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.

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: (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....

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: Self-portrait (Default)
Strictly speaking, in one respect I am totally the wrong target audience for Head Over Heels, as prior to viewing this musical I couldn't have told you that the Go-Gos were, in fact, a genuine (and highly successful) '80s rock group.  Nor, despite having been the archetypical liberal arts English major back in the day, had I taken more than a passing glance at any of the versions of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia.  And if you'd told me that someone had decided to fuse the Arcadia and a whole catalog of Go-Gos music into a rock musical, I'd probably have asked you what you were smoking.

I am now here to tell you that someone has done exactly this, and that the result is, to apply an over-used but apt modern superlative, awesome -- and I use that term in its classic sense, of "something which inspires awe".  I should add that where theater is concerned, I am not easy to awe.  Specifically, the librettist for Head Over Heels is Jeff Whitty, perhaps best known as the father of the Tony-winning Avenue Q, which may go some way toward explaining why this show actually works.

I'm not even going to try to explain the plot (such as it is), except to observe that it is (a) in the broad general neighborhood of Shakespeare's more convoluted comedies and late romances -- it is perhaps not a coincidence that OSF is also producing Pericles Prince of Tyre this year -- and (b) also in the broad general neighborhood of the two stage adaptations of classic Marx Brothers movies OSF has produced recently.  What's of greater importance is the degree to which the show doesn't merely play with the metaphorical "fourth wall", but gleefully tunnels right through it into the audience.  And that's no metaphor -- John Tufts, as a classic Shakespeare-league Fool crossed with the Leading Player in Pippin (and this show's nominal master of ceremonies), spent part of the intermission strolling through the house, plopping briefly down in one of the best seats in the theater while talking casually to various audience members.  At least half the cast began the evening by stationing themselves at intervals throughout the aisles several minutes before curtain time; I realized this when I looked up from my playbill, noticed an eight-foot pool of purple skirt stretched across the concrete behind me, and realized that the animated (and entirely off-the-cuff) conversation I'd been overhearing from the next row back was taking place between one lady in the aisle seat and one of the principal female players.

And it only got wilder from there.  When curtain time did arrive, Tufts strode out to center stage and introduced himself -- both as himself and as his character -- then went on to do the same for several of the leading performers.  Then there was the Oracle of Delphi, who admitted that her gift of prophecy was made possible because she was reading ahead in the script.  (Yes, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem got there first in the original Muppet Movie, but Whitty and the Oracle -- later to be known as Linda -- promote the shtick from an amusing throwaway gag to a key plot and thematic point near the climax.)

What prompts the occurrence of awe, though, is that all of the Shakespeare-grade romantic foolery (including lots of gender-bending) and fourth-wall insanity is wrapped in a 24-karat Rock Musical soundtrack.  As I noted earlier, this was my very first encounter with Go-Gos music, and while '80s girl-group rock is not at all my usual beat, it was impossible not to be drawn in by the energy and vigor of the songs.  My only frustration is that the enthusiasm of the orchestra occasionally overrode the vocals during musical numbers, making it difficult to make out lyrics, but that was only an intermittent issue.

Verdict?  If you are a fan of any one subset of the source material (Whitty, Philip Sidney, Shakespearean comedy, rock musicals, etc.), this is a must-see.  And there may be a bonus bit of off-the-wall resonance for the genre-fiction fans in the gallery.  It occurs to me that Head Over Heels -- and the Go-Gos sound -- blends '80s rock and fantastical elements in a way that fans of Seanan McGuire's music may find especially appealing.  And in the reverse context, one of the more memorable performances in the show -- the role of Princess Pamela -- comes from actress Bonnie Milligan, whom I'd argue is a passable ringer for Seanan....

djonn: (woods)
[curses oversensitive post-nuking netbook keyboard]

[deep breath]

Now then.  This was the first of two world-premiere productions we saw on Saturday.  Sweat is written by Lynn Nottage, and concerns a handful of industrial plant workers in Reading, PA as they deal with upper management's efforts to break the union.  There are two mothers, each with a son, one with an ex-husband, plus the bartender and busboy at the tavern where they hang out after work.  Most of the action takes place in 2000 (the date being tied to the ratification of the NAFTA trade agreement), but there's a framing element that occurs eight years later.

