Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Taming of the Shrew (RSC, fall 2008)

Director Conall Morrison manages to turn one of Shakespeare’s most beloved (and controversial) comedies into a horrifying study of abuse. Performed mostly in the style of commedia dell’arte, moments of psychological realism in The Taming of the Shrew are made all the more harrowing. If the heavy handed symbolism and relentless crudeness can be stomached, this portrayal of extreme sexism and sexual fantasy drives its point home.

This version opens with the drunken Christopher Sly (a convincingly pathetic Stephen Boxer) at a modern day bachelor party. After being booted out of a strip club and passing out, several passers-by decide to trick him into thinking that he is a nobleman. In a painful moment of deluded enthusiasm, Sly convinces himself that he is indeed a lord. A group of traveling players (played with exaggerated relish by the cast) arrives in a truck and is paid to perform a play for the “noble lord.”

Thus the story is thrown back into the Elizabethan era, the x rated video store and hotel is turned into a tower of Renaissance Padua, and actors don colorful clothes which are parodies of Elizabethan dress. Love (or rather, lust) triangles ensue, identities are mistaken, and typical Shakespearean comedic plotlines follow, making the relationship between the titular “shrew” Katherina (Michelle Gomez) and her mercenary pursuer and “tamer” Petruchio (also Boxer) especially disturbing.

Boxer makes a brilliant transition from the miserable, bewildered Sly to a powerful, sadistic Petruchio. Gomez likewise impressively transits from the initially screeching Kate to a woman whose identity has been annihilated. Intentionally comic speeches are spoken instead with overbearing viciousness. All sense of playfulness has been removed from Petruchio’s taming of Kate.

This Petruchio bashes and chokes his servants, particularly Grumio (William Beck), in scenes of slapstick, but cruel, violence. Beck is difficult to watch in a usually humorous role, reduced by brutality to a shuddering animal. Indeed, Petruchio occasionally throws his him meat as one would to a dog and even rides on him as his “horse” to the wedding. When Grumio finally has the upper hand over Kate, he gleefully torments her.

Petruchio’s treatment of Kate is likewise upsetting, partly because they do have chemistry. Before their first, sexually charged (if violent) encounter, he throws her an apple, into which she bites. Kate is heart-rending as she entreats Petruchio to stay after their wedding, but he is determined not to allow one inch of defiance until his wife essentially admits that 2+2=5. Instead of offering support, the buffoonish townsfolk push Kate, one social disrupter, to Petruchio, another disorderly, as though she were a sacrifice to a god. That they mistake Petruchio for a monster is not surprising, considering he marries while wearing a hideously grotesque outfit.

This torture is set amongst a host of cartoonish characters. The prancing, hilariously moronic Lucentio (Patrick Moy) falls instantly in love with Bianca (Amara Karan), Kate’s coy, supposedly meek, younger sister. Two of her other suitors include the elderly Gremio (a hysterical Peter Shorey) and the ridiculously dressed, but slightly younger, Hortensio (Sean Kearns). Keir Charles plays Lucentio’s somewhat clever servant Tranio, who puts on a ludicrous accent while standing in for his master as Lucentio woos Bianca in disguise.

Eventually, the outcast couple and community are reconciled. At this point, Elizabethan costumes have shifted back to modern dress, emphasizing the endurance of sexism. The completely broken Kate’s long, final speech, sometimes touted to be a beautiful commentary on marriage, is gut-wrenching.

This interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew is one track minded and vulgar, intentionally playing to the lowest kind of mindset. Perhaps because of this, Morrison succeeds in hurling questions of misogyny and power to the forethought in a night of uncomfortable, and unforgettable, theater.

Romeo and Juliet (at Middle Temple Hall, fall 2008)

Tamara Harvey’s simple and beautiful production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet sets the tone with a sung prologue, which has been given an exquisite harmony by composer Claire van Kampen. The lights in the majestic Middle Temple Hall are left shining on the audience, enhancing rather than diminishing a connection with the characters. In such a stunning space, only minimal props and set design are necessary.

