Thou Shouldst Not Been Wise Till Thou Hadst Been Worldly

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Title: Julius Caesar

Rating: 4 Stars

My apologies for the pretentious title. That’s a paraphrase from King Lear. In King Lear, the great, respected and wise king decides that it’s a good idea to divide his kingdom amongst his three daughter upon the condition that they each verbally declare their love for him. This, in typical Shakespearean tragedy fashion, leads to pretty much everyone dying. Lear’s fool, in exasperation at the stubborn foolishness of the old king, pleads with him not to embark upon this destructive path by telling him, “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

Similarly, in this play you have Brutus. Brutus is recognized as one of the wisest leaders in Rome. The conspirators to assassinate Caesar need to have Brutus in their camp to lend it legitimacy.

First of all, they fool him by leaving anonymous notes for him to find that beseeches him to rise up against Caesar. Apparently random notes are enough to convince this wise man to a path of assassination.

Then, when planning the assassination, the conspirators decide that they should also murder Antony, since it’s known how loyal Antony is to Caesar. Brutus says no, it’s better to shed only a minimal amount of blood. It sends a better message to the Roman people that the conspirators are not bloodthirsty.

Antony is clearly grief stricken by Caesar’s death and asks to give the funeral oration. Cassius, the main conspirator, thinks it’s crazy to let Antony speak to the people over the body of Caesar. Brutus says no, it’ll look better because the conspirators will look magnanimous letting Antony speak and anyway, he (ie Brutus), a great orator himself, will speak first and will pacify the people. What could go wrong?

Of course, immediately Antony gives a speech that turns all of Rome against them. They have to flee and a civil war commences.

Finally, on the field of battle, Brutus’ forces are nicely arrayed in fine defensive position waiting for Antony’s / Octavius’ forces to attack. Cassius advises Brutus, since they are in such fine defensive position, to let the battle come to them. Brutus says no, we are at the pinnacle of our strength right now, so we should leave our fortifications and attack them at Phillipi.

Multiple suicides later, both Brutus and Cassius are dead and Antony and Octavius reign supreme.

Brutus is the classic example of someone with great wisdom, judgement, and respect but just absolutely horrible gut instincts.

Cassius, who is portrayed here more of a sneaky character, does not have Brutus’ gravitas but clearly knows how to get the best of a situation. Unfortunately, his respect for Brutus is so great that he always yields against his own judgment.

This actually reminds me of…Night of the Living Dead. Now, bear with me. For those of you who haven’t seen it, there’s a group of people trapped in a house as zombies are trying to break in and get to them. The two main sources of conflict are between Ben and Harry.  Ben is the conventional heroic type (a young black man in a very early effort at actually representing minorities non stereo-typically) and Harry, who’s kind of a sniveling coward.

Ben is all about trying to figure out to fight the zombies and get out of the situation. Harry just wants to go into the cellar, barricade it, and wait for the authorities. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if they all went down into the cellar and then spent the night playing pinochle or whatever, so Ben inspires them all to fight the zombies. Of course (yes, spoiler alert for a 50 year old movie), they all die except for Ben. Ben himself dies when he is shot by the authorities who mistake him for a zombie (and well, probably also because he’s black).

The point here is that, although Ben is a indisputably a brave and wise man, Harry was actually right. The zombies weren’t all that strong, the cellar door was solid, and the authorities were coming. If they’d just spent the night in the cellar they’d probably have been perfectly fine.

That connection was also probably triggered because in the play, Brutus was played in a wise, brave, heroic manner by a black actor and Cassius was played by a kind of middle management snivelly white actor. There’s probably a message here that leaders can’t be completely driven by some abstract concept of morality and sometimes have to do things that others might perceive as cowardly and weak. I could connect this even more to events in the 100 years war, but I’m going to stop now because it’s already getting too long.

I’m always a little suspicious of Shakespearean plays that place themselves in the current day, but here Julius Caesar really does seem weirdly relevant, which is bizarre for a 400 year old play. It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s genius and maybe to some common notes of humanity that stretch across centuries.

Here you have, in the background, 24 hour news channels continuously blasting events as they occur (including spot on imitations of how somber news channels get upon the death of a popular leader / celebrity). Here you also have leaders overtly manipulating the masses for their own political ends. Here you have the war hero Caesar, all ego and bluster, pretending not to want the crown while obviously secretly aching for it (every military dictator ever). Here you have the unthinking masses, all fired up in anger, literally tearing to pieces an innocent person in a case of bad timing and mistaken identity.

Also, I like the race / sex neutral casting of the play. Brutus is a black man. Antony is a black man. The Roman senators, Casca and Cinna, are a black woman and an Asian woman, respectively. They all were effective. I have no idea if there are Shakespearean canonical purists out there anywhere that raises a ruckus about this (considering the fact that there was a somewhat defensive note about it in the program, there must be), but if so, they need to get over it, or would you prefer that we go all the way back to the original and have prepubescent boys in drags for all of the female characters?

So, why not five stars? It’s not the players’ fault. The first three acts is where all of the interesting things occur, in my opinion. Acts IV and V have plenty of military action, but the moral questions have been answered, decisions have been made, and the final two acts is just the play heading towards its foregone conclusion. Everything after the intermission just seemed anticlimactic, even if well done.

