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Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

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.

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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

Info: santacruzshakespeare.com

 

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”

Info: marinshakespeare.org

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Marin Shakespeare Company

July 16, 2014 § Leave a Comment

An As You Like It that is, well, pretty darn likeable…

As You Like It at The Marin Shakespeare Company is a perfect example of all that is good about this company, celebrating its 25th season this summer. Still under the direction of its founders, Robert and Lesley Currier, MSC is pretty much a mom-and-pop operation. They run a very lean organization. The Curriers tend to direct most shows themselves and once the repertoire is in performance, can be found cheerfully kibitzing with the audience before the shows from the stage, selling raffle tickets during intermissions, and helping clean the Forest Meadows amphitheatre after most performances. Three times a year they host a popular bus excursion to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. It is clear that a substantial portion of their loyal audience thinks of them as close personal friends.

Robert and Leslie Currier

Robert and Lesley Currier. All photos by Eric Chazankin.

MSC is anything but a slick, institutional behemoth, preferring their Shakespeare played respectfully and without gimmicks. (As You Like It is set in the Elizabethan period, costumed traditionally, and with the exception of a couple of intentionally anachronistic WWF jokes at the wrestling match, conventionally interpreting – as comedy – the moderately cut script.) The values of this company might be thought “old-fashioned,” but it remains engaged and accessible to its community and the good will between the performers and the audience is palpable.

The single most impressive thing about the production may well be that all tickets for As You Like It are available for a “pay whatever you want” rate. There is outstanding theatre routinely available in the Bay Area, but as a college professor I am keenly aware that much of it is priced well beyond the means of most of my students. As ticket prices at for-profit and non-profit theatres have begun to look more interchangeable, that MSC would apply a sizable anonymous gift directly toward the box office so that literally anyone can see this professional production for free seems less “old-fashioned,” than progressive.

Two Boards and a Passion

Robert Currier’s productions often seem directed only in a loose sense – free of overt directorial concepts, extensive production values, or artificial boosts. That “two-boards-and-a-passion” approach places the responsibility squarely on the actors to convey the (surprisingly complicated) story.

In this case, some terrific performances rise to the occasion. As You Like It is a meandering pastoral in which an exiled young woman named Rosalind (in male disguise, because – Shakespeare) teaches a disinherited and homeless young man – Orlando – what it means to rise above misfortune and commit to love. The high point of the play is a psychologically layered scene in which this young woman, in her disguise as the boy Ganymede, role-plays being a woman. His/her purpose is ostensibly to cure heartbroken Orlando of his infatuation with a lost crush (her, but he doesn’t know that) while in fact she is inflaming the passion of her understandably confused “suitor.”

Elena Wright and Teddy Spencer

Elena Wright and Teddy Spencer

Rosalind has all the surface theatrics in this scene but it was the endearing, if slightly goofy, Teddy Spencer (playing Orlando in his company debut) that made the scene hum on opening night. His deep confusion about whether his increasing fondness for the boy Ganymede’s illusion was bringing him closer to Rosalind or weaning him away from her was precisely modulated moment-by-moment and touchingly amusing.

The luminous Elena Wright brought a charismatic presence to Rosalind, but relied on the conventions of the play to convey the efficacy of her disguise – as she made no obvious distinctions between her male and female personas beyond masculine and feminine attire. It was Spencer’s responses that guided the audience into suspending their disbelief. (Adding to the humor was company veteran Julian Lopez-Morillas’ turn as the old shepherd Corin, who was never taken in by the ineffective veneer for a second and was perplexed that anyone else was.)

Supporting Players

The most theatrically adventurous aspect of the evening was Scott Coopwood’s rapidly alternating doubling of the roles of a banished good old duke and his evil, usurping younger brother. Coopwood wittily played the evil Frederick as a physical quotation of the most famous usurper in the canon, Richard III. It was a shorthand explanation that clarified everything without a bit of exposition.

Scott Coopwood as the usurping Duke Frederick

Scott Coopwood as the usurping Duke Frederick

The most difficult role in the play might well be Orlando’s older brother Oliver, who is unrelentingly evil in the first half of the play while he disinherits his brother, and is miraculously converted to a romantically smitten and reformed lover-at-first-sight in the second half. This change is rarely convincing, but Davern Wright’s all-in commitment to the premise made it narratively compelling precisely because he did not try to make it psychologically realistic.

As is often the case in casts mixing professionals and non-professionals, the supporting cast was uneven. Glenn Havlan’s portrait of the perpetually depressed Jacques was unusually subdued, while most of the country bumpkins were distractingly overplayed – including one who inserted a juggling act for no discernible reason. Luisa Frasconi (who plays Juliet in the next production in the season), however, found the comic gold in the conceited and delusional shepherdess Phebe – who falls in love with Rosalind’s disguised alter ego.

