Wednesday, August 12, 2009

King John - Performance Log (August 2009)

King John
directed by Teresa Thuman
Warren G. Magnuson Park
Seattle, Washington
August 6, 2009

Gil: Performances of King John are indeed rare, but it showed up on one of the Seattle’s summer companies’, GreenStage’s, schedules. Randall and I were the first to arrive while the actors were gathered on one of the terraces surrounding the playing area, and an actress teased, “we’re only here to rehearse; the play is tomorrow.” Randall lamented he had come from Minnesota just to see King John, so she said they would give in and put the production on anyway.

Randall: That’s one of the things about going to Shakespeare-in-the-park that I enjoy most – the frequent interaction one has with the actors and production, prior to the play, after it, and even during it. In general, with Shakespeare-in-the-park, the world beyond the “stage” is much more likely to become part of the stage. At The Strange Capers’ production of As You Like It in Minneapolis this summer, a group of bicyclists rode past the performance meadow as Rosalind was attempting to teach Orlando to woo, and one of the actors turned and waved as they went by, essentially making the bikers part of the production (no doubt casting them in La Tour de la Foret d’Arden). This gave the cyclists the license to shout out comments, and each of them did.

Gilbert: In Wooden O’s Taming of the Shrew, the starving Kate begged cookies off a group in the audience, stuffing them into her mouth even as Petruchio was denying her other food – a great laugh-inducing moment that required the audience and the character’s interaction with it. You have to wonder what happens on the afternoons when Kate can’t find anything edible in the audience.

Randall: And at Shakespeare and Company’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, Benedict hid in the audience (as did Beatrice later), crawling around on the grass and crouching behind lawn chairs, while Claudio and Don Pedro pretended he wasn’t there. The audience laughed more because of where he was than what he was doing.

I think Shakespeare-in-the-park falls into a spectrum of Shakespeare performance styles differentiated by the level of audience involvement: proscenium (which emphasizes the fourth wall), arena stage (more intimate), theater in the round (which requires characters to enter and exit through the audience), Shakespeare-in-the-park (which is clearly enhanced or improved when the audience becomes part of the action), and promenade-style (where the audience is on stage with the action). This spectrum gives us a rich set of options that allow directors to control the effect the performance has. I wonder if one is preferable to some directors, or if each is determined by the space available for the performance?

Gilbert: This really highlights the idea that Shakespeare-in-the-park is a sub-genre, and the sub-genre has some constant parameters, like an increased audience engagement. No production, for example, is more than two hours, and this King John, sub-generically without intermission, came in exactly in that time. No scenes were cut, though many of the longer speeches were streamlined, reducing what Herschel Baker has called “tumid rhetoric.” All the characters were there except James Gurney, servant to Lady Faulconbridge; we even saw the Count Melun, who makes a very late Act V appearance, takes a message to the rebellious English nobles, learns they are twice-turned turncoats, and dies.

Randall: I think the cutting a director has to do for Shakespeare-in-the-park requires real skill. I can’t count the number of times over the last few years that I’ve walked away from a park production and thought not only that the director did an excellent job reducing a text by 30 percent but that I didn’t miss the redacted lines. Stu Naber’s Much Ado for Shakespeare and Company, particularly, left me feeling this way, but I think if I knew the King John text better – I’ve only read it once – I’d feel the same way about Thuman’s cut which didn’t seem to lose anything significant but still only ran the length of a typical film.

Gilbert: Another Shakespeare-in-the-park generic difference worth considering is that summer acting companies are small, so there is more frequent cross-gender casting and double casting, Your typical Guthrie or Seattle Rep production rarely works with the same company size or its effects.

Randall: Right. And I think nothing is done in a theatrical production without an interpretive consequence. The stage manager for The Acting Company’s Henry V (directed by Davis McCallum) explained to my class before we saw the play that the double casting was done very carefully, so that more than just one actor doubling roles, there was some connection between the roles created by having the same actor play them. In that production, after Henry V exposes the plot of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey who would have betrayed Henry to the French, the same actors turn up two scenes later as members of the French court.

Gilbert: The cross-gender casting evokes the same thought-provoking connections. In Wooden O’s Taming of the Shrew, Lucentio’s servant Tranio was female, allowing for a piquant twist of jealousy when Lucentio is smitten with Bianca.

Randall: I had to think hard about that one. What benefit to the production is there to having a love-lorn Tranio, whose yearnings for Lucentio will go unrequited? It occurred to me later that my discomfort came from Taming of the Shrew’s being a comedy, used to uniting lovers rather than holding them at arm’s length. Only Malvolio seems to walk away, his love for Olivia mocked and unacknowledged. Giving Tranio this dead-end love does what? Her character doesn’t even get the explicit resolution that Malvolio does, exiting with the line “I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you.”

Gilbert: In King John, GreenStage’s youngest-looking actor, Anthony Duckett, played Arthur, whom Shakespeare has ahistorically insisted is a boy, then, after Arthur’s death, Duckett reappeared as the very young King Henry III, making for an interesting parallel of two aspirants to the throne or—possibly—for real audience confusion in that Arthur has just fallen to his death and there is no foreshadowing that a Prince Henry will be introduced as an Act V surprise.

Randall: When we saw Ken Holmes’s production of Henry VI, parts 1, 2, and 3, condensed by GreenStage into a single play, the double casting worked both to allow the company to perform dozens of characters and to unite generations of the same family by having fathers and sons played by the same actor. It was a little confusing, but we were led to expect the generational shift by the scope of the production.

Gilbert: Of course, the sine qua non of this subgenre is the park itself—al fresco, audience on the grass, many with picnics; passers-by, often with dogs, curious about why these standing people are shouting at those sitting people (“Look, Luke, they have swords; they must be jousting with The Society for Creative Anachronism”). This is maybe the only time of all the Shakespeare performance formats that acoustics become a major part of the production experience. The night of our King John was overcast so the flight pattern of passenger jets approaching SeaTac airport circled under the clouds and obliterated about 50 lines. We have been on lawns within five feet of the “stage” at Twelfth Night or Henry VI, 1, 2, 3, but at Magnuson Park there is an amphitheatre of terraces, stone backs for wide grass rings. Occasionally, there will be a backstage of trees, or, more crass, one will be on a baseball field and hope that Little League didn’t schedule a game for the evening. Whatever arrangement, the actors must project—no whispered dying words or subrosa asides.

Randall: I am usually against mic’ing actors, but I think it works really well for Shakespeare in the park, although a little wind across the microphones can create its own acoustical nightmare.

Gilbert: Another side effect of the park subgenre is the audience. It’s free. It’s a neighborhood activity. It’s informal. It can be family time. At our production there were two boys, about eight, who were not interested from the beginning, and they talked, with great animation, nonstop, through the first third. A mother put her figure to her lips. Audience turned and stared. One audience member shushed the boys more than once. The boys put a blanket over their heads and thus invisible went right on with their conversation. With no intermission, the house manager could not come up and duct-tape their mouths shut. So I’m afraid I missed the Bastard’s ‘commodity” speech and much else had to be sort of pieced together. It wasn’t GreenStage’s fault, but it left Randall and me to spend half our post-production discussion on parental responsibility rather than the Bastard’s comic relief, baiting Austria about wearing a calf-skin instead of a lion’s pelt.

Randall: All these things not only affect the audience, they become part of the performance, and that’s largely unique to Shakespeare-in-the-park. The kids wouldn’t have been such an issue if King John were not such a rare play to see performed. If it’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, you know the plot, characters, and maybe even the lines, by heart. A little interruption, be it airplanes or uninterested children, isn’t going to disorient you. But I came within a hair’s breadth of getting up and asking that mother to remove her children from the area because I needed to concentrate on what was being said; I was unfamiliar with the play. Maybe that’s one reason so much summer Shakespeare in the park tends to be of commonly produced plays.