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Miss Congeniality – Indian Song And Dance Style

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Title: Chitrangada

A person that I work with is appearing in a play being put on by The ACT Theatre. This is kind of a big deal. It’s a musical / dance play written by an Indian playwright way back in the 1890’s. I went primarily to support a friend / co-worker, but was curious to watch an Indian play.

It pretty much surpassed all of my expectations. It was engaging, entertaining, and somewhat surprisingly for a musical, a bit thought provoking.

Chitrandaga is an Indian princess. Her father, the ruler of Manipur, decided that, instead of bringing her up in feminine ways, that he will raise a great warrior. Therefore, she is brought up learning how to lead and to fight. She grows up to be a strong young woman that her subjects respect for her fighting ways.

One day in the forest, she meets Arjuna, a warrior monk. She instantly falls in love with him but he is on some kind of penance and has taken a vow of chastity. He declines her affections.

Thoroughly smitten, she does not give up. She prays to the god Madan to turn her into a beautiful woman. He does so and she once again ventures into the forest. She meets Arjuna, who this time promptly falls in love with the beautiful woman in front of him and they end up together.

Over time, Arjuna becomes discontented. He feels languid. He’s losing his warrior ways. He hears of a great battle fought of invaders attempting to raid Manipur. The warriors of Manipur fight off the invaders. Arjuna asks them who their leader is, and they describe this great female warrior.

Arjuna longs to meet such a strong woman. Chitrandaga, also wanting to be herself again, begs Madan to change her back. He does so and she meets Arjuna as herself.

As expected, Arjuna and Chitrandaga are still in love and they live happily ever after.

A couple of things.

First of all, I found the strong Indian female protagonist interesting. You hear about the gender imbalance in India as a result of sex selected abortions. You hear about the violent crimes against women that take place there. You hear of the old tradition of Sati, where a wife would throw herself upon the funeral pyre of her deceased husband.

Yet here is a strong story of a woman. Sure, there is the interlude where she thinks that the trick to getting a man is by being beautiful, but ultimately she realizes that the only way that love can last is by exposing her true nature. Without a doubt she is a strong leader and a fierce warrior to her people. She comes out of the play as a strong woman.

Although I do have to admit that I was a little amused at the idea of a strong woman feeling the need to fem it up to catch herself a man. I felt like I was watching possibly weird grand step-uncle or something like to Sandra Bullock’s Miss Congeniality.

Arjuna does not fare so well. He’s this great warrior monk doing penance, but hey, a beautiful woman comes along, and fuck that! He throws aside his warrior nature and whatever religious penance he was practicing and promptly takes up with her. Ultimately, he gets bored with the dull life of actually being with a woman and longs for his life again. He hears about Chitrandaga and promptly starts obsessing over her. When she does appear (and remember, she looks totally different than the woman that he supposedly instantly fell in love with), he falls in love again. Sure, it’s the same woman, but to him, it’s a completely different woman. Maybe at the end of the day, Arjuna is expressing men’s not so secret desire to be able to cheat on their loved one in a manner that is not cheating?

But…now that he’s with Chitrandaga, will he at some point start longing again for the beautiful woman that first stole his heart? Will Chitrandaga recognize that, and with heavy heart still have to make occasional supplications to the god Madan to change her back to that beautiful woman? Or will Arjuna end up bored with both women and will she have to assume yet a third (or more) identities? If you look close enough, the play starts developing Lynchian overtones.

I found the fight scenes quite amusing. There is nothing like trying to re-enact a battle in dance. This was the best fight action scene expressed in dance since Michael Jackson’s Beat It.

The play was well acted and well danced. Arjuna, with his bright eyes and happy countenance, makes for a perfectly feckless hero. The girl that played the child Chitrandaga was actually an amazing dancer.

My friend, who had multiple roles, danced outstandingly well. I had no idea of his talents.

What other secrets lurk in the hearts, minds, and bodies of my fellow co-workers?

 

Class Will Out

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Title: My Man Godfrey

Rating: 2 Stars

This play took place at Theater Schmeater, a small theater in Belltown. It sat maybe fifty people. With ticket prices less than $30, this was indeed a play running on a shoe string.

Given all of that, it was a valiant effort. My Man Godfrey is a classic 1930’s era screwball comedy. As far as I can tell, the plot of the play married up pretty exactly with the movie.

I think that this is actually the crux of the problem that I had with it. There were many, too many in my opinion, set changes. The actors would utter a few lines (and being a screwball comedy, would utter them very rapidly) and then the scene would end, lights would dim, people would scurry around, and then open up to a new scene. Being that this is a very low budget play, the actual scenery changes were minimal, but still, pretty distracting. I’d guess that there were at least 30 scene changes.

Fundamentally, this movie doesn’t translate well to play form.

In a way, this reminded me of watching Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra on stage at Ashland. Now, obviously, this play was designed for the stage. However, action in the play takes place in Alexandria, Rome, Syria, Actium, Parthia, Athens, and military camps throughout Egypt. This is just way too much stage management for a play. Even Ashland, which is one of the world’s best playhouses with a tremendous budget, couldn’t pull it off. It was by far my least favorite Ashland  play.

The second problem is the fact that the acting in the original movie is iconic. William Powell and Carole Lombard are at the top of their form. This is especially true of Lombard. This is her signature role. Her great strength was as a screwball comedian, and she absolutely rocks the part.

There was just no way that actors from a local theater could ever hold a candle to Powell and Lombard. They give it their gamest efforts, but they fell far short.

