August 10th, 2015

djonn: (butterfly)
By contrast to Saturday's shiny new material, Sunday brought us two solid theatrical standbys.

Discussing the matinee, Guys & Dolls, ought to take less space than yesterday's shows...simply because what we got was an absolutely classic old-school Broadway stage production.  Simple set (with a few flashy touches), briskly enthusiastic choreography, uniformly confident acting, and musical numbers performed with energy and verve.  A sufficiently trained ear might have caught one or two performers switching registers in order to hit one or two particular notes -- but that ear wasn't mine, and as far as I'm concerned, the door I walked through into the Angus Bowmer shell might as well have been a portal into the New York theater district.  The show was just that good, and while I am usually stingy about handing out standing ovations (unlike most of Ashland's theater-goers these days), it took me less than three seconds to get up at the end of this performance.

I'm struck, though, by one observation.  Where Head Over Heels (see yesterday's entry) got much of its energy from direct interaction with the audience, Guys & Dolls draws virtually all of its oomph from its own onstage presence.  It's not that the audience isn't on board and enjoying the ride -- far from it -- but the energy that drives this production is essentially self-sustaining.  And while this is far from a bad thing (overall, it's an indication that the show has been and will be consistently superb from its first to its final performance), it's a marked contrast to much of the Festival's other recent work.

Mind you, I'd still have liked to see Pericles Prince of Tyre, the rarely-produced Shakespeare play running opposite Guys & Dolls in the Festival's black box theatre that day.  But the show I did see was a six-stars-out-of-five production of a first-rate musical classic, and that's an experience absolutely worth having.
djonn: (bird)
On the one hand, Much Ado About Nothing is arguably* in the second tier of the Shakespeare canon, even if one is looking mostly at the comedies (Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Comedy of Errors being the best-known and most respected of those).   On the other, Much Ado has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, dating from the Kenneth Branagh film in 1993 to the much more recent (and very good) Joss Whedon version released in 2013.

This year's OSF staging falls somewhere between the two movies in atmosphere -- it has a Mediterranean visual style not unlike the Branagh film, but the execution is distinctly modern.  It's funny where it needs to be -- one of the best running gags has Rex Young's Dogberry zipping around on a Segway, and Christiana Clark makes an especially energetic Beatrice.  It's also provocative where it needs to be -- actress Regan Linton plays a wheelchair-bound Don John with credible bitterness, lending an intriguing dimension to the darker side of the play's storyline. 

The trouble is simply that while there's nothing really wrong with the production, it just doesn't sparkle as brightly as OSF's home-run shows of the current season -- it lacks the zip of Head Over Heels or Guys & Dolls, and can't match a play like Sweat on the social-relevance scale.  It's simply a very good staging caught among a handful of flat-out spectacular shows, and it can't help but feel a little bit overwhelmed by comparison.  For what it's worth, I'd count Much Ado as the slightly better show of the two Shakespeare plays we saw -- Antony & Cleopatra is a bit more unevenly executed. 

In terms of the weekend as a whole, though, this feels like one of OSF's strongest recent seasons, and I'd happily go back to catch several of the shows we missed on this visit (notably Pericles and The Count of Monte Cristo, though tickets for the former are reportedly very hard to come by at this point).

 ===
*Our nominal tour leader (an English professor from my alma mater) would argue with me about this.  She expressed the opinion several times during the tour that Much Ado is possibly Shakespeare's *best* comedy in terms of craft and characterization, which is one of the reasons she chose to have the group see it rather than the Festival's production of The Count of Monte Cristo on the outdoor Elizabethan stage.  Me, I'd have picked Monte Cristo....

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