Don’t Trust Your Mentors – A Review of ROMEO AND JULIET at the Marin Shakespeare Company
July 31, 2014 § Leave a Comment
Romeo and Juliet is generally interpreted as a tragedy of youthful impetuousness, but thanks to two exceptionally powerful performances from supporting players Marin Shakespeare Company’s current production is, instead, an unconventional reading of the play as a tale of adult betrayal.
On its surface, Lesley Schisgall Currier’s production is generally traditional, although with a few interesting moments of intentional anachronism thrown in. Jake Murphy (Romeo) is genuinely youthful, on a summer break from pursuing his undergraduate degree, and onstage he seems believably adolescent. Romeo is a notoriously difficult character to play successfully as most young actors have trouble catching both the lover and the fighter in him. Murphy is more believable as the latter, but the depth of his passion grows near the end of the play and his suicide, which he played with both fear and gravity, was harrowing.
Luisa Frasconi is cast against type as Juliet. Her forte is comedy. She is wonderful as Phebe in As You Like It, the other play in rep at Marin, and was winning in The Liar at Livermore Shakespeare Festival last summer. She does not overly indulge her comic impulses in this production, but her broad physicality and her “Betty Boop” voice occasionally work against our taking her seriously. Although interesting enough in most ways, if the production had depended on them alone for its impact, these leads would lack the tragic stature needed to carry the evening.
More than Just Support
But in intriguing ways, Currier’s production is not focused on them. The early moments of the play are built on the power of the always-dependable Scott Coopwood as the Chorus that delivers the opening sonnet, and then as the Prince of Verona. Teddy Spencer as Tybalt and Jackson Currier as Mercutio both find very sinister readings of their characters and propel the middle of the play forward.
The production really comes into its own with the appearance of Julian Lopez-Morillas as the young couple’s spiritual guide and confidant, Friar Lawrence. (Last summer Lopez-Morillas, as the leading character Hieronimo, brilliantly carried this company’s production of the rarely-produced Spanish Tragedy.) This Friar Lawrence was strongly conveyed because Lopez-Morillas speaks Shakespeare’s verse exceptionally well, but the character was also interpreted as bright, insightful, and genuinely concerned for the welfare of the young couple. There was no doubt that his intentions were pure – that is, until the last moment. When he might have saved Juliet’s life, he callously abandoned her in a desperate bid for his own safety. The betrayal was shocking.
The most brilliant turn of the evening was delivered by Debi Durst, the queen of San Francisco’s improv comedy scene, as the nurse. She delivered everything that her reputation would suggest: hilarious as a chatterbox that cannot be quieted in her first scene, the bawdy equal of the young men who later accost her in the street, and fussily silly when withholding information from Juliet about Romeo’s intentions to marry her and her coming wedding night.
She is so charming and funny that, even if you know the play well, you are unprepared for her reaction in the moment when Juliet seeks an ally against her tyrannical father (played by the company’s artistic director, Robert Currier.) In this central moment, Durst smoothly slides into the recommendation that Juliet quietly pretend her marriage to Romeo never existed and bigamously marry the wealthier Count Paris without so much as a backward glance. I’ve seen this moment played as consciously venal, and as completely opportunistic before, but Durst’s rendition clearly revealed the desperation with which she held onto her small position in a grand household as her only defense against a life of exponential loss. It was much more than the ability of a comedian to reveal the pain underneath the laughter: it seemed stunningly contemporary: in a bad economy down-and-out elders will sell out their protégés in an instant if it buys them even a little while longer on the trickle-down fringe.
Mostly Cloudy with Scattered Silliness
The combined impact of Lopez-Morillas and Durst was such that the play seemed to mean something insightfully different than the message it usually delivers. Instead of a warning about the rashness of youth, this performance seemed much more concerned with the danger of their gullibility about the “benevolence” of their elders. At least in this production, times are tough and an entire generation is abandoned to its own devices. Currier seems to suggest that far from a tragedy of fate, the loss of these two innocent teenagers was entirely preventable by trusted mentors who failed to step up to the plate.
This dark vision generally permeated the play, although Adam Roy (as the clown character, Peter) pushed hard in the opposite direction. On opening night he was clearly an audience favorite, as he had been as Touchstone in As You Like It. It is a performance I liked much less than those around me – worrying that he was frequently stealing focus and diluting the cynicism with which this production is infused – but it is only fair to say that I seemed pretty much alone in this assessment.
