Sunday, December 8, 2013

Review: Much Ado About Nothing (The Public Theater)

Benedick (Michael Braun) and Beatrice (Samantha Soule)
are too wise to woo peaceably, so they commit to a merry war
(photo: Carol Rosegg)
After a three-week barnstorming tour of the five boroughs, the Mobile Shakespeare Unit returns home to the Public. Presumably the rehearsal period for this Much Ado About Nothing was as brisk as its 100-minute runtime or 21-day tour, since it has a spontaneity that’s refreshing after an autumn of elaborate and often artificial Shakespeare.

The show opens to swanky synthetic music and an intro for each character, lightly suggests a world found mainly in reality TV. The conceit reinforces the play’s exploration of eavesdropping and of toying with other people’s romantic lives. But director Kwame Kwei-Armah barely acknowledges such frippery as concept or theme, and leaves the spectacle to Broadway. Instead, he directs the cast to perform with a conversational clarity. His tone fits the design, which suggests the show’s origin as a touring production: a 15’x15’ square of artificial turf for the stage, a boombox for sound, minimal props, and whatever lighting is available. The costuming has a factory-made, off-the-rack look: women in pink dresses and gaudy heels, men in inoffensive khakis and blazers.

That DIY design means that the actors must hold the audience’s focus unaided (all the more firmly for the Mobile Unit’s audiences, presumably unaccustomed to regular theatergoing). With eight actors taking 15 roles, their approach to playing is broad rather than refined (Shakespeare’s script is helpfully prose-heavy). More practiced than rehearsed, the style favors the comedic subplots over the romantic ones. So, predictably, Dogberry and the Watch make a strong impression. Lucas Caleb Rooney triumphantly leads the clowns, preening and bullying his way through a mockery of an interrogation. He also earns hisses from the audience as Don John, whose petty acts of villainy run from defaming the ingenue Hero before her wedding to bogarting his henchman’s joint.

But the company’s rough style does short the play’s more passionate scenes to some extent. The only scenes that measure up to the comic turns are those later scenes of romantic negotiation between Beatrice and Benedick. Samantha Soule’s Beatrice takes no BS, and her demand that Benedick challenge his friend to a duel puts him at a loss for words for the first time in the play. Ironically, she and her Benedick, Michael Braun, do better with the tough romantic wooing than with the scenes where they’re tricked into loving each other—usually a showcase of farce, here a set of stumbles that are the show’s only missed opportunity.

That flaw, however, is balanced by Kwei-Armah’s one addition to Shakespeare’s action. Late in the play, Claudio, the juvenile lead, makes a public apology at Hero’s tomb. In this staging, Hero eavesdrops on the scene and then decides, with a thought and a gesture, whether or not to forgive him. It’s a brilliant silent moment that gives the young woman a measure of autonomy and amends an outmoded aspect of the plot, as well as echoing the scenes of spying that Much Ado is packed with. It’s the sort of detail that makes this Much Ado as strong as this fall’s more elaborate (and expensive) Shakespeare.
Hero decides to wed Claudio,
despite his betrayal, and so redeems him
(photo: Carol Rosegg)


Incidentally, I interviewed this production's Leonato, Ramsey Faragallah, for New York Theater Review. Once he read Shakespeare in his California high school, he "became actively interested in things other than surfing, street racing and loud music." Me too.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Malvolio and the Latest Twitter Hoax

Does Maria make a fool of Malvolio, or does he do it to himself?
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Maybe you read about this Thanksgiving weekend’s viral entertainment; if not, here’s the short version. On a delayed flight, a woman took the inconvenience personally and complained loudly. Her fellow passenger decided to pass the time by calling her out on her egotism and goading her via a set of notes. He also publicized his actions via social media. You can read it here.

As memes go, it’s kind of implausible (in fact, skeptics have already started to debunk the story). Still, many readers and viewers have applauded the passenger’s behavior, contending that the woman deserved it for her rudeness.  But I found the whole situation ugly. Even putting aside issues of gender, age, race, and social station (some of which were explicit factors in the targeting, others implicit), I recoiled from the punitive quality of the humiliation.

Shakespeare fans will recognize the scenario as a gulling. In the Shakespearean and Restoration eras, English audiences particularly enjoyed a comic plot which saw ill-mannered character tricked into humiliating themselves. The most famous target is Malvolio, while the Beatrice/Benedick subplot features gulling at its most benign. But once you look for the device, you’ll start to notice some sort of trick or dupe in nearly every one of Shakespeare’s plays.

In the case of Twelfth Night, productions often mitigate Malvolio’s humiliation or apologize for it by making his exit sympathetic. While I do think Shakespeare applies the device with a touch of ambiguity, for the sake of artistic complexity, it’s only a touch. Like Shylock, Malvolio is meant to get punished and banished from the stage; that’s part of the comedy, in an archetypal sense. But those productions are uncomfortable with the abuse of Malvolio.

And so am I. I have a lot of trouble with gulling as a device and (depending on the play and production) I don’t like Shakespeare when he uses it. I recoil inwardly when Titania learns that she’s spent the night with a beast. I had the same reaction to the Thanksgiving Gulling of 2013. It was ugly behavior on both players’ parts. But I suppose it should hearten directors to see that audiences can enjoy a gulling with as much cruel humor today as they could 400 years ago.


Someone on my Facebook feed has pointed out that the perpetrator of the airline gulling produces a reality TV show. That makes sense, and links directly the pleasure of watching the upstart of Shakespearean drama get his comeuppance and that of watching the fools of reality TV humiliate themselves.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Hamlet (Bedlam at the Culture Project)

Eric Tucker directs & stars in Hamlet
(photo: Elizabeth Nichols)
Bedlam, the Off-Broadway company remounting Hamlet in rep with a riveting Saint Joan, has a talent for finding creative solutions to staging problems. Their biggest obstacle, self-imposed, is a four-person cast that should make large-scale shows like Hamlet or Joan impossible. But the troupe stages these works without compromising the plays’ visions and with a unique method that acts as a signature and an artistic manifesto. At each intermission (they have two in Hamlet), they and stagehands rearrange the stage and house, effectively altering the stage, style, and atmosphere to suit the next act.

This device, one of many, extends the stage space into new dimensions, and also keeps the physical relationship between actor and audience in constant flux. In a sense, it’s a modernist extension of Shakespearean dramaturgy, which defined the location though word and action rather than set and props. Bedlam’s bold, unconventional style establishes their potential for greatness in the Off-Broadway scene.

The bespoke design frees the company to try radical methods, even beyond the triple- and quadruple-casting of actors. But Bedlam’s work rarely feels tricksy or cerebral, partly because they eschew technological solutions, and partly because the company’s designer (John McDermott) covers the blank space in whitewash to create an empty, rough-hewn ambiance—Bedlam’s stage isn’t a lab, it’s a workshop. The sensibility generates remarkably effective theater. Their Hamlet, for instance, has a truly unsettling ghost. The prince himself stands before the audience; a stagehand shines a powerful flashlight at his face at the back of the house; in the surrounding darkness, the trio of other actors delivers the ghost’s lines and sentences in rotation and overlap. The disembodied sound and eerie halogen light prickles our flesh and makes us doubt the ghoul’s integrity.

Polonius (Edmund Lewis) gets mocked
by everyone onstage
(photo: Elizabeth Nichols)
As long as they abandon their reverence for the play, Bedlam’s Hamlet is thoroughly engaging. So it’s unsurprising that their show’s strongest facets are the comedic ones. Edmund Lewis plays Polonius as a sort of portly C-3PO, albeit one with a fried circuit that makes him freeze at times. Another performer, Tom O’Keefe, gets several scenes of hilarity, including a cheerfully obtuse gravedigger. As Marcellus, he sounds a bit like Scooby Doo Shaggy when he delivers the “Something is rotten…” line—it makes sense, since it’s in reaction to that terrifying ghost, and it also breaks some of the orthodox solemnity.

Ironically, the more the company relies on Shakespeare’s script than on their own vision, the more unfocused the show is. Generally, their playing style draws the characters in broad, simple strokes. But in the psychological scenes, especially the setpiece speeches of Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude, they execute the script in deferential fashion. As Hamlet, Eric Tucker has a dashing manner and an expressive face, and he’s plays the character’s ironic self-reflection well. But aside from the nunnery speech, he never comes up with a new perspective on a scene or soliloquy. Though the general tenor is there, he lacks specificity.