In the words of that great early twenty-first century philosopher, Omar Little: “You come at the king, you best not miss”.

Outside of the performance, I found the actual plot / characters of My Man Godfrey to be fascinating.

As I’ve said, the movie was released during the Great Depression. It’s the story of a very wealthy Bullock family hiring a homeless man as a butler.

The Bullock family patriarch (Alexander) is a weak, passive nonentity. The matriarch (Angelica) is an empty-headed ditz. One daughter (Cornelia) is a spoiled, bitchy princess. The other daughter (Irene) is the most likable and is good-hearted, but still is vacuous, frivolous and pretty much completely self-involved.

Godfrey comes into a madcap house, and in his serious way, manages to not only cope with the hi jinks but begins to bring order to the house. In fact, through his actions, he directly saves the family from disaster and their own homelessness by recovering the business investments that Alexander had apparently let passively collapse.

Irene falls in love with him and basically shotguns him into marrying her.

Isn’t this a great message? A family gone soft and flabby with its wealth, about to collapse under their own incompetence and frivolousness, is saved by a common man on the street? Isn’t that a great message about how we’re all people and that people of merit will, through hard work and a bit of luck, rise to the top.

Oh wait. It turns out that Godfrey isn’t just another ‘forgotten’ man. He’s actually the scion of a rich Boston family who has fallen because he has suffered heartbreak. In fact, the other ‘forgotten’ men that he talks to are all formerly successful men who have just fallen on temporary hard luck.

The message here is that it’s actually OK for Irene to fall in love with Godfrey and for Godfrey to be such a masterful savior for the family precisely because he’s not of the common sort. He’s one of their own class who is just hiding for the moment. He is the prince turned into a frog that is just waiting for the kiss of a princess.

This really triggered something in me because I’m in the process of reading White Trash, which is a history of class in America. The author makes a compelling argument that class has quite literally existed since the very first days of America settlement. Whether it’s the waste people of the 17th century, the clay eaters of the 18th century, the mudsills of the 19th century, or the trailer trash of the 20th, there has always been a group that is looked down upon, despised, and given no hope for advancement.

So, here we are, in the midst of the Great Depression, the great leveler of the 20th century, and even here, we have to make sure that the ‘forgotten’ people that show up on the screen have the proper pedigree.

Class will out.

From Saigon to Fort Chafee

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Title: Vietgone

Rating: 5 Stars

When I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival this year, this was one of the plays that I wanted to see. For the past several years, they’ve sponsored a new play about a different part of the American experience. Vietgone was this year’s play. Unfortunately, it was sold out, so I didn’t get to see it in Ashland.

I saw that it was playing at Seattle Rep, including most of the players from the Ashland play. I went on-line, searched all dates, and got literally the last ticket available. So, yes, I went to a matinee on a fucking Wednesday to see it.

And yes, it was totally worth it.

To boil it down to essentials, it’s a love story between two recent Vietnamese immigrants to America after the fall of Saigon. That’s a gross oversimplification. It’s a story of loss. It’s a story of resilience. It’s a story of family. It’s a story of adjusting to a new life.

The young man is Quang. He is a helicopter pilot in the South Vietnamese army. He has a wife and two children. His plan is, if the North Vietnamese invade, is to fly his helicopter, rescue his wife and children, and fly them to safety. However, the invasion happens too quickly. He has to fly his helicopter to save other women and children first. He never gets to rescue his family. He has to leave them behind.

The young woman is Tong. She is a tough, independent woman who refuses to conform to Vietnamese stereotypes of women. At her job, she manages to get two passes to escape Saigon. She tries to convince her brother to go with him, but he refuses to leave his love. Instead she takes her mother, who is a very traditional woman.

All need to come to terms with the fact that effectively their family is dead to them or they are dead to their family. That’s the price that they need to pay for escaping Vietnam and starting a new life in America.

The presentation was creative. When acting as Asian characters, they spoke perfectly flawless, unaccented English (which was them speaking Vietnamese). The American characters spoke horribly broken, occasionally nonsensical English (which was them attempting to speak Vietnamese). The Asian characters would speak broken English when it was clear that they were attempting to speak English. I’m not sure if what I just wrote made sense or not, but it had the result of integrating the audience into the difficulty of assimilating into a new culture and language.

There lines were spoken in a street vernacular. So, instead of some stilted or formal sounding English, there was lots of shits and motherfuckers. Again, the intent was to make it real that these were real people living real lives. There’s a universality in their struggle and in their love that transcends nation of origin or culture.

I must have skipped over the part where it said that it was part musical (my bad). I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but in this case it was effective. Instead of conventional singing, the songs were hip hop rap, in which the actors could freely express their rage, pain, and frustration in a format recognizable for characters within their age group. Somehow, this made the singing seem more real to me, as opposed to the more conventional musicals in which the songs seem to be more disruptive then integrative.

The unaccented English and the hip hop was probably also a statement by the playwright regarding his own background. Assuming there’s some germ of personal truth (one of the characters in the play acts as the playwright), he is a first generation Vietnamese. So, the perfect English and the hip hop is the language that he knows. The play, and he himself is a synthesis of Vietnam and America.

