Shakespeare's Tribe

Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

Julie Taymor’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM: a review of the film

July 1, 2015 § Leave a Comment

Julie Taymor’s acclaimed production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Theatre for a New Audience is now available in a fascinating new film, and it is well worth seeing both for her ideas about the play and about plays on film.


A Play and a Film

Because MND is so much about the theatre itself, it is not a surprise that Taymor has eschewed the location shoots she adopted for her previous Shakespeare films – Titus and The Tempest. This film records her production inside the theatre where it was performed live, capturing the visual splendor and relentless inventiveness for which she is known, but it is quite different than the relatively static live broadcasts of plays for which Britain’s National Theatre has recently become known. Taymor uses a lot of filmic techniques. Cameras on stage capture the action from extremely close distances and viewing angles that no live audience member could ever experience, and (especially at the beginning of the film) the cameras are so active as they quickly pan around the crowded stage that they give the impression of being active participants. At other times the camera becomes such a close confidant of the actors, especially David Harewood as Oberon, that the style of the acting shifts to the whisperingly cinematic.

Taymor's beatiful integration of projections

Taymor’s beatiful integration of projections

Occasionally you get a more traditional view of the stage, usually when Taymor is recording the interaction of actors and the extraordinary projections on floating silk banners and canopies that astounded the live audiences in Brooklyn. As impressive as these shots are, this alternation between the conventions of film and theatre is sometimes disconcerting.

Kathryn Hunter, Genius

Both the production and the film are completely built around the performance of the remarkable Kathryn Hunter as Puck. She opens the film as an exhausted sleeper drifting off into dreams, and when the rude mechanicals (as modern dress Brooklyn construction workers) show up and cut her bed free she literally drifts into the grid above the stage like a balloon. Her first full scene, with what is ordinarily a single fairy but is here a full cast of children who sing and chant the scene, establishes her distinctive childlike voice. Her wide-open wonder plays especially strongly in her scenes with Oberon, where she idolizes him like a parent–sometime fearful and sometime delighted to be pleasing him. It is the most fully imagined and realized Puck I have ever seen. For her performance alone, the film is worth your time.

Kathryn Hunter as Puck. Photo by E.S. Bevlin

Kathryn Hunter as Puck. Photo by E.S. Devlin

The film is not without theatrical and cinematic flaws. Taymor is frequently more concerned with the big picture than the detail – and almost always prioritizes the visual over the auditory. The sound appears to have been captured through body mics, but sometimes you hear the faint echo of an additional actor’s mic. Often the scansion is sloppy. (At one point the possessive form of Theseus’, which should be two syllables, thes-yus, is rendered as four: Thes-e-us-es!)

Multiethnic and International

The production is especially interesting in the realm of the supernatural, where Taymor’s visual genius prevails, while the “real” world is more mundane. Unfortunately that is not just because the visual presentation is more restrained. It seems the interpretive act was just less interesting to Taymor. The lovers were trivialized, with only Mandi Masden as Helena making an impression, and the admirably multiethnic mechanicals were largely conveyed through broad stereotypes. Max Casella was amusing as a Brooklynese Bottom, but (as is often the case) Flute steals the show from him. In this case it is Zachary Infante’s Spanish speaking Francisco Flute that unlocks the wonder of Shakespeare’s power, as he discovers the ability to invest words he scarcely understands with meaning and power.

Oberon, Titania, Puck and Bottom

Oberon, Titania, Puck and Bottom

The most interesting casting of the evening is Okwui Okpokwasili as the conquered Queen Hippolyta. Both the gender and racial politics of the part were treated lightly, but her powerful presence was more than enough to make the point.

Finding the right level for a film of a play is a complex task. This relatively complete production of the script is FAR more satisfactory than Michael Hoffman’s disappointing, choppy 1999 film, and in many ways is also more pleasing than Adrian Noble’s similarly mixed film/play (1996) of his RSC production, if only because it utilizes more interesting theatrical conventions.

The film is in limited release, but absolutely worth catching on a large screen whenever you can.

Top Girls: A Review of TWELFTH NIGHT at CalShakes

June 2, 2015 § Leave a Comment

With its almost-all-female Twelfth Night, CalShakes has set a very high bar in what is emerging as “the summer of the woman” among Bay Area Shakespeare Festivals. Concerned with the lack of opportunity traditionally cast productions offer women, both the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival and Santa Cruz Shakespeare have announced they will perform with casts that have gender parity. Sacramento Shakespeare is performing an all-female As You Like It (along with an all-male Romeo and Juliet), and even companies with more traditional approaches seem to be producing an unusual number of plays with featured female protagonists this summer.


Cast photo

Lisa Anne Porter as Viola and the cast of California Shakespeare Theater’s production of TWELFTH NIGHT, directed by Christopher Liam Moore; photo by Kevin Berne.

The Challenge of Cross-Gender Casting

Achieving more opportunities for women is not as simple as it sounds, however. Shakespeare’s plays (written originally for an all-male troupe) have a limited number of female roles – four or fewer per play – in comparison to the dozen and up male parts. That number might be improved slightly because occasionally there are parts that do not really have a gender, like the narrator, Chorus, from Henry V, that can be easily cast with women. And there are numerous small roles that can be re-gendered safely, but how great a break-through is it to be allowed to play “2nd servant” in a dress? Such condescension is often more objectionable than not being cast. Finally, of course, there is the possibility that some women can undetectably pass as males, but that is a very limited casting pool and is not the opportunity of which most actresses dream. There are, therefore, a very limited number of ways that one can produce the plays, at least in a traditional way, that does much to address the problem.

The exercise only becomes interesting for both audiences and actors when women play “male” roles from their own viewpoint, bringing fresh and exciting perspectives to narratives about which we have grown complacent. Last fall, in her terrific solo show, Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender, the great Lisa Wolpe demonstrated a knack for imitating the physicality and vocalization of men – especially tragic heroes – but became revelatory when she assumed (and simultaneously “commented” upon) the attitudes of male privilege. What makes her so exciting as our reigning “Shakespearean drag king,” is that we never lose sight that she is a woman who sees how “maleness” is constructed and rewarded, and not that she does some kind of perfect impersonation.


A Man Among (Wo)Men

CalShakes takes a much more light-hearted, but no less revelatory, approach in its beautifully rendered Twelfth Night. Director Christopher Liam Moore finds myriad ways for his cast of seven women and one man to illuminate the play’s thematic gender confusion. Ted Deasy, making his area debut but familiar to many audience members from his work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, is cast as the jester, Feste. He also doubles virtually every unnamed character in the play (the Captain, the arresting officer, the priest, etc.). Deasy is nothing short of brilliant as the fool and entertainer – rendered as a purposely anachronistic country and western singer. His portrayal of Antonio, the sea captain hopelessly in love with the young man he saves from drowning, is heartbreaking. His finesse at playing multiple roles, sometimes simultaneously (as when he hilariously arrests himself), is the stuff for which one would ordinarily praise this production to the skies. (Deasy, the only man in the cast, playing ALL the drudge roles is, in itself, an interesting comment.)


Cast photo

(L to R) Catherine Castellanos as Sir Toby Belch, Domenique Lozano as Maria, and Margo Hall as Andrew Aguecheek. photo by Kevin Berne.


