A Messed Up Play Masterfully Performed

masthead-winters-tale-746x420

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.

 

Advertisements

Shakespeare Screwball Style

masthead-twelfth-night-746x420

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

masthead-hamlet-746x420

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

cropped-13174102_10150731411599956_3917205227458965801_n

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.

Your Toaster is Plotting Against You

things-still

Title: The Things are Against Us

Rating: 3 Stars

Resistentialism is a theory that inanimate objects can manifest spiteful behavior. One of the characters actually refers to this theory in a study where toast with jam is more like to land jam side down if the carpet is more expensive. The slogan of this theory is “The things are against us”. That might provide a clue to what’s going on in here.

It is just a clue, because otherwise, it’s pretty much a mind fuck.

If you unpeel enough of the layers, there are two sisters who have inherited a house. One is sexually repressed while the other has just been dumped by the love of her life, so they’re both not in a wonderfully happy place.

They communicate exclusively via email and letters (think Les Liaisons Dangereuses). Things start heading seriously South on them when the e-mail starts getting bounced and the letters are returned to sender (possibly more resistentialism?). This causes them to worry about each other and drives the play to its climax.

That’s the basic plot.

Oh yeah, horrible things have happened at the house and it’s probably haunted.

Oh yeah, the house has a fairly substantial talking role, engaging in sophisticated conversations with one of the sisters and occasionally lapsing in German.

Oh yeah, there’s also a Lebanese character who feels compelled to wear his evil grandfather’s clothes and is now living in New York and has just made friends with one of the sisters.

Oh yeah, the poet Federico Garcia Lorca is in the play. Yes, the poet that died in 1936. Did I mention that the play takes place in the current day?  Maybe Lorca had an affair with the grandfather of the Lebanese character?

So, yeah, a mind fuck.

It was tough sledding. I was entertained, although I’m still not sure what I just watched.

Shakespeare is a Drag

13012707_10153731424906339_4769278703799586403_n

Title: ShakesQueer

Rating: 5 Stars

The central branch of the Seattle Public Library is currently showing a surviving copy of a Shakespeare First Folio. As an adjunct to the exhibition, they are putting on other Shakespearean related events.

One is called ShakesQueer. It’s advertised as an interpretation of Shakespeare by major figures in the Seattle drag scene. This clearly is something that I had to see.

This wasn’t just a completely random event by the gay community to hitch a ride on a larger cultural event. After all, it was illegal for women to appear on stage during Elizabethan times. All of Shakespeare’s female characters were necessarily played by young boys dressed in drag. Beyond that (or maybe because of that) several Shakespearean plays have gender identity confusion as major plot points (eg Two Gentlemen of Verona, Twelfth Night, As You Like It). It’s not much of a stretch that a drag perspective of his work could have important things to say.

However, hilariously enough, despite this theoretically rich terrain to explore, this was not really done. This was used as an excuse for drag performers to do their act, with the merest of references back to Shakespeare. Having said that, the performances were really quite good and entertaining.

The major plays referenced:

Twelfth Night: The performer acted out the major plot of the play, while boisterously dancing around. She lip synced spoken dialog that was coming out of a recording. Several performers did this. I don’t know if this is a usual feature of drag performance or was special to this event.

Macbeth: The performance was a homage to the three witches. This was amusing because the recording had started and was playing for a while before the performer came out. Everyone was looking around like they were expecting her to come down from the ceiling or something. It was a seductive, mysterious dance.

Winter’s Tale: This was a take on the famous stage direction, “Exit, pursued by a bear”. The assistant, in several guises (eg Smokey the Bear) would chase the performer around the stage. It was hilarious.

Tempest: This was a homage to Caliban. This was a pretty disturbing performer.  She was in fright makeup and barely had any clothing on, and what clothing was very loose fitting (things were bouncing around always on the verge of escaping). It was a an eerie performance where she spent most of the time on her hands and knees crawling around, thrusting her tongue in and out.

Hamlet: The performer (in male drag) started off by reading the Alas, Poor Yorick speech. He abruptly stopped and began to do a striptease. Again, he was dressed in male clothing. He seductively took off his shirt, his pants, his briefs, and ended up wearing nothing but a jock and two flesh colored pasties. Doing a striptease as a man in a drag show was clearly an interesting, political statement.

The most extreme performance did not have any clear Shakespearean connection (at least to me). She was dressed from head to toe in a white body suit representing something like a shroud. She started the scene off by vomiting blood (plastic sheets had to be laid before she started). A man entered the scene and she embraced him lovingly and then bloodily killed him. This was obviously some revenge scenario. All in all, it was pretty horrifying. There were people in the audience that had shocked expressions. There were about five children (maybe 8 – 13) that, from their looks, might have interesting dreams tonight.

