Shakespeare's Tribe

Performing Shakespeare, Shakespeare in Performance

A Tale of Two Hamlets: A review of the Arabian Shakespeare Festival Production.

November 5, 2017 § Leave a Comment

At the center of the Arabian Shakespeare Festival’s current production of Hamlet are exceptionally insightful and original performances by William J. Brown III as the title character and Nathaniel Andalis as his bête noir and foil, Laertes. Without directly saying so, the production sidelines the more conventional antagonist, Claudius, with all-too-relevant implications.

The cast of Hamlet, with Nathaniel Andalis as Laertes and William J. Brown III as Hamlet in the Foreground, John Flanagan as Claudius between them and Rachel Bakker as Gertrude, Norman Gee as Osric, Emily Keyishian as a courtier and Kate Rose Reynolds as Horatio looking on.

Hyperion to a Satyr

Of course, no play is thought to be so “universal” as Hamlet, so it is no surprise that any reading seems somehow current. Nonetheless, a focus on Hamlet’s disgust at the weakness of the current leader in comparison to his immediate predecessor, and his incredulity that anyone (let alone everyone) fails to see it, is so pregnant with contemporary implications that the production positively boils with renewed urgency.

John Flanagan plays Claudius as a weak and self-important ruler, so it is instantly believable when the play reveals he sleazed (rather than powered) his way into the job. Hamlet is too well-known for Claudius’ guilt to surprise anyone, but in this case, the production dwells on the patient investigation necessary to bring it into the open. Something IS rotten in Denmark, and everyone knows it, but out of pure self-interest no one will be the first to say so.

William J. Brown III as Hamlet, with John Flanagan as the Ghost. Photos by Gregg Le Blanc.

O Cursèd Spite!

Brown’s Hamlet is the opposite of the traditional conflicted and dithering naïf. This Hamlet is on the edge of rage from beginning to end. He has to fight for control of his passions, and struggles to apply the rationality he knows the situation demands if he wants justice and not just revenge. Brown is an exceptionally intelligent actor. His delivery of Hamlet’s famous soliloquies is slow and meticulous, but only because his Hamlet is so obviously forcing himself to reason through circumstances where he would rather rampage.

In this production the most powerful counter-force is Laertes who, like Hamlet, is another seeker of revenge for his father’s murder. Interestingly, the actor in this role is Nathaniel Andalis, who spent his summer playing the title role for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival. Andalis is a charismatic performer with exceptionally deep connections to this play. (His bio says that he hopes to play all the roles in the play eventually, and in this production he is half-way to meeting this goal by notching up his seventeen role in the show.) Laertes exists in the show as a “foil,” a subsidiary character whose situation mirrors that the protagonist so that we might see both comparisons and contrasts. I’ve never seen this function so fully executed as it is in the performance Andalis delivers. I attribute this to the fact that he so deeply understands exactly how the role illuminates that of Hamlet, emotionally and thematically, because he brings such deep perception of the title role from his own experience of playing it. In a way, in this production you get to see two Hamlets – and they are both compelling. Placed in opposition to each other, they are explosive.

The company was rounded out by Rachel Bakker as Gertrude, Norman Gee as Polonius, Emily Keyishian as Ophelia, and Kate Rose Reynolds as Horatio. (All four also played several other parts.)

Brown as Hamlet with Emily Keyishian as Ophelia on Malcolm Rodgers reflective set.

A Great Reckoning in a Small Room

I am on record as a big fan of this small but interesting company. A couple of years ago they produced an Othello that thoroughly explored the title character as an Arabian Moor that opened completely new aspects of the play for me. Both pre-show publicity and program notes suggest that this Hamlet is also filtered through an Arabian viewpoint – although I do not think this displays overtly or that this information is necessary to appreciating their effort. The play, in fact, seems particularly relevant and compelling for reasons (outlined above) that seem far from the Arabian traditions of political revenge tales that it might be referencing. The obvious political implications as well as the preciseness of the investigation of revengers (in this case doubled because the Laertes is rendered as specifically as the Hamlet) is what makes this production unique.

