Sunday, October 22, 2017

"The Farm" at TheatreFIRST

I read George Orwell's "Animal Farm" in my freshman English class in high school. The book is a very accessible introduction to a number of different aspects of literature, including political satire and extended metaphor. By portraying the characters with different kinds of animals, Orwell provides a richness to his characterizations beyond the individual personas he creates. Not only do we understand some of the sub-groupings of individuals on the farm, but we impute characteristics to those groups based on our knowledge of the animals.

This works great on the page, but I wondered how it would translate to the stage. A few years before I hooked up with the Shotgun Players, they had produced Jon Tracy's adaptation of "Animal Farm" called The Farm, but I missed it. As luck would have it, the opening show of TheatreFIRST's current season is a revived and updated rendition of The Farm.

The Play

The script stays pretty close to the story thread of the book, at least as I recall it. The animals, tired of working for the farmer only to end up slaughtered, rise up and drive out the farmer, taking over the running of the farm for themselves. They set up an egalitarian collectivist structure with a set of seven precepts or commandments, which they paint on the wall for all to see (even those who can't read). The most important and memorable of these is the dictate that "All animals are equal," along with "Four legs good; two legs bad."

As the story progresses and the ideals of the revolutionary animals meets up with the reality of running a farm, behavior seems to diverge from the commandments of Animalism, but it turns out that the commandments themselves have been altered, too. And no one can quite recall when or how that happened, but somehow there are now conditions and modifiers on the very straightforward original laws.

The longer we go, the clearer it becomes that the pigs are running the farm for their benefit, much as the humans had, even to the point that they are making deals with the neighboring human farms. And by the end of the story, the pigs have become essentially indistinguishable from the humans, and have subjugated all the other animals. Indeed, some animals are more equal than others.

The Production

On a rather dark, stark stage with some nondescript structure to suggest fencing or pens, the animals arrive. Rather than creating elaborate costumes, each type of animal has a sort of uniform suggesting their species. The horses, for example, wear tan work coveralls and boots. The sheep have woolly sweaters, and so on. What I found particularly effective was the small behaviors that each animal affected, perhaps most notably Clover the horse (Anna Joham), who had a distinctive way of tossing her head and pawing the ground that was quite equine. The designers (particularly costume designer Miyuki Bierlein) and co-directors (Michael Torres and Elena Wright) have done a terrific job of making the visuals subtle, yet evocative. That's good, because the story is a pretty blunt instrument, and trying to accurately present animals or a farm would probably distract from the point of the play.

Adapter Jon Tracy has taken the ordinary prose of Orwell's story and converted it into something more like a poem, with snappy little rhymes and rhythms that keep it flowing and show a cleverness without overwhelming the flow of the story. It's only occasionally that the language draws attention to itself, but when it does it's generally to good effect. Similarly, the insertion of little songs, chants, and raps flow pretty seamlessly. Much as the pigs' conniving to distort the messages of Animalism to their own ends is done in such as way that the other animals either don't notice or are powerless to oppose it, Tracy's adaptations of the story fit so neatly that one almost doesn't notice that some dialogue has morphed into rhyme until it goes somewhere else, and you find yourself thinking "well, that was neat!"

There are other good touches, such as the use of the revolutionary hog, Old Major (Anthony Frederick Aranda). His imposing figure introduces the animals to the idea of rising up, but his early demise removes him from the immediate action, though he remains an inspiration and a touchpoint (either his memory or his physical skull). The production handles that by having Old Major linger in the background, beating a drum off and on, maintaining his presence throughout. And every time the wise donkey, Benjamin (Dean Koya), tries to point out that the pigs are violating the precepts of Animalism, someone points out that he is an ass.

The Bottom Line

I was really impressed with this production. The acting ensemble is very strong. I haven't called out many of the individuals, largely because they function so well as a collective. It's not that there aren't good performances, but more that no one really dominate the story or the audience's attention. The ringleader of the pigs, Napolean (Tierra Allen) is very good, but not in a way that outshines the rest of the pigs or the other animals, and indeed, that's kind of the message of the story.

TheatreFIRST has done a good job of creating a balanced, diverse cast and crew, in keeping with their mission. I have a little qualm about whether "The Farm" really fits their stated goal of "amplifying marginalized stories," given how well-known the source material is. And really, critiques of communism and socialism are hardly marginalized in Berkeley! That said, it is definitely a fresh, lively take on the story, and the creativity of both the adaptation and the staging are clear.

