Sunday, February 23, 2020

Measure For Measure (Antaeus Theatre Company’s 2020 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Jenny Graham
A story of corruption and hypocrisy, and of a man exploiting his position of power to satisfy his own personal desires is probably always relevant, but these days it seems particularly pertinent. Antaeus Theatre Company’s excellent new production of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure focuses on how Angelo, newly appointed to serve as Duke in Vincentio’s absence, uses his newfound position to coerce sexual favors from Isabella, a novice nun. This production is directed by Armin Shimerman and Elizabeth Swain, and features some absolutely captivating performances, particularly by Carolyn Ratteray as Isabella, Ramón de Ocampo as Angelo, and Bo Foxworth as Lucio.

The set is fairly simple, with a raised platform in the center, upon which is a wood desk and chair. Behind that is a set of bookshelves, with the scales of justice in a central position. The play, of course, deals with the concept and execution of justice, and how it may be tempered by mercy. As the performance begins, the Duke (Paul Culos) takes his position by the desk, but before he can speak, there is a sudden clamor, as several others enter below him, rowdy citizens displaying licentious behavior and attitudes, wild and undisciplined. Vincentio watches in dismay. It is good that we get this moment and this sense of how he views the citizens, for this helps us understand why he is temporarily giving his powers to his deputy, Angelo. Angelo (Ramón de Ocampo) is understandably confused at suddenly being given the position to rule, and at first does not desire such a position. The play’s opening scene moves quite quickly, which works well for Angelo’s sense of surprise. This production includes quite a bit of doubling up of roles, and the actor who plays Angelo also plays Claudio, Isabella’s brother. It is interesting that the same actor plays the one condemning and the one condemned. When Claudio enters, he is paraded in front of the audience, leading to his line “why dost thou show me thus to th’ world?” He is shackled, and a sign around his neck reads, “Lechery.”

When the Duke explains his plan to Friar Thomas (Paul Eiding), the Friar does not immediately take to it, which is a really nice moment. The Duke’s role in this play is often the toughest to defend, for he seems to take delight in trickery, and so it is great that this religious man doesn’t at first think too kindly of his plan to pretend he is one of their order. At the end of that scene, Friar Thomas silently hands the Duke his Bible as a way to indicate he will comply with the Duke’s wishes, which to me seems to show a reluctance and a mild reproof of the Duke’s scheme, which again is wonderful. Paul Eiding also plays both Elbow and Barnadine. While he is quite funny as the somewhat bumbling constable, where he really shines is as Barnadine, the prisoner who does not consent to being executed.

Isabella (Carolyn Ratteray) has a sweet and kind air about her when we first meet her, and is immediately likeable. When she first speaks to Angelo in the hope of saving her brother’s life, she nearly breaks on the line “I had a brother then,” which is incredibly moving. And so when Lucio says that she’s too cold, we feel for her. She does begin to turn away again when Angelo says “be gone,” and might have given up but for Lucio’s stern look at her. It is clear that her eloquence then is what impresses Angelo and begins to stir his interest. When Angelo states his own case, he pulls out several books, and opens them to show her the laws that he is enforcing. He speaks almost as passionately as Isabella, his passion being for the law. When Isabella’s speaks the line “O, it is excellent/To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous/To use it like a giant,” Lucio pipes in with “That’s well said,” and he is clearly speaking for all of us in the audience. That is a line for all times, isn’t it? Both Isabella and Angelo are fantastic in this scene. Angelo is troubled, even shocked, by his own desire, which is great. After Isabella and Lucio exit, Angelo plainly and honestly asks us in the audience, “What’s this? What’s this?” And it feels like he truly is hoping one of us will provide him an answer. His distress seems true, and he drops to his knees and uses his belt to whip himself, perhaps as punishment for his thoughts, or perhaps in the hope that the act will cleanse himself of them. It is a powerful and unexpected moment.

And before their second scene together, Angelo is clearly nervous, but then steels himself when Isabella enters. On his “if you give me love,” he steps to block Isabella’s way. When she threatens to make public what has transpired in his office, Angelo says, “Who will believe thee, Isabel?” That is the question, isn’t it? And that it is how we end up with someone like Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. This is an intense moment in the play, for now Angelo is unleashed, and Isabella is clearly in danger. Angelo steals a kiss from her, and even that feels like rape. When Angelo exits, Isabella is left alone on the stage, and she has taken his words to heart, now asking herself and the heavens, “Who would believe me?” And it is this image of Isabella alone that we are left with as the first half of the performance ends. Interestingly, during intermission a board is placed in front of the bookcase, so the scales of justice are no longer visible.