The production is staged by Kevin Hammond, whose work tends to emphasize striking individual moments that don’t always cohere into a big picture. Some of those moments, however, (especially Hamlet’s encounter with Claudius at prayer) are stunningly effective and thought-provoking. Hammond’s greatest contribution was the dramaturgy of the production: The text was both abridged and intriguingly rearranged (into almost collage fashion).

Malcom Rodgers’ minimalist, mirror-laden set was evocative. Matt Stines’ sound design was subtle but brilliant. Patricia Tyler’s costumes, by contrast, were pedestrian and insistently realistic in a production that was otherwise built on theatrical convention. (The production is performed by seven actors jumping quickly in and out of multiple roles.)

The highlight of the night was the exceptional fencing match-turned-duel at the end of the play, choreographed by Andrew Joseph Perez. The fact that we were right on top of it in the tiny (40 seat) Royce Gallery contributed to the sense of danger, but such immediacy worked in the play’s favor here, and throughout the show.

Nathaniel Andalis as Laertes and William J. Brown III as Hamlet (with cast members looking on)

Hamlet has a limited run, and there are few seats. If you love this play, this is an interpretation you don’t want to miss, with two stellar performances that you shouldn’t miss. See it while you can.

This article has been updated to credit director Kevin Hammond with the dramaturgy, and to include additional photos.

This review is of the Nov. 3 performance.

 

More Information

Hamlet plays through November 19th
(Thursdays- Saturdays at 8pm & Sundays at 2pm)
Royce Gallery (2901 Mariposa St., San Francisco, CA 94110).
Visit www.arabianshakes.org for tickets and more information.

Save

Save

What’s Your Problem?: A Review of MEASURE FOR MEASURE at CalShakes

September 27, 2017 § Leave a Comment

Measure for Measure, Shakespeare’s rhetorically brilliant but generically ambiguous “comedy,” is perpetually a problem. Tyne Rafaeli, directing for co-producers, the California Shakespeare Theater (CalShakes) and Santa Cruz Shakespeare, provides a fascinating approach that does not “solve” the difficult text (and in some ways complicates it even further) but does provide a set of visual tableaus and cleverly staged moments that make it especially relevant to the Bay Area audiences and the fraught political moment in which we live.

Why the play is so difficult is no particular mystery. Shakespeare adapted a completely tragic story (from the same source that he used for Othello) then – through the addition of a couple of hoary plot devices – restructured it into a comedy. Although everything does work out in the end, the tone of the play remains predominantly dark, however, so it is hard to know how lightly to take it and what to make of the moral dilemmas it poses.

Power and Perversion

The convoluted plot is the story of a Duke who is reluctant to exercise his power to maintain order, and so temporarily turns his duties over to a puritanical deputy with no such qualms. To set an example, the replacement ruler immediately sentences a young man to death for the relatively minor crime of impregnating his fiancé before marriage. The young man’s sister (a novice on the verge of taking her vows to become a nun) makes an impassioned argument for his life, which perversely just excites the cold deputy’s lust. He propositions her, offering the brother’s life in return. Faced with what is known in literature as the monstrous bargain she refuses. “More than our brother,” she declares, “is our chastity” – a position that modern audiences, at least, do not always find sympathetic.

(L to R) Lindsay Rico (Isabella), Adam Schroeder (Lucio), Rowan Vickers (Duke) and David Graham Jones (Angelo) in California Shakespeare Theater’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE, directed by Tyne Rafaeli; photo by Jana Marcus.

Oddly, the Duke is lurking about in disguise and convinces the heroine to pretend to assent, and then substitutes the deputy’s rejected fiancé in the darkened bedroom. In a not-all-that-shocking twist the deputy, even though he is fooled by the substitution, still orders the execution to go ahead. The Duke has to struggle around in the background to prevent tragedy, and eventually resumes his position in order to set things right – just not until after he has convinced the young man that will have to die, convinced his sister that he did die, and convinced the hypocritical underling that he got away with it all. (Although manipulative, it is probably supposed to have a Big Yellow Taxi effect.) By the time the ending comes, when the Duke proposes to the would-be nun, the audience has been bounced between the poles of starkest tragedy and melodramatic relief several times.

Visualizing Psychology

Rafaeli imbues her production with an artificial urgency throughout, which makes it all look and feel much more like a farce. This certainly reduces the tonal whiplash we usually experience in productions of this title – but also rushes the detailed explanations of what is happening (and why) to the point that it is often far from clear to anyone not already familiar with the play what is transpiring.

What is genuinely original, and pretty wonderful, about the production is how Rafaeli makes many of the most difficult assumptions in the play more comprehensible through striking visual compositions. She stages the propositioning scene as a graphic sexual assault, sending the heroine initially into frozen shock – a haunting tableau that sums up the abuse of power and the helplessness of victims in a single image. Isabella’s subsequent revulsion at the idea of having sex, even to save her brother’s life, becomes psychologically comprehensible. (Given that we are living under a happily “pussy-grabbing” president, it also makes it inevitably political.)

Lindsay Rico (Isabella) in California Shakespeare Theater’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE, directed by Tyne Rafaeli; photo by rr jones.

Her brother, whose punishment vastly outweighs his crime, is played by an actor of color. Rafaeli’s staging of his scenes of imprisonment with starkly contemporary details to the cell is surely meant to remind us of the injustices of our current system that disproportionately imprisons black and Latino men. A stumbling block for many Measure for Measure audiences is often that they find the overly-harsh sentence silly instead of serious, but in Rafaeli’s context it is all too plausible – again speaking to both the local audience and current moment.

A Different Kind of Setting for CalShakes

Throughout the play, Rafaeli uses the broad, shallow setting to create quick visual snapshots of important moments that remind us of nothing so much as eye-popping comic book panels freezing the action into bold compositions. Although wide and flat, Annie Smart’s set is both functional and effective for this purpose. It is very unlike the usual stage sets in CalShakes’ outdoor location where seeing into the far distance is possible. Montana Levi Blanco’s modern dress costumes often border on the whimsical. It is Kent Dorsey’s lighting that ultimately makes Rafaeli’s visual summaries burn into our consciousness.

Adam Schroeder and Annie Worden in Montana Levi Blanco’s fantastical costumes.

There are No Small Parts

To achieve the contemporary resonance, both verse speaking and self-conscious rhetoric were sacrificed to more physical approaches. As a result, the small players were often the most interesting members of the cast, especially Annie Worden’s rapid-fire turns as the Mistress Overdone, the Dogberry-like constable Elbow, the belligerent drunk, Barnadine, who farcically refuses to be executed, and Mariana, the heartbreakingly rejected fiancé of the false deputy who finally reclaims him from his own hypocrisy. CalShakes favorites Tristan Cunningham and Patty Gallagher also produce compelling and varied performances across a number of roles, as does newcomer Kevin Matthew Reyes as the brother, Claudio, and his polar opposite, the amusing pimp Pompey.

(L to R) Tristan Cunningham (Escalus) and Annie Worden (Elbow) question Patty Gallagher (Froth), and Kevin Matthew Reyes (Pompey) in California Shakespeare Theater’s MEASURE FOR MEASURE, directed by Tyne Rafaeli; photo by rr jones.

In the end, this production was a reminder that there is no such thing as a definitive staging of any Shakespeare play. There are endlessly fascinating possibilities, however. Measure for Measure is often a showcase for exceptional voices and fine verse speaking. It is almost unique to see it staged as a director’s vehicle emphasizing visual pictures and physical comedy. It is hard for me to remember any production of this show that was so closely tuned to place and time in which it was presented.

America’s Most Produced Playwright, 2017-18 edition: Yep, Still Shakespeare

September 24, 2017 § Leave a Comment

Once again, American Theatre magazine lists of most produced plays and playwrights are out.

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, and top 20 playwrights by its nearly 500 members.  Although it covers only a segment of the American theatre scene, (because it does not include for-profit, academic, or amateur theatres) its annual lists are 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.

Who tops the list this year? The most produced playwright in America next year will be:

With a total of 108 productions scheduled, our winner, William Shakespeare!

Only, as always, you have to read the footnotes to know that. Shakespeare so dominates this list year-after-year that American Theatre’s editors do not officially count him. (You can read my previous annual rants on this topic, here, here and here.)

To note this fact is not to take anything away from this year’s “winner,” San Francisco-based playwright Lauren Gunderson. For the third year in a row she has been in the top ten list without having a major New York production, and relying on an extensive body of work rather than a single standout title. (It is also worth noting that several of her comedies, like Exit – Pursued by a Bear, The Taming and The Book of Will, have Shakespeare connections.)

BUT…for those who are counting there will 108 productions in America’s professional theaters of Shakespeare’s plays, vs. 27 by Gunderson. Shakespeare, in fact, has more productions scheduled than the top five “official” finishers combined.

As I try to remind my students regularly, if they are trying to decide where to put their time and energy, they would do well to place their emphasis on Shakespeare.

Oh, and one more thing. Next year’s most produced individual play? No, it is not by Shakespeare – but it is about him: Shakespeare in Love is set to receive 15 productions.

Orlando James (Will Shakespeare) in Shakespeare In Love at the Noel Coward Theatre in the original London production

Save

A Classic Reborn: a Review of BLACK ODYSSEY at CalShakes

August 14, 2017 § Leave a Comment

At the center of poet/playwright Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey (now playing at the California Shakespeare Theater) is the eternal impulse to retell a classic tale in order to claim it as one’s own. For those of us who regularly teach the classics, this is the lesson we seek to foster: the purpose of retelling these stories is not to perpetuate the past, but to connect to it. It is impossible to leave Eric Ting’s masterful production without feeling a part of something bigger than one’s own limited space and time.

A Paradox

Gardley’s reworking of the Homeric epic gains its force from the paradoxical rule that universality is achieved not by vacuous generality, but in precise specificity. On its surface, his play is about an African-American veteran of the contemporary (and ongoing) war in Afghanistan, named Ulysses Lincoln, who cannot find his way home. Over the course of the evening it becomes clear, however, that he is not so much geographically lost as spiritually at sea. His journey is not just finding his home, but finding himself.

(l to r) Aldo Billingslea (Great Grand Paw Sidin), J. Alphonse Nicholson (Ulysses Lincoln), Safiya Fredericks (Benevolence Nausicca Sabine), Dawn S. Troupe (Alsendra Sabine) and Lamont Thompson (Great Grand Daddy Deus); photo by Kevin Berne

After being swept overboard of the ship carrying him home by a wave caused by the vengeful sea god, he washes up on a shore that – we slowly realize – is located both far from his intended destination and decades before he was born. The path to self-knowledge runs through the discovery of a history that was in some ways actively withheld from him through erasure and distortion, and in other ways that he actively fled when he joined the army to get himself out of Oakland. Although this is one man’s specific story, Gardley guides us to seeing beyond the surface, making it also a story about all of us.

Epic

Like any true epic, the plot is anything but linear. It is dotted with witty reïmaginings of the arbitrary and capricious Greek gods Paw Sidin (Poseidon), Aunt Tina (Athena) and Great Grand Daddy Deus (whose name is pointedly changed from Zeus to the Latin generic term for “god,” presumably because it also applies to the god of Christian tradition) who toy with human fate for reasons of their own. It retains the secondary story of the struggles of his wife, Penelope (here called Nella P.), and son, Telemachus (Malachai in Gardley’s version), to survive and retain hope, while placing them in a very recognizable 21st century Oakland. Often it focuses on the surreal experiences of the wandering Ulysses.

Along the way Gardley invokes Hurricane Katrina, the string of assassinations of civil rights leaders, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, Treyvon Martin, the death of Oscar Grant in the Fruitvale BART Station, reconstruction, and a host of other historical and local references that stir times and places together poetically. Painfully, I saw the opening night performance just hours after a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, erupted in fatal violence against counter-protesters, which did not need to be directly referenced in order to be part of the mix.

A Great Feast of Language

Gardley is as much poet as playwright. His rhythms, rhymes and wordplay are both stunningly current and historically apt. For anyone who loves language black odyssey is a feast. CalShakes consistently demonstrates careful attention, not only to what is said, but how it is said. Gardley is at his most Homeric in his extravagant use of poetic artifice, and the producing company serves his inventive wit well.

The production heavily features music, especially arrangements of traditional spirituals. Vocal composers Linda Tillery and Molly Holm produced the strongest musical ensemble I have seen at CalShakes. (Tillery is also the credited Music Director, while Holm is also listed as Vocal Ensemble Director.) While I was less impressed with the brief forays into pop music in the second act, it is hard to underestimate how much of the overall impact of the production is built on the musical components. When the full cast is united in a choral moment, which happens rather often, the wall of sound they create is viscerally moving.

The cast of Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater; photo by Kevin Berne

Nine Stars

However much all of that matters, the evening is also about basking in the masterful performances of an exceptional cast. As Ulysses, actor/percussionist J. Alphonse Nicholson accomplishes the enormously challenging task of portraying a lost soul without fading from focus or losing his energy. His humanity and generosity as a performer letting us glimpse his innermost self allows us to identify with him intensely. Omozé Idehenre proves an emotional anchor for the entire evening as his long-suffering wife. Newcomer Michael Curry completes the family trinity as his son, Malachai, movingly and believably, even when the role shines an unsympathetic light on his character. In a conventional drama, this family grouping would be our entire focus and we would be content with such central performances.

(l to r) Margo Hall (Great Aunt Tina), Omozé Idehenre (Nella Pell), Aldo Billingslea (Suitor), and Michael Curry (Malachai); photo by Kevin Berne

In this cast, however, the peripheral players are every bit as compelling. CalShakes regulars Aldo Billingslea and Margo Hall are powerhouses as the squabbling gods whose conflict lies behind Ulysses’ trials. Both also demonstrate astonishing versatility as they transform into their respective gods’ alter-egos. Billingslea invokes Paw Sidin as a coverall-clad levee fisherman but when he incarnates as a smooth-talking suit salesman wooing Nella P., a crisp military officer offering the wrong kind of solace when he brings news that Ulysses is lost and presumed dead, and a terrifying policeman, he appears completely different in each case. When Hall’s Athena sloughs off her immortality to become Aunt Tina, an aging and ill human, we see her change right before our eyes. And her invocation of Tina Turner (as one of the Sirens) is, well, let’s just say worth the price of admission all by itself.

Foreground: Aldo Billingslea (Great Grand Paw Sidin), Margo Hall (Great Aunt Tina); rear: Michael Curry, Dawn L. Troupe, and Safiya Fredericks. Photo by Kevin Berne

Are these five great performers the magic number? Hardly. They are actually just the start of a cast of astonishing depth. Lamont Thompson as Daddy Deus is majestic, and in various minor roles he ranges from mysterious to hilarious. Bay Area playwright/performer Michael Gene Sullivan (best known for his work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe) appears – and sometimes disappears into – so many guises it’s hard to stay clear that it is the work of just one man and not a cast of dozens filling in. Dawn L. Troupe is Sullivan’s female equivalent in the cast playing a range of roles, sometimes prominent and sometimes almost invisible, providing enormous texture and depth to the play.

Dawn L. Troupe as Circe and J. Alphonse Nicholson as Ulysses Lincoln in Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater; photo by Kevin Berne

The nine-person cast is rounded out by Safiya Fredericks, whose light and amusing performance of Ulysses’ childish traveling companion conceals an artfulness and control that is only revealed when the entire play has unfolded. It is unfair that her masterful work cannot be discussed in detail without spoiling the play, but it can be said without harm that her genius lies in knowing when and how to unleash her talent, and it is worth the wait.

Safiya Fredericks (Benevolence Nausicca Sabine) and J. Alphonse Nicholson (Ulysses Lincoln); photo by Kevin Berne

One Small Man in a Huge World

The action of the play happens almost exclusively on an empty platform in front of Michael Locher’s monumental set, but the dynamic visual impression created by the towering (and crumbling) pillars sets the right tone throughout the night. Locher is especially successful at tying the stage space to CalShakes’ astounding natural setting in the Berkeley hills. That gorgeous view is always one of the pleasures of attending a CalShakes production. In a piece this grounded locally, it was especially admirable that the surrounding environment was featured. Abetted by the outstanding work of Lighting Designer Xavier Pierce, both the onstage action and the larger surroundings remain in balance. Thematically evocative, the image of one small man making his way in the huge world could not have been more beautifully rendered. Costumes by Dede M. Ayite successfully mix the mundane (for scenes of domestic depression) and the fantastic (in the otherworldly visions of Ulysses), which is not an easy trick to pull off.