This is a show that deserves to be seen, not so much because people need to see "Animal Farm" on stage, but more because it shows how powerfully a creative group can take a familiar story and turn it into something fresh and relevant without having to produce a giant, flashy spectacle. Indeed, it's refreshing to see the story kind of stripped down to its essence, with the effort placed on character and nuance instead of realism and flash.

And for once, I saw a show early enough in its run that I can recommend that you go to see it. The show runs through November 11, and ticket prices are very reasonable. It's well worth a trip to the Live Oak Theater to see this one.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

"Blasted" at Shotgun Players

Shotgun Players photo by Cheshire Isaacs
I've been anticipating this night for more than a year. Last September, when Shotgun announced that they were going to produce Sarah Kane's play Blasted this season, there was kind of a collective gasp from the audience from those who knew about the play. I wasn't one of those, because I didn't know about it. I have come to understand that this is kind of the third-rail of modern theater, a play so controversial because of its explicit onstage portrayal of truly awful human behavior that for the most part no theater will touch it.

Shotgun, however, is in the midst of a a couple of seasons of intentionally working to get patrons to actively react to their productions, hosting nightly talkbacks and choosing plays that really insist that the audience engage both in the auditorium and (at least intellectually) afterward. So producing Blasted is at a minimum going to invoke some strong reactions of "why are they doing this?"

And before I did too deeply into this production, I should add my usual disclaimer that I am a member of the board of the Shotgun Players, so I am involved with this theater, though not really in the artistic aspects, just on the business side. Although I often sponsor productions at Shotgun, Blasted was not one.

The Play

Sarah Kane was an extremely controversial and noteworthy playwright in the 1990s. She  was also deeply, clinically depressed, and only wrote five plays before she committed suicide in 1999. She apparently started by writing a play about an older man and younger woman meeting up in a hotel, but was distracted by the genocide going on in Bosnia at the time, and decided to tackle the issue of how people could attend theater as a distraction from the gross inhumanity taking place daily by bringing some of that inhumanity onto the stage.

And make no mistake, the play brings inhumanity in both large and small senses into an inescapable room in front of our eyes. There is no way to avoid the full range of bad human interactions from really small microaggressions in the conversation of the two lovers meeting up to the full on, physical and psychic attacks and other transgressions that follow later. There is really no way to escape the fact that our characters behave really, really badly to one another. And there are plenty of reasons that no one under 18 is admitted to the theater for this show.

It's ugly, it's cruel, and it's pretty relentless. But that is kind of the point. War is hell, and Kane wants us to know that you can't get away from that just because you're not directly in the war. It affects us all.

The play spends a considerable portion of its time allowing Ian and Cate to really descend into some bad places, tinged with some real humanity and affection, though not in a very appealing way. Only later does the larger aspect of war intrude in the person of the Soldier. And only then do we get truly blasted.

The characters are well-written and believable, though I'm not sure how relatable any of them are, perhaps with the exception of the soldier, who seems to have had a lot of this thrust upon him. The other two seem to be inexplicably drawn together in a mutually destructive relationship that can't possibly lead anywhere good for either.

The Production

If you're going to do this play at all, you have to do it well: No one wants to see an ugly unicorn. So Shotgun has recruited an excellent cast of actors, top-notch designers, and tasked company member Jon Tracy to direct. In my limited exposure, it's clear that Tracy does not shy away from a difficult challenge, so he seems an ideal candidate to tackle this play. Similarly, the three actors need to be convincing professionals, and Robert Parsons (Ian), Adrienne Kaori Walters (Cate), and Joe Estlack (Soldier) are all terrific in their portrayals. Parsons carries perhaps the heaviest load, since he is on stage virtually the whole play, and even when he is offstage, his presence dominates the mood.

The initial scene is an excellent setup for the remainder of the show. Ian and Cate come onstage separately, each silently reacting to the hotel-room set (stunningly designed, as usual, by Nina Ball) in dramatically different ways. So before anyone speaks, we know there will be some areas of conflict. The lighting by Heather Basarab and sound by Matt Stines make the whole thing work, as the hotel and its occupants get quite literally blasted along with all the emotional explosions.

