Sunday, July 16, 2017

Measure For Measure (Independent Shakespeare Company’s 2017 Production) Theatre Review

Summer in Los Angeles means free Shakespeare at Griffith Park. This year the Independent Shakespeare Company is putting on Measure For Measure and The Two Gentlemen Of Verona. Measure For Measure is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays on the page, but I hadn’t seen a live production before this one. My schedule this summer is nutty, leaving me just one day off between my Boston trip and starting a new job, and it was that day – July 5th – that I managed to catch a performance of Measure For Measure. Only now do I have time to actually sit down and write about it. Sorry for the delay.

The set had a deliberately hodgepodge yet sturdy look to it, with several doors, each painted a different color, with nothing matching, as if the whole thing had been put together over a long period of time with whatever materials had been available. Before the show, pop and rock tunes played at low volume over the speakers – songs like Electric Light Orchestra’s “Livin’ Thing” and “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head,” and Badfinger’s “Come And Get It.” As it got close to show time, several of the actors mingled with the audience. And then, just after 7 p.m., one of them announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Mistress Overdone’s house of ill repute is open for business.” Immediately, a sort of party atmosphere was established, one which the audience felt a part of. The reading of the park rules was offered as a way to introduce the audience to the feel of Vienna, with the actors saying that the Duke lets the people get away with anything, but no smoking or photography during the performance. After the obligatory thanks to the sponsors, the show was underway.

Measure For Measure is considered to be one of Shakespeare’s tougher plays. It is a comedy that features characters who do rather despicable things. Particularly problematic is Duke Vicentio, here played by David Melville. At the beginning of the play, he bestows his power on Angelo, hoping that Angelo’s puritan nature will help put a stop to the general lawlessness of the citizens. But Vicentio doesn’t really leave, but rather disguises himself as a holy man and goes about manipulating the action. In the course of the play, he engages in questionable behavior. I found, in reading the play, that I did not like this character at all. However, David manages to show a playful side to his actions, and plays the role (at most points) for comedy, giving him a more human touch. When he tells Angelo, “There’s your commission,” he grabs his suitcase to hurry off, until Angelo stops him. Angelo (William Elsman) is immediately shown as uptight – by his wardrobe and posture, by the way he carries himself. And I appreciate that the production takes the time to show he is reluctant to take on the burdens of leadership. He is not a power-hungry man, and William Elsman does an excellent job of showing the character’s own conflict and turmoil with regards to his charge.

In this production, Mistress Overdone is played by a man (Xavi Moreno), which of course was the normal way it was done in Shakespeare’s day. But here – with the other female roles played by women – it gives the character an extra layer of playful bawdiness, a greater sense of anything goes, and a delightful sexuality. Those that enter with Overdone have a fun, loose feel, dressed in bright colors. Lucio (Nikhil Pai) is a bit foppish in his purple suit, stroking his walking stick. Many of this company’s productions will toss in modern references, usually done by the clown characters who are somewhat freed from constrictions anyway. In Measure For Measure, it is the clown Pompey (Lorenzo Gonzalez) who delivers these modern references, telling the audience that “What happens in Vienna no longer stays in Vienna.” He also makes references to CSI and Law And Order, and delivers a play on the song “Bad To The Bone,” as well as making references to Donald Trump. Interestingly, what seemed a modern reference – Vicentio telling the Friar that he is believed to be in Poland – is actually in the text (Donald Trump left for Poland the very day I saw this production). And again when Angelo says “This will last out a night in Russia,” what might seem to an added reference to Trump is actually part of the text. This play has a second goofy character, Elbow, the constable, here played delightfully by Richard Azurdia. His whole bit about choosing the wrong words, leading him to say he detests his wife, is done wonderfully.

