Monday, September 9, 2019

Titus Andronicus (The Southern California Shakespeare Festival 2019 Production) Theatre Review

The Southern California Shakespeare Festival is celebrating its fifteenth season with a production of Titus Andronicus, one of William Shakespeare’s earliest and most violent plays. It is a play of misplaced loyalty and patriotism, with Titus putting Rome and Saturninus before his own family, with deadly results. It is a play of horror, despair, deceit and revenge. It is a play for our times. And, perhaps to emphasize just that, this production sets the play in modern day, even employing the use of three screens to show news reports of the action. While setting Shakespeare’s plays in modern times often introduces many problems, it works quite well in this production.

The production opens with news footage playing on the three screens, presenting some background information, such as a report that the emperor has died. One of the television personalities opines that what is needed is an emperor who cares about the common people. It is then that soldiers lead their prisoners in, the prisoners having their heads covered and hands tied. Titus (Matthew Reidy) has red makeup on his face, giving the impression that he is perhaps most at home in bloody battle. The queen of the Goths, Tamora (Linda Bisesti) is one of the prisoners, and she kneels as she pleads for her son’s life. Titus is excited, seeming to be in his element. Tamora and her two other sons, who are downstage from the execution and thus closer to the audience, look away as the eldest son is executed upstage. It is interesting that we feel for them at this moment, that they exhibit qualities that perhaps we ourselves want to. But we in the audience do not look away, and so maybe we are guilty of a certain blood lust ourselves. But we can’t quite fault Titus for wanting them to suffer, for he has lost two sons himself at the hands of the Goths. Matthew Covalt as Demetrius is particularly good in that moment, and I love his delivery of “To quit the bloody wrongs upon her foes.”

The screens are used again so that Saturninus and Bassianus can address the masses. And when the lights come up fully, Saturninus (Alfonso Ramirez) and Bassianus (Larry Mayorquin) stand before us, in suits, two politicians on opposing sides, while Marcus (Michael P. Thomas) stands upstage center, his voice having a slight echo as he speaks to the audience, a nice effect. Then when Saturninus is made emperor, he takes his place upstage center. On his “set our prisoners free,” Tamora goes to Titus to have her hands unbound, which is interesting. Interesting that she chooses to have him do it, like she is already attempting to regain some authority with him, just a hint of taunting him with her newfound freedom. And when Saturninus chooses Tamora as his wife, she gives a little laugh, like she is already seeing how fortune might turn in her favor and lead to her revenge on Titus. It is a really good moment, and Linda Bisesti is excellent. Titus now appears in military dress uniform, and Lavinia (Sofia Levi) is in a white dress, stressing her purity and innocence. Because this is a modern telling of the story, Titus uses a pistol to kill his son Mutius. Marcus speaks softly upon seeing Mutius’ body, in contrast to Titus, who is explosive, like his words and actions are already getting away from him, carrying him along a path from which it will be impossible to return. On his “and bury me the next,” he tosses a couple of coins to the floor for his son’s burial. And though the play has a modern setting, the coins are still placed on the body’s eyes.

When we next see Tamora, she is wearing a dress, clearly already at home in her new role. On her “massacre them all” speech, she steps off the stage just in front of the audience, and out of the lights, which is perfect, for here she reveals her darker desires. And I love her delivery of “I will not be denied” to Saturninus. It is really that moment that you know she is a force that will bring havoc down on Titus and his family, without needing the official help of Saturninus. When Aaron (Kris Dowling) enters at the beginning of Act II, it is in darkness, which is also perfect. This can be a tough character for those looking for nuance and reason, for he is a villain at every moment except when it comes to his newborn son. What has led him to take this path? He seems to be a villain who enjoys being a villain, causing harm just for the joy of causing harm. And so he intrigues us. When he urges Demetrius and Chiron (Richard Pluim) to take Lavinia “by force,” they at first do not embrace that course of action. Rather, it seems they consider it, but not seriously, at least not yet, another excellent moment. Though Chiron and Demetrius do soon perform these horrible acts, and are thus responsible for them, the idea was not theirs. So for a moment those in the audience have hope that they will reconsider this bloody course of action. (By the way, Demetrius reminds me a bit of Malachai from the film version of Children Of The Corn.)

Lavinia displays some sass, some spunk and some attitude in this production, which is interesting. When Chiron and Demetrius re-enter, it is as Lavinia and Bassianus are exiting, and so their entrance forces Lavinia and Bassianus back on stage. Though guns are present on stage at several moments throughout this production, they are fired only a couple of times, and blades are still used in many scenes. It is with a blade that Bassianus is killed, while Lavinia watches, aghast, her sassiness gone in an instant. Her screams offstage tell us precisely what horrors she is being subjected to, and are completely effective. The pit where Bassianus’ body is left and where Quintus and Martius end up is done in an interesting way. The pit is at floor level, a light inside it revealing those people inside. When Lavinia next enters, it is in darkness, for she is still caught in the dark place created by Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius. As the lights go up, we see her clothes are bloody. She moans and cries as Marcus tries to help her.