Indeed, I don't really have issues with the way the show was presented. The hotel room looks quite authentic--I'd stay there. And the acting is really well done. All three actors have crawled into some very difficult characters and found a space that entirely works for them. And the intimacy of the small stage placed so close to the front row of seats makes it impossible to avoid the matters that confront the audience. It's right there, in your face.

So, What's the Big Deal?

The question, as noted earlier, is why one does this play. It's not enough to just make a big splash--the world is full of people behaving very, very badly. That's not news. The question is, why put this on stage?

And truthfully, I'm still grappling with that question. I don't question the importance of the issues. Indeed, we see those issues portrayed, albeit with less immediacy, fairly frequently. There are tons of movies that portray the horrors of war, both on the combatants and civilians, in even greater detail than this play does. There are lots of plays that portray a lot of these same issues, too, although more symbolically or metaphorically. And there are abundant sources of first-person accounts of these atrocities (Elie Weisel's Night comes to mind) and documentary films and historical documents that illustrate this behavior in real situations.

It's not like we don't know this stuff. So I'm of two minds when it comes to the question of why put this on stage. What jumps to mind is that, as with any live theater production, especially in a small house, there is an ineffable, tangible experience that is qualitatively different from other media. And that may be true for some. But for me, at least, reading accounts or seeing documentary footage is extremely visceral, and in ways that any artifice, even extremely well-done artifice, cannot duplicate.

There is probably an argument to be made that if theater wants to make a statement on this subject, this is the way it has to do it. We can't put actual holocaust survivors or historical footage on stage (although, now that I think of it, the Tracy-directed show Leni at Aurora last season did some of that quite effectively--using historical footage and artistic portrayals of historical figures, though in service of a quite different message). But there is a case to be made that this might be the closest live theater can come to the experience of a war documentary or memoir.

But another side of me ponders the notion that in fact Kane's premise is incorrect, that there is nothing per se wrong with escaping from the reality of the days news and atrocities to go to the theater. On some level, there is value in allowing oneself to remember that there is, in fact, something better out there. That one can aspire to remember and to strive to be the "better angels" that we know can inhabit us. Indeed there are many examples of people surviving periods of atrocity by engaging either in the practice or the memory of art, music, or even theater.

In short, it's not clear to me that the only way theater can address these issues is by dragging us all down into them in person. It is one way, and it is effective and thought-provoking, but it's definitely not the only way, and I'm not even sold that it's the most effective way.

Bottom Line

Regardless of whether the approach appeals to one, it is clear that the issues addressed are important and timely. And frankly, there's no reason necessarily to shy away from producing a play such as this. It will be controversial, but controversy is the key to discussion and thought. Far too many productions here in the bay area preach to a choir of the already converted, safely allowing us to land on the same side of what might be a controversial issue or presentation elsewhere. It's nice to see a theater taking on a subject and presentation that its own artistic company, staff, and audience disagree on the merits of.

In that sense, it's worth seeing to make up your own mind. I have to say that after a year of anticipation and warnings and such, I didn't find much in this play to be actually shocking, though much of it is quite disturbing, and it's hard to see it happening live in front of you on stage.

The show runs for one more week, through October 22nd.

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Hamlet" at ACT

ACT photo by Kevin Berne
I believe this is the fourth time I have blogged on the play Hamlet in just the last couple of years. The fact that I saw it well over a dozen times last year at Shotgun Players suggests that I like the play. It's a classic for a reason, and watching different stagings and castings and interpretations is always educational.

The Play

No, really, I'm not going to summarize the play. If you don't know, go read it. Or go see it. Or (better yet) both.

What I will say here, since there are many ways to cut or otherwise alter the play, that ACT largely kept the full text in place, meaning it was a 3-hour production. Since the vast majority of my recent viewings were of Shotgun's reduced version, I was looking forward to seeing the full show again. Truthfully, the wrapper story with Norway doesn't really add much to the play (except in the sort of academic sense that it gives us a third iteration of sons avenging slain fathers). I marveled at the fact that Jomar Tagatac as young Fortinbras really does only appear for about the last two minutes of the play, with no other roles, until I realized he is also the understudy for Hamlet, which is plenty to keep him busy.

