Monday, March 31, 2014

Shakespeare Unscripted (Impro Theatre 2014 Production) Theatre Review

I have to admit I had some reservations going into this production of Shakespeare Unscripted. After all, what is Shakespeare without the script? Shakespeare is all about the poetry. And I’ve seen a lot of improvisation shows. Sometimes they’re wonderful, sometimes not. Fortunately, the actors performing Shakespeare Unscripted are at the top of their game, and completely capture the spirit of Shakespearean comedy even as they create their own story. And by the way, what they do borrow or lift from Shakespeare comes mainly from the comedies. This is a group that moves within that spirit, not a group that steps outside of it to poke fun of it. And so it is a joyous experience, both for performers and audience.

The fun begins even before the show does. The audience members wait in the lobby to be seated, like at an Italian restaurant. A sign announces “Today’s specials,” listing some of the actors from the ensemble who will be performing that evening. The actors, dressed as the staff of the restaurant, then greet and interact with the audience as they go in. (One actor says about a visibly pregnant woman, “She’s going to have a baby,” then assures the rest of the audience, “Not tonight!”) The conceit is that these waiters will perform a play for us while we are at their establishment. As noted in the program, the inspiration is taken from The Taming Of The Shrew, the bulk of which is a play put on in front of the drunken Christopher Sly, who is made to believe he’s a lord.

When they begin the actual performance, the actors line up in front of the audience and announce they’re going to improvise a Shakespeare play for them. They ask for two things from the audience, the first being something from nature. Someone shouts out, “Sirocco.” One of the cast members responds honestly, “I have no idea what that is.” Another cast member says, “I used to drive one of those.” (I wish my friend Ryan was in attendance – he still drives one of those – though it’s spelled Scirocco.) The second thing they ask for is an action that has just occurred. A man offers, “A coronation.” And the play is suddenly underway.

Though the dialogue is improvised, the actors occasionally use lines that are similar to those from Shakespeare’s works. In fact, the first line about the heaviness of the crown calls to mind Henry IV. And later someone says, “I am confused and know not what to say” (which is quite close to Hermia’s line “I am amazed, and know not what to say” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream). And some of the character names they choose come from Shakespeare’s plays: Bassanio from The Merchant Of Venice, Ursula from Much Ado About Nothing, and Claudio from both Much Ado About Nothing and Measure For Measure.

As in many of Shakespeare’s plays, there are people switching identities (though none of the women disguise themselves as men). There are shades of Measure For Measure when the Duke, disguised, goes out among his people. (That also brings to mind Henry V, who wanders through his camp the same way.) And we have royalty and servants exchanging places.

Some of the joy from this performance also comes from the fact that the actors provide each other with challenges within the dialogue, which at the performance I attended led to a dance and song. They’re clearly skilled at improvisation, and are quite knowledgeable about Shakespeare’s plays. They seem quite at home in that world, easily slipping into asides. They even manage to end a couple of scenes with rhyming couplets, which is impressive, and gets applause from the audience.

This group is so adept at taking a joke and running with it, even improving it as it goes on. The new Duke has two advisors, one of whom, Bassanio, immediately begins interrupting, allowing for a running gag. Later in the play, he tells Lily (disguised as Ursula) that since meeting her, he’s stopped interrupting as much. “It is as if my soul has found punctuation.” The audience laughs through most of the performance. But perhaps more striking is the fact that the group is also able to find and create serious and meaningful moments that are just as effective and affecting. And it was often at those moments that I felt they had really captured the essence of Shakespeare.

There is one ten-minute intermission, which is announced by the cast as their Italian restaurant personas. (I couldn’t help but wonder how much was being discussed backstage during intermission, regarding the intended course of the story.) After the intermission, the cast again lines up downstage in front of the audience, and asks for a bit of input to get the second act underway. I did find that the second half wasn’t quite as enjoyable as the first, though I did laugh out loud quite a lot. The ensemble seems more adept at getting themselves into complications than out of them. And certain relationships that were begun early on then don’t quite pay off. Still, that’s only a minor issue. And of course each night will be different anyway.

Shakespeare Unscripted is directed by Brian Lohmann and Dan O’Connor. It is scheduled to run through May 4, 2014 at The Carrie Hamilton Stage, which is located upstairs at The Pasadena Playhouse. The address there is 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Street parking can be a bit tricky in Pasadena, so allow yourself a little extra time. And if you get there early, you can relax in the courtyard, which is really charming, with a fountain and slightly uneven stones.

