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”
September 11, 2013 § 1 Comment
Shakespeare’s Most Underrated Comedy
Marin Shakespeare Company’s excellent production of All’s Well that Ends Well, directed by Robert Currier, convinces me again of the virtues of the play – the most underrated in the canon.
The agenda of this blog is to think about Shakespeare in performance, but simultaneously to explore the challenges of performing Shakespeare. As with diving competitions, it is not just the execution that counts, but also the degree of difficulty! All’s Well is both the best executed and the most difficult of Marin’s three-play repertoire this summer.
For my purposes, it is a terrific example of a show that presents very specific challenges, and as a consequence of those difficulties is rarely performed.
Who Rules the World? Girls!
The first challenge is simply lack of familiarity: The play has long been neglected in part because the best roles are for women. The protagonist is the ingénue, Helen, and the other role for which the play is known is the Countess Roussillon – “the most beautiful old woman’s part every written,” according to Shaw. The great actor-managers of the 18th and 19th centuries saw no opportunities in the play for themselves, so it was not until the 20th century that it began to find its place in the repertoire.
The tone of the play can be very challenging, as well. The play is obviously structured as a comedy, but like many Shakespeare comedies from his middle period, (Measure for Measure, Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida) it is not exactly funny. As the Marin production demonstrates, however, when you get it right the play is magical.
Anticipating the Romances
The plot of the play is, like those of the Romances, a borderline fairy tale. Helen is the orphaned daughter of a great physician. She is now a ward of the recently widowed Countess of Roussillon. She loves the Countess’ son, Bertram, the new Count, but the difference in their social stature is too great for any hope of a match.
With the Countess’ encouragement Helen follows Bertram to the court of the King of France, where the king is slowly dying of a mysterious ailment that is draining his vitality. (For those unfamiliar with Elizabethan euphemisms, the diagnosis of his “fistula” – if recognized at all – is confusing. How can this be put delicately? In modern terms he needs the attention of a urologist, not a proctologist. It is not coincidental that only a fair, young virgin can cure him.)
When the king recovers his health, he is so grateful to Helen that he grants her the choice of any man in the realm as a husband. She selects Bertram, but for the first time in this fairy tale world we are asked to confront a reality. Bertram is not consulted in this match. He is forced to marry her although he openly says he does not love her and is not ready to be married.
Bertram flees without consummating the marriage, and leaves Helen a set of “impossible” conditions for their reconciliation. As in all folklore, the rest of the play is spent with Helen finding ways, through pluck and intelligence, to meet these bizarre requirements and finally win her husband’s love.
When Youth Isn’t Wasted on the Young
In performance both lead characters often come off as unsympathetic. Helen seems dense while Bertram is a jerk. The riskiest move Currier made toward realizing his vision of this play was casting newcomers Carla Pauli as Helena and Adam Magill as Bertram. Some of company’s casting stretches were not so successful in other shows this summer, but these two delivered affecting, heartfelt and convincingly youthful performances that overcame the most common problems encountered in performance.
Helen’s initial choice of Bertram usually seems self-deluding, and her dedication to him even after he has abandoned her can seem pointlessly masochistic. Pauli is so young, and plays the character as so humble, that both actions seem plausible. Interestingly, the play is also exceedingly frank about the character’s understanding of, and interest in, sexuality. She is, after all, a doctor’s daughter. For example, she discusses her virginity almost dispassionately, as something she is more than ready to lose, but only on her own terms. Victorians were appalled at this openness, but in Pauli’s case it made her a very convincing teenager.
Bertram is an even bigger challenge. His rejection of Helen is often played as pure snobbery and even when not intended he often comes across as irredeemably selfish. That is, at least partially, a result of casting actors well into their late twenties or early thirties in the role. (The play does not tell us exactly how old Bertram is, but Currier interprets the description of him as too young to be allowed to go to war – in an era where 16 and 17 year old nobles were often sent off to gain some experience – as meaning that he could still be in his mid-teens.) Magill convincingly parlays his youth into the impression of one more sinned against than sinning- after all, as Jonathan Bate points out in the new RSC Shakespeare, we feel very differently about Shakespeare’s female characters forced into early marriages against their wills than critics have traditionally treated Bertram.
The tall, angular Magill also bears a striking resemblance to the stunning Jessica Powell who plays his mother. She has been a stalwart of the summer, playing roles in all three productions, but it is here that she really shines as the loving, but torn, Countess. Her strong-willed gravity lends Magill’s Bertram extra integrity, even when they find themselves at odds. He seems very much her son.
Although often thought of a large show, Marin has edited it so that it is performed by just nine actors. The cast is without a weak link. Scott Coopwood is a charismatic Lafeu, the nobleman who is the closest thing to a father figure to both Bertram and Helen. He also effortlessly absorbs lines and functions traditionally performed by minor characters, allowing the cast to be streamlined.
James Hiser is very funny as the braggart soldier, Parolles, whose cowardice may account not only for his absence from battle but his otherwise unexplainable hostility to sex. (He counsels Bertram to flee his marriage bed, and is later discovered to have intended to subvert an assignation Bertram pursues with a local girl, Diana.) It is when the character is hoodwinked by his fellow soldiers and his cowardice laid bare that Hiser is best. Parolles’ realization that he has lost his honor, but has to live with his disgrace forever, was heartbreaking.
Speaking of that local girl, Diana, – the character was superbly played by Luisa Fransconi, who was so delightful in Livermore Shakespeare’s The Liar earlier in the summer. Heather Cherry played her bombshell mother with equal zest.
Jack Powell played the King of France broadly, literally doing a jig when cured of his illness. He became most believable and affecting late in the play when he was paired with his real life wife, Jessica – playing the Countess – trying to sort out the confusions of the script.
The production was set in 1962, which I began thinking didn’t really work and came to believe didn’t really matter – except in the case of the clown, Lavatch, played by Lucas McClure. Lavatch is very much in the mold of Twelfth Night‘s Feste, only lascivious. The only thing seemingly grounded in the real world of 1962 was McClure’s wonderful portrayal of Lavatch as a second-rate folk singer. He was hilarious as a combination jester/doorman who was tripping ahead to the summer of love half a decade before anybody else.
Marin uses a single unit set by Shannon Walsh for all three productions, and it is probably too much to ask that it work equally well as a Spanish Castle for the Spanish Tragedy, a Southwestern town for the adaptation of Comedy of Errors set in west Texas, and as Paris, Florence, and Rousillion in this show. The truth is, for this show it doesn’t work. The Rothko and Mondrian hanging on the Mission-style walls just seemed ridiculous. Eventually, however, one settles into the play by treating the background as neutral. It is certainly no weirder than the Tudor-style Elizabethan playhouse of Shakespeare’s time, the reality of which one was to ignore.
The lack of realistic specificity about 1962 did not harm the performance much, however, because its timeless folktale nature must be brought to the fore anyway. That, Currier did brilliantly, especially in the wonderful moment in which the King is cured, ironically accompanied by Moog music and pre-disco lighting effects.
The program and a pre-show talk hinted as a surprise ending, but what emerged was actually an extremely logical non-ending. All may be well that ends well, but in this case we don’t really know what will happen after the curtain falls. We are left to imagine the speed of Bertram’s maturing, and the depth of his repentance, and maybe even the sincerity of his appreciation for Helen. Currier’s Lady-or-the-Tiger finish felt neither like a surprise nor a cop-out, but an entirely Shakespearean moment in which we must piece out their imperfections with our minds.