Isabella is tough character to play. Is her purity and chastity something to be commended even if it means the death of her brother, or is she too cold, as Lucio says more than once? We can’t help but agree with Lucio the first time he tells her that, for she seems to have given up so easily in her suit for her brother’s life, saying “I had a brother then,” a line which I find funny. William Elsman is excellent in this scene, particularly in his reactions to Isabella’s “judge you as you are” and “Dress’d in a little brief authority,” showing us he is well aware of himself and his situation. And he tries to leave before bowing to his own attraction to her. His “Well, come to me tomorrow” is delivered with some affection. And his “What’s this? What’s this? Is this her fault or mine?” is funny and perfect. Lucio’s asides are shouted as encouragement to Isabella from the safe distance of the audience, a humorous touch.

But it is their next scene together where both Elsman as Angelo and Kalean Ung as Isabella really shine. In his soliloquy at the beginning of the scene, Elsman gives a slight pause before the word “pride,” as he doesn’t want to admit that, even to himself, but must. And when Isabella enters, we can plainly see Angelo’s struggle. This is important, if we are to continue to like this character. He gives a great delivery of “Or seem so craftily, that’s not good.” This scene is difficult, and both actors do an excellent job with it. Their performances and the way they approach the scene make it clear to the audience just how relevant this situation still is. And I love Kalean Ung’s reaction when her brother Claudio (Evan Lewis Smith) says “but to die, and go we know not where,” for it seems to her that he is questioning the very existence of an afterlife, one of her core beliefs.

One of the play’s big questions is just how Isabella reacts to the Duke’s marriage proposal. Shakespeare gives her no lines there, and that can be interpreted many ways. In this production, we see fairly early on the affection that Isabella has for the Duke as she speaks of him, so that the happy ending doesn’t come out of nowhere. Isabella is surprised at the Duke’s sudden suit, and is not given a chance to respond. Then, when he repeats his intentions, she accepts by silently, happily taking his hand. As for the bed trick, this production handles it quite well. First of all, April Fritz as Mariana is approximately the same height as Isabella, so it is believable that one might be mistaken for the other. And also, a short scene without dialogue is added, in which Mariana hands Angelo a blindfold, which he puts on before she leads him away.

Though a lot of this production is hilarious, I found that some of the more serious moments were among the best. As I mentioned, that scene between Isabella and Angelo was particularly noteworthy, with Elsman delivering an astounding performance.

There is one fifteen-minute intermission, coming partway through Act III Scene i, just after Isabella’s line, “Fare you well, good father.” And just before the end of intermission, some of the cast jokes a bit to allow folks time to get back to their seats. The performance ended at 9:47 p.m.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Yellow Sky (1948) DVD Review

Yellow Sky is a western starring Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter and Richard Widmark. It is very loosely based on The Tempest. As the title card at the beginning tells us, it takes place in “The West – 1867.” We hear sounds of an approaching storm as several men ride on horseback through unfamiliar territory. It is a storm that ends up not coming from the sky, but from within the men themselves. They visit a town and go to a saloon, but they are really there to rob a bank, which they do. As they ride out to the land they’d visited earlier after the robbery, one of them is shot in the chase, leaving six to escape across a harsh desert.

After several days in the desert, and the loss of a horse, they see a town in the distance. (By the way, there are some excellent wide shots of them in the desert, showing the men small against a great landscape.) But as they approach the town, they find it deserted. A sign tells them the name of the town is Yellow Sky. They all collapse in defeat. But soon they realize they are not completely alone. A young woman named Constance Mae (nicknamed Mike) stands over them with a gun. When they ask for water, she directs them to a spring. She lives with her grandfather in a house at the other end of town. Though she is the Miranda character in this story, she’s able to handle herself around men, and is a pretty good shot with a rifle. When she arrived in this area, she was just a baby, according to her grandfather, just as Miranda was young when she arrived on the island in The Tempest. Her grandfather is the Prospero character, but there is no magic in this adaptation. There is no Ariel, and there are no other spirits. There is not even a Caliban. There are some Apaches who arrive, and who are friends with Mike’s grandfather, and who follow his direction.

The six men believe that the Mike and her grandfather are hiding gold, and they aim to take all of it, though James Dawson (Gregory Peck) promises the grandfather that they will only take half of it. He has a change of heart after realizing that the grandfather kept them from being hurt by the Apaches, and decides to only take half as he’d promised. The other men aren’t too keen on that decision, however. And so of course there is some gun fighting. A couple of the men are more comical, especially Walrus, who is like Stephano in his appreciation of the drink.

