Thursday, October 23, 2008

This North Coast Weekend

Noises Off! has its final weekend at Ferndale
(my Journal review is here), and The Winter's Tale concludes its run at HSU. (Photo above.) It was reviewed this week in the T-S and--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." Without necessarily judging the predispositions of the reviewer, this sentiment does emphasize that the richness of Shakespeare and his language can be explored almost endlessly, but some tools may be necessary in order to start. I still feel that even at the college level, a Shakespeare production should be part of a course or two through that semester (though I've been given lots of practical reasons why this can't happen.) Actors can benefit from learning about the language and how to speak it, and audiences can benefit from familiarity with it. Of course, the counter-argument is more usually made: that what kills Shakespeare is teaching it in school. Which to me is nonsense. What kills appreciation for Shakespeare is teaching it in school badly, and not teaching it at all.

That said, the language in The Winter's Tale is not especially difficult, nor "foreign." The BBC production on DVD, available, for instance, from the HSU Library, shows that the language is quite clear. There's just a lot of it, which is the problem modern audiences are likely to have in following it. 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.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

One Bloody Family

From the Ghost Road Company production of Elektra,
seen recently at the Arcata Playhouse.

Arcata Host Elektra

A slightly different version appeared in my Stage Matters column.

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

Calder Johnson as Leontes and Johanna Hembry as Hermione in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, opening tonight for two weekends at HSU, directed by Rae Robison.

This North Coast Weekend: 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.

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

This North Coast Weekend

Noises Off, the Michael Frayn backstage/onstage comedy begins this weekend at Ferndale Rep. The Merry Wives of Windsor continues at North Coast Rep. My last column keeps getting postponed at the North Coast Journal, but that's another story for sooner.

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.