Outstanding as he is, however, it is the women who rock the night. Catherine Castellanos, whose Toby Belch is all codpiece, gives an incisive portrait of a particular kind of male cloddishness. The falseness of her false beard is quite pointed – her aim is not sincere imitation, but satire. Her partner in crime is the brilliant Margo Hall, whose Sir Andrew Aguecheek is so effeminate that we cannot help but see how artificial our gender constructions can be. Hall is hilarious, precisely because of the incompletely digested gender codes her character displays. Remi Margron completes the trio of false-facial haired characters with a love-sick Orsino whose emotional range was far greater, and more convincing, than any that I can ever recall seeing.


And a Lack-Beard

Perhaps the most interesting creation of the night was Stacy Ross in the role of Malvolio. Unlike the bearded bunch, she was costumed and made-up in a way that scarcely bothered to nod toward maleness. Hers is not a particularly masculine face, and no attempt was made to alter it or her figure. If anything, in fact, her cassock looked (as they inevitably do) rather like a dress. The character was intensely interesting because the focus on her puritanical nature had almost nothing to do with gender at all. Later, having fallen prey to the deceitful trick that made her believe her mistress was infatuated with her, it was her shocking lack of a male conception of masculine display that provided the humor (and, of course, the larger commentary) as she writhed around in her yellow garters and a strategically placed giant yellow bow.


cast photo

Stacy Ross as Malvolio and Julie Eccles as Olivia. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Women Playing Women

The cast also featured women in the traditionally female roles, particularly Julia Eccles as Olivia, and Domenique Lozano as Maria, and the contrast was exquisite. For once, one sympathized with Olivia’s impatience with Orsino’s relentless onslaught. In contrast to him, her maturity and composure were striking. All the more powerful, then, was the effect of her coming unglued at the sight of Cesario, who is actually the disguised Viola. One also understood that Maria was saving Toby, not simply failing to see through him.

The evening turned on the performance of Lisa Anne Porter as both the twins Viola and Sebastian. Except for their attitudes toward fighting, almost nothing distinguished them, which turned out to be the best decision of the night. Viola is already “playing a man” in her disguise as Cesario, which we often feel in performance she is not doing very well because a very distinctly male person is being directly compared to her every time Sebastian comes onstage. In this case, however, the twins were truly identical – and the artificiality of gender constructions was highlighted in a way I have not previously experienced. The reality of what Viola was giving up by trying to live by men’s rules was heartbreaking, and the ease with which her brother was granted everything he wanted without so much as asking for it was shocking.

The manner in which the play resolves, in a scene with both twins onstage, was well-handled directorially and perfectly appropriate for the play, but was less surprising than it might have been to anyone who saw the company’s production of Comedy of Errors last season, which used the same convention and virtually the same staging for its final moment.


The Spice of Life…and Art

It would be a mistake to suggest that the performance was didactic about its non-traditional casting. Far from it; it was subtly employed in a marvelously entertaining evening. Nonetheless, successful cross-gender casting is challenging. What was so smart about this particular production is that almost as many approaches as cross-gendered parts were employed. It was the variety that most amazed, and in the end, spoke most eloquently for the practice.

Nina Ball’s beautiful set, a sleek family crypt with an ever-present coffin to remind us that the play is essentially a memento mori, was stark and efficient. It featured a large central opening that allowed us to see Burke Brown’s beautiful lighting of the natural landscape in the distance as well as his subtle and effective illumination of the action. Along with Meg Neville’s delightfully detailed period costumes, the visual element helped explain – along with the adventurous non-traditional approaches it has repeatedly employed – why CalShakes has emerged as the premiere classical company in the Bay Area. Performances continue through June 21 – plenty of time to see this highly recommended production.



Twelfth Night

Presented by the California Shakespeare Theater

Bruns Amphitheatre, Orinda, CA

May 30, 2015

Twelfth Night – What’s with that Title?

January 6, 2015 § Leave a Comment

Today is Jan. 6, The Feast of Epiphany – which happens on the twelfth day after Christmas. As anyone who has been bombarded with multiple versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” during the holiday season knows, Christmas used to be an extended celebration culminating on Epiphany – as it still is in several European countries. In fact, in Shakespeare’s time Christmas itself was a more muted and religiously-focused event, and the celebrations grew larger every evening until Twelfth Night. (In line with ancient Judeo-Christian tradition the days began at sundown the evening before, which is why we still have such a focus on Christmas Eve. Using this rule, Twelfth Night was celebrated in the early modern period on the night of Jan. 5 – Epiphany Eve, as it were.)

All that is reasonably clear, and explains the event which gives Shakespeare’s play its name. The complication, of course, is that nothing in the play really suggests that the play takes place during the Christmas season, or has anything directly to do with the twelve days of Christmas at all. So why the name?

For that, we have to realize that Twelfth Night was a raucous celebration, a sort of cross between our modern New Year’s Eve and Mardi Gras parties. Part of the festivities was the inversion of norms. A “Lord of Misrule” was often appointed to supervise the event – generally a youth or a servant with an outgoing personality and a wicked sense of parody. The distinction marking social classes were briefly relaxed and everything turned topsy-turvy. It was a time to blow off some steam, and frequently to ridicule the excesses of authority.

Twelfth Night celebrations in London

Twelfth Night celebrations in London

Twelfth Night, the play, features many such reversals. The social climbing Malvolio acts far above his station and inappropriately dreams of “having greatness thrust upon him.” Viola is in disguise as a eunuch, Cesario. Viola’s name is a near anagram of Olivia’s, reflecting their interlocking oppositions on the subject of love. (In one case Olivia does not love where Viola does, and in another Viola loves where Olivia does not.) Sebastian is mistaken for his twin, and finds himself the object – rather than the initiator – of intense wooing.

The title, like those of Comedy of Errors and Much Ado about Nothing, suggests comic chaos. In this case, not because it happens on Twelfth Night, but because it is as disordered and inverted.

The Mask of Blackness: The Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s OTHELLO reexamines Moorishness.

November 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

Otherness comes in many flavors

Since the extinction of the practice of white actors performing (and stereotyping) the title role of Othello in blackface, the play – at least in America – has featured actors of color and become a vehicle for examining black/white race relations. Because that is a necessary, and still unresolved, conversation it has been a highly successful strategy for rediscovering the relevance of the play.

What got lost in that transition is the possibility that Shakespeare was dramatizing otherness and ethnicity, but from a different perspective than Americans are imposing on it because of our current cultural complications: Othello is identified as a Moor, a word more closely associated in the Elizabethan era with those of Arabian descent than with peoples from sub-Saharan Africa. At about the time Shakespeare was writing the play, in fact, Elizabeth was receiving a famous embassy from the Barbary States. The ambassador, who manners and dress captivated London, took time to have his portrait painted.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun (Arabic: عبد الواحد بن مسعود بن محمد عنون‎) was principal secretary to the Moroccan ruler Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur, and ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud ben Mohammed Anoun (Arabic: عبد الواحد بن مسعود بن محمد عنون‎) was principal secretary to the Moroccan ruler Mulay Ahmad al-Mansur, and ambassador to the court of Queen Elizabeth I of England

The San Francisco-based Arabian Shakespeare Festival is now producing the play in a version which, unsurprisingly given its mission, opens the conversation about the Anglo/Arab implications of the play. The eight-person cast, led by Armando McClain, is mostly composed of accomplished regulars with various troupes in the active Bay Area Shakespeare scene.

