Robin’ Hearts

Yesterday was my birthday.

To celebrate I did many things.  One of them was to see theatre.  We went to go see the A.R.T.’s production of The Heart of Robin Hood.

I wanted to see it because it sounded like fun.  I mean, it’s a play.  About Robin Hood.  How could this not be interesting?

It turned out to be much more than I expected.  Yes, yes, there was talent onstage (both in the acting and execution of the show), the writing was good, and the sundry list of things you expect from professional theatre was all fulfilled with gusto.  Let’s talk about how this show went above and beyond expectations:

First of all, the set design.  I’ve never before seen a set that was more enveloping, more

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

Rehearsal shot of Jordan Dean (Robin), Christiana Bennett Lind (Marion), and Christopher Sieber (Peter) by Evgenia Eliseeva

appropriate, or more useful to the production.  From the moment I walked in to the theatre, I had absolutely no doubt that I was in Sherwood Forest.  Above this, every single little piece of the set was used for something (generally many somethings) in an unexpected and creative way throughout the course of the production.  The set was so wedded to the show that I had a hard time conceiving of how this could have possibly been rehearsed without it.  If you go for not other reason, go to see how set design can influence and effect a production.  Sets: not just pretty ways to decorate a room.

But it wasn’t just the set that made the set.  The lighting design for this production was so spot-on and wonderful that it was noteworthy.  Lighting design is an often-unacknowledged portion of the show as, generally, great lighting design is invisible and awful lighting design is nauseating.  In Robin Hood, the lighting was simply magical and almost cinematic in its magnitude.  It integrated seamlessly into the beautiful production, while simultaneously adding unending value to the story.  I often found myself wishing that my life could be lit the way Björn Helgason lit Sherwood.  Please?

Now let’s talk about the dramaturgy.  It’s not like Robin Hood is a new concept by any stretch of the term.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in most cases, Robin Hood is a trite cliché that should probably not be relied upon to add value to anything.  The A.R.T. production proved that you can teach an old outlaw new tricks.  At every turn, the production subverted your Robin Hood expectations while simultaneously remaining true to the story we all know and love.  Additionally, the program notes were well-written and lain out so as to give a glimpse into the playwright and designers’ dramaturgical processes.  Here was pertinent, interesting information about the show that you were about to see made accessible for a theatre (or Robin Hood) novice.  Dramaturgy at its finest.  Bravo.

And, for our superficial moment of the review, let’s talk about the bodies onstage.  This was an extremely physical show that constantly put the human form on display.  Following in the footsteps of the A.R.T.’s now-Broadway smash sensation Pippin, Robin Hood integrated physical performance and acrobatic athletics to create stunning visual tableau with bodies to match the already-lovely presence of the space.  What this means without jargon: well-muscled men in tight leather pants and open-front vests performing feats of strength for your amusement.  By way of a birthday surprise, this didn’t go amiss (it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting to see, but who wouldn’t take six-pack abs and leather to gaze adoringly at from the comfort of Sherwood?).  Lest you fear that this show is all-fluff and no-stuff, let me assure you that the acting prowess of these gentlemen matches their physical abilities and you will not be left to work hard in suspending your disbelief.  These guys are triple threats: acting, dancing, and (get ready for it) singing.  Yup.  They can come serenade me by my window any day of the week.

Oh yea, there’s a whole female empowerment story arc (Marion dresses as a boy and goes to pal around in the woods for a while), and a few of the scenes are essentially modern-text renditions of As you Like it.  For once, this homage didn’t make me angry; the playwright acknowledged it in his production notes, the actors did it justice, and I was happy to have snuck in some surprise Bard on my birthday.  Fun fact: Prince John’s last line is almost verbatim Malvolio’s last line from Twelfth Night.  Because who doesn’t like declaring revenge to the court before making a dramatic exit?

So really; if you have even a half interest in any of the things mentioned in this review (or circuses, ducks, bluegrass music, or stage combat), grab a ticket and go see.  Even better: take your kids.  They’ll love it and it’ll make you feel better about squealing like an over-excited toddler when the good guys start to throw down.

 

A Comedy of Errors

In celebration of my triumph, my beaux took me to see a show this weekend.  And not just any show.  A SHAKESPEARE show.  A show that we’ve both been dying to see for some time now and which displayed great promise in its advertised concept.

The new-to-Boston Anthem Theatre Company performed a four-man Comedy of Errors  at the BCA Plaza blackbox.  At ninety minutes with no intermission and some creative application of props/costumes, it was a high-octane performance with great entertainment value.

Unfortunately, the performance was (for me) overshadowed by an egregious lack of judgment on the part of the production company.

I’ve always thought that a program bio for a dead playwright was a bit odd.  Granted, sometimes it contains useful information for an audience (especially if the show is meant to be an “introduction to [playwright]” for a crowd who wouldn’t normally see this type of theatre).  It makes slightly more sense when there’s a dramaturge working on a production with expertise in the subject matter who can craft a bio with good/entertaining tidbits.

Anthem, however, made a cardinal mistake: they copy and pasted from the internet.