Luisa Frasconi and Elena Wright

Luisa Frasconi and Elena Wright

As You Like It is the most musical play in the canon. The uncredited music in this production was enjoyably delivered by Sean Mirkovitch and the company’s interns, conveying the time-wasting pleasure of a summer evening in the forest. It was a fine metaphor for this friendly and leisurely production.

 

As You Like It

Marin Shakespeare Company

Directed by Robert Currier

July 12, 2014

Tickets: Pay “as you like it”

Info: marinshakespeare.org

 

 

Review: COMEDY OF ERRORS at CalShakes

July 1, 2014 § Leave a Comment

Director/Playwright Aaron Posner is having his moment, and watching his wonderfully inventive production of Comedy of Errors at Cal Shakes it is easy to see why. Posner brings the same kind of surprise and delight to Errors that infuses his sold-out production of The Tempest (incorporating magic designed by Teller – of Penn & Teller fame) now playing at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard.

 

Actors in Comedy of Errors

Danny Scheie as Dromio and Adrian Danzig in Cal Shakes’ THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, photo by Kevin Berne

His production of Errors, featuring local favorite Danny Scheie and the brilliant Adrian Danzig of Chicago’s 500 Clown, has a virtuosic theatricality that is both clever and very entertaining.

Mistaken Identity, Loss, and Longing

Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, but it has the confident polish of the late romances (Winter’s Tale, Tempest and Cymbeline) and some surprising structural similarities. Based on the Roman playwright Plautus’ Twin Manaechmi, it is superficially a farce of mistaken identity when twins separated at birth, along with their also-separated-twin servants, coincidentally find themselves in the same place at the same time and are constantly confused with each other. Many contemporary productions have found some deeper resonances in the intensity of loss and longing expressed by the members of the play’s shattered family- which also includes a lost mother and father – although this is not Posner’s way.

His production, instead, finds it central energy in the sheer theatricality of a single actor playing both twins. Posner pushed this concept much further than is usual, however, by divorcing it from any attempt at realistic illusion and inviting us into the game.

Directorial Invention

Shakespeare’s play is carefully structured so that no twin appears onstage with his brother until the final scene – where the illusion is often accomplished with stand-ins. (This was the approach taken in last summer’s production at the Marin Shakespeare Festival, for example.) There is, however, a very clever scene early in the play when the twin servants (the Dromios) have a scene together, one visible on the outside of a door and the other hidden behind it. Posner’s inventiveness is on high display in this moment, because his “door” is an entirely transparent creation of mime and hilarious sound effects. Actor Danny Scheie jumps back and forth transforming from one twin into the other with little more than the adjustment of his hat and attitude.

Both Scheie and Danzig (as the Antipholus twins) deliver bravura performances of rapid fire changes, reaching their peak in the touching denouement when they play both reunited twins simultaneously. (No spoiler alert necessary – you have to SEE it to appreciate what they do!)

As the evening progresses we see other actors in the small ensemble of seven also making onstage transformations from one character into another in their multiple roles. Ron Campbell and Liam Vincent make the most of this when they find themselves trapped onstage as the merchants Angelo and Balthasar unable to change into the approaching Egeon and the Duke – which they are also playing. The priceless looks of blind panic on their faces were worth the price of admission alone, and the relief they felt when costumes conveniently appeared from the wings was palpable. The rubbery Patty Gallagher found an equally funny solution to her problem when one of her characters, the Courtesan, is sent to fetch another, the Abbess, as she just gamely stalled carrying out the instruction.

Actors in Comedy of Errors

Patty Gallagher as the Courtesan, Adrian Danzig as Antipholus, and Danny Scheie as Dromio. Photo by Kevin Berne

Is There an Award for Funniest Sound Design?

Beaver Bauer’s eclectic costumes were at once luxurious and comedic, and handily facilitated the extensive doubling of the supporting cast. Nina Ball’s brightly colored set was serviceable, but undistinguished. Lighting Designer David Cuthbert contributed much more, especially to defining the moments of suspended time, which made a special kind of sense of the soliloquies. The standout design of the evening, however, was Andre Pluess’ brilliant sound design – a work of comic genius.

The loss of this highly theatrical approach is that it rendered the two female leads, Nemuna Ceesay as Adriana and Tristan Cunningham as Luciana, relatively uninteresting. Because they were not changing characters, and were essentially one-dimensional personalities, they were left without much to do and their skills unexploited. The text was also not treated with any particular reverence, with some of the interpolated gags getting a bit cheap. (“My wife is shrewish.” “Funny, she doesn’t look shrewish.”)

All told, however, the big laughs and charming performances far outweigh any deficits. There is hardly a slow moment in the evening to catch one’s breath. This is an easy production to love. CalShakes’ Artistic Director, Jonathan Moscone, has been able to attract some of the top talent in the nation to the Bay Area, and we can only be thrilled that he talked Aaron Posner into returning!

Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at the Novato Theater Company

June 16, 2014 § Leave a Comment

Mark Clark’s production of As You Like It for the Novato Theater Company is powered by an inspired concept: He sets the play in the summer of 1967, opening up all sorts of wonderful insights into Shakespeare’s text.

The second I saw Rosalind (Melissa Claire) in her Ganymede disguise – a Sgt. Pepper-ish “mod” jacket (designed by Janice Deneau) – the play’s gender ambiguity immediately made more sense than in any production I have ever seen. Androgyny was suddenly sexy back then, and Orlando’s inability – or unwillingness? – to see through the disguise was plausible in a way I have never understood it before.

Hannah Jester (Celia), Steve Beecroft (Touchstone), Sumi Narendram (Jaques), Melissa Claire (Rosalind) and Skylar Collins (Orlando)

Hannah Jester (Celia), Steve Beecroft (Touchstone), Sumi Narendram (Jaques), Melissa Claire (Rosalind) and Skylar Collins (Orlando)

Since the play centers on Rosalind’s disguise, and her role-playing of a woman – while dressed as a man  – to teach Orlando lessons about love (in this case, during the “summer of love,”) that alone would be a great conceptual reason to reset the play, but this particular move yielded greater results than just that.

Duke Frederick’s court was Nixonian in both look (dark suits) and temperament (generational hostility against the “kids”) providing texture and context to the usually unexplained hatred of Orlando’s older brother Oliver toward him, and Duke Frederick’s unmotivated banishment of Rosalind.

The transformational escape to the Forest of Arden invoked the whole back-to-nature hippie vibe, where the court-in-exile of Duke Frederick looked like The Mommas and The Poppas on a rehearsal break. Which reminds me, this play contains more music than any Shakespeare play – which is usually excruciating, lasting forever and contributing nothing. In this case, however, both the lyrics and the mood worked perfectly when recast into the mold of counter-culture folk music accompanied only by an onstage acoustic guitar. Richard Steele’s fine singing as Amiens (backed up by a “girl group” of forest courtiers) was the highlight of first act. Far from seeming added on, the songs of the exiles expressing their disenchantment with the establishment and their yearning for connection appeared completely organic.

The execution of Clark’s concept, unfortunately, could not rise to the level of his direction. As often happens in community productions, the cast was not up to the challenge of Shakespeare – too much “ACTING,” and very little inhabiting of the material. With the notable exceptions of Mark Shepard as Corin/Duke Senior and Robert Nelson as Silvius/William/ominous-secret-service-guy-in-Frederick’s-court, the performances were disturbingly uneven. Both Melissa Claire as Rosalind and Skylar Collins as Orlando widely missed the mark in numerous scenes, although they were exceptionally charming in their scenes with each other.

Even in a production that fails to live up to its potential there can be interesting, indeed compelling, ideas and sporadic moments of genuine emotionality. Given a more experienced, or better trained, cast Clark’s concept might make a great evening.

 

AS YOU LIKE IT
Novato Theater Company
June 15, 2014

The Spring/Summer Classical Theatre Season in the San Francisco area

March 5, 2014 § Leave a Comment

Summer always means lots of Shakespeare, but with the 450th birthday approaching in just a few weeks, the classical season is shaping up a bit early this year. Below are some of the highlights of the coming season. Shakespearean comedies are heavily represented, as would be expected in a celebratory year, but surprisingly no histories this year anywhere!

The productions about which I am personally most excited appear in bold.

The players approach.

The players approach.

March 1-16
The Taming of the Shrew
College of Marin Drama
835 College Ave
Kentfield

March 6-16
Measure for Measure
San Francisco State University
1600 Holloway
SF

March 7-16
The Tempest
City College of San Francisco
Diego Rivera Theatre
50 Phelan Avenue
SF

March 8-30
Medea by Euripides
African-American Shakespeare Company
Buriel Clay Theater
762 Fulton Street
SF

March 14 – April 13
Arms and the Man by Bernard Shaw
Ross Valley Players
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd.
Ross

April 3-5
The Bacchae by Euripides
UC Berkeley Theater
Zellerbach Room 7
Berkeley

May 1-24
Romeo and Juliet
Ninjaz of Drama
Phoenix Theatre
SF

May 3-25
Much Ado About Nothing
African-American Shakespeare Company
Buriel Clay Theater
762 Fulton Street
SF

May 22 – June 22
Macbeth
We Players

Fort Point
SF

May 23 – June 15
As You Like It
Novato Theater Company
5420 Nave Dr.
Novato

June 13-29
The Taming of the Shrew
Othello (in rep)
Shady Shakespeare Theatre Company
Willow Street Park
San Jose

