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Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, North American Premiere (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 24 August, 2016


After two days of bloody battles and “hurly-burlying” on Canada’s Stratford Festival stages (Macbeth, Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V), the North American premiere of Shakespeare in Love was a most welcome fantasy journey into what director Declan Donnellan calls Tom Stoppard’s “dream of Shakespeare.”

Based on the screenplay of the movie by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard (that surprised everyone by grossing over $100 million at North American box offices in 1998), the new play is adapted for the stage by Lee Hall and captures much of the magic of the original movie while adding thrills that only a live production can accomplish. The play first opened in London in 2014 and adapter Hall estimates that the play retains “around 90%” of the original movie’s script.

Set in London in 1593, theatre manager Henslowe’s feet are being held over the fire (literally) until he makes due on his debts to money lender Fennyman. His only hope is Shakespeare’s promise of a new play, Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, that the Bard has doubly sold to his competitor, Richard Burbage. Perhaps needless to say, madness ensues as the play morphs into Romeo and Juliet and, in search of a muse, Shakespeare discovers both the actor of his dreams and the love of his life in the beautiful Viola de Lesseps. The problem is, Viola is promised, by Queen Elizabeth herself, to Lord Wessex, and, disregarding the potential peril of his best friend Kit Marlowe, Shakespeare offers up Marlowe’s name when Wessex threatens to kill him for “wooing” his wife to be.

What follows, in the able hands of director Donnellan, is a frenzied, madcap series of witty scenes spouting references to the greatest hits of Shakespeare and John Webster’s to the delight and glee of the knowing Stratford audience.

Stephen Ouimette is perfect as the constantly besieged Henslowe, Steve Ross offers a fun foil as Burbage, Tom McCamus is hilarious as ruthless businessman turned actor Fennyman, Rylan Wilkie is bold and pathetic as Wessex and Brad Hodder shines as the star turned supporting player Ned Alleyn. It’s never easy to play a character that everyone in the audience feels they “know,” yet Luke Humphrey creates a sincere, confused, besotted, redeemed Shakespeare and Shannon Taylor as Viola matches Humphrey’s passion and honesty scene-by-scene. The mature Stratford crowd tittered vociferously when Shakespeare’s bare-buns shine with the moon in the rapturous love scenes—a fun surprise reversal of the movie’s focus on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola!

Saamer Usmani is marvelous as Shakespeare’s loyal friend and fellow playwright Kit Marlow and Tal Shulman is an impeccably creepy John Webster (as he should be). Sarah Orenstein sparkles as Queen Elizabeth and it’s a well-cast and finely tuned company overall.

Nick Ormerod’s ingenious scene design is cleverly manipulated for both on stage and back stage action and the clothes, quick changes and gender switching demands are accomplished with aplomb and Kevin Fraser lights it well. Jane Gibson’s choreography and Terry King’s original fight choreography are eye-catching and entertaining and Paddy Cunneen’s work as composer along with Peter McBoyle’s sound designs enhance the rapid fire pace of the play while capturing the ever-changing moods of the transitions from boisterous rehearsals to intricate private moments between the lovers.

This is a “new” Shakespeare play that will be making the rounds of Shakespeare Festivals for many years to come as playwrights Tom Stoppard, Marc Norman and adapter Lee Hall balance the playfulness of Midsummer with the fights of Henry V and the cleverness of The Taming of the Shrew, envisioning the beginnings of the Bard’s glorious reign as Western civilization’s greatest playwright.

Shakespeare in Love plays in the Stratford Festival’s intimate Avon Theatre through October 16.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
ISE Theatre Critic

Permanent link to full entry 08:22:20 am. Categories: Stage Performances  


Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: Breath of Kings: Redemption (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 23 August, 2016


Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 is always a bit of a drudge lacking both the humor and blood and guts passion of Henry IV Part 1. Still, Canada’s Stratford Festival plunges into Graham Abbey’s adaptation titled Breath of Kings Redemption and offers a palatable Henry IV, Part 2 followed by a palpable Henry V.

In their “The Head that Wears a Crown” directors’ notes, Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman offer striking reasons for tackling the two Henrys at this particular time. “What compels someone to seek a throne (be it situated inside a castle, an Oval Office or a boardroom), and what should we demand from those who sit upon them?…Today, it is impossible to contemplate Richard, Henry and Hal without considering Trudeau and Obama, Trump, Clinton and Sanders, Putin and Merkel and Gaddafi and Mubarak and the Koch brothers…”

For the politically astute, the parallels are uncanny and Graham Abbey as King Henry IV, Araya Mengesha as Prince Hal and the rest of the Royal Family are rightfully wary of the rebels’ power in the guise of the Archbishop of York and Lady Percy (both played by an agile Carly Street), Young Mowbray (Mikaela Davies), Lord Hasting (Anusree Roy), the Earl of Northumberland (Nigel Shawn Williams) and Lady Northumberland (Irene Poole). The somber play certainly challenges the audience to consider the consequences of ambition, suspicion, revenge and deadly politics and though Falstaff’s bravado (admirably rendered by Geraint Wyn Davies) provides temporary relief, his eventual humiliation is made bearable only in contrast to the redemption and future promise of King Henry V.

As Prince Hal/Henry V, Araya Mengesha comes into his own as he ascends the throne and Breath of Kings transitions from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 into Shakespeare’s Henry V. Fortunately, both the pace and the action pick up in the second half of this adaptation as King Charles VI of France (Wayne Best), Queen Isabel (Anusree Roy), The Dauphin (Mikaela Davies), the Duke of Orleans (Shane Carty) and the rest of the French contingent offers enough bluster and bravado to resurrect audience interest and plunge the players into battle.

