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.

Definitely As you Like it

Sunday night, I caught the closing performance of Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre’s As You Like It in Roger William’s Memorial Park out in Providence.  I think I’ve waxed poetic enough about Artistic Director/head honcho Bob Colonna’s Shakespeare chaps, so I don’t really need to drive the point home.  Suffice to say that the production was definitely another feather in Colonna’s cap and I was particularly tickled to see it, as As You is one of my personal favorites.

Colonna plays fast and loose with the text, but his panache in doing so leaves even a text

Ryan Hanley as a weasely Oliver and Patrick Cullen as a fiery Orlando

purist like me satisfied.  The benefit to this method of engagement is that Colonna’s shows always offer up something new.  I know that when I see TRIST perform, I’m always going to be challenged in my understanding of the text and delivered a show that adds something real, tangible, and different to the performance history of any given play.

In this case, Colonna eliminated Adam entirely (a move which, admittedly, when he first told me about it gave me some serious doubts).  Substantiating the exposition that Adam adds with some cameos by other court characters, it actually wound up working pretty well.

The thing about As You is that it’s a play about the woods.  As such, the sooner we can be dispensed with the unavoidable business in the court, the sooner the real play can start.  My favorite companion attended with me and mentioned that he felt Rosalind was much stronger in the second act than the first (Colonna stuck his intermission between III iii and III iv just after Rosalind trots off with Orlando and Celia having promised to cure Orlando of his love by pretending to be Rosalind).  Well, that’s because Rosalind doesn’t really get to do anything in the court.

Rosalind’s most salient attribute is her ability as a puppetmaster.  She gets what she wants by adeptly manipulating those around her.  She is, however, confined in this ability until the forest frees her from her petticoats and she is able to take on man’s attire.

Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s first act, filled to the brim with pageantry and courtly

extravagance, tends to just drag in modern performance.  It’s full of important exposition and a great fight scene, but it doesn’t have much by way of entertainment value for the real crux of the show.  Two thirds of the characters we see at court are never seen again, and two thirds of the characters whom we spend the rest of the play with are nowhere to be found at court.  For that, this first act has to be there; without it we have no idea where we are coming from (and, for that matter, going back to at the play’s end), but really the best policy for dealing with it is to cut where you can and run through it at a break-neck pace.

Well, that’s what Colonna did.  By dispatching Adam, he managed to shave some good time off of the top load of the show and get us quicker to where we really needed to be.

Another portion of this play that doesn’t read in contemporary performance without a WHOLE LOT of careful finagling is IV ii; the deer scene.  Yes, yes, important in scholarship.  Yes, yes, forest of Arden Shakespeare’s childhood maybe he poached deer as a kid and this is some Freudian jaunt into biographical studies.  Yes, yes, Jaques’ connection to the forest blah blah.  For that, I’ve never seen a production that really pulled this scene off and made it seem anything other than an odd sidebar to what’s already a long, broad, rambling show.  Colonna side-stepped the issue entirely by cutting the scene and replacing it with a clever bit for Amiens/Jaques involving Amiens’ song and Jaques being a pompous jerk.  Colonna’s bit, while not something that I would have thought permissible with any show that I was specifically working on, read beautifully and elegantly covered the hole left by the missing scene.  Bravo, revisionism! (…don’t tell my M4M director that I said that….)

Lydea Irwin as a tired Celia carried by the rambunctious Mark Carter as Touchstone and Kristina Drager as Rosalind

The other thing that I truly have to applaud Colonna for is maintaining a sense of connection with the audience.  TRIST has a history with the fourth wall; a very sordid past in which the relationship has been broken enough times to warrant its own daytime drama.  The bottom line is this: I love outdoor Shakespeare.  I truly do.  I love theatre in urban spaces.  But if you’re going to perform outside, you need to be prepared for all sorts of interruptions; from pedestrians, to the sounds of passing trains.  And these interruptions are universal; the actors will hear them, the audience will hear them, and there’s little to nothing that can be done about them.

So instead of pretending that that motorcycle isn’t drowning out your text and just trying to schlog through anyway, why not acknowledge the motorcycle, pause for a moment, then move on?  You’re going to lose your audience’s attention anyway (that can be assured by the astoundingly loud vrooms that that little engine puts off as it stops at the stop-light that’s two hundred yards away from your playing space).  Why struggle to preserve the integrity of a fourth wall whose integrity is already compromised?

Colonna gets that and the small moments of improvisations spurred by outside forces (a harried Jaques had a brief moment of mimed drag racing, and Orlando and Ganymede a half-muttered conversation about trains) brought the audience closer to the text rather than alienating us from it.  Rather than rejecting the world around it, this show embraced the outside forces at play, welcoming them into its world and utilizing them to become closer to the audience who was also experiencing them.

I wish I could give you ticket info, but as the show closed Sunday that’s all she wrote.  Colonna and the gang will be back in the fall with a production of Richard III that is sure to please (at least, that’s what he promises me, and he has so-far never let me down).