June 19 – July 6
Much Ado About Nothing
Livermore Shakespeare Festival

Concannon Vinyard
Livermore

June 25 – July 20
Comedy of Errors
CalShakes
Bruin Amphitheater
Orinda

June 28 – Sept. 21
The Taming of the Shrew
San Francisco Shakespeare Festival
Amador Valley Community Park (6/28-7/13)
Memorial Park (7/19-8/3)
Sequoia High School (8/9-24)
The Presidio (8/30-9/21)

July 1 – August 10
As You Like It
Santa Cruz Shakespeare

Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen
Santa Cruz

July 9 – August 8
Twelfth Night
Shotgun Players

Ashby Stage
Berkeley

July 11 – August 10
As You Like It
Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
San Raphel

July 13 – August 10
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Stanley-Sinsheimer Festival Glen
Santa Cruz

July 17 – August 11
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Vallejo Shakespeare in the Park
Hanna Park, Vallejo (7/27-28)
John Muir Amphitheatre, Martinez (8/3-4)
Peralta Hacienda Historic Park (8/10-11)

July 30 – August 24
Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw
CalShakes
Bruin Amphitheater
Orinda

August 15 – September 1
As You Like It
Shakespeare Napa Valley
Veterans Memorial Park
Napa

August 23 – Sept. 14
The Tempest
Curtain Theatre
Old Mill Park Amphitheatre
Mill Valley

August 23 – Sept. 27
An Ideal Husband by Oscar Wilde
Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
San Raphel

August 26 – Sept 28
Romeo and Juliet
Marin Shakespeare Company

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre
San Raphel

Sept. 3-28
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
CalShakes

Bruin Amphitheater
Orinda

My Annotated List of Shakespeare Editions – Complete Works

November 17, 2013 § Leave a Comment

Annotated List of Complete Shakespeare Editions

Kurt Daw, November 2013

To many novices, the biggest shock about the plays of Shakespeare is discovering how different one edition can be from another. “Why don’t they just print what he wrote?” readers ask in despair. The very good reason is that no one is sure exactly what that was. There are NO definitive scripts. We have no manuscript versions, and the oldest printed editions contain obvious mistakes, problems and omissions. Where more than one Renaissance edition of a play exists (and some exist in two, three and even four substantive versions) different words, different speeches and sometimes completely different scenes exist. The variances can be so great in some cases, like the two substantially different versions of King Lear, that recent editors have treated them as separate plays.

Renowned editor and scholar Stephen Orgel has argued that plays in the early modern era were never absolutely fixed, but were considered collaborations between playwrights, theatre companies, and printers. Our modern idea of a definitive text did not exist. Stephen Greenblatt summarized this situation as unresolvable in his famous essay “The Dream of the Master Text.”

An Edition is a Version

All editions are versions, guided by different editorial aims about what they should accomplish.

With the advent of digital technologies, facsimiles (something like a photocopy) of the earliest print editions are easily and widely available online. These require some bibliographic expertise to interpret, however, because different spelling, typesetting, and printing conventions of the time make them shockingly difficult to read and use.

A page from the First Folio

Although purists argue that the plays are fundamentally changed by doing so, much of the difficulty of using facsimiles is alleviated with texts that use modern conventions for spelling, punctuation and printing. Even once those are in place, however, the issues are just beginning. If two people sit side-by-side with two different editions, there is no guarantee that the words will be the same, that the content of the scene will be identical or even that the characters in a scene will have the same name. ALL editors have to make judgments about which options to include and which to exclude from their edition. They have to decide what mistakes were made in the Renaissance printings and how best to repair them.

They also have to make educated guesses about what is important and useful to the users of their edition in order to understand and appreciate it. Because of that most editions also come with supplementary materials. These constitute notes about the meaning of words, phrases and references in the plays. They may (but do not always) include explanations about what textual variants were available and how the editor determined which ones to use. They may also include such things as biographic materials about Shakespeare, stage histories of the play, and essays about modern interpretations.

When you buy a Shakespeare play or complete works, because Shakespeare is not getting any royalties, what you are paying for is the editorial expertise. (The truth is that you mostly get what you pay for.) The range of choices can be bewildering. Below is my subjectively annotated list of the major editions of the Complete Works currently available, along with their strengths and weaknesses. (I will discuss major play series which publish titles in individual editions in a subsequent separate post.)

Globe edition (1864), an abridged version of the Cambridge edition (1863-6)

Dozens of different editions of Shakespeare’s plays exist, but the overwhelming odds are that the one(s) you already own are reprints of the 1864 Globe edition, edited by William G. Clark, and William A. Wright, with John Glover. If your edition does not clearly say who edited it, then it is almost certainly the Globe edition. There are a lot of reasons that this may be so: When it was published as a single-volume, popular version of the weighty Cambridge edition (stripped of its notes and apparatus), it was the best scholarship available. It remained the standard edition for over a century and almost all criticism was keyed to its line numbers. It was the first true academic edition backed by the reputation of a great university. But all of that pales in comparison to the simple reason it continues to dominate the market today: It is long out of copyright and its text can be reproduced inexpensively. In fact, with no printing costs attached, it is available all over the internet for free.