As the summary may suggest, the script's political slant is about as subtle as King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.  That said, Nottage's real story lies less in the politics -- however strenuously tilted -- and more in the tensions that arise when well-intentioned people make choices that force them into unwanted opposition to one another.  One conflict arises when one mother is promoted to a low-level management position both have been fighting for...and is promptly forced to help implement an anti-union lockout against her friends.  Another occurs when the Hispanic busboy takes a strikebreaker's job at the plant (the pay, unsurprisingly, being far better than his busboy's wage), thereby angering both of the locked-out sons.  Strong performances all around make it clear that none of these characters want to be at odds, but are propelled by circumstance into confrontations from which feel unable to back away.  I'm not sure how well this show might hold up in the hands of a less talented company, but for OSF, it's a compelling if uncomfortable presentation, executed thoughtfully and with conscience.

djonn: (raven)
Time once again for the annual Shakespeare Festival pilgrimage.  As usual, I'm visiting with a tour group from Whitman College (go, Fighting Missionaries!).  Not usual: my parents are sidelined this year owing to a (minor but perfectly mis-timed) health issue, so I am representing the family on my own.

The Friday night show was Shakespeare's Antony & Ceopatra, which we've seen (surprise) a time or two before -- most notably in 1993, when the then-artistic director was playing Antony and the tour group somehow managed to score front-row center seats, so that we got a row of Roman legionaries marching right along in front of us, close enough to step on stray candy wrappers and drip sweat onto our shoes.

I enjoyed this year's production, though I don't think it was the equal of the 1993 version.  The two best performers, I thought, were Derrick Lee Weeden as Antony and Jeffrey King as his follower Enobarbus.  I've liked Miriam Laube in other roles, but in this production Cleopatra comes off as too much a slave to her emotions rather than their mistress.  To be fair, it's likely this is as much the director's choice as Laube's -- that being OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch in this case.  I also recall the queen's handmaidens, especially Charmian, being more of a force in the earlier production, whereas in this one they were little more than scenery -- and disastrously costumed scenery at that.  [I am not alone in this last sentiment; our faculty tour leader allowed as how she could have made their outfits at home.]  Fortunately, the overall staging and costuming was much better, than that for the handmaids, and I'd count the production as a whole satisfying but short of being exceptional.
djonn: (raven)
Back from our annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival -- as usual, well-stuffed with (mostly) very good theater.

First up this year was Richard III, a solid traditional production on the Elizabethan outdoor stage, with the bonus that Richard was/is played by fellow Whitman College graduate Dan Donohue. Dan graciously appeared after the performance at our tour group's discussion meeting to talk about the show.  I very much liked Dan's Richard -- played with a dry, self-assured charm and no prosthetics (the appearance of a withered, useless left arm was entirely physical trickery).  Others in the group correctly pointed out the strength of the female roles in this production -- amusingly, it turns out that Richard III, at least in this staging, easily passes the Bechdel test.

Next we had The Tempest, staged in the Bowmer theater on a spare but ingenious set (we learned later that some of the players referred to it as "the Dorito chip").  Everyone was very impressed with Miranda and Ferdinand, as well as with the rude comics and Caliban and with some of the clever special effects and props employed by Ariel. The major disagreement was over Prospero, played by Festival veteran Denis Arndt. I was greatly underwhelmed by what I saw as a weak imitation of Dumbledore or Gandalf, too much the kindly grandparent with no real gravitas, out of step with the rest of the production; our group's faculty guide thought Arndt did a good job of making Prospero accessible.  (Judging purely by the audience murmurs I heard on the way out of the theater, the "underwhelmed" crowd was in the majority.)

