Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Whirligig of Time -- Perception and Reality in Twelfth Night

Review of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Twelfth Night (11 August 2012)

I had a hard time starting this review of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Twelfth Night. On the one hand, I absolutely adored the production. “Beautiful” was the word I used the most when describing it to friends. But I find that I run out of adjectives very quickly with a play like this: It’s brilliant: the costumes are stunning, the music sensational, the sets lovely, the timing perfect, all the characters amazing, and every performance inspired. I loved it, and can think of very little that could be improved. So I feel like I don’t have a whole lot to say.

On the other hand, the play has produced deep thoughts in me… and I’ve been tempted to wax philosophical. But that opens up a Pandora’s Box of ideas that have less to do with this particular production. So I have too much to say… and that too much is not quite to the point.

But… this is theatre. And the purpose of theatre is communication. And communication is worthless if it doesn’t communicate Ideas. Shakespeare’s plays – even the comedies – are not just plots and characters and settings, but vehicles for Ideas. And if a particular production (this one, for instance) can spark these big Ideas in a viewer, then it has done its job and done it well. So, really, the philosophy isn’t so much off topic after all.

A friend overheard another audience member say, “Isn’t it amazing how they make it feel so contemporary and modern?” I laugh, not because whoever said this was off base, but because they were so spot-on. But here’s the thing: It’s not this production. Sure, director Avital Shira had her stellar (ooh! There’s another superlative adjective!) cast deliver the lines with a fresh, modern feel. But the reason it works so well is that the characters that Shakespeare created are as much at home in the 21st century as they were in the 17th. People haven’t changed. Guys were melodramatic, lovelorn idiots then (Orsino), and they are now. Girls were apt to fall quick and hard for someone at the least provocation (Olivia), and they are now. There will always be self-important, pig-headed jerks in positions of authority (Malvolio), and we will always rejoice when they get their comeuppance.

Twelfth Night works so well because we all know the characters from our own lives. How many long conversations have I had with my Orsino guy friends, so blinded by what they want that they can’t see what they could have? How many times have I, myself, been Olivia – wanting the unattainable and acting like a complete idiot in an effort to attain it?

No one escapes censure in Twelfth Night. And that’s what makes it work so well. It’s a play about contrasts – wisdom and folly, men and women, perception and reality – but mostly perception and reality. We all have a preferred version of reality… the way we’d like things to be. And it’s this perception that blinds us to the way things actually are.

In true Shakespearean tradition, the only person who really knows what’s what in the play is Feste, the fool, played charmingly in this production by Carson Cook. Cook made it obvious that he knew exactly what was going on – that “Cesario” is really a girl; that Orsino’s love for Olivia isn’t going to last; that Olivia’s mourning for her brother is more of an excuse (though perhaps not a conscious one) to be moody than true, deep-seated grief.

Of course, Shakespeare’s device (making the “fool” the wise one) brings up the contrast between wisdom and folly, and reminds us that when we think we are wise, that’s when we’re the most foolish. This comes out in practically every character in Twelfth Night to some extent or another, but most in Malvolio (played by Arthur Delaney). Malvolio’s perception is that everyone loves him (despite much evidence to the contrary), and this makes him particularly susceptible to the practical jokes played on him by Maria (Jennifer Elkington), Sir Toby Belch (Will Steele), Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek (Max Maller) and Feste. Once again, in true Shakespearean tradition, the villain is hoist by his own petard, and when the whirligig of time brings in his revenges, we may feel a little sorry for the “madly-used Malvolio,” but we recognize that he brought it upon himself. Delaney did a particularly good job throughout of making Malvolio so obnoxious that I, like Maria, could “hardly forbear hurling things at him,” and that made the ending more palatable.

I could go on in this philosophical bent, but I don’t want to try your patience. So I’ll end with a few notes about this production.

Zach Virden made an awesome Orsino. And Britt Harris did a lovely job as Viola / Cesario. The two of them have some delightfully awkward moments as the relationship between master and confidant threatens to turn into something else. In fact, the entire play is filled with wonderful awkwardness – which is, I suppose, one of the chief reasons a girl dressed as a guy worked so well in so many Shakespeare plays.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the beautiful music written by Amir Shirazi and very well performed by the entire cast. Bravo.