In truth, if all you want to do is give a play a quick read, it is probably good enough, which is why it still flourishes. Nonetheless, it has some weaknesses that make it problematic. The big one is that it has no notes or explanations. It is just a playscript. As many a student trying to save a few dollars has discovered, that renders it almost useless for an initial encounter with Shakespeare. It also makes almost all the editorial changes invisible. The editors were prone to extensive, but unexplained, emendation. They repaired word choices they found unclear, poetic rhythms they assumed were incorrect, and material they found indecorous, but in a way that completely escapes the average reader. For those who need a greater degree of transparency about editorial intervention, which includes all actors along with most serious students, this will not do.

The good news is, because of its electronic availability for free, there is no reason ever to purchase a copy. It is easily consulted online if you want to know what this edition says.

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One of the innumerable forms in which the Globe edition is available.

 The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd Ed. (1997)

The Riverside is a large, single volume edition of the complete plays that became a favorite of English departments as soon as it was originally issued in 1973. A substantial reworking resulted in a second edition in the late ’90s. In editions of Complete Works, the supplemental materials are meant to apply to the entire canon, so they are informative about social context but not particularly tied to any specific play. The major of notes are definitional glosses on the text. Textual variants are recorded at the end of the play. There is not much commentary on the play, so the text largely stands on its own. Throughout the punctuation is considerably lightened from what you find in other editions.

Once the industry standard for a complete works, it is now largely superseded by newer editions below. (Because of that, however, you can sometimes find quite inexpensive used editions.)

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Bevington, 7th Ed. (2013)

University of Chicago professor David Bevington is something of a legend in the field of Shakespeare studies. He is the only modern editor to have single-handedly edited the entire canon for a major publisher. Surprisingly, it is much less ideocentric than comparable editions where multiple editors are involved. The supplementary materials are again meant to apply to the entire cannon, rather than being specific to any particular play, but are excellent. In a short, but very useful, essay Bevington discusses Shakespeare’s use of language in greater depth, and with greater insight, than any other editor. The latest edition’s greatest strength is another essay that sorts criticism from a vast range of perspectives into recognizable categories and approaches.

While in many ways quite conservative editorially, Bevington introduces some very helpful devices. Line numbers appear for all lines that have notes attached rather than every ten lines in other editions. The amount of time that saves counting up and down is alone enough to endear him to students! Bevington has practical theatrical experience but that does not color the notes attached to specific plays, which are more literary in nature. The dense introductory essays to the plays, however, discuss broad interpretive trends from a very theatrical perspective. (The edited text is also available in individual editions, which do have the notes and introduction but do not have the rich introductory materials of the Complete Works.)

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Oxford (1986)

The Oxford set off a revolution in Shakespeare editorial practice by prioritizing the “revisions” included in the Folio over the quartos as control texts. Previous practice had been to get as close to Shakespeare’s original manuscript as possible, generally emphasizing the earliest “reliable” quarto text. It has long been recognized that the Folio was heavily influenced by promptbooks from the theatre, so major changes introduced in it were thought of as theatrical corruptions to Shakespeare’s work. Wells and Taylor argued that Shakespeare was a working member of the acting company, however, and if the Folio records revisions made to the script, Shakespeare surely approved them. He probably actually wrote them.

Their new perspective resulted in a vastly different edition (or rather, two editions, since it is published in both modern and old spelling versions) than anything that had preceded it. The Oxford edition has as much commentary, and as many notes, as the Riverside or Bevington. Oddly, however, the publisher printed the complete works in a compact volume and then moved all the supporting materials to a companion volume. You have to buy two books if want access the scholarship, some of which is very theatrically oriented and might be really helpful to actors if it was better known.

(Caution: Individual plays are published separately as the Oxford Shakespeare, but these are separate versions with different editors.)

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The Norton Shakespeare

Oxford‘s mystifying decision to separate notes and commentary from text created an opening which Norton, the American publisher best known for collegiate anthologies, rapidly exploited. They licensed the Oxford‘s play texts and used them for the basis of their edition, which does come complete with extensive notes and commentary – but not the Oxford notes. Instead they brought in a new editorial team led by Stephen Greenblatt to supply entirely new supplementary materials. (They also made some minor adjustments to the most eccentric editorial decisions, especially the renaming of Falstaff, which they reversed.) The Norton is the most widely adopted of all current Complete Works editions. It has extensive textual glosses – and light contextual notes – available right next to the text. It restores some diacritical marks, mostly just for sounded past tense endings, which does give actors occasional scansion help. All notes, however, seem more theatrical than competitive editions.

