Sunday, October 14, 2018

Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (A Noise Within 2018 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Craig Schwartz
Hamlet is regarded by many as perhaps the greatest literary achievement of mankind. Most of the play’s characters, however, might have different feelings about it, as they do not make it to the end. Among those that die along the way are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two guys who were once friends with Hamlet but come under the employ of the duplicitous, murderous Claudius. They aren’t in all that many scenes, but Tom Stoppard puts them center stage in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, the title of which acknowledges their demise from the get-go. When reading Hamlet, you sometimes wonder how Hamlet could have ever considered these two to be friends. They don’t seem to have any of his intellectual or philosophical curiosity. But in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, they do. Or, at least Guildenstern does. Or is it Rosencrantz? In Hamlet, the two are often viewed as interchangeable, and in Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, several references are made to that, to the extent that they themselves often don’t know who is who. This idea of identity is one of the subjects the play delves into. But it is also about the question of how much power a person has over the direction or course his or her life takes. Sometimes it feels like we’re just driven along by events, by circumstances, by forces outside of ourselves, and it doesn’t matter what we do. But don’t worry – this is an extremely funny play.

A Noise Within’s new production of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is thoroughly enjoyable, and while it may cause you to ponder certain key elements of your existence, it will more often have you laughing aloud. The set is fairly simple, with two stone staircases, one on each side of the stage. A translucent scrim is upstage, behind which a ladder is visible. At the edge of the thrust stage is a series of electric candles acting as footlights, that also seem to act as a barrier to the play’s two main characters. When the play opens, Guildenstern (Rafael Goldstein) is seated center stage, casually tossing coins. Rosencrantz (Kasey Mahaffy) runs around, calling out “Heads” each time a coin lands. After a time, Guildenstern gets up, but continues tossing the coins. It’s interesting, because immediately a distinction is made between the two, as Guildenstern moves about as he desires, albeit in a limited space, while Rosencrantz’s movement seems, at least at this point, dictated by the coins’ movement. They are struck by the improbability of the coins always landing heads up. I love the joy with which Rosencrantz exclaims, “I’ve never known anything like it!” Guildenstern is more troubled by the phenomenon, and wishes to explore the meaning behind it. Rosencrantz is caught off guard by Guildenstern’s sudden command, “Discuss,” clearly not having expected a need to take part in Guildenstern’s rumination.

After Guildenstern suggests they move forward, they march side-by-side to the edge of the stage, stopping before the footlights. There is a sudden lighting change, as well as a magical sound, giving the impression that they are being toyed with by the fates, the universe or the gods. The lighting changes whenever other characters are about to enter, suggesting a change in their world is only brought on by other people. It is the group of actors, led by The Player (Wesley Mann), that first enter their sphere. Mann gives an excellent performance. His delivery of “We can give you a tumble if that’s your taste” is playful and saucy, getting a big laugh from the audience. Likewise, all the following dialogue that basically paints The Player as a sort of pimp receives laughter. When Rosencrantz makes the introductions, he gets his own name wrong, yet isn’t at all surprised by this strange lapse in his knowledge. The Player too contributes to the theme of chance and fate, saying “We have no control.” What’s interesting also is that, though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to have no control over their exits and entrances, they are able to halt the players and keep them from leaving. And later we learn from The Player that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did in fact leave them (while they were in the middle of a performance for them, no less), but the audience doesn’t see this. So though the two never actually leave the stage, other characters do see them as entering and exiting.

