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Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: ?
Review date: 06 March, 2017

Review of World Premiere
THE BOOK OF WILL by Lauren Gunderson

Audience expectations always seem as high for plays about Shakespeare as they are for plays by Shakespeare which is, of course, an unfortunate reality for any contemporary playwright charged with competing with the likes of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet or King Lear. Whether it’s the silliness of Paul Rudnick’s I Hate Hamlet, the precociousness of Amy Freed’s The Beard of Avon or the risqué romance of Lee Hall’s adaptation of Shakespeare in Love (based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard), there’s always a bit of disappointment on the way out the door.

It’s 1619-1623, London, England and Shakespeare’s scripts are being bludgeoned, rewritten and/or ripped to shreds by actors and companies who have pirated pieces of the original scripts to make a quick buck in a land without copyrights. It’s really not all that different than 21st century Shakespeare festivals where authors, actors, theatre and film directors mangle the scripts and don’t have to tangle with the original playwright (or pay royalties)! The one huge exception is that in 1619, Shakespeare has loyal followers who knew him, respect his work, memorized his lines and shaped the work with the Bard in the room.

Lauren Gunderson certainly does her homework on the importance of the First Folio, the mechanics of gathering individual scripts and actually putting them into print and the immense challenges Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, must have faced from a personal and financial point of view. We are often reminded of their loyalty and commitment to Will’s legacy and Ms. Gunderson creates lively and sometimes larger than life characters and caricatures of such notable theatre figures as playwright Ben Jonson, actor Richard Burbage and scribe Ralph Crane (often credited with rescuing so much of the Bard’s work through his skillful transcriptions).

The Denver Center Theatre world premiere of The Book of Will, directed by Davis McCallum, is clever, engaging and generally fast-paced but often works too hard to recreate a boisterous Jacobean frat party when trusting the words and simply telling the story might have been more effective. Triney Sandoval’s blustering Burbage plays at a whole other level than others on stage and his doubling as Ben Jonson and tripling as Horatio are masterful but need a director’s hand in shaping the characters for the intimate Denver Center’s Ricketson Theatre.

The play’s best moments are its quieter, sweeter moments when Liam Craig and Nancy Williamson as John and Rebecca Heminges and Kurt Rhoads as Henry Condell debate the task that lies before them and how it will impact their lives. Andy Nagraj as Isaac Jaggard surprises as the potentially evil publisher turned stand-up citizen. His quiet sincerity and Rodney Lizcano’s wonderfully taciturn Ralph Crane kept the audience intrigued and added some drama to the publication we all know will eventually be printed. Miriam A. Laube, Thaddeus Fitzpatrick, Wesley Mann and Jennifer Le Blanc round out this exceptionally talented, seasoned ensemble.

The Book of Will will no doubt be a favorite of artistic directors and fervent Shakespeare followers. Only time will tell if general audiences will be up for the story of two guys who just wanted to make sure their friend’s remarkable tales would survive. However, with a cast of only ten actors, it’s one of the more affordable “Shakespeare plays” and it is indeed a tale worth the telling. –Jim Volz

Posted, March, 2017
Jim Volz is the Editor of the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto and a longtime reviewer for New York’s Back Stage and Hollywood’s Drama-Logue. He is a professor of theatre at California State University, Fullerton.

Permanent link to full entry 02:45:17 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  


Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: ?
Review date: 01 May, 2013

Visionary theatre artist Lisa Wolpe is perhaps best known as the Producing Artistic Director of the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company, the award-winning company that produces professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays with an all-female, multiracial ensemble in Southern California. Oregon Shakespeare, Berkeley Rep, Shakespeare & Company, Arizona Theater Company and many other theatres throughout America have featured Ms. Wolpe’s talents but Shakespeare and the Alchemy of Gender is a unique, poignant and intense amalgam of all things Wolpe and Shakespeare.

Finding celebration and solace in the words and enchanting power of Shakespeare, Ms. Wolpe explores the courageous, often tragic, always fascinating history of her troubled family–weaving personal photos, video and glorious passages from Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night, Richard III and Romeo and Juliet. Similar to a fresh telling of R&J, Ms. Wolpe’s story wreaks havoc on the heart as the catastrophic circumstances of her family history would be too much to bear if not for the liberation and catharsis that this valiant performer discovers (and the audience shares) in the telling of it.