Therefore the acting is doubly important. Juliet Rylance is a marvelous Juliet. She bears a wonderfully low voice, emphasizing Juliet’s wit over her young impetuosity.

It is then so disappointing to have a weak Romeo. At first coming across as clever, Santiago Cabrera remains on the same note throughout the entire performance. His excitement about Juliet is at best lukewarm, and his astounding lack of grief at the play’s tragic conclusion is unfathomable. Because of his poor performance, there is no chemistry between him and Rylance.

Thankfully, the supporting is generally excellent. Michael Brown as Paris is more charming than Cabrera’s Romeo. Max Bennet is a lovely, affecting Benvolio, and Will Kemp is suitable as the swaggering, witty Mercutio.

Yolanda Vasquez brings a refreshing sense of humor to the role of Lady Capulet, nurturing a relationship with Ann Mitchell’s excellent, brazenly bawdy nurse. Martin Turner as Capulet is at turns ferocious and touching. The superb acting from these three players creates the most harrowing moments in the show. Their discovery of Juliet’s apparent death is terrifying. Turner is profoundly haunting as he tells his guests that death has deflowered his daughter, and Vasquez and Mitchell are painfully moving.

The cast moves as dancers do, positioning themselves in vast diagonals. Sometimes the continual movement is too much, but the poetic angles and motion are appropriate for such a lyrical play.

Fight scenes are quick and stylized. Brawlers whip knives from holsters. Tybalt and Mercutio’s conflict believably escalates from playful to perilous. Romeo’s violent sword/knife fight with Tybalt is one of the only times Cabrera’s emotion – anger – comes across (though he does not manage to convey it in his voice.)

The gorgeous, all white costumes are certainly unusual. Influenced by a mixture of looks, including contemporary vogue and Elizabethan styles, leather jackets worn by the young men remind one of modern teenage boys. Ifan Meredith as Tybalt is outshone by his flashy gunslinger outfit. The masquerade scene features Montagues dressed in fantastic, silken, black and white Pierrot the clown costumes.

As both the Capulets and Montagues are decked in white, there is no visual differentiation between the two feuding houses. The conflict is thus reduced to a personal scale, focusing on individual relationships rather than the overarching message of peace. Still, there is a sublime moment of reconciliation between Capulet and Montague at Romeo and Juliet’s tomb.

Marred only by a very deficient and unemotional Romeo, this production is simple, understated, and intelligently acted. Harvey’s focus on the story makes this rendition of one of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedies is ultimately a profoundly moving example of why Shakespeare really is timeless.

Hamlet (RSC, fall 2008)

Gregory Doran’s production of Hamlet successfully questions the nature of identity, illuminating its characters with universally human fragility. Thus, the disintegration of social, mental, and emotional stability within Shakespeare’s most famous and philosophical play is entirely heartbreaking.

The portrayal of its titular character often defines a production. In spite of the immense hype due to his role in the popular sci-fi television show Dr. Who, David Tennant’s performance is far from egotistical. Often barefoot, whether dressed in a suit or jeans, Tennant evokes a childlike vulnerability. At one point, he crumples up and weeps, turning first to his reflection in the mirrored back wall and then to the audience. While sometimes too quiet to be heard, Tennant delivers his lines with lightning speed or tender, delicate contemplation. He is clearly a lucid Hamlet who, though disturbed and distraught, plays madness as a mockery of itself.

Though Hamlet is indeed cut off from those around him, excluding the unfailingly steadfast Horatio (played expressively by Peter de Jersey), similarities between Hamlet and others emerge. Even the manipulative Claudius, played by Patrick Stewart, contains a remarkable mixture of gentleness and cold selfishness. His performance is so sympathetic that he poses to the audience the possibility that the brother whom he murdered (also played with authority in the afterlife by Stewart) was the domineering, less sensitive sibling. Indeed, Claudius’ dignity makes his callous manipulation all the more unsettling.

As Claudius’s torn wife, Penny Downie is a wrenching Gertrude. Grief stricken to the point of laughter, Gertrude’s moral confusion and progressive isolation echo that of her son. Her relationship with Hamlet is most poignant. Thus the closet scene reveals the painful affection between a bewildered boy and his lost mother.