The bio in their playbill is attributed to http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/william_shakespeare.html and has all the usual axioms about Shakespeare.  The piece which bothered me most was this paragraph:

“Shakespeare died in 1664; it is not clear how he died although his vicar suggested it was from heavy drinking.”

 At first I couldn’t tell if this was a joke.  The timbre of the show was irreverent; maybe this was some sort of wink to that.  A little investigation brought me to realize what was going on here: the error is reprinted verbatim from its source.  The issue wasn’t purposeful, it was simply a careless copy job.

First of all; Shakespeare died in 1616.  He was born in 1564.  The playbill misprint is likely

doesn't it look like we're private eyes in a noir movie?

doesn’t it look like we’re private eyes in a noir movie?

a transcription error on the part of biographyonline.net which was propagated by simply cutting and pasting the bio without fact-checking it.

It’s almost the first thing I tell my students when they walk into my class: never copy and paste off the internet.  And certainly don’t do so without a bit of investigation of your own.  One google search would have divested the truth about Shakespeare’s death date to whomever curated this playbill.

 

The bit about heavy drinking was a fairy tale I hadn’t heard before.  After some poking around, I see that (like so much else about Shakespeare’s life) it’s a reasonably common myth with an unclear origin; certainly not canonical fact, and not something that I would include in a reliable bio.

Why was I so enraged at this incident, you may ask?  Because first of all it undermines the authority of the work.  How am I supposed to trust that these people know anything about Shakespeare?  How am I supposed to respect the hard work of the actors/company if I can see that their playbill is thrown together by someone who simply doesn’t know any better and hasn’t bothered to find out?  What do they have to contribute to this conversation, or teach to an audience of Shakespeare-beginners, if they can’t get their basic facts straight?

The second reason that this made me angry was that it didn’t have to be a problem.  If the company wanted a dramaturge (or even just someone to write a smart playbill note), all they had to do was send one e-mail to any theatre department in the Boston area.  Said department, I can nearly guarantee, would have had a student willing to work on this project for free.  Suddenly, the company is engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with a scholar; the dramaturge gets a resume byline, and the company gets an accurate piece of micro-scholarship.  Problem: more than solved.  And no fuss/no muss.

Really, this hits at the heart of an issue near and dear to my heart.  If scholarship can’t feed and serve practice, then what’s the point of scholarship?  And if practice refuses to acknowledge scholarship, then how can it serve its purpose?  Without a healthy dialogue between the two, we’re stuck in a combined death-spiral to mutual-but-separate oblivions.

It baffles me even more that companies who do classical work seem less likely to hire dramaturges than companies who do contemporary work.  Wouldn’t you think that a company who specialized in Shakespeare would want someone around who knows the ins/outs/back ends/front ends/historical tidbits/correct pronunciation intimately?  Or how about a company that generally does contemporary plays but is taking a dip into the Shakes-world; wouldn’t you think they would want someone to converse with about any questions they may have even more?

So long as we continue to put our hands over our ears and sing loudly to ourselves that our work is the only legitimate work, we will not grow as a community.  Without understanding and helping each other, we risk stagnation as artists and scholars.  So please, for the love of all things bardy, hire (or at least consult) a dramaturge.  If you find a good one, I promise that your work (and theirs!) will benefit from it.

Epic Theatre

My oh my the amount of theatre I saw this weekend!  So much theatre that I might not get to write reviews of everything; but here’s another to add to the collection.

Saturday, I got out to see Apollinaire’s Caucasian Chalk Circle.  For those who have never seen Apollinaire before, they’re a really great company (their Uncle Vanya this year past was truly wonderful and made me, a formerly dubious audience of Soviet theatre, a true Chekhov believer).  As far as I can tell, they prefer to produce “strolling” productions (that is, shows which take place in literally different locations so that the audience has to move with the action in order to observe it).  For Caucasian Chalk Circle, this particular aesthetic fed in exceedingly well with Brecht’s piece.

Bertold Brecht was a German playwright who changed the face of theatre as we know it.  After writing some extremely influential pieces (including Mother Courage and her Children and Threepenny Opera), he fled Germany and the imminent Nazi occupation.  After a veritable tour of Northern Europe, he came to land in the United States for a time.  During this time, Brecht was unsure about his future, unsure whether he would ever seen Germany again, and unsure whether his plays would ever be performed once more in his native language.  Still, he wrote plays in German.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is one of those plays.

Brecht is perhaps most famous for his grand contribution to the development of

View of the Tobin from Mary O'Malley Park.... it's a little industrial

View of the Tobin from Mary O’Malley Park…. it’s a little industrial

the theatrical form known as “epic theatre”.  Epic theatre is a modern style developed in reaction to naturalism and its most salient goal is for an audience to have constant awareness that it is witnessing a play in production rather than any slice of reality.  To achieve this, epic theatre utilizes imbedded elements such as narrators, storytellers, and song; technical attributes such as screens, projections, and fully lit houses; and performance traditions such as actors playing multiple characters, and actors moving sets and changing costumes in full view of the audience.  The effect of estranging an audience from the play’s action is something which Brecht calls “Verfremdungseffekt” and is often translated as “alienation”.