The Battle of Agincourt is creatively staged in the round (unusual for Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre) and the directing, design and fight teams’ ingenuity rivals that of the outnumbered English and the miraculous defeat of the overconfident French. Anahita Dehbonehie’s set design provides myriad battle formations as pieces of the stage are pried up from the floor and used as shelter or vantage points. Yannik Larivée’s costume design ranges from odd to ingenious to helpful as audience sort out the many doublings of actors, the women playing men’s roles and the back and forth appearances of the Royal Family, English Officers, and French nobility and soldiers. Kimberly Purtell’s intricate lighting design and Debashis Sinha’s dynamic work as a composer and sound designer are crucial to clarifying each army’s strategic plans, advances, engagements and triumphs. Fight Director John Stead and Movement Director Brad Cook deserve special mention for the complex, polished and provocative choreography and battle scenes.

Breath of Kings, Rebellion and Redemption
represent a wildly ambitious undertaking and commitment by Stratford Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino and company. Although some scenes proved long and challenging, Breath of Kings is definitely more than the sum of its parts and the experience of these four Shakespeare plays over two productions and six hours is more than worth it for the bravest of the Bard’s followers and a rare, rich experience for both audience and company members alike. Both productions play through September 24.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
ISE Theatre Performance Chronicle

Permanent link to full entry 08:04:37 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  


Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: MACBETH (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 23 August, 2016


It’s a gloriously murky, shadowy and dusky 11th century setting for Macbeth and Canada’s Stratford Festival designer Julie Fox’s compact, complex set almost steals the show. Fortunately, director Antoni Cimolino knows how to take full advantage of his cast and entire design team and commands an always expected, seldom fulfilled vibrant, streamlined story of usurpation, guilt, madness and revenge that provoked a quick standing ovation and audience cheers in the Festival Theatre.

It’s a clear telling of Duncan’s murder, the Macbeths’ plotting, Macduff’s revenge and the country’s triumph over evil tyranny but it’s not an unblemished production despite the exquisite scene transitions, startling special effects and chilling sound designs by composer Steven Page and designer Thomas Ryder Payne.

From the very beginning of the show, there’s a much too relaxed sense of vocal energy and physical dynamism that one would expect from a recently battle-tested, adrenaline-charged Macbeth and Banquo. The three witches (eerily and forcefully rendered by Brigit Wilson, Lanise Antoine Shelley and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings), do their part to set the two warriors on their prophetic path of doom but neither Macbeth or Banquo seem to seize the startling predictions of great fortune with the gravity and/or exhilaration that one might suspect (even when the Thane of Cawdor prophesy is almost instantly fulfilled). Allowing for various directorial or actor interpretations, this is just one example of a number of moments in the show where a key actor’s vocal depth, dynamics, tone or muted force slows the wild, reckless and maddening actions of the play. In other moments in the expansive 1800-seat Festival Theatre, characters turn upstage or put their faces to the stage floor without increasing volume (often making their lines or speeches indecipherable).

Still, the individual crafting of scenes is stellar. The slaying of Macduff’s family is inspired in its simplicity and horror as is the ambush of Banquo and the escape of Fleance. The director and actors take their time with the more thoughtful scenes involving the plotting of the Macbeths, the revelation of the slaughter of Banquo’s family and Malcolm’s transformation from exiled suspect to ruler (solidly played by Antoine Yared). This sets the stage for the rapid-fire pace of the march of Birnam Wood on Dunsinane and the final, well-lit, cut-and chase denouement of the “invincible” Macbeth.

Ian Lake’s Macbeth is solid but often lacking the fire and in-the-moment sense of surprise or awe that communing with the supernatural usually inspires. Krystin Pellerin’s Lady Macbeth captures the energy but lacks the nuance that connects Macbeth’s initial missive with her intricate and abrupt turn to the dark side. Michael Blake’s Macduff is earthy and fierce and Sara Afful’s Lady Macduff is playful and heartbreaking in the wonderfully staged murderous ambush. Scott Wentworth’s Banquo is honest and on target and his wandering in and out of the banquet scene is accomplished with clarity and convincing authority.

This is a strong company and a lavish production dedicated to longtime Stratford actor and director Brian Bedford. Michael Walton’s lighting design is sinister and bold, composer Steven Page and sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne create splendid aural surroundings for the play’s most shocking moments and fight director John Stead and movement director Heidi Strauss keep the pacing frenetic and fraught with peril when called on. The rousing final confrontation fight by Macbeth (Ian Lake) and Macduff (Michael Blake) is handled with confidence. The production plays through October 23 in the Festival Theatre.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
ISE Performance Chronicle

Permanent link to full entry 07:50:58 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  


Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: Breath of Kings Rebellion (2016, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 23 August, 2016


It takes intrepid Shakespeare fanatics to endure and appreciate the bombast of Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV Part 2 and Henry V all in one day but that’s the challenge for Stratford Theatre attendees to the Graham Abbey conceived and adapted Breath of Kings/Rebellion & Redemption this summer. Audiences can choose to break them into their two separate parts (Rebellion & Redemption) but to fully appreciate the diverse repertory company, it’s best to summon up the swagger and bravado of Shakespeare’s best soldiers and plunge right in.

As seasoned theatregoers know, it’s a bumpy rollercoaster ride with the long-winded grandiloquence of Richard II slowing Bolingbroke’s eventual drive to the throne. It’s actually a pretty simple story of political missteps with Richard II’s underestimation of Bolingbroke, allowing ego and advisors to mistakenly send the future Henry IV (Bolingbroke) into exile. Bolingbroke’s complicity in the King’s murder is the second major misstep, both in terms of reconciling his own guilt and his countrymen’s loyalties and ambitions.

