Tuesday, December 30, 2008

In Memoriam 2008

Harold Pinter (center) and Eartha Kitt(top left) were the most recent theatre artists who passed away in 2008. They are, top l to r: dancer Cyd Charisse (before Hollywood she was in the Ballet Ruse), musical theatre star Eartha Kitt, Robert Mulligan, film director of To Kill A Mockingbird, actor Mel Ferrer. Playwright, director and actor Harold Pinter (center). Bottom row: actor and director Paul Newman in his stage role as the Stage Manager in Our Town, director Anthony Minghella, playwright Simon Gray (Otherwise Engaged, Butley) and actor Paul Scofield, famous from films but whose stage Lear was legendary. Click collage to make it real big. Here's the Guardian's account of Pinter's memorial service.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Clear on Lear

King Lear is an un-actable part that actors need to play. If playing Hamlet defines a classical actor's career, then playing Lear is the natural challenge to cap that career. Lots of actors have done both. Laurence Olivier made the first modern film of Hamlet and probably still the most famous, though he may have been a bit old for the part by then. (Though he looks a little like 1980s Sting in that photo.) He did his only King Lear for television in 1983. He was judged a bit too old and weak for it by then, though with brilliant moments. I don't know about that, but it's still available and there's a lot to like and learn in his performance. John Geilgud played both parts several times on the stage--he did his first of four Lears while in his 20s. He was happy with only one of them.

Clear on Lear

When the gasbags in Congress make speeches on the floor, they usually ask permission to "revise and extend" their remarks in the Congressional Record. That's more or less what I'm doing here, for Lear: a gasbag revising and extending my recent Journal column.

Some call King Lear the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, but it is among the least performed of his major plays. In number of productions, it doesn’t make the Shakespeare Top Ten of England’s Royal Shakespeare Company, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or Broadway. The story of the old king who divides his kingdom among his daughters with calamitous consequences is certainly among the most analyzed, and playing Lear has been considered a crowning achievement for elder actors, but the role and the play itself also have the reputation of being un-actable.

There actually have been more productions in the past decade or so, perhaps as a generation of actors reaches that point, but also because the play speaks to contemporary artists and audiences. (See the accompanying photos for some examples.)

Shakespeare is a master of synthesis, and scholar Maynard Mack makes a convincing case that the preponderance of very bad and very good characters surrounding Lear is due in part to this drama’s roots in medieval morality plays. But virtue is not rewarded, and the demise of the king and his good daughter Cordelia was so shocking that for more than a century the play was rewritten with a happy ending. But after two world wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, the spectre of thermonuclear Armageddon and now the climate apocalypse, as well as the other automated cruelties of modern life, we don't shock much.

Another of Mack's insights involves themes Shakespeare often uses in his comedies, turned inside out into tragedy in King Lear. A conspicuous one is the court vs. country dilemma, usually weighted towards nature being superior, as in As You Like It. It's somewhat the opposite in Lear, though the court is just as full of snakes. But I think Mack is on to something here, because I feel the theme of shelter is an important one in this play. It is set in a more primitive time than Shakespeare's, and the secure world of the castle seems set against the wilderness, where the exiles are naked in the storm and go mad.

[continued after photos]

A new generation of Hamlet-to-Lear actors: American Kevin Kline, his Hamlet in the 80s (I saw this one at the Public Theatre in NYC) and recent Lear; British actor David Warner, in what Patrick Stewart calls the Hamlet of his generation in the 60s, and a recent Lear.
The updated edition of the New Cambridge Shakespeare volume on Lear is a treasure trove of information on past productions and interpretations, as well as textual analysis and the text itself, with those annotations that enrich a reading beyond price.

The history of the text is crazed and convoluted, especially since several versions from Shakespeare's time exist (the Quarto and the Folio versions, plus variations), so that there seems to be no definitive text--just combinations that are more or less accepted for publication and performance.

