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.

Something Rotten in the State of Denmark

As a birthday present, my favorite partner in crime treated me to Hamlet at the Gamm theatre in Pawtucket, RI.

I was excited to see the show because what’s a bardy birthday with some bard?  Also, I’m always on the lookout for companies who produce Shakespeare (preferably semi-regularly, which Gamm does).  Much of my audience Shakes-perience comes from years and years of being a patron of Shakespeare & Company, so it’s really good to broaden my portfolio and have a look at other companies, other styles, and other talents.

I try not to go into Shakespeare with any hopes whatsoever.  I really do try and enter with a clean mind, ready to enjoy the show and without some highfalutin’ notion of should and shouldn’t.  Obviously there’s an awareness of the textual and historical difficulties innate in any production, but I try not to let that hijack my experience of the performance.

Unfortunately, Gamm’s production was somewhat disappointing.

The first act was bland.  They tackled the problems innate in Hamlet with strength, but not any sense of creativity.  The staging was predictable, the performances on the whole nothing spectacular.  There were a few exceptions: Tony Estrella, Gamm’s current Artistic

Hamlet (center) greets Roz and Guil (Left and Right respectively)

Director and the title role of the show, speaks the text like he was born to it.  He was a little old for Hamlet, but that didn’t bother me overmuch once the play got rolling.  Steve Kidd’s Claudius may seem boring in the first act, but just give him some time to warm up.  Once he hits his soliloquy in the second act, he’ll prove that he’s no dumb king; he’s just trying to hold it together so hard that his movements are as constrained as a geisha’s.  Ben Gracia and Joe Short as Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are a breathe of fresh air, and I’ve never seen the “play this pipe” speech done with more clarity.  Tom Gleadow as the gravedigger should be knighted for bringing some joy to the stage, though his ghost leaves something to be desired (not due to his own performance, but rather due to a lack of directorial imagination – there was nothing done to distinguish the ghost as otherworldly or inhuman and thereby the scenes fell flat for me).

The entire player troop was also delightful – just hammy enough without completely stealing the show.

And the fight direction was absolutely stellar.  All of the violence onstage was well paced, well choreographed, and well rehearsed.  Mister Normand Beauregard, the Gamm’s resident fight director, has my personal stamp of approval.

With the good comes the bad, and unfortunately there was a great deal of bad.  Jeanine Kane’s Gertrude was cardboard, Marc Dante Mancini’s Horatio almost incomprehensible, and Gillian Williams packs too much of a punch to play Ophelia.  Due to the choice in aging Hamlet, Ophelia was also aged and, while Williams is certain to please in roles more suited to her strength, she didn’t make a believable waif.

Here’s the thing about Ophelia: Ophelia is a wisp of a girl stuck in a man’s world.  She’s not a woman, she’s not someone who knows how to function on her own, and every man in her life has used and abused her.  Her father, her brother, Hamlet himself… all of these men treat Ophelia like a pawn in their greater game.  Ophelia runs mad because these men are all taken away from her.  Without them, she simply cannot function in the high-pressure environment of the court.  If you have an Ophelia who is able to stand on her own, there’s no reason why she would run mad when her father dies and Hamlet is sent away.  She’d just pick herself up by the bootstraps and move on (and that, my friends, is the difference between Ophelia and Rosalind).  So Williams, while talented, really shouldn’t be playing this role.  And casting her robbed the play of credence.

Hamlet with Polonius

There’s been a trend lately of modernizing Hamlet, but the problem with doing that is such: there’s only so modern Hamlet can be.  Hamlet requires a world with aristocracy, a world where swords are still used (you cannot do anything else with that duel, it HAS to be a swordfight), and a world where women are afforded a societal position lower than men.  Most directors solve this by staging Hamlet in a World War II era, about the most modern Hamlet will go.  As such, this production’s choice to do just that wasn’t at all bold or new.  In fact, it’s becoming something quite hackneyed.

The production made one other bold choice which, again, wasn’t new or different… simply upsetting.

So Hamlet is a story about the foibles of leadership and how horrible power can be.  There is, however, hope in this: Horatio, the one who watches, the one who is there through everything, is able to carry on the story.  He tells the tale of the Danish court to Fortinbras after the Norwegians claim the Danish throne.  There is some assurance that these awful events, once come to pass, will never happen in the same way again.

That is, unless you disregard the textual clues, completely dump upon the greater meaning of Hamlet, and use the last moment onstage to shoot Horatio.

Okay, directors, listen up.  Rule number one about Hamlet: you don’t shoot Horatio.  Period.  Doing so completely alters the meaning of Shakespeare’s text, completely jars the audience into a hopeless slump, and otherwise privileges your “GREAT CONCEPT” over the bard’s work.  Yes, I understand that you’re trying to do something “new and innovative” with a text that is done to death in the popular culture, but shooting Horatio is not new nor is it innovative.  Oskar Eustis did it in Shakespeare in the Park’s 2008 Hamlet and I didn’t like it then either.  “Bid the soldiers shoot” is Fortinbras’ instruction to begin the gun salute funeral festivities, not license to impose your ending on a literary classic.

