Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Taming Of The Shrew (Independent Shakespeare Company’s 2014 Production) Theatre Review

I always look forward to seeing productions by the Independent Shakespeare Company, to seeing what they’ll bring to each play. And I had an absolutely wonderful time at their Thursday, August 21st performance of The Taming Of The Shrew.

I was a little sad to find that they cut the Induction. I know that those first two scenes are almost always cut, but their exclusion certainly changes the tone of the play itself. And I thought that this company (if anybody) might actually keep those scenes in. That being said, the group was quickly off and running, and any disappointment at that cut was soon gone.

Tranio and Lucentio enter through the audience at the start of the play. This company always makes great use of the outdoor park setting, and of the audience itself. At one point, Lucentio and Bianca go into the audience to make out (which they actually did on my blanket – it’s always good to be in the front). And later, Katherine, hungry, comes out into the audience, desperate for food, and angry when none is offered to her.

Music plays a role in this production, with a pianist/accordion-player and a singer as an important presence on stage (the singer later becomes the Widow). And when we first meet Hortensio, he is wooing Bianca with a song (accompanied by the man on accordion).

There is certainly a lot of physical humor in this production, and quite a bit of silly business, as when Lucentio and Tranio exchange clothes. Later, when Lucentio gives Bianca a lesson, they blow soap bubbles. Most of the silliness works, the only exception being that whenever Petruchio mentions his deceased father, everyone on stage crosses himself (it gets a laugh, but is certainly one of the weaker jokes).

This production uses somewhat modern dress, like early twentieth century, with Tranio carrying a camera in his first scene. Lucentio is in a yellow suit and hat with a pink shirt. When Lucentio is disguised as a scholar, he wears a black graduation gown and glasses, and of course carries a stack of books. Likewise, when Hortensio enters disguised, he wears a graduation robe (along with a fake moustache). And at one point, Bianca and Lucentio wear roller skates. Grumio’s clown-like attributes are stressed in this production, and he wears red pants and a jacket with patches on the elbows. Petruchio himself seems fairly well off judging by his suit.

While Petruchio boasts, “Have I not in my time heard lions roar,” Grumio (Richard Azurdia) imitates a lion. And he goes on to imitate the wind and so on. Petruchio is so delighted with himself, getting a bit carried away, and it’s a wonderful moment. The entire cast is fairly strong, and everyone has moments in which he or she shines. I love Hortensio’s spot-on delivery when he tells Petruchio about Katherine’s only fault. And Tranio is hilarious when he enters disguised as Lucentio, greatly exaggerating his state. And as the play goes on, he gets more and more into his role as Lucentio and is absolutely delightful. André Martin turns in an excellent performance as Tranio, as does Sean Pritchett as Lucentio.

But the best performances are by the production’s two leads – Luis Galindo as Petruchio, and Melissa Chalsma as Katherine. Katherine has a flask in her garter when we first see her. She wears a red dress with a black lace top over it, showing her vibrant and fiery personality. She is clearly jealous of the gifts Bianca receives, as it one such gift which leads her to bind Bianca at the beginning of Act II (we see her bind Bianca, rather than Bianca entering already bound).

Bianca proves to be feisty too, fighting back while tied to the chair. But then when Baptista enters, she quickly changes her disposition and starts crying to elicit his sympathy and help. This is a wonderful touch, because it hints at the play’s ending. Erika Soto does a great job of making Bianca a more complete character. And I like that Bianca is clearly attracted to the disguised Lucentio. I also love Bianca’s reading of “The taming-school! what, is there such a place?” Her delivery indicates a certain amount of worry that it exists, that it might be something she herself will have to go through.

I was glad to see a variation on the broken lute. The lute in this case is a guitar, and when Hortensio says, “she hath broke the lute to me,” he holds up the guitar to show a large hole in it, rather than entering with it on his head. And Petruchio’s reaction is wonderful.

There is an excellent moment when Katherine and Petruchio first meet, sizing each other up silently. Petruchio’s compliment “Yet not so deeply as to thee belongs” is delivered honestly, and as such it clearly affects Katherine, which is nice. (This production does a really good and careful job of building their relationship, their attraction to each other.) She does go to strike him a second time, and he grabs her wrist to stop her. Petruchio then holds Katherine over his lap, and after “passing gentle,” he spanks her. I love Katherine’s delivery of “Call you me daughter…wed to one half lunatic.” Katherine throws things at Petruchio and dumps water on him from a watering can, which he delightfully ignores, throwing her into even more of a rage. It’s a fantastic scene, and the cast really shines.

