Monday, January 24, 2011

Shakespeare Naked

Could it be a trend, oh pretty please say it is. Ben Brantley in the New York Times reviews a production of Shakepeare's Cymberline by the Fiasco Theater, and contrasts it with the megaproduction literally next door to it--Broadway's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark--as well as the prevailing fashion for producing Shakespeare. First, Spidey:

"Credibly portraying incredible feats of derring-do; bringing elaborate battle scenes to life in ways in which you can tell who’s on what side and who’s winning; organically blending music into the action and fluidly evoking shifts of time and scene: with a cast of exactly six and a budget that (I feel safe in assuming) is the merest fraction of the $65 million lavished on “Spider-Man,” the Fiasco Theater makes such accomplishments seem like child’s play in its charming production of Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline.” True, unlike the aerially acrobatic “Spider-Man,” this show offers nothing that flies — unless you count the spirits of the actors and the audience watching them."

(In case you haven't been following this, the Spider-Man production has been plagued with problems, the most obvious of which (apart, apparently, from the script) has been trouble getting Spidey's wall-crawling and flying through the air accomplished without splattering the actor. That's the background to Brantley's joke, though it isn't really funny that several people have been injured already, one of them seriously.)


The Fiasco “Cymbeline,” like the British director Declan Donnellan’s version of several years ago, starts from the premise that a complicated story is best told simply. There is next to no conceptual varnish on this production, which is directed by Noah Brody and Ben Steinfeld... The stage at the New Victory is correspondingly naked. The set (designed by Jean-Guy Lecat, lighted by Tim Cryan) is made up of two crates, a sheet and what is accurately described in the program as a “fabulous trunk” (designed by Jacques Roy), which figures significantly in the headless corpse scene. The costumes (by Whitney Locher) are a comfortable medley of breeches, shirts and dresses that suggest a fairy-tale timelessness. The acting is similarly free of elaborate interpretive flourishes...Though everyone speaks the speech with clarity and feeling, no one is serving up complex psychological portraiture. Nor is anyone doing the sort of cartoonish goofing on their characters that has become all too common to Shakespeare these days."

His conclusion: "Despite the doubling, tripling and quadrupling of roles, I have never seen a “Cymbeline” as easy to follow as this one. The music (overseen by Mr. Steinfeld and performed by the cast), which ranges from Renaissance madrigals to hillbilly ballads, unobtrusively signals changes of tone and scene.

And while the few props and sticks of furniture are put to wonderfully multifarious use (that multi-paneled trunk really is pretty fabulous), there’s none of the aren’t-we-clever, self-congratulatory spirit that often accompanies such acts of theatrical legerdemain. For once, the play itself really is the thing, and nothing is allowed to block its view, even actorly vanity."

Anyone hereabouts contemplating such an approach has to appreciate first that doing theatre simply and cheaply is a very good strategy for theatres without a lot of money. But also that such theatre depends on really knowing and exploring the text with really good actors. When I see Shakespeare full of gimmicks, the first thing I think of is that Shakespeare scares these folks half to death.

Brantley's review and this production are both worth considering. They suggest to me the possibility that this naked approach could come back into style, as it was briefly in the early 60s, which at least grants the permission of fashionability to the insecure. But it's also worth noting that Cyberline is judged a minor work, and simply telling the story has befuddled a lot of earlier attempts (though I doubt there have been that many.) Something slightly different might be necessary for one of the major plays. But the idea is sound. The play's the thing. Not the bells and whistles.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Three Trees: The Gags of War

When she was an undergrad at Dell’Arte International, Lauren Wilson liked to clown around with fellow students Joe Krienke and Stephanie Thompson. Ten years later they find themselves back at Dell’Arte, this time as teachers. But it turns out they’re still clowns.

 So a decade after they put on the red noses and performed together, they’re back with a new Dell’Arte show they’ve also written called Three Trees, beginning its second and final weekend in the Carlo Theatre tonight (Jan. 27.) It’s not for children.

 In early 20th century Russia, two clowns called Bim and Bom had a routine called “The Laugh,” which is described in an article by Joel Schechter in Theater Magazine. According to a Russian novel (The Iron Flood), this particular routine almost stopped the Russian Revolution of 1917, when Red Army troops were paralyzed with laughter.

 A version of it is at the center of Three Trees, as is this premise of clowns who stop an army and are punished for it. This is the delicate form called a clown play, in which the clowns are characters—in this case, we see them preparing as well as performing routines.

 Because it’s a play, there’s a narrative. But because these are still clowns, there are gags, and—in Lauren Wilson’s words from an interview—“the beautiful absurdity of how the clowns from moment to moment relate to the universe. Clowns have a conflictual relationship with essentially the whole world, from the door they always stub their toe on, to the jacket that’s always too small... There’s a looping logic to their individual narratives. Yet there’s an overall narrative to the play with beginning, middle and end, although also an eternal recurrence of things.”

 In the performance I saw opening night, these three clown actors each defined delightful characters, and they worked together with ease and grace. Stephanie Thompson plays a ditzy and endearing clown, sweet and sincere but tirelessly disorganized and clueless. Joe Krienke’s clown is almost introverted, a bit detached, yet mercurial and versatile—at one point, he’s two characters fighting each other. In the movies he’d be played by Johnny Depp.

