Sunday, June 17, 2007

As You Like It - Performance Log (June 2007)

Ladies and gentlemen,

No, we're not reading a different play. When I was compiling my bio for the William Shakespeare Experience, I noted that I had been to more than 60 stage productions of Shakespeare's plays. What I didn't mention was that many of them have gone dark in my mind. I think when you see a lot of theater, this is the fate of much of it – fleeting shadows that play across the vision and vanish. Dad and I saw two Taming of the Shrew productions in two weeks a few years ago. Reviewing my programs, I found I couldn't remember a single thing from one of them, and it was the more lavish production.

What I do tend to remember is performers, if not performances. I can remember seeing James Earl Jones in Othello. I can remember seeing Claudia Wilkens in House of Bernarda Alba, and I can remember seeing Don Cheadle at the Guthrie, Mark Rylance at the RSC, Marcel Marceau at the Denver Center, and Sigourney Weaver at a Brass Tacks Theatre show. (She wasn't in it; I sat next to her because her husband, Jim Simpson, directed the show.)

But these are not moving images. They are snapshots. And largely of famous people. Can I remember what James Earl Jones did with Othello in, say, his presentation of his courtship of Desdemona before the Venetian court? Or John Gilbert with any of The Imaginary Invalid? Or Ian McKellan with Richard III, other than shrugging that great coat on and off with only one functional arm? Not so much. (I remember pretty clearly what Claudia did with La Poncia, but I saw it twice.)

One can now, thanks to video and DVD, watch movies over and over and on demand. But theater remains an art of the memory. Since my early days as a theater critic, this has bothered me. One reason I loved that job was because it gave the theater I saw permanence. Interesting, though, is that when I reread stuff I wrote in 1986, it is like reading something written by a stranger. Was that my experience?

So I propose the following spin-off for our group: when we see Shakespeare, we might send a brief run down of the production's signature moments, a "performance log" if you will. By signature moments, I mean those instances, maybe three to five, in which the production defines itself or clearly separates itself from other productions of the same play. This is not a review; I am not interested in, and I never was, rating performances or giving a thumbs up/down kind of assessment. I want a record of the interpretive choices that distinguish a production. Please, allow me to demonstrate.

As You Like It
Cromulent Shakespeare Company
directed by Jody Bee
Powderhorn Park
June 15, 2007

1. Touchstone is played by a woman (Lisa Bol) made up in whiteface with dark, runny-mascara eyes and black mouth, sort of the opposite of blackface. Fools may be witty, they may be stupid, but this one is insane. In addition, Cromulent has removed Audrey, Touchstone's girlfriend and future wife, and replaced her with ... a doll's head. It goes like this. Touchstone has a festive staff, a long stick with ribbons and bells. Midway through the production, she comes out with a largish Barbie doll head stuck on top of it. This is "Audrey," and Touchstone speaks her lines in a high voice. Thus, she has long, romantic conversations with herself. And yes, she marries the doll's head at the end, and everyone else seems to go along with this. I guess they know she's crazy to begin with.

2. Jacques (Sheila Regan) is not melancholy. Rather he's kinda grumpy. But he smiles a lot and seems to have a good time in the forest and looks a bit disgruntled when people refer to him as "monsieur melancholy." He does the Seven Ages of Man speech, but skips the long disputation on various forms of melancholy, possibly because he doesn't know what melancholy is.

3. Shakespeare in the park is different from Shakespeare inside auditoriums where people pay actual money. For one, you have to contend constantly with ambient noises – airplanes, chatty Somali women who sit at the picnic table behind the acting area and yell at their kids oblivious of the live performance not 20 feet from them, barking dogs, rude adolescents on miniature bikes who holler at their friends oblivious of the live performance not 50 feet from them, and the constant thud-thumpa-thumpa-thud of passing cars blasting hip hop with their subwoofers set on "shake the 'hood." In addition, you often have inappropriate audiences like one-month-old to eight-year-old kids who aren't sure what to do with two hours of Shakespearean English. What to do?

Well with comedy often you blow off the subtle wit in favor of broader humor. Usually this means farce. For Cromulent it means really, really silly. Charles the wrestler (Paul Brutscher) becomes a growling World Wrestling Federation macho man. Duke Senior (Kiseung Rhee) is a careless, jovial, frequently drunk guy in the forest. Touchstone mugs. And the play's songs are turned into folk songs with accordion accompaniment (nice).

4. The music gets its own silly interlude between Act 4 and 5. Having established all the romantic relationships – Orlando and Rosalind/Ganymede, Celia and Oliver, Phoebe for Ganymede, Silvius for Phoebe, and Touchstone and a decapitated plastic Audrey – the play's producers have deduced that these different love struck individuals might be described by snatches from different popular love songs. Et voila, each sings a snippet from the Beatles or the Carpenters or the like. Touchstone's is "I want you! I want you so baaaad. I want you so bad, it's driving me mad, it's driving me mad!" Unfortunately, no one sings the refrain from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall In Love." This whole set piece, which takes about five minutes is funny. The crowd laughs. We don't care a bit that it's jarringly out of tune, both with standard intonation and the Shakespeare play that surrounds it.

5. I think every Shakespeare production has at least one great moment, where the director has seen a way to handle one line or situation that is brilliant and wonderful. Cromulent's comes when Orlando's brother Oliver (Reier Erickson) enters the part of the forest where Rosalind (dressed as Ganymede) is living. He bears a bloody handkerchief, the remnant of Orlando's improbable struggle with a lion and which Orlando has sent by Oliver as excuse for his absence at his and Ganymede's wooing sessions. Rosalind (Kristen Springer) swoons. Oliver catches her from behind, accidentally grabbing her breasts. He is surprised, there is some humorous awkwardness, and the rest of their conversation focuses on her claim that she was just "counterfeiting."

Two scenes later (5.2) Orlando (Robin Everson) and Oliver meet Rosalind in the forest. She asks Orlando, "Did your brother tell you how I counterfeited to [swoon] when he showed me your handkerchief?" Orlando replies, "Ay, and greater wonders than that," while Oliver makes the universal "she's-got-really-big-breasts" motion behind her back. The audience cracks up. It's a great reading, and set up, of the line.

It also suggests that they've figure out ahead of time that Ganymede is a girl, something the company tries to play out a bit more in Rosalind's revelation scene, but not much is made of it.

Logged by R. Findlay

No comments: