Sunday, February 11, 2018

Henry V (A Noise Within’s 2018 Production) Theatre Review

Production photo by Craig Schwartz
The Life Of Henry The Fifth, almost always shortened to Henry V, is a play that some see as a celebration of nationalistic pride while others see in it a condemnation of war. Of course, there are elements of both, as Shakespeare never seemed to see things in such simplistic terms. But in these strange times of a divided nation, when nationalism is once again raising its dangerous voice, which elements would be stressed in a production of the play? Would the St. Crispin’s Day speech be as rousing as in times past? Would there be little winks and nods at certain lines, letting a modern sensibility comment on the action?

The talented company at A Noise Within mostly lets Shakespeare’s play speak for itself in the new production of Henry V, which opened last night in Pasadena. It is presented in more modern dress, and stresses the role of the Chorus, emphasizing, as the Chorus does in the text, that the action presented is a simulation, falling short of the reality of war. The set works well in this regard, with a large set piece of five levels upstage creating the sense of seating at an arena. As it is a thrust stage, this effectively makes the audience part of that arena too, as it completes the circle of seats around the stage. This is a really interesting effect, as it makes us feel more a part of the action while simultaneously stressing the artificiality of the action. The Chorus, by the way, is played by multiple actors throughout the performance. So instead of an outsider, a narrator, commenting on the play, it is as if the actors themselves are adding to their performances by giving us more information. This presents some wonderful opportunities for metatheatre, as when Erika Soto, who plays Katharine, speaks as the Chorus of the offer of Katharine to Henry: “the king doth offer him/Katharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry,/Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.” It’s a delightful and humorous moment.

When the play opens, the actors enter the stage from several different locations (including some surprising ones), carrying modern lanterns and dressed entirely in dark clothes, like they’re taking part in a secret military action. Several then perform the Chorus’ opening speech, and the dark, simple clothing really works with the Chorus’ line “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.” Apart from the audience’s thoughts and the play’s lines, only a crown indicates which character is a king. And yet, throughout this production, there is absolutely no confusion about who is who, never an uncertainty about who is speaking.

When Henry V (Rafael Goldstein) asks “May I with right and conscience make this claim,” he rises and walks forward, and we see he is ready to go to war, hoping for an affirmative answer to his question, even before the insulting message from the Dauphin. As for the “treasure,” in this production it is in what looks like a gym bag labeled “KING HENRY V,” rather than in a tun, as indicated in the text. However, a gym bag is all too fitting for the tennis balls contained inside, so it isn’t as surprising or insulting as it is when they are inside a cask or coffer. This is one of the few moments when the modern style causes something of a loss.

Sometimes in this production, actors who are not part of a particular scene will remain on stage, seated on the set piece upstage. For example, Jeremy Rabb, who plays Bardolph, is seated during the Chorus’ speech that begins the second act. At the end of that speech, the Chorus tosses him the hat which allows him to then become Bardolph and begin the scene. That scene is wonderful, by the way. I particularly enjoy the varying deliveries of Nym’s “that is the humor of it.” Bardolph, Nym, Pistol and Mistress Quickly represent Henry V’s youth and past, and they are, in some ways, the common heart of the piece. Later, when those characters enter solemnly after the death of Falstaff, Henry V remains on stage, standing at the top level far upstage. This creates a meaningful stage picture, as he is essentially above them, looking down at them. Is that how he feels, that he is above them now? Or is that how they feel about him, that he is beyond them, no longer one of them? Henry V takes off his crown at the end of the scene, as if in honor of Falstaff’s memory, a touching moment.

The Chorus’ speech that starts the second act is actually split in this production, with the lines about the three conspirators coming after the scene with Bardolph and Nym and the others, and so right before the scene where Henry confronts them. Interestingly, the actors playing the conspirators identify themselves by shouting out their names as the Chorus mentions them. In that scene, Henry V wears sunglasses – the crown and sunglasses together creating a strange image. (By the way, the King of France walks with the use of a cane, and wears reading glasses at one point, in contrast to youthful Henry’s sunglasses.) This is an excellent scene, tense and intriguing and well-acted. Rafael Goldstein does a wonderful job as Henry V through the play, but this scene in particular is one of his best. Kasey Mahaffy turns in another of evening’s best performances as the Dauphin. (Actually, he turns in two excellent performances, the other as Nym.) I love his twisted joy as he insults Henry V. I also love Stephen Weingartner’s performance as Williams, the soldier who exchanges gloves with the disguised Henry. And, what will come as no surprise to Shakespeare fans in Los Angeles, Erika Soto is wonderful as Katharine and Boy. I’ve seen her play Juliet, Cordelia, Miranda, and several other key roles in Shakespeare’s works, and she is always a pleasure to watch. She never fails to bring something special, fresh and surprising to the parts she plays.

Even though the Chorus has warned us that the battles might not be presented completely, the fight scenes in this production are handled really well. The first one is sudden and intense, and makes great use of that large set piece upstage, leading to the famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” line. The main battle scene is likewise intense and strong. And, if you were wondering, the St. Crispin’s Day speech is still quite powerful and moving, and Rafael Goldstein does an excellent job with it.

This production, in general, moves rather swiftly. There are, of course, some major cuts. Gone is most of Fluellen’s role, as well as Gower and Captain Jamy. Alice is completely cut, and so the scene where Katharine is learning English is mostly missing. What we get is the briefest of moments of Katharine alone, reciting the English words for a few body parts. So the humor of the scene is gone. In this production, it is Nym rather than Bardolph who is hanged, while Henry watches. Perhaps the strangest cut is the dialogue between Fluellen and Gower about the slaughter of the boys, particularly as Henry’s response to it – “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant” – is left in. Because what leads to that line is gone, the audience’s reaction to the line is different. Still, most of the cut material is not missed, particularly as the production has an excellent momentum and pace. This production also has a certain beauty in its style and execution.

There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming almost directly after Nym’s death. This production of Henry V is directed by Julia Rodriquez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott, and runs in repertory with A Raisin In The Sun through early April at A Noise Within, located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. There is free parking at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Parking Structure.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

William Shakespeare’s The Force Doth Awaken: Star Wars Part The Seventh by Ian Doescher (2017) Book Review

I became a huge fan of Star Wars in 1977, when I was five years old and saw the first film in the theater. I started collecting the toys and everything else I could get my hands on. I stopped being a fan a couple of years ago when I saw The Force Awakens. What a useless, pointless pile of garbage. Disney is all about money and marketing; Disney cares nothing about story, originality or character development. As a result, Disney destroyed Star Wars. I haven’t even bothered to see The Last Jedi. Who cares? It’s done. I was curious, however, to see if Ian Doescher would continue his series of Star Wars Shakespeare books. And I am glad to see that he has, for his take on The Force Awakens, titled William Shakespeare’s The Force Doth Awaken, is so much better than the film.

As with the previous volumes in this series, the story is divided into five acts, with the dialogue done in iambic pentameter. The opening crawl is presented as a Shakespearean sonnet. BB8, unlike R2-D2, does not speak in English, but in droid sounds, though still in iambic pentameter. BB8 is the best of the new characters in the saga, with the others falling quite flat. When watching the film, I found Kylo Ren to be the lamest villain in the history of cinema. He’s just a whiny little bitch. Give him a spanking and send him to bed without supper. But he is a much more enjoyable character in this telling. For example, check out this speech: “Impotence beyond imagining!/O, fie, that I this madness must endure –/A fico for thine errant, bumbling face!/The great First Order bested is by droids,/Who ally ‘gainst us with our own stormtroopers?/Is this the folly-fallen end to which/The galaxy doth run with lout-like haste?/Ay, out upon it! Tilly-vally! Tush!” (pages 50-51). I might have truly enjoyed the movie had he spoken like that. The rathtars were among the many stupid things in the film, but in the book they are delightful, as they sing their lines. Oh, if only they could reshoot the film using this book as the script.