The company is an emerging group, still producing on a shoe-string – albeit in an Equity approved project. Performing currently in the Royce Gallery’s intimate space, (the production will later tour to the United Arab Emerates, I think) the set is a modern adaptation of an Elizabethan open stage, cleverly incorporating two large support pillars into the downstage location similarly occupied in the Globe. The scenery, by Janny Cote, consists of a few sliding cubes and a couple of curtains. (These were hung from an incongruously omnipresent palm-ish tree, center stage, which may allude to the symbol of the desert tribes, but because it lacked any direct purpose was – at least to me – confusing.) Joanne Martin’s costumes were suits and uniforms for the male characters, dresses with prominently featured head scarves for the women. The time and place was the modern Middle East.

Performing in an American/Arabian Context

Kevin Hammond’s direction is understated, and as far as creating visually interesting groupings of the actors, essentially absent. The production, therefore, hangs on the performance of the actors, and on the inescapable contemporary implications arising from the company’s American/Arabian context.

The Arabian Shakespeare Festival's Othello, Armando McClain

The Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s Othello, Armando McClain

On the performance front, the production is an unmitigated treat. In almost any production McClain’s beautiful vocal production and outstanding diction would stand out, but Teddy Spencer as Iago, Jennifer Le Blanc as Desdemona and Artistic Director William J. Brown III as Roderigo easily kept pace. This was far and away the best-spoken production I have recently experienced. For those who go to hear a Shakespeare play, this is what you dream about. The intelligence of the readings, the clarity of thought, and the easy audibility made this production as accessible as any contemporary play. There was never a moment I felt in doubt about what had been said or what was meant.

Spencer’s Iago is especially rewarding. He is a meticulous actor. I previously admired his performance as Orlando in Marin Shakespeare’s As You Like It for its extraordinary clarity, but his Iago is on another plane altogether. The steps by which his plot unfolds, exceeding even his expectations, are so carefully executed that you can feel him thinking in front of you. His Iago is colder than is currently fashionable, which is interesting in the context of Red State America’s xenophobia – he feels no need to seduce us into agreeing with him. Although Spencer is capable of incredible charisma on stage, he does not seek to charm us in this role. Instead, he steadily implicates us in his plot with an expectation that we will share his hatred of the outsider – which is chilling.

Le Blanc is very well known in the Bay Area. Her Rosie-the-riveter-inspired Kate in Taming of the Shrew at Livermore Shakes (opposite McClain as Petruchio) was a powerhouse performance. She is an unusual Desdemona because she is anything but delicate, or helpless. She is a strong actress, and it infuses her characters. Her Desdemona’s fate forces us to think about the issues of women’s rights both domestically and internationally because she is not passively complicit in it. She fights right to the end.

Perhaps the single best performance in the play is Brown’s wonderfully inept Roderigo, whom Iago dupes financially and ultimately murders. From the opening moments he is in over his head, but Brown’s embodiment of his bewilderment, fear, and pliability is a tour de force. It is exceptionally difficult to play weak characters memorably, but Brown’s Roderigo is the best I have ever seen.

Annamarie MacLeod rounds out the principals as Emilia, Desdemona’s servant and Iago’s estranged wife. Emilia has one of the most memorable monologues in Shakespeare, rationalizing why women might cheat on their cheating husbands, but MacLeod delivered it with a vulnerability and yearning for her lost husband that I have never previously seen.

The supporting cast included Malcolm Rodgers, Aaron Kitchin and Sofia Ahmad all of whom had some lovely moments.

Armando McClain, Artistic Director William J Brown III, and Teddy Spencer at a preview event

Armando McClain, Artistic Director William J Brown III, and Teddy Spencer at a preview event

A Fresh Context

Conceptually this is not an aggressive production. While the play itself focuses attention on Othello’s outsider status, the implications of the Arabian context in our current climate (where Arab-Americans can be subjected to intense hostility no matter what their religious beliefs or degree of assimilation) unfold subtly and slowly. I, at least, have seen the play so often filtered through the lens of the African-American experience that it took a while to realize exactly how this production was filtered through the American-Arabian lens instead. (There is neither denigration or dismissal of the former in this production, it is simply seen – unusually for our time – through the latter.)

Nonetheless, it gives the play a different feel and focus. For example, near the end of the play Othello receives word that he has been reposted, creating an urgency in his mind to deal with his (in his belief) unfaithful wife before the opportunity passes him by. He might have dealt with things more slowly and rationally if he were not being transferred the next day. And to where? I never really paid attention before, that his transfer is to Mauritania, from which the word for his ethnicity, Moor, is derived. Venice is rewarding his outstanding service by exiling him to a remote outpost where he will “fit in” now that they no longer need him.

Or this: Desdemona introduces the prophetic “willow song” by telling us that her mother’s maid sang it on the night she died. The maid’s name was Barbary – she was Moorish from the Barbary Coast. The number of references to Arabian matters and frameworks is astonishingly high once they are highlighted by design or by context.

Of course, throughout the play many characters (including Othello, himself) also comment on his blackness. This can be understood symbolically, but it has been a long time since I saw an Othello who was not also very dark skinned, so I have hear these references literally instead. (The last Othello I saw who was not very dark skinned was probably Patrick Stewart in a famous “photo-reversed” production for the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C. in the mid ’90s where everyone else in the cast was African-American.)

I have no idea how Armando McClain self-identifies ethnically, (nor do I think he – or any actor – has any obligation to clarify such matters) but in this production he reads more bronze than black. In this case, that helped me to hear the production as emphasizing the metaphor, the “mask” if you will, of blackness instead of the literalness so often associated with Othello’s and others’ statements. It was useful and interesting to think freshly about the association of darkness with malignancy and the damage done by such connotations.

This is a fascinating and original production of a play which has grown somewhat interpretively stale in the repertoire, and worth the time and effort of anyone that wants to see and hear it with fresh appreciation. It has a short run, and a limited number of seats, so go while the opportunity is available!

Arabian Shakespeare Festival at the Royce Gallery
Nov. 14, 2014

There Will Be Blood: a review of Marlowe’s TAMBURLAINE, Parts I & II

November 9, 2014 § 4 Comments

Absent Father

Christopher Marlowe was a fast living, young dying contemporary of Shakespeare’s who broke away from the medieval tradition of sing-song alliterative verse and almost single-handedly ushered in the golden age of Elizabethan drama. He was a revolutionary genius, perfecting and popularizing blank verse, a muscular new meter which Ben Jonson called “Marlowe’s mighty line.” He is revered as the “father of English tragedy.” Why, then, are his plays so infrequently produced?

(Doctor Faustus is Marlowe’s best-known work and, I concede, produced more often but still not quite cracking the levels of even minor Shakespeare, but his other plays have essentially dropped from the repertoire in America.)

Although my usual “beat” is the Bay Area, I sought some answers at a recent preview performance in Brooklyn’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Theatre for a New Audience is currently offering a rare production of Marlowe’s first great hit, Tamburlaine. How rare? Tamburlaine has not been professional produced in the city during my lifetime, last gracing the boards there in the mid 1950s.