News reports on the screens tell us that Quintus and Martius are awaiting trial for the murder of Bassianus. It is then that we see a different side of Titus, in despair for his sons’ fate. He kneels during his speech, and when he says that he has never wept before, we believe him. Titus gives a great delivery of the lines when he tells Lucius it wouldn’t matter if the tribunes did hear him, a moment that marks a change in him. By the way, several characters that are male in the text are female in this production, including Lucius (Amber Bonasso). So the line “Why, ‘tis no matter, man: if they did hear” becomes “‘Tis no matter, Lucius, if they did hear.” And when Titus asks “What shall we do,” he truly is asking the question. He is overcome, and for once does not clearly see the path before him. It is a moving moment. Aaron uses an electric saw to remove Titus’ hand upstage center, and blood squirting up further sells the action, as does Titus’ pained scream. Then, before Act III Scene ii, newscasts tell us that months have passed and that Titus’ sanity has been called into question. Marcus gets a golf club and demonstrates for Lavinia how she might use it to write her attackers’ names. Then, as she slowly writes their names, they appear on the screens behind her. Michael P. Thomas delivers an excellent performance as Marcus, and is particularly good during his soliloquy. The golf clubs are used again in place of bows and arrows, though Titus still uses the word “archery.” But perhaps the most modern prop used in this production is the cell phone that Saturninus speaks into for his speech at the beginning of Act IV Scene iv.

When Aaron is led into the Goth camp, his clothes and face are bloody. Lucius at one point hands Aaron’s baby to a member of the audience. As I mentioned earlier, this scene provides a moment when the audience can feel for Aaron, and Kris Dowling really makes the most of it. He delivers a good part of one of his speeches while a noose is around his neck upstage, an effective image. When Tamora and her sons enter to play upon Titus’ supposed madness, they are dressed in red robes and are masked. Titus, of course, is not fooled for a moment, and I particularly love his delivery of “how like the empress’ sons they are.” Titus also displays a wonderful smile after Tamora exits, leaving her two disguised sons behind. It is also interesting, and somewhat strangely comforting, to see Lavinia take some joy in watching her father tell Chiron and Demetrius their fate. Matt Reidy is absolutely fantastic as Titus here.

Before the final scene, there is a news report about the impending dinner, which is called a dinner event. And indeed it is an event. When Titus enters, he is dressed in a chef’s outfit and is pushing a dinner cart. He and Lavinia are cheerful, which is deliciously twisted, considering the meal they are serving. This last scene moves quickly. Marcus’ big speech is presented on television screens, as red light bathes the stage. Lucius moves upstage center to deliver her final speech, but the performance actually concludes with news reports in support of Lucius becoming the new emperor, an interesting touch that was appreciated by the audience.

This production of Titus Andronicus was directed by Robert Shields. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III Scene i. Including intermission, the performance is approximately two hours forty-five minutes. The play has been running at the Studio Theatre at Cal Poly Pomona. However, yesterday’s performance was the final one at that location. This coming weekend it shifts to the School of Arts and Enterprise in Pomona for two performances. Visit the Southern California Shakespeare Festival website for more information and schedule.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Shakespeare References in Goodbye

I am still struck by how many times I encounter Shakespeare references in my reading. W.H. Manville’s novel Goodbye contains a few references. The first one really surprised me, for it’s a line that I often quote from Antony And Cleopatra, but one I don’t often hear anyone else use. Manville writes: “Where are you? I’m dying, Egypt, dying, man” (p. 40). Antony says to Cleopatra, “I’m dying, Egypt, dying.” (I say it when I feel weak from the Los Angeles heat.) The second is a play on a line from The Merchant Of Venice. Manville writes, “‘All that glitters ain’t necessarily shit,’ he said, and they laughed” (p. 131). In the play, Morocco reads the scroll contained in the gold casket: “All that glisters is not gold.” There is also a reference to Henry The Fifth. Manville writes: “The homoerotic is team spirit. It wins football games. The company of men, this band of brothers, ‘the guys’” (p. 151). The “band of brothers” phrase is taken from Henry V’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech.

The book also contains two references to Hamlet. The first is a loose reference to a phrase from the famous “To be or not to be” speech. Manville writes, “all the fears that a woman is heir to” (p. 158), bringing to mind “The thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to.” The other is a reference to the play itself: “The first time I had seen Hamlet had been in Chicago. I was twelve and had gone with my father. He had tried to explain that the ghost of Hamlet’s father was not meant to be taken as real, that it was a manifestation of Hamlet’s guilty conscience, but I had believed in that ghost at twelve; perhaps I believed in it still” (p. 280). That’s a little odd, because of course the ghost is meant to be taken as real. After all, it is seen by a few other people before Hamlet himself even sees it.

Goodbye was published in 1977 by Simon And Schuster.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Shakespeare References In Magazines (Westways)

The current issue of Westways (July/August 2019) mentions a few events related to Shakespeare, and so I feel a compulsion to mention them here. I can’t help it, you see. On page 76, on the “Current Events” page, The Old Globe Summer Shakespeare Festival in San Diego is mentioned, along with that image of William Shakespeare. I haven’t made it down for any of their productions yet. This season, according to the short piece, the company is putting on As You Like It and Romeo And Juliet. Then on page 78, the Shakespeare By The Sea production of Henry V is mentioned. As you may be aware, that company performs two plays each summer at various parks all over the Los Angeles area. The single performance this magazine chooses to mention is the one I attended at Los Encinos State History Park on August 3rd. On the very next page is mentioned “Midsummer Scream, Long Beach” (p. 79). It is described as a Halloween and horror convention, but obviously it takes its name from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Henry V (Shakespeare By The Sea 2019 Production) Theatre Review

Every summer Shakespeare By The Sea takes Shakespeare to you, or somewhere near you. The company travels southern California with two plays, building the stage, putting on the performance, tearing down and packing away the stage, and moving to the next location. In addition, on Saturdays a couple of the cast members field questions from the crowd. Such was the case in Encino last night before the performance of Henry V. Once the set was in place, Jonathan Fisher, who plays the title role, and Jane Hink, who plays Mistress Quickly and Alice, answered questions about the company and their work in it, including one question about the number of hours it takes to put together a show. It turns out these guys don’t get nearly as much rehearsal time as you’d think might be necessary. But you’d never guess that seeing the performance. The current production of Henry V is a completely enjoyable and engaging ride, and boasts some tremendous performances, particularly by Jonathan Fisher as King Henry and Olivia Schlueter-Corey as Katharine.