As both adaptor and lead actor (Bolingbroke/Henry IV), one can’t help but suspect that the incisive cutting and trimming Graham Abbey achieved in bringing the four plays in under six hours ran into significant snags when paring down his own character’s bluster. Mr. Abbey offers up an interesting and forceful Henry IV but the external posturing and pontification often detracts from the audience’s understanding of the usurper’s motivations, inner struggles and tortured soul.

Tom Rooney as Richard II delivers a more nuanced, assertively suppliant forcibly departing King who understands both the power and burdens of the hollow crown. The glory of the Stratford Festival, of course, remains its ability to tell a story with clarity, cleverness and panache and transforming the Tom Patterson Theatre into an arena with the audience stacked on top of the playing fields, battle fields and courts kept most theatre members engaged. Anahita Dehbonehie’s set design shrewdly converts the stage from a dirt battle field (actually something similar to tire shreds to keep the dust down) to the court with the help of a few brooms, rakes and shovels. Yannik Larivée’s costume design is inventive and helpful in determining who’s who and composer and sound designer Debashis Sinha underscores the intermittent action with a strong guiding hand without tromping on the language.

In Part II of Rebellion, Geraint Wyn Davies’ Falstaff is as savvy as he is salacious and leads us through Henry IV Part 1 with gusto and intelligence. Johnathan Sousa as Henry Percy/Hotspur is a feisty, fur-covered, single-minded warrior with enough humanity that one feels sorry for the treachery that leads to his ill-fated demise. Araya Mengesha as Prince Hal survives a slow start where he is gobbled up in scenes with more seasoned actors. Fortunately, he hits his stride midway and despite some seeming vocal strain or limits, stays focused and carries the day. His best scenes are with the infinitely likable Davies as Falstaff and together, they bring Rebellion and the trimmed Henry IV, Part 1 to a satisfying conclusion.

Kate Hennig as Mistress Quickly makes understatedly bold choices and clearly runs the Boar’s Head, Michelle Giroux as Doll Tearsheet captures the pathetic hell bent on survival heart of the character and Stephen Russell as the Earl of Westmoreland is solid from start to finish. Nigel Shawn Williams also excels as the Earl of Northumberland with too many other fine performances to mention.

Directors Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman carefully blend the sights, sounds, speeches and choreography of these two plays with experienced eyes and a clear vision. The heart of the history plays centers on the Kings (and men who would be King) but the rapid pulse of each scene is accomplished by the parade of actors playing the Dukes, Duchesses, Bishops, Earls and Queens. The Stratford Festival is blessed by the depth of its overall company and the artistic team casts well with a strong and surprisingly liberal color and gender conscious approach with women in men’s roles and mixed-race families that adroitly allow the words and talent to carry the day. Both Breath of Kings Rebellion and Breath of Kings Redemption play through September 24 in the Tom Patterson Theatre.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Member, American Theatre Critics Association
ISE Performance Chronicle

Permanent link to full entry 07:37:15 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

Performance Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Stratford, Ontario – 2014)

Review Author: Roderick McKeown [mail]
Production: A Midsummer Night's Dream (2014, Stratford Festival of Canada, Canada)
Review date: 15 June, 2015

By Roderick H. McKeown and Sarah Star

In Stratford’s 2014 staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, director Christopher Abraham’s stated intent to “forge a sense of family and community as central to the play’s setting, and for this community to be inclusive, varied and diverse” is apparent from the outset, shaping an unusually conceptually sophisticated production. This ranges from minor touches, like making Egeus (Michael Spencer-Davis) deaf, speaking in sign through an interpreter, to the overarching framing conceit: this Dream is a wedding entertainment mounted after a backyard wedding ceremony. The players are a troupe of actors, celebrating the marriage of two actors in the company – and that’s not a gender-neutral noun, as we mean two male actors. Abraham’s production is lent emotional immediacy by the coincidental recent rulings in a number of American jurisdictions striking down bans on same-sex unions; those rulings were not in the headlines when rehearsals began. The play within the play draws upon the currency of love not legally sanctioned.

The Festival Theatre was decorated throughout as for a wedding, with white bows on the end of every row of seats. The cast mingled freely with the audience, some of whom were actually led to believe that they were attending a special, celebratory performance. The actors ad-libbed freely, asking patrons how far they had come for the ceremony, and whose side of the aisle they were on, and offering tissues. When we jokingly, knowingly, stated we were with the groom, we were corrected, and informed there were two grooms. The “newlyweds” were then led in blindfolded, prefiguring the confusions in the forest.

The most prominent directorial decision that follows on from this frame is the cross-casting of both Lysander (Tara Rosling) and Titania. Casting Hermia and Lysander as two women pleading for their love to be recognized translates Shakespeare’s slightly improbable legal scenario into a modern idiom. Many of Lysander’s lines – telling Demetrius “Do you marry him” – take on wonderfully ironic meaning. Conversely, Hermia’s contempt for “all the vows that ever men have broke” becomes a celebration of lesbian constancy. The patriarchal dynamic that underwrites Demetrius’ claim to Hermia is all the more evident, as this production highlights more than most the brute power of the state to enforce heterosexual norms. Egeus’ deafness to his daughter’s arguments is symbolic –and it also has the effect of forcing Hermia (Bethany Jillard) to speak her own sentence, translating her father’s furious signs for the onstage audience. The silently watching Hippolyta’s (Maev Beaty) uneasy relationship with Theseus (Scott Wentworth) is rendered more obviously tense and coercive; she is attended by armed Amazons, and her surrender seems at best conditional, and tested by this display of patriarchal dominance. This made wonderful sense of her conversation with Theseus on the hunt, as her references to Hercules become intentional goading, a deliberately cruel reference to a demi-god former lover. Wentworth’s assurance that his hounds are bred “of the Athenian kind” is an insecure lover offering what he knows is second best.