Oliver Ford Davies adds lighter touches as a hilariously rambling yet loveable Polonius, duly obnoxious and obtuse but never cruel. His son Laertes is intelligently played by Edward Bennett, whose emotional breaking at the death of his father also resembles Hamlet’s abandon when seeing his father’s ghost. Laertes’ love for his sister Ophelia (Mariah Gale) is palpable, but never overplayed. He lectures her on the dangers of loving Hamlet with both tedious piety and genuine concern.

Gale’s Ophelia is sensitive enough to match Tennant’s Hamlet. Though their relationship has been destroyed, Ophelia’s affection for him markedly lingers. Her grief induced madness once again resembles Hamlet’s loss of inhibitions. Ophelia’s scenes of insanity, particularly through the vision of the guilt suffering Gertrude, are unnerving and tragic.

Apparently partly based on the first quarto version of the script, Hamlet moves at an exciting pace, which is occasionally too quick. Though Hamlet’s distress and hurt at Ophelia’s rejection and apparent betrayal are well conveyed, the first scene between Hamlet and Ophelia feels rushed. Another moment which is glossed over, losing its efficacy, is the chilling realization that Hamlet has condemned his old friends, the frustrated (and somewhat devious) Rozencrantz and Guildenstern (Sam Alexander and Tom Davey), to purgatorial death.

The relatively modern setting, and simple but glorious costumes and set design enhance the story’s familiarity. Radiant chandeliers hang in the court of Elsinor, where regal but subtle outfits reign. The already mentioned mirrored wall is brilliant, illuminating when actors turn their backs on the audience but deceptive when confusion fills the stage, as unreliable as any image of identity. When Hamlet shoots Polonius, the glass shatters, and a vast crack remains in Elsinor for the rest of the play.

The lighting is also miraculous. In the opening darkness, only flashlights can be seen, which reflect off the stage onto other individuals. No one is viewed in direct light until a haunting beam from heaven illuminates the stage. Waves of shadows permeate fog during the eerie ghost scenes. Even the final moments are made all the more effective because lights fade out as music and a conquering force fade in.
The audience can see themselves in the back mirror. At one point, Hamlet literally holds up a mirror to theatre goers. Stray flashlight beams graze audience members. As Hamlet reveals characters’ weakness and tenderness as they struggle for identity and stability, Doran, his cast, and crew turn the question we ask of them onto ourselves: who is there?

Friday, August 7, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Dream (Royal Shakespeare Company, fall 2008)

Director Gregory Doran brings imagination and ingenuity to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which characters are children lost in their id. Unfortunately, an absence of adults makes this a rather immature and shallow, if stunningly magical, production.

Francis O’Connor’s dark and beautiful design first catches the eye. At times illuminated by a huge moon, the mirrored wall and floor aptly distort their reflections. An orb, stained with craters, serves as another moon, its colors shifting throughout the production. From ephemeral smoke bubbles to levitating flowers, the special effects and props are also exquisite, contributing to the uncanny dream world.

Also successful are the grotesque plastic dolls which sometimes speak for the fairies in mechanical voices. These fairies, decked in black and pink, haunt much of the production and indeed make up the ill-behaved forest. Two of the most mesmerizing scenes in the play involve fairies either singing eerily or wielding comforting lights. Their eventual transformation into white angels coincides with the only moment in which they create harmony rather than mischief – the very end.

Fairy queen Titania (Andrea Harris) and king Oberon (Peter de Jersey) fight over an Indian baby, a puppet with blank but beautiful black eyes. Also wielded by the fairies, it is more effective than many child actors. Harris is a gorgeous Titania, and de Jersey’s melodramatic Oberon certainly conveys a ferocious and unearthly air. He first arrives growling in a terrifying swirl of mist and smoke.

In a brilliant decision, the king’s henchman Puck (Mark Hadfield) wears the legs and horns of a satyr, twitching his neck like a goat. While Hadfield speaks his lines too quickly, he brings a suitable darkness to the role.
At least in appearance, these goblins and gods would never be mistaken for humans. On the courtly side of the social scale (though characters rarely show any actual dignity), are the four lovers, blatantly differentiated through dress.