The group's third show was The Comedy of Errors in the Thomas theater (the newest, smallest performance space), which I am told may have been the strongest Shakespeare play of the weekend.  I skipped out on this, however, in favor of the Festival's brand new adaptation of Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. Excellent Shakespeare notwithstanding, I'm very glad I did. On one hand, I have a number of reservations about the structure and design of the script; OTOH, the execution was mostly very good indeed, with a number of excellent performances (including Tempest's Miranda as Meg Murry and Dan Donohue as her father).  I will likely have more to say about this eventually, but it is a fascinating if flawed adaptation, and worth the viewing.

Sunday brought The Great Society and Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The former is the direct sequel to the Tony-winning All the Way, chronicling President Lyndon Johnson's second term in office, his struggles with Vietnam War policy, and his clashes with Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.  It's a powerful show with many superb performances, and moves briskly through its 3+ hour running time; whatever one's personal politics may be, this is a compelling drama and a thoughtful look at the history of that time.

By contrast, Two Gentlemen is mild-mannered and understated, perhaps this season's most conservative Shakespeare...except that it's presented by an all-female cast (well, almost all female; I believe that Picasso, the gorgeous and very patient St. Pyrenees dog playing Crab, may be a male).  Interestingly, the production makes no changes whatever to Shakespeare's language; it's simply that many of the women are playing male roles just as young men in Elizabethan times would have played the female roles -- and the staging pretty much ignores this, just as an Elizabethan cast would have ignored the reverse anomaly originally.  This got mixed reactions from our group; many viewers wanted more overt nods to one or another feminist sensibility.  My feeling is that that's a no-win scenario, and that the director's choice to play the script as straight as possible is the best possible way to show how timeless Shakespeare's stories really are -- even in what's regarded as one of his weakest plays.  I liked the production a great deal and thought it made a good conclusion to the weekend.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

For all that Ashland audiences are often very, very theater-literate, in recent years they’ve become absurdly generous when it comes to standing ovations.  At least in theatrical circles (as opposed to TV game-show studios, for instance), a standing ovation should reflect truly exceptional accomplishment, should recognize performances at the very pinnacle of the theatrical experience.  In short, they ought to be rare.  If every show gets a standing ovation every night, the worth of the honor decreases.  (The Heart of Robin Hood got one earlier in the weekend; as entertaining as the show was, it did not deserve it.)

This past evening’s performance of My Fair Lady also got a standing ovation – which was, for once, entirely and unequivocally deserved.  The production and the performance really were and are that exceptional, and Amanda Dehnert (credited as both stage and music director) deserves full marks for conceiving and assembling a truly memorable experience.

What’s perhaps most striking about this staging is its intimacy.  The set is, essentially, a theatrical rehearsal hall, its rear occupied with a few rows of metal bleachers with a pair of grand pianos set in front of them, and the ensemble is, in effect, portraying a cast of actors engaged in a run-through of the show they’ve been hired to perform.  This does not preclude occasionally elaborate costuming and choreography, but it constrains it to an intriguing and surprisingly effective degree.  Two violinists, both also part of the acting ensemble (and one a high-school-aged student performer, every bit as polished as anyone in the company), are the only complement to the pianists, but this cast doesn’t need more complex orchestration to drive the familiar score and songs.

The two leads – Jonathan Haugen as Professor Higgins and Rachael Warren as Eliza – are both outstanding on all points; in particular, if the only Higgins you’ve seen is Rex Harrison, having a skilled vocalist in the role is a revelation.  Understudy Dee Maaske was wonderfully warm as Prof. Higgins’ mother, and Ken Robinson as Freddy rightfully steals every scene he’s in.  But this production belongs as much to its ensemble as it does to its leads, and there is no moment when it’s less than captivating, from the pre-opening minutes wherein members of the ensemble are going through physical warm-ups on the set to the final moment between Higgins and Eliza, hauntingly staged halfway up the stairs alongside the audience.

I’ve been attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for almost four decades now, which is long enough both to get used to OSF’s high standards for both creative and technical craft and to get a little jaded about that standard.  But I can honestly say that My Fair Lady is among the very best and most memorable shows I’ve seen in that long series of summer tours.  This one’s not just worth the price of the theater ticket, it justifies the travel expense, the hotel room, and the best dinner you can find in town.