The ending of the lovers’ plot is carefully staged to acknowledge and resolve those tensions. Wentworth performs his reversal of the law as a placatory gift to his future queen, and matched word with gesture, offering each couple a flower, and, tentatively, one to Hippolyta. It is, in effect, another proposal of marriage that he is relieved she accepts.

The other reconciled couple are equally strikingly played. It’s a gay wedding, and it wouldn’t be a gay wedding without a healthy dose of camp. Filling those shoes – we couldn’t tell if they were pumps or slingbacks – on alternate nights are Evan Buliung (Titania at the performance we attended) and Jonathan Goad. Titania is emphatically the fairy queen. She sings falsetto. She dances. She ad-libs lines that reflect the cross-casting of the play and the sexuality the grooms in the frame. In short, she is a one-woman assault on heteronormativity and predictability, occupying in many ways the role usually played by Puck (Chick Reid, somewhat sidelined in this production). At once stately and mischievous, and feminine while deconstructing femininity, Buliung’s performance, too, lent urgency and intellectual depth to the production. This is a fairy queen who can be maternal and self-consciously feminine, and then chest-bump her husband. We invite readers who saw Goad – a splendidly butch and sardonic Oberon in the performance we saw – as Titania to send us comments for inclusion in an updated review.

Goad’s Oberon is above all the purveyor of magic in the play, and the production walked a fine line between playing the magic for real and acknowledging the theatricality of the event. The lovers in the grip of the love potion responded physically to Oberon’s gestures, heads and feet raised off the ground, clearly in the throes of enchantment. But such moments were also played for laughs, as Goad sadistically held Demetrius in that difficult position – clawing for support at Goad’s belt – with a gleeful “Nice abs!” Further magical effects were achieved by the liberal use of child labour to whack the lovers with branches, none too gently guiding their steps through the fog of the forest. As the lovers succumbed to exhaustion they were literally weighed down by their young cast-mates – Demetrius complaining as he was overcome “I still have lines!”

The presence of the children – perhaps necessarily – meant that the production pulled some of its punches. When Titania’s guard (played by a child) is overcome by Puck’s blow dart, the fainting child was caught by an adult cast member. Similarly, the interlude between Bottom (an oddly subdued Stephen Ouimette) and Titania becomes all innocence – a conceptually questionable decision for a production that otherwise pushes the envelope on gender norms. The opposite effect was achieved by having the Changeling a physical presence, tenderly held by Titania (who covered his ears when speaking of his mother’s death), and rather abstractedly won by Oberon. This was a real emotional defeat, even if Titania exits seeming to promise that the subject is not closed.

The presence of child actors also led to occasional breaking of the frame. To have fairies sing Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” after Helena has been dismissed by Demetrius might make some sense; to have children sing a song of unrequited love at a wedding is – we would hope – improbable. Another song, too, tested the flexibility of the frame to the breaking point. After Pyramus and Thisbe, interrupted in this staging by an increasingly intoxicated Hippolyta – Bottom leads the cast in a frame-breaking rendition of New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle.” In and of itself, this is no problem. But Wentworth then ends the raucous music as the host at a suburban wedding, warning the guests that “I have neighbours!” This, unfortunately, comes before the fairies’ magical blessing of the three – sorry, with the grooms four – marriage beds. Rather than being a commentary on magic bleeding into the mundane, the ending seems confusing and confused.

The newspaper reviews have ranged from the stellar (Nestruck in The Globe and Mail) to the witheringly dismissive (Ouzounian in the Star) and everything in between (Cushman in the Post). For some, it’s a matter of taste; pop music intervals in Shakespeare are not everyone’s cup of tea. Abraham’s staging has a lot going on, and perhaps it’s difficult to keep so many plates in the air without breaking one or two. But the diversity that he places front and centre in his conception of the show necessarily means an eclectic mix, and his queer sensibility in approaching the frame means it would be frankly disappointing if some sensibilities were not offended. The aesthetics of queer protest draw on carnivalesque displays of bad taste and “the riot of the tipsy bacchanals” is not out of place in such a context. Abraham’s show is here (and now) and queer – get used to it.

Permanent link to full entry 07:21:18 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

Original Practices Henry IV, Part II Hailed as Valiant First Effort for Colorado Shakespeare

Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: Henry IV, Part II (2014, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, USA)
Review date: 17 August, 2014

As part of an experiment in working with original practices, the 57th season of Colorado Shakespeare Festival included a Henry IV, Part II conclusion to the company’s fully staged Henry IV, Part I for three Sunday performances. This unique CSF staging included only five days of rehearsal, a prompter, many key actors with just a “cue script” in hand, universal lighting, a hodge-podge of modern dress and period costumes, and a generally collective direction of the piece by the acting company.

Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr welcomed audiences and explained a bit about original Elizabethan theatre staging practices, how original practices have been interpreted by various companies in recent years, and the adventure that Colorado Shakespeare embarked on for this production.

