Thursday, July 31, 2008

Just the Play

Richard Burton in the 1964 "Hamlet"
on Broadway, directed by John Gielgud.Posted by Picasa

Rediscovering the Gielgud-Burton "Hamlet"

On my most recent visit to Booklegger in Eureka, I found a copy of the first and probably only edition of Richard Burton in Hamlet, a book by actor Richard L. Sterne. In 1964, John Gielgud directed Burton on Broadway, at the height of his Burton-and-Elizabeth Taylor fame --the two actually got married while the play was in rehearsal. Sterne was a young actor in the production, and apparently all on his own, he decided to secretly tape record the rehearsals.

He hid a bulky reel-to-reel of the time in a briefcase, with the microphone pointed through a hole in the side of it. And once when he wanted to record a rehearsal with just Burton and Gielgud, he hid himself as well, under the stage. He stayed there not only for the two hours of rehearsal, but for several hours more until stagehands left, so he wouldn't be discovered.

Then after it was all over he told Gielgud and Burton about it, and they thought it was hilarious.

Sterne also took notes, and then had hours and hours of transcripts to make and edit. The book came out three years later, and probably didn't catch the wave of interest the play generated--it was a Broadway hit, sold out for its entire run. But the result is fascinating to read, more for Gielgud than Burton now, though there is some interesting dialogue with him. Gielgud was in touch one way or another (as participant, theatregoer or student of the lore) with every major production of Hamlet going back to the nineteenth century. Besides the history and how it informed his approach, this book offers some fascinating ideas and insights on directing for the theatre.

That production is also notable because it was one of the first that presented Shakespeare in modern dress--in this case in "rehearsal clothes," with no scenery and minimal set. There was a fashion for this minimal approach for awhile. It was supposed to strip the plays down to their essentials, undistracted by period clothes and elaborate scenery.

Gielgud wanted to do the play as if it were the final run-through before the technical rehearsals, before the costumes inhibit and change performances, and the sets "as beautiful as they are," he says in the first rehearsal, "they sort of cramp the imagination and the poetry--and they are apt to destroy the pace."

For the audience, this style provides the opportunity to concentrate on the acting, the words, and the play itself. Just the play.

Personally, I can't wait for this style to come back, and replace today's orthodoxy, which is to transplant Shakespeare to another time and place, regardless of how appropriate to the play, and the more outlandish the resulting set and costumes, the better. What might have helped directors, actors and audiences alike see the plays afresh has often become distraction and sensationalism, a way to sell the show with the Shakespeare brand while mocking the plays at the same time. The intent also seems to be to reassure the audience that there's really nothing there but cliches and pageantry, so there's no reason to aspire to a deeper understanding. Don't worry, it's just a show.

What excellent productions of any kind actually do--whether they are period, transplanted or minimalist like the Gielgud-Burton Hamlet--is reveal both the depths of the play, some of its complexity, and also the bedrock humanity and human situations that indeed are universal and can communicate to any audience. Done well, Shakespeare's plays are great shows. I suspect that the when this predominant style of presentation fades or is put out of our misery, something like the Gielgud-Burton Hamlet style will return.

But is switching time and place always bad? See the review below of the Kenneth Branagh As You Like It on DVD.

Stage on Film

Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind and David Oyelowo
as Orlando in "As You Like It" on DVD, an HBO
film directed by Kenneth Branagh.Posted by Picasa

Branagh's "As You Like It"

With Henry V in 1989, Kenneth Branagh burst onto the world cinema scene as a combination Orson Welles (theatre enfant terrible who directs and stars in his first major film while in his twenties) and Laurence Olivier (choosing the same play as Olivier did for his first of several director/star Shakespeare flicks, to become Shakespeare’s foremost cinematic interpreter of his time.)