Baptista keeps notes as Gremio lists off what he has to offer Bianca. When Gremio says, “And may not young men die as well as old,” he casually pulls out a knife and pares his nails. I love this, because it indicates there is still life and still a fight in the older man, which is necessary for him to believe he has any chance at all with the young Bianca. Gremio’s line “Petruchio is Kated” is delivered as a joke, which falls flat with the other characters on stage – a nice touch.

For the wedding scene, Petruchio enters from within the audience. Grumio plays his horse, stealing the coconuts bit from Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Petruchio enters in a black coat with patches on the elbows (drawing parallels to Grumio’s clown-like quality), a black top hat and red bow tie. And on “thus I’ll visit her,” he removes his jacket and shirt. And then on “even thus,” he takes off his pants, revealing some sort of jungle attire. And when he turns about, he elicits a huge laugh from the audience (you'll just have to see it). After the wedding, Grumio wears a “Just Married” sign and tin cans when he enters, followed by Petruchio and Katherine. Petruchio puts Katherine on Grumio’s back. He then returns with a giant whip (the first use of it in this production). I know it’s expected, but I was just a bit disappointed when it appeared. But it’s used very sparingly in this production.

The dialogue between Grumio and Curtis in Act III Scene iii is done with Grumio grunting and making other noises to answer Curtis’ questions regarding Katherine. Katherine then enters in disarray, followed by Petruchio with the giant whip. As usual, the Haberdasher is cut, and the Tailor presents both the hat and the dress. I love Katherine’s pointed and precise delivery of “Love me or love me not, I like the hat.” This production does a good job of finding moments of shared joy between Katherine and Petruchio, as when they both laugh toward the end of the Tailor’s scene. And it is very clear when Katherine catches on to the game. When Katherine says to Vincentio, “bedazzled with the sun,” she looks at Petruchio as she stresses “the sun.” And her big speech at the end (one that is rather difficult in modern times) is handled really well.

There is one twenty-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene ii. This production of The Taming Of The Shrew was directed by David Melville. There are a few more opportunities to see this play before the season ends. Visit the company’s website for the schedule.

By the way, the company has shirts for sale. Here is what the front looks like:

Friday, August 8, 2014

Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark (Shakespeare By The Sea 2014 Production) Theatre Review

Shakespeare By The Sea performs each year at various locations around Los Angeles. This year the company is performing both Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. On August 6th, they performed Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. This marked the first time the company has played at this location.

The set for this production is a black wood platform with two main levels. At the top is a large flat in the shape of a cracked mirror, with a raven perched atop it (a reference to Hamlet's line, "the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge" in Act III). This is not the first Hamlet production to have a cracked mirror as a dominant image, of course, but it’s effective. On either side of the stage is a post with black tattered cloth attached to it, blowing in the slight breeze. The costuming is traditional, which is actually refreshing after seeing several modern-dress versions.

The company begins this production with a funeral procession for the king, thus allowing for most of the characters to be on stage right from the start. Hamlet (Cylan Brown) is downstage center, standing over his father’s corpse, with the rest of the company behind him. Gertrude and Claudius stand united just behind him, and the crown is place on Claudius’ head. So the scene acts as funeral, wedding and coronation, very quickly and clearly establishing the current situation. It’s a wonderful stage image as well.

This goes right into Act I Scene ii, thus skipping the first scene with the Ghost, where Bernardo and Marcellus take Horatio to witness its appearance. All talk of Fortinbras and Norway is cut. When Gertrude tells Hamlet to “let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark,” she indicates Claudius, which is a nice touch. Interestingly, on Hamlet’s “customary suits of solemn black,” the Ghost stands up and exits stage right, then moves behind the mirror, overlooking the scene (the Ghost plays a prominent part in this production). Ophelia (Olivia Delgado) exits last, having a brief moment with Hamlet before his “too too solid flesh” speech. By doing so, this production establishes Ophelia's love for Hamlet very early, and then strengthens it by having her clearly not happy to receive Laertes' advice. Because the first scene was cut, Horatio’s “Where, my lord?” (in response to Hamlet saying that he thinks he sees his father) doesn’t really carry much weight or impact. Also, because that first scene is cut, we don't really know whether to believe Horatio when he tells Hamlet that he saw his father.