I didn’t not know what to expect, but I did not expect what I saw. The fact that both I was surprised and I was greatly entertained meant that it was an awesome night indeed.

 

Looking for the Next Kermit

12963948_1011519795594000_2304046666431776813_n

Title: Fussy Cloud Puppet Slam Volume 11

Rating: 3 Stars

Well, this was a thing that I didn’t know existed. Apparently, people in the puppet business get together now and again and try out new material. This is performed in a puppet slam.

It’s staged at Theatre Off Jackson, a tiny little playhouse in the International District (aka Chinatown, aka Japantown). The theater is advertised as:

Intimate performance space for small-production plays, music, film, readings & special events.

Yes, I’d say so. There were eight different puppet acts. They were all decidedly small scale. Some looked like their budget was probably South of $100.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect. First of all, I was thinking that maybe it’d be me and relatives of the performers, but no, I’d guess that maybe two hundred people were there. Some were obviously regulars who knew what to expect. The vibe of the audience was almost like a school play. Everyone was positive and encouraging.

Of the acts, my favorite was St James Infirmary. There was a guitarist, a saxophonists, and a bartender that was also the singer and the puppeteer (Hearts + Brains). They played the bluesy song St James Infirmary. It was well played, and as the bartender sang, she was the puppeteer for a puppet that was mournfully drunk slouched in his chair. It was a surprisingly moving performance.

For something completely different, there was Silence of the Yams, where the performer (Charlie Cook) acted out key scenes from Silence of the Lambs using, yes, you guessed it, sweet potatoes. You really haven’t lived until you heard a woman, holding a sweet potato, in a guttural voice, shout, “Put the lotion in the basket!”.

There was a Punch and Judy show. There was an improv show using what appeared to be hand puppets that might have been taken out of their children’s closet. There was a shadow puppet act, which, much to my amusement, used an old view foil projector as the mechanism to project the shadows. To this day, the building that I work in has view foil projectors in conference rooms that have not been turned on in probably close to twenty years. It warmed my heart to see an old war horse still put to good use.

It closed with a puppet burlesque. However, the puppet turned out to be shy, so the puppeteer proceeded to do the burlesque herself, while on stilts.  Because, why not?

All in all, an amusing time was had by one and all. An unexpected and fun way to spend a Friday night.

 

Murder and Show Tunes!

assassins_redbar_playpage_header

Play: Assassins

Rating: 4 Stars

I knew that I was going to have to go this show and I had no idea what my reaction would be. My first inclination would be that I wouldn’t like it. I am not a fan of musicals, especially of the Broadway variety. It just seems so bizarre to me that people can be having a conversation and then just break into some dancing show tune or some maudlin ballad. I find myself, at the beginning of such shows, counting the number of songs that are in the play and then doing a count down to see how much longer I have to endure.

On the other hand, I do like my assassinations. I have read (and enjoyed) books on the Garfield assassination (Destiny of the Republic), the McKinley assassination (The President and the Assassin), the Lincoln assassination (Manhunt), and I am much embarrassed to admit, in my younger days I read several books regarding who really JFK (here’s a hint, a guy named Lee Harvey Oswald). So, this was my subject area.

My disdain for musicals or my love of history? Who would win?

History!

I did enjoy it. Some of the songs were ridiculous and annoying, but they were also entertaining, and at times, provocative.

There were nine assassins profiled. I’m not sure what it says about me that only one was new to me (Guiseppe Zangara, who tried to assassinate president elect Franklin Roosevelt). I knew of the attempt but did not know any details of the assassin.

They got most of the assassin details right (at least as much as you can when profiling nine assassins in a 90 minute musical). There were a couple of exceptions.

They called John Wilkes Booth a pioneer. History geek wanted to jump up and shout, what about Richard Lawrence, the crazed unemployed house painter who fired two pistols at Andrew Jackson (they both misfired, after which, a badass Andrew Jackson repeatedly clubbed the would-be assassin with his cane)? As far as I know, that was the first true presidential assassination attempt.

Or how about John Flammang Schrank, who actually shot Teddy Roosevelt in the chest? Teddy, being another example of badass, continued on and gave a 90 minute speech before going to the hospital. Schrank belongs on the list more than Samuel Byck and his vague plans of hijacking a 747 and flying it into the Nixon White House.

Also, it kind of implied that Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme were somehow in cahoots and maybe even did their assassination attempt together. Granted, they both tried to assassinate Gerald Ford, but their attempt were seventeen days apart. There was no, as far as I know, connection between them.

OK, history geek will now stand down.