The Polonsky Shakespeare Center, home of Theatre for a New Audience

Directed by Michael Boyd (recently stepped down from the helm of the RSC) and starring John Douglas Thompson, the production was illuminating about both the thrill and the danger of reviving Marlowe.

Marlowe’s play, now called Part I, was the hit of the London theatre scene in 1587, and he quickly penned a sequel, Part II. TFANA is presenting a sleek cutting which combines sections from both plays, and bills it as Tamburlaine, Parts I & II. Thoughtful editing by Boyd brought the scope of this evening down to four hours (inclusive of intermission), but that length alone is at least one impediment to more frequent performance. The sheer scale of the material is daunting to both the production company and the audience alike. Whatever compromises were necessary to bring the material down to this length, however, fear of controversy was certainly not a guiding factor as I shall explore a bit more later.

Historical Fiction is not a New Genre

Tamburlaine, like most Marlowe plays, has as its central figure a driven, charismatic anti-hero who refuses to accept the limitations placed on him. Tamburlaine is historical fiction, dramatizing the story of the self-made Tartar Emperor, Timur the Lame, who started life as a poor shepherd and eventually conquered the remnants of Genghis Khan’s empire.

In Part I of the play we watch him rise to power through a combination of fearlessness, charm and treachery, brilliantly conveyed by John Douglas Thompson in the title role.

John Douglas Thompson in the title role. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

John Douglas Thompson as Tamburlaine. Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Tamburlaine is already a successful marauding bandit when the play begins. When the King of Persia (Paul Lazar) sends his disloyal brother (the wonderfully slimy Saxon Palmer) to suppress his piracy, Tamburlaine deftly turns him by elaborately promising to support a coup. Once it is successful, he instantly reneges on his promise by disposing of his new sponsor and taking the crown for himself. (One of the recurrent motifs in Marlowe is the distance between what is said, albeit with rhetorical brilliance, and what is actually done. How depressingly relevant does that remain today?)

It’s All About the Wordplay

He kidnaps the daughter of an Egyptian king, Zenocrate (Merritt Janson) on the way to her wedding, and vows to make her his wife, but delays to test her even after it is clear that she has fallen in love with him. The bulk of Part I is taken with his conquest of the Turks. His verbal duels with Bajazeth, their emperor, (Chukwudi Iwuji giving the best performance in the play) are the high point of the night – Elizabethan trash talk that thrills. Marlowe doubles down on the delight by setting Zenocrate in debate against the Turkish empress (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) in a parallel smackdown.

Chikwudi Iwaji as Bajazeth.Photo by Gerry Goodstein

Chikwudi Iwaji as Bajazeth. Photo by Gerry Goodstein.

After Tamburlaine succeeds in his conquest, he tortures the captured Emperor and his wife, by using the former as a footstool and the latter as a household slave forced to watch her husband’s humiliation. Because of the stunning performances it is a degradation that we feel keenly, but accomplished with a theatricality in which we revel. When the formerly arrogant, but downtrodden, couple commit suicide we feel the first stirrings of Marlowe’s tragic capacity.

With striking contemporary relevance, the play is set in a period of intense religious struggle between Christians and Muslims. Thompson is at his best as Tamburlaine when he conveys the warrior’s contempt for the superstitions of both factions – daring everybody’s heavens to strike him down for trampling over anyone in his way.

Boyd’s direction is deft throughout Part I, showing us the brutality of conquest but always avoiding associating it too closely with his protagonist. The most visually astonishing scene of the first act was seeing the assassination of the Persian king, in mid-sentence, as he simply begin to drip blood from multiple wounds invisibly inflicted. It was chilling.

Seneca Redux

It is a play with Senecan levels of violence – again thematically modern but risky. Character after character would die from similarly disembodied causes, or more horrifyingly when a young boy, played by an impassive Ian Saint-Germain, would appear with buckets of blood that he would pour over them. (I strongly suspect that the half-hour intermission was necessary, not because we needed the break, but because that is how long it took to mop up literally gallons of stage blood.)

Part II is more intense, and more piercing in its look at all involved. It begins as the Muslims temporarily ally with the Christians to neutralize the rising protagonist, but (as Tamburlaine knew it would) their truce breaks down. The Christian king is persuaded that he is not bound by his sacred oath because it was given to non-believers. His betrayal is rewarded with almost instant defeat and death, but it gives Tamburlaine the break he needs to divide and conquer.

The focus shifts to Tamburlaine’s training of his three adult sons to succeed him, a lesson in brutality so unrelenting that he kills one of his own sons for insufficient viciousness. It is, significantly, the only murder we see him commit with direct agency and in front of us. The shift of sympathy away from him is palpable, as is our guilt for having been so charmed in the first place. The contemporary implications of the play, that underdogs we consider our allies and have armed can spin out of control once they get the upper hand, becomes inescapable.

Tamburlaine’s rise continues unabated, but its limit is foreshadowed when his beloved Zenocrate dies, despite his order for troupes to attack heaven and prevent it taking her. He turns bizarre as he decides not to bury her, but carry the embalmed body with him on his campaigns. Thompson’s nuanced delivery of his mental decline is brilliant – so carefully and subtly unleashed that we understand how those around him might not have noticed until it was too late.

Cruelty and Swagger

He conquers four more kingdoms, and in the most famous scene in the play, forces their captured kings to draw his chariot. It is this iconic moment, a perfect combination of cruelty and swagger, that made Marlowe’s reputation.

Tamburlaine then attacks Babylon, hanging its governor from the walls and ordering the troupes to shoot him dead for target practice. When a group of virgins is sent by the city to implore mercy he has them impaled, followed by ordering the drowning the entire population of the town, and then ordering their holy book, the Koran, burned – which is performed onstage. (It is that latter point that led me to say that whatever choices Boyd made in cutting the play, avoidance of controversy was not one of them!)

He defiantly denies that any divine punishment will come from it, and it is ambiguous how closely related his final illness is, although its onset begins within a few lines of the desecration. Tamburlaine has died by the end of the scene, unconquered, but leaving behind an empire that will fall apart as quickly as it was built.

The Challenges of Marlowe

What did I conclude after seeing the production? First, Marlowe’s blank verse is muscular, unfashionably so to those who are used to Shakespeare’s more extensive employment of variations. It might be that Boyd’s cutting left too many peaks without enough valleys between them, but it was a difficult to be so constantly attentive to such unrelenting energy. I rather think that Marlowe presents special challenges this way, however.

Second, the themes of the play are amazingly current, but it takes a deft touch to convey them without getting sidetracked into controversy. (For example, can you convince an audience to excuse the burning of a sacred text in front of them, even the pretend burning, by emphasizing the burner was equally contemptuous of all religions? Boyd does, but it is dicey.)

Marlowe is tough – raw and edgy. His plays can be Titus Andronicus-level violent. Set and costume designer Tom Piper and special effects designer Jeremy Chernick emphasized this with white costumes in a basically black Elizabethan courtyard colored only by dripping, splattering, pooling and flowing blood.