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.

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)

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: (crow)

An interesting start to our weekend in Ashland this year: this summer, the wildfires in southern Oregon and far northern California have been unusually fierce – and the weather has been just exactly right to cause the air quality in the Ashland area to become unusually ghastly.  As a result, evening performances on the outdoor Elizabethan stage had been cancelled for the three nights just prior to our arrival.  Fortunately, matters improved markedly on Friday, and the scheduled presentation of Cymbeline went on as planned.

From a literary standpoint, Cymbeline is a tricky and difficult play – it’s perhaps the least known of the late cluster of Shakespeare’s romances, and the plot is unusually convoluted.  There’s a political thread (Britain is resisting a Roman demand for tribute), a family-betrayal thread (the princess’s wicked stepmother is trying to have both the princess and her would-be love interest murdered, and a sizeable number of other royal relatives have gone missing under assorted peculiar circumstances), and a more or less romantic thread (the princess escapes, disguises herself as a boy, and has a series of adventures before being reunited with her true love).  And there is a good deal of side action bridging and framing the three major plots.

The present production more or less turns this into a briskly paced action yarn with liberal dashes of black comedy and soap-operatic melodrama.  In a year where the Festival is also producing King Lear, this is arguably a good idea; there’s a lot of room to go very dark with Cymbeline, given what the script does to Imogen (the above-mentioned princess), but here we get something that owes more to Grimm and early Buffy the Vampire Slayer than it does to the television version of Game of Thrones.  And I’m not making these references idly; the production introduces light but overt supernatural elements into the staging, and the set design combines with some very impressive lighting wizardry to give the production a decidedly mythic flavor.

The performances are uniformly good if rarely spectacular; my favorites in this show are Al Espinosa as Cloten, who plays his villain with cheerful vigor, Dawn Lyen-Gardner as Imogen, who wins points for not overplaying her heroine, and Jack Willis as Roman general Caius Lucius, who takes Imogen under his wing (while she’s disguised as the boy Fidele).  Festival veteran Howie Seago gets the title role of Cymbeline, and the production does the Festival’s usual thoughtful and skillfully executed job of weaving Seago’s deafness into the fabric of the play.

All in all, this is a very good production if not a deep one…but again, in a year where it’s in rotation with an intensely staged King Lear (which we’ll be seeing next), the choice to play Cymbeline for melodrama is a reasonable one.  And as one of Shakespeare’s more rarely staged plays, it’s a show I can recommend catching if you visit Ashland this summer.
djonn: Self-portrait (Default)
Back tonight from the annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival via the usual college alumni tour.  A very good year, all told; of the five shows we saw, I count one as superlative, three as excellent, and one as...let's say adequate.  The notes are below, cut-tagged to avoid taking up excess screen space.  Note that the clips you see following each title come from the end, not the beginning, of my play-by-play remarks.

Friday night: Merchant of Venice )  While others in our tour group had issues with particular aspects, most of them seemed to like this staging better than I did.

Saturday afternoon: She Loves Me )This one gets six stars out of five from me; it's that good.  OSF audiences have been getting much too generous with their standing ovations in recent years, but this staging deserved the one it got from us.

Saturday evening: Hamlet )  All in all, this may be the most accessible staging I've seen in years while retaining every bit of the play's depth and nuance, and if it doesn't quite reach all the way to "brilliant", it doesn't miss that level by much.

Sunday afternoon: Throne of Blood )If you're mostly a Shakespeare buff (as I am), this is a fascinating and highly effective novelty.  If you are any sort of Kurosawa buff (as it happens, I'm not), this is likely a rare and not-to-be-missed work of wonder.  Note that once this show finishes its run in Ashland, it's traveling to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in NYC for a week's run in November, as part of the Next Wave Festival [this link loads a short video featuring Ping Chong].