That said, it's really nice to hear some of the less-famous speeches in all their Shakespearean fullness. Much of the joy of Hamlet is the beauty of the poetry, so although it doesn't necessarily enlarge on the story per se, it does increase the enjoyment of the telling.

The Production

As with most productions of Hamlet, the discussion starts with the casting of the title role. It's a huge role (in terms of the number of lines and time spent on stage). ACT went with a very experienced Shakespearean actor, John Douglas Thompson, last seen at ACT in Satchmo at the Waldorf. He's a bit old for "young Hamlet," but that's not an insurmountable obstacle. Indeed, by casting mature actors for the older generation [Gertrude (Domenique Lozano), Claudius/Ghost (Steven Anthony Jones), and Polonius (Dan Hiatt)], director Carey Perloff makes it at least plausible that Hamlet the son is at least pushing middle age, and his friend Horatio (Anthony Fusco) is of similar age.

Somewhat less plausible, however, are the castings of Hamlet's love interest, Ophelia (Rivka Borek), and his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Teddy Spencer and Vincent J. Randazzo, respectively). They all do terrific jobs, but there is no covering for the fact that their characters all seem much too young for the relationships they have with an older Hamlet. The friends aren't too worrisome, but the scenes between Hamlet and Ophelia just have a certain...uncomfortable aspect.

A few other notes on casting and performances. Hiatt as Polonius does a fine job. He's a really solid, reliable character actor who manages to make his character here credible without veering over into farce. All of the actors who are members of the ACT MFA program (Borek, Peter Fanone, Adrianna Mitchell, and Randazzo) blend extremely well into the cast, unlike some of their predecessors. I usually worry when I see MFA students in the cast, but this time I was very pleased with the results. On the downside, I had been looking forward to Jones' portrayal of Claudius, as he is one of the long-time stalwarts of the ACT company and I have many memories of him carrying shows over the years. Unfortunately, here he seemed a bit out of place, struggling for lines at times, and generally displaying little energy or fire in a role that really requires it. As a result, some of the energy that should exist between Hamlet and his uncle/stepfather is just missing, and though the words are there, it falls a little flat.

As for design, scenic designer David Israel Reynoso seems to have taken rather literally the lines about Denmark being a prison. It feels a bit like being in a really large, dreary Alcatraz prison. Within that setting, some of the choices seem a bit odd, such as the heavy plastic curtain behind which the ghost appears, or the various curtains and arrases the slide noisily in and out between scenes. One of the few fittings in the structure, a brass showerhead, seems oddly placed when we're in the throne room, though less so when the setting is one of the characters' bedrooms. It just seems an odd choice in such a sparse staging to have one very obvious object that is not itself important.

And my resident clothing historian tells me that the costumes (also by Reynoso) place the characters clearly in the late 1950s to early 1960s, which is fine for the setting, I guess, but there doesn't seem to be any actual reason to set the play then. Perhaps there is some large message to this timing that eludes me, but I get nothing from it.

Finally, there are the weapons. At times there are wooden "daggers" that seem like harmless sparring practice tools, and that's OK, I guess. But then later they pull out some "swords" that look like some weird cross between a metal pipe and a screwdriver. This seems rather inexplicable, as it doesn't seem in keeping with the period of the setting at all, unless I'm supposed to see them as improvised weapons like shivs that prisoners might construct. Otherwise, I don't quite get it.

The Bottom Line

All in all, it's a decent rendition of Hamlet. I expected a bit more from the experienced members of the cast. The chemistry between the characters is just not really there. Besides the aforementioned lack of fire between Claudius and Hamlet, I also don't see the friendship between Hamlet and Horatio. Both are so reserved around each other, they seem more like long-time coworkers than best friends. And similarly, I have trouble understanding the relationship between Hamlet and Laertes (Teagle F. Bougere), perhaps because they don't seem to understand it, either. Laertes' ire seems to ebb and flow very quickly, but it's hard to see him as being particularly incensed at Hamlet, versus just angry.

Producing such a well-known play sort of demands that you have a reason for doing it, a message that you're trying to get across. It's not really enough to just put on the play, say the words, and check it off on your bucket list. And that's what I feel like I'm seeing: an actor who always wanted to play Hamlet, and director who wanted to direct it, and yet neither seems to have a compelling message to put across with this production.

It's not bad, and parts are good. But I can't help feeling that it should have been much more.