The performance venue was the lovely and intimate Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts at Whittier College in California and the solo show was paired with a “TO BE OR NOT TO BE: CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO” panel discussion featuring gender and performance experts Cynthia Ruffin, Elizabeth Swain, Kevin Vavasseur and Lisa Wolpe, moderated by Dr. Jennifer Sage Holmes. Panel topics ranged from gender fluidity, bullying and same-sex casting to gender expectations, isolation and Why Shakespeare?

Ms. Wolpe refers to the show as a work in progress and, in her own words, she is “attempting to contexualize the way I interpret the cross-gender experience of performing Shakespeare, seen through the lens of my personal history and the prismatic concepts of the Elizabethan Renaissance.” This may sound woefully academic but it’s actually (and remarkably) theatrical–Ms. Wolpe knows how to tell stories, personal and Shakespearean, and she does so with power and panache. Her Romeo is bold and flirtatious, Hamlet is wracked with uncertainty and Shylock reveals a determined, well-reasoned, revengeful soul.

Through the words of Shakespeare, Ms. Wolpe tackles contemporary political and social issues, offers perspectives on the haunting influences of war, violence and victimization and provides a glimpse of the resilience, hope and humanity that makes a life worth living. She’s equally adept at telling her own story and the many tales told together result in an engaging, heartrending, satisfying time in the theatre.

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

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 07:55:56 am. Categories: Stage Performances  


Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: ?
Review date: 03 July, 2012


Friedrich Schiller would no doubt be amused that his 1800 tale of two queens, (first produced in Weimar, Germany), has been resurrected, revised and re-produced in England’s tiny, but revered Donmar Warehouse, London’s West End, Broadway’s Broadhurst Theatre and now, the Adams Shakespearean Theatre in Cedar City, Utah.

The play’s pivotal, fuming, face-to-face meeting between England’s Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots is pure fiction–but riveting drama. Indeed, the play is based on the stirring historical rivalry between the two queens and their battle over religion, politics and the right to rule England. Elizabeth (daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn), ascended to the throne in 1558, rejected Catholicism and ruled a Protestant England (thus creating many Catholic enemies loyal to Mary Queen of Scots). Mary challenged Elizabeth for the throne of England, failed and was imprisoned.

This new Peter Oswald version of MARY STUART stays close to Schiller and history while shrewdly delving inside the minds of both queens to explore the personal motives, political machinations and sexual intrigue that link them to the same man (Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester) and their inevitable destinies. Queen Elizabeth’s quandary is whether it is wise to order Mary’s execution or find another device that’s less likely to incite the wrath of Mary’s supporters. Mary’s fatal flaw is her fiery temper and self-righteous indignation. When these two queens meet, egos soar, sparks fly and fates are sealed.

Monica Bell is wonderfully cold and calculating as a Queen Elizabeth hell bent on finding a way to kill the Scottish queen without suffering guilt pangs of conscience or more serious political consequences. As Mary Stuart, Jacqueline Antaramian handles the difficult transition from submissive prisoner begging for her life to abused, privileged queen deprived of her rightful throne with power and panache. Martin Kildare is convincingly daring and determined as the ill-fated Earl of Leicester and the large ensemble of Elizabeth and/or Mary supporters are solid from the secretary of state (Michael A. Harding) to the nurse (Leslie Brott) to the array of guards and officers. Dan Frezza (Talbot), Dan Kremer (Cecil) and John G. Preston (envoy extraordinary of France) are especially engaging.

Director Kate Buckley paces the piece with a steady hand, foregoes gimmickry and special effects, and lets the words work their magic. The show is beautifully costumed by Bill Black, Robert Mark Morgan’s scene design is simple and effective and Donna Ruzika adds nice touches and carefully lights the production as the sun fades and the moon rises over the summer audience in the Outdoor Adams Shakespearean Theatre. Along with the actors, Philip Thompson receives kudos as Voice and Text Coach for the clarity and consistency of the speech and understandability of the text.

