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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
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Ashland Shakespeare Summer
It is surely pure coincidence, enhanced by serendipity, that all of the Shakespearean plays chosen for this year's Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland have had special significance for your reporter in years past. Way back in 1948, at the University of California at Berkeley, your scribe was asked to create and run the stage-lighting for an almost abstractly bare production of "Antony and Cleopatra." This was presented on Wheeler Hall lecture-stage, rapidly turned into a thrust-stage after the last 4 pm psych lecture. As I was permitted to sit in on all rehearsals, and needed to be on hand to run the light-boards and dimmers for all performances, I must have seen this great tragical romance in one form or another at least forty times. I could finally recite it all by heart and whisper prompts from the fore-stage light-board.
But "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is near the top of my list of the Bard's plays that I really do not need to see yet again. [Also: "Twelfth Night," "As You Like It," "Comedy of Errors:" Look! Where it comes again!] This problem began when I created the Official Royal Shakespeare Production Book for Peter Brook's "Midsummer Night's Dream." This experience with that memorable, notably innovative show and the ensemble, the designers, the techies, and Brook himself almost spoiled me for less imaginative and challenging "Dreams."
As for "Richard II," I first discovered this great chronicle of a foolish king at UC/B, when I was required to Orally Interpret a Shakespearean Soliloquy. Richard's sad lament in prison, where and when he finally discovers himself, seemed a potent inner confrontation. It still does! Each time this drama is revived, this soliloquy is always the high point for me.
The first of the three summer-season premieres in America's First Elizabethan Theatre at Ashland, "Richard II" proved to be an oddly relevant chronicle of Medieval Regime-Change. Henry Bolingbroke, exiled Duke of Hereford, he that would become Henry IV, even employed considerable Shock & Awe to make the Divinely Anointed King Richard surrender both Throne & Crown. Fortunately, the new monarch did not have to search the kingdom for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Instead, his men hunted down Bushy, Bagot, and Greene, the former King's "Favorites," who had lured and lulled him into a life of idle pleasure which caused him to neglect his duties to both his people and to his own higher purposes.
Initially, David Kelly's dismissive smirking superficiality as King Richard, underlined by virtually giggling grimaces, in an important court scene too soon telegraphed the message of his unfitness and inadequacy to rule. His long sad self-destructive exercise of Anointed Kingship would have been much more affective and shattering had it been more subtly developed. Later, however, especially deposed and in defeat, he at last took the measure of this monarch.
James Newcomb was a virile, even raging Bolingbroke, a man fit to rule, if not by right, at least by might. The more so, as he was clearly beset with severe self-doubts. Dramaturg and temporary custodian of the Dryden First Folio briefly at Ashland, Barry Kraft was a venerable John of Gaunt, progenitor of royal rivals.
That fine actor, the [virtually] venerable Kenneth Albers, was an excellent Duke of York. But the quasi-comic scene of his Duchess trying to protect their traitor-son, Aumerle, from his wrathful determination to denounce the rash young man lost both power and credibility by the casting of an actress who either seemed too young for this role. Or who played it rather too simperingly, without the weight of age and motherhood.
Festival Artistic Director Libby Appel sensitively deployed the able cast in designer William Bloodgood's minimal but effective visual adaptations of the basic Elizabethan stage-façade. Elizabeth Novak's handsome & impressive costumes did much to evoke the richness of Richard's Court, as well as to define the variously scheming factions. Robert Peterson's subtle lighting focused audience-attention on important moments in the saga of the changing fortunes of the two royal contenders. With such a broad basic unit-set as the Elizabethan stage, especially in major scenes, it is important to lead spectators' eyes swiftly to the visual essentials, in order to keep the action flowing rapidly to its bitter closure. Todd Barton's music also provided an important form of audial-underscoring, to enhance atmosphere, emotions, and confrontations.
"Richard II" is not so often revived as the ever-popular "Richard III" or the King Henry chronicles, but it is a much subtler study of kingship and the Hollow Crown than all the rest of Shakespeare's History Plays. Its essential dramatic metaphor can be visualized in production: that of the descent by degrees of an anointed king, counterbalanced by the rise of his usurping successor. This is partially suggested in the new Ashland mounting by manipulation of a set of long royal heraldic banners against the stage-façade.
The most effective visualization of this disastrous change in monarchical fortunes was achieved decades ago in the memorable Royal Shakespeare production of "Richard II" that was brought from Stratford to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. On an elemental unit-set featuring an inclined plane with narrow flights of steps on either side, Ian Richardson, as Richard, descended as Richard Pascoe, as Henry, ascended. This impressive production and the playing of the two kings is discussed in Staging Shakespeare by Pascoe and Richardson, in a transcribed Brooklyn College panel, moderated by your scribe, who also edited that volume. The recorded panel is even more intriguing because of the added dimension provided by noted scholar Anne Barton Righter on the medieval concept of the Two Bodies of the King, one merely mortal, the other spiritual or symbolic, divinely anointed. Professor Righter's husband, John Barton, staged the RSC's production, notable at that time for its spareness and concision. It was Post-Modernist before there was such a term.
On the repeated evidence of effective productions, such as that now on view in Ashland, "Richard II" remains a powerful play that should not be so shamefully neglected. "Henry V," currently in Central Park at the Delacorte Theatre, is certainly a rousing good show of kingship in action. But "Richard" shows the darker side.
Puck (Sandy McCallum) and a Puckster (Kyle Barnes). Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:
Wearing his other Ashland Hat, veteran actor Kenneth Albers staged this unusual revival of the usually overworked "Dream." Prior to the premiere performance, he promised the press they would see no fairies on the Elizabethan Stage. And he was true to his word. Budget constraints, we were told, had cancelled the intriguing possibility of using a new laser technology for some fairly fairy-special-effects. Lighting-designer Robert Peterson's solution-substitution was to provide suddenly twinkling patches of white or colored lights in the thickets of green Christmas Tree Lights that suggested the Forest of Athens. Wafted voices gave greater substance to unseen spirits. The script-specific façade-dressing of the Elizabethan Theatre was devised by Michael Ganio.
In Shakespeare's Grecian Fairyland, the twinkling lights were augmented by human forms. When ass-eared Bottom was finally ensconced in Titania's bower, Peasblossom, Mustard-Seed, Cobweb, and the rest of the fairy-crew were prettily personified by the Rude Mechanicals, thus basing Bottom's Dream on workaday memories. What's more, costume-designer Susan E. Mickey created some of the most colorful and fanciful outfits for these handworkers. Even more outstanding, however, were Mickey's successive costume-changes for James Newcomb and Catherine Lynn Davis, in their dual roles as rulers of Athens and Fairyland. This fashion parade produced outfits that were ever more elegant and amazing. Costuming Shock and Awe!
Other Albers Astonishments included providing not one Puck, but five. The very venerable Sandy McCallum, also an able butler in Present Laughter, was an engaging, if aging, Puck. His almost arthritic efforts to girdle the world in second provoked repeated laughter. The heavy-lifting and high-flying on Oberon's various maagical missions seemed to be provided by four merry Pucksters. This production innovation worked in an odd way. What did not was the decision to cast two women in what are obviously male handworkers' roles. The two dames performed valiantly, but the text belied their sex.
Having just seen a remarkably attractive, if simply stylized "Dream" at the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street, ingeniously performed by a minimal ensemble, I had reservations about the Ashland version beforehand. Nonetheless, I was pleasantly surprised and I certainly admired the Ashland Bottom of William Langan much more than I did his Broadway counterpart. What did bother me, however, was the farcical bumptiousness of the Ashland "Dream," plus what seemed excessive mugging, as though actors feared the Groundlings would not get the point of the comedy. The best comedy grows out of character and situation, without letting the audience know the actors are working overtime to be funny. Some of the grapplings of the young Athenian Lovers could have launched a new TV Reality Series: Lovers' Wrestling Tag.
But it is only fair to report that most of the Ashland audience guffawed lustily at the most ancient of laff-getters and clap-trap. Hamlet was certainly right about what delights the masses. A Standing Ovation was the ensemble's reward!
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA:
Cleopatra (Judith-Marie Bergan) and her women, Charmian (Crystal Fox, left) and Iras (Nancy Rodriguez). Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Several West Coast critics were initially taken aback by the virtually bare stage of Penny Metropulos' vision of A & C. One even mourned the lack of the Epic and the Monumental which are suggested in the text by the alternation of scenes between the Worlds of Egypt and Rome. But this reviewer soon enough, like his colleagues, realized that designer Richard L. Hay's spare setting of immense unadorned column drums, complemented by a trailer of gauzey drapes, were admirable in evoking monumentality, without detracting from the potent dramatic essentials of the three-way struggle among Antony, Caesar, and Cleopatra VII.