The play runs for another week, through October 15th.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

"Measure for Measure" at California Shakespeare Theatre

California Shakespeare Theatre photo by rr jones
Cal Shakes wraps up its season with a bit of Shakespeare, albeit one of the odder comedies, given that it sort of flaunts a lot of the conventions of the comedic genre: Measure for Measure. But on the heels of such strong productions earlier in the season, my expectations were quite high. I have to say this production was a bit of a let-down from the quality I've come to expect, but it was not without merit.

The Play

I call Measure odd for a comedy in part because it's quite dark, with characters condemned to death and relatively little of the lighthearted banter I associate with Shakespearean comedy. And even the "happy" ending with marriages is not quite the mega-happy outcome one might expect. Director Tyne Rafaelli's states in the program that she sees the play as being "essentially about a political regime change," which really is pushing it. Although the interim duke (Angelo) aspires to wield power, it reminds me more of when Mike Curb was California's Lieutenant Governor under Governor Jerry Brown (the first time around). Every time Brown would leave the state, Curb would issue orders as Acting Governor, which Brown would then countermand as soon as he returned.

This is much like the play, where Angelo rather runs amuck, though the actual Duke is disguised and watching the whole thing play out. Although Angelo is literally playing with matters of life and death, we know the Duke is going to unravel it all, so there is no real regime change here, just aspirations of power. The other themes she cites, though, justice versus mercy and love and (especially) forgiveness, are all quite clearly there, and (to me) much more important to the play.

Although the production makes some attempts to soften the edges of some of the more atavistic aspects of the play such as bartering a woman's chastity for the life of her brother, the choice of setting the action in a distinctly modern setting makes much of the action seem even less plausible than normal. This strikes me as a needless attempt to make a play feel more relevant and approachable to a modern audience. It's really quite clear how all of this pertains to contemporary life without the modern costumes and music and such.

The Production

I've already strayed into some of the aspects of the production, but now let's focus. The set design by Annie Smart is quite nice, though a little busy, requiring a fair amount of running up and down stairs that seemed gratuitous. And Cal Shakes seems to have a thing about sliding doors. It was better here than in some of their previous designs (I'm looking at you, Glass Menagerie), but still rather excessive.

But visually and audibly, the production clashes with its setting. In the absence of the Duke (Rowan Vickers), who wears a rather normal, modern suit, Angelo (David Graham Jones) and Escalus (Tristan Cunningham) and the Provost (Patty Gallagher) go quasi-Nazi drag in outfits that look like Scandinavian Airlines dressed its flight attendants at the Folsom Street Fair or something. It sort of works when we get to the various scenes of police brutality and such, but hardly in line with the strict piety that Angelo supposedly presents. Similarly, Isabella (Lindsay Rico) is dressed appropriately in a white shift, about to take her vows as a nun, but at the same time is searing black boots with clear heels that look most un-nunly, like she's about to hit the disco. And the music...even after reading sound designer Brandon Walcott's statement in the program, I can't fathom how the blasts of music were meant to advance my understanding. The early sounds were so jarring that I just forced myself to tune them out later.

And finally, the language. In this summer's OSF production of Off The Rails, an adaptation based on Measure for Measure, many of the best bits were the parts that were actually Shakespeare's language, the beauty of which was soothing and lovely, in spite of being set in the American west. But in this Cal Shakes rendition of the actual play, the poetry and majesty of the language seem to have been sacrificed to the modernization of the setting. I'm not clear whether it's the intention to deliver the lines this way, or whether the actors just aren't up to the challenge of the text, but most of the language comes across flat, almost stilted. And that's too bad, because one of the redeeming features of this rather troubling play is the beauty of the language behind much of it.

Bottom Line

As you can tell, I was disappointed. The strong, extremely professional productions of the first three plays of the season really set my expectations high, and this just didn't measure up to that. Although I liked the set and the lighting was effective, the rest of the design and direction just weren't of the same caliber, and the acting was OK, but not nearly at the level seen earlier in the year.