This comes to a head at the end when he’s interviewing his father (Quang and Tong are his parents). He casually says that the war in Vietnam was a mistake and his father erupts in anger. All that he is today (and by reference, so many others like him) is a direct result of American intervention. He is grateful for the opportunity that the American ‘mistake’ gave him.

The playwright and his father make up by hugging and singing a Waylon Jennings song together.

I found this play to be a poetic, amusing, and moving experience.

 

 

Watching Macbeth In The House That Shakespeare Built

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Title: Macbeth

Rating: 5 Stars

I watched Macbeth today at Shakespeare’s Globe. Now, I know that that isn’t really the same play house that Shakespeare performed in. It burned down 400 years ago. This incarnation was completed in 1997 about 750 feet away from the original and it was built using modern construction techniques, so the probability of it burning down is substantially reduced. However, the architects / designers did make a special effort to make the reconstruction as historically accurate as possible to replicate the feeling of going to an Elizabethan play. So, yeah, my title is not exactly accurate. So sue me.

Late last year, I was in London and went on a tour of the Globe. It was a wonderful experience and lit in me a desire to see a play there. Six months ago or so, I just happened to do a random check of the Globe web site and I saw that they were doing Macbeth as part of their summer schedule. On an impulse, I bought a ticket, with no idea of whether I would actually be able to attend the play or not. Well, things worked out and here I am!

First things first, the play was pretty awesome. Even though the character’s attire was relatively modern and there was some updating of dialog (I don’t think that even Shakespeare was a brilliant enough tragedian/comedian to include a Trump reference). I didn’t see anything happen on the stage that couldn’t have been staged in Elizabethan time, which preserved the basic essence of the event for me.

I was also struck by the fact that the actor playing Macbeth was black while the actor playing Lady Macbeth was female. Not shocking now but clearly a very real demonstration of progress that has taken place. I wonder if, like there are for the superhero comic books, there are Shakespeare equivalent geek fanboys, that get all upset to see a female playing on the stage, shrilling that the Globe is straying from the Shakespeare canon? And, ultimately, will the complaining purist comic book fanboys ultimately look as ridiculous as such theoretical Shakespearean fanboys?

At the Globe, you can buy seated tickets or you can stand in the pit (playgoers in the pit are called groundlings). In Shakespeare’s time, groundlings were the common riffraff while the seated were the people that could afford to splurge. I was tempted to do the groundling route (tickets are much cheaper and it does seem a more authentic experience), but the idea of standing around in three hours, regardless of the weather, deterred me and I went the Elizabethan one percenter route and bought a ticket. I’m glad I did. The weather, for the first time since I’ve been here, was cold and wet. Also, my seat gave me a wonderful view of the proceedings.

The groundlings were interesting. I think that their tickets were something like five pounds. It skewed, for probably obvious reasons, to a younger crowd. They did not seem at all deterred by the rain, wind, and cold. The Globe sells rain gear that many were wearing. Several others were willing to just get wet. It seems like a great tradition and a fantastic way to introduce young people to the theater experience.

I don’t how it was in Shakespeare’s day, but many aspects of the performance were devoted to the groundlings. After the intermission, there was a call and response between an actor and the groundlings. This was a great way to get the crowd back plugged into the rest of the play. Several times, individual groundlings were asked questions by an actor on stage. Actors, at times, mingled with the groundlings during the performance. The groundlings at one point were used as the army getting ready to attack Dunsinane.

The weather played to the play’s advantage. The cold, the gusts of wind, the occasional bursts of rain added to the dark, mysterious qualities of Macbeth. Although more comfortable, performing Macbeth on a bright sunny day might have actually been detracting.

One thing that I find interesting, now that I’ve seen many Shakespeare plays and I’m now starting to repeat, is how different actors / staging leads to almost different plays, even though the same words are being spoken.

This Macbeth was a fine example. The character playing Macbeth plays him with much less indecision than I’ve seen previously. He’s a strong man ready to take action. After the weird sisters’ prophecy, he almost immediately, with great confidence, begins to picture himself as being regal. He still has a momentary doubt, which Lady Macbeth successfully dispels, but after that, he’s always moving forward and confidently.

The relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, as played here, is predominantly a romantic one. They are clearly in love with each other and support each other as needed. At the end of Act III, after the disastrous dinner where the ghostly Banquo (expertly done) appears, there is the final scene of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth appearing together, when they understand that the path that they have taken together is doomed, you can see their shared grief. It’s a heartbreaking scene.

Duncan, the King of Scotland, who’s usually played as a gentle yet wise king, is played here almost as if he’s a lightweight nonentity. Similarly, Malcolm, his heir apparent, until the final act shows nothing of leadership. You can imagine how such a strong person like Macbeth could have been chaffing under such weak leadership, and given a little push by fate, leaps at the opportunity to reach for the glory that possibly deservedly should be his.

The decision, six months ago, when I semi-randomly decided to buy a ticket for a play in London with absolutely no idea of how I was going to work it, has turned out to be a truly personal highlight. It’s a great memory and I’ll always be glad that I did it.

A Messed Up Play Masterfully Performed

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Title: The Winter’s Tale

Rating: 4 Stars

I’d written about how completely amazing Hamlet and Twelfth Night were this year. This was kind of to be expected, although I was still shocked at how great they were.