As with "Richard II," this tragic romance of, as John Dryden phrased it, All for Love, or the World Well Lost, is too often passed over by producers in search of sure-fire seat-selling Shakespeare titles. Some of the Bard's most magical and mature observations about love, lust, and power are central to this drama of doomed romance and ruthless ambition. Some encounters between Cleopatra and Antony are heart-breaking in both their beauty and their raw self-knowledge. But finally their hard-won wisdom is caught in the web of blind middle-aged passion, powerless to save either of them. Armando Durand is a credible Antony, but he lacks a certain needful stature, a sense of a Giant Accustomed To Command. Thus, he is more affecting in his helplessness than in his potential moments of Greatness. Judith-Marie Bergan's Cleopatra is a beauty, or at least carries herself like one, but she is often shrill where she should, like Antony, command. Or, even better, as suggested by Enobarbus, seduce and charm.
John Pribyl's Enobarbus is one of the finest I have seen, and his description of Cleopatra on her barge is enchanting, even seductive. His heartbreak at Antony's generosity after his final betrayal is also very affecting. Octavius Caesar's deviousness and thirst for absolute power do have a current relevance, but he is no match for the one-liners of Donald Rumsfeld. As embedded in the character by Kevin Kenerly, however, he spreads Shock and Awe about with an almost gracious gesture.
Some smaller roles have been digested into others. For this viewer, knowing the play so long so well, this was a loss, but it didn't seem to bother many who had never seen the play before. In fact, a lady near me complained that she couldn't keep all those Romans straight. From some moments on stage, they might have had more problems with the Egyptians. Others in the generally able ensemble included Richard Howard, Crystal Fox, Nancy Rodriguez, and G. Valmont Thomas. Costume-designer Andrew V. Yelusich, following the lead of scenic-designer Hay, created outfits appropriate to characters and functions, without causing costly costumes to upstage the actors.
The subtle powers of the passions of this play come across most potently and clearly when they are not engulfed in rows of monumental pylons and acres of hieroglyphics. And designer Robert Peterson puts the entire cast in the best light possible. The comparative simplicity of the physical production of this insightful "Antony and Cleopatra" magnify its meaning.
John O'Keeffe's WILD OATS:
Since its re-discovery by the RSC, Dubliner O'Keeffe's riotous 18th century Sentimental Comedy has joined such other favorites as Goldsmith's "She Stoops To Conquer" and Sheridan's "The Rivals" as echoes of a bygone era which we can still hear and see with amusement and recognition. What makes "Wild Oats" especially appealing to Shakespeare Festivals is its evocation of strolling players, infatuated with the roles and phrases of the Immortal Bard. In fact, this season is not the first the play has been performed in Ashland. Longtime OSF Director Jerry Turner mounted a hilarious production way back in 1981.
Hypocrite Quakers were already targets for Ben Jonson, long before O'Keeffe, but such falsely pious butts of scorn held the English stage for more than two centuries. Innocent and good-hearted young heiresses, orphaned heirs, wronged women, runaway young nobles, crusty old officers, touring provincial actors, villainous landlords, simple rurals, mistaken identities, and melodramatic confrontations were the standard stuff of popular comedy on both British and American stages right up to the end of the 19th century. "Wild Oats" is a Mother Lode of such comedic materials, and veteran Ashland director James Edmondson has mined it down to the last quartz crystal.
He is wonderfully abetted in this by a cast including Michael J. Hume as the crusty old retired naval officer and tyrant father, Sir George Thunder. Jeff Cummings is his stage-struck runaway son, Harry. Gregory Linnington is his buddy, the handsome young thespian, Jack Rover, trapped in the Provinces, but longing for London stardom. Linda K. Morris is charming as Lady Amaranth, the Quaker heiress, suddenly in love with Rover. Mark Murphey plays the intriguing Quaker steward, Ephraim Smooth. Linda Alper is Amelia, abandoned years ago after what he thought was a fake marriage by Sir George. Of course, Jack Rover turns out to be her long lost son by Thunder. The comedy is broadly played as knockabout farce, with ample opportunity for hilarious tragical-historical-romantical Overacting by Rover.
Richard L. Hay, who has designed all of Ashland's stages, as well as the entire Shakespeare Canon and then some, knows better than anyone how to "difference" the semi-historic stage-façade of the Elizabethan Theatre to suggest other plays, other places, and other eras. His framing for "Wild Oats," with its variety of provincial locales, is both ingenious and attractive.