Branagh brought a strong visual sense and cinematic storytelling, combined with an accessible acting style. For my money, his best Shakespeare was his second, Much Ado About Nothing (1993.) A remarkable title sequence, Branagh’s easy but compelling way with the verse, the sparks flying between him and a sparkling Emma Thompson, and Denzel Washington in Shakespeare are just some of the highlights.

Then after warming up with a bracing if unknown comedy about another actor doing Hamlet (A Midwinter’s Tale, 1995), he directed and starred in his big screen Hamlet in 1996, and pulled out all the stops, filming the long version of the text for a 4 hour movie.

It won awards and may yet be judged the definitive film version, but in budgets and buzz, it’s been a downward slope for Branagh’s Shakespearian efforts ever since. His oddly charming Love Labour’s Lost (done as a kind of 1930s musical) died at the box office in 2000, ending his plans to do Macbeth and postponing his next comedy, As You Like It for five years. Originally meant to be a big screen feature, it’s played in the U.S. only on HBO before being released on DVD, just recently available for rental locally.

At first, it may seems that Branagh is indulging in the latest fad of heedlessly transplanting Shakespeare to bizarre times and places. Branagh’s Forest of Arden is set in 19th century Japan, even though ironically enough, it was filmed in an English wood. But this does little harm (most of the characters come from a settlement of European traders) and sharpens the play’s meaning in at least one obvious way (a wrestling match that’s important to the plot but hard to make credible becomes more theatrical and dangerous when a Sumo master is involved) and in one more subtle theme: there are a couple of religious conversions in the story that seem absurd to modern audiences, unacquainted with the Christian contemplative tradition, but they probably make more sense to us when they involve Buddhist monks.

Some people despise this play, and this film is unlikely to change their minds. But since As You Like It is my favorite Shakespeare comedy, I also have a high standard. It’s visually beautiful: shots of the forest are appropriately enchanting. Bryce Dallas Howard (now better known as Gwen Stacy in Spiderman 3) is convincing and exciting in the key role of Rosalind—it’s easy to see why she caused such a stir when she played it on stage in New York. Her scenes with David Oyelowo as Orlando, and with an ardent Romola Garai as Celia, in the first half of the film are magical. There are excellent performances by Alfred Molina as Touchstone, Brian Blessed as both the good and bad Dukes, Richard Briers as Orlando’s loyal servant, and Kevin Kline as Jacques. Until…

Branagh’s strange, distant, almost embarrassed approach to Jacques’ “all the world’s a stage” speech, and Kline’s mumbled delivery, is deflating. Then the movie falters in other places, losing its magic spell in the second half. There are still crisp, funny performances by pretty much the whole cast, good scenes and striking images, but the film didn’t fulfill the promise of the early scenes, and it ends with a pale imitation of the passionate dancing that ended Much Ado About Nothing with some embarrassing singing, plus a postmodern coda that falls equally flat. (Branagh doesn’t appear in the film at all, though his voice is the last to be heard—saying “cut.”)

To call it the best film version of this play isn’t saying much—the runner up is a rarely seen 1936 version co-written by J. M. Barrie and featuring a very young Laurence Olivier in his first film role. Fans of the play—and those who have to study it—may find much of the acting illuminates the characters, and a lot of the typical problems of staging the play are neatly solved (even if a lot of the text is missing.)  Most impressive: the Duke suddenly becoming a holy man after a chance conversation with a clergyman always seemed a stretch to me.  But by setting the play in Japan, the Duke meets a Buddhist monk, and such a re-dedication seems much more credible.

Despite my disappointments, Branagh at his best can still merge Shakespeare with screen entertainment. I’ll see this one again.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Tenor is a Farce

You wind it up tight in the first act, and in the second act it flies apart, only to somehow come together in the end. That’s the basic mechanism of farce, and it’s a lot harder to accomplish than it sounds.

The script is of paramount importance, and if you wanted a textbook example of modern farce construction, you might well choose Lend Me A Tenor by Ken Ludwig, now being staged at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Eureka. Even though it first hit Broadway in 1989, this play has the classic American feel of the 1930s-50s. I imagine Ludwig growing up in York, Pennsylvania watching screwball comedies and “I Love Lucy” reruns.