By the end, Mike and her grandfather have become friendly with a few of the men, and the film has a happy ending. Though the connections to the Shakespeare play are loose, Yellow Sky is actually a really good film.

Yellow Sky was directed by William A. Wellman. The DVD includes three still galleries, including one of the promotional materials, one of production photos and one of behind-the-scenes photos. The film’s trailer is also included.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

A Thousand Acres (1997) DVD Review

A Thousand Acres is an adaptation of King Lear set on a farm. The film is based on the novel by Jane Smiley, which in turn is based on Shakespeare’s play. In going from book to film, it actually loses more of the elements that tie it to the play. For example, Harold – the Gloucester character – is not blinded in the film; Loren – the Edgar character – doesn’t really have a part; Ginny – the film’s Goneril – doesn’t attempt to poison Rose – the Regan character. As in the book, the film is from Ginny’s perspective, and there is quite a bit of narration from her character. In the beginning she tells us that Caroline – the Cordelia character – left the farm after school and became a lawyer, but that she and Rose stayed on. A problem I had with the book is that I didn’t care for any of the characters. That problem remains in the film version, though there is a good cast, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Jessica Lange, Jason Robards, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Colin Firth.

Larry (Jason Robards), in order to avoid inheritance taxes, decides to form a corporation, and each of his three daughters will receive a third of the farm, and will run the business. Ginny and Rose immediately take to the idea, but the youngest daughter, Caroline, says she’ll think about it. Larry overreacts, telling her: “If you don’t want it, my girl, you’re out. Simple as that.” In voice over, Ginny talks about her father’s pride being hurt. Ginny tries to convince Caroline to accept their father’s offer, but when Caroline shows up at the house, Larry closes the door in her face. So the farm is divided in half, between Ginny and Rose, as Lear’s kingdom is divided in half between Goneril and Regan. But after this, Larry just remains seated at his window, angrily watching how his land is being used, and questioning it.

Ginny and Rose talk about setting rules for their father, especially after Larry ends up in the hospital after a drunk driving accident. A severe thunder storm rolls in, and Larry lashes out at Ginny and Rose, calling Ginny a bitch, and saying he’d rather stay out in the storm than go home. The daughters tell him he’s on his own, and there is a hint of something darker between them. As in King Lear, Larry curses his oldest daughter, “You’ll never have children.” But we don’t like Larry here. And there is no Fool or Kent or Edgar at his side to help us align with him. (There is a Ken, who is the family lawyer, so he is this adaptation’s Kent, but he never puts himself on the line, never risks anything, so he is not like Kent at all.) Larry goes to Harold, saying “They threw me out.” Of course, that’s not true. There are three houses on the property, and Larry lives in one of them. There’s nothing keeping him from going to his house. He stayed out in the storm by his own decision, and then stays with Harold also by his own decision. And because this story is from Ginny’s perspective, the film doesn’t even follow Larry into the storm.

And then as we get farther into the film, we like Larry even less, as it comes out that he sexually abused both Ginny and Rose when they were children. At first Ginny refuses to remember, when Rose raises the subject. Rose tells her: “He didn’t rape me, Ginny. He seduced me.” Of course, this is completely different from the play, but Michelle Pfeiffer and Jessica Lange as Rose and Ginny are great in this scene. But as I mentioned, not one of the characters is likeable. In King Lear, you really feel for many of the characters at different moments. Good versions of King Lear will have you in tears. But this film is not at all emotionally engaging, even though it adds breast cancer and hospital scenes in attempts to tug at your heart.

Jess – the film’s Edmund – returns home at the beginning of the movie, and soon it is clear that Ginny is attracted to him. They begin an affair. Later we learn that Rose also has an affair with him. Though he doesn’t behave in a cruel manner as Edmund does in the play, Jess is ultimately unlikeable as well. And even Harold is awful. He insults Ginny and Rose and Jess in a public setting, without provocation, quite unlike Gloucester. And while Harold does reject Jess, as Gloucester rejects Edgar (Edgar, not Edmund), he does it without any real reason. In the play, Gloucester is deliberately fooled by Edmund to reject Edgar.