In light of this, Apollinaire’s show is precisely in keeping with the Brechtian tradition.  Caucasian Chalk Circle is a free, open-air production which springs up in Mary O’Malley park as quickly and ephemerally as its pre-show music (…mostly this pre-show music seemed to be generated by the assembled flock of musicians being bored together and so we were treated to impromptu renditions of Johnny Cash standards on an accordion).  As such, the audience can see every single string.  The actors move the sets between locations and unabashedly set them up/take them down as necessary.  The stagehands flit about in full view of the assembly as they assist with costumes and props.  The storyteller asks audience members to follow her from location to location between acts.  A chalkboard acts as a makeshift screen and announces the title of each act.  I think it is safe to say that Apollinaire succinctly and gracefully captured the spirit of epic theatre.

The set for act two... and the river.  The sunset I didn't quite manage to capture but trust me, it's also worth the trip.

The set for act two… and the river. The sunset I didn’t quite manage to capture but trust me, it’s also worth the trip.

The assembly was rock solid.  There wasn’t a weak performance amongst the lot.  Despite Brecht’s insistence that an audience not overly empathize with his characters, it was hard to maintain the appropriate Brechtian distance due to the power of Courtland Jones’ Grushna and the charmingness of Mauro Canepa’s Simon.  I can only hope that their Spanish-cast counterparts (the show is performed in English/Spanish on alternating nights) bring as much punch to the story.

Apollinaire performs Chalk Circle sans its prologue.  While this is a common practice, it is one which scholars have debated for years since the prologue frames the tale within an external story.  The prologue sets the scene in post-WWII Soviet Union and depicts two communes arguing over a piece of land.  In order to further enlighten the dispute, one commune decides to perform an old folk tale for the other.  Arkadi Cheidze, the story-teller/singer, brings his band of minstrels to do so and the play commences.

Does it change the meaning of this piece to have that framework surrounding it?  It would certainly have answered my big question as I walked away (“what are we to take from this play?”).  I leave that for you to ponder and encourage you, with all the force of my internet-power, to go see this show.  It’s a great night out, and it’s free, so you really have no excuse.

As a coda to this verse, let me take a moment to expound upon how much I love open-air theatre and most especially initiatives like this one.  Free quality theatre in the park is truly a service to society.  Looking around the audience, I was struck by how many people there looked like “normal people”; we were just an assembly of neighbors come to watch a play.  Pretensions were out the window as we sat on picnic blankets and towels, huddled close around the storytellers.  For me, theatre doesn’t get much more wholesome than this.  Call me a romantic, but I’m a firm believer in this sort of initiative because of its equalizing power and would like to assert that it is pieces like this which will ensure future audiences for the general theatrical community.

Caucasian Chalk Circle plays through this week and closes on July 27th.  There is one more Spanish performance on Friday the 26th.  For more information, visit Apollinaire’s website.

Bacchanalia

This weekend is a weekend full of theatre and I can’t feel better about it!

We kicked things off last night with The Bacchae at club Oberon.

There are a few fundamental issues in presenting Greek theatre to a contemporary audience.  I have been known to argue that Greek tragedy is actually unperformable in the United States today (for further thoughts on this or to participate in this argument, buy me a drink sometime).  This production was one of those rare gems of exception – if you absolutely have to perform Greek tragedy, you should perform it like this.

The environment at Oberon (and the immersive dance-club stage space) sets the tone for interaction.  There’s not anywhere to hide from Dionysus’ maenads and you are caught up in the ritual just as much as the one sacrificial audience plant whom Dionysus makes his own in the play’s beginning.  Audience members are crowned with ivy and given drums to play as they enter the space and are subsequently invited to participate fully in the ritual they are about to witness.

Because of this, the long chorus speeches become exhilarating.  The maenads bop and weave through the audience, menacing and caressing, inviting you to be a part of their world for a time.  There is no passive listening (which is the death of long speeches).  These interludes, alienating on a tradition stage, thus become a point of access for the audience.

Another thing that this production has working in its favor is the traditional Oberon performance length (ninety minutes).  By trimming the wordy Greekness of this down to a palatable length, The Bacchae doesn’t have the opportunity to lose its audience.  You’re either caught up in the flow of the action, or you’re drinking at the bar (sometimes both but there is no in between).

The one thing I would have liked to see tweaked slightly is the token use of

Poster for Arlington Shakespeare in the park; yes, apparently there is still a theatre company that uses posters

Poster for Arlington Shakespeare in the park; yes, apparently there is still a theatre company that uses posters

masks.  In this production.  As each character is introduced, he enters wearing a “Greek-style”* mask.  The mask is removed before each character speaks, done away with, and never seen again.  The trouble I have with this convention is its uselessness.  If it was meant as a nod at Greek theatrical practice (we do know that in the Greek theatre all characters wore masks), that’s wonderful, but if you’re just going to wear it to do away with it you may as well not wear it and save your costumer the time and expense of acquiring it.  I would have liked to see the masks return at the end and create a sort of “framing device” for the piece.  Just as Dionysus is introduced wearing his full pan horns which are then dispatched with only to be seen at the play’s very end, the beautiful masks should have made a re-appearance.