This is a company that places its emphasis on acting instead of spectacle. Jackson Currier is credited with the inoffensive set design, although only in the set decoration was it any different from the one used in As You Like It, credited to Joel Eis. Abra Berman’s black-and-white costumes were more aesthetically suggestive, achieving their impact in contrast to Romeo and Juliet’s blood red final apparel. Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting was little more than general illumination, and seemed to bear a curiously inverse relationship to the logical amount of light the scenes needed. (The gloomy crypt was the most brightly lit scene of the evening. Go figure.)
As You Like It
Marin Shakespeare Company
Directed by Lesley Schisgall Currier
Attended July 26, 2014, playing through Sept. 28
Tickets: $12-35 or “pay your age”
Review: AS YOU LIKE IT at Marin Shakespeare Company
July 16, 2014 § Leave a Comment
An As You Like It that is, well, pretty darn likeable…
As You Like It at The Marin Shakespeare Company is a perfect example of all that is good about this company, celebrating its 25th season this summer. Still under the direction of its founders, Robert and Lesley Currier, MSC is pretty much a mom-and-pop operation. They run a very lean organization. The Curriers tend to direct most shows themselves and once the repertoire is in performance, can be found cheerfully kibitzing with the audience before the shows from the stage, selling raffle tickets during intermissions, and helping clean the Forest Meadows amphitheatre after most performances. Three times a year they host a popular bus excursion to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. It is clear that a substantial portion of their loyal audience thinks of them as close personal friends.
MSC is anything but a slick, institutional behemoth, preferring their Shakespeare played respectfully and without gimmicks. (As You Like It is set in the Elizabethan period, costumed traditionally, and with the exception of a couple of intentionally anachronistic WWF jokes at the wrestling match, conventionally interpreting – as comedy – the moderately cut script.) The values of this company might be thought “old-fashioned,” but it remains engaged and accessible to its community and the good will between the performers and the audience is palpable.
The single most impressive thing about the production may well be that all tickets for As You Like It are available for a “pay whatever you want” rate. There is outstanding theatre routinely available in the Bay Area, but as a college professor I am keenly aware that much of it is priced well beyond the means of most of my students. As ticket prices at for-profit and non-profit theatres have begun to look more interchangeable, that MSC would apply a sizable anonymous gift directly toward the box office so that literally anyone can see this professional production for free seems less “old-fashioned,” than progressive.
Two Boards and a Passion
Robert Currier’s productions often seem directed only in a loose sense – free of overt directorial concepts, extensive production values, or artificial boosts. That “two-boards-and-a-passion” approach places the responsibility squarely on the actors to convey the (surprisingly complicated) story.
In this case, some terrific performances rise to the occasion. As You Like It is a meandering pastoral in which an exiled young woman named Rosalind (in male disguise, because – Shakespeare) teaches a disinherited and homeless young man – Orlando – what it means to rise above misfortune and commit to love. The high point of the play is a psychologically layered scene in which this young woman, in her disguise as the boy Ganymede, role-plays being a woman. His/her purpose is ostensibly to cure heartbroken Orlando of his infatuation with a lost crush (her, but he doesn’t know that) while in fact she is inflaming the passion of her understandably confused “suitor.”
Rosalind has all the surface theatrics in this scene but it was the endearing, if slightly goofy, Teddy Spencer (playing Orlando in his company debut) that made the scene hum on opening night. His deep confusion about whether his increasing fondness for the boy Ganymede’s illusion was bringing him closer to Rosalind or weaning him away from her was precisely modulated moment-by-moment and touchingly amusing.
The luminous Elena Wright brought a charismatic presence to Rosalind, but relied on the conventions of the play to convey the efficacy of her disguise – as she made no obvious distinctions between her male and female personas beyond masculine and feminine attire. It was Spencer’s responses that guided the audience into suspending their disbelief. (Adding to the humor was company veteran Julian Lopez-Morillas’ turn as the old shepherd Corin, who was never taken in by the ineffective veneer for a second and was perplexed that anyone else was.)
The most theatrically adventurous aspect of the evening was Scott Coopwood’s rapidly alternating doubling of the roles of a banished good old duke and his evil, usurping younger brother. Coopwood wittily played the evil Frederick as a physical quotation of the most famous usurper in the canon, Richard III. It was a shorthand explanation that clarified everything without a bit of exposition.
The most difficult role in the play might well be Orlando’s older brother Oliver, who is unrelentingly evil in the first half of the play while he disinherits his brother, and is miraculously converted to a romantically smitten and reformed lover-at-first-sight in the second half. This change is rarely convincing, but Davern Wright’s all-in commitment to the premise made it narratively compelling precisely because he did not try to make it psychologically realistic.