While Ramón de Ocampo is phenomenal as Angelo, he is also quite good as Claudio. I particularly like his expression during the Duke’s speech about life and death, which reads as “What the hell is this guy talking about?” And Claudio’s fear of death is believable, especially when he says “to die and go we know not where.” Indeed, that is a fear most have, and it causes us to side with him, at least momentarily. Isn’t his life worth more than his sister’s virginity? And when she shouts at him in anger, that is the moment when she seems coldest. But when soon thereafter Claudio begs to be allowed to ask his sister’s pardon, we feel for them both, and again find ourselves seeing things from Isabella’s perspective.

Bo Foxworth is outstanding as Lucio. He is hilarious in the scene where he asks Isabella to speak to Angelo on her brother’s behalf. But what is more remarkable is that he conveys the seriousness of the situation equally well. It is a joy to watch his layered performance. In the scene where he speaks to the disguised Duke (which in this production happens before Act II Scene iv), when he asks “What news, Friar, of the Duke,” we get the sense that he knows the Friar’s identity. His delivery is delicious and pointed. He then raises his voice on “what a ruthless thing is this in him,” his anger seeming to be directed at the Duke as well as at Angelo, a nice touch. But when he pulls a blade out, we in the audience are forced to think twice about his awareness of the Friar’s identity. Foxworth also plays Juliet, and his appearance as that character gets an initial laugh from the audience. Aaron Lyons also turns in a good performance as Pompey, a character who takes great joy in himself and in his questionable traits. I love the way he adjusts his speech and his voice depending on whom he is addressing. For example, his “The valiant heart’s not whipped out of his trade” speech is delivered directly to the audience, and the change in tone shows he is taking us into his confidence.

The ending of Measure For Measure presents some problems. The Duke is devious in letting Isabella continue to believe her bother to be dead, and it is impossible to like him in that moment. Yet when he returns to reclaim his position, it is supposed to be a joyous moment, one of relief, that all things will be righted. And it turns out that he, like Angelo, is attracted to Isabella. And while he doesn’t try to force himself upon her, he does propose marriage, which means he doesn’t take Isabella’s devotion to her faith all that seriously. Shakespeare provides no response for Isabella. And so how are we to take her silence? Is it a joy not needed to be expressed in words? Is it acquiescence to the desire of someone in position of authority, something she had done her best to avoid throughout the play? In this production, it is neither. Isabella steps back from the Duke when he proposes marriage, and the Duke, understanding, nods at her, accepting her rejection. It is a much stronger and daring position for her to take. And, as at the end of the first act, Isabella is left alone on stage at the end of the performance.

This production of Measure For Measure runs through April 6th. Visit the theatre’s official website for the complete schedule. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes at the end of Act II. Antaeus Theatre Company performs at the Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center, located at 110 East Broadway in Glendale, California.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Winter’s Tale (A Noise Within’s 2020 Production) Theatre Review

production photo by Craig Schwartz
When we think of Shakespeare and jealousy, most of us think first of the title character from Othello. But Leontes in The Winter’s Tale is also driven to murder because of a jealous streak. But whereas Othello’s jealousy is aroused deliberately by a character out to destroy him, Leontes’ jealousy is due to something unstable in his own character, a defect in his view of women. A Noise Within’s new production of The Winter’s Tale focuses on Leontes’ breakdown and ultimate redemption. This production sets the play in the early part of the twentieth century, and features some excellent performances, particularly by Trisha Miller as Hermione, Deborah Strang as Paulina and Frederick Stuart as Leontes.