As to the non-traditional staging elements demanded by the performance space at Oberon, historically they’re not actually all that non-traditional.  We can’t say overmuch for certain about Greek theatre, but we do know that the Greek theatrical space consisted of a stage area (scholars debate about whether this was a raised platform or not) and an orchestra where the chorus performed (again, HUGE debates about the shape and size of the orchestra).  The floor plan of Club Oberon is essentially this.  There is a stage (which, at Oberon, is a raised platform) and a dance floor in front of it (for the purposes of our Greek analogy, this can serve as an orchestra).  Of course, in Greece we have no record of the audience mingling with the chorus (as happens at Oberon), but since I can now check “be kissed by Dionysus” off my bucket list, I can definitely overlook this breach in historical protocol.

The Bacchae is, unfortunately, done.  They closed last night (I know, I know, I need to get to things earlier in their run).

HOWEVER!

Here’s a list of things I’m going to be seeing in the near future that HAVEN’T closed.  I can’t vouch for their quality yet, of course, but if you want to get some theatre in this summer you have plenty of options:

Caucasian Chalk Circle by Apollinaire Theatre Company – free, in the park.  Hitting this tonight.

Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost at Shakespeare and Company – making my yearly pilgrimage to Lennox tomorrow which, incidentally, is the last performance of Richard though Love’s Labour’s runs a bit longer.

Much Ado About Nothing presented by Arts Art Hours in Lynne Woods — I have some friends in the cast and I love this show, so I really can’t see it being bad.  It’s a strolling production.  Outside.  That at least should be interesting.

Romeo and Juliet by Arlington Center for the Arts — free, outside Shakespeare; can’t get more pleasant than that.  Only one performance though so if you are interested, you should check it out.

Psycho Beach Party by Counter-productions theatre —  it’s a contemporary piece but has a really interesting name… and I have a friend who keeps saying I should go.  So I’m going.

Cinderella by Boston Opera Collaborative — they say that this piece is being performed “authentically” i.e. true to period style.  We’ll see about that… either way, great for comps!

Why Torture is Wrong and the People who Love them by Titanic Theatre Project — sometimes you just need some Christopher Durang to bring levity to a situation.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of all theatre happening in Boston right now, just some things that are on my calendar.  Stay cool!!

 *I put this in quotation marks because there’s no real way for us to ascertain authentic Greek-style masks; none are extant and the flaws of relying on pottery paintings as historiographical evidence have often been expounded upon by scholars.  As such, the masks were certainly what you as a modern playgoer with some idea of Greek theatrical practice, would expect to see… but I can’t really call them “authentic”.

The Love Boat Goes to Verona

This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending opening night of Commonwealth Shakespeare Company’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona on Boston common.

After last year’s middling Coriolanus, I didn’t have high hopes for this (…that may also be the comps brain talking since I’m not sure I could work up the energy to have high hopes about anything right now).  Especially after reading that the concept was “rat pack”.  I just wasn’t sure things would work out; Two Gents is a notoriously difficult play to make read to a modern audience, Shakespeare on the Common is notoriously not the sum of its parts for whatever reason, and Boston weather patterns make outdoor evening theatre a gamble at best.

But somehow, despite all this, the cosmos aligned and it was truly a production worth seeing!

Jenna Augen’s Julia was absolutely adorable (even in the face of a tragic act-one kerfluffle in which Mimi Bilinski, her Lucetta, failed to come onstage at her cue and left poor Augen to live out the actor’s nightmare: scrambling to cover for a co-star while under the pressure of rhymed iambic pentameter).  She had some sauce and spice and a decidedly different take on the Act V reversal (which I won’t ruin for you since I want to encourage you to go see the show).

our blanket: a still-life.

our blanket: a still-life.

Rimo Airaldi’s Speed and Larry Coen’s Launce were a comic duo that actually made sense.  They played the jokes to a T and, despite any misgivings I had about an older more august Speed, I was quickly charmed into their clutches.

Rick Park’s Duke of Milan is the best I’ve ever seen.  His portrayal of an incensed father in III.i (the scene during which Valentine is outcast) was real enough that I truly believed he would kill Valentine (Andrew Burnap) if given half the chance.  And this, my friends, caused dramaturgical magic.  Because the threat of death was so real, Burnap was able to launch into the most transcendent rendition of the “what light is light” speech that I have ever heard.  I, the notorious curmudgeon, was moved to tears and could only be revivified by the liberal application of the annual CSC signature Ben and Jerry’s sundae (this year’s creation: the Crabbe Bag…. Eat one.  You won’t regret it.).

In terms of the concept, it worked a lot better than I expected it to.  The outlaws in the woods became Wild West clowns/menaces and Act V devolved into a road-runner style farcical chase complete with door-swinging and dance-hiding.  Because of this, the general tone of disingenuousness led to a ready acceptance of the notoriously hard to stage Act V reversal.  Well done, CSC.  Well done.

