Sunday, July 31, 2016

"Fences" at CalShakes

If it seems like forever since I saw a play, that's only an illusion. I did see "Hamlet" again this week at Shotgun, but decided I've probably blogged about it enough for now. Maybe later in the year when it's running in repertory with everything else we'll revisit it.

Meanwhile, we'd been wanting to see "Fences" at CalShakes, and suddenly realized that it was closing today. So we went to the closing performance this afternoon at 4:00. I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've been to the Bruns Amphitheater when the show was not at night. It was still light out when we left at the end.

Of course, buying tickets at the last minute pretty much guarantees sitting in the back corner, or splitting the group into random single seats. We chose the back corner, which was nice because it was in the shade from the start. I love outdoor theater, and it felt pretty good for this play, since much of it takes place outside the house. On the other hand, I have a feeling some of the production design gets lost in the daylight.

I'll also note that this was my first time out to CalShakes since their new artistic director, Eric Ting, took over. I didn't notice any major changes, but I have my eyes open. I suspect I will go to at least one of the two remaining shows this season, too.

The Play

First off, this is an August Wilson play, and I really like his writing, so I was bound to like the play. And the central character is a former Negro League baseball player, so it hits on another of my favorite things.

As part of Wilson's set of plays set in Pittsburgh in each decade of the 20th century, "Fences" hits a really great spot: the late 1950s, into the early 60s. The character Troy Maxson was a talented baseball player, but too old to reach the Major Leagues once the color barrier gets broken. Perhaps his criminal record plays a part as well. In any case, as an illiterate black man in a changing world, he find steady work where he can: collecting garbage. His own fight against the color barrier in the trash-collector union is a factor in the play, but mostly it's about his relationships with his wife and his sons, including his struggle to deal with their attempts to succeed beyond what he could achieve.

It's a strong, tightly-written play, well structured and presented, and a terrific platform for the actors to really dig into the heart of the relationships. Aldo Billingslea and Margo Hall as Troy and his wife, Rose, are very good. Their chemistry works well as a couple married 18 years who encounter and deal with a number of crises. They both give a lot of depth to their characters.

Minor Gripes

On the whole, I thought it was a terrific production, and I rather wish I could have seen it at night with the full lighting design and such. I was a little puzzled by some of the set design, particularly the interior walls that are absent in the opening scenes, then inexplicably rise and remain for the rest of the show. I realize it's because there were things to see in the rear of the house early on, but truly, they weren't that critical; they could have left the walls out entirely and it would have improved my sight lines, for sure.

And finally, I have to mention the microphones. As I have noted previously, I am not a fan of mikes on actors in plays. I realize that the crowd at CalShakes is older, and that an outdoor stage with no back makes it difficult to project into the audience. But there is wind, and it was really distracting a number of times in this production. Wind on microphones is a known issue, and there are solutions, but we got a lot of it today. Also, I don't know whether it was issues with the mikes or some other aspect of the sound system, but there were times when characters' voices just about disappeared for a while. And that's not supposed to happen.

All in All

That's really it, though. Good performances up and down the cast. Nice set design and costumes that made it feel like the right period. And of course, a terrific August Wilson play, with the wonderful language and structure that I'm accustomed to, well-delivered by the cast.

I wish I could recommend that you go see it, but as noted at the outset, this was the closing performance. But good stuff from CalShakes.

Friday, July 22, 2016

"Hamlet" at Shotgun Players (Again!)

This is kind of an update to my earlier post on Shotgun's "Hamlet." We went again last night, which was the start of the second tranche of "Hamlet" in repertory, and my seventh time seeing this production.

Two things stand out about this performance:
  1. I finally enticed some old friends who live over on the peninsula to venture back to Berkeley (not that hard, as we met when we were all students at Cal; it's just been tricky coordinating schedules). We'd long-since established that we all like theater a lot, and the same sorts of theater, so it was just a joy getting caught up, comparing notes on shows, and of course, seeing "Hamlet" with some first-timers. Favorite observation: El was a "bratty" Hamlet last night.
  2. In my seventh viewing, I got to see my seventh different actor playing Hamlet. That is a truly unlikely occurrence, but it happened. Another friend was there for her seventeenth time, also seeking to complete her set of seven Hamlets. Lucky for her, we both lacked the same final actor, and the casting draw worked out for us: El Beh was Hamlet opposite David Sinaiko's Ophelia, Cathleen Riddley's Claudius, and Nick Medina's Gertrude.