So it was definitely a disappointing end to the season. Overall, I thought the quality of the shows at Cal Shakes this year was terrific, much better than in past seasons. I hope the earlier shows are a better indication of what to expect in the upcoming year, because they have committed to some very challenging material. We'll have to wait until next summer to see how it turns out.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

"black odyssey" at California Shakespeare Theatre

Cal Shakes photo by Kevin Berne
I suppose it's pretty rare to see two wildly different productions, both based on the same story, so close together. On the other hand, the classic stories get retold and repurposed, so having seen The Odyssey at Ashland earlier in the summer, it was extra interesting to see Marcus Gardley's black odyssey this week at Cal Shakes.

I've been so impressed with the first two productions of the 2017 season at Cal Shakes, I was really looking forward to this one. And on top of that, I'd been quite disappointed in Eric Ting's direction of Othello last season, so I was intrigued to see what he would do this time.

The Play

Unlike the Ashland production, which was a pretty straight adaptation of the Homeric epic to the stage, Gardley takes a different path, adapting the well-known tale to tell a similar, but different, story of a man lost and found again. This time, Ulysses Lincoln (J. Alphonse Nicholson) is a contemporary U.S. soldier trying to find his way home from the wars in the Middle East, but he has angered the sea god, Paw Sidin (Aldo Billingslea), who is in turn in conflict with both his brother, Deus (Lamont Thompson), and Deus's daughter Aunt Tina (Margo Hall). Tina tries to protect her nephew Ulysses, while Paw Sidin wants to kill him, or at least keep him lost. But Ulysses wants to get home to Oakland, where he left his wife Nella P. (Omoze Idehenre) and unborn son Malachai (Michael Curry). Over the sixteen years it takes Ulysses to come home, Nella will lose some of her faith in him, tempted by a suitor who is really Paw Sidin.

Along the way, Ulysses faces the temptations you would expect, sirens, enchantresses, etc. But there is always another meaning. Because Ulysses is not just a soldier lost in the war, he is a black man who has lost his way, lost his faith in himself. So his odyssey is not just about coming home, but really the struggle to find himself and his place in history.

Adapted a bit for the local staging, the script is full of references to local landmarks and icons. This is very much a show about here. At times the local color seems a bit overdone, trying to be just a bit too cute. But overall it does a good job of grounding the play in the here and now, especially because the content, being an odyssey, is so unmoored from time and place. Gardley handles that part quite masterfully: it is remarkably clear what is happening, and though the connection to the original epic is a helpful reference for those who know it, the story as told stands on its own as well. It's a remarkable and powerful piece of writing.

The Production

In addition to some localization of the story to the east bay, Cal Shakes has provided two composer/directors, Linda Tillery and Molly Holm, who weave African-American spiritual songs into the tapestry of the play, providing a strong undercurrent of culture drawing Ulysses along his path. Along with the interventions of Aunt Tina, who drops her immortality to aid her nephew, Ulysses manages to eventually move along to his proper path, meeting important guides along the way.

I haven't even gotten to mention the rest of the ensemble players, Safiya Fredericks, Michael Gene Sullivan, and Dawn L. Troupe. The whole group is extremely strong, both as character actors and musicians. In fact, the entire cast is one of the most solid, balanced groups of its size I've seen locally in quite a while.

The design of the production is good, though not spectacular. Michael Locher's scenic design seems rather familiar, like I've seen it or things rather similar on this stage before. [Can I say I'm getting a little tired of the framed doors that move on and off stage? It was a useful idea, but is getting a bit overdone.] And the staging doesn't really take full advantage of the expanse of the stage. The action is largely focused in the middle of the stage, which makes the whole thing feel just a bit less, well, epic.

But truly, it's a high-quality production, masterfully acted by all. If I have to call out the truly outstanding performances, I would probably point to Hall, whose physical presence can dominate scenes in multiple ways, and Billingslea, who ranges from comical to threatening with almost no visible transition, really embodying the vagaries of a powerful but rather immature god.

Bottom Line

I liked this show a lot. I wish I'd been able to see it earlier in the run so that I could perhaps direct more people to see it. On the other hand, most of the run has been completely sold out, including the remaining shows this weekend before it closes. And that is well deserved. This is the third straight excellent production in the 2017 season for Cal Shakes. And I am pleased to say I thought Ting's direction of this one was spot-on.