I have only two complaints.  The first is that there was no fight director or violence coordinator billed in the program while I certainly saw some onstage violence.  If you need to understand the importance of this, let me guide you self-promotionally to the following youtube interview with some people who know what they are talking about in this regard.

The second is that in order to serve the concept, the director chose to include a liberal amount of extra-textual music numbers.  Julia burst out with “fever”, Launce sang “ain’t that a kick in the head?”, etc.  These music numbers, though well executed, slowed the pace of the first act to a crawl.  It would have served just as well to include half the number of musical interludes and I think it would have kept the audience more engaged not to be bursting into non-Shakespeare song every ten to fifteen minutes.

As I said, on the whole this was a very good rendition of a hard-to-perform piece.  If nothing else, it’s a free evening of entertainment, the common is beautiful this time of year, and you can enjoy your own picnic libations with some good company while waiting for curtain.

Though if you, like me, get the sudden urge to fox trot when any of the rat pack tunes are played by a live jazz band, be prepared to bring some dancing shoes.

Much Ado about Joss

So I finally got around to seeing Joss’ Much Ado last night.

I had some deep hesitations about it after having seen some clips of Joss talking about the script.  I am a HUGE devotee to Wheedon’s work and I adore most of his actors, but wasn’t sure that A) he had an understanding of the text deep enough to serve this project (this concern was primarily founded on his remark about the only way to explain the characters’ actions through the tale is via rampant drinking); B) Much Ado could really be slotted in to the short time-span famously available to this project; and C) Amy Acker had the chops to play Beatrice.

On the whole, I was right.

The film began slow and dark and there’s no reason Much Ado should be that

A shot I got of a friend's Italian mask.  It just seemed to fit here.

A shot I got of a friend’s Italian mask. It just seemed to fit here.

way – the show, like all Shakespeare (especially the comedies) is fast-paced and driving.  Especially when cuts are made (and Joss made some cuts, most of them graceful but a few of them clunky), things should progress at a good clip with a lot of energy.  The actors didn’t seem to find that energy or comfort level with their characters until the gulling scenes deep in Act II/at the beginning of Act III.  For that, the gulling of Benedick is one of the best I’ve ever seen onstage or screen and that really served as a springboard off which the movie flew.  The second half was markedly better and the actors seemed much more at ease with the text, the project, and each other.

Amy Acker was a lackluster Beatrice who seemed more fragile than feisty and more brooding than “born to speak all mirth”.  Alexis Denisof as Benedick had his moments of brilliance, which generally served to eclipse the moments during which he was far too low-energy and ominous.  Sean Maher was a brilliant Don John (it’s not his fault that I can’t hear anyone say the words “I thank you… I am of few words, but I thank you” without thinking it in Keanu’s voice).

Nathan Fillion’s Dogberry was problematic.  Things seemed to fall in for him during Act V, but until then his performance lacked a certain crucial justification.  Dogberry is a difficult character to play; much like Elbow from Measure for Measure this character type (the “learned” constable who’s actually a common man clown but tries so hard to be of good breeding that his speech comes out word salad) is one that doesn’t resonate horribly well with modern audiences.  There needs to be a reason for Dogberry’s confusion.  He’s not stupid, his logic just doesn’t match our earth logic.  The most successful Dogberry I’ve ever seen played the character as someone who had maybe been hit on the head one too many times or dropped in several instances as an infant.  This issue, may I point out, is one that a good dramaturge can really help with.  This kind of textual diagnosis takes experience to suss out and someone who is already intimate with the text can save you weeks of rehearsal discovery time by giving you the parameters Shakespeare himself set.  Especially in an environment like the one which produced Wheedon’s film, the dramaturge can be an invaluable resource to the project.

Unfortunately, I’m beginning to think that Hero is an unplayable character.  This is nothing against the Heroes I’ve seen recently (most of which have had some talent and understanding of the text), but the best Hero I ever saw was actually played by a dress-maker’s dummy.  No joke.  She’s so silent most of the time and, essentially, an object to the men around her.  Playing the part with enough pizazz to make her likeable (especially when most of her already few lines are cut, as in Wheedon’s film) requires some spark that I just haven’t seen yet.  Unfortunately, the audience liking Hero is central to us buying in to the main plot arc.  For the most part, we like Hero because Beatrice likes Hero rather than Hero being a likeable character.  Which is not to say we dislike Hero, just that she’s more sweet and plain than a nilla wafer.

So I didn’t dislike Joss’ film, it just won’t go into my books as the PARAMOUR OF MUCH ADOs.  On the whole, I see it as a fine case study in reasons to hire a dramaturge and what happens when a project is rushed.  I think Wheedon fans will enjoy it, and Shakespeareans will find it a good excuse to sit in an air-conditioned theatre on a disgusting summer day.

