August 14th, 2016

djonn: (butterfly)

[crossposted from The Lone Penman]

If you are a Gilbert & Sullivan purist, you may want to steer clear of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's current incarnation of Yeomen of the Guard -- it is, I'm advised by the G&S purists in our tour group, a sufficiently free adaptation that they might as well have called it something else.  (Possibly Boys & Girls of the Golden West....)

If, however, you're the sort of person who doesn't mind a little country in your sort-of-light operetta (Yeomen being the G&S equivalent of one of Shakespeare's weirder, edgier "comedies", on the order of Measure for Measure) -- and especially if you're the sort of person who likes meta in their fanfiction and more than a little audience-generated improv in your live theatre  -- then run, do not walk, to the OSF box office and book your ticket now.

In fact, while the libretto is definitely retuned for this production, it's not as severely mangled as my purist fellow travelers might lead you to think.  Though the setting is a light-duty Wild West town square with props and costumes that wouldn't be out of place on a Muppet Show set, it's still called Tower Green, the yeomen are still called yeomen, and the intricate scansion that makes G&S what it is remains largely intact.

Indeed, the most unusual element of this staging isn't the cartoon-Western set design at all.  It's the fact that about twenty percent of the audience for the show is being seated right there on that cartoon-Western set...which includes an actual operational saloon bar, where (if you're among that part of the audience) you can buy yourself a beer or a soda or what have you at any time during the 90-minute duration of the performance.

But the presence of a live cash bar onstage isn't, in itself, what's novel here.  What's novel is that the audience in what's being called "promenade" seating essentially becomes part of the cast for that performance.  Those sitting on-set will -- not may, will -- find themselves moving from haybale to rocking horse to billiards table and back as the action ebbs and flows.  An actor might unexpectedly swap hats with you during a musical number.  Another actor might call you out for looking entirely too much like James Taylor.  Or someone could spill their beer right into the players' main traffic lane, thereby becoming comic relief for the ninety-odd seconds required for an usher to produce towels and clean up the spill.  [Yes, all of those things actually happened the night I saw the show.]  And all of those moments combine with the crisp, high-energy artistry of Ashland's crackerjack repertory performers to produce something that's not merely wonderful but wondrous.  Even for the many promenade denizens who aren't pulled into the limelight -- and, for the more traditionally seated audience -- the resulting explosion of sheer interpersonal chemistry makes for a uniquely delightful theatrical experience.

The consensus among our tour group afterward is that doing the show that way must be even more than usually complicated and exhausting for the actors, though a few of us also pointed out that for at least some of them, it's likely to have been the most fun they've ever been legally allowed to have onstage.

One can only hope that it's a sufficiently successful experiment for OSF to do it again.  Because next time, I want one of those promenade seats....

djonn: (woods)

Ninety-nine percent of this year's production of Twelfth Night at OSF is sheer genius.  The set design for its nominal 1930s Hollywood transposition is clever in all the right ways, nearly all the performances are exceptional, and the comic swordfight between Sir Andrew and Viola-as-Cesario gets the single funniest execution I've seen in the 40+ years I've been attending the festival.  (Clearly we'd best not ask how many calla lilies they've gone through since the run started.)

And then we get to the twin-revelation scene, and the magic evaporates.

Now back in 2008, an OSF production of Comedy of Errors attempted the daring stunt of casting one (count him, one) actor in the role of both Antipholuses (Antipholi?), and likewise one (count again, one) actor in the role of both Dromios.  What's more, they made the stunt work -- a very clever bit of staging at the tail end of the play skated around the problem of producing both sets of twins onstage at once. Note to Christopher Liam Moore, director of this year's Twelfth Night: do not try this at home. Or at least if you're going to try it, commit to the premise and run with it.

It's not that Sara Bruner doesn't do a credible job of playing both Viola and Sebastian, though here she is merely very good in a cast where everyone else is outstanding.  Especially high marks go to Ted Deasy for a beautifully dry Malvolio, Danforth Comins for a hilariously high-strung Andrew Aguecheek (all the more remarkable given that Comins' other role this year is the Prince of Denmark himself), and Gina Daniels as Olivia, here imagined as an exotically sultry but reclusive film star.

Part of the problem is technological.  In absolute terms, the screen-projection trickery that allows Bruner to appear in both roles simultaneously is ingenious, and the execution is period-appropriate for the 1930s setting.  But it's also unfortunately primitive (or made to appear so) by comparison to modern film and television standards, and nothing in the run-up to the finale prepares the audience for what amounts to a left turn into pulp-era science fiction at exactly the wrong emotional moment.

More troubling yet, though, is what happens after the magic doubling effect is dismissed.  Bruner is left onstage as Viola/Cesario -- but in the very last moment, finds herself being treated as Viola by Orsino and Sebastian by Olivia, literally pulled in opposite directions at once.  In theory, this is obviously a nod to the questions of gender identity Shakespeare himself raises in the script...but as with the special-effects trickery, there's been no foundation laid for this interpretation of the character(s) anywhere in the preceding two hours.  One can certainly imagine, nowadays, a staging of Twelfth Night in which the "twins" are in fact two minds in one body, with the attendant gender-bending consequences -- but this is not that show.

And as a result, the last few seconds in which it tries to become that show fall absolutely, utterly flat.  Which is frustrating in the extreme, because in nearly every other respect this is a home-run production.

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