In his role as Artistic Director, Ting has clearly made a commitment to improving the diversity on the Cal Shakes stage. This is the second consecutive show with a full cast of people of color. And this one (though Glass Menagerie, too, in a different way) really shows the power of adapting a classic tale to present the story of a different culture. One might initially think a Greek epic would be an odd vehicle for a story of a modern African-American in search of his personal and racial identity. But Gardley's adaptation of Homer is really strong here. It's clever, often funny, decidedly poignant, musical, and impactful. The crowd seemed almost reluctant to leave, and the discussions I overheard on the way out were varied but almost all focused on aspects of the play. And that's one mark of a successful production.

Good stuff. Good luck getting a ticket to one of the last two shows!

Friday, September 1, 2017

Reading: "The Niceties" at Shotgun Players

For a variety of personal reasons, I was not in the mood to go to the theater this week, but by the same token, it was a chance to see friends and be in the warm embrace of a show, so I decided to go to the latest installment of the Shotgun Champagne Reading Series.

As usual, the cast had very limited time to prepare. This time, three days of rehearsal instead of the usual four. Luckily, there are only two actors in the play, and it has only one set, so it's not too complex in that regard. The material, however, is complicated, so they had plenty to work on.

The Play

The reading this time around was The Niceties by Eleanor Burgess, whose work I was not familiar with. The scene is a professor's office, with an undergraduate student coming to office hours to discuss a draft of a History paper. Sounds thrilling, no?

We start with some nitpicking about punctuation and grammar and parallelism and some little cutesy bits about words we like and why, etc. But then the discussion turns to the substance of the paper, and things rather quickly unravel. The professor takes issue with the thesis of the paper and the types of evidence used to support it, and things spiral into a discussion of racism and privilege and micro-aggressions and the whole gamut of topics that, depending on your perspective, fall under either the category of Social Justice or Political Correctness.

Ultimately the topic under discussion, though, is power: who has it, why, and how do they exercise it? In the give and take of the struggle over the paper, the legitimacy of academia, the university, tenure, professorship, grading, and academic disciplines all come under the microscope. So do personal goals and security, ethics, and basic questions about the purposes of life, education, and career. It's a big grab.

So clearly this play is ambitious. In many ways it's up to the task. There are some very clever passages and exchanges on both sides of the dialogue. But it's also, particularly in the first act, rather long, repetitive, and more of a rant than a discussion. The student, particularly, seems to have a lot of awfully well-rehearsed responses to just about everything the professor says, making it all feel like kind of a set-up, which is quite at odds with the way the relationship presents at the outset. If the student is so tuned in to all the issues as we come to see, then it's rather implausible that she stumbled into the situation in the first place.

But these are matters that could be addressed with some solid editing.

The Reading

First off, terrific casting. Zoe, the student, is played by Leigh Rondon-Davis, who passes easily for an undergrad, though she kind of slipped out of her teenage naivete rather too soon and too rapidly. With more time to rehearse, I think Zoe could have modulated her tone a bit more at times, adding to the give-and-take of the dialogue. Veteran actor Anne Darragh portrayed Janine, the professor. with a mixture of studied disdain, genuine befuddlement, and exasperation. She also seemed a little unclear which character she ultimately wanted to play, as her early presentation is a little dotty, suggesting that either she is already uncomfortable about the encounter (which doesn't seem right for the script) or not quite the academic powerhouse she later claims to be. Again, that just seems to be a product of short rehearsal schedules, but it makes it a little tougher for the audience to get its bearings in the melee.

Under the direction of Lisa Marie Rollins, the overall play unfolds at a good clip. The small office on the mostly open stage feels constraining, forcing the characters to persist; there's nowhere else to go. So when they do get up to move, it's pretty effective. At over two hours in length (with an intermission), the play feels a little long, but again, that's more about the length of some of the rants, rather than the setting. The office just always seems plausible.

Bottom Line

I can't quite decide whether the play is just trying to do too much all at once, or whether a more practiced, nuanced production would be able to pick out the different threads and make them more discernible. The dialogue certainly hits on lots of timely issues, but in fact tries just a bit to hard to pin down the exact moment in time, which doesn't seem necessary. It really doesn't matter whether it's 2016 or 2017, for example, but a few bits of dialogue seem to rather gratuitously pin it on one side of the 2016 presidential election.

There are also just a few too many shortcuts taken in the script. Janine, particularly, seems to let several really questionable points just go by with assertions by Zoe that just seem entirely unfounded, and that doesn't do justice to either side. A play that is essentially a dialogue like this needs to be scrupulously fair to both parties, and it feels like this script needs a bit more work in that regard.