Interesting Contrasts

It was fun sitting again with people seeing this production for the first time. I'm always a little nervous about it, because this is a different version of "Hamlet," for reasons I've gone into before. Suffice it to say my friends got what the play was doing, and really appreciated it. To the point that they plan to come back with their teen daughters.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, my friend on viewing seventeen mentioned that she had noticed something in the script that she'd missed entirely before. There are really no surprises in the text, but it's possible that a slightly different emphasis or intonation caused her to hear one of Horatio's lines a bit differently in an early scene, which colored her view of later events.

These to me represent two of the real strengths of this "Hamlet": on one hand, the stripped-down script and staging really bring into focus some key interactions of the main characters. And the ever-shifting casting means that not only will you often see different actors in different roles each time, but even when you see an actor repeat a role, it will be different because they will likely be playing opposite someone quite different than before.

And finally, because the production invites (and for some of us, obviously, demands) repeated viewing, we are rewarded for returning with a new play, new insights, and a really terrific experience.

The Full Set

I've been feeling a little like I'm collecting trading cards this season, trying to get my full set of Hamlets. And now I've seen them all, once each. It really is quite remarkable how each Hamlet, being a little different, sets a different tone, perhaps a different pace, and sometimes they are just a different personality. Witness my friend's observation that El Beh's Hamlet was a brat at times. I'm thinking it would be an interesting exercise to try to sum up each of the actor's portrayals in a single word. And then see whether that is consistent across multiple performances by the same actor.

The Repertory Effect

Somewhere I'm sure I have mentioned that Shotgun is doing this season, their 25th, in repertory. So in addition to these seven actors having to know and perform all seven parts in this version of "Hamlet," they are also learning, rehearsing, and performing at least one or two other shows as the season goes on. Eventually, five shows will be running in repertory for the last couple of months of the season.

I think I'm starting to see the repertory season take its toll on some of the actors. The season's third show, "Grand Concourse" (which I haven't yet seen) has opened already, and the fourth, "Caught," is in rehearsals now. So for example, Kevin Clarke (last night's excellent Ghost/Gravedigger) also has large roles in both "Village Bike" and "Grand Concourse," so he has a lot to do, every night of the week. And Cathleen has the lead role in "Grand Concourse," which I think might have tapped some of her energy from playing Claudius last night.

None of this is dire, but when you see these folks fairly often, you can sometimes see where reality is impacting. I am in awe of actors in general for all they can do, and the seven who have undertaken this roulette-cast "Hamlet" have my undying admiration. The fact that they are also successfully managing other roles and switching among plays as well as just boggles my mind.

Bottom Line

More "Hamlet," please!

If it's not "too much theater" for these performers, it's certainly not too much for me! The quest continues.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

"Latin History for Morons" at Berkeley Rep

In the summer, between their regular subscription seasons, Berkeley Rep often has some kind of special production. Past instances have included shows by monologist Mike Daisey, actress/educator Anna Deveare Smith, and perhaps most notably a pre-NYC run of "No Man's Land" starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. The shows are different from their regular season's plays, but generally interesting and of high quality.

And then there is this summer, where actor/comedian John Leguizamo presents a one-man show called "Latin History for Morons." To be fair, many in the audience found the show extremely funny. I was not one of them.


I've never been a big fan of the series of "how-to" books named " For Dummies." I realize that it's meant to be tongue-in-cheek and make seem more approachable to non-experts. But it always seemed condescending, if not insulting, to the audience. In part this is because the term implies not just ignorance or unawareness, but inability to learn: there is a difference between "uninformed" and "dumb."

And the term "moron" is way more loaded to me than "dummy," so this suggests to me that either he really disrespects his audience, or he has a point to make about just how ignorant we are, and perhaps why. So I come into the show hoping that he's got some insight, not only into what I don't know about history, but why that is.

The Show

The show is kind of a rambling stand-up comedy routine, riffing on Latin history since the arrival of Columbus and/or Cortez. There is kind of a thread running through the show that the actor was motivated by trying to help his son, being bullied in middle school, complete an assignment about Heroes, which gives him a reason to try to dredge up Latin heroes from his supposedly limited knowledge of history.

Unfortunately, he shows little respect to any of the historical figures on any side of any encounter, up to and including himself, his family, his teachers, his therapist, etc. Everybody is pretty much just a set-up for a stereotype so he can make a joke. Montezuma is gay, so he has to lisp and prance around a bit. There are bits that verge on creativity and humor, but a lot of it is just riffs, tropes, and recycled jokes.

[Spoiler...I guess.] Ultimately, his son sort of miraculously manages to not only complete his assignment in spite of "help" from his father, but his last-second completion is somehow selected to be the graduation address, where the big reveal is that after searching his background for any sort of hero, unearthing only losers and such, he concludes that he is his own hero.