For those of you who are wondering about appropriateness and such, just know that at one point Olivia comes out wrapped in a sheet (a very long, very opaque sheet… but still… it implies… you know). I understand how they came to that interpretation, though I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. Also the “intermission music” is a slightly risqué drinking song. Those are my only real concerns… and by comparison to the rest of the show, they are very small.

Bravo to the entire cast and crew for an outstanding job and one of my favorite productions all year! And thanks for making me think! 

This production runs through Labor Day weekend. Visit www.portlandactors.org for dates and locations.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

One Year

One year ago today I started this blog with a collection of haiku summarizing Shakespeare plays. Wow. That seems like forever ago. And just yesterday I passed the 2,000 visits mark... which may not seem like all that much, but to someone who was just looking for a place to chronicle her obsession with Shakespeare, it's kind of amazing.

This has been a fun adventure, and I fully intend to keep going. Not only does it help me think through the productions I see, but it also gives me a place to vent my thoughts that just won't go away. I've thought some (for me) Deep Literary Thoughts (the Robin Hood post, the Shakespeare Birthday post, the One Reason I Love Shakespeare post) and had quite a bit of fun with the Bard, too. Interestingly enough, the Horrible Histories and Shakespearean Insults post is the most popular of all time. Who knew?

So, that's about all for now. Thanks for stopping by! Drop me a note. I love hearing from fellow Shakespeare Nerds.


Monday, August 6, 2012

Not Much Ado

Review of Willamette Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing (4 August 2012)

When Claudio asks Benedick what he thinks of Hero, Benedick replies, “Why, i' faith, methinks she's too low for a high praise, too brown for a fair praise and too little for a great praise: only this commendation I can afford her, that were she other than she is, she were unhandsome; and being no other but as she is, I do not like her” (1.1.167-172). In other words… she just doesn’t do it for me.
And that was exactly how I felt about Willamette Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s hard to pin down what didn’t work for me. There were a lot of good things about the production, and yet, it fell flat.

Jason Maniccia was one of the highlights. His Benedick was solid, and he looked at home in the part. I could believe in all of Benedick’s changing moods – his self-confidence, his mockery, his frustration with Beatrice, his love-induced melancholy and his puppy love. My only disappointment was that he could have made so much more of the eavesdropping scene, but that is probably more director Daniel Somerfield’s fault.

Ithica Tell made a smart, sassy Beatrice. She made the 400-year-old puns and wordplays feel fresh and spontaneous and biting. But I could never really buy the bit where Beatrice is in love with Benedick. And unfortunately, most of the rest of the cast didn’t play up to her energy level, and so she felt out of place. I would really like to see her in some fast-paced, high-energy productions. I think she would be brilliant.

This production, however, was not fast-paced or high-energy.

Chris Ringkamp’s Claudio was eager and innocent and young and in love, but Holly Wigmore’s flat performance of Hero gave him nothing to work with. Where Chris really shone was as one of the watch, where he could play more of a comic role, and where the other actors’ energy was infectious.

Most of that energy came from Clara-Liis Hillier (Constable Dogberry) and Lauren Modica (Verges) who absolutely stole the show. Every moment they were on stage was a gem. Their timing, their expressions, the way they stayed so wonderfully in character when the focus was not necessarily on them – they were wonderful! And costume designer Clare Parker did a bang-up job with their costumes, too. I particularly loved Dogberry’s skunk necktie with the squeaker, and Verges’s fez.

Composer and musician Jason Okamoto also deserves praise for his beautiful music (performed by him and Ali Ippolito). It gave just the right flavor and helped create the mood where other aspects failed.

One of the main problems with this production was the timing. Was it really necessary to break up the flow of the whole thing by having stagehands rearrange the benches every scene? It didn’t contribute to the sense of location or setting, and it killed what little energy there was in the last scene. If the benches absolutely have to be moved, why not have the actors do it as part of their scene? Another timing issue was that actors would often do their actions and then speak their lines – but not at the same time. Guys? We’re not that interested in watching you play a game of lawn bowls. And when the play has a lot of talking in it, you don’t want to drag it out any more than necessary.

So timing was a problem. Lack of energy was a problem. Several poor performances contributed to the overall lack of sparkle. In general, I found it a good time to work on my quilt. Which is saying something on a 100-degree day.