I was interested to see how they were going to handle the third play in my itinerary, The Winter’s Tale. I’d written about this play some weeks back (click here to view).  It’s a weird one. The first three acts is a straight on Othello-like fit of mad jealousy as a king (Leontes) hounds his wife (Hermione) to her death. The last two acts is a pastoral comedy in which everything gets wrapped up nicely and everyone goes off singing and dancing.  Well, except for the boy prince that dies of grief/shame because of his father’s (the king) treatment of his mother (the queen) and the guy that gets eaten by the bear.

How were they going to deal with this hot mess? I was a little suspicious because last year I watched Antony and Cleopatra at OSF. This is also a messy play because, first of all, there are just so many scene changes taking place across multiple continents that it’s hard to feel continuity, and secondly, you have to buy into the tragic deaths of Antony and Cleopatra, who spend most of the play carousing and making foolish choices. Honestly, of all the plays that I’ve seen at Ashland, Antony and Cleopatra was the weakest. It was well executed, but I did not leave transported.

For The Winter’s Tale, the OSF did quite well. They can’t resolve all of the issues with the play, so it doesn’t get the highest possible rating, but I think that they did the absolute best job that they could, given the play itself.

Since I’ve already talked about the play, I really don’t want to revisit the plot.  Therefore, I’m just going to discuss the impressions that I got from the play as performed.

The main change that they made was to the setting. The kingdom of Sicilia was located in the Far East while the kingdom of Bohemia was located in the American West. This gave some additional context to the rigid hierarchical setting of Sicilia (the first three acts) vs the more relaxed setting of Bohemia (the fourth act).

As I mentioned in the earlier post, this play is about the madness of kings and the danger of such madness in a time when they yield unlimited power. There is no one to stop Leontes, the King of Sicilia, from his rash actions. When he orders his newborn daughter killed and his wife condemned despite all evidence of her innocence, there really is no one that can judge him or reason with him. Similarly, when Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, discovers that his son (Florizel) is carrying on with what appears to be a lowly shepherdess, he similarly loses his shit and pretty much starts ordering random people to be executed. Once again, there is no one that can overrule him.

Hermione’s faithful friend, Paulina was a powerful role. She serves as a Fury raging against Leontes. She is the only character, even while acknowledging his absolute power, that is resolute in standing up to him and condemning him. She is fearless in standing up to him and is ruthlessly harsh in judging him as he understands his folly. For the next sixteen years, in his mourning, she is constantly by his side reminding him of his errors. I missed the power of her character in my reading of the play. This was excellently performed.

Florizel really is kind of a dick. He is pretending to be a simple shepherd’s boy to woo Perdita. Sure, he’s legitimately in love with Perdita, but you have to figure that the wooing has been taking place over a period of time and he doesn’t think once to tell his true love, um yeah, I’m actually the crown prince? When Polixenes discovers that Florizel is pursing forbidden love, he not unnaturally comes to the decision that the shepherd family must be trying to entrap his son, so orders Perdita’s adopted brother and father executed.  Florizel runs off with Perdita, but pretty much leaves her family to the wolves.  Dick move, dude.

Speaking of which, between act three and act four, sixteen years have passed, so they have to do something to the characters that span those acts to show that they’ve aged. Amusingly enough, for Perdita’s adopted father, the shepherd, they apparently made the decision to kind of make him look like the Dennis Hopper character from Waterworld. Bold choice!

This play is most famous for the absurd stage direction, Exit pursed by bear. How do you do this? Do you bring a trained bear on tranquilizers on stage and drag him around? Do you put a man in a bear suit? Keep in mind that quite literally a man, a real character with real lines that just gave an affecting speech to the abandoned new born Perdita and is the husband to Paulina, is going to be eaten by this bear, so it really doesn’t seem right to make a joke out of it.

In this case, they made the bear in the form of a Chinese dragon. This is actually a wise choice. It serves the purpose without being ridiculous. You can also make the argument that this in service to the fact that part of the play is taking place in the Far East. Alas, the scene actually takes place in Bohemia, which is actually the American West in this play, so it doesn’t completely hold water, but it served the purpose well.

Finally, WTF is going on with Hermione’s statue? As a recap, sixteen years later, after the two kings are buddy chums again and Perdita has been recognized as the daughter of Leontes, and therefore Florizel and Perdita can be married without worrying about any of that pesky shepherd blood getting mixed in, there is one more reveal.

Paulina wheels out a status that is the absolute likeness of Hermione (even aged sixteen years). All present ooh and ahh over it and can’t get over how lifelike it is. Paulina orders it to come to life, and lo, and behold, it does. It embraces Perdita as her daughter and Leontes as her husband. Everyone lives happily ever after (again, except for the boy prince and the dude that got eaten by the bear).

So, what just happened? Has Paulina been hiding away the queen for sixteen years just waiting for the moment where it would be really cool to show her off to the king? Or was it really a statue that Paulina, using some magic powers, somehow brought to life? And if so, how did Hermione not end up slightly fucked up like that that dude’s wife from Stephen King’s Pet Sematary?

Obviously, hiding of the queen is the more likely answer, but I have to say, Paulina did a pretty convincing David Copperfield (magician, not Dicken’s urchin) act in the unveil. She definitely sold it as a statue coming to life. If she was really doing a mind fuck, then for what purpose? Granted, Leontes is now a Buddha of restraint now, but if I was a king and knew that someone was hiding the queen from me for sixteen years, I might have felt the need to go Tarantino on her.

Bottom line, this is still a weird play. However, the OSF did a masterful job presenting it.