When the play opens, the Chorus (Patrick Vest) enters upstage center, putting his hand up to his face as if to shield his eyes from the sun, which works well with his first line, “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend.” The other actors enter from the audience during this speech, the Chorus then transitioning into Exeter and helping to dress Henry in his regal attire. Henry’s delivery of “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” is excellent, for he is honestly asking the question. So you get the sense that if the answer had been negative, that would have put an end to it. I also love that his immediate reaction is to the gift of tennis balls is to laugh. It shows that the youthful spirit he displayed in the Henry IV plays, when he himself took part in pranks, is still a part of his character. And then, knowing that he must display strength and power – both to the French, and to his own men, who likely still recall how he was in his youth – he turns and shows no sign of weakness during the bulk of his speech, particularly on the “mock” lines, which are delivered pointedly. I love watching his transformation within that speech.

As the Chorus delivers his speech at the beginning of Act II, a few characters engage in joyous practice with their weapons, showing the sort of innocent excitement before war, before seeing the results of war. When Bardolph (Andy Kallok) first enters in Act II, for a moment I believe him to be Falstaff, who plays an important role in Henry V without ever actually appearing on stage. Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, Mistress Quickly and Boy all discuss him, as he lies on his deathbed offstage. Mistress Quickly (Jane Hink) pauses after “that live honestly by the prick,” giving Pistol a chance to react, which leads to her having to finish the thought: “of their needles.” We see a good deal of joy among this group before Falstaff’s death. In this production, scenes one and three are combined, with scene two then following. The exchange between Prince Henry and Falstaff from The Second Part Of King Henry The Fourth in which Henry denies knowing the man is presented as a recording while Bardolph, Pistol and Nym are on stage, remembering. Then Mistress Quickly returns with the news of Falstaff’s death, which she conveys with a look, with the way she carries herself. Her delivery of the “cold as any stone” speech is serious and quite good, rather than played for humor. You could see tears in her eyes. The scene is rather moving. As I mentioned, the second scene of the act then follows, with Scroop, Cambridge and Grey. I love Henry’s deliver of the “and know I know your worthiness” line. When Henry proclaims their fate, he is upstage center, above, while the three are downstage, facing out toward the audience, an effective image.

The French characters are dressed mostly in shades of blue, and the actors do employ accents, to help keep sense of place clear to the audience (though the Chorus also does an excellent job of doing that). The Dauphin (Brendan Kane) looks to the king (Paul Burt) often during his speech for cues as to how to proceed, a nice touch to show the character’s inherent weakness of spirit. The Dauphin is portrayed as vain and effeminate, which presents a difficult endeavor these days. But Brendan Kane does a good job, giving enough to bring out the humor of the character without going so far as to seem offensive. When Exeter speaks to the Dauphin, he removes a tennis ball from his pouch. The reaction from the French king is excellent, giving us just enough to show he wasn’t involved or even aware of the tennis ball prank.

I love the very fluid way in which Patrick Vest transitions from Chorus to Exeter. After giving his speech at the beginning of Act III, he turns and enters the battle. As Henry delivers his “Once more unto the breach” speech the battle around him slows. Fluellen (Greg Prusiewicz) and Gower enter from the audience, and Fluellen has a delightful energy that in some ways feels to be the heart of the piece. There is an added moment where the Dauphin pretends to be a soldier with his men just before the English lesson scene. That scene with Katharine (Olivia Schlueter-Corey) and Alice (Jane Hink) is absolutely wonderful. Both actors are excellent here, deliciously conspiratorial at moments. I love Katharine’s delivery of “fingers.” When Bardolph is brought before Henry, he is jovial, laughing, certain of his favored – and therefore safe – status. He stands in front of the stage, while Henry is above him, and even though his back is to the audience for part of it, we can still see the shock he suffers when Henry speaks his words against him. This is a really nice and poignant moment, feeling like the end of the Harry these characters knew in the two Henry IV plays.

The Chorus’ speech from the beginning of Act IV is divided into two parts, with the first part moved to just before Act III Scene vii, which begins the second half of this performance. By the way, last night the sun went down during intermission (a beautiful sunset), so it was dark for the beginning of the second half, perfect for Act III Scene vii, which takes place at night. As the Chorus delivers the first part of the speech, the French are on stage, and that leads to Dauphin’s speech about his horse, which is hilarious. He and the two French men are great in this scene. The Chorus then continues his speech, “The poor condemned English,” and the English soldiers enter slowly. They are tired, weary. And the section where Henry goes about his men disguised is actually quite powerful and moving. Then when he enters for the famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, he is decked out in his regal attire, ready to lead his soldiers into battle. Jonathan Fisher’s performance as Henry is outstanding, and he does a particularly good job with this speech. I love that pause after “We few” before “we happy few.” (Someone toward the back of the audience became audibly excited during this speech.)