Sunday evening: Henry IV, Part I )  I count this the best Shakespeare we saw during the weekend, albeit very narrowly over Hamlet.
djonn: Self-portrait (Default)
A quick rundown on the five plays I saw this past weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

Macbeth (Angus Bowmer theater)
Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred shillings.  This was mystifyingly, stunningly off-key, and darned near un-listenable.  Watchable, yes -- listenable, no.  Someone apparently confused "loud" with "convincingly intense", such that (a) virtually every line was shouted to a degree that shut down most efforts at characterization, and (b) my parents, who regularlyuse the Festival's offered assisted-listening headsets, found themselves constantly adjusting the volume to avoid having their eardrums blasted during the really loud bits.  I have to blame the director for the wooden performances, as these actors have been far, far better in other shows (this year's Macbeth was last year's Othello, in a production that may have been the single best Shakespeare performance I've seen in 35 years, not excluding the Denzel Washington Julius Caesar on Broadway awhile back).  I'm astonished; the high school production of Macbeth I saw last fall shines by comparison -- which should be taken as a genuine compliment to the student cast, and a sharp wakeup call to the OSF production.

Paradise Lost (Bowmer)
Not the Milton story, but a play by Clifford Odets dating to 1935, about an extended family coping with the Depression in general and the collapse of the characters' various business endeavors in specific.  The Festival's extended selection process is such that the show must have been chosen about two years ago, and accidentally became much more timely as the production process advanced.  It's well acted and technically executed, but where a number of my fellow tour-goers found it compelling, I just couldn't get interested in the characters and have some issues with the script.

Don Quixote (Elizabethan stage)
I have not read the Cervantes novel (and curiously, couldn't find a copy in either the Tudor Guild or the local general bookstore), but this adaptation was amusing and cleverly executed, if a trifle rambling at times.  Then again, that's a criticism I've heard leveled at the original, and here the production is livened by liberal use of animal puppets, a vintage tricycle masquerading as a donkey, and much other amusing stage business.  (My father notes that Rocinante's front half was played by an Equity actor, whereas Rocinante's rear half apparently hasn't earned his Equity card yet.)  Light as air-popped popcorn, but good fun for all that.

Much Ado About Nothing (Elizabethan stage)
An excellent production, nominally costumed and set-designed as a mid-20th-century Tuscan garden piece but otherwise mostly traditional in language and execution, including uniformly excellent diction and line-delivery.  Highlights are a properly authoritative Dogberry and an amazing feat of stunt acting by Benedick during the Big Eavesdropping Sequence that must be seen to be believed (and is too cleverly sprung for me to spoil it here).  Suffice to say that if you land front row seats for this show, be prepared for the unexpected.

Equivocation (Bowmer)
Herewith the heads-up for Seattlefolk: after this world-premiere production finishes its Ashland run, it's coming to Seattle Rep for a month (Nov. 18 to Dec. 19).  Reserve your tickets as soon as the box office will allow it.  This play is dense, intense, occasionally brutally graphic, and an absolute must-see for Shakespeare buffs, British-history buffs, and theater buffs in general -- but should be nearly as compelling even for general audiences.  Anthony Heald as "Shag" (William Shakespeare) is wrangling with prime minister Robert Cecil  (Jonathan Haugen) over a propaganda piece Cecil wants written about the 1605 "Gunpowder Plot".  Four of the six-member ensemble (Haugen among them) triple and quadruple roles as plotters, members of the King's Men, King James himself, and various others; there's also a subplot involving Shag's relationship with daughter Judith, whose twin died at age 11.   Allusions to modern situations (Guantanamo Bay, anyone?) are clearly intended but never intrusive, and playwright Bill Cain weaves a relentlessly paced script.  Ashland audiences of late are much too quick to offer standing ovations, but this got the fastest standing ovation I've ever seen -- and deservedly so.  [One caveat: this is compelling drama, but its view of the Gunpowder Plot is not necessarily reliable history.  Then again, neither are Shakespeare's own history plays....]

June 2017

S M T W T F S
    123
45678910
11121314151617
181920 21222324
252627282930 
Page generated July 28th, 2017 06:43 pm

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags