Sunday, October 19, 2008

Arcata Host Elektra

Besides showcasing local performers in the 20 months since it opened its doors at the old Creamery, the Arcata Playhouse has hosted a number of visiting productions. These not only provide opportunities for North Coast audiences, but also for local theatre artists to see interesting work developed elsewhere, especially from larger theatre centers. And thanks to the California Ensemble Touring Initiative funded by the Irvine Foundation, there may be more such opportunities coming along.

The most recent visitors were the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles, presenting their new version of a play from the dawn of western drama: “Elektra,” the re-titled and reconceived middle play in the trilogy by Aeschylus known as the Oresteia.

“Aeschylus was the first towering figure of the theatre, the first highly individualized voice,” writes Ronald Harwood, playwright and theatre historian. Aeschylus fought in at least one of the major battles that ensured Greek independence from Persia, and he wrote as Athenian democracy was inventing itself. He competed in the contest for tragedy at the annual Dionysian festival for 15 years before he won. His innovations were remarkable. By reducing the chorus and adding a second actor who talks to the first, he invented what we think of as dialogue, or for that matter, a play. He transformed tragic poetry into tragic drama.

Aeschylus is believed to have written some 90 plays (he won that contest at least 12 times), though only seven plays survive, and scholars don’t agree that even all of these are his. But his greatest achievement—and still one of the great epics of theatre—is the Oresteia.

A 1991 production in New York is described by critic Frank Rich as meticulous, elaborate and very controlled, expressing the vision of its director, Ariane Mnouchkline. Ghost Road’s approach, as members of the company discussed it after their opening performance in Arcata, is pretty much the opposite.

Aeschylus was only the starting point. Though director Katharine Noon also adapted the text, this version was created by the ensemble. They sought to make the story accessible, stripping it down to its “nuts and bolts” and viewing it as basically the story of a family, although a very bloody one. In the first play, King Agamemnon kills his youngest daughter so the gods will grant him fair winds to make war on Troy. When he returns victorious, his wife Clytemnestra retaliates by murdering him. In the second play—the one Ghost Road brought to Arcata—their son Orestes murders his mother.

To re-imagine this in contemporary terms, the ensemble collected photographs and articles, did “free- writing” and improvised scenes, switching characters so that eventually every member of the company had played every part. These workshop sessions were videotaped and transcripts were made, that Noon would incorporate in versions of the script as it evolved.

This version centers on Elektra (played by Alina Phelan), who worships her dead father, Agamemnon, and campaigns for the return of her lost brother, Orestes. She lives in a tent festooned with hand-scrawled signs (“Have you seen Orestes?” “Where’s My Brother?”), and rants on her perpetual radio show, suggesting the hysteria of the Dionysian rites that only slightly predate Greek drama, as well as Rush Limbaugh.

The characters of Clytemnestra and Orestes are more ambiguous and familiar: the career woman mother, the assassin with doubts (Orestes may have been a prototype for Hamlet.) The gorgeous language of Aeschylus (in some English translations at least) is entirely gone, replaced by contemporary dialogue and ritual telegrams, like “Waiting—then things start happening all at once, and all the time.”

The Oresteia is famous for depicting the transition from revenge to justice, and there is a hint of it in Orestes’ brief misgivings in this play, but most of it occurs in the third play. So while the Ghost Road version of the middle play is always involving as theatre, it is incomplete: more intriguing than tragic or transcendent.

The real interest is the stagecraft and the high level of acting by everyone in the company. Phelan and Brian Weir as Hermione had the most lines and were the most memorable, but the other actors also deftly created defined characters. The traveling set emphasized a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, although Clytemnestra and her cocktail-sipping lady friends seemed affluent enough to remain haughty. There was a generational tension that also made Elektra seem young and rebellious. It could all be taking place in a contemporary city, which is both a strength (contemporary relevance) and a weakness (contemporary cliche.)

Many of the Ghost Road ensemble studied at Cal Arts but one member with them in Arcata was Ronnie Clark, an HSU Theatre graduate, who played Orestes. Ghost Road is adapting all three plays for performance together in L.A. in the spring.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Winter's Tale

Johanna Hembry and Calder Johnson in HSU's
The Winter's Tale
Tonight at the Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata, the HSU Theatre, Film and Dance Department opens its production of The Winter's Tale by William Shakespeare. I wrote the stuff about it at HSU Stage, and there's an interview with director Rae Robison there that I also conducted and wrote up.