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Complete Pelican Shakespeare (2002)

Actors either love or hate this edition. It is a very compact version, made possible by a paucity of introductory materials, short pithy notes and a lot of small type. To many those are bugs, but some actors think they are features because (like the Oxford compact edition) it is light enough to carry into rehearsals. The layout is elegant and uncluttered. Glosses are relegated to the bottom of the page. The general editors are Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller. Co-editor Stephen Orgel is one of the most erudite scholars working today, but because of the concise format, little of that insight is captured in this edition. You have to read his essays published elsewhere to see and understand his skill.

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 RSC (2007)

The most recent of the complete editions is a version by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen for MacMillan UK and marketed as the Royal Shakespeare Company edition. Generally recognizing the revolution caused by the Oxford, but asserting Wells and Taylor did not go far enough, the RSC editors flatly state that what they have produced is an edited version of the Folio. Unlike all the previous work done to try to get to “the plays as they came from Shakespeare’s hand” or in Oxford’s case, “the plays as they were first performed” the RSC editors built their edition around a material, rather than platonic, book. Although that may lead in practice to many of the same choices as are contained in the Oxford, the logic is different getting there. The notes, therefore, are a reversion to a more bibliographic set of concerns. Interestingly, however, because of the association with the RSC, the introductory materials are much more theatrical. There is also some very interesting material in brief introductions to the plays including line counts, and percentage of the play those occupy, for the major characters and some other revealing statistics. In the US it is much more expensive that comparable editions, but it is a notable addition to the field.

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 The Arden Shakespeare Complete Works (2011)

By far, the most scholarly and admired Shakespeare series is the Arden, of which the single-title editions are indispensable for their superb introductions, notes, and glosses. Arden gathers their edited playtexts into a single large edition, but it is completely shorn of all the scholarship and contextual materials that make the series famous. It is the least useful of all Complete Works. (Although the date of the second edition is recent, the collected contents generally date from the ’80s and ’90s.)

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Decision: I give a slight edge to the Norton, for its excellent supplementary materials and actor-friendly notes. A close second would be the Bevington, with supplementary materials that are superior to the Norton’s but more literarily oriented notes, which do not help the actor enough.

Disclaimer: Titles of editions, above, are linked to Amazon.com, to which I have an affiliation. This means if you decide to make a purchase from them, I will get a sales commission. But that doesn’t mean my opinion is for sale. Every affiliate link on my blog is to products that I’ve personally used and found useful. Of course, all these volumes are available from numerous other sources as well.

The Most Produced Playwright in America

November 12, 2013 § Leave a Comment

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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, it is often more like the Top 15…) 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.

Recently, TCG put out their list for the season now underway, topped by David Ives’ Venus in Fur which has an impressive 22 productions scheduled across the nation this year. The breadth of representation drops off rather quickly, however. Five titles tied for tenth place, a spot that just seven productions would earn.

For the last season for which complete records are available (2012-13), a mere 17 productions was enough to earn the top spot for David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, with Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park a close second with 15 productions.

What is not immediately obvious, however, is that 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, both of which would have shot to the top of the list.

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 2012 season, according to a title search using TCG’s data, 11 productions of Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream each would have placed them in a tie for sixth place with John Logan’s Red. With 10 productions, Romeo and Juliet would be in a tie for seventh place. 8 productions each of Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night, and Henry V would have placed all of these on the top ten list, with Much Ado About Nothing and The Tempest both finishing only one place out of the running.

Although it is not immediately apparent, Shakespeare had eight plays on the “top eleven” list last year, while no other playwright appears even twice. All told, according to a quick search of the TCG website, Shakespeare received a total of 127 productions last year. The year before, 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.

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.

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Review: SUEÑO performed by the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program

October 13, 2013 § Leave a Comment

During the early part of the 17th Century, while Shakespeare and his contemporaries were active in London, an equally vital theatrical period, the Siglo del Oro, filled the stages of Spain. Despite the sweep and power of the plays, they are criminally neglected in the contemporary repertoire. It is difficult to find an opportunity to see one.

If you are anywhere near the San Francisco area don’t miss the chance, therefore, to see the A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts program’s production of Sueño, translated and adapted by José Rivera from the great Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream.) You will quickly see what all the fuss is about.

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Calderón’s philosophical drama tells the story of a crown prince, Segismundo, secretly imprisoned in isolation from birth because of the prophecy that he would bring disaster to his country. When his remorseful father decides Segismundo should be given a single day to prove the prophecy wrong, he is drugged and brought to the palace. The twenty-five-year-old Segismundo awakes to find himself a king. He reacts with violent anger about the lifetime of deprivation and humiliation he has unjustly suffered, and he loses control. After injuring a palace servant and attempting to rape the first woman he has ever seen, he is again drugged and returned to his prison where he is told it was all a dream.

