Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Nature is overrated

Shakespeare in the Park has spawned various Learian children, some more worthy of their noble parentage than others. This summer we've seen Shakespeare in the Parking Lot (both Love's Labor's Lost, and Julius Caesar), Shakespeare in the Pagoda (Romeo & Juliet), and Shakespeare on Governor's Island (Macbeth), not to mention a few other performances in Central Park not affiliated with The Public Theater. I'm relieved that theaters will be opening up their doors again to let in this rained upon, sore-bottomed refugee. I'm tired of not hearing half the play. Tired of envying the wiseacres who showed up 45 minutes before showtime to grab the few seats on offer. Tired of shooshing and being shooshed. Of mosquito spray and wood chips. I confess: a summer of Shakespeare out in the open and I have become a grouchy, conservative purist. I'll take my Bard straight-up thank you, no Central park rocks for me.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Henry VI Part III

I agree--this Henry was terrific. It reminded me of an Ionesco play in a way. The play began with a chair dropping from the rafters and landing with a thud on the floor as audience members were chatting away from their seats. Then another hit. I noticed a pile of them were pushed off to one corner of the theater.

The story of the play is less complicated than it appears. There are dozens, or seemingly hundreds of characters here, but it is basically the story of Henry who, in his sunset years, no longer has the desire for the hurly-burly of governing:
My crown is called content:
A crown it is that seldom kings enjoy

His wife, meanwhile, sees this weakness as a threat to their royal line, and a band of usurpers want the crown for themselves. There is a remarkable amount of side-switching.

This production is propelled by some terrific acting. It was full of subtle, tiny gestures, like Henry's reluctant sigh when he once again must remove his crown, that stay safely away from over-doing it.

The play ends on a note that stayed with me. Henry ends the play slain, and blood pours from the ceiling dripping on his flattened body. The play ends, the actors take their bows, and still there he lies, and still the blood pours, a metaphor for the chaos that the politicking in the play as unleashed on society.

Before writing this post, I have to say that I scoured the Internet for reviews of productions of this play. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I could find none. If Henry 6 Part 3 is as capable of holding productions as terrific as this one, let's hope the future newspapers are filled with reviews of thsi play

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Hooray for Henry

I didn't even manage to check the program once during Wide Eyed Production's Henry VI, part 3. It was three hours long, and the third part of a history play I knew nothing about yet the play had me hooked from the moment the action began with a chair falling onto the stage from the rafters.

Chairs were the only props, and an over-sized throne that was alternately used to represent a rampart or a torture device reminded me of a Tom Petty music video. This association may have been encouraged by a long-haired Nat Cassidy cast as Henry IV.

This was seriously excellent acting across the board. People died drawn out deaths proclaiming fabulous lines and managed not to seem melodramatic parodies ("Is nothing left me but my body's length" asks Warwick...).

The production decisions, from the carefully considered costumes to the utterly new reinvention of blood-spattering in the finale, were executed impeccably throughout providing the kind of stage support that really good actors deserve. Though all the performers, including the boy Rutland (Anthony Doqaj) were outstanding, of particular note were Moses Villarama as Clifford and Ben Newman as the future Richard III. Kelly McCrann also added an important note of naïveté to her role as Lady Grey/Queen Elizabeth. This was the best tragedy I've seen so far (a rich man's Titus Andronicus), and only partly thanks to the Bard.

Annualists, if not completists

While we struggle to balance busy summer schedules with New York City's penchant for more Midsummer Night's Dreams, here's a story dear to my heart. I find myself jealous of the folks featured here who have now completed their quest to see every Shakespeare play. It took them 20 years.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Love's Labour's Lost

While Love's Labour's Lost suggests that living beauties better deserve contemplation than books, I found myself quietly reading at the edge of the Drilling Company's recent Shakespeare in the Parking Lot production. I didn't want to. I just couldn't hear most of the play. The snatches of speeches I was able to catch seemed compelling, and Jordan Feltner in particular managed to project his voice consistently despite the obvious challenges of sirens and s.u.v.s pulling in and out of the parking lot.