The premise is a comedy standard: high culture meets Main Street; stars meet the stardom-starved. The Cleveland Grand Opera Company lands the most famous Italian tenor, Tito Merelli, for its production of Verdi’s “Otello.” Merelli’s arrival is heralded by Saunders, the company’s ambitious general manager, and his starstruck daughter, Maggie, who pines for a romantic adventure before settling down with her father’s assistant (and aspiring singer), the stage-shy Max. Merelli arrives late, with a tempestuous wife and a bad stomachache.

Added to the basic mix are a crazed fan bellhop and a couple of other amorous women with Tito in their sights. The action takes place in Merelli’s hotel suite, replete with the requisite array of doors leading to other rooms and closets. The complications to come are carefully prepared by the kind of seemingly random details that in a mystery would point you to the murderer: Saunders and Merelli are taking the same sleep-inducing medication, and Merelli lets it be known that he doesn’t need the Company’s Otello costume, he has his own. In fact, he carries two of them, just in case… there's opportunity for a two-Otello mixup, complete with a body in the bed and a woman in the bathroom.

These parts are well cast. As Saunders, Jerry Nusbaum brings an acid voice and nervous energy that oscillates between panic and despair. As Maggie, Kim Hodel radiates youth and innocence, but can turn naughty with the same midwestern enthusiasm.

Michele Shoshani has just a few scenes as Julia, another older opera official, but she quickly establishes her character as a game if not especially hopeful seductress. Shelley Stewart also makes the most of her scenes as Diana, a sultry, sexual huntress of the careerist kind, who wants to parlay her Cleveland Desdemona opposite Merelli into international stardom. Sam Cord does a showy comic turn as the bellhop, and Lora Canzoneri brings energy and commitment to the role of Maria, Tito’s wife (so although the character as written is the least satisfying, being little more than some weary stereotypes about Italian women, her performance makes it credible enough for the story.)

But the evening depends on Evan Needham as Max and Anders Carlson as Merelli. Not only are these the key roles in the farce, but a lot depends on their relationship. That’s actually what makes this play more like some screen screwball comedies, by Preston Sturges or Frank Capra, say: there’s a core of human warmth inside the comic complications. In this case, it’s not only the romance between Max and Maggie, but the connection between two singers: a star and a beginner. That also turns out to be a key to the farce itself.

Needham and Carlson work together well (and they have the voices to carry off the brief but euphoric singing.) Needham moves from anxiety to swagger as his character’s fortunes change, without losing his essential sincerity. Carlson has an even greater task in humanizing this clichéd figure of the Italian tenor, and by softening and deepening his performance gestures he creates a convincing and appealing character. NCRT often finds the sweetness and simple humanity in their productions, and that’s true this time, too.

The identity mix-up has layers to it, as Max must become a real star singer to successfully pretend to be one, which affects his romance with Maggie. Though the mix-up works partly because only a few of our Clevelanders have seen the real tenor, there's a certain suspension of disbelief involved, especially in Maggie confusing them, but there's actually less than in several Shakespeare plays, and anyway, it didn't bother me. And I liked the decision to go with partial smudgy blackface for Othello. It keeps our attention on the characters, and not on the inevitable minstrel show associations.

Renee Grinell’s direction is astute: she speeds things along when appropriate (including a 90 second pantomime of the whole play just before the curtain call), but produces slower moments for character and emotion, and even some subtler comedy. Scenic designer Bill Cose and scenic artist Mark Fontaine seem to know their 1930s era midwestern swank hotel décor, and the set is ingeniously workable for the inevitable hiding-in-the closet machinations. Marcia Hutson created the evocative costumes, and Calder Johnson designed the lighting.