More specificity for both characters and locales is colorfully provided by the admirable costumes of Deborah M. Dryden and the subtle lighting changes of Robert Peterson. Todd Barton's music and sound-effects also contribute strongly to the farcical hi-jinx and often super-charged confrontations.
Noel Coward's PRESENT LAUGHTER:
Joanna Lyppiatt (Robin Goodrin Nordli) makes her intentions clear to Garry Essendine (Brent Harris). Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
The sophisticated comedies of Noel Coward do not work well on bare stages or against Post-Modernist Abstractions. They need a visualization of the social station and fashion-sense of their protagonists. Designer Richard Hay is a master of elegant interiors, and he has provided London matinee-idol Garry Essendine with an extremely fasionable, yet comfortable, flat that even Noel Coward might covet. Mara Blumenfeld's elegant Art Deco costumes handsomely complement Hay's backgrounds and even more effectively illustrate the characters of Coward's social set.
Cowardly comedic sophistication may seem a long way off from O'Keeffe's far more rustic and rambunctious comedy, but the two plays are visually linked by the marvelously amusing self-dramatizations and over-acting of both Jack Rover and Garry Essendine. Garry, manically played by Brent Harris, is a stand-in for the playwright himself, in a very amusing play in which Coward mocks some overweening types who have invaded his tight-knit little world of theatre-makers. And, although sophistication is the hallmark in Coward, Garry is such an energetic Over-Actor, that he throws himself about with even more abandon, and calculated effect, than the relative novice Jack Rover.
Peter Amster has directed with a sure instinct for High Style and Low Comedy, without missing a stroke or letting the pace slacken a second. "Dream"'s Puck, Sandy McCallum, proves a most discrete butler, as well as an amateur song-and-dance man. Suzanne Irving is admirable as Garry's long-suffering separated wife, with Eileen DeSandre as his tart-tongued secretary, Monica. Robin Goodrin Nordli is lovely but dangerous as the devastating Joanna, out to bag as much male game as she can, broken hearts be damned. Christopher DuVal wildly impersonates Roland Maule, a young idolator of Garry, who will not be denied. In his long lifetime, Coward had to deal with a lot of Rolands, but not so many Joannas. The rest of the cast are also admirable, and this handsome, fast-moving production is worth the trip to Ashland, even if you cannot get seats for Shakespeare.
David Edgar's CONTINENTAL DIVIDE: MOTHERS AGAINST:
It was Robert Burns, not Shakespeare, who suggested we'd profit from a God-given gift to see ourselves as others see us. The Bard said it also, but in different formulations. This is one of the many attractions of Brit playwright David Edgar's American Commission: "Continental Divide." This two-part political play, while not exactly another "Angels in America," is both timely and topical, relevant and irreverent. But Edgar stands on the outside, looking in, and he sees us in ways neither Republicans or Democrats are honest or able enough to do. Edgar's commission came jointly from the OSF and the admired Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Premiered at Ashland, it goes next to Berkeley, where it will be further developed by the playwright and Berkeley Rep's Artistic Director, Tony Taccone, who also has staged it for Ashland. It is not only so timely and troubling that it will surely soon be produced all over America in leading regional theatres, but it is also a sure thing for New York, where it should have a run in an institutional theatre like the Lincoln Center Rep, the Roundabout, which already has its own Broadway playhouse, or the Manhattan Theatre Club, which will soon occupy the restored Biltmore Theatre.
I was very impressed with the mind-engaging political points and confrontational dialogue of Edgar's "Mothers Against," one-half of his drama-duo. It is built around the pre-TV-debate prepping of a wealthy Republican candidate for the governorship of a western state very like California. The various obvious and subtle tricks used to manipulate viewer/voter opinion are laid bare with often comic cynicism. But this is not just another one of those British plays which dumps on the Ugly Americans. Edgar shows a real concern for the bruised egos and desperate hopes of a group of disparate people, trapped in something of a Dynasty-style family-drama, as well as a political campaign. There are human issues at stake here, as well as political time-bombs which are totally relevant at this time. Edgar shows an acute observation of the Alien American Species which certainly has not been on display recently in any native dramatic satire or expose. He does betray his roots by using Churchill's epic defeat at Gallipoli and its long drawn-out aftermath as a relevant example of revenge and self-justification. In itself, this makes an interesting comparison, but most American theatre-goers cannot even spell what's-its-name, let alone remember what happened in that World War I catastrophe.