The Elizabethan Courtyard arrangement of the Samuel H. Scripps mainstage

The Elizabethan Courtyard arrangement of the Samuel H. Scripps mainstage

Tamburlaine is not particularly sexual, although there is a scene in which one of his generals threatens to rape the conquered woman he loves when she does not return his feelings, but that is exceptional in his plays. Edward II, by contrast, focuses squarely on the homosexual liaisons of the king. And in all of them religious controversy abounds. Marlowe’s atheism is evident throughout this, and other, plays.

The plays present immense logistical challenges to any company without unlimited resources – which is essentially all of them in America. Boyd covers dozens of roles with a cast of twenty, and most of the time the doubling is so thematically motivated that you not only suspend disbelief, but understand the play better because of it. I was a little perplexed by his double casting Zenocrate with the final antagonist Callapine, however, because the actress kept having to leap uncomfortably between the two roles, where all other actors in the production finished each part before moving to the next. A different convention seemed to be employed for her, not altogether successfully, but that is a minor complaint about an overwhelmingly successful production.

Courage and Capability

If I had to state a position, I’d suggest that it is not content that prevents the plays from being produced more often, but difficulty. There are very few companies capable of taking on a Marlowe play.

All the more reason that you should see this production, because TFANA has the courage and the capability! The cast is outstanding, including many actors in lesser parts not singled out above, especially the chameleons Matthew Amendt and Caroline Hewitt. It officially opens this week and runs through Dec. 21.


Tamburlaine, Parts I & II
Theatre for a New Audience
Brooklyn, New York
Nov. 5, 2014

Getting Cross-Gender Performance Right: Lisa Wolpe and Shakespeare

October 28, 2014 § 1 Comment

Performing Gender

Lisa Wolpe is, according the playbill of her current solo show, Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender, America’s reigning “Shakespearean Drag King.” It is no surprise, then, when she enters the stage with a flying leap in male persona and immediately starts into the balcony scene: “He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”

Lisa Wolpe, actor, director, and writer

Lisa Wolpe, actor, director, and writer


That was what I was there to see, and I dare say most of the rest of the audience, too – Lisa Wolpe doing her internationally acclaimed cross-gender performance of Shakespeare. First impression: Her Romeo seemed a bit, what, contrived? Mannered. No, Constructed. That’s the word. I immediate thought that he was a bit too artificially created as he pondered the light breaking through the window and my heart sank just a little… and then Wolpe gracefully slipped into Juliet. Charming, but also – to exactly the same degree, although in opposite technical ways – constructed.

It took a second for me to realize that that, of course, was her point. Adolescent self-invention is a series of poses, assumed (and often quickly discarded) identities, and painful attempts at self-definition. Watching Wolpe alternate Romeo and Juliet foregrounded the awkward self-consciousness of both young lovers. Wolpe remembers exactly what it was like to try to create oneself as a teenager, and brings that knowledge to the performances. We watched her characters struggle to invent appropriate outward expressions of their inner lives – and while we saw how arbitrary the role models for doing so really are – the scene was about so much more than that. Wolpe delivered about the most nakedly honest representation of adolescent love I’ve ever seen. Best moment: Juliet’s “What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot, nor face, nor (suddenly blushing and mumbling) any-other-part-belonging-to-a-man.” Genius.

I was looking forward to seeing how this foregrounding of gender role construction was to develop over the evening, but in truth, once established it did not have to be repeated, and wasn’t.

And Much More than Gender

Instead the balcony scene soon segued into new – unexpected – material. Wolpe shared the tragic story of her family – losing both parents at a young age – both apparently suicides. Her father, a traumatized WWII veteran, died when she was a toddler, her mother a decade later, but not until after entering into a disastrous, abusive second marriage.

When Wolpe transitioned back to Shakespeare, as Hamlet, she had already established that her connection point to the role was a shared longing for a lost father – to which, it turns out, gender is fairly irrelevant. Her Hamlet is gendered male, but it hardly registered, since it is the searing intensity of her identification with Hamlet’s loss that powered the performance forward. It was an astonishing realization of the emotional and psychological complexity of the role, as fulfilled as any I have ever seen, but not about Hamlet’s self-constructed gender.

Her alternating of Shakespearean performances with personal revelations continued throughout the evening, as did her alternating male and female characters. Playing the falsely accused queen, Hermione, in the trial scene from The Winter’s Tale, the approach seemed unlike any performance of the role I have ever seen. This Hermione was not the dignified and articulate noblewoman, certain of her innocence, we usually see. This Hermione was disempowered, defeated and disintegrating right before our eyes. It was a shockingly incisive portrait of a domestic abuse victim. The only surprise in the revelation that it was based on her mother was the deftness and concision with which it was handled – a single sentence inserted as an aside into the middle of the monologue itself.

It did not take long to become clear how passionately Wolpe cares about empowering women’s voices (especially those that are elsewhere suppressed or ignored) on stage. The fact that she refuses to be limited to channeling those strictly through female characters is telling, but so if the fact that she does not channel them strictly through male characters, either. Gender is a tool, not a trick, in her creative arsenal.

Her performances have a lot to say about the range of human experience, and the manner in which gender can provide agency, but the striking power of her characterizations derives from the fact that the container is never more interesting the contents. I rather frequently lost track of the fact that Wolpe was jumping back and forth across gender boundaries, but I never, for a second, stopped realizing that I was watching a great artist at work.

Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo by Michael Lamont

Lisa Wolpe as Hamlet. Photo by Michael Lamont

Cross-Gendering, but not Re-gendering

She has probably more experience played cross-gendered Shakespeare than any actor in America, so perhaps it is that she makes it look so easy and unremarkable that allows us to forget that it is, in fact, technically difficult and still (unfortunately) controversial. She never takes the easy “non-traditional casting” path, however, of re-gendering the character. No Prosperas, Queen Lears, or Macbethanys for her. Part of her exploration of acting and characterization is delving into the gender roles, assuming the agency that both male actors and characters are more freely granted, not just claiming the lines and scenes to ease the under-representation of women in theatre.

As the evening progressed her performances cherry-picked some of the very best of the canon, included Henry V and, fascinatingly, Shylock. The reason for the latter choice became clear as her family story began to focus more and more upon recovering her father’s astounding history – the only member of a German Jewish family to survive the holocaust, decorated war hero (fighting with a Canadian regiment), self-appointed avenger executing hundreds of captured German soldiers, and finally haunted PTSD victim taking his own life.

We drifted further and further from seeking perspective on the performance of gender on stage and in life, and began directly to explore the tragic consequences of inhumanity.

A Work-in-Progess, but What Work!

Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender is still a work in progress, and as a solo show it has some dramaturgical difficulties, not the least of which is that the longer into the evening we get the less it is focused on its titular subjects. Wolpe is not yet a world-class author, which is only apparent because she is a world-class actor. The most polished parts of the evening are the scenes and monologues from plays that she has starred in and performed in their entirety. She is still crafting the personal narrative that introduces and surrounds them.

But as a showcase for an actor of genuine brilliance, for an artist insightfully deconstructing gender roles, and for an activist empowering women’s voices, it is a great vehicle. Seeing Wolpe work is watching alchemy in action – that particular magic by which an actor transforms herself into someone totally different while simultaneously revealing her deepest self. She is a living treasure. The show is now touring. See it if you can.



