using “accessible” in its purely physical sense here, even though that’s part of the show’s success.  Nor am I thinking only of one of the Fool’s first scenes, in which a couple of audience members were briefly drawn into the stage business, though that’s part of it too.

Rather, this is perhaps the first iteration of Lear I’ve seen that seems to me to break unreservedly out of its Shakespearean shell and really connect with its audience on a personal level, irrespective of whether one is a theater buff, a Shakespeare scholar, or a literature geek.  The language is just as it’s always been, so it will satisfy loyalists, but the production as a whole assimilates the language and delivers a show that speaks more viscerally and directly than mere words can convey.

Two performances in particular drive the intimacy: Michael Winters (one of two actors alternating as Lear) is utterly compelling; he balances Shakespeare’s dialogue beautifully with a characterization of Lear that is at once vivid, powerful, and familiar – rarely will you see a Lear described as “charming”, but there are moments here where the word fits, and others where Winters’ delivery is as easy and conversational as you might hear around a card table at your neighborhood senior center.  And young Daisuke Tsuji is a bright, personable, and perceptive Fool, with all the energy of a street comic and the careful precision of a master sensei.  These two stand out among a uniformly excellent cast, and the staging is brisk and energetic, with performers ranging among the audience and into the rafters as the show progresses.  And for all its accessibility, the production doesn’t lose touch with the classic elements that make Lear one of Shakespeare’s most powerful tragedies.

Some of my drama-buff tourmates may disagree (we’ll find out later tonight), but I call this one of the best Lears I’ve seen, period, and not to be missed if the opportunity is available.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

With the possible exception of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (not on our tour schedule this weekend), The Heart of Robin Hood is probably the most purely entertaining production in the summer’s eleven-play repertory.  Which is mostly a good thing – except that it’s a highly entertaining production of a severely schizophrenic script.  Almost none of the flaws can really be laid at OSF’s door, but they’re enough to take the show from being an unalloyed winner to a watchable yet troubling success.

The Festival’s promotion makes clear one point that the title does not: properly, this is really more Marion’s show than it is Robin’s.  In this light, David Farr’s script – billed as a US premiere – is an entirely apt fit for Ashland’s Elizabethan stage. Our heroine, faced with an unwanted marriage orchestrated by her guardian, flees to Sherwood Forest and adopts boy’s disguise, first in hopes of joining Robin Hood’s band and then – when Robin proves less heroic than anticipated – in the service of a career as his more charity-minded rival.  Kate Hurster is entirely winning as both Marion and “Martin”, but John Tufts misses his mark slightly as Robin.  Tufts’ over-gruff accent gives the characterization a shade too much seriousness, which cuts into the comedic chemistry between Robin and Marion.

Also problematic is the villainous Prince John, played with oily enthusiasm by Michael Elich.  The performance itself is ably executed, but Elich is hampered by a script that sometimes calls for melodramatic mustache-twirling (as in John’s early courtship of Marion), sometimes for genteel theatrical evil (“why yes, I am staging a revolt against my older brother”), and sometimes for outright sociopathic nastiness (a threat to hang two hundred innocent children).  John’s motivation’s and true character are never made clear, nor does the script quite make up its mind whether he’s a proper evil genius or merely – as his final scene suggests – a mere Malvolio with delusions of competence.

Fortunately for viewers, and despite a minor excess of subplots, the production mostly emphasizes both physical and verbal comedy over the darker elements.  In particular, Tanya Thai McBride gives a wonderfully animated physical and vocal performance as a dog named Plug, who steals most of the scenes in which she appears.  The staging can’t entirely get around the script problems, which make the show just creepy enough that I’d hesitate to recommend it for kids under eleven or twelve.  But warts and all, it’s still a lively and often very funny evening, even if it’s nowhere near being a definitive treatment of the Robin Hood legend.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

Where issues of sexual politics are concerned, this production of Shrew unabashedly takes its cue from Lucy Van Pelt’s perpetual duel with Charlie Brown – no matter how many times the offer is extended, nobody ever gets to kick that football.  For modern viewers, the text raises the issue over and over – and the present version executes it crisply and energetically, neither apologizing for it nor using stage business to undercut the dialogue.  Which isn’t, in the end, an unreasonable choice.  An honest rendering of Shakespeare’s text, after all, puts fewer barriers and complications in the way as viewers grapple with the play’s take on marriage and women’s issues, letting the play speak more or less for itself.

While the production nominally retains the play’s Italian setting, the specific rendering gives us a mid-20th century carnival boardwalk, complete with neon, primary-colored signs (“Welcome to Padua”), and a fast-food counter complete with roll-down steel curtain.  There’s also an onstage rock band cranking up musical energy, and the performances are similarly tuned – Kate (Nell Geisslinger) is the brunette Bad Girl, while Bianca  (Royer Bockus) is the squeaky-voiced blonde.  Ted Deasy’s Petruchio mixes more than a bit of Happy Days’ Fonzie with a touch of Elvis and a dash of Evil Knievel, aptly conveying the character’s self-assurance.  The show’s one direct nod to modern cultural sensibilities is the casting of African-American actors Wayne T. Carr and Tyrone Wilson as Lucentio and his father Vincentio, the former Bianca’s love interest; the players take just enough note of this to add texture to the play’s own comic potential without relying on undue stereotype.  There are a handful of other period-related anomalies, one involving Kentucky Fried Chicken and another involving a wickedly funny dueling-video moment between rival suitors Hortensio and Gremio (I’m fairly sure “Let’s zoom in just a skosh, shall we?” isn’t in the original Shakespeare), but for the most part the atmosphere is solidly grounded.

And it’s really a combination of that atmosphere and an emphasis on plot that drives this production, rather than character chemistry.  It isn’t that Deasy and Geisslinger lack chemistry; it’s simply that here, it’s the serial courtship of Kate and Bianca that gets the greatest focus, so that the show is more of an ensemble piece than one often finds in productions of Shrew.  You’ll find more thoughtful stagings than this one, but few with greater overall energy or brisker pacing.  I don't know that this is a genuinely stellar production, but it's a solid and watchable one.

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