Before the performance begins, the stage is bathed in blue and white light, the stage having the look of marble, with several dark veins running through it. Two sets of columns are positioned upstage. And as the play begins, images of large snowflakes falling are projected on the backdrop and columns. It is rather beautiful. As the actors enter, there is a sense of celebration, of joviality. Two men engage in a playful fencing contest, and it is soon revealed that they are the two kings – Leontes and Polixenes (Brian Ibsen). So it is quickly established that these two are great friends, that their company is not due simply to matters of state. When Hermione is encouraged to use her charms to convince Polixenes to extend his stay, she playfully employs the fencing foils, which keeps the mood light and joyous, a nice touch, for it immediately shows her part in the friendship. Hermione and Polixenes move downstage for their conversation, while Leontes watches from center stage (between two drink carts). This production employs some interesting use of sound. For example, there is a low rumbling leading to Leontes’ “Too hot, too hot,” the moment when his jealousy rises. It is like we are in his head, the blood rushing, changing our perceptions of the action. Leontes is not just distrustful of his own wife, but of wives in general, as he makes clear in his speech, using the audience as examples. Leontes indicates specific audience members on “holds his wife by the arm,” and then a nearby audience member becomes his “neighbor.” Is it like he is trying to prove that his own sudden burst of jealousy is not only warranted, but should be adopted by men all around. Here Leontes has a formal, reserved demeanor and manner, which works well in contrast to the cauldron of jealousy bubbling up inside him. It is as if he is still trying to keep it in check. And lights on the stage floor create a series of bars as Leontes goes farther into his rant, a prisoner of his own fixation, his own error. Alcohol is also used as a prop to show Leontes’ mental unraveling. In the scene where Paulina brings the baby to him, we find him seated in the rocking chair with a drink. In that scene, he drinks after “within my power,” as if drawing traces of strength and resolve from it. He is magnificent in that scene. After his child is placed in the crib, he takes a moment to look at it before howling “Out!” It is as if for a moment his humanity was struggling to return.

Camillo is played by Jeremy Rabb, who was wonderful as Roderigo in last year’s production of Othello. Here he gives another excellent performance. He is particularly good in the scene where Leontes charges him with dispatching Polixenes. He seems sincere when he finally agrees to Leontes’ plan. Then, when Leontes exits, his demeanor changes before he delivers the speech revealing his true feelings to us in the audience. And he sits at the edge of the stage, almost like the conversation with Leontes and the task he is saddled with have sapped his strength, a nice touch. His demeanor changes yet again when Polixenes enters. Trisha Miller (who was phenomenal as Goneril in the 2017 production of King Lear) also turns in an excellent performance as Hermione. On her line “You thus have publish’d me,” she grows quieter, even looking around before the word “publish’d,” as if now realizing her reputation is stained. Her delivery of “I never wish’d to see you sorry; now/I trust I shall” is incredibly moving. Her trial is done in an interesting way. Two sets of stairs become a platform center stage, above which hangs a microphone. The court has a military atmosphere, which gives the scene a more frightening and oppressive vibe, the red lights adding to that sense. Hermione is fantastic in this scene. Of course, giving Shakespeare’s work a more modern setting always introduces some problems. In this production, the only major problem caused by the modern setting is that it makes the whole business about Apollo and the oracle somewhat odd and unbelievable. Still, because of the performances, the scene has power. Leontes shouts, “There is no truth at all i’ the oracle,” but it is clear he is broken now, and then the immediate news of his son’s death causes the queen’s collapse and Leontes’ sudden repentance. Paulina, for her speech, takes the spot on the platform, causing Leontes to shrink, to descend a few steps, creating a powerful and meaningful stage picture.

In many ways Paulina (Deborah Strang) is the true moral center of the production. She is true to herself and to others at all times, never letting fear dictate her course. When she tries to visit Hermione in prison, she ends up giving poor Emilia (Katie Rodriguez) her scarf and gloves, showing her concern for others outweighs her concern for herself. Her final line of that scene, “I will stand betwixt you and danger,” is spoken a second time in this production, to the baby in her arms. Her line to Leontes, “I’ll not call you tyrant,” along with other lines about tyranny cannot help but call to mind our current political troubles. Her husband, Antigonus (Alan Blumenfeld), is also quite good, especially in the scene where Paulina brings the baby to Leontes.

