Shakespeare's Tribe

Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

Minimalist Tragedy: MACBETH at the Arabian Shakespeare Festival

October 2, 2016 § Leave a Comment

Teddy Spencer is a San Francisco-based actor with a Benedict Cumberbatch-ish look and appeal. He is tall and lanky, possessed of a warm baritone and radiating intelligence. He can be hilariously self-effacing, even goofy, when performing comedy but he is also a formidable tragedian. I first saw him as Orlando in As You Like It at the Marin Shakespeare Company, but it was after seeing him as a steely Iago in Othello with the Arabian Shakespeare Festival that I became a genuine fan. Now he has returned to the latter company as Macbeth in a production that places the focus squarely on him, and he is hypnotic.

Teddy Spencer and Radhika Rao as the Macbeths. Photo by Gregg Le Blanc.

Teddy Spencer and Radhika Rao as the Macbeths. Photo by Gregg Le Blanc.

The Arabian Shakespeare Festival is an emerging company under the artistic direction of William J. Brown III. Their mission is to use theatre as a cultural bridge between the Middle East and the West. (Their current production is heavily supported by a sizeable gift from The People of Kuwait.) I was enormously impressed by the previously-mentioned production of Othello, which explored the tensions of assimilating Arabs by taking seriously the Elizabethan connotation of “Moor” to imply someone of middle eastern origin. It was timely and thought provoking.

Their Macbeth is less conceptually related to their mission, as it does not directly imply an Arabian connection despite a passing reference to the Arab Spring in the director’s notes, but that is possibly because any play about an obsessively ambitious strong man coming to power inevitably has more immediate connotations during this frightening election season. The evening’s virtues are quite different from those of the last time I saw this company.

The Real Curse

There is a rich folklore about the cursed nature of the play, but real theatrical insiders will tell you that the main way that it is blighted is that it reads much better than it stages. Despite the high esteem in which the playtext is held, surprisingly few productions of the play come off well. To modern audiences the supernatural element is often silly instead of frightening. Bucket loads of stage blood can, and usually do, become unintentionally hilarious. Relentless misogynistic interpretations of Lady Macbeth often sink the enterprise before it really launches. The reader can find it spooky without “jumping the shark” in their own mind’s eye, but it is downright difficult to make the play work when it has to be materially realized. In performance, it is best to leave a lot to the imagination.

There are some deep textual complexities that cause a lot of issues with producing the show. The only text of the play we have is from the 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare’s work, but scholars have clearly established that that version contains material inserted from a much later play, The Witch by Thomas Middleton, and that Middleton is probably also responsible for heavily cutting and arranging the original text into a streamlined performance text. (Shakespeare could not have inserted the material himself, because Middleton’s play was not written before he died, and therefore probably did not cut it himself either.) The version we have is full of plot holes and contradictions, with an uneven pace. The action flies by in the first half and then grinds to a slog in the second. Lady Macbeth is a powerful presence in the beginning but fades into the background once she becomes queen. Character development in the minor roles is truncated, and sometimes just confusing. It takes some very intensive dramaturgy to keep the play on track.

Keep It Simple, Stupid

Director Terri McMahon avoids many of the most deadly traps by keeping things very simple. A cast of six, performing on a virtually empty set, with minimal props, no fake blood, and evocative contemporary costume bits and pieces performs the show in a drastically cut, fast moving, version of the play. The staging is clean and efficient, with a few moments of clever theatricality. The direction is enhanced by two striking ideas: Nathaniel Andalis, who plays Banquo, continues in a highly original extension of that role to appear onstage after his murder not only as the ghost at the banquet, but also as the visions conjured by the witches, then as the embodied curses and ultimately as a physically manifest malevolent supernatural force intervening against Macbeth. It was both unfussy and theatrically effective. McMahon also chose to place Lady Macbeth’s death (which in only reported in the text) fully onstage and left her body downstage center while the final duel played out. Radhika Rao avoids the clichés in her portrayal of Lady M, and is moving in her later scenes, especially in this interpolated death scene, but the production’s focus is elsewhere.

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Nathaniel Andalis as Banquo, Nicole Weber as Fleance, and William J. Brown as Duncan

Actors William J. Brown III, Kirsten Peacock and Nicole Weber do some heavy lifting by rapidly shifting between multiple characters – playing something like half a dozen each. (In a fine show of virtuosity Peacock plays both Macduff and Lady Macduff in the production, both compellingly.) The performance space at the Royce Gallery is tiny, and in combination with the small cast and shortened play, there is little spectacle. Battle scenes and other parts of the play usually populated by crowds are stripped away almost to nothing. Most of what powers a typical production forward is absent from this one altogether.

All that is sacrificed produces one overwhelming and original insight into the play, and makes it riveting. In this minimal staging, we realize that a great deal of the play is surprisingly intimate, and blossoms in this unforced simplicity. Lady Macduff has a touchingly domestic scene with her doomed son. Banquo teases and teaches his son, Fleance, in an almost casual fatherly moment of calm amidst the crisis. The Macbeths agonize over whether to move forward huddled together in a tiny hallway. In stark contrast to the histrionics usually employed, this production favors small, introverted moments.

In this tightly-focused, sometimes suffocating, atmosphere Spencer performs a beautiful miracle. He pulls us into Macbeth’s soliloquies with such unwavering intensity that we actually root for this man. His performance is so contained it feels almost private, but his voice and face are so expressive it is like constantly watching him in cinematic close-up. He seductively whispers his innermost fears, dreams and delusions to us until we feel we have direct access to his damaged (and ultimately damned) soul.

This is not a performance built on charisma and starpower, although Spencer has plenty of both. It is just an actor with enormous courage letting us into his unguarded and unfiltered core. Of the many productions I have seen, this is the first time I have felt that I truly understood the human tragedy of a man who lost himself. In a very Hamlet-ish performance, Spencer fully realizes the protagonist reaching for his destiny, dancing with madness, and ultimately facing death squarely.

It is a small company with a brief run, that deserves your support and attention. Treat yourself and go see this performance.

Production information, per the Festival’s publicity poster:

Production information

Seen Sept. 30, 2106.

 

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Still the Most Produced Playwright in America: Shakespeare

September 23, 2016 § Leave a Comment

American Theatre Magazine has released its annual, informative listing of the most produced playwrights in America among the members of the Theatre Communications Group, which consists of virtually all of the USA’s regional theatres. It is a listing I always find fascinating and of great use to my students. Perpetually, however, you have to read to the bottom of the page and look at the small print to find the real answer to the question:

Their footnote on methodology says:

“NOTABLE OMISSIONS: Shakespeare continues his long reign as the most-produced playwright in America, with 91 productions this season (including adaptations). And Stephen Sondheim continues to be the most-produced musical theatre composer in America, with 15 productions this season. It’s not just children who are listening…”

Still #1

Still #1

The most produced playwright this year that they do count is August Wilson with 17 productions, followed closely by Bay Area playwright Lauren Gunderson with 16. Sondheim would place third on this list (tied with Arthur Miller) if composers were considered.

Still, those four playwrights combined have fewer productions than Shakespeare. You can throw in Ayad Akhtar and Tennessee Williams, the fourth place finishers at 14 each, and you still just tie Shakespeare’s number.

Just sayin’

 

Till fit time call thee to answer: A Review of OTHELLO at Marin Shakespeare Company

September 4, 2016 § Leave a Comment

That Dameion Brown turns in an impressive performance in his professional debut, and in the challenging role of Othello at Marin Shakespeare Company no less, is almost beside the point. His performance is less important than what he represents as he makes history. Brown, you see, is only a year out of prison after 23 years behind bars. His training is a result of Marin Shakes’ Arts-in-Corrections program under the direction of Managing Director Leslie Currier. His only previous experience  was as Macduff in Macbeth in a production at Solano State Prison.

Dameion Brown as Othello. All photos by Steve Underwood.

Dameion Brown as Othello. All photos by Steve Underwood.

 

“Rough” Theatre

If you knew none of that, and watched Robert Currier’s production without any context, the surface appearance was that of a fairly ordinary production of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Marin’s approach to conceptualizing and design has usually been conventional, and always a little “rough” in Peter Brook’s appreciative sense. This production is no exception. It is set in period, with fairly low-budget set and costumes; interpretively uncontroversial.

Knowing Brown’s story, however, one cannot help but view this production through the filter of one’s knowledge of our dysfunctional criminal justice system, its disproportionate effect on men-of-color, and the growing frustration (at least in liberal enclaves like the Bay Area) that unjust scapegoating has become so systemic that it may be a bigger problem than the problems corrections supposedly correct.

By making the brave decision to cast Brown, and to highlight his incarceration record rather than downplay it, the production instantly brings us into dialogue with Shakespeare in an almost visceral way. Nothing special needs to be adjusted to make clear the “othering” of Othello, the casual dismissal of everything good about him, while social prejudice insidiously makes all plots against him easily accomplished. Brown’s presence is statement enough.

It also reminds us of why drama can be so central to social discourse. Brown is, after all, an example of rehabilitation. Example shows us some paths forward that are not about locking young men-of-color up and throwing away the key. “Law and order,” so much a topic of this year’s election season, suddenly seems to be a less automatic pairing.

Dameion Brown as Othello, Cassidy Brown as Iago

Dameion Brown as Othello, Cassidy Brown as Iago

Inkblots

I liked this production, without finding it revelatory about the text. (For contrast, here is a review of a production of Othello by the Arabian Shakespeare Company from 2014 of a production that I did find illuminating. By the way, ASC company has a forthcoming Macbeth that I am itching to see already.) What I think Marin does especially well, however, is have a sense of the current moment that – like a Rorschach inkblot – pulls the submerged ideas out where they can be examined. Last summer their Richard III was positively Trumpian without resorting to any obvious imitation or parody. This Othello is just as current and unnervingly relevant. That is the result of deepest values of the company, like the long-term commitment to Arts-in-Correction and the successfully empowering Brown to see his own possibility, not to pasted-on references that make it temporarily topical. They do not so much uncover new aspects of Shakespeare’s plays as simply lay them bare, in the right context and at the right time.

That is not to say that there was not was much to admire in numerous performances, in addition to Brown’s. Company stalwart Cassidy Brown, cast almost ridiculously against his usual comic type, is a fine Iago and a heroically supportive stage partner. Luisa Frasconi, despite being dressed in Renaissance costume, brings an attitudinally contemporary edge to Desdemona that fits well with the play’s context. Elena Wright, usually a leading lady, is powerful as Emilia. Currier’s staging was clean, efficient, and communicative.

Luisa Frasconi as Desdemona with Dameion Brown.

Luisa Frasconi as Desdemona with Dameion Brown.

When all is said and done, however, I think that most of the audience seemed less focused on what they were seeing onstage than what they were seeing in themselves. Isn’t that what theatre is supposed to help us do?

 

Othello
Marin Shakespeare Company
Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University of California
890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael, CA 94901

Aug. 26 to Sept. 25, 2016
(seen Sept. 2, 2016)

$10 to $35
Admission at the door is $35 general; $32 senior; and $10 youth (25 and under). Preview performances are $12 per person. “Pay Your Age” is offered to audience members between the ages of 26 and 34 when purchasing tickets at the Box Office on the day of any performance, with valid identification. Marin Shakespeare Company also offers those 65 and over half-price tickets at Senior Matinees and those ages 18 and under admitted free at Family Matinee performances.

http://marinshakespeare.org/tickets/ or 415-499-4488

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A Woman in the Lead: A Review of HAMLET at Santa Cruz Shakespeare

August 26, 2016 § Leave a Comment

At Santa Cruz Shakespeare Kate Eastwood Norris is not only a woman playing Hamlet, she is playing Hamlet as a woman – and the result is every bit as wonderful (in an especially Santa Cruz-ish way) as you might expect.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Hamlet) in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2016 production of Hamlet 2016. Photo by Jana Marcus.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Hamlet) in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2016 production of Hamlet 2016. Photo by Jana Marcus.

Although a woman playing the role of Hamlet is not nearly as rare in theatre history as most would suppose, or even unique to the San Francisco Bay Area this season (given Shotgun Players’ conceptually fascinating Hamlet roulette which randomly selects a women for the role in about half of its performances) Ms. Norris in the title role at Santa Cruz Shakespeare is notable for a number of reasons. First, she is genuinely good in the part. Second, she debuted in the part the same night that Hillary Clinton became the first woman nominee of a major party for President of the United States and the historic resonance with the audience was palpable. Most of all, however, what makes this casting particularly interesting is that it is situated within a production that genderbends a number of roles in ways that illuminate the play anew.

Gender Equity In Action

This is the second season in which Artistic Director Mike Ryan has pursued a policy of gender equity in casting. This is no mean feat, since Shakespeare’s plays do not feature anything like equal balance of male and female characters. Most companies that are trying to address this concern (not nearly enough) do so by pursuing what is known as “gender-blind” casting, wherein women are cast in male gendered parts but the convention is that the underlying gender of the actor is irrelevant and essentially ignored. Others do so by “conceptual casting,” in which women simultaneously “play” and “comment on” their characters. In this case, the female interpretation of the male role becomes the major interest. This tends to be especially true of all-female productions.

Ryan has consistently taken a different tack. At SCS, the roles have been regendered to match that of the actors playing them. In this production, not just Hamlet, but also Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Francisco all become female characters. (Unsurprisingly, from the point of parity, no gender bending moved characters from female to male, but – at least in the case of Ophelia – this still had interesting consequences.) Although it is the sort of change that makes purists blanch because it alters the play in some fundamental ways, it also provides new perspectives on often overly familiar literature that can (when well done) make it a totally new experience. This has become the house style at SCS concerning gender, although the company (or at least its predecessor company, Shakespeare Santa Cruz) has long practiced color-blind casting, as it does in this production.

Director Paul Mullins* handled this reframing of the play with exceptional skill and succeeds in helping us rethink this masterpiece. (His staging is beautiful, and his pacing and shaping of the performance masterful but it is his interpretive skills that set him apart here.)

Kate Eastwood Norris (Hamlet) and Larry Paulson (Player King) and the other Players in Paul Mullins' beautiful staging. Photo by Jana Marcus.

Kate Eastwood Norris (Hamlet) and Larry Paulson (Player King) and the other Players in Paul Mullins’ beautiful staging. Photo by Jana Marcus.

Visuals

Collette Pollard’s set for this outdoor venue is a large neutral space punctuated with seven tall white columns. (Kent Dorsey’s lights made little impression in the bright afternoon sun at the matinee I attended, but might be a totally different experience during evening performances.) B. Modern’s eclectic costumes feature everything from plaid-skirted schoolgirls to medieval robes, but largely settle into a vaguely Edwardian look. It is a kind of alternate Edwardian universe, however, where same-sex marriage is so routine that the possibility raises no eyebrows. Proudly liberal Santa Cruz has, apparently, always been Santa Cruz. (Except for pronouns, no lines were changed in this version to reflect the gender-bending. Even Hamlet’s extremely hetero-normative “Will thou be a breeder of sinners?” survived the editor’s red pen, although it no longer seems a logical concern.)

Set by Collette Pollard. Costumes by B. Modern

Set by Collette Pollard. Costumes by B. Modern

Which Hamlet?

For ardent Shakespeareans, the “insider baseball” for any production of Hamlet is which Hamlet we see. The text exists in three vastly different Renaissance versions. Two of them get most of the attention. The so called “Second Quarto” of 1604, and the First Folio of 1623 differ in length by some 150 full lines. Q2 contains an entire soliloquy that is cut from the Folio, and there are hundreds of minor wording changes. This production cut a good deal of the text, with some interesting minor rearrangements here and there, but generally followed the Folio version.

It is the third alternative that can provide, continuing our baseball metaphor, the real curveball. The “First Quarto” of 1603 is a bizarre text, half the length of the others and featuring what almost sounds like a paraphrase of the text to which we are accustomed. Most scholars believe that it is a version of the text put together from memory by actors, observers (or both) without consulting a written manuscript.

However odd it is, and Q1 is really odd, it has a few interesting features which might relate to it being pieced together after watching an actual performance. Most significantly, the scenes are in a different order. The most famous soliloquy in the canon, “To be or not to be,” sits at the start of Act II instead of the beginning of Act III.

Santa Cruz performs the piece in Q1 order, although it utilizes the wording from the F1 text. This makes a world of difference. Hamlet becomes far less indecisive and confused. In the typical order, Hamlet confirms his uncle’s treachery through a performance of a play-within-the-play that replicates the conditions of his murder of Hamlet’s father. He seems overjoyed at this, but in the very next scene he returns with his famous contemplation of suicide. Modern actors go through all kinds of psychological twists to make sense of this bizarre emotional reversal.

In Q1 order, however, (as performed at Santa Cruz) Hamlet is suicidal when she is not sure whether her father is a truthful ghost or a deceiving demon, but snaps back out of this depression once the playlet reveals the truth and never wavers thereafter. This is not only sensible, but thrilling. Eastwood Norris’ Hamlet is far stronger than that of most men I have seen play the role, flirting with madness to a far smaller degree, which is largely because of her own laser-like focus, but the less confusing order of events also propels her forward in a manner that is more palpably immediate and less intellectually abstract.

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Mike Ryan (Horatio), Kyle Hester (Marcellus), Kate Eastwood Norris (Hamlet), Cody Nickell (Laertes), and Christian Strange (Barnardo) in Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s 2016 production of Hamlet 2016. Photo by Jana Marcus.

Performances of Note

The production features a number of very notable performances. Bernard K. Addison plays both the ghostly King Hamlet and the villainous King Claudius. Cody Nickell has the unenviable task of finding a way to keep the complexity in Laertes’ character, although an awful lot of social conditioning teaches us that someone who would plot the death of a woman (as Hamlet is in this case) is not just duplicitous but also a bully. Even viewed through that lens, however, he finds the redeeming humanity in the character. Mike Ryan is a solid and precise Horatio.

Patty Gallagher (a performer whose work I consistently admire) brings a pathetic depth to Polonius that I have rarely seen. She seems less a silly old fool than a woman who is hopelessly double-bound by the responsibilities she is given and the disempowering standards of behavior to which she is held (restricted?) while trying to achieve them. Although Eastwood Norris’ Hamlet provided a very interesting resonance in the shadow of Hillary Clinton’s achievement, Gallagher’s Polonius was equally reminiscent in another way as we saw and judged her quite differently than we would a man in the same situation.

Mary Cavett as Rosencrantz and Katherine Ko as Guildenstern are guileless schoolgirls, clearly out of their depth. In this one case, I worried about the difference casting women in the roles made. It was not their performances, which were impeccable, but the context. When I learned (spoiler alert) that Hamlet had substituted an order than ended with their execution, Hamlet’s declaration that “they come not near my conscious” proved the least sympathetic moment of the evening – a touch of calculated cruelty that made me cringe, and made me think about why it felt so different from how this moment usually plays.

See This Production? Absolutely!

Ryan’s leadership of SCS is brave, and in this case, Director Mullins delivered on his mandate and made a female Hamlet feel both inevitable and historic at once.

*Although we have not seen each other since, full disclosure is that Mullins was a classmate of mine in the Professional Theatre Training Program at Southern Methodist University in the early ’80s.
Hamlet by William Shakespeare, directed by Paul Mullins
 July 29 playing through August 28
The Grove at Upper DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz, CA 95065

 

He were an excellent man: a review of MUCH ADO at CalShakes

May 30, 2016 § Leave a Comment

As has been their pattern for the last few years, the California Shakespeare Theater (CalShakes) has opened its season with a quirky, challenging take or adaptation of a Shakespeare play. (Last year it was an almost all-female Twelfth Night.) This year it is an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which greatly streamlines the play, presented by a multi-ethnic and frequently gender-switched ensemble of eight.

Directed by off-Broadway fixture Jackson Gay, who also adapted the play with Kenneth Lin, the production is successful at condensing the sprawling plot into a tightly focused hour-and-a-half. It is especially entertaining when the gender-switched central couple, Beatrice (played by James Carpenter) and Benedick (played by Stacy Ross) hold the stage.

Cast photo

(l to r) James Carpenter as Beatrice, Safiya Fredericks as Hero, Denmo Ibrahim as Claudio, Anthony Fusco as Leonato, Rami Margron as the Friar, Lance Gardner as Don Pedro, and Stacy Ross as Benedick in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Jackson Gay; photo by Alessandra Mello.

Storming the Gates?

Conceptually, it is far murkier. Set, according to the advanced publicity, behind the scenes of “the biggest celebrity wedding in America,” where the catering staff acts out their pieced-together understanding of the story underneath the scandal-plagued ceremony they have just served, the adaptation succeeds best when speeding quickly past the issues of race and class it promised, in that same preview, to raise. Much Ado does not prove a very good vehicle for discussing income inequality or class privilege, largely because the original plot focuses so clearly on critiquing male privilege. Additional text by Kenneth Lin, mostly a smattering of amusingly snarky couplets, alludes to the notorious indifference of the one-percenters, but does little to further the social critique. (No rants from me against updating Shakespeare, or conceptual productions. I usually favor them. Just noting that, except in the arena of gender politics already present in the play, this particular concept did not have much to say.)