Not so Sleepy; but pretty Legendary

This afternoon, I was treated to a lovely rollick in a world very near and dear to my heart.  I got to go see the Imaginary Beasts’ Winter Panto, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Sleepy Hollow is what it sounds like, a sleepy little hamlet in Tarrytown, New York, about

modern plaque on "bridge"

modern plaque on “bridge”

forty five minutes away from where I grew up.  Of course, most of us know it exists because of Washington Irving’s very famous bit of pith about the town (historical note: the headless horseman’s bridge has since been lost; there is a bridge in Sleep Hollow, but it’s a modern construction, despite the historical plaque set upon it).

American Pantomime is… really not what it sounds like.  It’s derived from the English form which was a pithy bit of entertainment incorporating music, slapstick, topical references, mild innuendo, etc.  The American form, much like its English cousin, is traditionally performed around Christmas time (the Imaginary Beasts perform one every winter).  Salient to the American form is that it’s plot is based in nursery stories retold on the stage incorporating these elements.

Point of dramaturgical order: do not confuse “pantomime” with “mime”.  They are not the same thing.  The word “pantomime” derives from a Greek construction composed of “pantos” (“every”, or “all”) and “mimos” (“actor” or “imitator”).  The Pantomimos, then, was the “imitator of all” (or, actually, generally troupes of actors who would perform often accompanied by song).  The word “mime” comes from that same Greek word “mimos”, but that’s where the similarities end.  These forms are two very different ducks.

The Beasts adhere to all the old traditions (cross-dressing, modern references, contemporary song, audience participation, and slapstick abound) and, through this, present a rollicking good time made better by the presence of children in the audience.  If you’re willing to bring your own inner child to come play with the Beasts, you will definitely thank yourself for it.

The Beasts also embrace the age-old, time-tested tradition of high comedy: cross-dressing is funny.  I simply couldn’t stop laughing as Joey Pelletier performed a rendition of “Tiptoe through the Tulips” in full Victorian drag.  Nor could I find it in myself to deny this charmer anything he wanted (including a loud “va va va voom!” upon his entrance into any room, as per his request to the audience).  In case you were concerned that this whole “cross-dressing is funny” bit was getting a little one-sided, Jill Ragati proves to be the Ichabod Crane with the most shapely legs I’ve ever seen (and yet, still somehow androgynous… I really can’t explain that one).

I might be biased, but I found the antics of Amy Meyer as Widow Pinchpurse to be miserly hilarious.  In case you never thought you’d laugh at the old “Don’t hit me!” “what?” “HIT ME!” “OKAY!” joke again, you may want to take this opportunity to re-instill yourself with some measure of classic humanity.

As a parting thought I’ll give the Beasts this: they utilized the Scissor Sisters to much greater effect than Glee did.

So do yourself a favor: find a child (or be ready to amp up your inner eight-year-old), and go laugh a little.  It’s a dark gray winter, we can all use some time in the sun.  Ticket and show info can be found here.

Another Openin’, Another Show

This week past was a great theatre-going week for myself and my ever-wonderful partner in crime.  There are some exciting things happening in Boston right now and it has been a pleasure to see some of them.

Pippin at the ART 

The American Repertory Theatre as an institution seems to be undergoing some changes; though no longer a center for the avant-garde (as far as I can tell, this has now been relegated to their secondary venue the Oberon), they still produce some pretty exciting theatre.

Right now on the main stage, you can see a bold new staging of Pippin.

Press Shot for Pippin

Press Shot for Pippin

Alright, alright, it’s Pippin.  Yea, the show itself is about as schmaltzy as they come.  But honestly, what’s life without musical theatre schmaltz?

And this staging really brings something to the text.  Dianne Paulus enlisted the assistance of circus choreographer Gypsy Snider to present a show that’s loaded with spectacle, drenched in theatricality, and definitely somewhere the audience would be tempted to run away to.  The choreography is new, but Chet Walker definitely kept the Fosse feel and there are plenty of shoulder-rolls and arm-fans to go around.

Of course, the show stopper (and show-stealer) occured late in the first act (Andrea Martin’s Berthe gave a performance of “No Time at All” that I am hard pressed to ever forget).  Matthew James Thomas’ Pippin is petulant and angry, wide-eyed and hungry, essentially the perfect blend of youthful optimism and teenaged angst.

The only performance which I found even slight fault in was that of Patina Miller as the leading player.  While Miller is an amazing dancer and her vocals can’t be beat, she lacks the undercurrent of menace that the part requires.  If she were to truly dig and find some semblance of an inner villain, the show would be well near perfect.

The finale lacks some sizzle (I’ve been told due to fire codes, or potentially expense), but really.  What are you going to do with a show that asks you to set people on fire?  From my vantage point second row center, the effect looked cheesy and glitzy (which would have worked had it not been for the plot-point about Pippin ACTUALLY setting himself on fire).  I’ve been told that it doesn’t look as awful from further back in the house.

I’ve also been told that Paulus made the exciting announcement at the show’s opening the other night that it would be making its way to Broadway next.  I am extremely pleased to hear this.  I highly recommend you get out to see it now while tickets are cheap(ish) and the show is local.

Two Gentlemen of Verona by the Actor’s Shakespeare Project

I’ll admit, I didn’t go into this performance with high expectations.  There’s a reason that Two Gents is rarely performed.  Act Five is a nightmare to make read to a modern audience, and the show’s protagonist is one of the least likeable characters in the canon (for further discussion of this, check out our recent podcast about it).