I could drone on about why this choice is wrong, but unless you’re looking for a dramaturge for your modern-dress production of Hamlet you’re probably not interested in reading it.  If you ARE looking for a dramaturge for your modern-dress production of Hamlet, shoot me an e-mail and I’m your girl.  If you’re planning a modern-dress production of Hamlet, for god’s sake find yourself a dramaturge so that you don’t make this mistake (…looking at the production credits, they did have a dramaturge for this production… I can’t imagine what she was thinking to allow this to happen.  Fie and shame upon her!).

What did Horatio ever do to you?

Hamlet’s run has been extended through December 18th.  For more information, head on over to their website.

For my part, it was all Greek to me

Last night, in a ceremony which officiates my true induction into the Tufts theatre community, I got to see my first production at Tufts.  Currently playing in my department is a show which they have dubbed Oedipus/Antigone.  It’s a creative cutting of the first and last shows of the Oedipus cycle in which act one is Oedipus and act two is Antigone.  Our show plays with an ensemble cast; the actors who perform leads in the first half duck into the chorus during the second, and vice versa.  Only Creon remains as, well, only Creon remains.

Let’s talk about the physical space available at Tufts for a moment.  Our productions occur in the Balch Arena Theatre, a challenge in itself.  An arena

Great shot of our theatre

theatre is what it sounds like – picture a miniature sports arena.  The stage is round and at the center of the pit with the house raked around it either in the round or three quarters.  Ours can be converted from the round to three quarters depending on the needs of the production (which is a godsend as performing in the round is debatably one of the most difficult things to do in theatre).

For Oedipus/Antigone, the set was simple and beautiful.  It was performed in three-quarters with a multi-tiered platform built into the stage.  The platform and accoutrements had the appearance of being made from stone.  At the platform’s center was a fire circle, a sunken pit filled with charred bits of rock.  It served as a focal point for the production and a sort of touchstone for the actors.  Also, it kept them from doing what comes extremely naturally in a space like this: planting oneself center and staying there.

At the back wall was a giant triangle spanning almost floor to ceiling in this double-high auditorium which appeared to be made from pottery shards.  At the center of the triangle was a giant set of double doors arrayed in Greek brass and which served as the Theban palace.

Since so little information is available to us about Greek Theatre, many surmises are (perhaps erroneously) made from pottery.

Simplistic, but wonderful.  The levels allowed for interesting stage pictures (and the chorus created them – often times making complicated scenes out of their bodies to accompany the lengthy chorus speeches).  Without being finicky or overdone, the set was transporting and brought us to a place long ago and far away.

Now let’s talk about the nitty-gritties of reviewing a college production.  How does one go about it?  The innate problem is that, while the students working on said production are surrounded and supported by professionals, they themselves are just students.  The lighting, sets, direction, and costumes can be professional quality, but the actors are still early in their career, without a great deal of experience, and for the most part just starting to learn about themselves much less their craft.  I think it unfair to hold a college production to professional standards.  I am always ready to be pleasantly surprised, but I never walk in holding my breath for something transcendent to happen.  Inevitably, that leads to disappointment.

There were, without a doubt, some incredible performances last night.  There were mediocre ones as well, but not to the point of ruining my evening.  For the most part, the ladies stole the show.  Jocasta was a powerhouse.  Antigone was utterly breathtaking.  The Messenger in Act II managed to insert no small amount of humor into the pressing clouds of despair.

Greek theatre is hard.  Make no bones about it.  It involves lofty concepts, larger-than-life people, and intensely high-stakes situations.  More than that, its language (due to eons and eons of translation passed down generation to generation) can be clunky and unwieldy.  Rather than present a great deal of onstage action, instead we are left with long speeches describing the most exciting bits of the story which have occurred offstage.

We live in a visual culture.  Television, movies, youtube, the instant access to vast amounts of information available day or night at our fingertips… all this and more have created a society of people impatient and infinitely fixated upon the idea of seeing.  The Greek theatre is a theatre of hearing even to a greater degree than the theatre of Shakespeare.  To understand, one must open up and listen.

Last night was dollar night.  The second Thursday of every run of every show at Tufts is open and available to any who wish to come see it for a dollar a seat.  What this mostly means is a theatre full of giggling undergrads seeing their friends or fulfilling course credit of some kind.  I was more than interested to see how they dealt with the text.

Of course, cutting two full-length plays down to one act each ensures that most of the lengthy talky bits wind up in the circular file.  This strategy was one perhaps necessary given the audience… could the undergrads have sat through two full length Greek tragedies without losing interest or tweeting?

The only disturbing thing which I did notice from the audience was a certain hesitancy to engage and fear of the text.  Theatre shouldn’t be scary.  When something is funny, you laugh.  When something is moving, you cry.  When something is surprising, you gasp.  There were certainly instances of all of the above in last night’s performance, but it seemed like myself and my companions were some of the few to understand the concept of active engagement.  Has the theatre become so lofty that we are afraid to laugh?  I mean, yes, it’s Greek, but can’t we give ourselves permission to enjoy anyway?  The attitude of oppression from this young audience disturbed me.

But how do you teach an audience to interact with a piece?  Is this the sort of thing they must learn by example and since theatre is becoming less and less of a commonplace past-time we are doomed to future auditoriums full of fearful audiences?

On the flip side of the coin, to my great relief, as I looked around I noted only one individual asleep in his seat  and I didn’t see a single cell phone out the entire performance (though there were three instances of ringing phones during the production, but I suppose one must choose one’s battles).  So perhaps, while intimidated, this audience was at least respectful.  Maybe there is hope after all.