There was a Chinese teenage couple nearby bitterly angry with one another who wandered through the lot and then stood at the edge, anguished in their frustration with one another. First he would hang on the wire fence showing cruel indifference, then with her fingers wagging in his face, she berated him. His arms crossed angrily over his chest he seemed at times to approach her and then suddenly to repell her as his anger rose to meet hers. I watched these two alternately between pages of my book. Sometimes the play grabbed my attention too. But the theater of life was just that much more compelling even if it was only the backdrop. The bright street lamps provided such comfortable night lights that I was still grateful to the Drilling Company for making the space habitable. But I was hardly convinced by Shakespeare's play that reading books is any less of a way to engage the world than acting in it.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

New York Classical Theatre's Richard III

I am more and more coming to believe that the New York Classical Theatre company is one of the real gems of this city. We saw an earlier production of theirs--Hamlet, at the World Financial Center--and it has still stuck with me, particularly the way that they transformed the mall-like confines of the WFC into a castle in Denmark.

The last play we saw of theirs was Richard III, a sprawling complicated work about the bloodlines of the British royals. The play is a long one, and the NYCT confidently pared it down so that we were out of there just after dusk.

There is something supremely democratic about these productions. The audience is not full of nodding graybeards, or "theater people" but New Yorkers of all kinds who munch on food and bring their dogs, and the shows gather more people as they go on.

I think my favorite part about them however is they insert their lines into the text in order to move the audience from place to place around (in this case) Central Park or use directions found in the play and highlight those to give us our cue. In Hamlet, for example, when Claudius ask Hamlet where Polonius is, he calmly responds, "In the lobby," and on cue, we are all rose to our feet and hustled down there where the next scene was awaiting us.

These lines happened throughout Richard III. "Sit down," one character says, and then, emphatically, when the crowd seems unwilling to follow, he repeats, "SIT DOWN!!"

"Make way for the king," another goes, as the king comes up from behind the audience, and we all scooched to make a path for him.

One final note: Sean Haggerty played Richard in this performance, and played him marvelously, in all of his sweaty, twitchy, conniving glory.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Across the bridge

An update to our own responses to the Bridge projects' plays:

Monday, June 21, 2010

Girl fight!

It's too bad girls don't like each other much in Shakespeare. It would be nice if our clever bard had left a few more words of wisdom for his female followers that weren't about feuding sisters abandoning senile fathers to the elements, or ladies threatening to dash babies' brains out.

Maybe it was the Secret Theatre's staging of The Taming of the Shrew that got me thinking about Shakespeare's gals. Their fun interpretation put a Mormon spin on the famous morality play, casting Petruccio in a particularly sinister light as a Warren Jeffs look-alike played by Richard McDonald. Kate mercilessly led her sister Bianca onstage by a rope, and clawed at her father for his indifference. (Brief aside: the hair design was a stroke of sublime genius).

In the many Midsummer Night's Dreams we've seen lately Helena and Hermia are always directed to communicate midsummer in jealous high-pitched shrieks. Last night's production in Central Park was no exception. The Gorilla Rep's disappointing romp in the park in conjunction with an all-Norwegian cast of actors was no Smiles of a Summer Night. Actors sped so fast through their lines while galumphing around on the grass that I was glad I knew what the play was about, since it was impossible to get much sense of it from their deliveries.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Midsummer Nights' Dreams and Dreams and Dreams

Identity, and desire, and taste are fickle things, A Midsummer Night's Dreams says.

The Mortal Folly's production was the better of the two, I agree with you on that, L. It was the group's first production, not just of this season, but of any season, and there was a real electricity and energy to the performance. My favorite bit, besides the music that you rightly point out was pretty top notch, was how dirty everyone was by the end of their time in Arden. This wasn't no roll around on the Great Lawn; those escaping kids went full-on into the wild.

What I liked about the Firecat show was that I didn't expect to like it very much. This is one of the odd and underlooked elements of the aesthetic experience, I think--the element of surprise. I looked around at that sparsely crowded theater, and then the players coming on stage--in what you correctly refer to as jazz shoes and body paint--and my eyes took a loooonnng roll.