Caroline and Larry reconcile, as Cordelia and Lear do in the play, but here it is in order to sue Ginny and Rose to get the farm back. So you don’t even like Caroline in this adaptation, as she becomes a sort of villain, or at least the pawn of a villain. For yes, in this version, Larry is a villain. It’s kind of incredible for an adaptation of King Lear to create a dislikeable Cordelia, but A Thousand Acres does just that. Larry does go a little mad toward the end. In the courtroom scene, he believes that Caroline is dead, but calms down when Caroline stands in front of him and guides him off the stand. There are deaths, as in the play, but no one is responsible for anyone else’s death, at least not directly. Pete dies in a car accident after driving while inebriated. Rose dies from breast cancer. Larry dies from a heart attack (but not from a broken heart, as Caroline still lives at the end), but we only hear about it in voice over. It’s not even part of the film.

Interestingly, though this is a King Lear adaptation, the movie keeps the one other Shakespeare reference from the book, a reference to The Merchant Of Venice. Rose tells Ginny that she wants everything their father had, saying that she deserves it. She then says: “Do you think a breast weighs a pound? That’s my pound of flesh.

A Thousand Acres was directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse. The DVD contains no special features.

Johnny Hamlet (1968) DVD Review

Johnny Hamlet is an interesting and masterfully shot adaptation of Hamlet, set it in the Wild West. It is known by a variety of titles, and the title on the DVD case is The Wild And The Dirty. The title on the print used for the DVD is Quella Sporca Storial Nel West, but the title that director Enzo G. Castellari gave it is Johnny Hamlet. It stars Andrea Giordana as Johnny Hamilton, Gilbert Roland as Horace, and Horst Frank as Claude Hamilton.

The film opens with a strange dream sequence in which Johnny approaches his father. And in voice over we hear: “To die, to sleep, no more. To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.” And then, oddly, we see a man at the ocean’s shore, lifting his arms and reciting some of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy: “To be or not to be, that is the question/Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep/No more. And by a sleep, and by a sleep, to say we end-” It is then revealed that this man is an actor, rehearsing the lines (thus the repeated “and by a sleep”). A troupe of actors has a camp on the beach, and Johnny is asleep among them. He has been calling for his father in his sleep. When Johnny wakes, we hear the actor continue with Hamlet’s speech. This is interesting, because the film not only is an adaptation of Hamlet, but makes references to the play. It is an adaptation of the play in which the play also exists.

Johnny takes his leave of the actors and travels home. On the way, he stops at an underground cemetery to visit the grave of his father, Chester Hamilton, his stone reading, “1811-1865, Willfully Murdered.” Johnny is a soldier, and he was at war when his father was killed, and now feels guilty for not being there to protect him. And yes, there is a gravedigger there. Two men – Ross and Gil – threaten Johnny at the cemetery. Horace arrives to help Johnny. Ross and Gil are this adaptation’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horace is Horatio. Ross and Gil, in this version, never pretend to be Johnny’s friends; nor is there any mention of a shared past between them. Johnny then returns to the ranch (the sign outside reading, “Ranch Elsenor”), and sees his mother, Gerta, and his uncle Claude in a playful embrace. Gerta breaks off from the embrace when she sees Johnny, and runs to him to embrace him. She reveals to us that he’s been gone for three years, and explains to him that everything would have been taken from her if it hadn’t been for Claude.

Johnny next runs into Ophelia, who has been waiting for him these three years. They kiss, but Ophelia is acting a little strangely, telling Johnny that Johnny’s father likes her and knows about the two of them. Before they can work things out, Ross and Gil show up again and engage Johnny in a fight. They get the best of him, at least for a moment, until Horace shows up to help. In this adaptation, Polonius is the sheriff, and he seems corrupt and a bit mean. There is no Laertes in this adaptation (and so you can guess that the ending will be different from that of the play). Horace hands Johnny a crest of the man who killed Johnny’s father – supposedly a man named Santana. The crest was found near the body. Also, we learn that there’s missing gold at the center of the murder in this adaptation.