Most of the play’s other characters enter from upstage, through a gap in the scrim. They come in like bright, powerful explosions into the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, accompanied by lighting and sound changes, and then leave. The real action is always elsewhere, and while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are relieved to finally have something happen, they are even more relieved when the others exit. In fact, after meeting with Claudius (Jonathan Bray) and Gertrude (Abby Craden), as well as Polonius (Apollo Dukakis), the first thing Rosencrantz says upon their exits is “I want to go home.” Good instincts, eh? He seems to know he’s out of his depth. At times, the lines of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz seem to echo lines we know from Hamlet. For example, Guildenstern says “Words, words, they’re all we have to go on,” making us think of Hamlet’s “Words, words, words.” And when Guildenstern says “That is the question,” we can’t help but think of Hamlet’s most famous speech. By the way, the entire scene in which Guildenstern pretends to be Hamlet is hilarious. And, later, when Guildenstern asks The Player what the dumb show is for, he is likely speaking for many in the audience who have seen Hamlet.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern look out at the audience on the lines about hoping someone interesting will come along. Guildenstern asks, “See anyone?” Rosencrantz answers: “No. You?” Guildenstern says, “No.” Of course we laugh, and that laughter is aimed at ourselves, at the idea that none of us is interesting. But actually they don’t see us. Unlike some of the other characters of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t allowed soliloquys and asides. They aren’t given that avenue of escape, nor that element of control. They can’t bring others into their world. Or, for that matter, keep them out. At one point, Rosencrantz blurts out, “We have no control, none at all,” a sudden desperate realization. Before that, each asks if the other is hungry. Neither is, which is another hint that things aren’t real, or that perhaps they already are dead, as the play’s title suggests. And that dialogue, in fact, leads to questions about death. The Player seems to know the future, rehearsing the end of Hamlet before it happens (in what might be my favorite scene of the production), even indicating the number of corpses that will be seen on stage. It is almost has if he is a god, showing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their futures, though perhaps also indicating that none of it is real. As The Player says, “Truth is only that which is taken to be true.”

There are no weak performances in this production, but there are some stand-outs, including of course the two leads, in rather demanding parts (hey, even Hamlet gets a few rather lengthy breaks in his play). And though other characters have trouble distinguishing between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we in the audience certainly do not. The third particularly remarkable performance is that by Wesley Mann as The Player. Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead was directed by Geoff Elliott. It runs through November 18th, in repertory with A Picture Of Dorian Gray. There are two brief intermissions, and the performance lasts approximately two and a half hours. Of course, the more familiar you are with Hamlet, the more you will enjoy this play. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California. There is free parking in the Sierra Madre Villa Metro Parking Structure at 149 N. Halstead Street.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Shakespeare Study: Miscellaneous Books

My Shakespeare study will likely never end, as there is so much to read, and there are always productions to go to as well as film adaptations to view. Here are a few Shakespeare books that I’ve read in recent months.

Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins On Your Favorite Songs by Erik Didriksen  -   This delightful book presents modern pop songs in sonnet form, as if Shakespeare had written them. I received it as a gift for Christmas, and a while waiting for a concert to start, I read a few aloud to see if my girlfriend and brother could guess which songs were being adapted. It became a fun game. One of our favorites was the George Thorogood And The Destroyers’ “Bad To The Bone.” Here is a bit of it, in sonnet form: “The morning I was born, the midwives smil’d,/rejoicing o’er the cherub they help’d birth./The eldest cast a sharpen’d eye; the child/she new delinquent was, not cause for mirth” (p. 88). And here is a bit of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go”: “My dearest, settle thy uncertain mind/and tell me the conclusion thou hast reach’d!/Will I from here abscond, or shalt thou find/me fit to loiter ‘round here unimpeach’d?” (p. 49). Pop Sonnets: Shakespearean Spins On Your Favorite Songs was published in 2015 through Quirk Books.

Shakespeare’s King Lear: The Relationship Between Text And Film by Yvonne Griggs  -  This is a volume in the Screen Adaptations series. Author Yvonne Griggs talks about some of the film versions and screen adaptations of King Lear, including some that seem a bit of a stretch, such as The Godfather. In doing so, Griggs of course offers some thoughts on the play itself. When discussing Peter Brook’s 1971 film of King Lear, Griggs writes: “It seems that until licensed by Lear to speak she has been a far more compliant woman. However, from this point onwards Goneril’s control of language increases in direct proportion to Lear’s diminished powers of rhetoric. Lear, resorting to ‘curses’ as his only means of expressing his fury, further emasculates himself in the wake of female challenges to his power. During the course of the opening scenes Lear’s language alters dramatically; the quiet commands of the patriarch, assured of his position and power, are displaced by the outraged curses of a man who has wilfully brought into question his own identity and sense of place within both familial and patriarchal systems” (p. 57). Regarding that same film, Griggs writes: “Lear goes against cultural expectation when he condones female speech and in so doing he wilfully engineers his own downfall. At some unconscious level he desires death and annihilation, and it is this self-inflicted abdication not only of control but of language itself that propels him to the ‘nothingness’ that consumes him in the blank screen at the close of the film” (p. 61). In the section on King Lear and the gangster movie, Griggs writes: “The urban underworlds of the gangster movie inevitably stand in ideological opposition to the values of the legitimate world and in this sense explore the same kind of juxtaposition of conflicting values realised in both the western and King Lear, the latter exploring the clash between an old feudal order epitomised by Lear, Kent and Gloucester, and the emerging new order characterised by self-interest and synonymous with Goneril, Regan, Cornwall and Edmund” (p. 118). Shakespeare’s King Lear: The Relationship Between Text And Film was published in 2009 by Methuen Drama.