As is often the case in casts mixing professionals and non-professionals, the supporting cast was uneven. Glenn Havlan’s portrait of the perpetually depressed Jacques was unusually subdued, while most of the country bumpkins were distractingly overplayed – including one who inserted a juggling act for no discernible reason. Luisa Frasconi (who plays Juliet in the next production in the season), however, found the comic gold in the conceited and delusional shepherdess Phebe – who falls in love with Rosalind’s disguised alter ego.
As You Like It is the most musical play in the canon. The uncredited music in this production was enjoyably delivered by Sean Mirkovitch and the company’s interns, conveying the time-wasting pleasure of a summer evening in the forest. It was a fine metaphor for this friendly and leisurely production.
As You Like It
Marin Shakespeare Company
Directed by Robert Currier
July 12, 2014
Tickets: Pay “as you like it”
Review: COMEDY OF ERRORS at CalShakes
July 1, 2014 § Leave a Comment
Director/Playwright Aaron Posner is having his moment, and watching his wonderfully inventive production of Comedy of Errors at Cal Shakes it is easy to see why. Posner brings the same kind of surprise and delight to Errors that infuses his sold-out production of The Tempest (incorporating magic designed by Teller – of Penn & Teller fame) now playing at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard.
His production of Errors, featuring local favorite Danny Scheie and the brilliant Adrian Danzig of Chicago’s 500 Clown, has a virtuosic theatricality that is both clever and very entertaining.
Mistaken Identity, Loss, and Longing
Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, but it has the confident polish of the late romances (Winter’s Tale, Tempest and Cymbeline) and some surprising structural similarities. Based on the Roman playwright Plautus’ Twin Manaechmi, it is superficially a farce of mistaken identity when twins separated at birth, along with their also-separated-twin servants, coincidentally find themselves in the same place at the same time and are constantly confused with each other. Many contemporary productions have found some deeper resonances in the intensity of loss and longing expressed by the members of the play’s shattered family- which also includes a lost mother and father – although this is not Posner’s way.
His production, instead, finds it central energy in the sheer theatricality of a single actor playing both twins. Posner pushed this concept much further than is usual, however, by divorcing it from any attempt at realistic illusion and inviting us into the game.
Shakespeare’s play is carefully structured so that no twin appears onstage with his brother until the final scene – where the illusion is often accomplished with stand-ins. (This was the approach taken in last summer’s production at the Marin Shakespeare Festival, for example.) There is, however, a very clever scene early in the play when the twin servants (the Dromios) have a scene together, one visible on the outside of a door and the other hidden behind it. Posner’s inventiveness is on high display in this moment, because his “door” is an entirely transparent creation of mime and hilarious sound effects. Actor Danny Scheie jumps back and forth transforming from one twin into the other with little more than the adjustment of his hat and attitude.
Both Scheie and Danzig (as the Antipholus twins) deliver bravura performances of rapid fire changes, reaching their peak in the touching denouement when they play both reunited twins simultaneously. (No spoiler alert necessary – you have to SEE it to appreciate what they do!)
As the evening progresses we see other actors in the small ensemble of seven also making onstage transformations from one character into another in their multiple roles. Ron Campbell and Liam Vincent make the most of this when they find themselves trapped onstage as the merchants Angelo and Balthasar unable to change into the approaching Egeon and the Duke – which they are also playing. The priceless looks of blind panic on their faces were worth the price of admission alone, and the relief they felt when costumes conveniently appeared from the wings was palpable. The rubbery Patty Gallagher found an equally funny solution to her problem when one of her characters, the Courtesan, is sent to fetch another, the Abbess, as she just gamely stalled carrying out the instruction.
Is There an Award for Funniest Sound Design?
Beaver Bauer’s eclectic costumes were at once luxurious and comedic, and handily facilitated the extensive doubling of the supporting cast. Nina Ball’s brightly colored set was serviceable, but undistinguished. Lighting Designer David Cuthbert contributed much more, especially to defining the moments of suspended time, which made a special kind of sense of the soliloquies. The standout design of the evening, however, was Andre Pluess’ brilliant sound design – a work of comic genius.
The loss of this highly theatrical approach is that it rendered the two female leads, Nemuna Ceesay as Adriana and Tristan Cunningham as Luciana, relatively uninteresting. Because they were not changing characters, and were essentially one-dimensional personalities, they were left without much to do and their skills unexploited. The text was also not treated with any particular reverence, with some of the interpolated gags getting a bit cheap. (“My wife is shrewish.” “Funny, she doesn’t look shrewish.”)
All told, however, the big laughs and charming performances far outweigh any deficits. There is hardly a slow moment in the evening to catch one’s breath. This is an easy production to love. CalShakes’ Artistic Director, Jonathan Moscone, has been able to attract some of the top talent in the nation to the Bay Area, and we can only be thrilled that he talked Aaron Posner into returning!