July 21, 2015 § Leave a Comment
If this season is the “Year of the Woman” among Bay area Shakespeare Festivals then surely the Livermore Shakespeare Festival, with its female leadership team (Artistic Director Lisa A. Tromovitch, Managing Director Katie Marcel) deserves particular notice. Although they have done nothing to draw particular attention to it, it is worth observing that this summer the festival has an all-female directing staff (Tromovitch and long-time company member Jennifer Le Blanc) and a female-centered repertoire (Sense and Sensibility, As You Like It).
[Note: Managing Director Katie Marcel has pointed out that, although she describes it as a matter of chance and not design, the Board of Directors is also all-female.]
The company is certainly on the move. Tromovitch is the recently elected President of the International Shakespeare Theatre Association and has worked steadily to raise the profile and professionalism of her company over the last five years, including a change for this season to Wente Vinyards as a performance venue.
That new venue provides the key to Tromovitch’s production of As You Like It. Performed on an elevated platform with essentially no scenery and completely surrounded by the audience, the opening night performance had an unforced rapport between the performers and the audience reminiscent of the original conditions for Shakespearean performances. The audience was very close, and never treated as if they were in a separate space. It helped (a lot) that no matter where you sat, audience members were in your direct line of sight across the stage from you. Actors freely passed through the audience for ALL entrances, and those not currently onstage frequently popped into empty seats here and there to watch the show with us.
The resulting casual tone was perfect for just knocking back and enjoying the show, aided by the fact that nearly everyone there was enjoying a glass of wine while they watched. The comfort and ease of the audience interaction was a stark contrast to most Shakespeare, indeed most theatre, that I see where the audience is strongly controlled and subtly intimidated. Here, it was easy to forget that you were watching a four hundred year old play by the-greatest-writer-that-ever-lived. It felt as easy going and enjoyable as a community picnic.
Tromovitch’s take on the show was essentially conservative, with period-ish costumes with a folk flavor designed by Barbara Murray, although she did adopt a very original approach to the dramaturgically troubled ending of the show that surprised and delighted. Her point, however, was not to comment on the show but to fulfill it. Thanks to leading lady Maryssa Wanlass, it was the most emotionally present and engaging AYLI I have seen in some time. Her chemistry with Joseph Salazar (as Orlando) was as fresh and delightful as that of the latest summer rom-com.
A Fiendishly Difficult Favorite
As You Like It is a popular favorite among Shakespeare’s comedies, but is in fact fiendishly difficult to get right. It employs the most music of any Shakespeare play, has a rather unfocused, meandering plot, and typically ends with a literal, and essentially unexplained, deus ex machina in which the god Hymen arrives to set things right – an incident treated so casually that one might assume these characters just interact with gods daily. Things can, and often do, go wrong on all three fronts.
Tromovitch tackles all three of these challenges with a single unifying device – the continual foregrounding of singer Sean Patrick Nill as a kind of metatheatrical narrator. In his hands, often accompanied by other cast members vocally and on instruments, the music is aesthetically engaging while used to tie the story together. When he subsumed the role of Hymen at the play’s end – because he had seemingly been manipulating the story from slightly outside and above the play all evening – it, for once, made sense!
Layers of Plot
The plot is complicated: a dispossessed young man, Orlando, falls in love with the beautiful niece of his corrupt Duke, but is so green and awkward he falls back on clichéd love poems to woo her. The niece, Rosalind, is herself forced to flee from her uncle, who usurped the crown from her father. To protect herself, she goes into exile disguised as a man. They meet again in the woods where both have fled. Orlando does not recognize her through her male disguise, but agrees to some tutoring from her (in her male persona) during which s/he will imitate his beloved for him in a role-playing exercise. At the center of the play is a scene in which (in the original, a boy-actor playing) a woman who is disguised as a man pretends to be a woman (in fact, herself) in order to teach her leading man how to be more genuine and assertive. It is a feat of real skill to keep all these levels clear – especially when the characters get them confused. Tromovitch handled this scene as cleverly as I have ever seen it, with Salazar’s befuddled Orlando becoming increasingly confused about who, exactly, he is falling in love with – the girl or the boy.
Things work out predictably for the couple, and for several other couples that provide variations on the theme in a series of related subplots, but not until the inevitable ending has been delayed as long as possible by the loose diversions found in a summer paradise.
It takes a lot of work to make this all happen but Tromovitch achieves it all with such a light touch that her direction is essentially invisible. Looking back, the engaging evening flew past but felt as indulgent as a chocolate truffle. Strong performances from Patrick Andrew Jones as Orlando’s reforming older brother, William J. Wolak as his faithful servant, and Lindsey Marie Schmeltzer as an overly proud local yokel who falls in love with Rosalind’s male alter ego proved high points.
The cast was not universally strong, which showed particularly in some unconvincing doublings that were neither executed with versatility on their own terms nor justified in their undisguised reuse of actors by a performance convention. Also, as is often the case, some of the more dated farcical parts of the play that have lost their point over time became strained searching for a laugh.