The location dictated by this concept (the untidy staging space behind a wedding venue) limited scene designer Erik Flatmo’s options. His realistic, but therefore messy, set worked well as a floorplan without giving us much to look at. The most prominent feature on the set, a second-story balcony where we are told the play’s thug, Borachio, created the illusion of seducing the confusingly named heroine, Hero, was not used for that, or really any, purpose. Of course that event is only related through exposition in the play, although it is often interpolated as a mime, but then if you are not going to stage it – echoing the issue with the overall concept – why is this feature there at all?

Set photo

Erik Flatmo’s set for the California Shakespeare Theater’s production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Jackson Gay; photo by Alessandra Mello.

Costume designer Karina Chavarin provides very effective pieces to be layered over the basic catering uniforms to indicate the fictional characters of the play. Visually, the heavy lifting is done by lighting designer Paul Whitaker, who not only shapes the stage with interesting compositions but helps us alternate between the framing device and the play itself with great dexterity.

Genderbending

What does work, and might have worked equally well without any added concept, is the virtuosity of the acting. The brilliant Anthony Fusco is underutilized in this production but alternates rigidly patriarchal Leonato with an “indignorant” Dogberry with speed and skill. Rami Margron, a company stalwart, is likewise used in the smallish parts of Margaret and Borachio, but single-handedly makes clear the power of cross-gender casting in the crucial but thankless role of the friar. Spoiler alert: after Hero is brutally rejected by her fiancé, her feudal lord and ultimately her father, it is the unassuming friar who steps forward to declare belief in Hero’s innocence of the charges of infidelity waged against her, and to provide the plan that ultimately resolves everything happily. In his one speaking scene, the friar explains that he knows Hero is telling the truth just by genuinely observing her reactions. Although in this production the character is still gendered male, watching a woman play the part provides a perspective on empathy that I have never experienced after seeing the role traditionally cast.

The denunciation scene

(l to r) James Carpenter as Beatrice, Safiya Fredericks as Hero, Rami Margron as the Friar, Stacy Ross as Benedick, and Anthony Fusco as Leonato in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Jackson Gay; photo by Alessandra Mello.

Stacy Ross gives us an original reading of Benedick through deftly handling the cross-gendering of her character so that she seems perpetually present as both the character and the underlying (female) cater-waiter presenting the story. Her intelligent interpretation of the part is informed by her gender, and we see her perspective in the way in which even she is surprised by the choices Benedick makes and the struggle to embody them.

Cast photo

James Carpenter as Beatrice and Stacy Ross as Benedick in California Shakespeare Theater’s production of MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, directed by Jackson Gay; photo by Alessandra Mello

The revelation of the night is James Carpenter in the role of Beatrice. He was seen a year ago cast perfectly to type in Pygmalion as Doolittle. It is hard to imagine someone less likely to play Beatrice, but he does it with such humanity and emotional grace that the part seems newly minted. Her pain and frustration reads as all the greater because it is clear (when situated on a male body) that they are entirely artificial limitations placed on her.

The versatile cast is rounded out by Patrick Alparone, Safiya Fredericks, Lance Gardner, and Denmo Ibrahim.

CalShakes is the big dog among Bay Area Shakespeare festivals. It has consistently high production values and standards. It is situated in the very diverse East Bay and has a great track record of developing and serving a contemporary audience. Much Ado does not quite deliver on its potential to comment on social disparity just down the freeway, but it is still a worthwhile night in the theatre–especially recommended for those who know the play well and are ready to see the traditional comedic war-of-the-sexes battle lines redrawn.

PS: CalShakes has a new artistic director, Eric Ting, who welcomed the audience warmly for this opening night but it will be later in the season, when he makes his directorial debut with Othello, before we get a full sense of what he will bring to the company.

Details:

California Shakespeare Theater’s production of Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare, adapted by Kenneth Lin and Jackson Gay, with additional text by Kenneth Lin.

Directed by Jackson Gay. Designed by Eric Flatmo (set designer), Karina Chavarin (costume designer), Paul Whitaker (lighting designer), and Olive Mitra (sound designer/composer).

May 25–June 19, 2016
(Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturday Matinee June 18 at 2pm
Sunday Matinees at 4pm)

Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda, CA 94563

Long Live the Revolution: a review of HAMLET at Shotgun Players

April 30, 2016 § Leave a Comment

A generation ago, there were two surefire claims to bragging rights among serious Shakespeare playgoers: that you had personally seen one or both of the two most revolutionary productions of the 20th Century–Peter Brook’s Midsummer and Steven Berkoff’s Hamlet.

Brook’s white box set became famous, and going even further towards stripping a play down to its essence, Berkoff reduced Hamlet’s spectacle to a single taped white line across the floor, inspiring an entire generation to a more visceral and less pictorial approach. For those who (like me) missed those heady days, the spiritual successor to Steven Berkoff’s famously minimalist production has come to Berkeley’s Shotgun Players.

El Beh as Hamlet and Beth Wilmurt as Gertrude. (I think that is David Sinaiko playing the dying Polonius just visible through the curtain. (This is not the same casting configuration I saw. Explanation below...)

El Beh as Hamlet and Beth Wilmurt as Gertrude. (I think that is David Sinaiko playing the dying Polonius just visible through the curtain. ) This is not the same casting configuration I saw, as explaned below…

Shotgun Shakespeare

Shotgun is celebrating its 25th anniversary season, and it is hard to imagine any production that could better convey their aesthetic, showcase their artists and speak to their particular audience than their current offering. Directed by long-time company member Mark Jackson*, the production features a four-woman/three-man, vaguely androgynous, multi-ethnic ensemble presenting a considerably shortened–and therefore very fast moving–version of the work. Nina Ball’s set is a bi-level black platform with a layer of intense red curtains behind each level, and six chairs that mostly live along the side walls of the theatre but occasionally make their way onstage as a throne, a bed or a grave.