Montjoy’s delivery of “Thou never shalt hear herald any more” has a somewhat angry tone, instead of the usual respectful tone we’ve come to expect. The soldier that Pistol goes after was already wounded and essentially incapacitated by Henry, a nice touch, showing the extent of Pistol’s cowardice. The bit with the leek toward the end always seems odd to me, but it is handled well here. Katharine is adorable in the wooing scene; so, for that matter, is Henry. On Henry’s “Can any of your neighbors tell, Kate,” he indicates the audience. This is a difficult scene to make believable, as the two characters have basically just met, and it sometimes feels out of place after all that has come before it, but in this production it flows quite naturally. That is due in large part to the incredible performances of Henry, Katharine and Alice. The play moves at a quick pace. There are quite a few cuts in order to keep the performance at approximately two hours, but we don’t feel like we are lacking much.

Henry V was directed by Stephanie Coltrin, and runs through August 16, 2019. There is one twenty-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III Scene vi. Visit the Shakespeare By The Sea website for the complete schedule. The performances are free, but donations are encouraged. Also, there is a concession stand with clothing and refreshments for sale.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Pericles (Independent Shakespeare Company’s 2019 Production) Theatre Review

The Pericles set, before the play begins
One of the best things about summer in Los Angeles is seeing Shakespeare in Griffith Park. Every year the Independent Shakespeare Company chooses two plays to perform on their stage in the park. This year one of their choices is Pericles, Prince Of Tyre. Pericles is the only one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays that was not included in the First Folio (no, sorry, I’m not counting The Two Noble Kinsmen), and it is one that is not produced all that often. It has a somewhat wild plot that includes shipwrecks, people who are believed dead but are not, prostitution, pirates and incest. It is that last element that might feel timely, as it is a twisted tyrant who is having a sexual relationship with his daughter (sort of like a certain guy who has been pretending to run this country for a few years). The play also has some strong female characters, which you’d think would make it more popular today. And while this play presents some challenges to those wishing to stage it, it also presents some wonderful opportunities for actors, for it contains some incredibly moving scenes at the end, as well as some delightfully humorous scenes early on. The Independent Shakespeare Company, of course, capitalizes on these opportunities in the current production of Pericles.

Before the performance begins, some of the actors make their way to the picnic tables off to the right of the audience, and others off to the left, carrying chests and suitcases. They then approach the stage from those positions, essentially surrounding us as they take the stage. This company always makes great use of the space and the audience. After the usual announcements and words of thanks to the sponsors, Gower (the Chorus) begins his opening speech. And actually, just before that, a line is added, spoken by all: “Once upon a time.” This helps to prepare the audience for the somewhat fantastic story line offered by this play. The action shifts locations several times throughout the play, and to help the audience keep track of where they are, the set includes two chalkboards listing the locations in the order they are visited. In his opening speech, Gower (Hao Feng) is positioned on a ladder next to one of the chalkboards, and when he mentions Antioch, he indicates the first location listed there. Then throughout the play, as the action shifts to a different location, the previous location is crossed out.

The opening scene is intriguing, because it is here that Pericles learns of the incestuous relationship between Antiochus (Xavi Moreno) and his daughter, whose hand Pericles hopes to win. What is particularly interesting is the way Bukola Ogunmola portrays the king’s daughter. There is a sort of odd teasing in her delivery of the “Of all say’d yet” lines. She seems to be a willing participant in the relationship with her father, and not a victim. She does not wish to be removed from the situation, does not wish to be saved by Pericles, which is a rather startling and exciting choice. Then, on Antiochus’ “or receive your sentence,” the others on stage suddenly stand, ready to kill Pericles, as they clearly have done to all before him who have tried to win the daughter’s hand. It shows they don’t expect Pericles to be victorious, and shows that this is routine for them, and that they are eager to carry out the task. It’s an excellent touch.

Lorenzo Gonzalez is wonderful as Helicanus, a lord of Tyre and trusted counselor to Pericles. And it is that first scene with Helicanus and Pericles that we begin to see what a phenomenal performance Gyasi Silas gives as Pericles. This is a character that experiences a lot. He has power, but also fears for his life after learning Antiochus’ secret. He suffers incredible heartache and sinks into a serious depression, but then also experiences tremendous joy. Gyasi Silas is so adept at making us feel every turn of the character’s journey, and to care for him. And that is no easy task. After all, a lot of what befalls Pericles is not really caused by him, but by circumstances and other characters. It could be easy to let him feel like a supporting character in his own story, his own life. Gyasi Silas delivers a powerful and moving performance, one of the best I’ve seen so far this year.

David Melville, co-founder of the Independent Shakespeare Company, is delightful as Cleon, the governor of Tarsus. He is always fun to watch, and manages to bring out the humor in the characters he plays. Cleon and Dionyza (Sabra Williams) are both clad in black when we meet them, as if mourning the poor state of their nation. On Cleon’s “and beg for it,” others behind him briefly do beg for the tiny morsel on his fork, which he then pop into his mouth. There are a lot of laughs in this scene, and when Pericles enters and distributes bread to the characters, he tosses two pieces out into the audience. However, it is Sabra Williams’ other performance in this production, as Bawd, where she really gets a chance to shine. She is hilarious in her portrayal of the woman who is trying to run an honest brothel, only to be thwarted by Marina’s chastity.

There is quite of bit of humor in other scenes as well. For example, when Pericles encounters the two fishermen (yes, there are two rather than three in this production), when one says “I have a coat here” (changed from the text’s “I have a gown here”), she takes the other one’s coat to give to Pericles. And the tournament scene is hilarious. The fishing net is still attached to Pericles’ armor, a humorous touch. And William Elsman is absolutely fantastic as Simonides, the king of Pentapolis, his excitement almost palpable. He brings out a couple of “knights” from the audience to join the competition, and then calls Pericles (who at that point is also in the audience) to the stage too. There are three rounds to the tournament in this production: a three-legged race, a tug-of-war and a joust. The joust, however, is done with Italian bread, not lances. And the dance that follows is done first to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” and then to The Platters’ “Only You (And You Alone).” I love the joy and total delight that Simonides takes in making the match between his daughter Thaisa (Aisha Kabia) and Pericles. Also, Pentapolis has such a different vibe from the other places, which is great. This company really makes each location distinct, so that the chalkboards aren’t even truly necessary.

The storm scenes are also done quite effectively, with some lighting cues and some wonderful work on percussion, as well as by the choreographed and coordinated movements of the actors. But it is those final scenes that are most moving and most effective, when Pericles is reunited first with his daughter and then with his wife. Again, his performance is outstanding throughout the play, but he is perhaps at his best in these climactic scenes.

Pericles was directed by Melissa Chalsma, co-founder of the company. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III. By the way, I and those around me thought the intermission would come when the last location on the first chalkboard was crossed off, but by the time of the intermission, two locations on the second board were also crossed out. The performance, including intermission, runs approximately two and a half hours. It is free to attend, though donations are strongly encouraged. There is also a concession stand, with food and drink and clothing for sale, another way to help the company with the costs of putting on these productions. When you go, be sure to take a close look at the Pericles T-shirt, for there are some delightful details in the artwork on the front. This shirt is one of my favorite Shakespeare T-shirts (along with a Winter’s Tale shirt that has a picture of a bear on it with that play’s most famous stage direction). Pericles runs through August 30, in repertory with Twelfth Night. Check out the Independent Shakespeare Company’s website for the complete schedule.

The Pericles set, during intermission
One last personal note: In 2010 I began seeing as many Shakespeare productions as possible, with the hope of seeing all thirty-seven plays (again, no, I’m not counting The Two Noble Kinsmen). Pericles was number twenty-nine for me.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Shakespeare Reference in Night Shift

I recently revisited Stephen King’s Night Shift, a collection of short stories I hadn’t read since I was in my teens. And, yes, there is a Shakespeare reference. It comes in the story “The Mangler.” One character says, “If seven hundred monkeys typed for seven hundred years –” and another character finishes the thought, “One of them would turn out the works of Shakespeare” (p. 82).

Night Shift was published in 1978. The copy I read this time was published in 1984, and includes some photos from the movie Children Of The Corn.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Twelfth Night (Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum 2019 Production) Theatre Review

Twelfth Night production photo by Ian Flanders
There is something wonderful about Twelfth Night, something inherently enjoyable about this play. There is a light, breezy quality to it, and no matter what troubles occur, we are never really worried about the fate of any character, not even Antonio when he is captured. And seeing a daytime performance of this play at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in particular is a treat, for it is an outdoor venue in a beautiful natural setting, where actors make occasional entrances from the surrounding woods. There is also a musical quality to the play, even outside its several songs, and it is this element that the current production of Twelfth Night stresses, with characters singing many of the lines.

When the play opens, there is a mourning party off slightly in the woods, singing a dirge. It is to them that Valentine is sent on behalf of Orsino, an added moment that is referred to in the text but not usually shown. Orsino (Max Lawrence) then sings the famous first line of the play, “If music be the food of love, play on!” He is taking part in the song, rather than just enjoying it. Viola and the Captain enter from behind the audience, and the bulk of their scene together is performed on the roof of the structure back there, placing the audience firmly in Illyria, since they are looking over us when speaking the scene’s first lines, a nice touch. Willow Geer has a delightful and endearing energy as Viola right from the start, and her playful delivery of the line “He was a bachelor then” indicates that she is already interested in Orsino, or at least curious about him. Viola sings the line, “For I can sing,/And speak to him in many sorts of music,” which works well and highlights for the audience the fact that music is a strong current running through the play. It makes sense, too, that Toby (Christopher W. Jones) would have a song on his tongue, showing his somewhat carefree lifestyle. He sings his lines about drinking to his niece. And for Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s part, he is really excited to demonstrate his dancing skills, such as they are, a funny moment.

Orsino and his men are in uniforms of blue, white and red. This production, by the way, takes place in the early 1800s. When Viola enters disguised as Cesario, she wears a similar but not identical outfit to the men. No wig or hat is employed for her disguise, but rather her hair is pulled back in a ponytail, which is interesting, for it really is just the clothes that make her a man. It is almost as if she hopes Orsino will see right through her disguise, that she wishes to be wooed by him. And Willow Geer makes it work really well. It is also interesting to me that different characters sing for different reasons. Obviously, bursting into song is a conceit and in Orsino’s case, it is a bit of putting on airs, of playing the part of being in love with Olivia (for of course we all know he will soon be in love with Viola). Thus, he sings his line, “O, then unfold the passion of my love,” with the other men working as his backup singers.