Of course, there are plenty of references to specific speeches from Shakespeare’s work. At one point Rey asks, “What fight through yonder window breaks?” (p. 55), obviously a reference to Romeo’s line in Romeo And Juliet. And Maz does a version of Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech, oddly speaking of herself in the third person: “O, then I see keen Maz hath been with you./She is the vision giver, and she comes/In shape no bigger than an agate stone/On the forefinger of a Jedi Knight” (p. 88). And Han Solo says, “We would be less than kin, still less be kind” (p. 79), a play on Hamlet’s line “A little more than kin and less than kind.” Han Solo also does a version of Henry The Fifth’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech: “This day is call’d the feast of Odan-Urr./They that outlive this day, and come safe home,/Will stand a-tiptoe when this day is nam’d,/And rouse them at the name of Odan-Urr./They that shall live this day, and see old age,/Will yearly on the vigil feast their neighbors/And say, ‘Tomorrow’s the centenary.’/Then will they strip their sleeves and show their scars/And say, ‘These wounds I had on Odan’s day’” (p. 118). Certainly it is a longer speech than Han ever uttered in any of the films. He concludes the speech, “We few, we happy few, we band of comrades;/For they today who shed their blood with me/Shall be my comrades; be they ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle their condition, yea./So be ye not afeard, my friends, be strong –/’Twill be our finest victory to date,/This grand Starkiller shall be our kill yet!” (p. 119).

There are some playful non-Shakespeare references in this book as well. For example, early on, Finn says, “Lo, I have walk’d five hundred miles at least,/And I would walk five hundred more, forsooth!” (p. 41). That is obviously a reference to The Proclaimers song “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles).”

I don’t think that Ian Doescher disliked The Force Awakens nearly as much I did, but he does offer a scene that pokes fun at the movie’s complete lack of originality. The scene finds two Stormtroopers, one much older than the other, talking about events from the original Star Wars film, and how things have changed greatly since then. Trooper 2, as evidence of how things are so different now, mentions Darth Vader: “When I began my job,/I did report unto a dreadful man/All garb’d in black, his face hid ‘neath a mask,/With vicious moods and lightsaber of red” (p. 122). Trooper 1 then asks, “Hath Kylo Ren been all this time alive?” Trooper 2 mentions the Death Star, describing it: “A vast, forbidding base form’d in a sphere,/Which some mistook for some celestial body./It hous’d more soldiers than most armies boast./Its purpose was to crush a planet whole” (p. 123). That leads Trooper 1 to ask, “Starkiller Base existed even then?” Many more similarities between A New Hope and The Force Awakens are pointed out in this scene, which is presented with a wonderful sense of humor. As you might guess, it is my favorite scene of the book.

William Shakespeare’s The Force Doth Awaken: Star Wars Part The Seventh was written by Ian Doescher, and published in 2017 by Quirk Books.

Shakespeare References in A New England Love Story

A New England Love Story: Nathaniel Hawthorne And Sophia Peabody, by LouAnn Gaeddert, contains a few Shakespeare references. About Nathaniel Hawthorne in his childhood, Gaeddert writes: “Of course he could not understand all of what he read, but he discovered stories and sentences that appealed to him. Shakespeare’s Richard III contained one line that he entoned dramatically to himself and to anyone within earshot: ‘My Lord, stand back and let the coffin pass’” (p. 15). About Nathaniel’s sister, Gaeddert writes, “Ebe had shown great promise as a child; she could read Shakespeare at the age of six” (p. 23). The final Shakespeare reference is simply to the title of Measure For Measure: “Later he recorded an idea for a story she had given him and then this item: ‘There is no Measure for Measure in my affections. If the Earth fails me in love, I can die and go to GOD.’ – S.A.P.’” (p. 75).

A New England Love Story: Nathaniel Hawthorne And Sophia Peabody was published in 1980 by The Dial Press.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Shakespeare, His Wife And The Dog (2018 Production) Theatre Review

Shakespeare, His Wife And The Dog production photo
Not much is known about Shakespeare’s last few years, when he stopped writing and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon. What led to that move? How was his relationship with his wife, Anne? Had he missed her while at work in London? How did the death of their son, Hamnet, affect them and their relationship? What’s the deal with Anne being bequeathed Shakespeare’s “second best bed”? We don’t know, and likely will never know, but people have been speculating about the answers to these questions for a long time. Shakespeare, His Wife And The Dog takes us into Shakespeare’s home on April 22, 1616 and provides for us possible answers to these questions.