Jackson’s staging is clean, and in his signature style, very physical. Isolated iconic gestures associated with each character are the dominant motif. Christine Crook’s costumes are simple, suggestive bits and pieces – jeans, sweaters, jackets, coveralls, and a long, flowing blouse for Ophelia. Heather Basarab’s lights (and deep shadows) are intense and often directionally moody. Matt Stines’ blatantly theatrical sound design is purposely foregrounded, most prominently in the long fencing scene at the end of the play–noisily fought with invisible rapiers. Perhaps the most noticeable visual element of the production is that all the actors carry (but never consult) scripts with them, which they use as props whenever possible.

Kevin Clark and Megan Trout, as Hamlet upbraiding his mother with the images of his father and uncle. (which is not the cast configuration I saw.)

Kevin Clarke and Megan Trout, as Hamlet upbraiding his mother with the images of his father and uncle. (This is also not the cast configuration I saw.)

Audience Partnership

As one might expect of Shotgun, the work is raw, rough, and unsentimental. Berkeley’s sophisticated audience is called upon both intellectually and imaginatively to extend the performance far beyond what is materially presented in front of them. The cutting is severe. The opening scenes on the battlements, the traveling players, Fortinbras, and most of Act IV all disappear.

As is often the case with minimalist productions, so much is gone that the production is probably incomprehensible to anyone who does not already know the plot–but it is a safe bet that virtually no one in Shotgun’s audience has trouble filling in the rather massive holes in the remaining narrative. As but one example, Hamlet’s soliloquy that begins “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave…” is (mostly) retained, but since it does not follow on the appearance of the troupe of traveling players, Hamlet’s musing on surface appearances versus deep feelings now references the real actors in Shotgun’s production instead of the pretend ones visiting Elsinore. That is a logical leap a couple of levels of metaphor removed from the play as traditionally presented, and probably can’t be made unless you know the original context–but it tells you a lot about Shotgun that it presented no problem to anyone on the night I saw the show. (The actual performance of the players’ The Mousetrap, for those who are worried, is reassigned to Hamlet and Ophelia.)

Given the severity of the cutting, reassignment of lines, and occasional rearrangements of the order of speeches, I would have preferred a little more dramaturgical expertise behind the cast’s collective cutting. I might personally have encouraged consideration of the otherwise dubious First Quarto’s placement of “To be or not to be,” which makes far more sense when located much earlier in the show, as Q1 has it, especially when it is laid as bare as it is in this much-shortened version. It is part of the dedication to the ensemble, however, that dictates an equal voice for the actors in matters like this–matters which are usually deferred to “experts” and decided long before the actors are even cast.

Shakespeare Roulette

The production would be interesting enough if it was conventionally cast and presented, but it has an extra level of artistic risk and emotional excitement because it performed in what the company calls “roulette style.” All seven cast members (and an understudy) have memorized the entire play, and just before the performance a random drawing determines which actor will play which part(s) that night. As it happens, I saw the closest fit to a traditional Hamlet (actor Nick Medina) play the title role on the night I attended, and perhaps that made it more easily digestible, but I also saw company member Kevin Clarke play Ophelia – a sensitive and beautiful performance despite the fact that he made almost no attempt to impersonate a young woman. The dynamics of the tragedy emerge from the circumstances, not from the actors’ appearances and personalities. Of course, no two performances are even remotely the same.

Cast photo

Beth Wilmurt, Cathleen Riddley, Nick Medina, El Beh, Kevin Clarke, David Sinaiko, and Megan Trout prepare to pick their roles for the night in “Hamlet” at Shotgun Players. (Photo by Pak Han)

Not every artist would be willing to place him/herself under this pressure, but it is typical of Shotgun’s players that they are attracted to the unorthodox and the risky. On the night I saw the show, El Beh (last seen at Shotgun as Emily in Our Town) played Laertes, and Cathleen Riddley played Claudius (and Rosencrantz). That two women of color were randomly placed in the roles of the two violent male antagonists was, to say the least, illuminating. The youngest person in the cast, Megan Trout, drew the oldest characters: the Ghost/Gravedigger. The evening was filled out with Beth Wilmurt as Gertrude/Guildenstern and David Sinaiko as Polonius/Osric.

The particular performance that I saw was not word perfect, but the minor wobbles and unapologetic prompting did not dull the sense of danger emerging from a previously staged, but still almost improvisatory, first “run-through” in this configuration. Like the rehearsal period that actors so cherish, discoveries were being made right on the spot, and that forced both actors and audience members to pay close attention.

Designed for Multiple Viewings

This is not what one of my colleagues calls “gift shop Shakespeare.” It is not pretty, celebrity studded, or made topical. Jackson and his cast are excavating the essential text from under a lot of accumulated baggage, and what emerges is often highly original and gut wrenching. (I was particularly struck by the stunning manner in which Gertrude’s strangely incongruous description of Ophelia’s death was recontextualized in a way that finally made sense.) That it can also be, from moment-to-moment, a bit hit-or-miss is beside the point. After all, you can always come back to another performance–a possibility made easy because Shotgun sells tickets in three performance packages–to see it all handled differently another night. From what I could ascertain at my particular performance, a lot of patrons were seeing the production for a second time. It is a trend that I predict will continue with this fascinating production as it continues its run, as part of a season-long repertory, through January 2017.