One final note–the mutual hatred among the English and Scottish Queen is so intensely well-played and palpable that the audience was visibly jarred when the actresses embraced as they left the stage following a rousing standing ovation. This is exciting theatre and one of the few Friedrich Schiller plays to be produced on an American professional stage this year.–Jim Volz

[Jim Volz is the Editor of the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s quarto, the author of nine books, and a longtime former reviewer for both Back Stage (New York) and Drama-Logue (Hollywood)–now writing for a number of publications in America and Canada as a member of the American Theatre Critics Association].

Permanent link to full entry 12:21:37 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  


Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: ?
Review date: 17 March, 2012


Add one part worst student Shakespeare essays ever written, two parts George Bernard Shaw and Stevie Wonder commentary, three parts Henry V, Hamlet, King Lear and all parts of Tony Award-winning actor Roger Rees’ charm, finesse and virtuoso performance and you have one terrifically engaging night of theatre.

Headlining the opening event of the international Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in Orlando, Florida, Roger Rees’ What You Will: An Evening By and About the Bard, charmed, cajoled, delighted and captured the imagination of a packed-house in the Margeson Theatre of the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre.

Perhaps best known to American audiences for his roles on The West Wing and Cheers, Roger Rees is most celebrated for his Olivier and Tony Award performances as the lead character in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.

Currently at work on Rick Elice’s new play, Peter and the Starcatcher (set to open on Broadway next Spring), Mr. Rees also played Gomez in The Addams Family on Broadway. Peter and the Starcatcher will be directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers and is based on the novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson.

What You Will is a fast-paced, one-man show blending theatrical disaster stories, cuttings from Shakespeare’s greatest comedy/drama/tragic hits, and pithy musings from the likes of Charles Dickens, James Thurber, D.H. Lawrence, Voltaire and elementary schools students. The “bad Bard” essay quotes (most likely culled from British miscreants as everyone knows that American grammar school students know their Shakespeare) are among the most entertaining comic moments of the night.

Sponsored by the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation, What You Will will long be remembered for mesmerizing a tough audience of Shakespeare producers while skillfully and playfully tackling many of the Bard’s most challenging words and works. Hot on the heals of the dastardly treatment of William Shakespeare as a bumbling, illiterate fool in the recent movie Anonymous, Roger Rees helped restore order among faithful followers and emerged triumphant before a standing ovation of howling admirers.

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

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 03:34:28 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  


Review Author: Jim Volz [mail]
Production: ?
Review date: 24 July, 2011

GHOST LIGHT by Tony Taccone
Directed by Jonathan Moscone
Conceived and Developed by Jonathan Moscone and Tony Taccone

(Also playing at Berkeley Rep in January, 2012).

No, it’s not Hamlet, but as Jonathan Moscone writes, “It was never planned that this play would swim in Shakespearean waters. But like Hamlet, I had a mythic father who, for me, has lived longer as a memory—a ghost, even—than as a corporeal being…He was, as Hamlet says, a man, and I don’t think I will ever look upon his like again.”

The world premiere of this haunting remembrance of the 1978 assassination of the Mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone, is a searing psychological exploration that’s part ghost story, part exorcism and part therapy session. The second production in Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s American Revolutions cycle runs in rep with a powerful Julius Caesar in the cozy New Theatre and does what repertory in a flexible space does best—creates an entirely new illusion with frightening thematic overtones, mirroring textual imagery and myriad connections between the play on stage, Ghost Light, the classic tragedy that serves as partial inspiration, Hamlet, and the bloody Bard-play staged the day before—Julius Caesar. This is an Oregon Shakespeare experience that New York’s Broadway or London’s West End can only hope to create for 21st century audiences.

Trying to find an inventive new approach to staging Hamlet, San Francisco Bay Area director Jon (Christopher Liam Moore) is struggling, nay obsessing over, how to handle the early appearance of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father. Although suffering through years of therapy, Jon remains locked up artistically, personally and romantically (presumably due to issues related to his father’s assassination, his inability to grieve, his awkwardness connecting to friends and lovers, and his anger over his father’s fading political legacy and the homage that has been paid to the gay liberation movement’s attention to the martyred Harvey Milk, the city supervisor who was also murdered that day by the disgruntled politician Dan White).

