Saturday, August 26, 2017

The Two Gentlemen Of Verona (Independent Shakespeare Company’s 2017 Production) Theatre Review

The Two Gentlemen Of Verona can be a difficult comedy because of Proteus’ happy ending after his atrocious behavior and because of Valentine’s one troublesome line near the end. But if any theatre company can make those elements work well, it is the Independent Shakespeare Company, and this group comes up with solutions for both of these problems in this summer’s production. But more on that in a bit.

The Independent Shakespeare Company performs two Shakespeare plays in Griffith Park each summer. This year’s choices are Measure For Measure and The Two Gentlemen Of Verona. The set for The Two Gentlemen Of Verona is the same basic structure as that used for Measure For Measure, but now painted in monochrome – a bluish green. A drum kit and upright piano (as well as a couple of amps) are set up upstage right (and these will be put to excellent – and often humorous – use throughout the production). Before the play, the band does a few numbers (Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell,” Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy”), inviting folks up on stage to dance. Several kids (it seemed like half the schools of Los Angeles decided to attend last night’s performance) took them up on the opportunity. The vocal microphone is in that 1950s style, fitting the chosen music. The music and the dancing established a fun atmosphere even before the performance began, and I have to say this production was possibly the most enjoyable of all this company’s shows that I’ve attended, just in terms of pure fun. The Two Gentlemen Of Verona is certainly not among my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays, but I had a fantastic time at this performance.

The show begins with a woman walking across the front of the stage with a sign that says, “Verona” (later we’d see a sign for “Milan”), while couples dance to the band playing The Skyliners’ “Since I Don’t Have You.” I often have mixed feelings about setting Shakespeare’s plays in modern settings, but this production works remarkably well. The dancers freeze in tableau as Valentine and Proteus begin their dialogue. Both are dressed in plaid jackets, Valentine in mustard-color pants, and Proteus in pale green pants with matching bow tie. This production uses music throughout, and there are moments where characters sing. In the first scene, Speed delivers a speech as a rap, and Proteus answers in kind (this is the dialogue about Speed being a sheep). And when Julia says to Lucetta, “Let’s see your song,” Lucetta sings and plays a bit of “Fever.” Later, Thurio (Lorenzo González) delivers the “Who is Silvia?” song, which is wonderful. The use of music really calls attention to the numerous references to music in the dialogue (and there are plenty). And as I mentioned, this production makes humorous use of the band and the instruments. For example, when Julia says “Lucetta, now we are alone,” the piano player takes the hint and ducks down behind the piano.

The cast is quite strong (as I’ve come to expect from this company), but the night’s standout performance is by Erika Soto as Julia. She is absolutely wonderful, particularly in the scenes with Lucetta (April Fritz). She delivers delightful readings of lines like “Then let it lie for those it concerns.” And the entire exchange during the scene where Lucetta helps dress her as a boy is hilarious. I love how Julia struggles to zip up her jeans over her new manhood. Nikhil Pai is excellent as Valentine. I love the concern in his voice when he asks Speed, “How long hath she been deformed?” And I love that he really gets into the line “Love’s a mighty lord,” leading the audience to laugh. His excitement is often the cause of laughter, as on his line about the “ladder made of cords.” But perhaps my favorite moment of his is when he delivers the “What light is light, if Silvia be not seen” speech. Here there is a great change in tone, as he gives us a serious and heartfelt delivery, which is quite moving and natural, not feeling out of place amid so much laughter. A good deal of that laughter is caused by William Elsman as the Duke of Milan, particularly when he incorporates his work as drummer into the action. His exchange with Valentine is a whole lot of fun, especially when he lists his daughter’s attributes (“peevish, sullen, froward,/Proud, disobedient, stubborn”), but Elsman can also crack the audience up with just a look. Some of the night’s biggest laughs come from the play between David Melville as Launce and Lorenzo González as his dog, Crab. David Melville, who also directed the production, leaves a pause after the “worser sole” joke as if waiting for it to sink in, proud of the humor. And the exchange between Launce and Speed is a delight. Xavi Moreno provides many laughs as Speed. Only a few modern references end up in the dialogue, as when Launce describes his sister as being “on Weight Watchers.”

Proteus is a difficult character, as he does some despicable things, turning easily away from his love in order to woo his best friend’s love, and even going so far as to have his friend banished in order to pursue Silvia without impediment. So it’s difficult to make an audience like him, but Evan Lewis Smith does a good job. There is something about him as an actor that is immediately likeable, and so we can go a long way with the character before turning against him. At the end of course, Proteus and Julia end up together, which can be difficult for a modern audience to accept. This production solves that problem by softening the attempted rape (yes, Proteus tries to force Silvia to yield to him), and by having Julia sing a kick-ass song at the very end, making Proteus kneel before her, and even slaps him hard across the face. The slap isn’t really done in hatred – after all, Julia does truly love Proteus. It’s more of a “don’t do that shit again” kind of a slap, a slap to make sure he’s regained his senses. And the audience cheers it. As for the troublesome line that Valentine must deliver – “All that was mine in Silvia I give thee” – this production gives Silvia a line in response, an incredulous “What?” That line is basically the audience’s reaction too.

There is one twenty-minute intermission, coming at the end of Act II. By the way, the dance scene the leads to intermission (to the tune of “Route 66”) is an absolute delight. I particularly love the use of signs showing Julia’s progress as she travels to see Proteus. Toward the end of intermission, the band plays Don Woody’s “You’re Barking Up The Wrong Tree,” with Crab adding the barks, which is also really funny. And to get the second act going, the band covers Ritchie Valens’ “Come On, Let’s Go.” This production of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona runs through September 2, 2017 at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. The show is free, though donations are encouraged. There is also a merchandise and concessions table to help fund this excellent company.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Taming Of The Shrew (Shakespeare By The Sea’s 2017 Production) Theatre Review

Shakespeare By The Sea tours Los Angeles County and Orange County each summer, performing two of Shakespeare’s plays in parks throughout the area. The performances are free, though donations are accepted and appreciated. This summer, which marks the company’s twentieth year, they are putting on productions of The Taming Of The Shrew and Macbeth. Last night they performed The Taming Of The Shrew at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. A half hour before the performance was scheduled to start, four members of the company (including director Cylan Brown) came out to answer questions from the audience. Most questions seemed to focus on the language of the play, and the way it is spoken. And then at 7 p.m., the play began.

There is a festive air at the start of the performance, with many of the characters in a light and happy mood. (The Induction, with Christopher Sly, is cut from this production.) Bianca is in a yellow dress, the color matching the mood. But that mood is broken by the entrance of Kate, dressed in red, who watches the action, then comes in to spoil the fun – all done without dialogue, of course, as this scene is not in the text. The play then begins with the third scene, with Lucentio (Iyan Evans) and his man Tranio. However, in this production, Tranio is not “his man,” but rather his woman, played by Olivia Schlueter-Corey. So when she takes Lucentio’s place, it becomes another case of a woman disguised as a man, something not in the text, but a playful choice, leading to some funny moments and business. It does lead to some minor troubles with the text, as when Biondello (Trevor Scott) enters and says that Tranio has stolen Lucentio’s clothes, for at that moment she still has her dress on. And Biondello continues, “Or you stolen hers?” That line doesn’t quite work, as he is not wearing her dress. When Tranio mentions her love for Lucentio, her gender gives the line a different tone.

There is some physical comedy, with Kate at first coming across as almost cruel, particularly as she kicks Gremio’s cane out, causing him to fall. (Later, Petruchio does the same thing, showing that he and Kate might be a good match even before they meet.) In the scene with Bianca tied with rope, when Bianca says “untie my hands,” Kate lets go of the rope, causing Bianca to fall. And the coconut joke is taken from Monty Python And The Holy Grail (the Independent Shakespeare Company also used this bit in the 2014 production of this play). Bianca’s tears when their father enters are clearly affected for his benefit, which is nice. We feel for Kate at this moment, which is wonderful, and we even see a bit of her vulnerability. This production does an excellent job of making Kate a believable and human character, and that is in large part because of Morgan Hill’s excellent performance. By the way, Baptista’s costume is a mix of red and yellow, a mix of his two daughters’ colors, which is a nice touch.

There are lots of nice touches in this production. For example, I love that when Petruchio (Bryson Allman) says “I come to wive it wealthily in Padua;/If wealthily, then happily in Padua,” Grumio joins him in the second line, implying that Petruchio has been saying this a lot. And I appreciate the play between Petruchio and Hortensio (Ryan Knight) when Petruchio introduces the disguised Hortensio as Licio. Their friendship is apparent in their exchange, and in their ease around each other. I also like that Petruchio does some stretching as he delivers his soliloquy while waiting to meet Kate for the first time. He knows he needs to be ready for this one. And that scene – their first meeting – is handled really well by both actors. There are moments within that scene where they come close to kissing, showing a mutual attraction. And I love that Kate is stunned that Petruchio truly seems to want her. We see that she is unsure, both of his feelings and perhaps of her own, but tries to maintain the disposition that her father and others have come to expect of her.

Jacqueline Misaye has some strong moments as Bianca. She clearly loves the attention given to her by Lucentio and Hortensio, and when she tells them “Farewell, sweet masters both; I must be gone,” she adds a dramatic flair. She’s a woman who knows her own worth, and is not above flaunting it. What I love about this is that it also sets up the ending, making it believable and no surprise when Bianca does not respond to her husband’s bidding to come. Each of the actors has some delightful moments. Patrick Vest as Gremio has such joy when telling the tale of Petruchio’s behavior at the wedding, that we feel it in the audience, almost as if we’d seen it ourselves. But of course the focus is on Petruchio and Kate and their relationship, and both Bryson (B.J. Allman) and Morgan Hill turn in excellent performances. Kate is allowed little moments where she begins to catch on to the game, which help make the final scene work well. For example, at the end of Act IV Scene i, after Hortensio delivers his line “Why, so this gallant will command the sun” and exits, Kate is left alone on stage momentarily, and we can see from her expression that she is beginning to figure out what’s going on, leading even to her enjoyment of it. And we also see that Petruchio cares for Kate, which is important. He seems excited to have met his match, and doesn't want to ruin that by removing her personality, her zest. Rather, it seems in this production that he wants her to be on the same page as him, working with him rather than against him.

To fit into the two-hour time frame, there are some cuts. However, apart from the induction (which is almost always cut), there aren’t any major losses. The haberdasher and tailor are combined into one character, and Grumio is used as the model for the gown, which is funny. This production doesn’t make all that much use of the audience and the space in front of the stage, though at one point Petruchio, Kate and Hortensio do enter from within the audience, Kate even stopping to drink some wine that a woman had brought. The company refrains from adding modern references, though there is a nod to the location at the end, when instead of “Padua affords this kindness,” Baptista says, “Encino affords this kindness.”

There is one intermission (which is approximately twenty-five minutes), coming at the end of Act III Scene ii. During the intermission, members of the company sell raffle tickets and programs. One woman made me laugh by calling out, “Find out which of our actors are single in the program.” She then added: “It’s not in there. I’ll just tell you.” The play ended at 9:14 p.m., and as the players took their bows, the sound cut out, an unexpected moment, which amused both the actors and the audience. There are still a few more chances to see this production, the last performance being on August 19th. Check out the schedule on Shakespeare By The Sea’s website.