I'll just add some more personal observations about the play. There's a lot about the play that reflects the changing fashions in theatre after the reign of Elizabeth. The court fashion was for the "masque," as created by Indigo Jones, which were elaborate set-pieces in several senses of the word, since the emphasis was on elaborate sets and visual illusions, often with some act of magic or stage trickery involved. In the popular theatre, there was a fashion for more music, and a kind of forerunner to romantic musical comedy. Both fashions are reflected in this play. The final scene with the "statue"--which had already been done as a set piece--is like a masque but for the popular theatre. And there's more music in this play that probably any other Shakespeare.

The show is also typical of Shakespeare in that it takes advantage of the company's actors and the situation. There's a major character who is a trickster and something of a clown, because he had a very good clown in the company. Some theatres were now completely enclosed, and this play was originally shown at both outdoor and indoor venues. Perhaps that has something to do with it starting indoors at a royal court, but in having many scenes in the middle of the play set outdoors, including the famous sheep-shearing scene.

But this was also the next to last play for which Shakespeare claimed sole authorship. Although The Winter's Tale was based on an existing story (and using it was a nice act of revenge against the popular writer who once called Shakespeare an "upstart crow" and accused him of plagiarism--Shakespeare waited until the fellow was dead to steal this story), it also has a quality of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits: there's the jealousy of Othello and the madness of Lear early in the play, and a lot of As You Like It in the middle, with some star-crossed lovers action as in Romeo and Juliet. This play starts as a tragedy, becomes a comedy and ends up with romance and magic. There's mistaken identity as in many plays and even a shipwreck that presages the play he hadn't written yet, The Tempest.

The story is in some ways the journey of Leontes, the king whose jealous violence starts the action--and the conviction he displays when everyone around him is warning him that he's wrong might seem incredible if we hadn't just lived through the presidency of G.W. Bush. But he and his queen, Hermione, disappear for much of the play, and the really central character becomes Perdita, their daughter who we first meet when she is already a young woman. In some ways she's Rosalind (from As You Like It) without the device of being a woman pretending to be a man and therefore permitted to have strong views. She does have strong views--she's got the skepticism of the "working class" shepherds among whom she was raised, and the grace of innate nobility. She's really the most important and most fascinating character. She may also be the voice closest to the playwright's. She deserves a place among Shakespeare's most important female characters.

The differences and relative merits and the places where the either/or break down of court versus countryside, rich versus poor, nature versus artifice, which are present in much of Shakespeare but with particular strength in As You Like It and The Tempest are major concerns in this play.

The Winter's Tale is not much performed these days (though I saw a very good production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival three seasons ago) but it was a very popular play in the performance repertoire in London during and immediately after Shakespeare's lifetime. But I do get the feeling that Shakespeare was seeing theatrical fashion slipping away from the kind of plays he wanted to do, and though he was more than up to adapting in some pretty daring ways with this play, he was getting ready to retire. But not before he revisited some of the key themes and ongoing concerns of his previous work. I think he probably does this more elaborately in The Winter's Tale, before compressing it all in the magic of The Tempest.

The Winter's Tale is legendary also for one stage direction (Exit, pursued by a bear) and for an extreme example of Shakespeare's often shaky references to geography: in this case he gives a seacoast to the landlocked Bohemia. This has led some to feel that the two nations named in the text, Sicilia and Bohemia, are entirely mythical.

Well, mostly maybe, but not entirely. The names of characters in The Winter's Tale are a kind of mishmash, but several are Greek. Leontes, the king of Sicilia, at one point sends to the oracle at Delphi to request Apollo's wisdom on the matter of his wife's alleged infidelity. In fact, there were Greek colonies on Sicilia at the time of the Athenian democracy. The great dramatist Aeschylus made several trips to Sicily, and wrote and produced plays there. In fact, these Greek allusions also suggest the period the play is meant to be set in: the classical Greek age.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Winter's Tale, More on

1. The HSU production of The Winter's Tale was reviewed--astoundingly--in the Lumberjack, the HSU student newspaper that usually does its best to ignore all theatre, dance and musical events involving HSU students. "Just like in high school, Shakespeare's language got in the way of a good time," the Jack review begins, and soon refers to its "nearly foreign words."  So much for the moron in "more on."  Of course, there are now-obscure words in Shakespeare, but the language in this play is not especially difficult.  There's just a lot of it,  which is one problem modern audiences are likely to have in following it.  It's a good reason to see and hear these plays as many times as possible, for each production can yield a greater appreciation for the words and the language, as well as the plays.