Two Gents promo art

Two Gents promo art

In addition, I’ve never yet heard a good review of an ASP production.  None of my local friends (or mentors) have been impressed with their work, so I did not expect that the combination of these two deadly things would yield anything horribly impressive.

For that, Two Gents is one of my favorite shows and I’ve always wanted to see it done.  Despite myself, I was rather excited to find out what the good folks at ASP had come up with.

First things first: I know Bill Barclay’s work from his long tenure at Shakespeare & Company (some of this while I myself was there training).  The man’s a genius.  His abilities with music are unmatched and it’s always an absolute joy to watch him romp about the stage with his own one-man-band of instruments (in this show alone, you can see him play the guitar, concertina, accordion, ukulele, and harmonica along with an assortment of percussion noise-makers).  I expected the music to be outstanding.

Barclay’s performance was equally impressive.  Protheus is an extremely difficult part to pull off since it requires a wide range of emotion very quickly (he’s one of the least mature men in the canon), and the foreknowledge that the audience is going to hate you.  Barclay’s natural charm and charisma worked to offset this, and his command of the text meant that he got every ounce of emotional connection out of the role.

Unfortunately, he was in the minority.  The women onstage were less impressive – Paige Clark (Julia) went for shtick over emotion, and Miranda Craigwell (Silvia), though stunning, didn’t seem to make any acting choices at all.  Marya Lowry made an excellent gender-bent Duke (Duchess) of Milan, but her Lucetta was frantic and muddy.  This is doubly unfortunate since the women are the true heart of this show; without a deep connection to Julia, the audience has no reason to react to Protheus (though Barclay’s charisma covered a multitude of sin).

The clowning was spectacular.  Thomas Derrah as Speed and John Kuntz as Launce were precise, efficient, and uproarious.  They counter-balanced each other admirably, and entertained thoroughly.  They were aided in this endeavor by Bruno, the most well behaved dog I’ve ever seen, in the role of Crab.  To quote Geoffrey Rush as Philip Henslowe, “You see – comedy. Love, and a bit with a dog. That’s what they want”.

ASP solved the act five fireworks with a game of bardic footsie that I can only describe as “admirable”.  After menacing the outlaws, Protheus turned to Silvia, made his threat, then realized what came out of his mouth.  Disgusted with himself, he dropped his knife, fell to his knees, then wrapped his arms around Silvia’s waist in a pathetic act of self-reproach.  Enter Valentine who sees something more than what he sees (as a lover is wont to do).  For a modern audience, I think this is the only way to make the scene read if you still want to maintain any sense of empathy with Protheus in the end.  It ensures that Protheus remains redeemable without violating the text.

On the whole, this production was charming and enjoyable.  While it lacked substance and true feeling, it did have entertainment value in spades.  I would encourage you to go see it but, alas, it closes today.

ASP will be doing a production of Pericles in April that I, for one, will be extremely interested to see.

It is (it is) a Glorious Thing to be a Pirate King

Last night, I had the pleasure and good fortune of attending The Hypocrites’ production of Pirates of Penzance as part of the Emerging American Theatre Festival.

The Hypocrites is a Chicago-based company who, as far as I can tell from a cursory glance of their website and a read-through of their manifesto, specializes in quirky but honest theatre which attempts to glean some aspect of the human experience without taking itself too seriously.

And I can certainly say that last night’s performance delivered just that.  Gilbert and Sullivan is HARD.  The harmonies are ridiculous, nobody is singing the same part as anyone else, and each song has more words in it than Stephen Sondheim after a few martinis.

The other problem with G&S shows is that they are so darn funny.  They are witty, ridiculous, and utterly irreverent.  They’re also old and British.  The danger of an American

no pretension here. Most of the cast was in their underwear….

company getting their hands on one of these productions is the instinct to take it to the land of stodgy, Earl-Gray sipping*, Queen and Country kind of theatre.  Quite the opposite.  Gilbert and Sullivan is basically Monty Python with music and should be treated as such.  Otherwise, the jokes aren’t going to read to a modern audience, and you run the risk of not only boring an American audience (half of which has likely never seen Opera before), but also turning the entire audience off to the Opera experience.

Well, there was nothing stodgy about this performance.  The entire usually two-and-a-half to three hour ordeal was cut down to a slim 90 minutes with one sixty second intermission (no, really, it was sixty seconds).  The direct result of this was A) the energy was CONSTANTLY through the roof – there was simply no time for it to droop, and B) Once the story started rolling, it just kept on going downhill like a snowball from the top of Mt. Olympus.  This kept the audience on their toes and right there in the action.

And the audience was literally in the action.  The show was performed at the Oberon (the venue which also hosts The Donkey Show which, by the by, is TOTALLY worth seeing) and, in true Oberon style, was completely immersive.  The audience was invited to sit on the floor, on the stage, inside the props (large kiddie pools on top of tables).  We were thrown beach balls as we walked in and encouraged to keep them afloat.  Actors would indicate via pointing where they were going next and, if there was an audience member in their way, that audience member had best move before she was (literally) run over by this tour de force.