Feste (Time Winters) is dressed in a fool’s cap, and even has jingling bells. He is an instantly lovable character in this production. The oddest bit of casting is Melora Marshall as Malvolio. A female Malvolio changes things quite a bit, particularly as the character then becomes gay, something that wouldn’t be a problem in a modern setting, but something that doesn’t quite work when set in the early 1800s. After all, Toby, Maria and the others accept her sexuality as a given, never making mention of it. It becomes more than just crossing a boundary of class for Malvolio, as she tries to rise above her station; it’s a whole other boundary being crossed, which would have been much more serious at that time than now. Malvolio is dressed in black, like her mistress Olivia; the other gentlewomen are dressed in lighter colors. This shows immediately that Malvolio is working to be close to Olivia and to be firmly in her favor. When Viola enters disguised as Cesario, all of the women (including Malvolio) don black veils, leading to her question about which is the lady of the house. Christine Breihan is wonderful as Olivia in this scene. I love that she pauses before asking “Is’t not well done?” It is as if she is waiting for a compliment, perhaps used to getting them. And she is adorable in her excitement after Viola exits.

Malvolio has a whistle, which she blows often, as when chasing down Viola. She places Olivia’s ring on the ground rather than tossing it at her. Viola is excellent in that moment when she realizes that Olivia loves her, and she gives a great and funny delivery of “What will become of this?” That speech is one of her best, in a performance that is full of wonderful work. I’ve always been fond of Toby as a character, and Christopher W. Jones delivers a really good performance in the role. I particularly like his work in the scene when he asks Feste for a love song, especially the way he is affected by the song. I also enjoy the moment when he mimics Malvolio later in the scene, humorously duplicating her walk. But again, the plan concocted by Maria seems a little odd in light of Malvolio’s gender. Clearly, they are all aware of Malvolio’s sexuality, which in the early 1800s seems unlikely. And it also might come across a bit like they are poking fun at her because of her sexual orientation and not just because of her haughty airs. Don’t get me wrong: Melora Marshall’s performance as Malvolio is excellent. It is just that the character as a woman doesn’t quite work.

The character Fabian is cut, and Feste instead takes part in the gulling of Malvolio. He and the others hide behind branches that they hold, as they wait for Malvolio to find the letter. The gentlewomen also take part in the fun, or at least are there to witness it, they too using branches to conceal themselves. The letter, by the way, is on red paper and cut in the shape of a heart, which is cute. And this scene gives Malvolio a chance to sing, for she finally has joy. She sings the lines contained in the letter. Because Feste is present instead of Fabian, at the end of the scene he remains on stage, and Viola enters to begin Act III. Olivia now has cast off her mourning garb and is clad in a light purple dress for her meeting with Viola, showing she is ready and eager to move on. And again, because Fabian is cut, Feste takes his part in Act III Scene ii, saying lines that don’t really fit with his character. And later, it is strange to hear him say Fabian’s line “If this were play’d upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbably fiction.” When Maria enters, she takes great joy in telling the others of Malvolio’s state, and her joy is infectious. We in the audience are as eager to follow her as are Toby and the others. Malvolio comes dancing in from the woods off stage left, and again sings the lines about “greatness,” this time to Olivia.

There has long been some question regarding Antonio’s affection for Sebastian, and whether there is a sexual attraction there. Interestingly, this production dispenses with that question with one gesture by Antonio. After handing Sebastian his purse, he says “Haply your eye shall light upon some toy/You have desire to purchase.” On the word “toy,” Antonio creates the outline of a woman’s body. It is interesting that in a production that has made Malvolio a lesbian, it also makes Antonio clearly straight. It is also a bit strange that Antonio is essentially giving Sebastian money for a prostitute. The duel scene between Viola and Andrew is delightful. And even before that, I love that when Toby is reading Andrew’s written challenge to Viola (or, rather, to Cesario), Andrew joins in, having memorized what he’d written and being quite proud of it. Toby is excellent as he tells Viola of Andrew’s intentions. With Fabian cut, however, it is left to Feste to pretend to hold back Viola, which seems somewhat out of character. But the fight is hilarious, with each reluctant combatant covering his or her eyes. And the following moment between Sebastian and Andrew is great as well.

Feste’s delivery of the word “brains” in the line “Nay, I’ll never believe a madman till I see his brains” brings to mind the movie The Return Of The Living Dead. The final scene of the play moves at a brisk pace, with plenty of wonderful work from the cast. When Antonio says “adverse town,” he directs it out, as if at all of us in the audience, a nice touch, particularly as it reminds us of the beginning when Viola sees the audience as the town. Olivia has another excellent moment when delivering the line “Hast thou forgot thyself? Is it so long?” And her complete delight on the line “Most wonderful” is perfect. Andrew is wonderful when he runs in from the woods, and when delivering the line “You broke my head for nothing.” The entire company sings the final song rather than just Feste. Even Malvolio enters near the end of the song, albeit somewhat reluctantly. So the production ends with a celebration, leaving the audience with good cheer.

This production of Twelfth Night was directed by Ellen Geer, and runs through September 28th. Visit the Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum website for the complete schedule. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act III Scene i. Including intermission, the performance runs approximately two and a half hours.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Shakespeare Reference in The Concrete Blonde

Michael Connelly’s detective novel The Concrete Blonde contains one Shakespeare reference. It is a Hamlet reference. After Bosch hears the verdict in his trial, he asks, “What about Chandler?” Belk, his lawyer, answers: “Well, there’s the rub, so to speak. The jury found for the plaintiff so we are going to have to pick up her tab” (p. 356). “There’s the rub” comes from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.