Leading us through the story are the “Boy,” Jon Moscone as a grief-stricken 14-year old teen; the now grown theatre director, Jon; his costume director friend, Louise (who compels him as a theatre director to get a handle on Hamlet); and a “Messenger” (who assists souls transitioning “from earth to the other side.”) Jon’s paternal grandfather appears as a prison guard/avenging angel; “Loverboy” is Jon’s fantasy boyfriend; Basil is an online, blind date pseudo-stalker; Robert is Basil’s bizarre friend, and there is a host of others including a designer, film director, medieval ghost, Spandex Ghost, Lady in Black, Puppet Ghost and the Ghost of George Moscone. It’s a mini-parade of personal angst, sometimes uncomfortable voyeuristic drama, and historical flights of fancy (including Mayor Moscone’s Tony Bennett like crooning of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” as he fades into the background).

This is a story of at least three ghosts–George Moscone, Harvey Milk and Hamlet’s father. Without giving away the plot, it’s fair to say that some of the best of American drama confronts audience members with agonizing moments where they feel like an out of place peeping Tom who should run screaming from the theatre. Poignant drama also turns the psychiatrist’s scalpel inward and forces audiences to confront their own demons, memories, regrets, and inactions. Writer Tony Taccone and director Jonathan Moscone succeed in merging the personal with the profound and audience members were visibly moved as this is a more inclusive parable about sons and fathers, the loss of one’s parent, the decisions and indecisions that define one’s existence, and the basic gay human rights battles that continue to play out in America’s families, cities, armed forces and political arenas. It’s a story that’s larger than any one life or any one tragedy and, for that reason, has great potential to be told again and again in the world’s theatres.

Christopher Liam Moore shows the sensitive, intuitive side of the director Jon Moscone, who is obviously conflicted and agonizes over his realization that “My father has been languishing for over 30 years as an asterisk in the life of Harvey Milk.” The “Boy” shares in the confusion and is guilelessly played by Tyler James Myers. As “Mister” explains: “Those who have not released the dead are condemned to carry their spirit.” Both young men seem to revere their father’s history of championing gay rights and minority rights: “He’d talk about civil rights and homelessness and the death penalty like other dads might talk about trying to find the right weed killer for the lawn.”

Robynn Rodriguez as Louise offers a welcome dose of warmth and comic relief and keeps the Hamlet-in-production device in focus. The dynamic Loverboy, played by Danforth Comins, offers the audience immediate access to Jon’s tortured subconscious and Bill Geisslinger as the prison guard intensifies the drama. There are confusing moments in the play. The role of the messenger and his writhing relationship with the Young Boy is hard to follow. Derrick Lee Weeden (as the spirit guide charged with harvesting the soul of the Boy’s Father) is a terrific actor, but the dialogue is hard to follow and the “god-mike” device foisted on the messenger character plays oddly in a piece already loaded with ghosts, fantasy characters and flashbacks. There’s also a slow denouement that follows a rousing entrance and exit by a larger than life George Moscone that felt like, and probably should have been, the end of the play.

Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design in the New Theatre is jaw-dropping in it’s efficient, genius use of space and framing devices that separate and elongate the same theatre that seemed so tiny during Julius Caesar just the day before. Although layered on top of each other, Jon’s bedroom and living room ring true while the aura of San Francisco and City Hall loom large over the action. Maya Ciarrocchi’s projections and video designs and Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design define moods and trigger memories essential to the play, Meg Neville’s costume designs are straightforward and earthy and Andre J. Pluess’ original music and sound design help complete both the physical and psychological journey through confusing times in both the play’s thematic through-line and America’s history.

As a writer, Tony Taccone does what he has always done exceptionally well as a director—tells a terrific story, unifies wide-ranging material, and brings the audience into the life of the play. Together with Director Jonathan Moscone, Ghost Light embraces the angst, creates a harmony of hard-hitting imagery, a touch of humor, and recognizable insights into the human condition.

For audiences who remember the tragic murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk, who still cringe over the Twinkie defense or who recently viewed the 2008 Award-winning film, Milk, it’s hard to remove the indelible imagery of this horrible moment in time. Still, as Jonathan Moscone explains in his Director’s Note: “Whether or not you know who George Moscone was doesn’t concern me. If you know loss, have lived with it, or just fear it, then this play, I hope, will be true to you.” And so it is.

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

Jim Volz is an associate 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 04:13:27 pm. Categories: Stage Performances  


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