 Lauren Wilson’s clown is dressed as a little girl and speaks with a little girl’s voice, but she’s also the mom that keeps them together and on track, and the only one with a sense of an external reality, a “real world” with its dangers, which in this case includes war in an unnamed country or time. She’s Alice in Wonderland as Mother Courage.

 The rehearsals and routines we see are accompanied at times by distant explosions that get louder and presumably closer. Eventually the clowns perform a rude routine about an army general, for the nearest available audience: soldiers. But laughter brings the war to a temporary halt, so for this—as well as being disrespectful to military authority—the clowns must face the consequences.

 The gags are well executed, and the use of props is inventive and adept. But don’t expect the central gag-- “The Laugh”--to be the funniest, most clever routine you’ve ever heard. With “three trees” as its punch line, it is meant to illustrate the power and mystery of contagious laughter, apparently over nothing.

 The primary thematic ideas seem to be about the role of laughter in war and circumstances of oppression. Laughter threatens pretensions that make war possible, and therefore it has to be suppressed. Laughter is also the ultimate refuge in really bad circumstances, and perhaps more—perhaps an assertion of humanity.

 Though elements of story as well as some striking images support these not altogether novel ideas, to be more powerful they might need to be more strongly expressed and integrated into the action. Still, especially given today’s reticence which confuses criticizing militarism with condemning the military, they are points worth introducing again.

 A secondary theme is that maleness causes warmaking. Popular as sexual politics when it was a new idea that the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge, it seems dubious as a primary explanation in the era of women generals and Sarah Palin. It does lead to the requisite bawdy jokes, though.

 What’s currently on view in Three Trees is engaging, provocative, challenging and entertaining. Above all, these intriguing characters and these three old friends clowning around are treats to see and savor. Ronlin Foreman is listed as “collaborator.” Daniel Spencer designed the set, Michael “Spike” Jackson the lighting.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

North Coast Theatre and Journalism

In my year end column, I mentioned the shrinking attention to theatre in local media. Some of it is the product of how the newspaper business is playing out locally. We had for awhile what was probably an artificial abundance, as two Eureka dailies were battling each other. So for a few years, a show could get as many as four or even five reviews, though three was more likely. That newspaper war, plus other economic and media factors, ended one of the dailies and wounded the other.

Then the Eureka Times Standard further wounded itself by turning over its weekly arts magazine to some rap-enthralled white kids who ignored local theatre almost totally. Community and university theatres that used to get Northern Lights covers for almost every production never got covers for anything again, and only sometimes got any kind of story inside. The daily outside the magazine ignored them as well.

After that experiment failed, the Times Standard abdicated local performing arts coverage altogether--a stunning act for the only daily newspaper in the area. They pushed off their weekly magazine to a supermarket giveaway, the Tri-City Weekly, which several years later still gets spotty circulation here in Arcata and I suspect elsewhere. It also has a peculiarly long lead time, which means that shows with a two week run may not get reviewed at all before the show is history.

Meanwhile, the Arcata Eye was forced by its economic plight to cut staff and pages. I can't remember a theatre review there in the past couple of years. While the Humboldt Beacon (now owned by the same company as owns the Times Standard and the Tri-City Weekly) has the biggest and best arts section of the three, it also has spotty circulation outside its main focus of southern Humboldt. My twice monthly (on average) Stage Matters column in the North Coast Journal is supplemented by occasional brief previews in the calendar section. But theatre is not much of a priority. Nor is my column, which seems to be the only regularly appearing column that the Journal doesn't promote.

Part of all this is probably the consultant-driven attitude that younger readers are the hope of the media, as opposed to older audiences who typically attend theatre. Advertisers like younger readers because they are more susceptible to their claims--for example, the idea that using a particular product might make them more attractive. Of course demographics suggests that older people are the ones who actually read newspapers, and that this is a pretty big group in Humboldt, but these tend to be overlooked if not ignored.

But to me the most disturbing aspect of this situation is the apparent dearth locally of young writers who can write about theatre, or any of the arts outside of popular music and maybe movies. I don't see the high school newspapers so maybe there's some hope there, but the HSU Lumberjack is appalling in this regard. A competently written arts article or review is so rare in that paper that I can't think of a single one in the past ten years. The Lumberjack pays little and usually no attention to the theatre and music events partly created by fellow students in the university which presumably is its focus. Its few attempts have been either embarrassingly inept or at best just substandard journalism, even in comparison with the rest of the newspaper.

I've made the argument in the past that ignoring these events is bad journalism because the Lumberjack fails to inform its student readers of events that they have already partly paid for (through the same activity fees that partially fund the Lumberjack), and many of which they can consequently attend for free. But after all these years I suspect it goes deeper. Does the HSU journalism program even attempt to teach arts reporting or criticism? If so, what does all this say about the effectiveness of that teaching?

Right now there are but two people in all of Humboldt County who write regularly about theatre. Beti Trauth, long a champion for local theatre, writes for the Tri-City Weekly and the Humboldt Beacon. I write for the Journal. Neither of us is a salaried full time staff writer. We're piece workers. I don't know for sure about Beti, but I don't get health care, and I don't even get mileage or expenses. There is to my knowledge only one radio show that interviews theatre artists regularly, and that's Artwaves on KHSU, hosted by Wendy Butler who used to write theatre reviews for the Beacon, and was the arts editor at the now defunct Eureka Reporter. When the three of us wise up and go, who will replace us? I would be happy to learn that I'm wrong.