Shakespeare, His Wife And The Dog had its world premiere at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival and then toured the UK in 2016. Now this absolutely wonderful one-act play has come to Los Angeles, with its original cast of Philip Whitchurch as Will and Sally Edwards as Anne, and original director, Julia St. John. The set is fairly simple, with a large chest overflowing with papers and other items, and a mess of papers on the floor around it. (As the audience is on three sides of the play space, which is at floor level, one curious audience member was able to bend down for a closer look at the papers before the start of the play.) Stage left of the chest is a small bench, and that is basically it for the set. As the play begins, there is the sound of a dog barking, and Anne calls out the dog’s name, “Crab,” which Shakespeare fans will recall is the name of Launce’s dog in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona. It is the first of many references to the works and characters of Shakespeare’s plays, and the play soon reveals the reason for the references – many of the lines and circumstances come from Will and Anne’s relationship, including Kate’s famous speech from The Taming Of The Shrew, which – in the world of this play – Anne spoke and Will wrote. She accuses him of writing their lives for all the world to hear. This play itself adopts elements of Shakespeare’s theatre, with both characters at times directly addressing the audience. At one point, Will wants to address the audience alone, and so gets Anne to leave briefly. He playfully recites lines from Julius Caesar and As You Like It, and it is clear that he is happy to have an audience. In fact, he delights in it. But Anne returns to spoil his fun. Though she too will eventually read from his plays, and even engage him in a bit of acting, as she helps him to recount a funny anecdote.

Early on, we learn that Will is waiting for Ben Jonson, who never arrives. If that reminds you of another famous play, it is intended. In fact, later there is a direct (and quite humorous) reference to Waiting For Godot. Both Will and Anne, due perhaps to age, have trouble with their memories, and there are moments when we wonder if the mixing of Will’s work with their lives might not be caused by some form of dementia. As funny as this play is – and it is quite funny – it is also surprisingly touching and moving, and deals with some serious subjects, such as aging and loss of faculties, fidelity, and how parents continue after the death of a child. As for the issue of fidelity, Anne uses Will’s sonnets to question his faithfulness, just as we do. In some ways, Anne acts as our voice, asking some of the questions that Shakespeare fans have been asking for ages. Who is the dark lady? The play is most moving when it addresses the subjects of the dog and of their son, and we see genuine affection and love between the two characters. Both actors turn in excellent performances.

You certainly don’t have to be a Shakespeare scholar to enjoy this production, but the more you know about Shakespeare, the more delight you will find in this play. It is interesting, for example, that both Will and Anne refer to the “a rose by any other word” line from Romeo And Juliet, with Will using the preferred Q2 reading of “word,” and Anne later using the Q1 reading of “name.” And in addition to references to Shakespeare’s works, there are references to the few written accounts we have of his life. For example, Ben Jonson’s line about how Will had “small Latin and less Greek” is spoken by Anne in this play. And later Will calls Webster an “upstart crow,” using the criticism he himself received early on in his own career from Robert Greene. This play even makes use of the legend of Will getting caught poaching as a young man. And, yes, the play provides a reasonable – and incredibly sweet – explanation for the line in Shakespeare’s will about his “second best bed” going to Anne. But, as clever as this play can be in its use of Shakespeare’s lines and material about Shakespeare, at its heart this is about the relationship between Will and Anne, and that should speak to those with even little or no knowledge of Shakespeare’s works.

Shakespeare, His Wife And The Dog is now playing at The Edye, at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center. It’s a short run – only eight performances – so don’t wait on this. After this, the play moves to San Jose. I highly recommend checking out this production. The Edye is located at 1310 11th St. in Santa Monica, California. There is a free parking lot, which you can access from Santa Monica Blvd.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

The Entire Country Needs A Macbath

The most beautiful woman in the universe sent me some gifts for the holidays, including two Shakespeare-related items that completely raised my spirits. Thinking they may do the same for you, I figured I’d better share some photos of them here.