By Laertes and Ophelia’s reactions when Polonius (Charles M. Howell) begins his famous speech, it’s clear they’ve heard it before. And they then both mouth “For the apparel oft proclaims the man” behind his back.

I really like the way a lot of the relationships in this production are established. For example, after Hamlet speaks with the Ghost, he clearly wants to tell Horatio more, but doesn’t trust Marcellus and Bernardo. (And we know from the text that later Hamlet does tell Horatio much more in some off-stage scene.) It seems by their looks that Horatio and the others don’t hear the Ghost’s “Swear.” They put their hands on Hamlet’s sword, which leads nicely to Hamlet’s “Rest, rest, perturbed spirit.”

Before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter, this production gives us a moment of affection between Claudius and Gertrude. When Polonius gets partway into his speech, Claudius and Gertrude sit down, realizing this will take some time. There are some interesting variations here. Polonius has Ophelia read Hamlet’s letter, rather than reading it himself. Ophelia also says, “I did repel his letters,” as Claudius asks her directly rather than speaking to Polonius (perhaps in an effort to avoid another lengthy reply). Ophelia reacts strongly to Polonius’ “I’ll loose my daughter to him,” clearly surprised by this plan. This production creates something of a relationship between Gertrude and Ophelia, some affection, for it is to Gertrude that Ophelia looks to put a stop to this plan.

Hamlet’s crab impression in his dialogue with Polonius is delightful. His reading of “except my life” is done more to himself, coming as a sudden realization to him. And it leads to the “To be or not to be” speech (moved from Act III). Ophelia enters upstage before “undiscovered country,” thus hearing much of his speech. Ophelia looks toward the mirror when she says she has remembrances of his, so Hamlet looks to it as well. She also speaks that line loudly, as if to make Polonius and Claudius hear it. Ophelia is on her knees, reduced to tears, by the time Hamlet exits. Her love for him is, again, quite clear in this production. Later, during the play scene, she is delighted to receive the compliment, “here’s metal more attractive,” which is a nice choice. And then her “Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord,” is delivered with concern for Hamlet’s health and his state of mind.

It is after Claudius’ “Madness in great ones must not unwatch’d go” that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter. This production creates a strong bond between Hamlet and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which is apparent from the moment that Hamlet first sees them. The three of them immediately play a game of fake swordplay, clearly something they’ve done in the past. He is truly happy to see them, which I think is wonderful, particularly because it makes later scenes with them much more serious. Hamlet is again playful with them when he learns the players are coming.

The players are all men, but the all the lines about the beard and so on are cut, and almost immediately Hamlet asks for that speech. First Player is not the oldest, most experienced player, as is usually done. First Player actually seems a bit nervous when Hamlet mentions inserting a speech, which is odd. He should be excited, because this means he and the others have work. 

In addition to some serious cuts, there is also a bit of re-ordering of scenes. This production goes right from the end of Act II (“The play’s the thing…”) to Hamlet telling Horatio of the play, and then back to Hamlet’s advice to the players. So two days become one, and all of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lines to Claudius and Gertrude at the beginning of Act III are cut. The dumb show is also cut. By the way, Cyan Brown is absolutely excellent in the play scene. Interestingly, the player murderer gives his lines while the player king is resting his head in the player queen’s lap, hinting that at this point Hamlet thinks Gertrude may be involved in his father's murder. It’s a wonderful way of doing it. Hamlet then gets so excited that he takes the stage and pours the poison himself. Hamlet has always seemed like someone who wanted to be an actor, and in this production he actually becomes involved in the play, which works really well. On “I lack advancement,” Hamlet puts on the player’s crown.

For the closet scene, Gertrude enters, drinking, then hands the cup to Polonius before Hamlet enters. Hamlet actually draws his dagger, causing Gertrude to say: “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?” Hamlet holds it to her throat, which is really interesting, as he’s just failed to take action with Claudius. It’s almost like he might make up for his inaction by doing a much worse action. And then of course, he does – in the killing of Polonius. There is a lot of really good stuff in this production’s take on the closet scene. When Hamlet pulls out his father’s portrait, Gertrude looks at it with affection, which is really interesting. And then later in the scene Hamlet gives his necklace with his father’s portrait to Gertrude. It’s a nice touch, and shows a strong connection between mother and son. When Claudius kisses Gertrude, she backs away, so in this production it is very clear that she believes what Hamlet has told her and is going to follow his advice.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern draw swords on Hamlet when trying to discover the location of Polonius’ body. Hamlet disarms them both, which works as a demonstration of his skill before his fight with Laertes. Of course, it does present a bit of a problem, because now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can’t possibly think that Hamlet will trust them on their journey to England. But it makes it interesting when Hamlet commands them, “Come, for England!” This production adds a moment where Ophelia watches Hamlet depart, and it’s nice to see her a bit ragged before the full-on mad scenes.