To me it came off as kind of a TV sitcom meets an "uplifting" after-school special, but less earnest and with more old jokes. Obviously, there is an audience for all those things, and much of the audience seemed quite delighted. Of course, they gave him a huge ovation just for stepping on the stage at the outset, so it was clear that they were primed to enjoy whatever he threw at them.

All I can say is, it didn't appeal to me. Director Tony Taccone and Berkeley Rep are capable of so much more than this, it was quite disappointing to see that this is their idea of what their subscribers want between seasons.

Bottom Line

Whatever hopes I had for insight coming out of this were dashed and/or abandoned. Leguizamo was so busy yukking it up that he seems to have neglected to put a point to all his slurs and insults. And that, perhaps, should have been the director's job, to make sure that was in there somewhere.

In some sense, I think Leguizamo is trying to do too much, trying to make statements about bullying, Latin identity, and (perhaps) history and other education. But at the end we're left with little in the way of answers or even insights, just a few platitudes tacked on to the end.

Reading the interview in the program with Taccone and Leguizamo, it's clear that they like each other and found a lot to laugh about in coming up with this show. Unfortunately, I think that relationship might have blinded them to the shortcomings of the script. And they get a lot of laughs from the audience and they sell a lot of tickets, so maybe that's enough for them.

Your mileage, as they say, may vary. But I'd say you're better off going either to a real play, or if you want laughs, go to a comedy club. There are some terrific, insightful comics out there who actually have a point to their comedy beyond just playing up stereotypes and making you laugh.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Quick Administrative Note - Comments

I have just now figured out why I wasn't able to comment on my own blog (or respond to comments some of you have left). Apparently Blogger and Privacy Badger don't play well together. But I can disable it while commenting.

So let me just say overall that I appreciate immensely the feedback people have left so far, and I apologize for not responding sooner. I always intended for this to be a discussion, not me just typing into the ether, so any and all comments are both welcome and appreciated.

I have also received feedback via other channels, and that, too, is appreciated.

Theater is an interactive, group activity, so I hope this blog will be, too.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

"The Winter's Tale" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

I suppose it isn't easy to produce any of Shakespeare's works, really. Most of them are so well known, and audiences have so many expectations and predispositions, that it's got to be hard to please everyone. Producing one of the lesser-known plays, such as "A Winter's Tale," presents additional challenges. It's not a comedy or a drama or a history, like so many of the best-known plays. It's a romance, a genre that was just being invented in Shakespeare's day, so his efforts are varied, and may not jibe with the expectations of a modern audience.

Add to this issues with the text, and you have a most challenging endeavor. This year, Desdemona Chiang directs "The Winter's Tale" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and to add to the degree of difficulty, the show is presented in the festival's largest venue, the outdoor Elizabethan stage. I got to know Desdemona a little bit last year when she directed "Heart Shaped Nebula" at Shotgun Players, a show I was a production sponsor for. When I found out she was directing this show at Ashland this year, we talked a little about it, and I've been looking forward to seeing the result.

About the Play

Compounding all the matters I mentioned above, "The Winter's Tale" is almost literally two separate plays. The first act takes place in Sicilia, a very structured and noble society, and it has the form of a classical tragedy. King Leontes, a fine and beloved king, suddenly decides that his wife has been unfaithful with his dear friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. Bad stuff ensues. Tragic stuff.

The second act takes place in Bohemia, sixteen years later. Bohemia is a wilder, more colorful (literally), looser place. This act has the form of a comedy. Things get better. Stuff gets resolved.

Unfortunately, there is a scene missing. Literally. The next-to-last scene, which should be the climax of the show, doesn't exist. A chorus comes on and describes what happened offstage, and then we have a denouement, but if Shakespeare actually wrote a scene for that, we don't have it anymore. So that's kind of a let-down, but that's the play we've got.

About the Production

Chiang made some interesting choices in staging the play. First, she modeled Sicilia after the Han Dynasty  in China, and Bohemia after the American West in the 19th century, sort of. She says the play has always appealed to her, as a product of different cultures and disparate academic pursuits. Although the setting doesn't strictly fit the play, it works in the fantasy realm that "Tale" requires, and the designs are quite striking and effective.

The large, open stage of the Elizabethan theater makes a great setting for a wide-ranging play such as this. Something about the big open space and sky makes a magical tale like this seem more plausible. My only complaint is that they have put microphones on the actors. I realize that many in the audience have difficulty hearing, but I found that some of the actor's voices were a bit distorted (Leontes, in particular, was hard to understand). Maybe that would be true without the amplification, but it seemed like this performance (July 3rd) was unusually unclear.

Mostly I was quite pleased with the results. A few scenes felt like maybe they could have been edited down a bit, as they dragged somewhat. But mostly the vibrant performances and vivid costumes made for a lively performance.