(Note: I also posted this review on Pop Culture Beast.)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Macbeth (A Noise Within's 2014 Production) Theatre Review

Production photo by Craig Schwartz
Every Shakespeare production offers something different, and I’m always excited to see what a company will focus on within a given play. The best productions can make an audience look at even the most familiar plays in new ways, or offer new insights. A Noise Within’s new production of Macbeth does just that by stressing certain elements contained within Shakespeare's great tragedy. It stresses the reality of the ghostly aspects of the play by not only having us see Banquo's ghost and the dagger, but also the ghosts of all who die at Macbeth’s hand or by his command. The witches also play a greater role, remaining on or near the stage in many scenes. The witches also take on other roles, such as that of the Porter, so the idea of magic and witchcraft and ghosts is pervasive. In addition, the memory of the Macbeth's child is very much a present factor in the lives of the Macbeths. and informs much of their actions.

Before the show, the stage is nearly bare, with simply a large bowl directly below a burlap sack which hangs on a rope from the ceiling. The sack is stained red and seems to contain a severed head. There are also two platform ramps that extend into the audience, one on the stage right side and one in the center. There are also two candelabras and a child’s mobile hanging.

The play opens with many hooded figures entering from various directions. Three of them gather around the bowl in the center of stage and begin the witches’ lines. Interestingly, they’re men in this production. In their second scene, they hold large puppet heads and affect witches’ voices rather than their natural voices as in the first scene. The puppets might be present in part to be able to keep referring to them as the weird sisters. Interestingly, they return to their normal voices on “Peace! the charm’s wound up,” implying that it is the affected voices and the puppets that work the magic on people.

Macbeth (Elijah Alexander) has a great sense of wonder when asking about how the prophecies could come true. He enjoys hearing his fortune, but doesn’t put much store in it. And there is a pleasant camaraderie in this scene between Macbeth and Banquo (Leith Burke). During Macbeth’s aside after Malcolm is named Prince of Cumberland, the rest of the cast freezes on stage and remain that way for the duration of his speech.

Lady Macbeth’s introduction is quite interesting. The child’s mobile has come down, and there is a doll and an overturned – and empty – basket, as one would use to carry an infant, hints of the mysterious child she later alludes to and which the Macbeths clearly lost. This dead child plays quite a significant part in this production. It really feels like she’s somehow replacing her desire and need for a child with a wish for the entire kingdom.

The play really requires strong performances from both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and in this production it certainly gets them. Lady Macbeth (Jules Willcox), when she gets to the word “king” in the letter, has a joy about her, which is wonderful. When Macbeth arrives, she jumps into his embrace, showing a warmth, which is delightful and allows for greater contrast later.

Macbeth looks at the baby basket and picks up the doll, showing this has affected him as well, or at least that he understands how it has affected his wife. During his speech, when he says, “And pity, like a naked new-born babe,” he looks over at the mobile again. Lady Macbeth uses the memory of the baby to convince Macbeth to do the deed, and it works because they’ve set up the importance of the baby for both of them. Then Macbeth’s later lines in Act III “Upon my head they plac’d a fruitless crown” and “barren scepter” mean even more because of the focus on that mysterious babe. Also nice is the fact that after they’ve decided their course of action, the Macbeths are followed off stage by the three witches. There is a strong sense of their actions being determined by outside forces, that once they start along the path, it is then the path that controls things, not them.

The “dagger of the mind” speech is done in a really interesting way. There is a physical dagger, placed blade-down by one of the witches, who then shines a flashlight on it. But by the line “dagger of the mind,” the dagger is gone, the witch having removed it. Then a second witch shines a light on another, identical dagger in a different location downstage. And then the third does the same, leading to Macbeth’s “I see it still.”

Lady Macbeth is strong throughout her performance, but is particularly striking in the scene where she returns with bloody hands. Her reading of “To wear a heart so white” is great, and there is a crazy joy in her reading of “A little water clears us of this deed,” which is perfect. She also very clearly chooses precise moments to show the changes in Lady Macbeth’s attitude. For example, she becomes frightened of Macbeth just before his “Thou marvell’st at my words; but hold thee still.”