What makes "Mothers Against" especially attractive is the fact that Edgar's Republican Candidate, Sheldon Vine, fiercely played by Bill Geisslinger, is not a Neo-Con Stereotype at all. In fact, both he and his overly well-groomed wife, Connie [Robynn Rodriguez], once were Hippie Activists and have not forgotten what they believed in. A complication is their Neo-Hippie daughter [Christine Williams] who has become an Eco-Terrorist, with endangering involvements which could instantly sink his candidacy. Worse, his resentful elder-brother campaign-chairman [Tony DeBruno] has betrayed the family heritage by selling their great timber-forests, once environmentally-friendly-managed, to a corporate conglomerate which, of course, has cut all the timber in sight. Vilma Silva, Susannah Schulman, Michael Elich, and Derrick Lee Weeden complete the cast of spin-masters, poll-takers, debate-standins, and dirty-tricks experts, prepping the prickly Sheldon. William Bloodgood designed the simple but Video-Smart setting, running the length of the New Theatre, with audience on both sides of this long stage-set.
There was not time before departing for major European Festivals to see the other half of David Edgar's "Continental Divide," Daughters of the Revolution, the Democratic "take" on the Gubernatorial Election. But, if I don't get to see in in Berkeley, I am sure I will soon see both parts in New York, with the benefit of further pruning and proofing.
Other Ashland Adventures in Theatre:
Juliet (Nancy Rodriguez) at the Capulet dance. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.
Also in the current repertory are "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hedda Gabler." Later in the summer, they will be joined by August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" and the world premiere of Nilo Cruz's "Lorca in a Green Dress." Cruz just won the $15,000 American Theatre Critics/Steinberg New Plays Award, which he graciously received in Louisville at the Humana Festival. And the week before the opening of the outdoor Elizabethan season in Ashland, he again joined ATCA in St. Paul/Minneapolis to talk about Lorca and his Pulitzer-prize-winning "Anna in the Tropics," suggested by Tolstoy's unfortunate Anna Karenina.
Six evenings a week, as OSF takes Mondays off, the open-air productions are preceded by the Green Shows in the plaza between the outdoor Elizabethan and the indoor Bowmer Theatres. This is a free show, and many who drop by decide to stay and see a play. Or Three or Four or Five or Six Plays! This is good for the Festival, as the Post-9/11 economic woes have hurt subscription and group-sales. Airport Security Pogroms have not made theatre-lovers eager to leave home for shows in other states. But production costs have been steadily rising. Ashland will be very glad of your visit, and the OSF will be playing until November.
Into October, the Festival will still be showing the Dryden copy of the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio, on loan to the OSF from Paul G. Allen, a generous patron of Microsoft fame, who lent his name to the modernized Elizabethan Theatre, now known as the Allen Pavilion.
Ashland's 2004 Season will begin in the midst of Southern Oregon Winter with plenty of plays and skiing. Scheduled for next year are "King Lear," "Much Ado About Nothing," and "Henry IV," Parts Two & Three in the Allen Pavilion; "Henry IV," Part One, "Topdog/Underdog," and "Humble Boy" in the New Theatre, and "The Comedy of Errors," "The Royal Family," "The Visit," "A Raisin in the Sun," and "Oedipus Complex," in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
Festival Facts for the Record:
This season, from February to November, the budget is over $20 million; 77% of that is earned income. This funding covers the production and presentation costs of eleven plays, four of them by the Bard, as well as salaries for some 450 theatre professionals from all over the nation. Also actively involved in festival operations, including ushering, are almost 750 volunteers. Such support forces are necessary for this season the OSF is offering 778 performances in its three theatres.
Last season, that of 2002, some 400,000 tickets were sold to the various productions. The "trickle-down effect" of festival and spectator expenditures in the local & regional economy was estimated at nearly $130,000,000. That's something for other communities with income-problems to think about.
There are already more than a score of American Shakespeare Festivals, but he is not the only playwright in the public domain. How about a Festival of Restoration & 18th Century Comedies? Sheridan, Garrick, & Goldsmith are long dead and have no Literary Agents to insist on royalties. Even paying performance fees, as a not-for-profit theatre, couldn't be all that costly, could it? Why not offer a Festival of 20th Century American Plays, chosen from O'Neill, Williams, Miller, Inge, and Rachel Crothers? When was the last time you saw a play by Edith Wharton? I edited the definitive script of her "House of Mirth" for Associated University Presses. Well, it's a thought, anyway.
Copyright & copy; Glenn Loney, 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: email@example.com
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