Michael Locher’s set lit by the pre-show sunset. Photo by the author.

Empathy

Ting’s directing is an astonishing act of empathy by a man who is, after all, of Asian-American decent, who is empowering an African-American cast to claim and interpret a story whose specifics are outside his direct experience. In his company debut as a director a year ago his Brechtian production of Othello proved controversial in part because (as is the way with such productions) we were not so much asked to empathize with Shakespeare’s hero, but told to do so. I am among those who actually like a stern lecture now and then and I liked Ting’s production, but I concede it was more Brecht than Shakespeare.

In this case, Ting seems an absolute servant to Gardley’s vision. It is hard for me to imagine that even those who found his Othello difficult will not find this an inviting experience. It is a sensitive and insightful rendition of a beautiful play, allowing a local playwright and cast to stake a claim on a work considered foundational to the Western tradition in a truly universal way. By making Homer their own they remind us that no one owns or directly inherits the past. We all have to find our humanity.

(l to r) Lamont Thompson as Great Grand Daddey Deus plays chess with Aldo Billingslea as Great Grand Paw Sidin, while Dawn L. Troupe, Omozé Idehenre, and Safiya Fredericks look on in Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey directed by Eric Ting at California Shakespeare Theater; photo by Kevin Berne

Production seen on August 12 2017

WHEN: through September 3, 2017
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sunday Matinees at 4pm

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

INFO: www.calshakes.org

Save

Save

Save

Save

AS YOU LIKE IT, but like you’ve never seen it… at CalShakes

May 31, 2017 § Leave a Comment

Desdemona Chiang’s smart, contemporary production of As You Like It for CalShakes  turns the play inside out, resulting in an extraordinarily moving and revelatory performance.

(L to R, front) Jomar Tagatac (seated) as Charles the Wrestler, Patrick Russell as Orlando and Jessika D. Williams as Rosalind photo by Kevin Berne.

Chiang takes everything we have come to expect from this pleasant (if usually light-weight) comedy and stands it on its head. From arrival in the auditorium until the curtain call, she finds unexpected depth and intensity by reimagining the setting, the period and the context of the show.

From Green World to Cityscape

The first glimpse of Nina Ball’s evocative set (waiting on the open stage of CalShakes’ beautiful outdoor location in the foothills just beyond Berkeley) is of a gorgeously manicured ivy-covered wall and topiary garden. Reversing the usual trope, this particular “green world” proves to be the unhappy home of the heroine, rather than the expected idyllic wood to which she will later be forced to flee.

Nina Ball’s beautiful “green wall” in the pre-show sunset.

When that heroine, Rosalind, is spitefully banished by her malicious uncle, she adopts male disguise and decides to seek her exiled father in the Forest of Arden. Ball’s set revolves and suddenly… we are in a dark, industrial back-alley, where the homeless and dispossessed occupy deserted loading docks stacked high with abandoned shipping containers. It is an apt contemporary analog for the dangerous backwoods of Shakespeare’s era, but unlike any design choice I have previously seen.

On the surface level, this resetting is not an easy fit. The rustics in the “woods” retain their pastoral concerns from deer hunting to sheep herding, while Rosalind (along with the cousin and court jester that agreed to accompany her) speak admiringly of the beauty of the place. The urban jungle we see and the idyllic pastoral vista we hear described are jarringly at odds.

(L to R) James Carpenter (Duke Senior), Craig Marker (Amiens), Lisa Hori-Garcia (Second Lord), William Thomas Hodgson (First Lord), Patrick Russell (Orlando) and Jomar Tagatac (Jaques) on Nina Ball’s urban jungle set.