At a tavern, Horace says to Johnny: “To die. To die is nothing. To live, that’s the important thing.” And the traveling actors from the first scene arrive. Before they enter, we hear one of them say, “The world is a stage,” an idea voiced often by Shakespeare. The players argue playfully about a mishap in another town, referring to each other by their Hamlet character names, which is interesting, since in the reality of this film there is also a real Ophelia. This Ophelia – the actor – has an earring with the same crest as that found by Johnny’s father. Johnny goes to bed with her, and she tells him where she got the earring.

Johnny returns to the cemetery and has the gravedigger (who apparently never has a day off) exhume Santana’s body. They find the same crest on Santana’s belt. Johnny is actively searching for clues as to who murdered his father and is looking for vengeance. So obviously this is different from the play in which Hamlet is told by his father’s Ghost who killed him. He gets his father’s gun from Gerta, and then rides off to find Santana. Bandits lead him to Santana, and there he also finds Claude, and so now is certain that Claude murdered his father. But there is still the matter of the gold, and the bandits take them along on their search for it, followed by Ross and Gil, who are in turn followed by Horace. And we learn that Ross and Gil were hired by Claude, sort of like in the play.

Meanwhile, in a move quite different from the play, Ophelia is murdered and her body is left floating in the river, along with Johnny’s gun. The Sheriff then believes that Johnny murdered Ophelia, and he goes to the ranch to confront him. Johnny, however, isn’t there; he has returned to the cemetery, where the gravedigger is digging Ophelia’s grave. And as in the play, that’s how he learns that Ophelia has died.

Gerta then overhears a man warning Claude that Santana is coming, and realizes her new husband is not innocent. But when she confronts Claude, Ross and Gil shoot her. There is a good moment when Claude is angry with them, showing on some level he did care for Gerta. Gerta is still alive, and manages to get on a horse, the horse somehow knowing to take her to where Johnny has been tied to a cross and left for dead. In this version, it is Horace who kills the Polonius character, not Johnny. Johnny does kill Claude, but in this version Johnny lives (after all, there is no Laertes to kill him), and Johnny and Horace ride off together. Obviously, there are quite a lot of differences from the play, but this adaptation is completely enjoyable.

Special Features

The DVD includes Shakespeare In The West, which is an interview with director Enzo G. Castellari. He talks about his habit of shooting during the day and editing each night. He talks about the music and about certain shots of the film, and he mentions that the real title is Johnny Hamlet, and that the distributor changed the title in Italy to Quella Sporca Storial Nel West. The DVD includes also includes a photo gallery and three trailers for the film. In the U.S. trailer, there is voice over that says, “To kill or not to kill, that was the question.”

The DVD that I own pairs this film with Chaco.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Shakespeare Reference in Green Bananas

Michael Drinkard’s novel Green Bananas contains one Shakespeare reference: “Now, while Sylvan stirs with a wooden spoon, Alabama chants: ‘Double, double, toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble. Shakespeare. Now comes the good part. Cool it with baboon’s blood, then the charm is firm and good’” (pages 51-52). This comes because Sylvan is boiling a bobcat skull in a pot, and Alabama wants to disguise it as soup because two girls are coming over.

Green Bananas was published in 1989 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. The copy I read was a first edition.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Shakespeare References in Franny And Zooey

I decided to revisit J.D. Salinger’s Franny And Zooey, and found that the book contains several Shakespeare references. The first is in the Franny section, and is a reference to Shakespeare himself. Salinger writes, “I mean to a certain extent I think I was perfectly justified to point out that none of the really good boys – Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Shakespeare, for Chrissake – were such goddam word-squeezers” (p. 13). The other Shakespeare references are all in the Zooey section. There is a reference to Macbeth in the footnote: “The remaining five, however, the senior five, will be stalking in and out of the plot with considerable frequency, like so many Banquo’s ghosts” (p. 52). The next is a reference to Romeo And Juliet: “Much, much more important, though, Seymour had already begun to believe (and I agreed with him, as far as I was able to see the point) that education by any name would smell as sweet, and maybe much sweeter” (p. 65). That’s a reference to Juliet’s lines “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” (Most people, for some reason, quote the less preferable Q1 reading of “By any other name.”) There is also another reference to Shakespeare himself: “That is, we wanted you both to know who and what Jesus and Gautama and Lao-tse and Shankaracharya and Huineng and Sri Ramakrishna, etc., were before you knew too much or anything about Homer or Shakespeare or even Blake or Whitman, let alone George Washington and his cherry tree or the definition of a peninsula or how to parse a sentence” (pages 65-55). The final Shakespeare reference is to Hamlet: “At least I’m still in love with Yorick’s skull. At least I always have time enough to stay in love with Yorick’s skull. I want an honorable goddam skull when I’m dead, buddy. I hanker after an honorable goddam skull like Yorick’s” (p. 197).

Franny And Zooey was published as a book in 1961, with the stories appearing in The New Yorker in 1955 and 1957.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

King Lear (A Noise Within’s 2017 Production) Theatre Review

Press photo by Craig Schwartz
What is the greatest artistic achievement in human history? A case can certainly be made for William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy Of King Lear (it is either that or Hamlet). A Noise Within, celebrating its 25th anniversary as a theatre company, is now running a new production of King Lear that boasts a phenomenal cast. Particularly noteworthy is Trisha Miller as Goneril. In fact, hers might be the best Goneril I’ve ever seen. Erika Soto is also excellent as Cordelia. And of course, the entire play really does hinge on its Lear, and Geoff Elliott does a tremendous job, hitting all the right notes and even delivering some wonderful surprises in his line readings.

The play is given a more modern setting, with many of the characters in military uniforms, showing that Lear’s choices affect the entire country and not just his family. The set at the beginning is simple and sparse, dominated by greys. The backdrop is a wall that looks like wet concrete blocks, and it has several doors that aren’t apparent until they’re opened. Tables, chairs and other stage pieces are used throughout the production, and the set changes are done quite quickly, never slowing the action. The only stage pieces that I found unnecessary were the ladders, which momentarily shifted my concern to the actors and away from their characters.

As the play opens, the entire company comes on stage for an interesting, slow motion stage picture before the production moves into the first scene with Gloucester, Kent and Edmund. Gloucester and Kent are in military dress, while Edmund wears a suit and glasses. Edmund (Freddy Douglas) is quite composed and business-like, with a slightly frightening tone to his voice at times, like in his speech about nature later on. Lear is in full military dress, and uses a walking stick. His three daughters are seated downstage, facing Lear who is, of course, center stage. The daughters’ dresses for this opening scene are solid colors – Goneril in purple, Regan in blue, and Cordelia, interestingly, in a color that is something between purple and blue. It’s interesting, because that color doesn’t immediately separate her from her sisters, but rather indicates that she might in fact have a combination of their traits. She is, however, farther downstage than the other two, the three creating a triangle.

As I mentioned, Trisha Miller is particularly good as Goneril. Her Goneril is human, at times even compassionate, and her actions are understandable. She is not played as a simple villain, as is sometimes done. And when she is asked by Lear to first say how much she loves him, she is actually surprised, which is a great moment. Regan (Arie Thompson) then has had a moment to prepare, and is able to be a bit more cunning. Cordelia’s asides, by the way, are cut from this scene. Asides are basically cut from this production, although of course some of Edmund’s long speeches are directed at the audience. The one aside that I feel shouldn’t be cut is Goneril’s “If not, I’ll ne’er trust medicine,” but of course by that point it would be strange for a character to suddenly offer an aside when none other has been presented thus far. When it is Cordelia’s turn to express her love for her father, she and Lear actually switch places on the stage, which is really interesting, because it shows perhaps an eagerness on his part to place himself under her rule, and of course toward the end she is almost like the parent. Geoff Elliott is excellent in this rather difficult scene. I love that he laughs at her “Nothing,” leading the others in applause at her “joke.” And when it becomes clear to him that she is not joking, they again exchange places, which is telling also, for it shows that now Lear wishes to retain the power of the king, that in some way he is not ready to relinquish it, though by now he has already promised the other two daughters his kingdom. Also wonderful is that Goneril, Regan and their husbands seem shocked when Lear gives them Cordelia’s part of the kingdom. This is not something they had expected or hoped for.