His people now realize his plight, however, and a rebel army storms his prison and releases him. Segismundo is unsure whether this is a dream or reality, but he resolves to act as if every fortunate occurrence in experience might be a dream gift from which he might awaken (and lose) at any moment. The rebellion secures his throne and he becomes a benevolent ruler – or maybe just has a very good dream…

Puerto Rican playwright José Rivera’s (The Motorcycle Diaries, Marisol) adaptation sharpens the plot slightly, and brings a contemporary wit and sensibility to the dialogue.

As befits a training exercise, the production values at A.C.T. are minimal and many of the actors are being pushed to the limits of their current abilities. What a great choice this is for actor training, however, as the Shakespearean scope brings out their best. The philosophic complexity which questions notions of privilege, and allegorically explores the possibility that God does not exist, makes them learn to structure rhetorical arguments in intellectually and emotionally communicative ways.

And that they do! In particular, Ryan Williams French is a moving Segismundo and Philip Estrera as the old counselor, Clotaldo, who teaches the prince humanism is outstanding. Dominique Salerno brings enormous joy and humor to her cross-gendered performance as the clownish old servant, Clarin.

This production is surprisingly concrete, lacking some of the dreamy vibe for which Rivera is especially known. (If you ever get the chance, catch his References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot for the best example.) The trade-off is that Director Domenique Lozano focuses her production around the very timely question of what constitutes honor, and honorable behavior. Perhaps that is especially appropriate. As I write, we are entering week three of a most dishonorable shutdown of the Federal Government, which certainly feels less like a bad dream than a very solid reality. For anyone who loves classical drama, this is an opportunity that must not be missed.

Production and Ticket Information

Review: A WINTER’S TALE at CalShakes

October 10, 2013 § Leave a Comment

It is one thing to believe that the genius of Shakespeare’s plays lies in their universality, and quite another to put that belief into practice. CalShakes’ current offering of The Winter’s Tale has the courage to do the latter, and the results are stunning.

Patricia McGregor’s production is cast entirely with actors-of-color, and not in that allegedly “colorblind” way that whitewashes their experience, but in a manner that invites serious consideration of the stories that diverse communities tell about their particular histories. By particularizing the story, she paradoxically enlarges it.

Omozé idehenre as Hermione, Margo Hall as Paulina, and L. Peter Callender as Leontes in Cal Shakes’ A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, directed by Patricia McGregor; photo by Kevin Berne.

Omozé idehenre as Hermione, Margo Hall as Paulina, and L. Peter Callender as Leontes in Cal Shakes’ A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, directed by Patricia McGregor; photo by Kevin Berne.

The Play

A Winter’s Tale is one of the last, perhaps the very last, complete play Shakespeare wrote. The plot is straightforward: King Leontes goes (literally) mad with jealousy, and publicly accuses his wife, Herminone, of adultery with his best friend – a visiting king, Polixenes, who barely escapes the country with his life. Leontes imprisons and then publicly tries the pregnant queen – whose only defender is a powerless waiting woman, Paulina. In prison, Hermione gives birth to a daughter, whom Leontes immediately sentences to death by being abandoned in the wilderness. Paulina reports that the combined strain of childbirth and the humiliation of the show trial has killed Hermione. Within minutes, the queen’s innocence is definitively established. The suddenly remorseful King goes into seclusion and mourning, keeping Paulina near him as both scourge and spiritual counselor.

Sixteen years later, and in his own country, the son of Polixines has fallen in love with a country girl. Knowing that his father would never agree to his marriage to someone of such different social class, he attempts to hide his courtship, but when discovered flees with his intended bride to Leontes’ kingdom, seeking asylum.

The play ends with a series of reunions as the country girl is revealed to be the daughter Leontes had ordered abandoned years before, paving the way for the reconciliation of the two kings in the union of their children. Stunningly, and seemingly miraculously, the terrible wrong perpetrated against Queen Hermione is also righted, allowing Leontes to find peace and forgiveness.

Dignity and Mythmaking

The center of this production is the simply astonishing Margo Hall in the role of Paulina. Reminding us boldly that even when most disempowered African-American women have a history of retaining their dignity, and courageously speaking truth to power in circumstances of personal peril, she makes new sense of the most difficult character in the play. Most productions never adequately explain why Hermione’s staunch defender would dedicate her life to serving the man who destroyed the innocent queen, instead of going all-Hamlet on him with a revenge plot. This Paulina is the only thing holding a crumbling community together, and that she chooses to heal it is an heroic choice rooted in the very specific circumstances of disenfranchisement. To Paulina, the culture is more important than any individual agenda.