That was the theme of this year’s trip to Ashland. I had concerns with all three plays: Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and The Winter’s Tale. In each case, my concerns were evaporated and each play was truly an amazing transcendent performance, never to be forgotten.

And this is why I go, year after year.

 

Shakespeare Screwball Style

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Title: Twelfth Night

Rating: 5 Stars

This is why I love going to the OSF. I see two plays in 24 hours, and they are two of the best plays that I’ve ever seen. Beyond that, they are about as completely different as can be.

As with Hamlet last night, I had the same set of trepidations. I’d previously seen Twelfth Night at the OSF and it was magnificent. Also, this was located on the set of a 1930’s screwball comedy. It seemed like a director conceit of the highest order.

However, as with Hamlet last night, it completely worked. It truly is amazing how malleable the work of Shakespeare is, that text from 400 years ago can be re-purposed and yet still retain the magic. It’s also a testimony to the talent and the genius of the OSF company that they can pull it off. I’m sure that it probably would have been silly in other less capable hands.

The stars of the play were, without question, Maria, Toby Belch, Andrew Aguecheek, and Festes. The antics / interplay of the first three in particular left me literally wiping away tears of laughter. Their antics when Malvolio was reading the alleged love note from Olivia and the duel between  the equally incompetent and cowardly Aguecheek and Viola were just perfect examples of screwball comedy that it makes  you wonder why this play isn’t always played this way.

Of special note is the character who played Aguecheek. He was played by Danforth Comins. As played, he’s the epitome of the drunk, fopish, silly, knight-errant. If you were to watch it, you’d think that he’s a comedic genius playing the role that he was born to play. And then you realize that just the night before, not even 24 hours previously, he was playing fucking Hamlet. Yes, Hamlet. Two completely different characters and he completely inhabited both. To say the least, I am gobsmacked at his brilliance and range.

Viola was also strong. Previously, I’d seen a male actor play Sebastian and a female actor played Viola. In this case, the same actor played both. She was certainly a feminine looking / acting man. However, since gender identity is obviously a huge aspect of the play, this was not inappropriate.  In fact, she kind of reminded me of an 18 YO Justin Bieber, so maybe the times have caught up with Shakespeare on this score.

Malvolio was also a highlight. The actor played the role of the arrogant, egotistical, self-important servant to the hilt. The scene where he reads Olivia’s supposed love note, which imposes upon him the desire to smile, was a treasure. Clearly, he has not smiled for many years. The contortions that he goes to, finally ending up with the pasted on smile of a Las Vegas dancer, was a perfect way to bring the audience to the intermission on a high note.

The later, pretty much torture of Malvolio is the main sour note. No matter how priggish his behavior was, he does not deserve this, and the awkward reaction of Maria to this is an acknowledgment of the difficulty that this scene brings to 21st century audiences.

Another advantage of the 1930’s style was that it made the songs seem more natural. One of the things that I think that have had trouble translating to current times is the slightly odd tuneless Elizabethan songs interspersed in his plays. Since the setting was a 1930’s movie, impromptu song and dance seems to just fit in more than other conventional stagings. In fact, the last song was a full song and dance with taps and umbrellas utilizing most of the cast. It leads me to wonder, several of the actors did tap dance; how much of a call can there be for that skill nowadays?

At the end of the play, there is the great reveal where Sebastian and Viola are discovered to be twins that have lost each other. Since, in this case, the actor is really the same person, I was interested in how they would pull this off. They did so through the introduction of a film screen, which truly wasn’t that effective. It was clever, but probably too clever. There’s a reason that there is usually two actors for these roles.

Finally, usually the play ends with the four (Olivia, Orsini, Sebastian, and Viola) main characters paired off as two couples. However, this time, there were only three actors. Therefore, the play ended up with the three of them walking off hand in hand. Again, I’m guessing that this is a statement about the fallacy of binary gender identity.

So far at Ashland, I am 2 for 2. The two plays that I’ve seen thus far have been the best plays that I’ve ever seen. It just amazes me that this little town in basically nowhere Oregon can produce such world class plays.

Tomorrow will, however, be a challenge. Tomorrow is The Winter’s Tale, which is a pretty bizarre play. It’ll be really interesting if they can pull off some magic on this play as well.

Heavy Metal Shakespeare Rocks

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Title: Hamlet

Rating: 5 Stars

I saw Hamlet at the OSF five years ago, I think. It was one of the best plays that I’ve seen in my life. I approached the play this year with trepidation. After such a good experience last time, how could it ever meet expectations? No matter how good, won’t I be disappointed?

I then read the playbill and I became even more concerned. In the balcony was several guitars and a drum set. I read that the director had heard some local heavy metal musician and was going to incorporate that into the play. Sure enough, when the play started, a full bearded man with a heavy set of tattoos, looking like a roadie from Metallica, took his place in the balcony. How could this possibly work?

The fact is that it worked magnificently. This version of Hamlet could even be better than the last version. I’m not sure how the OSF can so consistently put on world class plays, but they certainly did so again.

The mood is this version is very dark, so the foreboding growls from the electric guitar helped set the mood. When during particularly dramatic moments, as Hamlet was being chased around the stage, the beating of the drums increased the level of excitement. Ophelia’s singing, while mad, is always such an odd scene to interpret. Set to a heavy music score, heavily miked up, it set the exact right mood for her madness.

