All’s Well That Ends Well
Directed by Joseph Papke
Classical Actors Ensemble
May 6, 2011
Last summer I saw the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Othello at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia. Prior to the play, Benjamin Curns (who played Iago) explained for audience members unfamiliar with the company’s approach that they would be performing in conditions similar to those of Shakespeare’s day, specifically with stage and house under the same lights, a relatively naked stage, and a lot of interplay between actors and audience members, some of whom would even be sitting on the stage. I’ll tell you; it really increases the suspense when you find yourself weighing the chances that a paying customer will end up skewered by rapier during a fight scene. Although there were no fatalities, except those planned by Shakespeare, I found it a very refreshing approach to indoor staging, and I especially enjoyed how the opportunity for audience/character interaction allowed Curns to play up Iago’s villainy.
Fast forward to May 2011. The Classical Actors Ensemble, a relatively young company in Minneapolis, is performing All’s Well That Ends Well at the Walker Community Church under similar conditions, “a simple platform stage with few scenic elements surrounded on three sides by the audience, universal lighting …, and music performed between acts” (by the actors, still in costume), director Joseph Papke writes in the program. Now, how much one enjoys a show (as I did this one) may be independent of whether they leave the lights on, but I’m intrigued: what’s the difference, for the performers, between a play performed in the dark and one performed with the audience in full view?
Obviously, to those of us who regularly attend Shakespeare performances in the park, an illuminated audience is nothing new. But I’d never considered that the different “feel” of Shakespeare in the park is due to more than just its being outdoors until I began to think about the similar feeling one gets indoors when the lights are on. “Actors are usually very aware of the audience,” Papke wrote me in an e-mail, “whether they can see them or not (dark theaters mean we usually pick up on them aurally). With being able to see them clearly, instead of becoming hyper-aware of the audience, I find that some of the performance-related pressure is alleviated—there is no 'fourth wall,' no pretence of verisimilitude; the white elephant of ‘we’re other human beings pretending in front of you’ is gone. The audience is no longer a potential critical void that the actor must pour himself into; instead, a beneficial and necessary communication is heightened between actors and audience, and a truer communal experience can be reached.”
I like what Papke says about the elephant. I often find myself during a performance waiting for the theatrical experience to take over and for my sense of the affectation of theater to dissipate. I think the dark enhances that sense of affectation. From the actor’s point of view it’s just a fourth wall, but from ours it makes us voyeurs, sitting in the dark, disconnected from the stage action, looking in on the characters’ lives. I think that works against the theatrical. Turn the lights on and we’re involved in the performance, easy co-conspirators, available for asides and spur-of-the-moment magic, and less likely to fall asleep. It’s this communal experience that accounts for a lot of the charm of Classical Actors Ensemble’s All’s Well That Ends Well. For one it really frees up the comic characters, in this case Levatch (played by Papke) and Parolles (Christopher Kehoe) who are able to use the audience more naturally for comic effect.
I remember a similar feeling a couple years ago, in Stu Naber’s production of Much Ado About Nothing for Shakespeare and Company, outdoors in White Bear Lake. Benedick, played by Tim Perfect, hid in the audience during the garden scene where Claudio and Don Pedro trick him into believing that Beatrice is in love with him. The great humor of it wasn’t that Benedick was among us, ridiculously crawling around on his hand and knees, audaciously dipping into patrons' picnic dinners (well, that was pretty funny), but that he was in plain sight of everyone. That’s what I mean by co-conspirators. It’s the difference between being told a joke and being in on it.
Papke’s tone in All’s Well That Ends Well is relatively and successfully light (I saw a darker, literally and figuratively, version last summer at American Players Theatre) even though key characters are not likeable people – Bertram (David Darrow) who heartlessly rejects the devoted love of a talented woman; Parolles the blowhard braggart, liar, coward, and traitor. I found myself both believing in Bertram’s final acceptance of Helena (Danielle Silver) and even, at one point, feeling sorry for Parolles. Perhaps this mitigation of their dislikability is because, with the lights on, we see them more clearly both as comic figures and as characters. Or perhaps it’s because we learn, between acts, that Bertram also blows a mean trumpet and Parolles is capable of a show-stopping deadpan spoken version of ZZ Top’s “Sharp Dressed Man.”
This whole universal lighting question is just that, a question. I’m not sure it would be effective to suggest that all theatrical productions turn on the house lights. And lights or no lights, what really matters is the talent on the stage. But theater involves live actors plying their trade in front of a live audience. Why remove one of those from the equation, especially when it can have a positive effect for the other party? Let film-goers, communing with two-dimensional celluloid versions of human beings, sit in the dark. For me, I’ll agree with King Claudius: “Give me some light!”
Logged by Randall
Photo credit: David Darrow and Danielle Silver in All's Well That Ends Well. Photo by Zach Curtis, courtesy Classical Actors Ensemble.