And then there was the now infamous Tate version, cobbled together from Shakespeare versions plus additional verses, scenes and even characters, with that happy ending. That Lear lives to reign again, followed after his death by Cordelia, was actually how the old story went, the one that Shakespeare adapted and was known to the audiences of his time. That he kills them both was a rude if very theatrical shock to them, just in terms of what they expected.

In its summary of notable productions, the Cambridge volume (edited by Jay L. Halio) devotes a paragraph to the 2004 King Lear at OSF in Ashland, directed by James Edmondson, who had played the role at OSF in 1997. Kenneth Albers played Lear in 2004. Quoting liberally from Bill Varble's review in the Medford Mail Tribune, it says: "Together they decided to examine the 'personal' tragedy of King Lear--'Lear as a noble and gifted ruler who in his old age has become so self-righteous, imperious and obstinate that he creates the weapons of his own destruction.' Albers performed Lear's descent into madness as a 'portrayal of the tricks an aging mind plays, a Shakespearean examination of early Alzheimer's disease within the context of political and familial disaster.' As the storm echoes his descent into madness, Lear becomes increasingly sane and humane. The ending of the play was uncompromising--no redemption but 'splendor in the ashes...the kind of Shakespeare we need. It has its effect honestly, sans tricks or flash, and so is deeply satisfying.'"

I personally didn't see this OSF production. And I'm not sure from this description whether I would have liked it. I'm a bit leery of a Lear that gets all Alzheimery--it could be a little too easy and pop culturish. I'm not sure about splendor in the ashes either, but as I say, I didn't see it.

[continued after photos]

The New Cambridge Shakespeare introduction praised these Lears: (top to bottom) Christopher Plummer, Donald Wolfit (in the 1940s) and Robert Stephens. Wolfit was the model for the actor in the Ronald Harwood play, The Dresser. The film version starring Albert Finney showed parts of a couple of touring productions of King Lear. (Like the Slings and Arrows story, the actor dies shortly after dying as Lear. Wolfit didn't, though.) Robert Stephens RSC performance was called the greatest of his life. Oddly, he was in David Warner's first film, Morgan! It was also Vanessa Redgrave's first film. As far as I know she's never played Lear, though her brother Colin and her father Michael did. But with Stephens and Warner, this 60s comedy had two future Lears.

Lear by Young Actors Guild

Though the play invites it, the laying on of theory is not always useful to those who must act it. A couple of famous 1960s productions (Herbert Blau’s in San Francisco, Peter Brook’s in England) took an existential tack, emphasizing the march towards nullity. But when Brook explained this approach to Paul Scofield, his lead actor who became the most praised Lear of his generation, Scofield replied that this might be true but it didn’t help him. “I can’t play negative actions.” He had to be “fully active, moment after moment, even in loss, even in defeat.”

Undaunted by any of this, the Young Actors Guild of the Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy presented King Lear in the Gist Theatre recently, directed by Jean Bazemore. The audience was greeted with only a crown on the edge of Gerald Beck’s otherwise empty set, inviting us to consider kingship, which could suggest mastery of the self as well as others, and the ideal of completeness in the fullness of years. Whether Lear attains this through the coming trials is a central question.

The set remains mostly bare throughout the play, which is probably how Shakespeare’s troupe first staged it. In the choice of where they stand, the actors could use the many platform levels to express the shifting power relationships.

Bazemore also chose minimalist effects, particularly in the troublesome storm scene and the blinding of one character. The storm had some cheesy lighting effects but I admired the sound choice: an unseen drummer on a trap set played a kind of thunder solo, punctuating Lear's ravings, sometimes emphasizing them, sometimes cutting against them. It didn't always work, but when it did it was impressively musical.

The acting style seemed modest as well: brisk and presentational, giving us the words and actions to interpret ourselves. Though probably also borne of necessity, this was a wise choice. A teenager trying to mimic the infirmities of age, for example, could easily become comic.

Instead there was emphasis on making the words clear—both their poetry and what they mean within the play. Except for some uncertain and cell phone-sounding diction, this was largely successful. Several of the actors I saw were particularly good vocally, with moments of eloquence: for example, Caleb McIlraith as Lear, Alexander Johnson as Kent and Keenan Hilton as Edmund.

Hilton also managed to alternate obsequiousness with a sneer to give us the character of Edmund in a glance. (Maybe he’s worked in fast food?) Jules Eubanks played the good brother Edgar with quiet assurance, while Nick Roney portrayed his alter-ego Tom O’Bedlam with a slithery physicality. Samantha Biasca was instantly sympathetic as Cordelia, and in their better moments Navarra Carr trembled with rage as the bad Goneril while Hayley Connors-Keith was an insinuatingly evil Regan. Jesse Drucker as Glouchester, Izzy Samuels as Albany, Keli Rael Floyd as the Fool, Evan Mahoney-Moyer as Cornwall and Patrick Roberts as Oswald acquitted themselves well.

The other actors I saw included Dawut Sassanapitax, Nicholas Mundy, Elena Hernandez, Shantal Polit, Gisela Bueno, Galina Schroder, Serena Sprater, Vasin Pasda, and Yagmur Khan. Many major roles were double-cast, so I didn’t see Sylvan Arevalo as Lear, or Miriam Cook, Kaylee Wennerholm, Genay Pilarowski, Rachel Scherer, Rosie O’Leary, Reed Benoit, Camden Bruner, Aimee Talmadge and Zoe Huber. Chris Sutter and Kaela Sutter designed excellent costumes.

Of the many themes and elements of this capacious play, I thought in watching this production not only of the personal journey of age but a societal journey of the moment, from the sheltered wealth of Lear’s court to his mad stumble through the storm of loss and naked need, eventually warmed by the brief candle of compassion.

The quality of Northcoast Prep productions often make you forget that these are high school students. This wasn’t always the case with King Lear, but the beauty of an un-actable play (as Shakespearean actor and Slings and Arrows star Paul Gross points out) is the freedom to try things when failure is inevitable. And some of the beauty of Shakespeare involves the worlds his plays open up to participants and audience alike, redefining the perfect production that can never be attained.

I suppose my own perfect production would begin with distant thunder, and the conversation among Kent, Glouchester and Edmund just outside the castle--out of the wind but not entirely inside. The throne room however would be bright and warm, with all the comforts--food and fire, well-clothed courtiers.

Lear's daughters, Regan and Goneril would be particularly well-dressed, in a provocative, almost lascivious way. Their dialogue with Lear--their flattering professions of love-- would involve physical touching. I imagine Lear as having little to do with his daughters beyond these court displays, except perhaps for Cordelia. I think I buy the idea that part of what's going on in this scene is Lear trying to marry Cordelia off.

In any case I would emphasize the comfort of the court and the shelter of the entitled King. I can see his desire to retire and "put off care" as reaching for more comfort as well as enjoying the honor of his reign. He might see retirement as endless feasts and hunting expeditions with his knights, interspersed with testimonial dinners--if that's not too modern an idea of retirement. Cordelia and Kent mar his picture of a perfect retirement and are banished.

Things change, when he realizes his powerlessness, and he becomes an exile and outcast. He loses his life's security and literally he loses his shelter. At this point I can see Lear not as suffering from a disease or even becoming infirm--he seems feisty enough throughout. But he is dealing with humiliation and limitation, which is part of what aging is about. He goes in and out of madness, and the wisdom he is acquiring is at first the dislocated wisdom of the fool (the Fool) and the lowest of the outcasts (Tom.) His journey is mirrored in its way by Glouchester, as he begins to see realities he missed before he was blind: that revisiting of the worst of the past, particularly regrets and their causes, is another familiar aspect of aging, at least for men.