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*As a matter of full disclosure, (although we have never worked together directly) both Mark Jackson and Matt Stines have been my colleagues at San Francisco State University, and Megan Trout is one of the program’s graduates.

 

Great New Resource: Clear Shakespeare

February 24, 2016 § Leave a Comment

I like to think of myself as a cool, objective reviewer (especially of electronic resources) but occasionally I can’t help myself and just go all-in fanboy. Such is the case with my new obsession, an inspirational and exceptional resource, Clear Shakespeare: The Read-Along Shakespeare Podcast.

clearshakespeare.com

clearshakespeare.com

Created by Akiva Fox, a former Literary Manager for D.C.’s famed Shakespeare Theatre Company, this is the most genuinely demystifying tool for reading and understanding Shakespeare’s plays of which I know. This is, in part, because he in unafraid to use the multi-episode format that podcasts do so well for discussing the plays line-by-line in exceptional detail. As a result, his explication of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is spread across six podcasts totaling nine hours of audio. (Hamlet is even longer, with nine individual podcasts!)

So why is this so useful? Fox has one simple insight that powers everything. Most students (and even experts) don’t really understand the language. Most editions don’t help much. They try, of course, but glosses of all the difficult words do not fix the problem, because even when you know roughly what each word means the issue is more often grasping the entire phrase or putting those words in context.

Fox takes you through the plays, discussing one unit of meaning – usually a sentence but sometimes longer connected thoughts – at-a-time. He avoids too much interpretation, in favor of just explaining what is being said while you follow along with your favorite printed edition.

If listening to an expert talk about the language of a play for nine hours sounds more like a circle of hell than fun to you, as I admit it generally does to me, then all I can say is you haven’t heard Akiva Fox do it. He is witty, entertaining, and enormously empowering. He really believes that listeners can hear and understand this language with just a little help, and studiously avoids telling you what you are supposed to think and feel about it all. This ain’t “schoolmarm Shakespeare”! His site name is well chosen, because he really does make things clear.

Best of all, these podcasts are available for free. (Pitch in a few bucks if you can, but for starving artists and struggling students this guy is a godsend!) Want to see, or rather hear, why I am so gaga for him? You can listen to a sample here.

So far only Hamlet and Midsummer are available, with Julius Caesar coming next, but the plan sounds extensive.

My advice? Download old episodes as soon as possible, and subscribe so you don’t miss anything in the future.

Shakespeare Resources

January 9, 2016 § 1 Comment

The New York Public Library announced this week that they were making 180,000 digitized public domain images available for hassle-free downloading and use. (See the announcement here.)

The collection contains some wonderful images of interest to Shakespeareans. As an example, have a look at this “book” of images related to Macbeth. It contains numerous photos of full productions like one of the Old Vic and the famous Orson Welles “Voodoo” Macbeth, and a set of photos of studio shots of Lady Macbeths like Sarah Bernhardt, Sada Thompson, Ellen Terry, Lili Langtry.

The collection is especially rich in photos from the early years of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s free Shakespeare-in-the-Park productions – like this one of Christopher Walken in Macbeth:

Walken in Macbeth, 1974

Walken in Macbeth, 1974

The possibilities are extensive. Next time you can afford to get sucked into an hour or two of browsing, check it out.

Best Xmas Present: Book, Presenting Shakespeare

January 3, 2016 § Leave a Comment

I received a lot of wonderful gifts for Christmas this year, but my son and his fiancé found the sweet spot for my bibliophilia with what is probably my absolute favorite present – a copy of Mirko Ilić and Steven Heller’s wonderful new collection of posters from productions around the world called Presenting Shakespeare.

the cover design

the cover design

The book’s blurb says, “just as centuries of theatrical artists have reimagined [Shakespeare’s] works through the lens of their own time and culture, so too have illustrators and designers been inspired to create posters that reinvent Shakespeare’s well-known themes for each new generation of theatergoers.” The Folio-sized volume collects over 1100 posters, representing productions from 50 or more countries.

As you would expect from designers of the caliber of the authors (if you don’t know about them you should make it a point to do so soon!) the book is itself magnificently designed. The posters are grouped by title and by visual themes. They cover a span of 250 years, and are a lesson in the development of the graphic arts aside from their interest to Shakespeareans. With several visually related posters reproduced on most pages, it is easy to spend a half hour or so just contemplating three or four pages.

an interior spread

an interior spread

The selection of posters is extraordinary. Some very well known specimens, like Alphonse Mucha’s design for the Sarah Bernhardt Hamlet are included, but the strength of this wonderful book is how far-ranging the choices are. The juxtapositions are visually and intellectually stimulating.

A number of additional photos of book pages can be found on one of the author’s blogs.

The book is available from Amazon here:

Presenting Shakespeare: 1,100 Posters from Around the World

 

A Trumped-up RICHARD III at Marin Shakespeare

September 19, 2015 § Leave a Comment

Robert Currier’s direction of Richard III at Marin Shakespeare Company is almost completely lacking in subtlety, and his star, Aidan O’Reilly, gives a performance devoid of nuance. I loved it. You see, that is how this production completely captures the current political climate. It is thoroughly relevant and wonderfully insightful about the sad state of partisan discourse in our time!