Natalie Walter is a suitably whiny and comedic if entirely obvious Helena, but she is surpassed by Kathryn Drysdale’s Hermia and Edward Bennett’s Demetrius. Drysdale gives diminutive Hermia the personality of a spoiled princess, fulfilling Helena’s description as little but fierce. Drysdale is believable throughout her performance, whether inducing laughs or turning on a dime to portray palpable pain. Bennett adds welcome subtlety to the production with immense, understated humor and ultimately, deep emotion. The four lovers’ fight scene, in which the mirrored floor adds to the confusion, is near perfection.

As for the rude mechanicals, their final play-within-the-play is duly amusing and creative and their props ingenious, but they hardly surpass pure clownishness. Joe Dixon’s sweet and simple Bottom is occasionally touching, particularly when he wakes from his dream. But his antics are so over-the-top, one wonders why his fellow players would look up to such a buffoon.

This Dream is a sweet sickness, a nightmarish playground in a glorious setting. Yet because the characters all convey a garish, childlike intensity, with little if any wisdom to be found, the lack of contrast makes this production grating at worst and entrancing at best – but never particularly moving.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe Theatre (fall 2008)

Director Jonathan Munby’s none too subtle production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is both enjoyable and energetic. Certainly not an intellectual interpretation, it manages to move and amuse a modern audience nonetheless.

This play melds Shakespeare’s interweaving plots successfully, most effectually when they chaotically collide in the woods. One thread follows four young Athenian lovers. Another involves a group of hilariously inept craftsmen who set out to perform a play. The wood is the realm of fairies, and when their king breaks out a floral love potion and looses his wickedly mischievous henchman Puck (Michael Jibson), all plunge into mayhem.

Mike Britton’s simple but vivid design is unobtrusive and effective, emphasizing the simultaneously unsettling and entrancing nature of the play’s setting. The black background sets off blue curtains that occasionally swell with a natural breeze, magenta flowers jammed into the floor by fairies, and fluttering pink petals. Olly Fox’s music is another magical device in Dream. His melodies are a delightful mixture of modern and traditional, lulling and thrilling, accentuating rather than overshadowing the plot.

The eye catching costumes also enhance this production. As the lovers flee and chase each other into the magical forest, they lose their somber garments to reveal golden and green outfits. Fairies wear a purposefully discombobulating ensemble of bright tutus and sneakers. When not playing Duke Theseus and his Amazonian wife-to-be Hippolyta, Tom Mannion and Siobhan Redmond don more colorful garb – and accents – to double as the quarreling fairy king and queen.

The least successful plotline is that of the lovers, who are played unimaginatively, save at times Oliver Boot as a surprisingly humorous Demetrius. Their fight scenes are balletically choreographed, but predictable and without passion.

The relatively dull young aristocrats serve as mere pawns to the more captivating fairies. With animalistic movements, these creatures, except for Puck, spring from beneath the stage. They are at turns tender and frightening, and thanks to excellent timing, their power is never doubted. Jibson is an appropriately energetic and amoral Puck.

The parallel relationships between the “real” rulers (Theseus and Hippolyta) and the fairy monarchs (Oberon and Titania) overshadow the other love stories in Munby’s version. Because they are portrayed by the same actors, the discord of one couple reflects the other. The reconciliations within the two pairs are particularly moving and satisfying. When he is not yelling, the regal Mannion is especially effectual, injecting unexpected humor and affection into his two potentially bland roles. His speech on wild thyme is effortlessly beautiful and vaguely sinister.

Last but not least are the amateur actors in the play-within-the-play. Dominated by the egotistical and enthusiastic Nick Bottom (a very funny and unexpectedly subtle Paul Hunter), their earnest theatrical performance before the Duke and his court is hysterically disastrous.

A procession of sleeping mortals concludes this highly comical production. Munby’s direction is rarely understated and introduces few original concepts to the play. But however gimmicky, it gives the audience exactly what most who go to the theatre want: entertainment.