2. Here's my brief review from 2006 of that season's Oregon Shakespeare Festival production, directed by OSF artistic director, Libby Appel:

 It begins with a burst of color, music and motion—that (thanks to the excellent sound system as well as the staging) creates the mood in the audience that’s the mood of the characters as we first see them. The court of the mythical Sicilia is joyful at the reunion of its King with his childhood friend, now King of the equally mythical Bohemia.

 Yet in the midst of revelry a single light flashes on the face of the King as he reveals his paranoid fantasies about his friend and his wife, Queen Hermione. A tragic course is set, with murderous plots, betrayals and death. But this course is broken and even reversed, in part by intervention of the gods, and in part by love.

 This late play has some of the earth-magical qualities of The Tempest, references to the tradition of Greek tragedy, and echoes of many of Shakespeare’s previous plays. This production features powerful performances by Miriam A. Laube as Hermione and William Langan as King Leontes, and performances by the entire cast that make this story crystal clear as well as affecting and funny, played against the apparently simple but highly evocative scenery of Rachel Hauck.

 Also featured is Mark Murphey as the trickster god Autolycus, whose performance delightfully proves that physical comedy can serve a substantive text, both as relief and as integral to the story.

Shakespeare’s plays are timeless partly because they speak in different ways to every time, and in this one I was struck by how those who served this king felt honor-bound to dissuade him from his disastrous course. Too bad they aren’t serving in the non-mythical Washington.

3.  Background on The Winter's Tale that I wrote and posted at HSU Stage:

“All roads lead to Shakespeare… He is the very center of a literary education in our language. When we say drama, we mean Shakespeare and the rest.”
Eric Bentley
In Search of Theater

In 1592, a hack writer called Robert Greene complained in print about a young playwright named Shakespeare. Greene called him an “upstart crow,” and accused him of plagiarism.

Some eighteen years later, with Greene safely dead, Shakespeare appropriated the plot of Greene’s most popular prose romance (“Pandosto”) and transformed it into the stage romance, The Winter’s Tale.

Shakespeare’s title meant a kind of “old wives tale,” a made-up story. Perhaps the country folk of England had a tradition like some Native American tribes, of telling stories around the fire in the winter—stories with fantastic elements, that might be fables and teaching stories as well.

The Winter’s Tale was the last play that claims Shakespeare as sole author, except for one more: The Tempest. Though this play is not frequently performed, it contains some of Shakespeare’s most theatrical moments, including spectacles, song and dance, and the very theatrical ending.

Like The Tempest and the earlier As You Like It, this play examines the contrasts of court and countryside, rich nobles and poor country folk, as well as art and nature, magic and real life. Shakespeare suggests ways in which these opposites can be reconciled, as in the character of Perdita, the daughter of noble birth who is raised by shepherds, and who observes that the same sun shines on palace and cottage alike.

“In this play the human and the natural come together," writes Shakespeare biographer Peter Ackroyd, "in the great ongoing rhythm of life itself.”

“The Winter’s Tale conveys more persuasively than any previous work the sustained illusion that the world of dramatic romance is directly related to the world in which we live. Thus in Leontes Shakespeare embodies a new Everyman figure, the tragic king who can be redeemed in this life through penitence and love and the renewal that time brings.” --Norman Rabkin, "Shakespeare and the Common Understanding"

“The Winter’s Tale communicates a joy new in Shakespeare by suggesting the possibility of grace and innocence in a world which presents every appearance of being able to overthrow them.”--Norman Rabkin: "Shakespeare and the Common Understanding."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Elsewhere: August Wilson in SF

Radio Golf, August Wilson's last play in his 20th century cycle has opened in the Bay Area, produced by TheatreWorks at Mountain View Center of the Performing Arts in Mountain View, through Nov. 2. Some details and a Bay Area chronology of Wilson plays in the SF Chronicle. Hat tip to Jeff D. who spotted this and passed it on.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Noises Off at Ferndale Rep

Michael Frayn is an unusual playwright. He began as a reporter and columnist, and has written several novels and books of philosophy, such as the nearly 500-page tome, The Human Touch, which I’ve actually read (encouraged by the San Francisco Chronicle, which paid me to do so.) Probably his most famous play is Copenhagen, a drama concerning two founders of quantum physics. His most recent plays are biographical and political, and he’s a well-regarded translator of Anton Chekhov.