What happens when security is gone--including the world order you felt entitled to--right down to your shelter: that's a theme for today. That Lear reaches certain insights and perhaps wisdom, and yet there is no immediate happy ending--this too is the natural course of aging, since it ends in only one way. The unsettled state of the state at the end of the play also may remind us that transformation doesn't always lead instantly to happily ever after. Maybe it takes a younger generation, learning enough from the hard-earned insights of the older not to make all the same mistakes.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Lear to Leer

Although I started my Journal column on the North Coast Prep production of King Lear by observing that it is not among the most produced of Shakespeare's major plays, that doesn't mean there aren't both regional and high profile productions--particularly recently, it seems. Ian McKellen headlined a much praised production in England, directed by Trevor Nunn (top photo.) According to the Internet Movie Database, a TV version will be released on DVD. It probably will also be shown on PBS.
But now in the works is a feature film treatment starring Anthony Hopkins as Lear (the photo is from one of his stage productions), with Keira Knightley as Cordelia (terrific actress, and not too heavy to carry!), and Gwyneth Paltrow and Naomi Watts as the evil sisters. It's scheduled for release in 2010.
In the meantime, King Lear is the play at the center of season 3 of Slings and Arrows, probably the most thematic of its 3 seasons. As usual, there are some great scenes from Shakespeare, including some amazing Lear from veteran Canadian actor William Hutt. His character does one last Lear while fighting off cancer, and dies shortly after the performance. In real life, Hutt died about a year after these episodes first aired, of leukemia at age 87. This series is available on DVD right now.

Friday, December 19, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

A student production by the Laurel Tree Learning Center of two original plays, directed by Jabari Morgan is onstage at the North Coast Rep theatre in Eureka this weekend, Thursday through Saturday (Dec. 18-20) at 7 pm. The plays are Don't Fear the Reaper by Eddie Zipperer and A Long Bridge Over Deep Water by James Still. Info: 822-5626. (Wish I'd known about this earlier.)

The Dell'Arte show, The Glasnost Family Holiday, returns to the Carlo this weekend, Fri. to Sunday at 7:30, but this time, be prepared to pay. And A Very Playhouse Christmas finishes at the Arcata Playhouse this weekend as well, Thurs to Saturday at 8.

Friday, December 12, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

The annual A Very Playhouse Christmas variety show plays this weekend (Dec. 12-14 at 8 pm, with a 2 pm matinee as well on Sunday) and next at the Arcata Playhouse. The North Coast Prep production of Shakespeare's King Lear plays at Gist Hall Theatre, Wednesday through Saturday at 7:30 pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2. Dell'Arte presents "Missing Persons: Plays for One Character," 11 playlets by the International School's second year students, Dec. 11-13 in the Carlo, while the Glasnost Family continues touring.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Dell'Arte Christmas Show: Glasnost Family Holiday

If you’ve ever been mooned by gypsies in the Les Halles shopping mall in Paris, as I was, you’d know how much fun they can be. In Dell’Arte’s Christmas show, the Glasnost family first appears pulling a gypsy cart, which contains, among other things, the set. As the family members decorate the bare stage, they introduce themselves and explain their purpose: they’re strangers in America, and they’d like to stay. So they’re putting on a show.

 That’s about as straightforward as The Glasnost Family Holiday gets. The rest is music, storytelling (both with Christmas themes) and comic family brawls. The Glasnosts appear to have learned how Americans like their entertainment from TV reruns of 1950s variety shows, Rose Bowl Parades and 1980s music videos. The younger family members also adopt rapper poses.

 The result is reminiscent of everything from musical Borat and those Two Wild and Crazy Guys from the old Saturday Night Live, to an eastern European Fellini movie about a demented Lawrence Welk Christmas special.

 This hour show was created by the ensemble with director Joan Schirle, plus choral director Tyler Olsen and music director G.A. Moore. The actors all create and maintain individually defined characters, and they are all musically accomplished. The comic fights are more sophisticated and acrobatic versions of the Three Stooges, suitable for children.