The Concrete Blonde was published in 1994.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Shakespeare References in Pygmalion

Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion contains a few references to Shakespeare. Henry Higgins, early in the play when he still identified as “The Note Taker,” says to Eliza Doolittle, “Remember that you are a human being with a soul and the divine gift of articulate speech: that your native language is the language of Shakespear and Milton and The Bible” (p. 20). And, yes, that is how Shakespeare’s name is spelled in the text. Later Higgins says to Pickering, about Eliza, “This unfortunate animal has been locked up for nine years in school at our expense to teach her to speak and read the language of Shakespear and Milton” (P. 55). And still later, Higgins says to Pickering, “Lets take her to the Shakespear exhibition at Earls Court” (p. 71). And yes, “Let’s” is spelled without the apostrophe in the text.

Pygmalion was first published in 1916. The edition I read is the Penguin Books edition from 1973, which includes additional material from George Bernard Shaw from 1942.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Shakespeare References in Begin The Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years

Yes, Shakespeare references continue to pop up in nearly every book I read. Robert Dean Lurie’s new book about the band R.E.M., Begin The Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years, contains a few Shakespeare references. The first is a reference to Romeo And Juliet, and it comes when Lurie is mentioning other names the band considered before settling on R.E.M., names such as Slut Bank and Can Of Piss. Lurie writes, “Sometimes a rose by any other name really doesn’t smell as sweet” (p. 83). As most people seem to do, he is referring to the Q1 line of “By any other name” rather than the preferred Folio reading of “That which we call a rose/By any other word would smell as sweet.” The second reference is to Richard The Third, though really it’s Lawrence Durrell who makes the reference in The Black Book, which Lurie quotes here: “Even the ones like pale nipples, delicately freckled and melodious, are forgotten in this morning, where our one reality is the Levantine wind, musty with the smell of Arabia, stirring the bay into a muddy broth. This is the winter of our discontent” (p. 204). That last line refers to the first line of Richard The Third, “Now is the winter of our discontent.” The final reference is simply a mention of the band Trip Shakespeare (p. 228).

Begin The Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years was published in May, 2019 through Verse Chorus Press.

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Noises Off (A Noise Within’s 2019 Production) Theatre Review

Noises Off production photo by Craig Schwartz
A Noise Within’s production of Noises Off enjoyed a sold-out run last year, with audience members returning to see it two and three times. It was so popular that folks requested its return. Never one to disappoint an audience, A Noise Within has brought the production back for a limited run. So, if like me, you missed it last year, here is your chance to enjoy this absolutely delightful comedy, with the same cast and direction. I generally review only Shakespeare productions, but Noises Off contains a play within a play, and what could be more Shakespearean than that? It also contains references to both Hamlet and Richard The Third. It is a play that anyone who has ever been involved in theatre can appreciate. And for everyone else, well, there is a certain delight to be taken in watching things fall apart, don’t you find? Provided, of course, that things aren’t falling apart for us personally. And things certainly do fall apart for the characters in Noises Off.

The play is divided into three acts, and in each of those acts we see the same play from different perspectives. First, from the director’s perspective during the play’s final dress rehearsal (even if some of the actors believe it is the tech rehearsal), then from the actors’ perspective backstage, and finally from an audience’s perspective. It is an interesting effect, essentially not seeing the play from what would be our own perspective as audience members until we’d already seen it from everyone else’s perspective and become enamored of these characters. It’s good that we get a chance to see it multiple times because our own laughter sometimes drowns out certain lines and we need another chance to hear them. In fact, last night even before a single line was spoken, certain people in the audience were laughing, as if in anticipation of the lines. Clearly, they had seen the production before.

When the play begins, a housekeeper enters and answers the telephone, letting the person on the other end know that the house’s owners are away in Spain. It isn’t until we hear a voice from within the audience call out, “You leave the sardines,” that we realize this woman isn’t a somewhat batty character, but a somewhat batty actor. Well, still a character from our perspective, but you know what I mean. Lloyd, the play’s director, remains in the audience for most of this first act, and so it is from his perspective that we view the proceedings, as he tries to push these actors through the final rehearsal. When one actor looks for his motivation for a certain bit of business, the director, exasperated, says, “Why does anyone do anything?” We feel his pain, particularly when he is seated among us.

For the second act, the set has been turned around, so now we are backstage. Visible are the costume racks and props table and stage manager’s station. The production has been up for a while, and there are new troubles, leading Lloyd at one point to say, “I think this show is beyond the help of a director.” By the way, the pace of this play is fast, particularly in this second act. Its momentum is tremendous. So much is happening all at once. And everything that is established in the first act pays off beautifully in the second and third acts. For the third act, the set is turned around once again so that we in the audience are now the audience for the play within the play. (By the way, the stagehands received applause when turning the set around during the short intermission. That gives you an idea of how much the crowd loves this production.)

There is a lot of physical humor, with the slamming of doors, and entrances and exits. And, after all, isn’t that what it’s all about? Doors and sardines, getting on, getting off. The play is a fun romp. Just the sort of thing one might need in order to, say, take one’s mind off the destruction of the environment or the end of democracy. And the entire cast is fantastic. I was especially excited to see Erika Soto as Poppy, the stage manager. I fell under her spell during her work with the Independent Shakespeare Company, and her Juliet is still the best I’ve ever seen on the stage. I recently saw Jeremy Rabb give a wonderful performance as Roderigo in Othello, and here he a total delight as Frederick. But probably the best performance is given by Kasey Mahaffy as Garry. I thought he did an excellent job as Rosencrantz in last year’s production of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, but here he is an undeniable comedic force, a whirlwind of hilarity, and an absolute joy to watch. But as I said, the entire cast is wonderful.