By the way, this production follows the folio in presenting Kent’s line to Lear as “Reserve thy state” rather than the quarto’s “Reverse thy doom.” Lear grabs Kent by the throat in his rage, which leads nicely to Kent’s “Or whilst I can vent clamor from my throat.” By then, Lear has let go. Lear’s love for Cordelia is clear from the beginning, and when he says “nor shall ever see/That face of hers again,” his voice breaks a bit, which is wonderful. Interestingly, when most everyone has exited, Cordelia suddenly gives voice to her grief, and Goneril and Regan actually go to comfort her. Again, it’s excellent to show the sisters as compassionate at the beginning. Even though they know that Lear prefers Cordelia, they don’t necessarily hold it against her.

As Lear and Cordelia change positions in that scene, Gloucester and Edmund do so in the following scene. The differences in their relationship, compared to that of Lear and Cordelia, are highlighted almost by the similarity of action. Because in this case, Edmund has taken Gloucester’s seat without permission, so that when Gloucester (Apollo Dukakis) enters, Edmund quickly gets up, relinquishing the seat to his father. This also hints at what is to come in their relationship. This production really does an excellent job at establishing relationships through the positioning of characters in relation to one another. Edmund takes the chair again when Gloucester exits. Edgar (Rafael Goldstein), by contrast, is more casually dressed than Edmund, showing that he is more secure in his state and doesn’t need to impress anyone.

When we see Goneril again, she is dressed in dark blue, which is closer to the color of the military outfits, a nice touch showing the change in her position. And when we see Kent (Stephen Weingartner) again, his disguise is believable. Often in Shakespeare plays when someone is in disguise, folks in the audience wonder, how could the others not recognize him or her? But Kent appears with shaved head and an eye patch, and uses a different accent, all of which make it quite believable that Lear and the others would not recognize him. Of course, at some point the Fool (Kasey Mahaffy) recognizes him, but Fools always possess that kind of wisdom. The Fool, by the way, is dressed in a somewhat busy suit and a bowler, the bowler acting as his coxcomb. The scene with Goneril and Lear is especially good, as both are sympathetic. I love that Goneril is visibly hurt when Lear curses her to be barren. At one point she even leans on the table for support during Lear’s “thankless child” speech. And when Lear collapses into a chair, Goneril steps toward him as if to comfort him, which is such a nice touch, showing that even in her upset state she still instinctively cares for Lear. And we see very clearly the turn she takes toward anger, and it’s entirely understandable. As I mentioned before, Trisha Miller’s performance as Goneril is outstanding.

In the scene with Edmund and Edgar, Edmund wounds his own arm before calling Edgar in, rather than after Edgar has left, which is odd. Wouldn’t Edgar notice that cut? Regan then aids Edmund, and shows her absolute and sudden delight when her husband extends his welcome to him, another wonderful moment. It is from a trash can that Edgar gets his Poor Tom disguise, which works well. Kent is chained to a metal gate rather than put in the stocks, so the word “stocks” is replaced by “shackles” each time. And when Regan mentions Lear dismissing half his train, it seems that has already happened, because by now we are seeing Lear with just his Fool and Kent. When Goneril arrives, she is clad in a fur coat, which is great, for it gives us an idea of the temperature (in addition to being an indication of her character), and a little later when Edgar – nearly naked as Poor Tom – claims to be cold, we certainly believe him. And we feel for Lear caught in the storm.