The costumes were striking. This was on the Elizabethan stage, so most of the characters were so adorned. They were all set in shades of grey, except for Hamlet, who was basically wearing some kind of white undershirt and black leather pants. That decision made Hamlet seem even more of an outcast (of a heavy-metal flavor) in comparison to the rest of the court.

This Hamlet was a much tougher Hamlets than I’ve seen in the past. With his muscular physique and short cropped hair, he reminded me of a young Henry Rollins. There was none of the nearly fey, weak, indecisiveness of an Olivier, or even the theatricality of a Branagh. He was a young, strong, man out to avenge his father, come what may. I started out wondering if this was the right choice for a Hamlet but by the end I was completely convinced.

I do find it interesting that OSF does celebrate its actors’ diversity with non-traditional role choices. Horatio was played by a black woman and was stellar. She played the role of Hamlet’s rock solid friend perfectly. She was one of the highlights of the play.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father was quite strong. This was a weakness of the previous version that I saw. Here, it was a straight up fearsome ghost. In fact, there were several actors made up as the ghost, which produced the illusion of appearing multiple places simultaneously, to great effect. The swearing on the sword scene was especially harrowing.

Interesting, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were basically played as clowns. Even their attire made them appear clown-like. This was probably an unfortunate choice because this made them appear even weaker foes to Hamlet, which makes his decision to send them unknowingly to their death even more questionable.

Polonius started off a little shaky, but recovered later to become the silly, useless, irksome counselor that he really is. He also projected true paternal anger and possessiveness to Ophelia, which was effective in explaining Ophelia’s motivation in turning away from Hamlet.

The Claudius from the last time was stronger than here. Claudius picked up his game later in the play, but especially in the beginning, he projected weakness. The Claudius from the previous version seemed to have the hunger / appetite to achieve greatness, so it seemed more likely that he would murder his brother. This Claudius didn’t really seem as if he had the stones to do so.

The other main weakness was the gravedigger. This was played by the aforementioned heavy metal musician, in clearly a case of stunt casting. This would not normally be a big deal, but the gravedigger is, as one of the very few in the play to get the better of Hamlet, an important character. The musician was not bad, it’s just that he’s clearly not a trained Shakespearean actor, and it showed.

All in all, these were minor complaints. This was a masterful, creative production. I’m now going to have to think back one the previous version and see if I can really pick out a winner.

 

Something Wonderful in the State of Denmark

Next week I’m going back to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’ve gone several times. This year I’m somewhat unreasonably excited to go. It’s kind of been all Shakespeare all the time around my place the last couple of weeks.

This year they’re playing Hamlet. I saw it at the OSF several years ago and was so excited that I wrote a hyper over-thought entry on a blog that I had back then.

Here it is again, resurrected from many years ago, since that blog is long since dead and gone:

Over the summer, I went and saw Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespearean Festival.  This was directed by Bill Rauch, the artistic director of the OSF, starring Dan Donohue as Hamlet.  I’ve read Hamlet many times and have seen it performed.  This is the version that completely blew me away.

The play starts off with a combination funeral and wedding celebration.  As the merry-makers toast the newly married Claudius and Gertrude, Hamlet sits off disconsolately in the background.

At first, it’s somewhat off putting, admittedly for visual reasons.  Donohue is a relatively young man with red hair.  With his style of dress and slouch, I started off thinking that he was channeling David Caruso.  Erica, who attended with me, was somewhat amused initially because she was reminded of Conan O’Brien, which left an even harsher discordant note than David Caruso.  Coco playing Hamlet??

However, after getting used to him physically, Donohue drew us in.  He seemed to play Hamlet much as Harold Bloom described him in The Invention of the Human.  Bloom had the provocative idea that Shakespeare literally changed humanity through his plays.  It’s the classic discussion of how much does art reflect life versus define life.

His main thesis (at least as I understand it) was that before Shakespeare, the idea of the introspective human capable of changing his behavior as a result of this introspection did not exist.  It certainly doesn’t exist in previous literature.  With characters such as Iago, Falstaff, and yes, Hamlet, Shakespeare invented a new kind of character.  All of these characters could look within, understand themselves, understand their motivations, and in turn based upon that understanding change their path.  It’s a level of self awareness previously unknown.  From these characters, humanity began to do likewise.

Like I said, a provocative idea.  I’m not sure if I buy it, but I have to confess that I have a weakness for big theories, even if not true, because they in turn provoke much thought for myself.

Be that as it may, Donohue plays him in this way.  Clearly, his Hamlet is the smartest person in any scene (with the possible exception of the gravedigger, who, much to Hamlet’s amusement, clearly gets the best of him; how interesting is it that Shakespeare chose, among all of the Kings, Queens, and courtiers in the play, the lowly gravedigger to give Hamlet his comeuppance).  He toys with Claudius and ties him up in knots, he reads through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in about five minutes, proceeds to make fools of them both, and ultimately sends them to their death without a second thought.

It is not so much that Hamlet is indecisive (as Olivier pretty clearly plays him) as much as he is reacting and adjusting to an increasingly fluid situation.

An interesting quirk that Donohue employed was his voice.  As the play progresses, he makes increasing use of his vocal range.  As he speaks to various characters, his voice rises and then falls, in what can only be described as a series of vocal quirks.

