Monday, December 29, 2014

As I Did and Didn't Like It

The "Shakespeare" label on this site suggests that in my time reviewing theatre here, I've written about a total of 14 plays by William Shakespeare, at least four of them more than once.  (That's including North Coast Prep's editing of several Henry history plays into Mortal Men, Mortal Men, but does not include productions of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised], Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, I Hate Hamlet or Equivocation.

I wrote about some Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions, but coincidentally, not about Shakespeare plays that didn't also have North Coast productions at some point.  These were played at HSU, Dell'Arte, Shake the Bard at Arcata Playhouse, and Plays in the Park, but mostly at North Coast Repertory Theatre, which has the courage and commitment to produce a Shakespeare play nearly every season.

I enjoyed the opportunity to research these plays--to read them again, to read about them, to look at filmed or taped productions or actual movies made from them, and to recall productions I'd seen before.  This informed my viewing and reviewing, and gave me plenty more to write about on this site.  I am pleased to leave that for others to find on the Internet.

But I was often reminded that the audience for any given production would include at least some people who had never seen this particular Shakespeare play before, and may never have seen any.  This included adults as well as children and students.  More than once I've heard someone announce this fact in the North Coast Rep lobby.

After one show I was walking on the sidewalk in front of the theatre when a police car stopped, and the police officer inside asked me a question that I wasn't expecting: how was it?  Meaning the play--I don't remember which, but it was Shakespeare.  I stammered something to the effect of "good."  "Maybe I'll see it," he said, in a way that suggested to me that it's something he'd thought about before, but had not yet done.

People do go to see Shakespeare plays they've seen before, perhaps several times.  Why?  I don't think people go again for the same reason that producers and directors seem to feel they do--to see what new way this production has contrived to do the play.  Will it be a gender-flipped Hamlet on the Moon?  Or (as I suggested in an April Fool's piece) Othello set in the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers locker room, (retitled Shaqthello)  or a Macbeth recounting bloody competition among burl sculptors in Orick in the 1980s, with music by Devo, Cyndi Lauper and the Cars?

I think people go again and again, not for novelty, but because there is so much to see and hear.  The language is both more elaborate and compacted than we are used to, and there is a lot of it.  You notice something and you've already missed something else.  That's one of many reasons that clarity--vocal clarity especially--is crucial.  You never know which lines are going to jump out at individual audience members.

Appreciation is partly cumulative.  You look for different things, you hear different things. Different productions also emphasize different aspects of the play.  Actors offer different interpretations.  Sometimes (and the Shakespeare playgoer lives for this) the production and/or the actors make discoveries, that they make clear to you.

But as long as the words and actions are clear, you don't absolutely need that.  You make your own discoveries.  This happens in the moment.  But it can happen with some preparation--recalling prior productions, or having read about the play and other productions.  You might see how something is done differently this time, how some problem is solved.  So in many ways, every production--and to some extent, every performance--is new.

I've even written in this space about plays I haven't seen here, notably Hamlet and Macbeth.  I missed the Hamlet James Floss directed at NCRT, which was a year or two before I started writing Stage Matters.  I've mentioned  the first Hamlet I saw, which was the first Shakespeare I ever saw on stage, a few months after I started college.  It's a theatrical truism that your first Hamlet remains your favorite, and that's certainly true in my case.  But I've recently re-read the director's essay on it, and I can see why I loved it.

The first Shakespeare I saw in any medium I'm pretty sure was a Studio One television production of Julius Caesar when I was 11.  It helped that it's a fairly simple plot that I could follow, but I was otherwise enchanted by the language, even if I couldn't understand a lot of it.  That enchantment remains.

By the time I went to college I probably had also seen Olivier's Henry V on black and white TV.  Still, I was bowled over by it when I saw it years later in color, screened one Sunday afternoon at a small town art museum.  These experiences began an eagerness to see Shakespeare on film and television.  Apart from seeing some great actors, the verse is at least audible--and at home there's rewind.  But you do lose the sense of the whole stage, and the whole theatre, including the audience.  That particular sense of presence.

I've also written here on Macbeth-- that tragedy of rash decisions in which the action turns on the key character of the Thane of Ross.  And I'm not saying that just because I happened to play the Thane of Ross in a college production.  (Duncan was played by Richard Hoover, whose later fame came as a set designer for Twin Peaks and other Hollywood productions.)

Okay, that is why I said it, and it's probably not true.  But oddly,  for a play that is produced so often, I have seen Macbeth mostly on film. I've only encountered one stage production other than the one I was in (it starred Christopher Plummer and Glenda Jackson, and it wasn't very good).  Of course, you can learn a lot about a play that way.

Macbeth is scheduled to be produced at NCRT in early 2015, and so it will be the first North Coast Shakespeare production in nine years I won't have the opportunity to review. The participants may not be lamenting this.  My point of view on producing Shakespeare is that with great plays comes great responsibility.  I've been harder on Shakespeare productions than the rest, although (like Shakespeare himself perhaps) I became more generous towards the end.