Lisa Wolpe’s Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender

Presented by the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival

Presidio Officer’s Club, San Francisco

Oct. 25, 2014

The Most Produced Plays in America…sort of.

September 28, 2014 § Leave a Comment

Theatre Communications Group Has a List!

Every season, Theatre Communications Group (TCG) – the organization of America’s not-for-profit theatres – puts out a list of the 10 most produced plays by its nearly 500 members. (Because they recognize ties, this year it is actually a top 11…) Although it covers only a segment of the American Theatre scene, (because it does not include for-profit, academic, or amateur theatres) its annual list is a quick way to get the pulse of what plays and playwrights are currently hot.

That is a very useful list for performers thinking about where to put their time and energy familiarizing themselves with scripts, with names to watch, and with sources for audition material. Because I know it gets used that way, every season I also put out my own annual rant reminding students and actors of a surprising omission.

And the winner is…

In this year’s list, published just last week, the top spot goes to Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike which has a whopping 27 productions scheduled across the nation this year. There is no sense in which it can said the American theatre marches in lockstep, however. A measly ten productions earn the second spot for Outside Mullingar by John Patrick Shanley, and it only takes six productions to earn a place in the top 10, …er 11.

For the last season for which complete records are available (2013-14), 23 productions were enough to earn the top spot for David Ive’s Venus in Fur, which managed to hang on this year to a six-production tie for tenth place. Two other titles on the current list were also represented last year, but there is rather fast turnover from year-to-year. (The top production on the list a decade ago, for example, was The Drawer Boy by Michael Healey, which is scheduled for how many productions this year? Oooow, zero.)

The Problem with the List

The list is a little misleading, however, because TCG makes two exclusions to their counts: They do not include holiday shows, like the ubiquitous Christmas Carol and the current small budget alternative, The Santaland Diaries, the first of which would be the perennial winner of the top spot.

More surprisingly, they do not list plays by Shakespeare. Yet every year Shakespeare plays would rank quite high on the list if they did. In the current season, according to a title search using TCG’s data, 11 productions A Midsummer Night’s Dream would actually earn second place on this list if it were recognized.

The cast of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at CalShakes. Sept 2014.

The cast of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM at CalShakes. Sept 2014.

Ten Tempests would make it third on the list, in a tie with Shanley’s play. Nine Hamlets would garner it fourth place. King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth would make the cut, tying with three other titles that have six productions each scheduled. Both As You Like It and Comedy of Errors are just one production shy of also making the list. That is eight Shakespearean titles in a top 11 list (with ties), while no other playwright is represented even twice.

All told, according to a quick search of the TCG website, Shakespeare has a total of 108 productions and/or adaptations in the 2014-15 season – actually a surprisingly low number – but still far above the second place finisher (Dickens at 46) and the top living playwright (Durang at 28). The year before (when the 450th anniversary of his birth fell) he received 127. The year before that, he received 153. The year before that 148.

My purpose is not to quarrel with TCG’s exclusions. They are open about their methodology, and their support of new American work. As they tactfully put it in a footnote, there are only so many ways to say that A LOT of companies do a version of A Christmas Carol each year – although almost every one of those is the work of a different adapter. There is also no comfortable way to note, year after year, that if they included Shakespeare’s plays he would dominate the list and push some living, struggling playwrights entirely off.

America’s Most Produced Playwright

When students ask me, however, about where to spend their time and energy, I am always quick to remind them the most produced playwright in America – who, by the way, has occupied this position for every single year of the last hundred years – is William Shakespeare. If I were going to study just one play in depth, I think I’d pick the most produced play in America over the last decade which is…A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Fall Classical Theatre Season in the San Francisco Area

September 2, 2014 § Leave a Comment

As summer winds down, so does the number of pre-modern plays on local stages, but there are a few festivals with seasons continuing into fall and a small number of additional productions. Of particular note are the two continuing productions by the Marin Shakespeare Festival and the upcoming Midsummer at CalShakes helmed by the wonderful young director Shana Cooper. I personally am also really anticipating the production of Shakespeare’s R&J, a four-person adaptation of Romeo and Juliet by Joe Calarco which will play at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.


The set for Midsummer at CalShakes

The set for Midsummer at CalShakes


Continuing until Sept. 7
PENTHESILEA adapted from Heinrich Von Kleist by Guilio Perrone
Actor’s Ensemble of Berkeley
Live Oak Theatre
1301 Stattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA


Continuing until Sept. 14
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Presidio Main Parade Grounds
San Francisco, CA
also playing at McLaren Park – Jerry Garcia Amphitheater Sept. 20-21


Continuing until Sept. 14
Half Moon Bay Shakespeare Company
John L. Carter Memorial Park
Stone Pine Road
Half Moon Bay, CA


Continuing until Sept. 14
Curtain Theatre
Old Mill Park Amphitheatre
Mill Valley, CA


Continuing until Sept. 27
Continuing until Sept. 28
Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
Dominican University of California
890 Belle Ave.
San Rafael, CA


Kate McGrath as Miss Mabel Chiltern and Darren Bridgett as Lord Goring in Marin Shakespeare Company's production of "An Ideal Husband."

Kate McGrath as Miss Mabel Chiltern and Darren Bridgett as Lord Goring in Marin Shakespeare Company’s production of “An Ideal Husband.”

Sept. 3 – 28
California Shakespeare Theatre
100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way
Orinda, CA


Sept. 4 – 28
SAINT JOAN by George Bernard Shaw
Jewel Theatre Company
Center Stage
1001 Center Street
Santa Cruz, CA


Sept. 12 -28
Shakespeare Napa Valley
Veteran’s Memorial Park
Main St. at 2nd St.
Napa, CA


Sept. 26 – Oct. 19
Pacifica Spendrift Players
1050 Crespi Drive
Pacifica, CA


Oct. 17 – Nov. 15
Santa Clara Players
1505 Warburton
Santa Clara, CA


Oct. 18 – Nov. 19
African-American Shakespeare Company
Buriel Clay Theatre
762 Fulton St., #305
San Francisco, CA


Oct. 30 – Nov. 9
Sonoma State University
Evert B. Person Theatre
1801 E. Cotato Ave.
Rohnert Park, CA


Nov. 7 – Dec. 12
SHAKESPEARE’S R&J by Joe Calarco
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness Ave, LL
San Francisco, CA


Nov. 13-23
Arabian Shakespeare Festival
Royce Gallery
2901 Mariposa St.
San Francisco, CA


Nov. 14 – 23
Cal State East Bay
University Theatre
25800 Carlos Bee Blvd.
Hayward, SA


Nov. 14 – 23
Las Positas College
Barbara Mertes Center for the Arts
300 Campus Hill Road
Livermore, CA




What Was Lost is Found – A Review of the Santa Cruz Shakespeare Season

August 1, 2014 § Leave a Comment

A Phoenix from the Ashes

The good news this summer is that Santa Cruz Shakespeare, the new company sprung from the ashes of the defunct Shakespeare Santa Cruz, is here at all. (The old SSC collapsed last year when its primary patron, UC-Santa Cruz, decided – after 32 years – to withdraw support.) The great news is that the new company is not only excellent in and of itself, but demonstrates considerable continuity with its predecessor and perhaps – after a series of events worthy of one of Shakespeare’s romances – what was lost has been found again.