Oh, and to make things a little more challenging for the actors, they were also the orchestra.  They flitted about the stage playing their own accompaniment on a series of instruments attached to their bodies in various ways from guitars, to clarinet, banjo, ukulele, drums, concertina, accordion, violin, and (I kid you not) musical saw.

So, just in case you weren’t impressed with the singing or acting ability of these insanely talented individuals (and in that case, you might want to get your talent sensors checked), you could hold yourself content that they at least are capable of grand acts of musical conquest.

The play was funny, it had heart, and an insane amount of talent went into producing it.  Despite the fact that I was drenching in a thin film of my own sweat by the time I reached the theatre (ugh, Boston, why did it have to be SUMMER now?), I still had an amazing time and would highly recommend you check it out.

Pirates of Penzance is playing through the weekend at the Oberon.  For ticket information, head on over here.

*Not that I have anything against earl-gray sipping… it happens to be my favorite morning blend.  I rather think that it should be reserved as the wheaties of academia than any inspiration for a show…

Definitely a Hurricane

So last night, in an effort to run away and join the Shakespeare circus for an evening instead of agonizing over the proper usage of periods in Chicago-style citation (seriously, Tufts, you are BLOWING THE MIND of this MLA-girl… guess I should get used to it since this is the rest of my life… sigh), I took my gay best friend to see Bad Habit Productions’ Much Ado About Nothing …with a twist.

The show’s a straight-up Much Ado performed with only five (count them! Five!) actors.

One of the things that I love about theatre companies who don’t normally do Shakespeare doing Shakespeare is that they tend to bring a sense of fun to it.  There was a spirit of play that permeated this show which really kept the energy moving and the audience willing to smile along with it.  The actors (for the most part) were multi-talented and at least half of them played several instruments and sang at some point in the production (one of the many script concessions was the addition of contemporary pop music which I did love).  One actress in particular, Sierra Kagen, truly blew me away.  She played a heart-felt Leonato, a sniveling Conrade, and an outright uproarious Margaret.  The only problem I had with her was that when she was onstage I had trouble looking at anyone else because the things she was doing were just so darn engaging.

Evan Sanderson really got to strut his stuff as Dogbery, which is great because his primary role (Claudio) can be a real bore to play.  I mean really, who wants to spend an entire show as a wide-eyed, fresh-faced male lead intent on nothing but winning the hand of the pretty girl?  Sanderson’s sense of comic timing and his subtle touches (best use of a lisp I’ve heard onstage in a long time) made the eccentric watchman truly light up the space.  Bravo, Sanderson.  Well done.

Unfortunately, the company’s weakest actress (Sasha Castroverde) played Beatrice and that (to be completely honest) really made me angry.  So, I have this thing.  Call it a retired actor thing.  If I see someone in a role which I know I can perform better (especially if it’s a role that I want to perform), I get very angry and distracted and there’s little I can do to keep myself from leaping out of my chair and delivering the lines for the actor onstage.  Someday, this instinct is going to get me into a whole lot of trouble.  I recommend the commencement of bail-money fund-raising immediately.  Last night, there was little I could do to take myself away from the fact that Castroverde simply did not have the fire in her belly for this role.  This was made doubly unfortunate because her Benedick (David Lutheran) was exceedingly talented.  Also… Castroverde seriously needs to work on her posture.

One downright brilliant concession made by the company was the fact that, while all the other roles were consistently played by one actor, the part of Hero was shared between all five.  Gender-bending and wonderful, every member of the cast took a turn at throwing on an ugly brown wig and a hideous blue dress to play the boring damsel.  This concession really took a snoozer of a part and made it into something interesting (and packed a punch when such lines as “your Hero, every man’s Hero!” and “one Hero died… but I do live”, and “Another Hero!” were uttered… though I do wish the director had made a nod at his genius concession with these lines.. they just beg for it!).

The script itself was fairly heavily cut, but anyone who isn’t a super-dork like me won’t really notice.  Some cuts were necessary due to the character set to speak the line simply not being onstage because the actor was playing someone else at the time.  Others were doubtlessly made to accommodate the many added musical numbers.  Either way, the cuts were fairly seamless and there wasn’t anything eliminated that I actually missed.

Perhaps the weak point in the production (and this, unfortunately, is a consistent weak point in Shakespeare productions done by non-Shakespeare companies) was the text coaching.  Word to the wise: text coaching can make a good production great and an awful production tolerable.  If you ever wind up directing, producing, or working on a production of Shakespeare, make certain that there’s a text coach on hand who knows her stuff (…hire me?  Please?).  While this production did make me smile and chuckle, it could have done with some more punch in the text department.  That would have truly taken it to the next level.

The production only has four shows left (it closes this Sunday), and you should definitely make an effort to go see it.  It’s well worth the cost of admission to see the four dynamos and one middler try and pull off the wedding scene (which, by the way, they do surprisingly well).  Tickets are available via Bad Habit’s website or, for the thrifty theatre-goer, Goldstar.