But I found their take oddly captivating and courageous. It's the middlest of the summer here, the height of the theater season, and I don't think anyone is doing Shakespeare quite like Firecat was. And despite all its oddity--everyone on stage, the actors not facing the audience, all the players smushed against one another and moving about as if a single organism--the actors totally had me in thrall to the story.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Midsummer Night's Dream: "Thou Art Translated"

If the Henry history plays were the most popular during Shakespeare's time, what does it meant that, in New York, Midsummer Night's Dream far outstrips the bard's other plays in sheer number of productions? Did the financial crash make us dash headlong into the Edenic Athenian woods because all mistakes are fixable and the benevolence of Puck and Oberon's white magic is the order of the day? Or is it the Shakespearean Sex in the City and have our appetites for sensuality and love become so universal that troupes are afraid of putting on anything else? Certainly, it's a great play. But with two more on the roster just for the month of June, it strikes me there has to be a reason for its contemporary popularity.

Mortal Folly Theatre's version directed by Katherine Harte-DeCoux was certainly my favorite of the two. Firecat's abridged production made some curious choices (like having the actors speak all their lines to the horizon and not to one another) but I'm afraid their body paint and jazz shoes seemed to be less tongue-in-cheek than earnest high-school pantomime, though I think David may disagree with this. Check out the cast shot

Mortal Folly's production ("What fools these mortals be" proclaims Puck) was wonderful in the forest. The actors really enjoyed playing, they had a great one-woman orchestra who seamlessly combined cello and kazoo, and they included an adorable child to represent Hippolyta's "stolen" Indian boy, who was entirely left out of the other versions we've seen. The "changeling boy's" presence added an innocent touch to the Rubenesque sensuality of the feathery, ferny, fleshy forest, showing how the theater can be just as bewitching for its actors as for its audience.

Friday, June 11, 2010

More on Fiasco

Two images stick with me from Twelfth Night last weekend.

One, when Sir Andrew Aguecheek, played by a wonderfully campy Haas Regen (Aside: why does good Shakespeare we've seen seem to have at least one campy part? ) decides he has had enough of Olivia's (Georgia Cohen) moaning after Cesario (Annie Purcell) and is quitting the boisterous castle where he and Sir Toby (Andy Grotelueschen) have been making merriment.

He comes on stage with a driver's scarf wrapped around his neck, and goggles perched on his head, and proceeds to take a table placed in the middle of the stage--this production's only real prop--turn it on its side and attach four bicycle wheels to each of the corners, as if he is preparing to drive off. Toby talks him out of it, by telling him,
She did show favour to the youth in your sight only
to exasperate you, to awake your dormouse valour, to
put fire in your heart and brimstone in your liver.

But the little detail of having Andrew overturn the table, and screw the wheels onto its sides shows the thought and care that went into this play

The second image that remains in my mind nearly a week after seeing the play occurred a few moments after. At one point I remember looking up from the action to the audience seated on risers around the stage. The AC had gone out by that point, it was a sweltering city summer night, and all of the fifty or so people had turned their playbills into makeshift hand fans. From where we sat, it looked like the whole audience was a-flutter, waving dozens of tiny wings, but all remained riveted to the play going on beneath them

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

"Greatness thrust upon them"

Fiasco Theater's Twelfth Night was the liveliest, most entertaining play we've seen yet. It was an unbearably sweltering night when we saw the production, and audience members were flapping away with fans and programs to provide a little relief, but it didn't detract a hair from the boisterous, funny, and at times touching performance. The actors knew how to use the full range of their vocal capacities, but didn't just yell their way through the lines. Haas Regen lustily caroused as Sir Andrew, Ben Steinfeld sang gorgeous surprising ditties, and Elizabeth King-Hall was devious and fetching as the serving maid Maria. I could go on. Each actor brought vitality and sheer joy to their parts--even Paul L. Coffey who got stuck with the role of the gullible and foolish Malvolio.