 Then there are his comedies, one of which was so subtle that lead actor Ian McKellan didn’t realize it was supposed to be funny until opening night, when he heard the audience laughing. Noises Off however is anything but subtle, although Frayn maintains it is philosophical: he writes that it concerns the actors’ fear of facing the unrehearsed world outside the theatre.

 But like another British philosophical playwright—Tom Stoppard—Frayn found that philosophy goes over best on stage when it is expressed by people dashing frantically about, with at least one young lady in her underwear.

Noises Off is generally acknowledged to be his comic masterpiece, and one of the funniest plays in contemporary theatre. I saw the original Broadway version in the 80s, from the back of the 1100 seat Brooks Atkinson Theatre (the last rush ticket I ever bought), which at that distance was like watching a circus of comical ants. So I made sure to sit close to the stage at Ferndale Rep.

 In the first act we see a theatre company in a rushed final rehearsal of a farce called Nothing On. The set—part of a country house replete with the many doors required by farce—is turned around for the second act so the backstage is visible, and the relationships and romantic misalliances set up in the first act result in riotous physical comedy. (It was probably this act that Frayn kept rewriting, to include new business invented by various casts.)

 The stage is turned around again for the third act, for a performance at the end of the tour when the actors’ relationships have devolved further, and the chaos has spilled onto the stage.

 The first act is usually the set-up for the next two, but in the Ferndale production it was genuinely funny. The cast performed the physical comedy of the second act flawlessly, producing the most hilarious moments. The third act had lots of payoffs and comic business but seemed less coherent, which is an odd word to use about chaos.

 Besides accomplishing the physical bits at break-neck speed, the actors also had to quickly sketch characters in the first act, aided by Frayn’s skill in providing most with attitudes and catch phrases to capture their characters. 

The entire cast--Adina Lawson, Bryeon Earle, Sam Cord, Brittany Gonzales, Bill and Gerri Cose, Jim Berry and Daniel Amaral—performed both jobs with skill and conviction. Sam Cord deserves special mention for the most acrobatic stunts. All in all, it’s a high quality production, with a solidly handsome set designed by Gary Franklin (during the two unavoidable but draining intermissions, audience members seemed to like watching it be turned around), and 1980s period costumes (complete with leisure suit) by Christen Condry Whisenhunt.

 Director Renee Grinnell, who did Lend Me A Tenor at NCRT last season, again demonstrates her facility for fast-paced farce. Some of the physical humor involves a telephone cord, a lost contact lens and a plate of sardines. It’s fascinating that in the age of cell phones, disposable lenses and microwaved snacks that this comedy still works.

Also the story involves a style of theatre and a theatrical tradition unfamiliar to most of us here, and largely gone. Even the titles (“Noises Off,” “Nothing On”) are British and theatrical puns. But even without the depth of reference, the basic structure and theatricality of  Noises Off can delight audiences in Humboldt County.  Plus the style of Frayn’s language is familiar—he shares a comedic (and philosophical) lineage with Monty Python, Douglas Adams and Beyond the Fringe.

 Besides, theatre stories have their own charm and wide attraction. People who have participated in theatre may have encountered actors like the earnest Frederick, the pompous but vague Garry, etc., or they recognize the stage culture of endearments and entanglements, and this knockabout will have additional resonance, and even sweetness.

Friday, October 3, 2008

This North Coast Weekend and Coming Attractions

Sanctuary Stage presents its second annual 10 Minute Play-in-a-Day event on Saturday at 7 pm at the Eureka Theater. Beginning Friday night, six playwrights, six directors and up to 18 actors will create a ten minute play from scratch, and these six resulting efforts will hit the stage Saturday.

I participated last year, and wrote about it here. Bob Doran writes about it in the Journal this week--including writing about me writing about it; and Beti Trauth previews the process at the T-S. I'm not involved in it this year--for all the reasons I hinted at at the end of my piece on last year's--but I wish everyone well who is doing it. I still recall it as a good experience, something to do once, although in my case one that hasn't seemed to lead anywhere.

I also note in the Journal a review of the San Francisco production of Tom Stoppard's Rock & Roll; review by Jay Herzog. Lucky he got to see it, is all I've got to say.

Otherwise, The Merry Wives of Windsor continues at North Coast Rep. In the wings: The Michael Frayn comedy Noises Off opens at Ferndale Rep next weekend, and the HSU production of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale opens the following week.