The Porter scene is interesting. The Porter is played by one of the witches, and he dons a red clown nose when doing what is essentially the world’s earliest knock-knock joke. The other two witches shine flashlights on him from below, creating an eerie effect, with the Porter’s shadow moving on the back wall. This scene has a much darker tone than usual. The Porter does remove the red nose before Macduff and Lennox enter. There is the usual physical representation of the “desire/performance” line, with the Porter using his arm to illustrate the joke on impotence.

Duncan and the two men accused of the murder step behind Macbeth as ghosts when Macbeth describes the scene and how he dispatched the two murderers. Then, interestingly, Duncan’s ghost doubles as Old Man in Act II Scene iv, with his head covered. The witches gather around him, and all of them speak the Old Man’s line, “’Tis said they eat each other.” Duncan then uncovers his face for “That would make good of bad, and friends of foes.” This isn’t really an instance of an actor playing two roles. It’s more of a character playing another role, which is interesting. Duncan’s continued presence works to make this a more haunting production, and helps to stress the feeling that Macbeth cannot escape what he has done. Then, later, after Banquo is killed, Duncan and the others go to him, and help him up, as he joins the ranks of those murdered on behalf of Macbeth. Yes, this production has sort of an army of the dead, which grows as the play goes on, and they all enter during Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene. Lady Macbeth is excellent in that scene, and the ghosts are used to good effect, particularly when Lady Macbeth seems to see the ghost of Macduff’s Son and directs her lines “Come, give me your hand” and “What’s done cannot be undone” to him. Again, that stresses her own missing child, and is both chilling and sad.

Interestingly, during the witches’ famous “Double, double, toil and trouble” scene, all of the ingredients they mention are simply imagined. It’s odd that all ghostly items have a physical presence, yet the ingredients of the spell do not. The stage smoke comes from upstage rather than from their cauldron. The apparitions and the line of kings are included in this production, and done in an intriguing way, with large, clear representations of each held on pikes.

The costumes are a mix of time periods, though all are of dark and somber colors. The production also has both swords and pistols (the pistol shots are quite jarring). And there are flashlights used by cast members at various points in the production. Because of the dark clothing, there is a wonderful contrast with the red on their hands after the murders. And then when Macbeth has gained the throne, both he and Lady Macbeth have red in their new, royal clothing, a nice touch, as they achieved the throne through blood. The red of her clothing is brighter, richer, than the more muted red tone of Macbeth’s cloak, another interesting touch as at this moment it seems Lady Macbeth is more in control. There is also a nice image when Lady Macbeth is seated on the throne, and Macbeth is seated in front of her at her feet. She is clearly more comfortable than he is. By the way, this production uses the 18th century emendation “scotch’d the snake” rather than “scorch’d the snake.”

There are some blocking issues. For example, early on when Macbeth learns that he is now Thane Of Cawdor, he turns up stage so quickly that we don’t see his immediate reaction to that news, which is a shame, particularly as he is standing downstage at that moment. Then when Malcolm is named Prince of Cumberland, Macbeth is standing in the audience facing upstage, so you have to look over to him to get his reaction. The biggest sight line issue regarding the blocking is that with the ghosts standing around the stage, Macbeth is blocked from the view of several audience members during the play’s most famous and heart-rending speech (“tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”).

Almost the entire cast is strong. Banquo, in particular, has some excellent moments. There is a nice pause before his line, “I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters,” like he’s unsure he wants to bring it up but then can’t help it, adding to the power of the ghostly elements of the production. However, the casting of a woman as Donalbain doesn’t quite work, especially as the production retains the lines about “the king’s two sons.” And she and the man playing Malcolm look absolutely nothing like the actor playing Duncan.

As always, there are some cuts. Act III Scene v, as usual, is cut. Also, though Banquo is present for the feast, he does not take a seat, and so the lines pertaining to the full table are cut. Macbeth’s fight with Young Siward is cut, so Macbeth’s only fight is with Macduff.

As with Independent Shakespeare Company’s 2013 production, this production ends where it began, with the witches once again asking “When shall we three meet again?” This production, however, continues the scene until “There to meet with-” And so we are left with the impression that the troubles are not quite over, but also wondering precisely who it is that the witches will be involved with next.

Macbeth was directed by Larry Carpenter. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III Scene iv. This production of Macbeth runs through May 11, 2014. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena. There is free parking at the Metro Parking Structure.

(Note: I also posted this review on Pop Culture Beast.)

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Shakespeare References in Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis’ 2005 novel, Lunar Park, opens with a passage from Hamlet:

     From the table of my memory
     I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
     All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
     That youth and observation copied there.