This production of Noises Off runs only through June 9th, so get your tickets soon. We can all use a laugh these days, and this production provides plenty of them. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Shakespeare Reference in Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor

I walked to my local gaming store the other day to buy more dice (I always want more dice), and as it was Free Comic Book Day, I picked up a comic book too. It is issue 00 of Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor, and it contains a Shakespeare reference. The Doctor says “Something wicked this way comes.” Her next line is “Ray Bradbury, lovely man.” That seems to imply that the Doctor believes the line originated with Ray Bradbury. It did not. The line “Something wicked this way comes” is from Act IV Scene i of Macbeth: “By the pricking of my thumbs,/Something wicked this way comes.”

Doctor Who: The Thirteenth Doctor is published by Titan Comics. This issue was written by Jody Houser, with most of the art done by Giorgia Sposito. The colorist was Tracy Bailey.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Shakespeare References in Going Down: Lip Service From Great Writers

Going Down: Lip Service From Great Writers is a collection of short pieces from various authors on the subject of oral sex. Two of the pieces in this book contain Shakespeare references, and actually both references are to Hamlet. The first comes from Jadis by Ken Chowder: “On impulse Egg yanked a piece of Spanish moss from a passing tree and twirled it around Tory’s head. ‘A makeshift crown,’ he proclaimed. ‘A laurel wreath. A garland for poor drowned Ophelia’” (p. 83). By the way, I’m fairly certain it was Egg and not the tree that was doing the passing. Trees on the go! The second Hamlet reference comes from Teleny, a book attributed largely to Oscar Wilde: “‘Was it because the Almighty had fixed His canon against self-slaughter?’” (p. 102). In Act I Scene ii, Hamlet says, “Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” Going Down: Lip Service From Great writers was published in 1998 by Chronicle Books.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Shakespeare References in Portrait Of A Killer

In Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper Case Closed, author Patricia Cornwell claims to prove that artist Walter Sickert was the notorious killer. She doesn’t make a very convincing case, and takes a long time to not make it. But along the way, there are several Shakespeare references. The first is a mention of Henry The Fifth: “As a boy, Sickert frequently sketched men in uniforms and armor. As Mr. Nemo, the actor, his most critically acclaimed performance was in 1880, when he played a French soldier in Shakespeare’s Henry V” (p. 23). A little later, Cornwell writes: “When Walter was a bit older, after the family had moved to England in 1868, he began recruiting friends and siblings to play scenes from Shakespeare, and some of his stage direction was nasty and degrading” (p. 47). She then quotes an unpublished memoir from Sickert’s sister: “I must have been a child when [Walter] roped us in to rehearse the three witches to his Macbeth in a disused quarry near Newquay, which innocently I thought was really called ‘The Pit of Achaeron.’ Here he drilled us very severely. I was made (being appropriately thin and red-haired) to discard my dress & shoes & stockings, in order to brood over the witches cauldron, or stride around it, regardless of thorns and sharp stones, in my eyes the acrid smoke of scorching seaweed” (p. 47).

There are a couple of references to Hamlet. Cornwell writes, “In 1881, he tagged along with Ellen Terry as she hit the shops of Regent Street in search of gowns for her role as Ophelia at the Lyceum” (p. 63). And then: “In most productions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the ghost enters and exits through the trap. Sickert probably knew far more about stage traps than sewer traps. In 1881, he played the ghost in Henry Irving’s Hamlet at the Lyceum Theater. The dark shape at the figure’s feet in Sickert’s painting could be a theater trap. It could be a sewer trap” (p. 68).

Patricia Cornwell even claims that the name Jack The Ripper comes from Shakespeare: “Sickert could have come up with the name ‘Jack the Ripper’ by reading Shakespeare. As Helena Sickert said in her memoirs, when she and her brothers were growing up, they were all ‘Shakespeare mad,’ and Sickert was known to quote long passages of Shakespeare. Throughout his life he loved to stand up at dinner parties and deliver Shakespearean soliloquies. The word Jack is found in Coriolanus, The Merchant of Venice, and Cymbeline. Shakespeare doesn’t use the word ripper, but there are variations of it in King John and Macbeth” (pages 112-113).

Apparently, there was (still is?) a pub called the Merry Wives of Windsor. Cornwell writes: “One day, a wretched-looking woman, having the appearance of a tramp, appeared at the Merry Wives of Windsor public house and inquired about Chapman” (p. 147). She mentions it again: “The woman at the door of the Merry Wives of Windsor informed the tramp that Mr. Chapman had died on Christmas day” (p. 147). There is another mention of Henry The Fifth: “In one of the earliest existing Sickert letters, one he wrote in 1880 to historian and biographer T.E. Pemberton, he described playing an ‘old man’ in Henry V while on tour in Birmingham. ‘It is the part I like best of all,’ he wrote” (p. 154).

Regarding a guest book that Patricia Cornwell believes was vandalized by Jack The Ripper, she writes, “The page is filled in with scribbles and comments and allusions to Shakespeare, most of it crude and snide” (p. 264). There is another mention of Hamlet: “I don’t know where Sickert spent his holidays, but I suspect he would have wanted to be in London on the last Saturday of the year, December 29th, when Hamlet opened at the Lyceum, starring Henry Irving and Ellen Terry” (pages 279-280). Regarding Sickert’s wife, and the similarities she might have seen between Sickert and her father, Cornwell writes, “He loved Shakespeare, Byron, Irving and Cooper” (p. 306).
 
Portrait Of A Killer: Jack The Ripper Case Closed was published in 2002. The copy I read was the Berkley mass-market edition, published in 2003.