But ultimately it's a truly interesting effort, and probably merits more work and another look. I'm sure a lot of the elements of the play would be more clearly portrayed in a full production, and some work on the script could make it truly excellent, rather than merely provocative.

But as usual, a really interesting evening from a Shotgun staged reading.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

"Henry IV" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Oregon Shakespeare Festival photo by Jenny Graham
OK, last shows of the year at Ashland. This year we managed to see all 11 productions, and the last two were parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV. Although the two parts have different directors, they have largely the same cast, with many holding over from last season's Richard II, which is the "prequel" in the history series. And I believe many will carry over to next season's production of Henry V. And let me just say this is a good thing. The plays are much easier to follow when you have some character continuity.

I'm going to go against my usual protocol and cover both parts of Henry IV in one post. Partly that's because I'm a week late writing about them, and partly it's that I'm doing so via bad hotel wifi in Ecuador. So we'll see what we've got.

The Plays

As noted, we pick up the history from the end of  Richard II, where Henry Bollingbrook deposes Richard and becomes the fourth King Henry (Jeffrey King). We now pick up with a lot of dissent in the kingdom. Many of those who supported and assisted Henry in his return, notably the Duke of Northumberland and his daughter (normally a son, but OSF cast a woman in the role, so changed all the pronouns and such) Henry Percy (Alejandra Escalante), known as "Hotspur." Hotspur is a hot-headed hotshot who feels quite put out about Henry and his behavior. And there is a particular rivalry with Henry's dissolute eldest son, Hal (Daniel Jose Molina), who spends most of his time hanging around with the clownish knight Sir Jack Falstaff (normally C. Valmont Thomas, but we saw his understudy, Tyrone Wilson, who is normally Northumberland--got all that?) and a band of, let's say, underachievers.

When push comes to shove and Northumberland and Hotspur join forces with the Scots and some Welsh, we essentially have a little civil war in which Hal proves himself to be quite worthy and Hotspur quite dead. (Sorry...I don't worry about spoilers in a history play!) That's the end of part 1.

Part 2 picks up a bit later, with Henry unwell, and still quite a bit of unrest. Hal is backsliding a bit on his promises of better behavior. Falstaff is skimming funds while supposedly helping raise an army. Stuff gets real. Eventually Henry dies, and Hal is crowned the fifth King Henry, but disavows Falstaff and his cronies.

The Productions

Two things to note: First, we saw the understudy play the major role of Falstaff. I thought he was excellent, and fit into the play very well. But I can't say how it works when the regular Falstaff is present (although C. Valmont Thomas is an excellent, experienced OSF regular company member, so I assume he's terrific). So if you go see these plays, they will be different, probably.

Second, Hotspur and a number of other nominally male roles were cast as women this season. Some people find this distasteful, and it does mess with the language a little, as Ashland changes pronouns and such. But I thought it worked really well, in part because it makes it so much easier to keep track of who is who in a rather large and shifting cast of characters.

But there is a lot to like in these productions. First, there is Daniel Jose Molina. We saw him first a number of years ago as Romeo, and he was tremendous. He has an uncanny ability to speak Shakespearean language and make it sound extremely natural. Also, it helps that he is young enough to be a convincing Prince Hal. And the excellent Alejandra Escalante (who was Juliet opposite his Romeo) makes a terrific foil as Hotspur, again young and impulsive, very convincingly so.

Similarly, Jeffrey King cuts an impressive figure as Henry. He's a physically imposing actor, and with the play being staged in the tiny Thomas theater with seating on all sides, you get right up there and feel the impact he has. Similarly, Falstaff's clowning is wonderful from up close. The last time I saw this produced at Ashland, it was in the Elizabethan theater, so everything had to be bigger. Very different portrayal here, much more nuanced.

Bottom Line

It's just riveting. The plays run close to three hours each, but it's never dull. The action is crisp, the scene changes are smooth, and the entire acting cast is effective. Some people might not care for the relatively contemporary styling of the designs--it looks and feels like a late-20th century scenario, but it works for me. The roles are pretty timeless (and timely).

I strongly urge people to go see these productions. The quality is terrific, and will be a great basis for next season's better-known play, Henry V.