The full cast sing a celebratory hymn in Santa Cruz Shakespeare's As You Like It.  Photo by rr jones.

The full cast sing a celebratory hymn in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Photo by rr jones.

The controversial decision to close Shakespeare Santa Cruz was just one painful effect of the widespread devastation caused by the billion-and-a-half dollar cuts to California’s higher education systems since 2008. This particular loss, however, struck a chord with its loyal audiences, who rallied to save, if not the company itself, the accumulated artistic capital of this beloved summer tradition.

Funders in the local community in Santa Cruz and the Bay Area artistic community pulled together to resurrect this acclaimed artistic resource in a new, independent form. In record time a new non-profit was created, an infrastructure was reinvented, and sufficient funding was raised to mount a season. All this is cause for great celebration.

It would be churlish to criticize the initial efforts of such an heroic effort for artistic insufficiency, so I (and my critical colleagues, I think) are grateful that no leeway is needed. The two mainstage offerings of the summer (As You Like It and Merry Wives of Windsor) can stand on their own.

Merry Wives When It Is about the Wives

Conceptually,  Merry Wives is the most interesting. Although chosen as a vehicle for Richard Ziman (whose portrait of Falstaff in the Henry IV plays in recent years has made him a local celebrity) the real interest comes from director Kirsten Brandt’s feminist reading and inventive staging set in the 1920s.

Merry Wives is a lesser work in the canon. Almost entirely in prose, it looks like a play hastily assembled and perhaps never advanced beyond a first draft.

The 'Merry Wives' (Julia Coffey and Greta Wohlrabe) fool Falstaff (Richard Ziman) into yet another trick in Santa Cruz Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Photo by Shmuel Thaler.

The ‘Merry Wives’ (Julia Coffey and Greta Wohlrabe) fool Falstaff (Richard Ziman) into yet another trick in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Photo by Shmuel Thaler.

The plot is an exceedingly thin and repetitive regurgitation of the famous commedia dell’arte get-in-the-bag lazzi in which an obnoxious man is tricked into hiding is a container “for his own protection” and then beaten by his alleged protectors. In MWW, Falstaff attempts to seduce two different (married) women by sending them identical proposals for assignations on the same day – apparently unaware that they are best friends. The women (repeatedly) pretend to accept and then in slapstick incidents punish the very-slow-to-get-the-picture Falstaff for his unwanted advances, while one also gets in some licks against a suspicious husband. The other gets her own comeuppance from a daughter who ends the play by becoming a wife to the man of her own choosing against the plotting of her mother for a very bad candidate.

In most modern productions the play is not very funny, because there are only so many ways a fat joke can be told and Falstaff is much less engaging in this play than he is in the histories. Brandt has launched the gender politics into the foreground, refocusing the play on the titular wives instead of Falstaff. Her leading actresses, Julia Coffey (Mistress Ford) and Greta Wohlrabe (Mistress Page), find the genuine humor in women who are tired of being underestimated and can run circles around the men in their lives.

Carly Cioffi (as Mistress Quickly) and Maribel Martinez (as the enterprising daughter, Anne Page) round out the cast of clever women. The director and her cast found astonishing depths in characters that are generally played much more superficially.

And Also There Were Men

The male cast was more than capably played – but given the conception of the evening – necessarily seemed more one-dimensional and less engaging. Ziman’s Falstaff was not the centerpiece of the evening, but he gamely took all his slapstick licks and summoned up his dignity at the end. The strongest performance was probably that of Mark Anderson Phillips whose jealous, “mansplaining” Master Ford was delightful.

Falstaff (Richard Ziman) is fooled yet again by "Master Brook"- Master Ford (Mark Anderson Phillips) in disguise in Santa Cruz Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.  Photo by Jana Marcus.

Falstaff (Richard Ziman) is fooled yet again by “Master Brook”- Master Ford (Mark Anderson Phillips) in disguise in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Photo by Jana Marcus.

Kit Wilder (the Welsh parson Hugh Evans) and William Elsman (the French Doctor Caius) led the supporting actor contingent with loving charm.

The 1920s setting gives the set designer Eric Barker, the costume designer B. Modern, and the lighting designer Kent Dorsey a specific and recognizable period in which to work – and they all find magic in it.

B. Modern’s costumes, especially, reflect the perfect expression of women who are finding their freedom in times when men don’t yet “get it.” The best sight gag of the night is, however, Falstaff’s “disguise” as a garish and hugely rotund female fortuneteller.

 Into the Woods

As You Like It was, by contrast, a much more staid and traditional production but situated in probably the most beautiful setting in the world for this play – The Sinsheimer-Stanley Festival Glen, a redwood paradise – it too was delightful. Scenic designer Michael Ganio and lighting designer Kent Dorsey made the most of this natural environment featuring it with spectacular combinations of light and shadow that drew audible gasps from the audience when curtains were drawn that revealed the vista.

Duke Senior's forest court (SCS acting interns), Duke Senior (Richard Ziman) poke fun at the "melancholy" Jaques (Allen Gilmore) in Santa Cruz Shakespeare's As You Like It. Photo by rr jones.

Duke Senior’s forest court (SCS acting interns), Duke Senior (Richard Ziman) poke fun at the “melancholy” Jaques (Allen Gilmore) in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
Photo by rr jones.

Using a repertory cast for the summer, AYLI utilized the same personnel as Merry Wives, but often to vastly different effect. Julia Coffey, who proved such an excellent farceur as Mistress Ford, here expertly plays the much more emotionally complex leading woman, Rosalind. The contrast could not be higher, not least because she spends most of this play in convincing disguise as a young man. She is in the woods because she has been banished by her usurping uncle, Duke Frederick. She flees to the forest with her cousin Celia, disguising herself as protection against outlaws. If there are any such ruffians, however, we never see them. The forest is occupied by her father (the overthrown Duke) and his orderly, nostalgic courtiers. A recent arrival is a young nobleman, Orlando, who is also fleeing an inhospitable home, in his case running from a treacherous older brother.

Rosalind and Orlando have met before, when he unexpectedly won a wresting match with her in the audience, at which they fell for each other immediately. In this production Dan Flapper places the emphasis on Orlando as both extremely inarticulate and overly romantic. When the couple again meets in the woods, Rosalind has already assumed her male alter ego, Ganymede, which allows her to covertly tackle the problem that his worshipful and idealized courtship (he is posting bad love poems on trees) is less engaged than what she has in mind.

She undertakes to disabuse him of his poetic attitudes through “love lessons,” her male self impersonating her actual self in a series of scenes of dizzying complexity.


Rosalind playing her alter ego Ganymede (Julia Coffey) schools the love sick Orlando (Dan Flapper) in the ways of wooing in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Photo by Jana Marcus.

Flapper and Coffey have outstanding chemistry as the central couple. The courtship is less engaging that it is in some productions because Flapper’s Orlando never loses sight of the fact that these “love lessons” are just pretense and his real love is, he believes, elsewhere. (I read the play to suggest that Orlando finds himself developing very real feelings for Ganymede, which he neither understands nor controls.) In Mark Rucker’s production, however, it is Rosalind who loses sight of the game, kissing Orlando in an inappropriate moment from which he recoils. Still, the sparks are no less intense for this reversal.