Again, at first it was off-putting and seemed artificial, if not actually somewhat cloying.  As time went on, I came up with a theory that is probably half insane and completely off the mark, but it works for me.

To me, it appeared that he was making a reference to the Heath Ledger Joker character. Stick with me here, please.  I know that it’s weird.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was possibly one of the best acting performances that I’ve ever seen.  Think about it.  The Dark Knight starred Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, and Aaron Eckhart.  None of them are exactly slouches, but when I watched it the first time, sitting pretty much the entire time on the edge of my seat, I was just counting the seconds until Ledger appeared again.  Jack Nicholson’s, again not exactly talentless, Joker looked like a complete hack in comparison.

Again, to put a Bloom perspective on it, Ledger’s Joker is at least equal and possibly surpassing Iago.  He is clearly many steps ahead of everyone else in the movie.  He is always the smartest person in the room.  Many plans are laid, he foils all of them, almost effortlessly.

At times, Ledger clearly projects the absolute exhaustion that the Joker feels in his futile quest to find meaning in his life (most expressive line from the movie:  “Do I really look like a guy with a plan?”).  It’s a tragedy that Ledger died, but you have to admit, there are worse ways to die than at the absolute top of your game.

Saying all of that, just like the Joker (yes, I know, I’m making the comparison in the wrong direction, so sue me), Hamlet is a destroyer of plans.  He destroys Claudius’ plans to have a happy life with Gertrude; he upends Guildenstern’s and Rosencrantz’s plan to have him killed by the King of England and instead they wind up dead instead;  Polonius plans he casts aside almost without a thought.  He ruins (partially, at least) Laertes plans to kill him with a poisoned rapier and Laertes dies as a result.  All of Denmark appears to be scheming against him, and almost effortlessly, he ruins all of their plans.

Hamlet is the The Joker and The Joker is Hamlet.  Q.E.D.

So, any play that has me making these weird connections is, at least in my mind, by definition a wonderful play.  The actor playing Claudius did an outstanding job.  Of the Hamlet’s that I’ve seen, only this production gives Claudius the strength and vitality that such a character must have had.  The actor playing Polonius did a wonderful job portraying him as the useless, old, barely tolerated counselor that in my opinion accurately reflects the character as written. I was shaky on Ophelia at first, but ultimately her close yet conflicting relationships with Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet are very well portrayed.

There were some disappointments.  Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were basically nonentities that did not bring much to their respective characters.  In a similar manner, Gertrude did not leave much impression.  The conceit of having Hamlet’s father played by a deaf actor employing sign language was to me distracting.  The hip-hop performers were a poor substitute for the players, and also Hamlet trying to dance hip hop was the single discordant note in Donohue’s performance.

All in all, though, this was the finest play that I’ve ever seen.  In fact, I was left with a little Hamlet obsession.  I re-read Bloom’s treatment of Hamlet, re-read the play again (I think now for the fifth or sixth time), and I watched not one but two movie versions.

I was somewhat surprised by the Olivier version.  There is a line from Hamlet itself mocking actors who wave their arms around and overact.  This appears to be what Olivier himself does.  Also, the subtle incest moments present in the play between Hamlet and Gertrude seems artificial to an almost jarring degree.  Finally, he plays him (and explicitly says this in his own written prologue to the movie) as being indecisive, which in my mind does not do justice to the complexity to the character of Hamlet.

I also watched (only part of it, admittedly) Kevin Kline’s version as well.  I have to admit that in the first thirty minutes or so seeing Hamlet shed tears three or four times seemed at best maudlin. I have watched some years back but now plan on watching again Kenneth Branagh’s version.

I have not quite gotten so desperate as to watch Mel Gibson’s version.  We’ll see if this fever breaks before then.

Gidget Meet Sybill

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Title: Psycho Beach Party

Rating: 4 Stars

This was held at the Eclectic Theater. It’s a nondescript little theater lacking a marquee. It wasn’t obvious where it was until I walked in front of it. It’s a small theater, probably seating less than a hundred.

It was a wonderful play. You need go into it aware that you won’t be receiving deep existential knowledge of the human condition. If you want to see a high-camp, screw-ball comedy, this is the perfect vehicle.

Chicklet is a surfer girl wanna-be. She’s young, on the cusp of growing up. She’s interested in boys but does not really know what to do with them. She wants to surf but the surfer dudes have no interest in teaching a girl how to surf. She most enjoys hanging out with her gawky best friend to discuss literature and philosophy.

However, all is not well at home for Chicklet. Her mom is a devotee of the Joan Crawford school of maternity, complete with coat hanger. That, along with some childhood repressed memories, has made Chicklet manifest many personalities, including a sultry one that has sexually enslaved the head surfer dude.

Throw in a movie star, sick of making cinematic schlock, on the run.

Throw in a couple of surfer dudes gradually coming to the realization of their love for each other.

Throw in a seemingly dopey surfer dude who wants to escape the drudgery of studying to be a psychiatrist so that he can ride the waves but ends up saving the day by helping Chicklet.

Throw in a sex-obsessed surfer girl trying to land herself a surfer dude.

Throw in the fact that this is a LGBTQ theater, so there are several roles performed in drag.

Mix that all together and you have a madcap frenzy of chaos. Some jokes work. Some don’t. There’s occasional lags in the action. There’s a false ending (seemingly inadvertent).

However, all in all, there were more than enough laughs and silliness to make this a very entertaining night.