Mamillius (Jayce Evans) plays an important part in this production. The first scene of Act II is set in the nursery, where he is dressed as a bear, and carrying a teddy bear in his satchel for good measure. For those who are not already familiar with this play, it contains perhaps the most famous of all of Shakespeare’s stage directions: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” So this bit of costuming is a playful reference to the bear’s later entrance. It also connects him to the character of Antigonus, who is killed by that bear. When Antigonus enters with the baby, Hermione and Mamillus appear in white as ghosts between the columns upstage. That, of course, is a bit odd, since Hermione is not actually dead. Rather than having Antigonus recount what Hermione said to him in his dream, as in the text, we hear her voice speak the lines. It is striking, but doesn’t feel quite right. She then exits, but the boy remains, wearing a white bear outfit. But, don’t worry, he is not the bear that chases Antigonus. Once Antigonus has been pursued off stage, the boy steps forward to look at the baby, and that is when the intermission comes.

The Winter’s Tale is considered a problematic play for several reasons, one of which is the change in tone which occurs at the end of the third act. It is a pretty serious drama up until that point, then becomes a comedy. This production chooses to place its intermission at the moment of change (rather than, say, just a bit later during the sixteen-year gap), which actually works quite well, for it gives the actor playing Antigonus the opportunity to also play the Shepherd. So he both leaves the child and retrieves her, which is lovely. Mamillius is present, seeming to guide the Shepherd to the baby, essentially taking care of his baby sister. That sixteen-year gap is also handled really well in this production. The character of Time enters during the storm, carrying an umbrella. The moment she suddenly closes her umbrella, the storm ceases, and she begins her speech. As she talks of Perdita, now grown, she becomes that character, a wonderful touch. Bohemia has a brighter and more appealing look, thanks to green backdrops and red flowers hanging between them. And when the other shepherds enter, they are celebrating and most are masked, creating an interesting rustic variation of the play’s opening.

Alan Blumenfeld does a wonderful job as the Shepherd, and the fondness and love he feels for his adopted daughter are apparent particularly in his delivery of “So she does anything,” a sweet moment. It feels like quite a bit is cut from the Bohemia scenes, including the character of Autolycus. Because Autolycus is cut, and so too the scene with him and the gentlemen, this production has to create a new way for the audience to see that Leontes has learned of his daughter’s identity, and it is done with a brief moment in which Leontes recognizes the scarf she dons. It feels a bit rushed for so important a moment. But then again, in the text, we only learn of it from the conversation of other characters. That scene with the gentlemen also contains talk of the statue of Hermione, so with it missing, the visit to the statue also feels a bit rushed. We need to hear of the statue before Leontes, Perdita and the others go to see it. That being said, the moment when Hermione is revealed, and she is reunited with Leontes and their daughter, is perfect and touching, and likely to bring a tear to your eye.

This production of The Winter’s Tale was directed by Geoff Elliott. It runs through April 11th. Visit A Noise Within’s website for the complete schedule. There is one fifteen-minute intermission, which comes partway through Act III Scene iii. A Noise Within is located at 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena, California.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Shakespeare References in Gods And Spacemen Of The Ancient Past

In Gods And Spacemen Of The Ancient Past, author W. Raymond Drake makes the argument that the “Lord” and angels of the biblical stories were actually extraterrestrials. It is an interesting argument – at times even compelling – but it is also rather goofy, and the book becomes repetitive. Still, it contains a few references to Shakespeare. Drake writes: “The Old and New Testaments generally describe heaven as a place evocative perhaps of another planet, especially the fantastic description by St. John in Revelations, who seemed to be depicting some advanced world transcending his understanding, like (say) Shakespeare with all his wondrous imagery trying to comprehend our technical civilization today, although mystics will assert that Revelations portrays a state of ecstasy strangely similar to those ultravivid hallucinations of ‘Hippies’ today” (pages 39-40). (Yeah, the book came out in 1974.)

Then much later in the book, Drake mentions Shakespeare again: “David poured forth his devotion to the ‘Lord’ in many wonderful Psalms, which evoke those passionate sonnets of Shakespeare” (p. 140). And then, just a little bit after that, he writes: “Even the supreme genius of Shakespeare could not pen such erotic love poems to a formless, spiritual Ideal. Scholars agree the Bard was inspired by that wanton Dark Lady whose lyrical beauty haunts each bejeweled verse. David many centuries earlier must have written his Psalms to a ‘Lord’ of Wonder, an Extraterrestrial whom he surely heard and saw, described in simple words curiously akin to our own Science Fiction” (p. 140. Unusual use of capital letters, eh?

Gods And Spacemen Of The Ancient Past was first published in November of 1974.