Greta Wohlrabe plays Rosalind’s cousin Celia, and it is fascinating to see her paired with Mark Anderson Phillips playing Orlando’s repenting older brother Oliver. (In Merry Wives, they played Mistress Page and Master Ford, respectively.) Here, their chemistry rivals that of the main couple and their giddy humor becomes infectious.

Co-artistic director Mike Ryan plays the court jester, Toucstone, settling into country life with clarity and precision. It is a very difficult role, composed mostly of indecipherable old jokes, but he makes us understand.

In some ways this production was uneven. Richard Zinman doubles as both the usurped and usurping Dukes, but with no visual distinction and so little physical or vocal changes that he seems more like one character in two moods that contrasting brothers. With no other doubling of note in the cast, this proved a confusing convention. Allen Gilmore plays Jacques, the forest philosopher, as genuinely depressed and even his “seven ages of man” speech fails to land. William Elsman, a terrific and dependable actor, got some good laughs as the endlessly rejected country bumpkin, Silvius, but seems strangely miscast. (He seems perpetually used for egomaniacal roles in this company, like Doctor Caius in Merry Wives, but is actually a remarkably handsome and articulate actor who would have made a fine Orlando.)

By far the most original touch in the production was that Orlando’s faithful old retainer, Adam, (played by Marcus Cato) was given a prominent – and interpolated – death scene just before intermission. It was a darkness that would not return, however. Understandably, this summer the focus is on the miracle of the phoenix, and not on what is lost.

As You Like It, directed by Mark Rucker
Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Kirstin Brandt

Santa Cruz Shakespeare

Reviewed on July 20, 2014, Running through August 10

Tickets: $16-48



Don’t Trust Your Mentors – A Review of ROMEO AND JULIET at the Marin Shakespeare Company

July 31, 2014 § Leave a Comment

Romeo and Juliet is generally interpreted as a tragedy of youthful impetuousness, but thanks to two exceptionally powerful performances from supporting players Marin Shakespeare Company’s current production is, instead, an unconventional reading of the play as a tale of adult betrayal.

Youthful Leads

On its surface, Lesley Schisgall Currier’s production is generally traditional, although with a few interesting moments of intentional anachronism thrown in. Jake Murphy (Romeo) is genuinely youthful, on a summer break from pursuing his undergraduate degree, and onstage he seems believably adolescent. Romeo is a notoriously difficult character to play successfully as most young actors have trouble catching both the lover and the fighter in him. Murphy is more believable as the latter, but the depth of his passion grows near the end of the play and his suicide, which he played with both fear and gravity, was harrowing.

Luisa Frasconi is cast against type as Juliet. Her forte is comedy. She is wonderful as Phebe in As You Like It, the other play in rep at Marin, and was winning in The Liar at Livermore Shakespeare Festival last summer. She does not overly indulge her comic impulses in this production, but her broad physicality and her “Betty Boop” voice occasionally work against our taking her seriously. Although interesting enough in most ways, if the production had depended on them alone for its impact, these leads would lack the tragic stature needed to carry the evening.

Luisa Frasconi as Juliet

Luisa Frasconi as Juliet

More than Just Support

But in intriguing ways, Currier’s production is not focused on them. The early moments of the play are built on the power of the always-dependable Scott Coopwood as the Chorus that delivers the opening sonnet, and then as the Prince of Verona. Teddy Spencer as Tybalt and Jackson Currier as Mercutio both find very sinister readings of their characters and propel the middle of the play forward.

The production really comes into its own with the appearance of Julian Lopez-Morillas as the young couple’s spiritual guide and confidant, Friar Lawrence. (Last summer Lopez-Morillas, as the leading character Hieronimo, brilliantly carried this company’s production of the rarely-produced Spanish Tragedy.) This Friar Lawrence was strongly conveyed because Lopez-Morillas speaks Shakespeare’s verse exceptionally well, but the character was also interpreted as bright, insightful, and genuinely concerned for the welfare of the young couple. There was no doubt that his intentions were pure – that is, until the last moment. When he might have saved Juliet’s life, he callously abandoned her in a desperate bid for his own safety. The betrayal was shocking.

Julian Lopez-Morillas and Luisa Fransconi as Friar Lawrence and Juliet. All photos by Eric Chazankin.

Julian Lopez-Morillas and Luisa Frasconi as Friar Lawrence and Juliet.
All photos by Eric Chazankin.

The most brilliant turn of the evening was delivered by Debi Durst, the queen of San Francisco’s improv comedy scene, as the nurse. She delivered everything that her reputation would suggest: hilarious as a chatterbox that cannot be quieted in her first scene, the bawdy equal of the young men who later accost her in the street, and fussily silly when withholding information from Juliet about Romeo’s intentions to marry her and her coming wedding night.

She is so charming and funny that, even if you know the play well, you are unprepared for her reaction in the moment when Juliet seeks an ally against her tyrannical father (played by the company’s artistic director, Robert Currier.) In this central moment, Durst smoothly slides into the recommendation that Juliet quietly pretend her marriage to Romeo never existed and bigamously marry the wealthier Count Paris without so much as a backward glance. I’ve seen this moment played as consciously venal, and as completely opportunistic before, but Durst’s rendition clearly revealed the desperation with which she held onto her small position in a grand household as her only defense against a life of exponential loss. It was much more than the ability of a comedian to reveal the pain underneath the laughter: it seemed stunningly contemporary: in a bad economy down-and-out elders will sell out their protégés in an instant if it buys them even a little while longer on the trickle-down fringe.

Debi Durst and Jake Murphy as the Nurse and Romeo

Debi Durst and Jake Murphy as the Nurse and Romeo

Mostly Cloudy with Scattered Silliness

The combined impact of Lopez-Morillas and Durst was such that the play seemed to mean something insightfully different than the message it usually delivers. Instead of a warning about the rashness of youth, this performance seemed much more concerned with the danger of their gullibility about the “benevolence” of their elders. At least in this production, times are tough and an entire generation is abandoned to its own devices. Currier seems to suggest that far from a tragedy of fate, the loss of these two innocent teenagers was entirely preventable by trusted mentors who failed to step up to the plate.

This dark vision generally permeated the play, although Adam Roy (as the clown character, Peter) pushed hard in the opposite direction. On opening night he was clearly an audience favorite, as he had been as Touchstone in As You Like It. It is a performance I liked much less than those around me – worrying that he was frequently stealing focus and diluting the cynicism with which this production is infused – but it is only fair to say that I seemed pretty much alone in this assessment.

This is a company that places its emphasis on acting instead of spectacle. Jackson Currier is credited with the inoffensive set design, although only in the set decoration was it any different from the one used in As You Like It, credited to Joel Eis. Abra Berman’s black-and-white costumes were more aesthetically suggestive, achieving their impact in contrast to Romeo and Juliet’s blood red final apparel. Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting was little more than general illumination, and seemed to bear a curiously inverse relationship to the logical amount of light the scenes needed. (The gloomy crypt was the most brightly lit scene of the evening. Go figure.)


As You Like It

Marin Shakespeare Company

Directed by Lesley Schisgall Currier

Attended July 26, 2014, playing through Sept. 28

Tickets: $12-35 or “pay your age”