Aiden O'Reilly as Richard and Livia Demarchi at Lady Anne. All photos by Lori A. Cheung

Aiden O’Reilly as Richard and Livia Demarchi as Lady Anne. All photos by Lori A. Cheung

Politicizing Approaches

Richard III was the earliest of Shakespeare’s Machiavellian anti-heroes, in a strain that would peak with Iago. He is usually played, as in Ian McKellen’s outstanding film rendition, as a cynical fraud, publicly appearing to be the opposite of his evil, scheming true self—which he reveals only in soliloquy. Politically, productions using this approach often seem reminiscent of contemporary right wing pundits warning of the dangers of smooth talking lefties. (Surely I am not the only one who has noticed this rhetoric is usually applied to characterizing Barack Obama, and before him, Bill Clinton as two-faced politicians whose silver-tongued exteriors mask their real beliefs.)

Refreshingly, this is not the approach in this fascinating production, which sits somewhere on the opposite end of the spectrum. O’Reilly’s Richard is anything but smooth. He is loud, brash, and charmless. He says whatever his victims audiences want to hear, but without the slightest pretense (even in the moment) that he actually believes any of it. He preys on the gullibility of those who seem incapable of conceptualizing the existence of self-serving insincerity. Produced during the time period when Donald Trump has suddenly leapt to the top of the leader board in the crowded Republican presidential field, it is not hard to identify a contemporary referent. What might have seemed an unbelievable reading even a year ago, now seems chillingly plausible.

This interpretation says a lot about Richard, but more about his observers who seem to parse his words autistically, without the ability to read the attitudes and emotions that lie behind them. It is a very different production when the focus is not on Richard as imposter, but on everyone else as self-deceiving.

Representing Disability (or Not)

I admit to being thoroughly caught off-guard by the whole approach. All of the pre-publicity for the show focused on the fact that O’Reilly has been legally blind since childhood from retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer of the light sensing cells of the eyes. Given the enormous amount of focus on questions of representation (that is, who can—and should—represent the characters in the plays) on the stages of Bay Area Shakespeare festivals this summer; along with a great flurry of rehabilitation of Richard’s reputation since his long-lost skeleton was recovered from under a Leicester parking lot in 2012; I was anticipating that O’Reilly might explore (and possibly reinterpret) this most famously disabled Shakespearean character through the metaphor of his own experience. That he did not do. Instead, he characterized Richard’s disfigurements quite conventionally, and as for his own challenges—those were handled so invisibly that one forgot all about them almost immediately. Given the obstacles, including some pretty complex stage combat, it is an amazing performance, but one in which his disabilities were disguised rather than directly referenced.

Following a night of ghostly visits by those slain in Richard's quest for power, Richard III (Aidan O'Reilly) and Lancastrian heir, Richmond (Jackson Currier) meet in battle.

Following a night of ghostly visits by those slain in Richard’s quest for power, Richard III (Aidan O’Reilly) and Lancastrian heir, Richmond (Jackson Currier) meet in battle.

Supporting Cast

The supporting ensemble for this production is the strongest of the season. Michael Ray Wisely is brilliant as Buckingham, the one courtier who sees Richard for what he is and willingly accepts a role as co-conspirator (a la Ted Cruz?), but fails to realize that he is as dispensable as everyone else once he has served his purpose.

Phoebe Moyer as the prophetic, but powerless, former queen Margaret is haunting. The most complex performance of the night is given by Elena Wright, as the mother of the two young rightful heirs to the throne that Richard murders, as she desperately maneuvers to save her surviving daughter. (Those two children, the “princes in the tower,” are played by genuinely outstanding child actors Patrick Ewart and Carl Robinett.)

After killing her two sons, Richard III (Aidan O'Reilly) insists that Queen Elizabeth (Elena Wright) arrange for him to marry her daughter.

After killing her two sons, Richard III (Aidan O’Reilly) insists that Queen Elizabeth (Elena Wright) arrange for him to marry her daughter.

Several other standouts in the large cast included Michael Schaeffer, Chris Hammond, and Steven Price—all of whom play multiple roles; and Davern Wright, who is chilling as Richard’s henchman Catesby and then proves to be unexpectedly hilarious in the scene where he “spontaneously” exhorts the crowd to support Richard, reading his assigned part off note-cards.

Unfortunately at the performance I saw,  Jackson Currier’s voice failed him in the closing sequences when he was playing the hero Richmond (after earlier playing a terrific coke-sniffing, clueless brother to the Queen) so the final moments of the play, which depend on a pair of Henry V-like orations, fell rather flat. Richmond is not the focus of this production, however, so it mattered much less than it ordinarily might.

Camo and Glitter

Abra Berman’s costumes for the production are a mix of period finery layered over contemporary camo fatigues, a perfect metaphor for the way beautiful language is hung on top of pedestrian motives throughout the play.

O'Reilly as Richard. Costume by Abra Berman.

O’Reilly as Richard. Costume by Abra Berman.

Jackson Currier’s set, used for multiple plays this summer, is nicely refurbished for this particular play. Joel Eis provides the distinguishing set décor and props.

In the end, it is Richard Currier’s direction that makes this production. Currier is difficult to read, as he usually eschews conceptual approaches, and works hard to stay out of the way of his actors. This production has the strongest viewpoint of any of his I have ever seen, but whether that is intentional or simply a by-product of the zeitgeist is unclear. Whichever, it is certainly provocative!