Charles Guiteau, Sara Jane Moore, and Samuel Byck are all portrayed as deranged. Charles Guiteau in particular is cheerfully deluded. Guiteau and Moore play off each other for comedic effect.

Czolgosz and Zangara are the political radicals. They stomp around the stage in a glowering rage.  Oppressed immigrants with no access to the American dream, their acts are purely of a political nature.

I did find it interesting that they’d run this during a presidential election year (not coincidentally). It does bring up interesting questions regarding how, in a democracy, what outlet people have who feel so out of the system that they consider themselves fundamentally disenfranchised. The assassins here are all misfits, failures in life. The assassination attempt is the only thing that kept them from completely dying in obscurity.

Tarantino Before there was Tarantino

titus-icon-2

Title: Titus Andronicus

Rating: 3 Stars

This was put on by the Seattle Shakespeare Company.

Titus is kind of an embarrassment to most Shakespearean critics. It is clearly a play written for the masses. There is no subtlety. It is a revenge play in which the revenge is served hot, bloody, and insane.

I’ve always believed that this is the Shakespeare that should be introduced to high school students. Not the mamby-pamby prattlings of Romeo and Juliet (although a brave English teacher could titillate with interpretations of Mercutio’s lines). This play serves well the generation raised on Tarantino.

I’d seen this play once before. It was at some very low rent theater that looked like it had maybe 50 seats, which if I recollect, were of the fold-up chair variety. The centurions (the play takes place in ancient Rome) come marching in wearing spray-painted football helmets. I thought that I was about to witness a disaster, but it turned out extremely entertaining. It was a case where a creative director took the budget shortcomings and turned it into a strength.

I’d also seen the play as a movie directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anthony Hopkins. I came into it with high hopes, but alas, in my opinion they took the play too seriously and it seemed ponderous to me.

After all, let’s keep score of the death toll:

  • Titus kills one of the Goth queen’s sons in front of her
  • He kills one of his sons who disobeys him
  • The emperor’s brother is murdered by the two remaining Goth queen’s sons
  • Who in turn rapes Titus’ daughter and cuts off her arms and tongue
  • Titus chops off one of his hands to save two of his son’s lives
  • Titus then receives the heads of said son’s
  • Titus kills the two Goth queen’s sons who raped his daughter
  • He cooks them into a pie and serves them to the Goth queen
  • Titus kills his daughter to cover her shame
  • Titus kills the Goth queen
  • The emperor kills Titus
  • Titus’ son Lucius kills the emperor
  • Lucius is proclaimed the new emperor.

What the Fuckety Fuck?

You simply can’t take this kind of play seriously. As you can see, this truly is basically the plot of a Tarantino revenge movie. How has he not already made this movie?

Clearly, the Seattle Shakespeare Company has seen Tarantino movies. Tarantino was heavily influenced by the 70’s exploitation movies. Before the play starts, there is a movie screen on set which shows clips from fictional 70’s revenge movies featuring ancient myths (eg Medea). It sets the tone for the play to come.

Like Tarantino, the blood is copious. During the intermission, stage hands were hard at work cleaning off all of the blood that had been spelt. After the final scene, they probably need to bring in the equivalent of a Zamboni to vacuum it all up.

Saturnius, the Roman emperor, was properly supercilious. The previous version I’d seen had played him like Mick Jagger, which was even more amusing.

Titus basically chewed the scenes, which is kind of the point. There is no halfway to Titus, so every emotion had to be cranked up to eleven.

Tamora’s (the Goth queen) two sons were scarily effective. They gave off edgy, insane menace that actually was kind of freaky.

Lavinia, Titus’ daughter, ends up a broken, tragic figure. Her rape / mutilation scene, although not explicitly shown, was deeply disturbing and, quite frankly, upsetting. I wanted to hurry that scene over because it was so difficult to watch.

Tamora played it as a basic scheming sex pot using her hold over Saturnius to wreak her own revenge upon Titus.

Aaron the Moor is an interesting character. In many ways, he serves as the ur-Iago. Here in the play he is more one-dimensional than Iago, but like Iago, driven by jealousy and an basically corrupt nature, he is the true source of all evil that takes place during the play. As he says, he’s done one thousand foul things, his only regret is that he does not have time for ten thousand more.

I enjoyed the staging. The homage to Tarantino is, in hindsight, a somewhat obvious one to make, but still effective.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to change my mind on Titus. It used to be one of my favorites, but at the end of the day, it is pretty much completely lacking in subtlety. Having seen the Oregon Shakespeare Festival version of Hamlet, I now can see that taking the time to understand and appreciate the beauty and power of his later work is ultimately a much more rewarding experience.

This might have been my last Titus experience.