And I can't talk about this play without a mention of the most famous stage direction in all Shakespeare, "Exit pursued by bear." The bear in this case is most impressive and large, though I might take issue with whether the character in question actually manages to exit.

I will add that before we saw the play, we sat through the Preface offered by OSF. These cost something like $10, and I have always found them to be very worthwhile, and this was no exception. We got a good explanation of the whole Romance vs. Tragedy vs. Comedy milieu, plus some good discussion of the play. I highly recommend OSF's prefaces.

Bottom Line

This is the first time I've seen this particular play at OSF (though I had seen a production at CalShakes a couple of years ago). I thought it was quite good, and kind of a welcome respite from the more frequently produced plays. It's well worth seeing and hearing.

"Roe" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

One of the cool things about a company the size of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is that they can support a lot of theater and theater artists, beyond just presenting their long, repertory season of plays every year. One initiative that has been paying great dividends is their 10-year series, "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle," which commissions plays about moments of change in American history.

Twenty-four plays have resulted so far, or which seven ("Roe" makes eight) have been produced in Ashland. Over the last few years they've done some terrific shows on diverse topics, including two about LBJ that we've really enjoyed. I thought last year's "Sweat," by Lynn Nottage, was one of the highlights of the OSF season, and I expect it will be coming to the Bay Area before too long.

But I have to admit a little trepidation coming into this season, knowing that our "revolution" was going to be Lisa Loomer's "Roe," which promised a play about the ongoing controversy surrounding abortion and choice in this country. Since it's really difficult to have a sane conversation on the topic, I worried that the play would end up being either very sentimental or polemical.

To her credit, Loomer has created a really interesting play that manages to be fair to all the parties involved, doesn't pull its punches, and even manages to provide a fair number of light, funny, and touching moments.

Roe v. Wade

The Roe in the title is Jane Roe, the alias for the (formerly) anonymous plaintiff in the landmark legal case of Roe v. Wade. Jane Roe is now known to be Norma McCorvey, a difficult and often unsympathetic character played quite well by Sara Bruner. Sarah Jane Agnew plays the attorney, Sarah Weddington, who brings the case against District Attorney Wade on behalf of McCorvey/Roe.

The play treads carefully along the time line, trying to to fall into the too-much-narration trap that can hinder a historical play, and spends some time toying with the fourth wall as the characters argue over who said what, when, and why. The conceit of the play is basically that Weddington and McCorvey are telling us the story from the start, though they can't really agree on what is the start. And they will quibble over things said and implied over the course of the story, adding to the lighter moments and bringing out the humanity of the characters in what could otherwise be a dry, if contentious, story.

Roe v. McCorvey

I suppose it's not surprising that Roe/McCorvey turns out to be the most interesting character in the story, but in many ways it's not because of the conflict that ends up in a legal battle before the Supreme Court. Indeed, that pregnancy that she wants to terminate is in some ways among the least interesting aspects of McCorvey's long and winding road.

When we meet her, she is a woman in her early twenties who is pregnant, but still partying and drinking heavily. And oh, yeah, she's a lesbian, which is not something you really want to discuss in Texas in 1970 or so. It's fascinating to watch Norma finally land in a stable relationship, work in an abortion clinic, and undergo a religious conversion under the tutelage of Operation Rescue. It's kind of a truth-stranger-than-fiction scenario.

But what's clear throughout is that Norma McCorvey is not a woman comfortable in her own skin, in spite of her flippant and sarcastic efforts to make you think otherwise. Frankly, I thought a lot of Norma's lines, though funny, were pretty unrealistic. She is, after all, a minimally-educated person, but some of her quips seem a bit too polished. She has a difficult life, and Jane Roe is only a part of it, and one that doesn't clearly make her life better in any measurable way.

Indeed, one of the big themes covered by the play is the conflict between the interests of society or at least large groups or movements, versus the interests of individuals. Weddington really wants to change national policy for everyone, and Norma just wants to get an abortion right now.

Theater Stuff

It's fun watching the decades pass, seeing what changes, yet in many ways, what doesn't. A lot of it happens right there on stage before our eyes. We get bits of history before our eyes, as historical events intrude on the play, characters swoop in, sometimes exploit the situation, and move on.

It's a compelling story, and keeps you watching and listening throughout, even when you find the words being spoken or the actions being taken to be appalling or revolting. Better than most such efforts, the play manages to cover the various sides of the controversy (despite the fact that the audience seemed to have a decided slant to one side) and show the basic humanity of the characters involved. One trope I thought Loomer used very effectively was having several characters tell us on stage what was said in their obituaries. That was pretty powerful.

And at least at this writing, they are still tweaking the play a bit. The week before we saw it, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling about Texas abortion clinics that is germane to the action late in the play, so they've  changed a line near the end to reflect the current state. So clearly, this is a timely work.