Like all members of this cast, Hall plays multiple roles. Her charming take on the son of the family into which the lost daughter, Perdita, is adopted affirms that her performative approach to telling this “hoary, old story” is to render the characters as types. Playing a pre-adolescent male kid who is all bravado and street smarts, without the stature to justify it, she finds essences without weighing them down with irrelevant psychological detail. Far from being shallow, however, these characters are definitive. They are not stereotypes, but archetypes.

A Woman’s Play

Led by a pair of sisters, Patricia and Paloma McGregor as stage and movement directors, respectively, this is very much a female-focused production. As brilliant as Hall is, she is evenly matched by Omoze Idehenre as the wronged queen Hermione, (later doing a great doubling as the empty-headed, giggly Mopsa.) Her Hermione begins, not as a typical, stiff British-style monarch, but as an effusive earth-mother. It is a gasp inducing moment, then, when she is led on in chains to her trial in an orange jumpsuit. The contemporary appearance is terrifying both in its perp-walk familiarity and its extraordinary contrast to her previous silhouette. She appeared dazed and on the verge death. Awakened to defend herself, however, she spoke with the enormous power and unflinching courage we associate with Oprah rising to the occasion.

Tristan Cunningham, as the daughter Perdita, supplied the same level of energy, although a quite different kind of intensity, for the second half of the play that Idehenre brought to the first. She was charming, but far from a fairy-tale princess waiting for her glass slipper. I’ve never seen an interpretation of Perdita so convincingly honest as Cunningham’s when she told her boyfriend, Florizel, that their love cannot work. He needs to go back to the court and accede to his father’s wishes. Nothing suggested she believed Florizel could, or would, deliver on his promises. It was not personal, just world-weary.

Perdita

 

Male-Bonding and Pride

That the story ultimately centers on the women as figures of redemption, healing and hope, does not mean that the men in the cast were not also delivering terrific performances. L. Peter Callender as Leontes was believable in his jealousy, frightening in his insanity and heart-rending in his repentance. He, too, was drawing of archetypes of prideful men whose promise is undone by making fast, stupid and seemingly irredeemable mistakes. Aldo Billingslea as the object of his jealousy, King Polixenes, made believable the intense male-bonding between the life-long friends, and therefore the devastation he experienced when betrayed. In the second act when he moves to the position of antagonist to his own son’s happiness we can easily understand from where his suspicion and distrust comes.

Tyee Tilghman embodied the least likely doubling I have ever seen, as Prince Florizel in the second act, after having played the older courtier Camillo in the first act. Both characters were finely rendered and nuanced, but it was watching his versatility that was the real pleasure. Christopher Michael Rivera rounded out the cast as the charismatic conman Autolycus, doubling as the self-sacrificing Antigonus – the guy that famously “exits chased by a bear.”

 The Power of Performance

This is not a production without flaws. It opened with an inserted, and unnecessary, framing device in which the cast is situated as a troupe of traveling carnival personnel. The bit seemed such a direct quotation of Pippin that one expected the cast to break into a chorus of “Magic To Do.” When it interrupted the show, not once but twice, with cringe-inducing anachronistic dialogue and bogus audience interaction -for no good reason, mind you – it became irritating. Presumably, we were being given some rationale to believe in them as story-tellers. The performances in the play proper were so outstanding, however, that no other explanations were required. We got the conventions that allowed cast members to play multiple roles and for the story to hover – largely due to Katherine Nowacki’s wittily eclectic costumes – in an uncertain time period. (Earlier in the summer the company produced a sleek, minimalist Romeo and Juliet with a seven-person cast which definitively proved with great acting, no frames are required.)

The play was also set against quite attractive, but oddly useless, scenery. Michael Locher created a prominent 50′s Airstream trailer to ground the framing device, which later opened to reveal a dazzling interior, but in reality it was little more than a prop table. Even stranger, the stage was dominated by a huge, rolling two-story palace unit with a built-in spiral staircase. It seemed incredibly promising, but was never employed beyond use as a treehouse/hideaway for the minor character Mamillius.

L. Peter Callender as Leontes, with Margo Hall as Paulina and Christopher Michael Rivera in the background. Behind them is the two-story set. Photo by mellopix.com

L. Peter Callender as Leontes, with Margo Hall as Paulina. Thee Tilghman and Christopher Michael Rivera in the background. Behind them is the two-story set. Photo by mellopix.com

A Winter’s Tale is not among the Shakespearean favorites, largely because its folklorish qualities can seem so culturally specific and archaic that it fails to remain relevant. CalShakes gets to the heart of folklore – keeping and cherishing cultural memory – by daring to remind us this is not just a story about some misty European heritage. It has enormous humanity, but only by seeing it in the unfamiliar guise of a tale told about all-too-recent history, (or maybe contemporary urban life), are we reminded from what pressures such grace emerges.