Fortunately, for many company members, the production most likely benefitted significantly from the casting, character development, rehearsal period and ensemble work that was put into Henry IV, Part I, and Michael Winters once again led the way on stage as an amiable, boastful, poignantly pathetic Sir John Falstaff. The story of King Henry IV’s maladies and death, the odd misunderstanding with his son, Hal, Prince John’s questionable integrity and Falstaff’s eventual humiliation is sobering drama under the best of circumstances and the CSF company manages to make sense of the piece—but it was a long process. A number of actors seemed to struggle (borrowing from Peter Quince) with “cues and all.” The result was a much longer than the promised fast and light pacing keeping to “the two hours’ traffic of our stage.”

Still, kudos to a fine company of actors and congratulations to an artistic and production team for risking public performances under experimental conditions. Although the results of the “final product” were mixed, many actors rose to the challenge and the production was no doubt an interesting artistic experiment for the company and an educational journey for the audience.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Professor, Theatre, California State University, Fullerton

[Dr. Jim Volz is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, former CEO/Managing Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the author of seven books, including HOW TO RUN A THEATRE (Methuen Drama/2011), WORKING IN AMERICAN THEATRE (Methuen Drama/2011), and SHAKESPEARE NEVER SLEPT HERE. He has produced over 100 professional productions, consulted for over 100 theatres and professional arts groups, and written over 100 articles for publication in newspapers, magazines, books and journals. He may be reached at jvolz@fullerton.edu]

Permanent link to full entry 01:08:14 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

Solid Henry IV, Part I Soothes Reviewer's Shakespeare Festival Angst in Colorado

Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: HENRY IV, PART I (2014, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, USA)
Review date: 17 August, 2014

Returning to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival many times over the past four decades allows one a bit of perspective in regards to the delightful, open-air 1,000 seat red-rock historic Mary Rippon Theatre, the sassy, somewhat quirky city of Boulder and the joys of a true Shakespeare Festival where the whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts. Operating on a slim budget with a small, impressive Equity actor core and a company carefully cobbled together largely from local talent and the nation’s BFA and MFA programs, the 57th season of Colorado Shakespeare offered a diverse and generally satisfying weekend of theatre.

Timothy Orr was selected to helm the theatre in 2014 after a nationwide search and a season as Interim Producing Artistic Director. He welcomed audiences to each of the four productions this reviewer attended (Merry Wives of Windsor, I Hate Hamet, Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II) and it was his decision to produce the two Henrys on one intriguing six-hour Sunday that pulled me back to Colorado. To up the stakes a bit more than this fairly rare day-long staging of the two Henry plays, Mr. Orr decided to “experiment in working with original practices” for CSF’s Henry IV, Part II. The artistic initiative was clearly rewarded with boisterous sold-out crowds of Colorado Shakespeare loyalists, curious educators, and theatregoers from across America.

Shakespeare’s well-crafted tale of traitors, tarts, trysts and family strife is anchored by King Henry IV’s eldest son, Prince Hal, and his ignoble misadventures with the scoundrel Falstaff. Sam Gregory is a complicated and wonderfully nuanced Henry IV and Benjamin Bonenfant rises to the substantial challenges of the surprisingly heroic Prince Hal. Geoffrey Kent shines as the cocky Henry Percy (Hotspur) and Michael Winters melds the play’s merriment, philosophical charm and political power together as the incorrigible, bombastic Falstaff.

Director Carolyn Howarth embraces the play, brings the best out of her wide-ranging company of actors, and manages to extract still timely and universal political truths that clearly resonated with the audience.
Scene designer Carolyn Howarth’s simple, clever, pivoting set pieces distinguished court room from bar room and kept the focus on the mad-cap antics of Sir John Falstaff, the agony of a King trying to quell a rebellion and the inevitable showdown between Hal and Hotspur. Hugh Hanson’s costume designs and Jason Banks lighting designs helped distinguish the warring factions, focus the action and move the play along.

The world’s best Shakespeare’s Festivals are indeed more than the sum of its parts. After a less than glo-rious start to the weekend with an ill-advised, clumsily directed, oddly annotated rendition of The Merry Wives of Windsor, it was grand to see most of the same company (with a different director) rise to the challenge of Henry IV, Part I and delight audiences with a rambunctious, very funny production of Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, over the next two days. Add in the bagpiper, singers, dancers, tattooed Shake-speare t-shirts, moonlit mountains, local brews and knowledgeable, eager audiences and Colorado Shake-speare’s festival formula is tried and true.

Cheers to Colorado Shakespeare’s 57th Season and to the artistic, production, education and management team assembled by Timothy Orr. Henry IV, Part II and I Hate Hamlet will be reviewed in companion pieces to follow.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Professor, Theatre, California State University, Fullerton

[Dr. Jim Volz is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, former CEO/Managing Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the author of seven books, including HOW TO RUN A THEATRE (Methuen Drama/2011), WORKING IN AMERICAN THEATRE (Methuen Drama/2011), and SHAKESPEARE NEVER SLEPT HERE. He has produced over 100 professional productions, consulted for over 100 theatres and professional arts groups, and written over 100 articles for publication in newspapers, magazines, books and journals. He may be reached at jvolz@fullerton.edu]

Permanent link to full entry 01:02:54 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

I Hate Hamlet Proves Perfect “Classic” Comedy for Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: I HATE HAMLET (2014, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, USA)
Review date: 17 August, 2014

Colorado Shakespeare Festival forays into more contemporary work are a relatively recent phenomenon as there was significant angst during the early years of the Festival when it came to straying from the Bard.

Ben Jonson’s Volpone (first produced in England in 1606) was the first to break with CSF tradition in 1972 and it took two decades before what many considered a perilous plunge into non-Shakespearean work to once again surface on Colorado Shakespeare stages on the University of Colorado campus.