Granville Barker’s Prefaces To Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost by Granville Barker; Foreword by Richard Eyre  -  This is obviously a volume in the Prefaces series. Regarding costumes for Love’s Labour’s Lost, Harley Granville Barker has this to say: “But these scrupulous young men would be purists in tailoring too. And a comedy of affectations, of nice phrases, asks that its characters should be expressive to their boot-toes, significant in the very curl of a feather” (p. 45). Regarding male actors playing female roles, and how that affected Shakespeare’s craft, Granville Barker writes: “It may influence his choice of subject; he does not trouble with domestic drama. Without doubt it determines what he will and will not ask woman characters and boy actors to do. Their love scenes are never embarrassing. They do not nurse babies. They seldom weep. He puts them, in fact, whenever he can, upon terms of equality with men; and women have been critically quick ever since to appreciate the compliment, not well aware, perhaps, how it comes to paid them” (p. 55). About Costard, Granville Barker writes: “Costard’s is a nimble wit; we must feel that for diversion he makes himself out to be more of a fool than he is. And the actor himself must be skilful of speech and light of touch, as good jesters and stage clowns were” (p. 71). This book was originally published in 1924. This paperback edition was first published in 1993. My copy is from 1995.

Makbeth adapted by Richard Schechner  -  This play is an adaptation of Macbeth, originating from workshops with The Performance Group. Richard Schechner, who wrote and directed the play, provides notes on the project at the beginning of the book. There is also a short piece titled The Makbeth Maze, written by Brooks McNamara. The witches in this adaptation are referred to as Dark Powers. Several characters are cut from Shakespeare’s work, and many lines are reassigned, creating different relationships. For example, Makbeth asks Duncan, not Banquo, “Ride you this afternoon?” And so Duncan speaks the lines that begin “As far as will fill up the time between now and supper” (p. 6). And interestingly Banquo speaks the line, “There’s blood on thy face.” And Makbeth responds, “‘Tis Banquo’s then” (p. 14). So Makbeth’s line is delivered as a threat. In Shakespeare’s play Macbeth says to one of the murderers, “There’s blood upon thy face,” and the Murderer responds, “‘Tis Banquo’s then.” It’s an unusual and interesting adaptation. The play opened in November of 1969. The book was published in 1978.