 In this style of holiday entertainment, any subtext may be mostly in the eye of the beholder, but I especially noted those moments in which the weirdness of American customs and customary entertainments are revealed by these earnest but off-kilter outsiders, “maximizing their minimum skills.”

 For example, the family is enthusiastic but perhaps not always clear on the appropriate effect, as when they push the rhythm of a particular Christmas song to make it sound more threatening than festive.

 The ethnic stereotypes are relatively gentle, although the accents are sometimes impenetrable. The onstage narrative is more a pastiche than a story, but it all adds up to a good time, particularly for children--though there didn’t seem to be many in the opening night audience at the Carlo, that’s very likely to be remedied when the show hits the road this week.

 On a recent Saturday night, Jeff DeMark brought his particular brand of storytelling to an overflow crowd at the Muddy Cup in Arcata. He told some new stories along with selections from his fully-formed shows, accompanied by the UKExperience ukulele band. The combination was often magical.

 DeMark’s stories are funny, and they seem to touch a chord with the local audience as shared experience and nostalgia. But they also penetrate with a poetic humanity, and this versatile ensemble of two ukes, electric bass and drums added to all these effects, but particularly the warmth. Some of the stories were a little rough in presentation but the final one perfectly summed up the potential of this combination.

 DeMark’s story about giving his mother her first marijuana high (at her request) was hilarious, backed at one point by the marching chords of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” Then the images of his mother the day after, relaxed and liberated into a youthful freedom, dancing to her favorite recording of Patsy Cline, got just the right accent from the band playing “I Fall To Pieces” as DeMark remarked that he never saw her happier than on that day.
Nothing new this week until Wednesday, when the brave students of North Coast Prep open Shakespeare's King Lear Wednesday. It plays through Saturday, Dec. 10-13 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gist Hall Theatre on the HSU campus in Arcata, with a Saturday matinee at 2. Tickets at Arcata Plaza Design or call 822-1670.

Continuing this weekend however is Dell'Arte's Glasnost Family Holiday, the subject of the cover story (by both Hank Sims and Bob Doran) in this week's North Coast Journal. I also review it briefly in the same issue. (If you're wondering, I had no part in the decision to do this story, and didn't see it in advance. I probably only found out about it before publication because I'd committed to reviewing the performance.)

Anyway, it will be in Orick Friday and Fortuna on Saturday before it hits the Arkley Center on Sunday. Find the full schedule and ticket info (all free until the last weekend back at the Carlo) here.

Dell'Arte has also announced a new marketing director. Maybe he can fix their web site, probably the least useful on the North Coast.

Also continuing: The Christmas Story at Ferndale Rep and She Loves Me at North Coast Rep. The Christmas Story is based on the cult movie of the same name, celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary. People who love it presumably will love the stage version. I suppose it's possible that people who loathe it (like me) will still like the stage version, although that seems very unlikely.

As for She Loves Me, I noted in my review that this play was also the first production at North Coast Rep, also 25 years ago, but that there's a dearth of documentation concerning that production. (NCRT exec director Michael Thomas recalls seeing a program at some point, but doesn't have anything now.) I invited those who remembered the 1983 production to contact me, and one of the principals did:

"I was one of the leads in the NCRT premiere, directed by Roby Agnew," writes Lisa Monet of Bayside. "My husband Rick St. Charles and I had recently moved here from San Luis Obispo, where we'd been active in community theater ... During the period of rehearsals, (which took place in the remodeled Eagle House) I learned I was expecting our first child, Matt St. Charles. After that production, my musical focus turned to albums for children. We now have two children, and two national award-winning CDs, Circle Time, songs and rhymes for the very young, and Tingaleyo, a bilingual treasure trove of songs in Spanish and English, and plans for the upcoming release of four more titles."
More information can be found at http://www.lisamonetmusic.com/.