Fast-forward to summer, 2014, and the non-traditionalists are at it again—this time with an entertaining Boulder, Colorado twist. Paul Rudnick’s comic romp I Hate Hamlet is all about the fateful casting of a young television actor as Hamlet (who is haunted by the ghost of stage and screen star John Barrymore). In a fascinating bit of serendipity, Colorado Shakespeare dramaturg Roxxy Duda discovered a treasure trove of Barrymore’s belongings in the University of Colorado library archive. Boxes of Barrymore historical documents including the contents of his wallet at the time of his death and correspondence with George Bernard Shaw were evidently donated to the university by a friend of the legendary actor. What great source material for tackling a play!

It may not be Shakespeare but it is a whole lot of fun. Colorado Shakespeare Festival Producing Artistic Director Timothy Orr assembled a marvelous ensemble to join the otherwise Shakespearean summer season (The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Henry IV, Parts I and II) and guides them with aplomb. Sam Gregory is riotously bold, cocky and debonair as Barrymore’s ghost. Alex Esola plays Andrew Rally, the conflicted television star gauchely cast as Hamlet at the New York Shakespeare Festival (for his commercial appeal). Esola is gratifyingly confused, cloying, and charming as he struggles with Barrymore and his impending opening night.

The overall ensemble adds to the joy of the production. Martha Harmon Pardee, as the realtor who tracks down Barrymore’s New York apartment, and Jamie Ann Romero (who plays Rally’s girlfriend) add mirth and a touch of reality to Rudnick’s farce. Stephen Cole Hughes threatens to steal the show as Rally’s writer/producer/director friend who shamelessly and hilariously tempts Rally into returning to his tv roots. Anne Sandoe is very funny and delightfully cast as the actor’s agent, Lillian Troy.

Scenic designer Caitlin Ayer creates one wonderful New York apartment that provides usable levels, ample playing space, and a host of visuals evoking an earlier era of Broadway. Katie Horney’s costumes are lively and interesting and the rest of the key artistic team (Jason Banks, Jason Ducat, Amy Chini, Geoffrey Kent and Roxxy Duda) all contributed to the success of the production. Of course, it’s director Timothy Orr who cast, shaped, timed, and produced the general merriment and, more importantly, successfully risked infuriating the masses with a “contemporary classic” that would most certainly have made Shakespeare smile.

Jim Volz, Editor, Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto
Professor, Theatre, California State University, Fullerton

[Dr. Jim Volz is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, former CEO/Managing Director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and the author of seven books, including How to Run a Theatre (Methuen Drama/2011), Working in American Theatre (Methuen Drama/2011), and Shakespeare Never Slept Here. He has produced over 100 professional productions, consulted for over 100 theatres and professional arts groups, and written over 100 articles for publication in newspapers, magazines, books and journals. He may be reached at jvolz@fullerton.edu.

Permanent link to full entry 12:56:42 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

"all my hair in knots": King Lear at the Public Theater free Shakespeare in the Park, Central Park, New York City

Review Author: Cristina Alfar [mail]
Production: King Lear (2014, Free Shakespeare in the Park — Public Theater, USA)
Review date: 13 August, 2014

What is most striking for this viewer’s experience of The Public Theatre’s free Shakespeare in the Park production of King Lear (Delacorte Theater in Central Park) is the intractable ugliness of the play. Its male characters are, perhaps first and foremost, relentlessly misogynist. The ascendance of Goneril and Regan to the throne is not objectionable insofar as they are poor choices, but insofar as they are women. In this production, directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring John Lithgow (Lear), Annette Bening (Goneril), and Jessica Hecht (Regan), with a break-out performance by Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar), the language of the play is heightened and rendered new by actors whose facility with the language and clarity of purpose magnify the play’s ugliness, its lack of love and compassion. The play’s reiteration and revision of notions of “nothing,” its dependence on personal insult (“thou marble-hearted fiend,” “Detested kite!” “knave, beggar, coward, pandar, and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch,” “thou art a boil / A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle, / In my corrupted blood,” “Milk-liver’d man!” “thou art a fiend, / A woman’s shape doth shield thee”) reaches the audience with clarity and violence. A lack of human connection was, probably accidentally, compounded by a microphone system that made the characters distractingly separate from their voices, separate from each other, so that communication was doubly alienated from intent, from connections to hope or desire or ambition. (Their voices also lost resonance, and it strikes me that actors do not seem to learn anymore just to project, to protect their voices with their diaphragms—much Broadway theater also uses microphones to amplify voices.) The actors moved comfortably on the gorgeous, minimalist wooden platform set (with scenic design by John Lee Beatty), against a scrim crisscrossed with long, slender rods, or dowels, on which was projected the suggestion of a castle wall, or trees and landscape and, of course, a storm with lightening. Lighting by Jeff Croiter beautifully created shifts from one location to the next as well as shifts in mood and space.