One of the production's most unfortunate cuts, however, is her first mad scene. It’s gone completely, and so Laertes enters before we see Ophelia’s state. That’s a shame, for it’s much stronger when everyone else on stage and in the audience is aware of what has befallen Ophelia before Laertes learns. Laertes has come back out of anger regarding his father’s death, and then is struck another blow when he sees his sister. But without that first scene, the audience learns of this at the same time that Laertes does. I think Ophelia is one of the toughest roles in all of Shakespeare’s works, and it’s particularly difficult to pull off the mad scenes. It doesn’t quite work in this production, but again, that might be in part because of the cutting of the first scene. Also, when Ophelia hands out the flowers (and they are flowers in this production), she at first looks out over the audience rather than directly at the people she is addressing. It’s always more intense when she holds their stare, making them even more uncomfortable. If she looks away, it’s easier for others to keep their distance.

As I mentioned before, this production creates a strong bond between Gertrude and Ophelia, and after Ophelia exits, Gertrude rushes after her. That is a nice touch, and helps to explain perhaps how Gertrude is able to give such a vivid description of her doom later. The problem, however, is that then she is not present for Claudius’ “And where th’ offence is let the great axe fall,” a line which allows for a revealing reaction from Gertrude.

Interestingly, when Gertrude does enter to tell of Ophelia’s fate, she is holding flowers and carrying herself in a similar way to Ophelia, almost like she has taken on something of the girl’s spirit. She even wears a pale blue ribbon (a color associated with Ophelia in this production) and a flower in her hair, implying that their connection was even stronger.

There is some more re-ordering of scenes, with Hamlet telling Horatio about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern before the graveyard scene. And with the production’s many cuts, it was a surprise (and a delight) to find both gravediggers present. Much of their early dialogue is left in, including the bit about Adam having arms, and the bit about the gravedigger being the strongest of builders. Though the actor playing the main gravedigger is much too young for the part. After all, he has had the job for thirty years. The skull used in this production has the lower jaw intact. Oddly, the gravedigger exits when Hamlet talks about Yorick. (All of the lines about Alexander and Caesar are cut.)

Claudius doesn’t encourage Laertes in his anger toward Hamlet in the funeral scene, and even holds him back, which is strange. After all, if Laertes attacks and perhaps kills Hamlet here, it saves Claudius from having to be more directly involved. Also odd is that he directs the line “This grave shall have a living monument” at Hamlet.

The sword fight is done really well, with some interesting choices. In fact, right at the beginning, when Laertes says “Let me see another,” regarding the foils, Hamlet gives Laertes the sword he had chosen, exchanging his sword for that of Laertes. And the fight itself is quite good, done with sword and dagger. Another wonderful surprise is that Claudius actually cries over Gertrude’s body. He doesn’t even really try to save himself, and it seems that she was the main reason he committed his murder, not the crown.

Fortinbras is completely cut from this production, but Horatio still speaks some of the lines that in the text he says to Fortinbras. And then he actually delivers some of Fortinbras’ lines (the final lines of the play as written) before saying his own lines: “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

The cast is quite good, and in particular Cylan Brown really gives an excellent performance as Hamlet, making strong choices throughout.

One problem I do have with this production is its use of music throughout the performance. There are times when it is intrusive, and detracts from rather than adds to the production. I think they need to trust the text and the actors to carry the performance. Music is fine before the show, at intermission, and perhaps at certain key moments. But, for example, I wish it didn’t play during the “What a piece of work is a man” speech. Not that music plays at all moments. For me, the strongest moments are when the music doesn’t interfere.

The pace feels a bit rushed at times. Much is cut from the text, as this performance runs approximately an hour and fifty minutes. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene ii (so, the total length of the evening is just over two hours). This production of Hamlet, Prince Of Denmark was directed by Stephanie Coltrin. There are a few more performances of this play, so check the company's web site for the schedule.