Chiang’s genius lies in slowly seducing us into an even-greater-than-usual suspension of disbelief so that we might look past these surface discordances and discover the play’s deepest core. Her allies in this are her exceptional design team, which in addition to Ball includes costume designer Melissa Torchia, lighting designer Masha Tsimring and sound designer Sharath Patel. They build a world that looks nothing like what is said to be their location, but feels exactly right for a place that is “uncivilized,” and therefore at once dangerous yet freeing.

Finding Ganymede

It is the performance of Jessika D. Williams as Rosalind that pushes the production to truly remarkable heights. In this dangerous new environment, her version of the protagonist has good reason to disguise herself as the male Ganymede, but in Williams’ interpretation what begins as a disguise becomes a discovery. Freed from social constraint, her Rosalind is not so much “performing” the part of a man as she is giving up “performing” the role of a woman. She finds a less-limited, stronger version of herself inside her disguise, and she likes it!

(L to R) Jessika D. Williams (Rosalind), Maryssa Wanlass (Celia), and Patrick Russell (Orlando), photo by Kevin Berne.

Patrick Russell plays her love interest, Orlando, more conventionally, but he has the courage to play his character as being as attracted to Rosalind’s male alter ego as he is to the “absent” Rosalind. Where he especially shines, however, is in a small scene usually played with a light touch where, penniless and hungry, he demands food at knife-point from a group of homeless people enjoying a communal meal. Rather than make fun of the character’s ineptitude at bluffing, Russell plays the scene with believable, fearful recklessness. Even while bringing sympathy to his character’s desperation, he nonetheless seems genuinely dangerous when holding Jacques hostage.

All the World’s a Stage

The high point of the evening follows quickly upon this moment. As a man who genuinely believed only moments earlier that he was going to die at Orlando’s hand, Jomar Tagatac delivers the famous “seven ages of man” speech with an immediacy and specificity that made it integral to the play and indescribably moving. As the melancholic Jacques, Tagatac is extraordinary all night long, which is little surprise to anyone who saw his unforgettable turn in Life Is a Dream at the same theatre two summers ago. His performance, alone, is worth the price of your ticket.

(L to R) William Thomas Hodgson (Silvius), Lisa Hori-Garcia (Phebe), Patty Gallagher (Audrey), Warren David Keith (Touchstone), James Carpenter (Duke Senior) and Jomar Tagatac (Jaques), photo by Kevin Berne.

Company stalwarts James Carpenter as both the usurping and deposed dukes, Patty Gallagher as the unsophisticated country- (or in this case, city-) bumpkin, Audrey, and Warren David Keith as the jester, Touchstone, are uniformly wonderful in their supporting parts. Maryssa Wanlass as Celia, Craig Marker as Oliver, William Hodgson as Silvius and Lisa Hori-Garcia as Pheobe complete the cast, in which there is no weak link.

Ending by Not Ending

The denouement of the play is always a little odd, as the text prominently features a deus ex machina for which we are even more than usually unprepared, but Chiang makes her most deliberate textual changes of the night to this ending by simply eliminating most of it. It is not just her Rosalind who has no desire to change back into a woman. The whole production is most comfortable in the transformative “green world,” and in the end it stays there. After the curtain call, Rosalind’s super hetero-normative epilogue is retained, but so peppered with gender-queer and LGBTQ-friendly asides from the rest of the cast that it ends by meaning exactly the opposite of what it says on paper… thank heaven.

CalShakes is the largest and most sophisticated of the Bay Area’s summer Shakespeare festivals. Its new artistic director, Eric Ting, seems determined to maintain and extend the company’s progressive reputation. In his own directing debut for the company last season, he produced a notable – and notably controversial – Othello, which was pointedly political, via a hyper-Brechtian performance style. As You Like It goes about making its social commentary in a more indirect way, but is every bit as revolutionary. What a great start to the Shakespeare season!

Production Information

AYLI, viewed on May 27, 2017

California Shakespeare Theatre
www.calshakes.org
(510) 548-9666
Tickets $20-96

Bruns Ampitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theatre Way, Orinda, CA 94563
Tuesdays-Sundays through June 18

Save

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.

14542325_1087203491394243_4233715392414933268_o

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.

 

Save

Save

Save

Save

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

Save

Save

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.

SCS_Hamlet_18_72dpi

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