While it is traditional to see the play’s pathos as belonging to Lear and Gloucester, whose children grab so relentlessly at power that they sacrifice fathers and humanity to grasp it, this production offers little to win sympathy. Mr. Lithgow’s Lear begins the play in confidence of his choice to split his kingdom into three, and the map, spread center stage on the floor, Annette Bening and John Lithgow showed clearly his intent to give Cordelia the largest portion though he says his daughters will compete for that distinction. But very quickly, this Lear showed signs of mental instability, reaching what the actor himself calls the first “temper tamtrum” within a few lines of Cordelia’s refusal to speak (“Learning ‘Lear’: John Lithgow’s Shakespeare in the Park Diary,” New York Times, June 18, 2014). The effect is to offer credibility to Goneril’s claim that their father’s irrational decision to “cast off” Cordelia may portend future troubles with him for herself and her sister, Regan. Neither of the sisters is excited by Lear’s love contest, and while Goneril’s reply is more sure—seemingly agreeing to play her father’s game as she warms to her declaration of love— she also indicates the map on the floor very clearly as she declares that she loves him “Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare” (ISE King Lear, 1.1.57). Regan’s reply is hesitant, seemingly at a loss for words as well as of self-confidence. She can come up with nothing other than words her sister has already spoken, but her father’s clear displeasure with such repetition both frightens her and goads her on. Through the first two acts, Ms. Bening’s performance gives weight to a view of a reasonable Goneril as she grows exasperated with a rowdy group of knights whose loud and disorderly gathering can be heard off-stage. Add to this Regan’s and Cornwall’s (Glenn Fleshler) sincere request for advice from the Earl of Gloucester (Clarke Peters) and the production appeared interested in exploring both the domestic and professional hazards of taking over a business from a parent who seems to suffer from dementia.

Yet this production, at least, also demonstrated the impossibility of sustaining such a view, for while the sisters at first see eye to eye on matters of state, they soon devolve into a shabby and stupid rivalry for Edmund. Any possible explanation for Goneril’s attraction to Edmund is lost, coming out of the blue in Act 4, scene 2 without any even visual indication of her admiration for him or exasperation with her husband in earlier scenes (since there is no textual indication before this moment). The kiss between the two here, initiated by Goneril, felt sudden, as if we had missed something. Similarly, Regan’s overtures—especially in Ms. Hecht’s performance, which made Regan a tentative, insecure, almost flighty participant in ruling the nation until Gloucester’s letter is intercepted— show as weakness, as the beginning of a rivalry with her sister that was not in evidence before and could not be explained (this interpretation is also at odds with her later self-assurance in Act 3, scene 7, that begins by ordering Gloucester’s death, “Hang him instantly” [ISE Lear, 3.7.5]). As a result, each successive act made by the sisters took them further and further away from that moment of a unified, shared rulership. Moreover, the continuous onslaught of disgust for the female body and for female power expressed by Lear, first and foremost, but also by the Fool (a brilliant Steven Boyer), Albany (an unfortunately weak Christopher Innvar) highlighted what felt on this night to be the play’s stunning discomfort with female rule, with the female body as a site of authority or integrity. Lear’s thorough loathing for female anatomy brings the play’s revulsion to a climax: “There’s hell, there’s darkness, there’s the sulphurous pit, burning, scalding, stench, consumption; fie, fie, fie! pah, pah!” (ISE King Lear 4.6.128-30). During this speech, Lear sat on the ground, legs thrust out before him, slightly open. Gesturing between his legs violently, for emphasis, the rank stench and gaping blackness of a woman reflected in his face, Lear, in his furious movements, palpably brought to life one of the most consistent themes of this production.

While the production seemed to drive home the utter ruthlessness of each character, whose bonds with others were fleeting and self-interested, the women’s ruthlessness was particularly weak-minded and ridiculous. In contrast to Lear, who in Mr. Lithgow’s performance was a very old man unable to grasp where he went wrong or how things did not turn out as he planned, but whose behavior seemed logical—or at least imaginable—in light of a certain kind of agedness, the women failed utterly to convey sense in their acts, even if sense required a lack of sympathy or love, even if it—like that of the male characters—was ruthless. No indication could be gleaned (after the end of Act 3) that Edmund, for example, could assist a woman in her rulership. While Albany was clearly not supportive of Goneril’s vision—and Cornwall was dead, making Regan vulnerable and perhaps in need of a man’s assistance, authority, protection—none of this was signaled by either actress. In this light, the play came off as grotesquely misogynist, even for a viewer who has worked extensively on the play. Its total loathing for women was unavoidable in this production. Hecht and BeningAnd whether this was a matter of performance choices, directorial choices, or a text that refused to be denied, I am still struggling to decide. The text is the text, and this production performed that text, nearly (so far as I could tell) uncut, at more than 3 hours. And yet, I wonder whether Goneril and Regan had to come off as behaving, ultimately, so inexplicably and without reason, especially since, as I have said, even Lear’s “temper tantrums” became the product of old age, a concrete and almost sympathetic humanity.

Lithgow and Peters

Before I bring this review to a close, I would like to dedicate some time to Chukwudi Iwuji (Edgar). I have never seen an actor so convincing in his commitment to Poor Tom, so made for performing speeches that can be incomprehensible to an audience. Here, Mr. Iwuji spoke them beautifully, with layers of meaning and apparent references to events in the play or preceding the play’s action. Mr. Iwuji, brilliantly cast as part of a now fairly common practice of color-blind casting, made Edgar’s speeches fresh, with various brilliant backdrops projected behind him offering added atmosphere to his flight from court. A nearly full moon rose directly center stage as he determined to flee his father, having

heard myself proclaim’d;
And by the happy hollow of a tree
Escaped the hunt. No port is free; no place,
That guard, and most unusual vigilance,
Does not attend my taking. Whiles I may ’scape,
I will preserve myself: and am bethought
To take the basest and most poorest shape
That ever penury, in contempt of man,
Brought near to beast: my face I’ll grime with filth;
Blanket my loins: elf all my hair in knots;
And with presented nakedness out-face
The winds and persecutions of the sky. (ISE Lear 2.3.1-12)

Choices made by the director in scene and sound, the suggestion of a forest in the distance and a valley in the foreground projected behind him, the sounds of hounds on a hunt—and Edgar’s need for an escape took on new resonance. While the idea of an Edgar who, like a slave escaping his master runs from the hounds, pushes the bounds of race and class in the play in ways that were undoubtedly incongruous with the text, and frankly inappropriate for the legitimate heir to the Earl of Gloucester, somehow—and to my surprise—Edgar’s lines (quoted above) suggested the staging. His were some of the most visually and aurally arresting moments in the play. They were also, nearly solely, the most affecting.