When we see Lear in the storm, his walking stick has been replaced with a rougher branch, which he raises above his head, perhaps to fight the heavens or perhaps asking to be struck by the storm, or perhaps both. It’s another excellent moment. (Gloucester will also use a branch to help him after he’s been blinded, a nice way of connecting those two characters.) Lear joins the Fool in his song. When Lear wants to try his daughters, he imagines them in positions close to where they were in their first scene, which is a nice touch. Though this time, they are together, because now in Lear’s mind, Regan and Goneril are the same. It’s a great way of recalling the first scene. And this production does it one more time near the end, creating a powerful image.

There are two major points of contention for me regarding this production – the way the Fool is dispatched and the way Gloucester’s leap is handled. All productions have to decide why the Fool isn’t in the later part of the play. Some people believe it’s because Lear has become a fool himself (as the Fool states several times), and so the Fool is no longer needed. Or Lear can no longer receive the wisdom the Fool has to offer, so far gone is he at this point. In practical terms, it is believed that the Fool and Cordelia might have been played by the same actor. But obviously some choice has to be made. I’ve seen at least one production where he is hanged, as Lear seems to indicate at the end (though it could be argued he is speaking of Cordelia at that point). This production provides its own explanation for why the Fool isn’t in the rest of the play, but does so by adding something that is certainly not a part of Shakespeare’s text. I won’t give away what that is here, but it is rather serious and could change the way you view at least one character.

As for Gloucester’s leap, it is done in a strange and confusing way. At the moment he is to jump, there is a sudden and brief blackout, and then we see him lying on the stage. To someone unfamiliar with the play, it might seem to indicate that he actually did jump off a cliff. Also, there are sound effects of the ocean and seagulls, which would lead one to think that Edgar did bring Gloucester to the ocean. But in the text, it is fairly clear that Edgar has not brought him anywhere near the sea. In fact, he asks Gloucester, “Hark! do you hear the sea?” And Gloucester answers, “No truly.” And then most of the dialogue between Edgar and Gloucester after the supposed leap is cut in this production, dialogue which would make clear the fact that Gloucester did not jump off a cliff.

There are a couple of minor bits of business that strike a false note, as when Lear has his hand down his shorts and then tells Gloucester “Let me wipe it first” after Gloucester asks to kiss his hand. But for the most part, this production does a fantastic job in both the larger moments and the smaller ones. I love Lear’s deliver of “Then there’s life in’t,” before he leads the soldiers in a chase. And Erika Soto is absolutely fantastic as Cordelia in the scene where she is reunited with Lear. She even takes a moment to regain strength in her voice before telling the others, “Still, still far wide.” It’s an incredible scene that had me in tears. And, as you might expect, the play’s final scene is also emotionally engaging. The cast does an excellent job throughout.

There is one intermission, coming at the end of Act III Scene vi. By the way, during the curtain call, Cordelia and the Fool come out together, perhaps a nod to the belief that they were both originally played by the same actor.

King Lear runs through May 6th, in repertory with Ah, Wilderness! and Man Of La Mancha. The dates for King Lear are as follows: February 25, February 26, March 17, March 18, April 8, April 13, April 14, April 22, April 23, May 4, May 5, May 6. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. Free parking is located at the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Parking Structure.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Shakespeare References in The Essential Lenny Bruce

The Essential Lenny Bruce is a collection of material from Lenny Bruce’s performances, transcribed and organized by subject. It was edited by John Cohen. It contains a few Shakespeare references, all of them Hamlet references actually. The first comes in a bit with a rabbi, with the rabbi saying, “Alas, alas, poor Yossel” (p. 36), a reference to Hamlet’s line, “Alas, poor Yorick.” The second is a reference to that famous speech by Polonius to Laertes. Lenny Bruce says, “It’s like, any comedian, see, all comedians – it’s ‘To thine own self be true’” (p. 111). Lenny Bruce uses that line again, this time in a song: “The most important factor?/To thine own self be true” (p. 172). By the way, in the back of the book there is an index of bits, and the bit on page 111 is referred to as “To Thine Own Self Be True” (p. 312).

The Essential Lenny Bruce was published in 1967 by Ballantine Books. My copy was from the sixth printing, in April of 1971.