I have no idea whether this will hold up over time. Someone in our party overheard a couple of young women talking at the intermission, and one indicated she had no idea that abortion had been illegal. So perhaps there is a need to keep telling this story, beyond just updating the history.

Is it great theater? I guess time will tell. But it is an effective use of dramatic art to tell a historical story that clearly needs to be told about a turning point in American history. And that, after all, is the point of American Revolutions.

"Great Expectations" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

I seem to be one of a small number of people who were not forced to read the works of Charles Dickens when I was in high school (a fluke of time and place, I guess). I have since read "A Christmas Carol" (meh) and "A Tale of Two Cities" (wow!), and probably "Oliver Twist" on my own, so have much respect for Dickens as a writer. But I have never read the most commonly-assigned Dickens classics, "David Copperfield" and "Great Expectations." So I didn't really know what to expect when OSF announced they were doing an adaptation of "Great Expectations" this season.

It's quite long, at three hours, but then you'd expect that from a Dickens story. There is a very simple set used for everything, perhaps because doing scene changes would have made the show even longer. But the simple set they have is really quite elaborate. I chose the photo above because it kind of shows at least part of the wooden contraption. All that wood serves as countryside, streets, walls, and so on. The jumble of boards in the back goes all the way up, and has a few candles placed on it.

None of us were able to figure out what the candles were for, nor why they flashed on or off all of a sudden at times. Apparently some symbolism escaped us. It seemed more apt to a production of "Waiting for Godot" than Dickens.

All that said, the staging didn't really bother me, except I kept wondering why they had all that wood in the background. The risers and ramps, at least, were used by the players.

The Adaptation

Despite never having read this book, it strikes me that the adaptation was pretty true to the style of Dickens, with lots of narration. Now, that works fine for a book, but really, narration in plays is out of place unless it comes in small doses. In this adaptation, they have chosen to put the narration right in your face, often having six or seven cast members in green coats standing spread over the wooden hillside, narrating the play.

So our basic take-away from this play was "too much narration; too many narrators."

It was utterly unclear why the narration couldn't have been done by the characters themselves, or better yet, just been shown instead of told. Having a narrator say something like "...and so Pip set out across the marshes to Miss Havishem's house again," it would be just fine to have Pip head off across the marshes to Miss Havishem's. The only explanation I have been able to come up with for this is that the adapters were trying to maintain the Dickensian style, but truly, if you're going to do that, why adapt it at all?

None of us cared for the narration, either the vast amount of it or the use of random cast members to deliver it.

Things I Did Like

There was a lot to like about this production, however, in spite of the annoying narration and the odd set. I thought Al Espinosa as Joe was quite good, Richard Howard as Wemmick was, too. And Brett Hinkley with his elastic face and comic timing gave a great turn as Uncle Pumblechook.

But I have to give special notice to two of my favorite voices in the OSF company. Derrick Lee Weeden as Magwitch manages to be both menacing and oddly comforting. And Michael Elich as Jaggers overcomes some odd-looking makeup to be a compelling force. Both of them have wonderful, deep, booming voices that they use to great effect. I always look through the program to find out what they are doing every year, and look forward to their performances.

Bottom Line

As always, an excellent performance by the OSF company. I really didn't think the set design was up to their usual standards (or I just didn't get what they were up to with it). And really, it show does the job, tells the story, etc. But I can't help thinking that it could have been much more compelling if it hadn't just been a bunch of scenes linked by (annoying, excessive) narration.

It felt like not enough imagination went into the adaptation and staging, so the fact that the cast and crew make a good go of it mostly saves the day. So rather ironically, I didn't have much in the way of expectations coming in, but I can't really say they were exceeded. The play felt much smaller than the story it was retelling, which is unfortunate.

Friday, July 8, 2016

"Value Over Replacement" at PlayGround

I'm getting things a little out of order, because I still have three more plays from Ashland that I need to write about. That's embarrassing. But I need to get to this one because it was so good and it's only got two more performances.

First, a word about PlayGround. PlayGround is a program for encouraging and training new playwrights. The take a group of writers and meet weekly. They get a topic and four days to write, then deliver their 10-page results. At the end of the year, the best are culled into the "Best of PlayGround," and a few will be selected to get developed further into full plays, which go through workshops and eventually, performance. That culminates in the annual "Festival of New Works," which are fully-staged productions with professional cast, crew, and direction.

Such was the play we saw tonight, which originated as a 10-page effort about four years ago, and is now a full-length play. And it's about baseball, among other things. It's called "Value Over Replacement," written by Ruben Grijalva.