The program tell a story about this cast which reveals almost universal participation in the Brown/Trinity graduate acting program. Though it's unclear when they graduated, what it suggested to me was that the actors and directors (Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld) have spent a lot of time thinking about how to do contemporary theater well. Part of it involved, perhaps counter-intuitively, being relaxed. No difference was made between the stage and the theater and actors seamlessly transitioned from standing around during intermission and chatting with one another to performing the play's second act. They pulled off audience participation (we actually sang a round together!) without any of the usual reluctance that frequently occurs in such instances. And despite all the fun they seemed to be having, the gentle themes of the play--estranged siblings, unrequited love--were so delicately handled, waves of admiring awe rippled through the audience at the brief moments when there was a lull in the laughter.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Storm Theatere and Blackfriars Repertory Theatre's As You Like It

After a few months of doing this, I have come to realize that there are three kinds of Shakespearean productions in New York City. For lack of an official taxonomy, let's call them the Pros, the Competents, and the Amateurs.

The Pros are obvious. There is a thick line between them and the Competents. The Pros perform on or near Broadway (or at BAM). You can tell a Pro by the ticket price, and by the sets, and usually by the actors too, whose names are recognizable from the stage and screen.

The Amateurs are pretty obvious, but it usually takes until you actually get to the theater to realize that you are in fact in the presence of The Amateurs. The first tip that you are in for an Amateur is that the theater is mostly empty, and those few hardly souls who do make it out are clearly friends and family. An Amateur will often run for one weekend. The actors speedthroughtheirlineslikethisasiftheywereanxiousfortheplaytobeoverandthecastpartytobegin.
The cast bios in the playbill for an amateur typically say something like "Melissa (Juliet) is sooo excited to be in her first production with the Madcap Theatre Company!!!! She wants to thank her extra special muffin Tom for all his support!!!!"

The Competents, meanwhile, will never be mistaken for The Pros, but it would be foolish to lump them together with The Amateurs as well. The actor bios may be just as thin, but on stage, they seem to be actually enjoying themselves. The production is confident, and take risks, that may not always succeed, but at least are taken. These are the real gems of this endeavor seeing all of Shakespeare in a year, because they delight and surprise, as in, who knew there could be such great theater on 11th Avenue?

The Blackfriars' production of As You Like is a member of this last group. As You Like It is a slightly slight play about sibling rivalry and female friendship, but this production pulses with life. The minor characters--Le Beau, played with campy originality by Gregory Couba, and Touchstone, played Dinh Doan--move the production along. Jacques, a lord attending to Duke Senior, is played by Peter Dobbins with wonderfully morbid, languor. His, "All the world's a stage," speech is emitted with a sigh, as if its a play he cant wait to see over.

Perhaps Dobbins through has sat through a few plays by the Amateurs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sweet Revenge

Is there a way to resolve a dispute without revenge? Or does all resolution in Shakespeare have to conform strictly to either comedy or tragedy? Is the only way out of a vengeful finale to set the characters dancing sillily round a maypole?

In the Hudson Guild Theater's Hamlet and the Red Monkey Theater Group's Romeo and Juliet that we saw this weekend, the only way to solve a quarrel seems to be in death. Everyone is out for vengeance. Hamlet, Laertes, Romeo, Paris, Tybalt... and in the latter production, the choice of setting, the Wild West of the American 1870s, accentuates the bloodthirsty underpinnings of a play remembered mostly for being about love.

Yes, Shakespeare's plots might feel like rickety old scaffolding for marvelous language, but if Shakespeare is so adept at spanning the entirety of human emotions with his words, why are his stories so predictable?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Secret Shakespeare

The Secret Theatre is so-named because it sits on an unremarkable stretch of Long Island City, underneath the 7 train and far far removed from the Great White Way. Theatregoers sip on bottles of Yuengling at a tables set up by the entrance while a few hardy souls (from an in-rehearsal troupe practicing nearby, I surmise) grill on a barbecue.

The real delights though happen inside the stage. BOTH saw their production of The Tempest on closing night, and there was a palpable energy in the audience. The production feels like a piece of modern dance as much as it does a play. Ariel is played by not one not two not three but four young women, who speak in unison but move not, and who lend a spritely air to the production. the primary prop is a long purple rope which hangs from a pipe, and which the Ariels use to flip around in, much as a gymnast would.

If there is a false note here, it's Richard Mazda, who plays Prospero. He is angry Prospero rather than a wise one, and Mazda sped through his lines so quickly you would have thought he was anxious for this delightful little run to be over