djonn: Self-portrait (Default)
 The annual pilgrimage to Ashland began this year with an epic production (3 hours 20 minutes, just as promised in the playbill) of The Odyssey, adapted from the Robert Fitzgerald translation by director Mary Zimmerman.  I can't comment just now on the technical or literary quality of the adaptation -- though I will be looking in at the Tudor Guild in the morning to see if OSF has printed one of its limited-run editions of the production script.  What I can tell you is that this is live theater at its most basic -- and therefore its most risky.  With nearly bare sets and a very few technical effects -- most very simple and striking -- it's wholly up to the actors to determine whether the show will succeed brilliantly, or fall catastrophically on its face.

This being the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, home of one of the strongest acting companies anywhere in North America, what we get is about 95% brilliance.  This is one of the most vocally clear shows I've ever heard in the Elizabethan theater; the dead simplicity of the staging ensures that nothing gets in the way of the actors' words.  Also -- or perhaps especially -- several effective set pieces omit dialogue almost entirely in favor of crisp, sharp choreography.  I was particularly impressed with a sequence in which Odysseus' beleaguered and starving crew is seduced into capturing and slaughtering a "lamb", thereby ensuring their own destruction in turn.

The exception -- at least for me -- is Christiana Clark's Athena, whose vocal delivery is by turns both too forceful and too forced, coming across as grade-school speech-reading rather than nuanced storytelling or characterization.  It's clear both from Clark's overall performance and the staging that this is a deliberate stylistic choice, and very likely reflects Mary Zimmerman's directorial vision as much as Clark's take on the character.  Fortunately, Clark's physical performance fits into the show far more seamlessly than her speech, and this is really the only off-note in an otherwise compelling production.  Yes, it's long -- but then, odysseys in general are supposed to be long, and this one is the original that defines the term.

Overall, it's definitely a promising start to a crowded weekend.

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.

Have You Heard This?

"Changing from bad to good's as easy as...taking your first step!"

-- Kris Kringle (to the Winter Warlock)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town

August 2017

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