Both are bars of soap. The first one I unwrapped is called “Lady Macbeth’s Guest Soap,” featuring a splash of blood on the label and the caption “Out, Damned Spot!” On the back, it combines lines from Macbeth with the soap’s ingredients: “…who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him or a vegetable soap with glycerine to have so much shea butter, cocoa butter, olive oil and grapeseed oil enriched with creamy buttermilk?” Wonderful, right?

The second one is labeled “Wm. Shakespeare’s Bard Of Soap,” and contains a line from The First Part Of King Henry The Fourth: “Live cleanly, as a nobleman should.” There are playful references to other Shakespeare plays on the package, including these lines: “Much ado about bathing,” “For a midsummer night’s clean” and “For when love’s lather’s lost.”

I need to keep these items handy, because as long as Donald Trump and Mike Pence are allowed to remain in power, I will need to have my spirits raised.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Shakespeare Reference in Desires For Youth

Oh yes, Shakespeare references pop up everywhere, including in Desires For Youth, a 1970s porn book by Stan Adams. This book is actually well written, particularly considering its genre, and it contains a humorous reference to The Comedy Of Errors. In a story in which a young man hopes to woo the family’s maid, Adams writes: “I got to her ass one day when there was no one in the house but the two of us. At the time I thought it was my big seduction scene, but now as I look back on it, it was more like a hilarious comedy of eros” (p. 123). What a surprising play with language!

Desires For Youth was published in 1976 by Aquarius 7 Publishers, and is part of the Bedroom Publications series.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shakespeare References in Magazines: Movieline, Premiere

I’ve been going through more old magazines (I collected a ridiculous amount of Star Wars-related items between 1977 and 2005), and of course found more Shakespeare references. In the May 1999 issue of Movieline, there is an interview with Liam Neeson. When asked if he had any preconceptions about the film business, Liam said: “My ultimate aim was to be Iago for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Theater was what I wanted to do” (p. 49). A little later he is asked about whether he considers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg geniuses. Liam hesitates to call anyone in the film business a genius, so the interview asks, “What about playwrights?” Liam answers: “Genius? Shakespeare and Chekhov” (p. 49). That issue also features a piece on James Earl Jones. At the beginning, it lists some of his accomplishments, including “Shakespeare’s King Lear, Macbeth and Othello” (p. 55). And then partway through the interview, he is asked: “What about the Othello rumor – that every time you played Othello you slept with your Desdemona? Is that something you’d like to put to rest?” James Earl Jones answers: “I don’t know. I might want to perpetuate it” (p. 58). The interviewer says, “Two of your Desdemonas were Jane Alexander and Jill Clayburgh.” And then the interviewer says, “In 1964, though, you did break up a marriage when you fell for your Desdemona, Julienne Marie.” The interviewer also mentions James Earl Jones appearing in Looking For Richard.

In the February 1997 issue of Premiere there is a small blurb about William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet (the one with Leonardo DeCaprio and Claire Danes): “It seemed like a nonstop festival of iambic pentameter his year, what with Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and three takes on Richard III available. But Absolute Ballroom director Baz Luhrman’s reworking of this romantic perennial boldly went where no Shakespeare production had gone before, making thrilling use of surreal Mexican locations, exciting young stars with teen-fan cred, and MTV-style packing. Young women lined up in droves” (pages 48-49). The caption to the accompanying photo of Claire Danes played on her earlier role in My So-Called Life: “My So-Called Death: A jazzy Romeo & Juliet brought in the kids.” And then a piece on Kate Winslet has this brief introduction: “Star turns in Sense And Sensibility, Hamlet and Titanic have taken her around the world, but Kate Winslet still phones home every day” (p. 77). Trish Deitch Rohrer writes, “Kenneth Branagh, who directed Winslet as Ophelia in his recently released Hamlet, says that when he first met the actress – she was eighteen, and auditioning for a part in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – he knew he was in the presence of a star” (p. 78). Rohrer also writes, “It didn’t bother her that Branagh slapped and shook her hard before cameras started rolling on the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene in Hamlet; that was improvisation” (p. 78). Hamlet is mentioned again a little later: “She was also photographed by a tabloid kissing her Hamlet costar Rufus Sewell in a restaurant, though she has said they were only friends” (p. 79). That piece also contains a photo of Kate Winslet and Kenneth Branagh from Hamlet.