Those lines are from Act I Scene v, and are spoken by Hamlet after the Ghost of his father exits.

It completely makes sense that Bret Easton Ellis would include a bit of Hamlet at the beginning of a novel where the specter of the main character’s father plays such an important part. And in fact, there are several other nods to Hamlet throughout the play, in the names of places. For example, the local mall is the Fortinbras Mall, and the local park is Horatio Park. There is a motel called the Orsic Motel (which is quite close to the name Osric in the play). And much of the story takes place on Elsinore Lane.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Henry V (2nd Stage 2014 Production) Theatre Review

In Shakespeare’s day when people talked of going to the theatre, they said they were going to hear a play, not see it. That tells us the focus was on the words, on the poetry of the piece, and not so much on the spectacle. From what we know, the Elizabethan theatre did not have grand set designs or use a lot of set pieces. These were painted with words, and with the imaginations of those in the audience.

That is especially true of Henry The Fifth, with the part of the Chorus telling us as much, and asking us to fill in with our minds what could not be brought physically onto the stage. And so in that way the new 2nd Stage Production of Henry V seems very much in keeping with the traditions of Shakespeare, though it is done in modern dress.

The theatre, part of the Pacific Resident Theatre, is one of those small, black-box theatres. It is a very small space, which of course provides an intimate experience for the audience. But this company really makes the most of the space they have. Somehow the stage never felt cramped.

It does always feel a little weird to me when companies do modern dress versions of the histories. After all, these plays are about very specific people who lived at very specific times. But this production makes it work, and they do it right from the moment the house is opened. When the audience enters, David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” is playing. The actors are on the stage, as actors, not yet the characters, and so it is natural that they are in modern dress. There is a large card table and several chairs on the stage. There is a folder ladder leaning upstage. Through an upstage curtain we can see into the backstage area, with the makeup mirrors and flowers on the counter. At the start of the show, someone calls from the back of the house, “Places everyone.” One of the actors in the backstage area asks, “Morgan, what was that?

The actors begin all seated around the table, and one actor picks up a copy of Shakespeare’s play and begins to read it: “O, for a muse of fire.” And suddenly he becomes the Chorus, and puts down the text. He acknowledges the small space with the line “Can this cockpit/Hold the vasty fields of France?” And the line gets a knowing laugh from the other actors as well as the audience. And then suddenly on “two mighty monarchies,” the actors jump up, splitting into two groups, and moving the table and chairs as well. The sudden movement is startling and exciting.

I love the way the Chorus interacts with the others players at first as players and then as characters. It feels very natural and fluid, and works to pull us right into the play. And in further speeches by the Chorus, the company helps to create the scene that he describes. For example, when he talks about the “fleet majestical,” the others create a boat from the table and chairs, moving with the waves.

This production stresses King Henry’s youth and his spotty past, and does so in several ways. First, the actor is dressed in a Slayer T-shirt. But also, this production makes much use of both parts of King Henry The Fourth, which works to show Henry’s progress and development. After the opening Chorus, we actually go back to The First Part Of King Henry The Fourth, when Falstaff asks Prince Hal, “shall there be gallows standing in England when thou art king,” and the friends are gathered around. This is happening stage left, while stage right is Henry IV, speaking lines from The Second Part Of King Henry The Fourth: “O my poor kingdom! Sick with civil blows.” And then Prince Hal leaves the group stage left and goes to speak to his father, to kneel beside him, which is a really nice moment. We get the crowning of Henry V, and his subsequent turning away of Falstaff.

The production then moves to Henry V, with that great long speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the French claim. This speech is delivered partly to the audience. Interestingly, in the middle of the speech, we go briefly back to Henry IV giving advice to Prince Hal (“busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”), working almost like a flashback does in film, as those lines directly pertain to the matter at hand. And, as it should, the “clear as is the summer’s sun” line draws a big laugh.

After the treasure is revealed to be tennis balls, there is a nice long pause before Henry V laughs and says, “We are glad the dauphin is so pleasant with us.” Joe McGovern as Henry V really does a great job with this scene. He turns around, so the messenger starts to leave, then stops her with the “rackets” line. The messenger had left up the aisle in the middle of the audience, so then Henry delivers his great speech out toward the audience.