Hamlet Globe To Globe by Dominic Dromgoole  -  This book recounts the tale of the theatre company that took Hamlet to basically every country on Earth in a two-year period. It not only relates interesting anecdotes, but contains plenty of information about the play itself, and it what it means to us today. About iambic pentameter, Dominic Dromgooles makes this observation: “There was a warm, happy energy in the room, and I noticed for the first time what lurks within the iambic rhythm – a hidden hope. As each gentle upturned stress occurred and passed from person to person, it pulsed a discreet energy into the speaker and listener, and beyond into the room. It gave a lift” (p. 47). Regarding actors touring Europe in the late sixteenth century, Dromgoole writes: “Amongst that list of actors are some distinguished names, including Ben Jonson and (from Shakespeare’s company) Will Kempe, George Bryan and Thomas Pope. The last two both spent time working in Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, which is a substantial clue as to how Shakespeare knew so much about the tide-splashed rocks without and the cold stone gloom within. Many question how Shakespeare knew so much of the places he wrote about, while forgetting the most powerful transmitter of information in history – conversation” (p. 55). About the narrowing focus of Hamlet (as well as other Shakespeare plays), Dromgoole writes: “When Ophelia rushes from character to character handing out rue and rosemary and columbine, it is not only the flowers she is dispersing, but also the burden of her excess of sensibility. No one is immune. Claudius disintegrates from a wise, sophisticated politician to a clumsy murderer. Laertes casts aside all niceties, social and religious, even before he jumps into his sister’s grave. Families, political groupings, conspirators… All, if set on the wrong path, twist and contort each other into instability” (p. 91). Regarding Shakespeare’s “antic disposition,” Dromgoole writes: “Hamlet knows he is in psychological trouble, and knows he needs a disguise to conceal his pain. The solution is to create a mask that is both true and not true, to create a role that fits the self” (p. 92). About Polonius, Dromgoole writes: “The world of Hamlet gets darker after Polonius’s death. For Ophelia and for Laertes catastrophically, and their grief is a measure of the emotional value of their father. In the world of the play, without Polonius’s fussy, theatrical scheming, the door is opened for the harder-nosed brutality of Claudius. Much of the wit and the comforting human smallness is bled out of Elsinore with Polonius’s passing” (p. 120). Regarding the time when the play was written, Dromgoole notes: “Hamlet the play was born at the moment when chivalry was flailing its last histrionic limbs (the Ghost is in many ways the emblem and the echo of that chivalry) before giving way to a new world of trade and globalisation” (p. 268). About the moment when Hamlet hold’s Yorick’s skull, Dromgooe writes: “In that moment he stares death, actual and bony and hollow-eyed, straight in its fleshless face, and he feels not fear, but peace and understanding. It is a peace that is accessed through history” (p. 320). Hamlet Globe To Globe was published in April, 2017. The copy I read is an uncorrected proof, so it possible there are slight changes.

Twisted Tales From Shakespeare by Richard Armour; illustrated by Campbell Grant  -  This humorous volume recounts the plots of several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo And Juliet, The Merchant Of Venice and Othello. There is also a brief biography of William Shakespeare at the beginning. In the chapter on Macbeth, Armour writes: “The witches hear some dear friends calling, and depart. ‘Fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ they comment philosophically as they leave. This must have been pretty upsetting to any moralists, semanticists, or baseball umpires who chanced to overhear them” (p. 47). Armour plays with language, which I love, even cleverly using phrases coined by Shakespeare. For example, in that chapter on Macbeth, he writes, “But the witches, perhaps not liking the way he refers to their elocution, vanish into thin air, making it slightly thicker” (p. 49). The term thin air was coined by Shakespeare in The Tempest. He also writes: “Anyhow, he is too upset to put the bloody daggers by the guards, and Lady Macbeth takes over from her lily-livered husband” (p. 52). The term lily-livered was also coined by Shakespeare, in Macbeth, though it is actually Macbeth that uses the term to describe a servant. The book also contains several humorous footnotes, such as this one, regarding the two murderers in Macbeth: “Later joined by a third, thought by some scholars to be Macbeth in disguise, but more likely an apprentice murderer, getting experience” (p. 55). (Though, actually, my copy contains a typo: “Macbath.”) In the chapter on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Armour writes, regarding Lysander: “Then an idea comes to him. He has an aunt who lives in a town some distance away, where the marriage laws are more lax than in Athens. The town isn’t named, but it’s probably somewhere in Nevada” (p. 71). And in the chapter on The Merchant Of Venice, Armour writes: “On the scroll is written ‘All that glisters is not gold.’ The Prince is chagrined. All these years he has been saying ‘glistens’” (p. 115). In that same chapter, he writes, “‘One half of me is yours, the other half yours,’ she tells him cryptically, hoping he can add” (p. 116). By the way, in the chapter on Romeo And Juliet, Armour uses the Q1 reading, writing “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (p. 95). At the end, there is a short section on the sonnets, and also a bit poking fun at those people who think someone other than William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. Twisted Tales From Shakespeare was published in 1957.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Ken and Barbie as Romeo and Juliet

I was going through some stuff at my parents' house, and found the fall 1998 FAO Schwarz catalogue (it was under some tissue paper in a box that once contained Star Wars figures). Page 30 shows a special Ken and Barbie set, in which the famous dolls are dressed as Romeo and Juliet. The collector gene is undeniably part of my genetic makeup, and I've switched from collecting Star Wars toys to collecting Shakespeare books and DVDs, and yet even I don't want these dolls. Still, I thought it worth noting here. Also, a hundred dollars? Are you kidding me?