The script is inevitably predictable at points, but there are some surprises and verbal wit as well as physical comedy. This is a fine production and a fun evening. Some tentative moments on opening night should disappear, as the cast gets comfortable with the pace and the complicated stage business. That’s important because as dependent on a sound mechanism as farce is, it becomes really funny when the actors lessen reliance on stock gestures and poses, and convey in the moment that their characters completely believe the situation, and are improvising their way out of it.

Are you having pun yet?  Ludwig is an American playwright, but the pun of the title "lend me a tener" is more comfortably British, where fivers and teners are more common monetary slang.

“Lend Me A Tenor” plays through August 9.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Jeff DeMark takes his solo show, "Hard as a Diamond, Soft as Dirt" to Willow Creek this weekend, Friday and Saturday (July 18, 19) at the Redbud Theatre. He'll reprise two more of his shows there in August.

It's the last big weekend of the Mad River Festival, with the Folklife Festival, Fiddle Festival and Blue Lake Pageant, and also for The Forgotten King, a children's theatre piece by the Swedish company, Pantomimteatern. It runs Thursday through Saturday at 7:30, with a Saturday matinee at 2, all in the Carlo at Dell'Arte.

North Coast Rep opens its new show, the farce Lend Me a Tenor, beginning Thursday at 8. Expect a review next week in the Journal.

Shake the Bard continues The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) at the Arcata Playhouse, Friday and Saturday at 8, with a matinee Sunday at 2.

photos top to bottom: Jeff DeMark, Dell'Arte,
Lend Me a Tenor at North Coast Rep.Posted by Picasa

Thursday, July 10, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

playwright Dave Silverbrand(left) appears
in his new comedy at Ferndale Rep.Posted by Picasa

This North Coast Weekend

Ferndale Rep and the Senior Repertory Company open Dave Silverbrand's comedy, Make Mine Metamucil, directed by Denise Ryles, at the Rep theatre in Ferndale, Friday and Saturday at 8, Sunday at 2p.m. But if you're in the Eureka/Arcata area and gas prices are stunting your social life, be advised, there will be two performances at the Eureka Theatre later in the month (July 26 at 8, July 27 at 2.)

The Mad River Festival moves on to its "Generation Next" portion with a piece called Curtains! by the southern Humboldt teen troupe, Recycled Youth. It is performed Friday and Saturday at 8, and Sunday at 7:30 in the Carlo. Sunday's performance is followed by the all-ages cabaret, Vaudeville Nouveau.

Sanctuary Stage has issued a CALL FOR ACTORS to perform a staged reading of a new play by Ken Gray--a Los Angeles playwright who has spent considerable time up here, and last year participated in the 24 hour 10 Minute Play event. Plus the play itself is Humboldt based. The rehearsal period begins August 11, and the performances are August 22 and 23. Contact Tinamarie for full details.

Monday, July 7, 2008

First Principles: Live and Let Live

There’s something about the opening show of the Mad River Festival that inspires ruminations—or pontifications—about theatre itself. Last summer I looked to theatrical origins in traditional festivals. This year had me thinking about the “live” in live theatre, and its relation to the local and community.

These thoughts were also inspired by a conversation with Charlie Myers, my movie-reviewing colleague in these pages, after the benefit concert for Deborah Clasquin last Saturday. (An impressive turnout, though the proceeds will apparently pay for at most one of the three experimental treatments Deborah requires, so donations are still being accepted at the HSU Music Department.)

Charlie and I chatted about the comparative advantages and disadvantages of our respective beats. Although I envy Charlie’s access to on-the-job popcorn, and I’ve noticed that he can critique the latest Spielberg film without much chance of running into Steven at Wildberries (nor of receiving the evil eye from the ticket-taker on his next visit to the theatre), on the whole I think I have the better gig. And that’s even apart from the fact that these days I would only review movies on a sliding scale. If my base rate were $100 say, I’d have to charge $500 just to sit through an Adam Sandler comedy, $400 for Mike Myers, etc.

Unlike movies, theatre is live and local in various ways, as exemplified by these Dell’Arte summer shows. They’ve become community rituals, and the shows respond to the occasion, even in seemingly small gestures, like a character blowing bubbles for no apparent reason but to interest the children on the blankets near the stage. That the community sees itself reflected or refracted on stage is part of the “Theatre of Place” enacted in this year’s play, which works because the theatre has the depth of experience and credibility that can come with being located in the community, and because the story on stage can respond to the latest news with the speed and spontaneity of live performance.

There are prices to be paid in dramatic focus, structure and depth, and references that not everyone knows enough about to find funny. But sometimes revealing the local does more. The Dugan story reflects characteristics of the North Coast, but in doing so it reveals something about many other small towns, counter to media images. The kind of differences and diversity symbolized by transsexual Lesbian Terry Dugan (and based on a real story—see Donald Forrest’s moving explanation in the program) is almost always associated with big cities--and “San Francisco values.” But the truth is that they are present in these smaller places, though perhaps less obviously than here on the North Coast. So the shame, guilt and conflict portrayed in this story may exist even more strongly there, and extends to all kinds of differences, not just this one. And the process of forgiveness—including self-forgiveness—or the failure to find it, is a more universal drama of real life.

In locating an essential drama in the local, there is usually an element of the universal. Being human, the drama is shared, and the community is partly created by seeing it enacted.

You can get that universality at the movies sometimes, too. But what you can’t get is the same kind of intimacy when the people on stage and the people in the audience face each other. An aspect of this was imprinted on my consciousness some years ago at a small theatre production in Pittsburgh of Arthur Miller’s play, “The Creation of the World and Other Business.” Though it’s comedic, the play deals with weighty themes of good and evil, individuality and community, fate and freedom. The audience was very close to the action, and I had my Satori moment when I saw right in front of me God’s bare feet. That is, the bare feet of the actress playing God. Somehow that made the play real and present. These were real people struggling with these big questions, as the human author did, and as we in the audience do.

There is something about real bodies on the stage—at times uncomfortable, and yet vitally human. Audiences and actors breathing the same air demonstrates that apparently abstract questions may really be the most basic concerns of the human community. So how do you combine life and art, the everyday with its meaning? Create art. Present it live.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Shakespeare Two Ways

Stephen Greenblatt has a very interesting essay in the new New York Review of Books about the celebrated production of Shakespeare's Macbeth starring Patrick Stewart, and secondarily the Verdi opera based on Macbeth which was also produced recently in NYC.

What impresses me about this essay is that Greenblatt presents his reading of the play along with a description of the interpretation by director Rupert Goold in the production that began in England before moving to New York this spring. It's a twofer, basically. But it also represents two different philosophies in approaching Shakespeare: the more currently popular one, of making the plays more politically or culturally relevant, even if it means shaping the text to fit the concept, or of finding new ways to express what the director sees in the text that illuminates the play as Shakespeare wrote it. While Greenblatt is of the second school, he finds a lot to admire in the Goold production, which uses the Stalinist period to suggest current excesses.

Greenblatt's reading of Macbeth is pretty intriguing. Particularly with today's lighting capabilities, a production based on it could be fascinating.

This North Coast Weekend (and coming attractions)

Dell'Arte's Korbel IV finishes its run this weekend, July 3-6. My Journal review is here. Jennifer Savage posts her Arcata Eye review here. The Festival’s adult cabaret, Red Light in Blue Lake, is after the July 5 Korbel performance, at 10:30 pm.

Ferndale Rep has its annual July 4th show, and will open its senior show, “Make Mine Metamucil” by local newsie and playwright Dave Silverbrand on the July 11th weekend in Ferndale, before moving it to the Eureka Theater July 26th.

North Coast Rep opens its next show, “Lend Me A Tenor” on July 17. Eureka Theater has summer classes in improvisation, commedia, acting and movement for adults, teens and children. Info at