There is a bit more from The First Part Of King Henry The Fourth with Falstaff before we get the reactions to Falstaff’s death. By the way, that scene is done really well. I particularly enjoyed Joan Chodorow’s performance as Mistress Quickly. Even after Falstaff’s death, his presence is felt throughout the production, as is Henry The Fourth’s. And this of course acts as a reminder of Henry The Fifth’s past and his youth, and actually works to keep his youth as an element in the present, in his present decisions as king.

This entire cast is quite strong. Most of them play multiple roles throughout the production, and without costume changes they are able to make each character distinct so that there is no confusion about who is who. Alex Fernandez is excellent as the Chorus, and then he so easily makes the transition into Westmoreland. Dennis Madden does a splendid job of creating two very distinct characters in Falstaff and the French King, especially physically. Oscar Best is also wonderful as Exeter. When speaking to the Dauphin, he pointedly pronounces his name as “Dolphin,” which is interesting, as that is actually the spelling used throughout the play in the First Folio. Joe McGovern chooses his moments well to let Henry’s youth be shown. For example, I love the natural, playful delivery on “excess of wine.”

Carole Weyers and Joan Chordorow are both absolutely delightful as Katharine and Alice in the English lesson scene. The scene has just the right comedic flair. Alice crosses herself before saying the dirty-sounding words. Terrance Elton is wonderful as the Dauphin, particularly when talking about his horse. He is so clearly completely in love with the animal. And Michael Prichard’s response as the Constable is perfect, with that pause between “excellent” and “horse.” The Constable gives serious, straight deliveries of all those funny lines about the Dauphin.

Norman Scott is great as Pistol, especially when pleading for his friend’s life and in the scene in the camp with the disguised Henry (though I could do without him flipping Henry off – that somehow didn’t feel right). Yancy Holmes is really good as Gower, giving that character a wonderful energy.

The production moves at a quick pace. That, of course, is helped by the lack of set changes. And though it moves quickly, it never really feels rushed.

There are some cuts, of course. Cambridge and Grey are cut, and so Scroop is the only traitor. Interestingly, he tries to attack Henry and is subdued before confessing his fault. Henry looks away when proclaiming his death sentence, facing the audience, and so we are able to see how hard this is on him. Also, Bardolph is cut (though still mentioned), so it is Nym that is to be executed in this production. That scene actually provides another flashback moment with Falstaff, when he gives his famous speech about not being banished. Henry gives that great reply: “I do, I will.” The lighting then returns to normal, and Henry turns to Nym for “We would have all such offenders so cut off.” It works really well, and is actually one of the production’s strongest, most poignant moments.

Bates and Court are cut, and so Williams alone talks with Henry in the camp scene. Henry comes across as angry in this scene, and he becomes angrier as the scene progresses, leading to the bit with the gloves. However, the scene where Henry asks Fluellen to wear the glove in his cap is cut, so the resolution of the gloves is a bit awkward.

But the only cut that I really wish had not been made was the beginning of Act IV Scene vii, regarding the killing of the boys. For me, it’s one of the most moving moments of the play, especially as it leads to Henry’s fury and the lines: “I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant.” What’s wonderful about that is that it’s immediately followed by Montjoy’s entrance telling Henry that the day is his. Because of Henry’s despair and anger, he is unable to enjoy the victory in that moment. And I think Shakespeare is making an important point about war here.

The production does do an interesting thing with that moment in place of those lines, using white papers and then red papers thrown over a slow-motion battle moment, which works as well (and seems to me to be a nod to the War of the Roses which would soon engulf England). And I do love that Montjoy is left along on stage for a moment, overlooking the field of battle. Tracie Lockwood as Montjoy is particular great in that scene.

The last scene of Henry V is a difficult one to do, because the tone is so different. But this cast handles it quite well. I love Henry’s casual, honest, plain delivery on “Do you like me, Kate?” The Slayer T-shirt works to make us think of him as Hal again rather than as a king in the wooing scene, giving the scene a sort of youthful, awkward element. (Which makes their sudden parting on “Here comes your father” work, as if they’re teenagers who’ve been caught.) And I love that the scene is allowed to play out. The stuff about the kiss plays really well. And the way this production ends the play is perfect.

There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene vi. This production of Henry V was directed by Guillermo Cienfuegos, and is scheduled to run through March 23rd. The Pacific Resident Theatre is located at 707 Venice Blvd. in Venice.

(Note: The run of this production has been extended through April 20, 2014.)