My first real pan came fairly early, of the first Shakespeare I reviewed.  Because it was my favorite of the comedies, and because I had seen a stage production and a few on film that were wonderful in part, and I knew the play so well, I was looking forward to this show.  Perhaps too much.

 Anyway that review caused a mild kerfuffle, which both scared and delighted my editors.  It was then that somebody told me that previous reviewers in town had been unceremoniously sacked if a theatre (I think the expression was "community theatre") complained about a review.  (I was later assured privately that  the community theatre in which this production appeared had no problem with my review.)

So at the risk of opening old wounds, I am reproducing that review here.  Consider it in the abstract (made easier by the fact that even at the time I didn't name any names), as a point of view on the perils and opportunities of producing Shakespeare, or of going to see a Shakespeare play.

Next time--and for this retrospective, it will be the last time--I will include the Stage Matters column I wrote after this one, responding to the response.

As I Didn't Like It    2006

In Truth and the Comedic Art, Michael Gelven calls As You Like It “one of the rarest few of the greatest comedies ever written.” A Midsummer Night’s Dream is funnier, he believes, and Much Ado About Nothing is wittier. But As You Like It “seems to fuse love with comedy almost to perfection.”

That’s how I feel about it. It’s my favorite of the comedies.

 Shakespeare wrote for a particular group of actors and the audience of the time. Romances were in style and the cross-town rivals of Shakespeare’s company had a recent success with a Robin Hood play. So he adapted a popular romance, and created a band of exiles in the Forest of Arden, infusing the conventional story with a wide and wonderful humanity.

 This is one of Shakespeare’s most performed plays. Rosalind, the woman who pretends to be a man, who then pretends to be a woman so that Orlando (the man she loves) can practice wooing the woman she actually is by pretending he is she, is perhaps the greatest woman’s part in the comedies. Famous actors have therefore pined to play her, from Dame Edith Evans to Katharine Hepburn, Maggie Smith and Gwyneth Paltrow, with Vanessa Redgrave’s 1961 Royal Shakespeare Company performance among the most lauded.

 It’s been done for television several times, with the 1978 BBC version of the full play (starring Helen Mirren) available on DVD. A 1936 movie abridgement can be found on video, notable for a young and dazzling Lawrence Olivier as Orlando, and some creative film editing by the young David Lean. Elizabeth Bergner, an accomplished Central European actress, plays a spirited Rosalind, though her accent sounds disconcertingly like Bela Lugosi.

 Later this year, As You Like It will get the Kenneth Branagh film treatment, starring two young actors with strong theatre credentials who are becoming movie stars: Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind, and Adrian Lester as Orlando.

 This is a rich and accessible history, for those who make and those who go to new productions. Every local company that does a well-known play has to compete to some degree with the best stage productions as well as existing films and videos. It’s unfair, but a reality, as is the justice of being judged.  Even when the players aren’t paid, they are often asking audiences to spend their money as well as several hours of their lives.

 Sometimes, as in the case of North Coast Rep’s last production, Once Upon A Mattress, they create something that’s better than the pros. Mostly they offer other virtues, the most basic of which is the privilege of seeing a good or a great play up close, when it’s done competently, with at least a few intriguing or pleasingly surprising elements.

 This in my view is unfortunately not the case with NCRT’s current production of As You Like It. Some directors have played it strictly for laughs, even as farce, which seems to be the intended direction of this attempt. Even when done reasonably well, this approach tramples on the play’s greatest virtues. As Michael Gelven observes (and I heartily agree), the central characteristic of this play and its characters is grace.

 But even on its own terms, I didn’t find this production anywhere near a minimal standard of watchability. On a nearly bare stage, it is set in a confused and unappealing version of the 1960s, with Beatles songs replacing those in the text, inflicting only slightly less damage on the Beatles than on Shakespeare.

 The acting style is apparently meant to be broadly funny, somewhere between sitcom and camp. It doesn’t work, as the lack of laughter from Friday’s audience made terribly clear. The only Shakespearian element of the acting is from Hamlet’s advice to the players on what not to do: mug the words and saw the air too much with the hands. Those who didn’t mumble went to elaborate lengths to act out their lines with stock gestures and motiveless moves that were likely antique in Shakespeare’s day.

 At times it all came across as laboriously condescending, both to the play and to the audience. The blocking was awkward, the costumes seemed deliberately ugly (likely somebody’s idea of a hoot), and the almost non-existent set was perfunctory at best.

 I wish there was an element of the production I could single out for praise, apart from the assumed sincere effort. I hold out for you the possibility that everything changed for the better in the second half, for I was long gone by then.

 It’s especially unfortunate, if my view has merit, because this comedy should have special appeal to Humboldt, particularly in the multiple contrasts of country and city. Think of it set in the Forest of Arcata. And be grateful that your happy memories (if such they be) of “The Long and Winding Road” remain intact.

1 comment:

MOLA:42 said...

Actually, "As You Like It" has been performed twice in the Arcata Forest (that I am aware of).

It gets a bit nippy but the setting is priceless.