So when the show drags in the middle set of acts, it’s because Bedlam mostly backs off from the showmanship. The troupe’s female member, Andrus Nichols, plays both Gertrude and Ophelia; it would’ve been more interesting—and in keeping with Bedlam’s sense of theatrical liberty—to cast one of the men. The numeric limitation in cast means that Nichols plays several men anyway, of course, and in those cases, she often plays the role as genderless. But her Guildenstern is specifically female, because she’s the focus of Hamlet’s misogyny like Ophelia and Gertrude. Perhaps the minor theme would’ve been blunted if Nichols hadn’t played those latter roles, but while her Guildenstern offers new insight into the play, it’s less bold—less Bedlam!—than cross-casting men might have been.

But even in the middle third, Bedlam’s Hamlet is the equal of any Off-Broadway Shakespeare, and its first and final thirds place the production above most. The company’s nonconformist ethos proclaim them to be an electrifying addition to the New York scene and especially to the staid collection of classical companies. I’d love to see their Winter’s Tale or let them loose on a Restoration Comedy; but whatever they stage next, I hope they’ll be inspired to attack in rough and rousing style.


Bedlam at the Culture Project
director: Eric Tucker

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Romeo and Juliet (CSC)

CSC's Romeo and Juliet is stripped down,
sometimes not just aesthetically
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Shakespeare may work best when we recognize ourselves in his plays. In the Classic Stage production of Romeo and Juliet (not to be confused with the entertaining-yet-bland version on Broadway) director Tea Alagiç finds a modern American city in Shakespeare’s Italianate setting. Through brisk strokes—and helped especially by Clint Ramos’ character-at-a-glance costuming—Alagiç sketches the diversity of class, race, sexuality, and maturity (both age and attitude) that Shakespeare has invented. Yet paradoxically, each scene’s location is as generic as Verona is specific. Alagiç and Marsha Ginsberg set the stage in a minimalist style: an empty space, supplemented by a few pieces of Ikea’s modernist furniture and backed by a white cyclorama that lighting designer Jason Lyons colors subtly to accent the scenes.

The minimalist tactic is mostly successful, though it reaches a baffling extremity in the streetfight between Mercutio and Tybalt, in which guts get spilled though no weapons are visible. And it takes chutzpah to stage the Balcony Scene without any disparity in elevation whatsoever. A careful pruning of Shakespeare’s script brings momentum and urgency: Romeo cries “I am fortune’s fool!”, smash to blackout, catch your breath at intermission. Yet the production is more intellectually stimulating than it is emotionally involving. Typical is the Capulet masquerade, which puts Romeo in a giant Pooh head. This adds a hilarious visual element to a familiar. It also subverts the archetypal scene of love-at-first-sight and enlarges Juliet’s character. This Romeo still falls in love with Juliet’s face, but it’s his words that she falls for first. But though the scene’s formatted (famously) as a shared sonnet, there’s little of the lovers’ emotional and linguistic coupling.

This production adds an especially adorable note
to the meet-cute lovers Romeo and Juliet
(photo: Joan Marcus) 
Alagiç’s design concept forces the dramatic burden onto the company. In delivering the verse, they find a balance between poetic recitation and dialogue. Sometimes the metaphors pop into clarity—especially those involving sex—while other times the sense is obscured. The characterizations are solid but rarely exceptional; Daphne Ruben-Vega’s Nurse is typical, seeming to work outside her comfort zone but with increasing confidence. And the production’s only outright misfire is its Friar Lawrence, Daniel Davis, who plays in the plummy, pseudo-classical style of ye old Gielgud. On the other hand, T.R. Knight (late of Los Angeles and Grey’s Anatomy) totally inhabits his role as Mercutio. He plays the gallant as a coked-up hipster, and his delivery of the Mab speech has the itchy rant of one line too many.

But this production, finally, is about its Juliet. Romeo and Juliet may make the stage reputation of Elizabeth Olsen (who won acting awards for Martha Marcy May Marlene, and who’s set to become a Hollywood starlet since getting cast in the Avengers sequel). Olsen plays Juliet as a city girl in the Manhattan mold: smart, articulate, and worldwise, possessed of a keen sense of irony that’s undercut by her teenaged volatility. She lives every moment of the character, seeming to discover both the thought and emotion that the verse discloses. Julian Cihi, as her paramour, tosses his Byronic locks with passionate intensity; his Romeo’s a bit of a naïf, old-fashioned on its own but it offsets this Juliet nicely. But it’s Olsen’s performance is that scintillates. It’s one that New York-based Shakespeare lovers shouldn’t miss.