It is clear that this was a Lear that has left me pensive. I walked out of the theater and the park with my companion feeling strongly in need of a shower (and it was a gorgeous, breezy, dry evening in what is usually a humid and even stormy New York). The play’s relentless meanness was overwhelming. A little like Edgar, I feel all my hair in knots. But what more can we ask of theater? To walk away pensive, to spend days fretting over a play, to want to talk it over with others who have seen it, whether they loved it or hated it—that, it seems to me, is the purpose of theater.

With thanks to my companion for waiting in line for our free tickets. For more information on the production and to see photos, visit The Public Theater website.

Permanent link to full entry 12:14:22 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

Frame Your Mind to Mirth and Merriment

Review Author: Julian Gunn [mail]
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Production: The Taming of the Shrew (2014, Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival, Canada)
Review date: 11 August, 2014

I confess that I was a bit doubtful as I sat down to the Victoria Shakespeare Company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew. The play is difficult to stage for a contemporary audience—it seems too resolutely misogynist to give us unalloyed pleasure. It’s a tribute to the VSF director and company that the play shines through as the fizzing, popping, mostly delightful entertainment it was clearly meant to be – a play of carnivalesque topsy-turvy inversion, kin to the earlier Comedy of Errors or the later, more nuanced Twelfth Night.

The play presents disguise and mistaken identity in excess. Everyone is really someone else. Characters generate new identities and then cling to them ferociously, even to the point of Lucentio’s father nearly being arrested for impersonating himself. Shakespeare’s script foregrounds its own artifice, presenting itself as a play-within-a-play performed for Christopher Sly, a drunkard who has been convinced he is a lord. No one is in the accustomed place. The VSF’s production gives pleasing form to this frenzy of misrepresentation.

The production’s only set was a miraculous cart that, with simple repositioning, transformed from a sleeping-place for Christopher Sly, to a shelf within the hall of Petruchio’s home, to a street-scene door and upper window. This was a delightful device, perfectly suited to a comedy of transformations and disguises. Costumes and props had a simplified Elizabethan aesthetic, which rooted the play in its era. Each scene as played had a reassuringly tight focus. I felt that the actors knew what their purpose was and how the scenes fed into the structure of the play.

As is often the case, secondary characters were cut or combined. The Induction was compressed, and the script’s lack of closure in the shell plot was resolved by adding a brief coda from Sly and his companion. At the end of the play, the pair of them strode up over the hill applauding, to the audience’s delight. The extra element of cross-dressing in which the Lord’s page impersonates Sly’s imaginary “wife” was omitted, substituting a female player instead. This smooths out some convolution, but it also removes the opportunity to signal to the audience that the play is aware of gender as a role that can be played (or overturned).

Shrew succeeds or fails on the chemistry between its Katharine and Petruchio, and it is delightful to watch Adrienne Smook and Cam Culham respond to one another, her ferocity wrong-footed by – and wrong-footing – his clownish bullying. Culham’s Petruchio is more provocateur and absurdist poet than tyrant, willing to make himself most ridiculous of all. There is some good physical business between Petruchio and Katharine. Smook also doubles – almost unrecognizably – in a brief turn as the Hostess in the Induction.

Julian Cervello is a charismatic and high-energy Hortensio, providing a match for Petruchio’s mania. Adam Holroyd’s quieter Lucentio is appealing, though he risks being overshadowed by the vitality of his competitor. I might have tried to use staging and timing to establish Lucentio more firmly as the obvious choice for Bianca. Ursina Luther’s Bianca is delightful, with some mildly duplicitous business interpolated to foreshadow her later defiance. Alex Judd gives two strong comic turns as Sly and the Pedant, with distinct physical and vocal presences. Susie Mullen is an excellently crotchety Gremio, and Justin Guthrie a believable patriarch. Chloë Mumford, of the junior company, deserves praise for her comedic timing as the Servant and Curtis.

Katharine is presented as strong throughout – she is essentially undefeated, despite the absurd situations Petruchio engineers to “tame” her. I don’t particularly want to see a more defeated Katharine (authentic or not), so I liked this directorial choice. It meant that the play, despite its troubling theme, was frothy and delightful to watch – I sat there with a goofy smile on my face most of the time.

The only faltering, I felt, came in Katharine’s final speech of obeisance to Petruchio. The scene was well-composed and well-played; Smook delivered her part skillfully. Yet since we, the audience, had been given room to root for Katharine throughout, and since she seemed more or less unbowed right to the end, the final speech, played straight, felt unsupported by the action that came before. This left the ending a little flat for me. However, any director must make the choice she feels is right for her production, and as this was a straightforwardly Elizabethan setting, it may have seemed most appropriate to play the speech straight.

Still – the play provides enough clues that we are in a topsy-turvy world, where people say and do the opposite of what they mean, where everyone is pretending to be someone else, that there is room to play this speech with various levels of ambiguity or irony, roleplay or role-reversal, and still remain true to the tenor of the play and the tone of this production.

This slight regret notwithstanding, I can recommend the VSF production of The Taming of the Shrew as a delightful way to spend a summer’s evening. May it “frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life” (I.ii).

Permanent link to full entry 03:10:59 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  

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