The Play

Chip Fuller is a retired baseball player, now doing a daily radio talk show in San Francisco with a writer from the Chronicle. When the baseball commissioner's office releases its report on performance-enhancing drug (PED) use, Chip's name is included. Awkwardness ensues (to put it mildly).

The key is that Chip wasn't a big star (but one of his teammates, also included in the report, was). He was a marginal player, struggling to make the major leagues after a number of years, and at risk of falling out of baseball with a minor injury. So he decides to try some PEDs. It works.

The term "value over replacement" is one used in baseball stats to try to measure how good a given player is, relative to an average player you might replace him with. The idea is that if you're not as good as that replacement player, you'll probably get replaced. So we investigate the behavior of players on the margins, who might be the replacement, or the one replaced.

This play is extremely well written. The dialogue is very believable, and there are a number of really interesting, complex characters. The themes of the play touch on moral ambiguity, family commitment, and chasing dreams. The triumphs and tragedies, the mixed feelings of and about the characters, are enthralling.

Go See It

I won't spend a lot of time critiquing the performance itself. PlayGround productions are always a bit sparse. But really, the acting is quite good, and the script is terrific. Unfortunately, there are only two performances left in the very brief run of this show, and both are this Sunday: a matinee and an evening performance. If you have a chance, go see it. I think you'll be impressed.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

"Twelfth Night" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Until my recent spate of viewing "Hamlet" in vast quantities, I think it would be fair to say that I have seen more versions of "Twelfth Night" than any other Shakespeare play. I guess "A Midsummer Night's Dream" would be up there, too, depending on whether you include junior high school class productions. Anyway, I think it's safe to say that I've seen it a lot because I like it a lot. This post covers the performance of Saturday afternoon, July 2.

This is the second version of this show I've seen at OSF. The first was several years ago in the Elizabethan theater. This time they brought it indoors and (somewhat inexplicably) set the play in a Hollywood movie studio in the 1930s.

The Play

This play is pretty much everything you could want out of a Shakespearean comedy: a shipwreck, mistaken identities, sight gags, puns, some slapstick, and a mega-happy ending. It's tightly staged, and they make a lot out of a fairly simple set. Because they don't have to do much for scene changes, the action flows well.

Great Performances

The cast was all quite good. I was particular amused with Danforth Comins as Andrew Aguecheek, as I've mostly seen him in more serious roles. Even last year as Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing," he was funny but somewhat restrained. As Aguecheek, he has no reason to hold back, and he does not. Ted Deasy was nicely restrained as Malvolio, which is easy to overplay. If anything, I found it hard to feel that he deserved the abuse he got back from the rest. And OSF regulars Gina Daniels, Kate Mulligan, Rodney Gardiner, and Daniel T. Parker are terrific.

Strange Setting

I'm not sure what the point of setting the play in Hollywood really is. In the program, director Christopher Liam Moore (whose work I enjoy) says that Hollywood in the 30s was about the invention of self, and that movie musicals show the absurd lengths characters go to find love. OK, I guess. But mostly it feels like you're just looking for a different (and admittedly attractive) setting. I didn't really feel like there was a larger message accomplished by the choice of place and time.

Also, I was a little mystified by the portrayal of Duke Orsino. I generally take him to be a pretty straight character, if a bit thick about his love life. But I don't see much in the text that justifies making him as clownish as he was in this version. I get making him a German (or at least, European) immigrant; that suits the period. But his goofy accent and mannerisms didn't seem to suit the character. Why would Viola fall for a goofball?


I guess I need to talk about this somewhere. At most of the performances we saw at the Angus Bowmer Theatre last weekend, they were using "open captioning," which involved large video screens to the sides of the stage that showed white text scrolling on a black background. I know it's helpful to some people (and I did occasionally find it useful to get a word I had missed), but mostly it was really distracting. One of our group who has seen this done elsewhere commented that they usually fade the words in and out, rather than scrolling them, as the motion tends to catch one's peripheral vision more.

Out of our group of eight people, most were able to tune the words out, especially if we had seats closer to the front of the house. Two people were just unable to tune it out: One didn't mind because she is accustomed to multiple input streams; the other found it so irritating that she had to leave at the intermission.

I'll be interested to know what the overall feedback is on this. I know the assisted-listening devices can be problematic, so they'd like to have something that works for everyone, and this can help those who don't need full-time assistance.