The performance had far more strengths than weaknesses, however. It was a perfect match of venue and play – a light midsummer comedy in an intimate, casual park-like setting. Only the hardest of hearts could possibly resist the swift and glorious ending.
A Company to Watch
Perhaps it is assuming too much to think that the marvelous sympathy between directorial approach and the leading actress’ strengths has anything to do with their shared gender. Maybe it is just Tromovitch’s directorial skills, and not her particular insights into this woman-focused play, that get the tone of this intricate comedy so right. Conceivably, the particularly invitational, friendly environment established in the new venue is the product of good audience engagement research and has nothing to do with the sensibilities of an all-female management team. It is worth contemplating, however, whether more than coincidence is at work. Let’s keep our eye on Livermore Shakespeare Festival to see if women’s leadership continues to provide unique results!
As You Like It
Livermore Shakespeare Festival
Through August 2, 2015
Wente Vinyards, Livermore CA
Seen: July 17, 2015
July 1, 2013 § 1 Comment
As Director Gary Armagnac disarmingly admits in the notes to his production currently running at the Livermore Shakespeare Festival, The Taming of the Shrew is now a “problem play.” In its time, it was a lightweight comedy about the battle of the sexes won only when the man showed his independent-minded bride some tough love and put her in her place. To play it that way now just reads as painfully misogynistic. If it were not by Shakespeare, it is entirely possible it would be dropped from the repertoire but because it is, the problem now is to figure out how to find something deeper in it. Like any good puzzle, it now has to be “solved.”
Conceptually, Armagnac goes a long way toward rehabilitating Shrew by setting his “Rosie the riveter” production just after the end of World War II, as the troops return home. Petruchio, the protagonist, is portrayed (along with the other male characters) as anxious to get married, settle down and get on with Eisenhower-ifying America – but the women they are coming home to are not the girls they left behind. Armagnac’s resetting highlights the greater social empowerment women felt (and were in danger of losing) from supplying the home work force while men fought the war. That goes a long way to explaining why Kate, the “shrew” of the title, resists with such vitriol the bevy of suitors who want her bucks but not her pluck.
It is the psychologically insightful portrayals of the quarreling couple by Armando McClain and the simply wonderful Jennifer Le Blanc that make it all work. As Petruchio, McClain’s best moment is the soliloquy in which he asks directly if anybody has any better ideas than he does for taming his wife. Although the speech is an extended metaphor about falconry, through subtext he reveals that the only methods this returning army captain has in hand are the ones he used to discipline his troops, and he rightly worries about their current appropriateness.
Le Blanc, who both looks and sounds like a young Helen Hunt, showed us right from the start that the issue was not that she hates men, but that she loves – and fears losing – the scope of her unfettered life. Astonishingly, she somehow never lets us forget she is balancing her genuine fondness for the handsome and confident Petruchio with the desire to retain her independence, including in many scenes where the text has much less substance.
Not that fidelity to the text was much of an issue in the production. Armagnac’s other main conceptual innovation was setting the play right in the very California vineyard where it was being performed, which succeeded in incorporating the beautiful natural setting and led to some very clever moments. (A servant summoning Kate just stuck her head out a second story window and bellowed into the field, from which a grumbling Kate emerged with pruning implements still in hand.)
Less successfully, it also meant that all references to Padua were changed to Livermore, Pisa to New York, and from there the floodgates were opened. Horses became jeeps, servants became soldiers, and actual welcome home speeches from the war were inserted into the play. Although resetting the play into a period of rapid, and unsettled, social transformation (not unlike our own) was revelatory, the text was shoehorned into its new shape, and where it would not stretch to fit, just changed wholesale. In previews, many of the biggest laughs from the audience were not at the play’s humor, but at the incongruity of the very unShakespearean inserted material.
The best moments in the production came not from alteration, but from honest delivery of the plot in its new context. Patrick Moore, who already gave one outstanding performance this summer, portraying a loving father in The Liar (the repertory’s other production) delivered again here. As Baptista, he desperately tries to balance the happiness of both his daughters. He is quite moving during Kate’s wedding scene fearing that he’s made a mistake by hastily accepting the mad-seeming Petruchio as her husband to clear the way for Bianca. Rebecca Pingree, another terrific performer cast in both productions, played the minor role of the widow that a suitor must settle for when a rival outmaneuvers him for Kate’s younger sister, Bianca. Pingree brought illuminating gravity to the play’s final scene by playing the widow not as the typical doddering old woman, but as a young girl whose husband was lost in the war.
At least in its final preview, this was a production with an admirable aim that exceeded its grasp. However, with excellent and deeply felt performances from its leads, as well as from the afore-mentioned Pingree and Moore, it still managed to speak to contemporary concerns: it showed us two people negotiating a new kind of relationship in the absence of societal models for doing so. That is a lot to wring out of Shrew.
The production would have been stronger if it had remained faithful to this more serious reading throughout, but the subplots were less carefully considered, and overstuffed with tacked on lazzi. Genuinely successful comic moments were, however, provided by Brian Herndon as an Ensign Pulver-like Tranio, and Jeremy Tribe-Gallardo (an intern with a big future coming) as the funniest Grumio I’ve ever seen.