Gilbert: It was wonderful to see a rare performance of this chronicle play. Unlike the Henriad, King John is not obviously unified thematically or dramatically. The Will Shakespeare Experience explored mothers and sons, history, the power of possession and right, politics, and moral dilemmas. In that many characters have a moment of reversal or change, there is the possibility of character exploration. But this production, directed by Teresa Thuman, chose, or was obligated, to play in declamatory style, with special attention to scene-ending couplets. The lines were shouted, clearly and confidently (no Leo DiCaprio speaking lines he didn’t understand), with an obvious awareness that every line was iambic pentameter (uncut, John is 2,570 lines long, all verse, not a single line of prose). This style tended to homogenize all the speaking parts, Louis the Dolphin sounding much like the Earl of Salisbury.

Randall: The speaking parts may have been homogenized, but I thought the declamatory style de-emphasized character in favor of speech. Many of the speeches stood out as well done, and the production seemed to move from speech to speech. But I had a harder time differentiating characters other than King John and Pandulph (who was the only character dressed in red silk and so he stood out). Is that an effect of declamatory style? Can you create three-dimensional characters with complex motivation if you are faced with a play dominated by lengthy speeches that you need to give emotional shape to so that the audience doesn’t get bogged down? Where do you turn when the emphasis is so much on long oratory?

Gilbert: The chronicle was underscored with plenty of choreographed battle, similar to GreenStage’s Henry VI three years ago. In King John most of the characters make some shift: John (played by Corey McDaniel) is warlike, then pusillanimous; Hubert (Drew Dyson Hobson) is dutifully committed as King John’s assassin-designate, then heart-achingly compassionate in sparing Arthur; Blanche (Ashley Flannegan) is a mousy cipher in her betrothal to the Dolphin, then warlike in her resistance to French reneging of a peace treaty; Constance (Erin Day) is fierce in the interest of her son, Arthur, then deeply sunk into grief; only the Bastard (Daniel Stoltenberg) is really multi-faceted—a witty satirist, a mocking warrior, a loyal viceroy for the collapsing kingship. Yet in Thuman’s production, these shifts do not seem to illustrate the evolution of character. Instead, the production is marked by the occasional emergence of a passage of deeply-displayed feeling, breaking the steady flow of rather muddled chronology.

Randall: I wonder if this is another effect of Shakespeare-in-the-park, where frequently you have fewer of the tools available on stage – set design, music, elaborate costuming – that lend support to character interpretation or thematic perspective? I did think that many of the speeches came off really well, in fact giving character where I had lacked it when I read the play.

Gilbert: Yes. When Cindy Calder first read King John, she was thrilled with the women, especially Constance, but I dismissed Constance’s “Death, death. O amiable lovely death!” as mere madness, agreeing with French King Philip, that she is more fond of grief than of her child, yet Erin Day’s moving, beautifully orchestrated interpretation directed me to reexamine emotion, and therefore character, in the whole play. Cindy is right. Constance is a great part.

Randall: And I found Hubert’s sympathetic reaction to Arthur’s pleas not to put out his eyes very moving because of the way that Hobson handled Hubert’s breaking down and shift of allegiance. It’s great to get the opportunity to discuss the play this way. I wish more Shakespeare-in-the-park performances would feature the more rarely produced plays. I get the opportunity each year, between Seattle and the Twin Cities, to see maybe 10 different Shakespeare plays in the park, but without GreenStage and its devotion to the chronicle plays, I would have no “first time” Shakespeare productions to reflect on. That’s worth traveling some distance for.

Gilbert: Which is why it was funny when it was over that an alms-collecting actress approached us and said “all the way from Minnesota just for us?’ Yes, indeed.

Logged by Gil and Randall
Photo credit: Pandulph (Andrew Perez) lectures King John (Corey McDaniel) in GreenStage's King John. Photo courtesy of GreenStage.

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