I should also add two other points:

  1. Directors like to use the areas to the side of the stage in the Bowmer. As a result, some of the action takes place in front of, or adjacent to, the text screens. At that point they are very distracting. Indeed, Feste made reference to it in one of his speeches. Nice to have a little fun with it, but better not to need to.
  2. The scrolling seemed to be manually operated, as I guess it would need to be. But it was therefore not consistently synced with the spoken words, so if I wanted to look for clarification, I had to search the screen and sometimes wait for the words I wanted. Worse, in this particular performance, they committed a cardinal sin: showing Malvolio's big exit line before he said it, as he was stomping past the screen to exit the side door. Ouch.
All in all, I wasn't really fond of my first experiences with the captioning. I hope they are open to trying different systems that aren't so intrusive to those who don't need or want them. Also, neither the website nor the program indicated that the shows were were seeing were going to be captioned. I'm not sure how I could have avoided this stuff, had I known I wanted to.


This was a good show. Definitely at least average for OSF, which is a high bar. Good cast, good costumes. Effective use of the stage and set, in spite of the captioning screens. All in all, a worthy effort, worth seeing.

Monday, July 4, 2016

"The River Bride" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival

A trip to Ashland, Oregon for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) has become an annual summer tradition in my family. The festival is an almost-year-round phenomenon, with over 100 performers (backed by a huge number of designers, directors, producers, stage managers, crew, etc.) performing 11 plays in rotating repertory from February until early November on three stages. The logistics alone are staggering, but the results are generally wonderful.

In its 80 years, the festival has grown beyond its original, exclusive devotion to Shakespeare, and now produces quite a number of other works, ranging from classics to modern pieces, new commissions (including a series of plays focused on American history), and musicals. As the largest theater of its kind in the country, a play produced at Ashland reaches a huge audience. So it's great to see them including works by new and lesser-known artists.

One such artist is Marisela Treviño Orta, author of "The River Bride." I'm fortunate to know Marisela a little bit, from sponsoring a production of her play "Heart Shaped Nebula" last year at the Shotgun Players. So when she told me that OSF had selected "The River Bride" for this season, I was excited because not only would I get to see one of her plays in a major theater but perhaps also get some insight into the production process. The show opened in late February, and closes on July 7, so this was the penultimate performance.

The Play

"The River Bride" is an adaptation of a Amazonian folk tale about river dolphins (botos, in Portugese) who come ashore for three days in June every year to seek wives. Members of my family had heard and read versions of this story when we visited the Peruvian Amazon last year.

In the play, a fisherman and his future son-in-law, Duarte, pull a man, Moises, from the river in their fishing net, and his presence brings disruption to the family. Duarte is engaged to marry the fisherman's younger daughter, Belmira. Moises seems to have eyes for her sister, Helena. From there, nothing goes quite as expected.

The set is simple, but fairly elegant. We have a pier, sometimes a boat, and a house on the river that is designated just by a frame. The simplicity suits the setting, and doesn't detract from the play. The writing is spare, but clear, and leaves room for the players to fill in with acting.

The Performance

 Unfortunately, I thought the acting was a bit flat. I'm not sure whether it's just fatigue at the end of the run, but several of the players just didn't seem to have much energy. There was some confusion, but quite muted, when they drew Moises from the river, but everyone seemed to take in stride that a fully-dressed man had thus arrived. Though Helena and her parents displayed some life and emotion later on, the rest was noticeably unaffected, particularly Duarte. I had noticed the same kind of flat affect from this actor in last season's "Much Ado About Nothing," where he seemed quite out of place as Claudio, so it seems to be kind of his style. I wish director Laurie Woolery had made some different choices there, as I thought the play deserved a more vibrant performance.

On the other hand, the play was well received by the audience. It didn't bring down the house, but it was warmly acknowledged at the end.

The Lead-Up

Having followed Marisela's descriptions of the play development process through workshops and rehearsals, I felt like I learned quite a bit about how OSF develops a new play, which was cool. Her several-times-a-day postings on Twitter, plus some longer bits on Facebook, gave an insight into what she and the cast and crew were up to, so that made me extra interested to see the result.

The Follow-Up

Ultimately, "The River Bride" is not a big play, and in some ways it seemed a little undersized for the large stage in the Angus Bowmer Theatre. In retrospect, it might have been a more affecting play in the more intimate setting of the smaller Thomas Theatre. But still I thought it was a wonderful premiere to showcase an up-and-coming playwright's work. I just wish the performance itself had been a bit stronger.

Metapost for Oregon Shakespeare Festival, July 2016

I'm going to try something a little different here. I just completed writing posts about the five shows I saw last weekend at Ashland, and thought I should provide links to all of them for easier navigation.

The five plays were
I should also note that some in my party saw "The Wiz," but I did not, choosing instead to rest after driving most of the day. They liked it. That's all I can say on that. But I gave you a picture above.

We'll be seeing five more plays when we go back to Ashland in August. I'll probably update this with a link to those plays afterward.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

"Hamlet" at Shotgun Players

This is a piece I've been needing to write for a while, but I hadn't actually seen Shotgun's Hamlet since I started the blog. This was my sixth time seeing this production, for reasons that will become clear shortly.

The Gimmic

I'll spare you a summary of "Hamlet," focusing instead on what Shotgun and director Mark Jackson have done with this classic work. The short answer is they have reduced the text to something like it's core, removing plotlines and characters to focus on a few key relationships. The result is a 2.5 hour version of the play that can be fully performed by only seven actors (with some playing multiple roles).

That by itself is a pretty ambitious undertaking, but then they apply a layer of chance to it, roulette-style. All seven actors know the whole play, and their parts for each performance are drawn by chance (out of Yorick's skull, just for good measure) five minutes before curtain time, after which they all run backstage to don costumes and prepare.

What allows this to work is a minimal set with few props, and what it enables is a truly fascinating examination of the relationships of the characters in the play. So often, "Hamlet" is seen as a star vehicle, where the one actor playing Hamlet is the focus of the attention, and that is, of necessity, still the case. But because the cast is a mix of ages, races, and genders, we have to question many of the standard assumptions about the relationships involved. What does it mean if Hamlet is played by a woman? What if Ophelia is a woman of color? What if Hamlet's parents are the same gender? The combinations and the issues they raise are at least as numerous as the number of unique casting combinations (5,040--seven factorial) available.

As a result, one leaves the play examining questions that would likely never have arisen in a traditional casting and staging.

Now add one more factor: although "Hamlet" has completed its initial run, it will continue in repertory with four other plays for the rest of the year, through next January. So it's a play you can revisit over time, seeing a variant probably never seen before, with a different Hamlet, etc.

The Play

I like the trimmed-down version of the play. Those who know and love every word of Shakespeare's play might be a little disappointed, though all of the major speeches are retained. But if you're not a purist, you will probably appreciate the work that Jackson and the cast have done in paring down the text to something that is both manageable for the actors who have to learn it all and satisfying from the perspective of the messages of the play.

The Production

All seven actors are excellent. The key is that each much be able to carry the play as Hamlet, but also convincingly play all the rest of the characters. Several of the actors are well known to Shotgun regulars: Beth Wilmurt, Megan Trout, Kevin Clarke, and Nick Medina are all company members, and David Sinaiko and El Beh have worked at Shotgun previously. New to Shotgun is Cathleen Riddley, who is a strong performer with many local credits.

Among the challenges of a play with an ever-changing casting are creating are the logistics of making everyone perform certain parts the same way (so, for example, one isn't delivering a soliloquy on one side of the stage when the next interaction is expected on the other). And there are fencing scenes, where each actor must be able to do both sides, against any of the six other actors. Rehearsals must have been amazing and complex.

My Impressions

When I first heard about the idea of doing this show, my reaction was basically that the idea was insane, and that I absolutely would go see it, probably a lot. Watching it come into being, I'm pretty clear that the idea is insane, but the result is quite amazing and wonderful. As a non-actor, I am always impressed when an actor pulls off a great role. When I see this troupe succeeding with "Hamlet," night after night in different permutations, it's just stupefying.

So, yes, I have seen the play six times already, and defying probability, I have seen six different actors play Hamlet, and each brings something different to the role. For instance, Megan Trout, who played the role this most recent viewing, brings an amazing physicality to the role, bouncing around the stage in an almost manic display. Nick Medina is a more brooding, intellectual Hamlet, and David Sinaiko seethes with a suppressed rage from the opening moment.

Obviously, the differences in the lead role percolate through the whole performance, but other players also make a big difference. For example, as Claudius, Hamlet's foil, Beth Wilmurt plays the role with a stoic, regal quality, where Nick Medina portrays him as a scheming, almost cartoonish villain. And it all works, and every night you go away with a different impression and something new to think about.

I could go on at great length, because there is a complexity to the production that just keeps giving. I always leave wanting to go back and see it again, thinking "Oh, wouldn't it be great to see what [some other actor] does with [some particular scene/situation]?" The freshness of each performance and the amazing energy that starts with the seven actors, all dressed alike, standing on stage waiting to learn what role each will play that night, are contagious.

Bottom Line

You should go see this show. It's in repertory for the rest of the year. I predict you will want to go back and see it again. Ultimately, my gauge for a play is whether I'm still thinking and talking about it the next day, the next week, the next month. Somehow, most of the theater conversations I've had for the last several months end up touching on this "Hamlet" in one way or another. In the middle of the last scene this time, I had a sudden flash of the ending of "Hamilton" (probably because the soundtrack has been playing in the car a lot), and realized some interesting similarities.

This is a production that is going to be on people's minds for a long, long time. I have nothing but admiration for the seven intrepid actors who have undertaken this journey, and I'm glad to be sharing a part of it.