Tuesday, July 21, 2015

By the Pricking of my Thumbs...

Macbeth and Lady M have blood on their hands

Review of Macbeth - EDITED 24 July

Portland Actors Ensemble
July 2, 16 and 23, 2015

Disclaimer: I have thought about this play and even this production for a long, long time. That’s one of the perks of being the graphic designer, not to mention being able to sit down and talk to the director about what direction he’s going with the show. While I’ve enjoyed the “inside scoop,” I feel like I’m not able to write the review I should, because I am really not seeing it from the audience’s perspective. Let me just say up front, I really, really enjoyed this production and went to see it as often as I could.

Macbeth has long been my favorite Shakespeare play. I saw it in Ashland when I was about 13, and the atmosphere of that night has never left me. It was in the outdoor theatre at night, and there was real fire, and real bats flying around. I don’t know if they imported the bats or if that was just a happy coincidence. But the mood it created left an indelible mark.

Banquo and Macbeth encounter the Weird Sisters
Macbeth is primarily about atmosphere, if you ask me. It is a short, fast-paced, action-packed, bloody, violent, dark play. It has big themes and important lessons and lots to think about, but it doesn’t really give you time to actually think. And that’s OK, too. Not every play can (or should!) be Hamlet.

Portland Actors Ensemble’s Macbeth has all the basics – macabre setting (in a cemetery!) complete with bats at dusk, intense action, fast pace, elaborate costumes with a gorgeous Celtic flair to remind you this is the Scottish Play – and for anyone who hasn’t thought about Macbeth and studied it and overanalyzed it to death, it’s a great way to experience the play. It’s easy to follow even for those who don’t know the plot beforehand, never drags, and is an entertaining two hours.

Lady M has an idea and asks for the nerve to carry it out
Cecily Overman is the quintessential Lady Macbeth – intense, dark, and very much a driving force in the play. She also played an amazingly wicked Hecate – which gave me goosebumps. This doubling is spot on, and almost makes me rethink my aversion to the Hecate bits of the script. (Most scholars agree that Hecate is an interpolation and that Shakespeare didn't put her in there. Plus, she speaks in rhyming couplets, which is really hard to make sound evil, and gets annoying after a while.)

Michael Godsey’s Macbeth is appropriately ambitious, troubled and slightly psychotic. He's a great warrior who has stepped from his concrete, martial world of honor and heroism into something he can't explain, full of mysterious figures who speak in riddles and don't obey physical laws. He's out of his depth, but does his best. Michael does a great job making Macbeth complicated – he's a horrible person and does horrible things, but he's at least human.

The rest of the cast also have an intensity and forcefulness that is, in part, born of necessity when you’re playing outdoors without amplification to several hundred people a night. From that perspective, they all are to be commended. The words may go by quickly (possibly a little too quickly at times?) but you can hear all of them. On the other hand, in focusing so much on projecting so people on the other side of the cemetery can hear you, you sacrifice subtlety and nuance in the performance. It’s a calculated trade-off. Extra props to Tom Mounsey who gave MacDuff some depth without sacrificing projection.
King and Queen at last!

Director Matt Pavik’s vision for the production is that Macbeth is first and foremost a Tragedy in the classic sense (a sympathetic main character going inexorably towards destruction). There’s something to be said for this approach. Shakespeare himself calls it a tragedy. The problem is in order for it to fit the classic definition, the main character must be sympathetic – the audience must like him. And that’s a tall order for Macbeth. I applaud Matt and the cast for attempting it, and some performances they succeeded better than others. But there’s a lot to overcome. You have to give Macbeth some positive and compelling motivation to act the way he does. They do this by emphasizing the relationship between Macbeth and his wife, which works brilliantly as long as the two of them are together… but which gets a little lost when Lady Macbeth isn’t on the stage. As magnificent and larger-than-life as Overman’s Lady Macbeth was, a lot goes on without her.

MacDuff announces Macbeth's death
You also have to make sure that characters opposing Macbeth are less likeable than he is. Usually I find myself really liking the character of Malcolm. But this time I couldn't really connect with him. Andy Haftkowycz played Malcolm with a lot of energy and bombast, but very little depth (also a byproduct of the venue and volume?), and I didn't find him as compelling as I often see that character portrayed, but perhaps this is also to throw a better light on Macbeth. And then there was MacDuff, who I could never quite decide if I liked or not. Mounsey did a great job playing him; I just think the text doesn't really come down on one side or the other. Also, by cutting the scene at MacDuff’s castle where his family is slaughtered, it takes the sympathy for MacDuff down a notch. (I did find myself missing that scene later when MacDuff is being informed of what happened. I feel like the audience should have known, and that the later scene was missing some tension without it.)

In order to make Macbeth more sympathetic, you also have to somehow deal with the other characters’ responses to him, and I don’t know how to get around this. The Weird Sisters call him “wicked” as in “something wicked this way comes,” and the audience goes right along with it. MacDuff calls him "thou bloodier villain than terms can give thee out" and Malcolm refers to him as a "butcher." And the audience can't help but agree. Lady Macbeth is possibly the only character that actually likes Macbeth… and she’s pure evil herself, so that’s not a great commendation.

All this to say that I understand where Matt is coming from and his vision for the show, but I’m not quite convinced that it’s even completely feasible. And I blame that on Shakespeare more than anything else. Try as you might, it’s nearly impossible to really connect to a regicide and tyrant. And Shakespeare just doesn’t give us the space to get comfortable with him.

There were a few other nit-picky things….

Oddly enough, for a play that reeks of atmosphere and in a graveyard of all places, the production could have used a little more atmospheric help. The tents / changing rooms made an effective backdrop – a little too effective because they blocked out the view of most of the headstones while you were watching the play, so you lost a sense of perspective and feeling.

Three Weird Sisters meet Macbeth
For me, the Weird Sisters just weren’t all that creepy. I get that there were practical constraints (they doubled the murderers, so they couldn’t have dramatic hair or make-up, and that’s just something that you get used to when doubling characters), but the only thing that made me think, “Oh, these people aren’t just people!” was Macbeth and Banquo’s reaction to them and the way the "use the force" on Macbeth and Banquo... and yet, that got a laugh every single time, so it didn't really help the creepy feeling. I never did figure out their complex (and beautiful) costumes... and wonder if perhaps they wouldn't have been a little more foreboding and mysterious if they, too, were simply shrouded as Hecate was.

The audience had to supply much of the “witchcraft” from their imaginations – even the iconic cauldron was just four chairs. I totally understand the highly minimalistic approach and the practicality of it in this setting, but perhaps this was a little too minimalistic? And logistically, how hard would it have been to hook a fog machine up to a battery and have it peeking out at the bottom of one of the tents to give the Weird Sisters a little atmospheric help? Honestly, the only thing that gave me shivers was Hecate... and I kind of feel like Macbeth in a cemetery should have a little more atmosphere.

Also, for a play that’s steeped in blood, the audience also had to use their imaginations to supply the gore. OK. I get not going overboard. But even a little would have been nice. I’m not even thinking too much about Banquo’s murder or during the violent bits… but when Macbeth comes out after having just killed Duncan, his hands should be bloody. And when the murderer interrupts the banquet and Macbeth says, “There’s blood on your face,” I think blood would be appropriate.

I’m being SUPER picky here. Again… I’ve thought about this too much. I did enjoy it… very much. I think Matt Pavik put together a great team, and they all did a superb job within the constraints unique to outdoor theatre. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to watch parts of the process from a distance and to see what all goes into bringing such an amazing story to life. Well done, everyone!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Upcoming Shakespeare -- Fall / Winter 2014 (plus a little)

Oddly, its getting a bit thin out there for Shakespeare. But there is some... especially some college productions, which are happy on the budget! If you know of anything else going on in the next few months, please leave a comment! I get grumpy when I have to go too long without seeing live Shakespeare. ;-) (Some places don't have a schedule up yet... but I figured I should post these before I forget.)

A Midsomer Night’s Dreame
Sept. 28, 1 p.m.

Twelfth Night
Oct. 23-25 and Oct. 30 – Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Nov. 2 at 2 p.m.

Much Ado About Nothing
Nov. 6,7,8, 14, 15, 16 

As You Like It
Nov.13 – Dec. 12

May 21, 22, 23, 28, 29, 30  7:30 p.m.

Summer 2015
Portland Actors Ensemble

The Taming of the Shrew
Summer 2015
Portland Actors Ensemble

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Midsummer Night's Shtick

Wow! It's been a while since I've been on here. For one thing, I haven't seen a lot of Shakespeare lately. And the shows that I have seen, I've been too busy to review. Not good. I'd say I'm going to try to change that... but there's a surprising dearth of Shakespeare on the horizon -- strange, when the goal is to have productions of all 37 of Shakespeare's plays done in the next 2 years in Portland. Hmmm... Anyway... on to a review!

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
24 August 2014

PAE has a lot of practice doing outdoor summer Shakespeare, and it showed in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They did many things right – the actors poured themselves heart and soul into the production, and their enthusiasm spreads to the audience; they know how to handle the language so that it’s not awkward, even with all the rhyming couplets in Dream; and they are experts at doing theatre in an outdoor venue, projecting both their voices and their actions for large crowds and not depending on artificial amplification (I hadn’t realized till recently how unique this is!).

However, I have to say, I was disappointed in two major areas of this production.

First, there wasn’t any continuity in the fairy world.

There were adorable little fairies, played (very well!) by children, in fluffy tulle over white clothes and lush flower headpieces. Then there were three bizarre adult fairies in all black with bad attitudes and black bandanas. I really couldn’t see any reason for the adult fairies except to carry Titania’s bower on and off stage and to provide “music.” More on that anon. It would have made more sense if the adult fairies belonged to Oberon’s company and the children to Titania’s… but they all seem to be Titania’s… so I was left extremely confused about what they were there for and why they were so different from the others. Honestly, they were distracting.

Then there was Oberon – a grumpy satyr – which works, don’t get me wrong! But it doesn’t seem to fit in with the other fairies. He’s the only “mythical creature” fairy of the lot… and honestly, as great as his satyr costume was, it was left completely in the dust by Titania’s gorgeous purple and green dress… so much so that it was kind of hard to believe that he was the king of the fairy world with him as king.

And then, it saddens me to say, but Puck was all wrong. Not the acting – Kate Belden was marvelous, with just the right blend of mischievous and skeptical, and a brilliant physicality that really sold the part – but her costume was incomprehensible. A beige body suit that looked like a bored child had taken a sharpie to it – no real continuity or design or comprehensible reason for what was there – a corset and black tutu, face paint – again, in an incomprehensible design that looked like it was just there to fill space – and a bowler. OK… so some of the doodling on her body suit was supposed to look like Oberon’s tattoos and therefore show that she was his minion. But it looked more like sharpie doodling seriously. None of the other fairies had face paint or even heavy make-up. She didn’t look like she fit anywhere.

To me, this is a vision and continuity problem. There were a few too many ideas about what the fairies should be like, and the costumer and director tried to incorporate them all – sweet children flower fairies, almost Goth-ish (but they didn’t even go far enough to really be called Goth) dark fairies, semi-Steampunk Puck, mythical Oberon, and glitzy Titania. And with three other “worlds” in the play (the court, the lovers and the mechanicals), a highly diverse fairy world is just confusing and makes no sense.

My second disappointment in this production is a little harder to put into words because it’s a balance thing. I like physicality and energy and fun in a production… especially when the play calls for it. But I also feel that, as with everything, gags, physical humor, slapstick, etc. must enhance the text, not distract from it. And that’s where I feel this production fell down. At times the physical humor was so broad and all-encompassing that it detracted from the text. There were several times when I felt like the lines were just something they were getting through while they did their shtick.

Now, if you know anything about me or have read any of my other reviews, you know that the text is paramount in my opinion. When other aspects of the performance get in the way, when a concept or idea upstages the text instead of helping and enhancing it, I have problems. A Midsummer Night’s Dream just pushed the bounds too many times for me. From the introduction “rap” – and I hate to be quite so blunt here, but if you’re going to work a rap into something, first have a reason for it other than you’ve always wanted to do a rap, and second, please don’t have it done by a group of middle-aged white people; it was painful – to the strip-tease fight scene where the young lovers all lost their clothes; from the very strange “music” the dark fairies were “singing” to lull Titania to sleep, to a few too many pratfalls (especially when one of your main characters is wearing a short-ish skirt that just won’t stay down)…. It was too much. I lost the hilarity of Shakespeare in the shtick, and that’s just not fair to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is a wonderful play in its own right, funny and accessible and delightful even on the page. There’s no need to add the extras to “engage the audience” on this one. That shows that you don’t have a very high opinion of your audience and that you don’t trust the text to do what it’s been doing for 400+ years.

As Shakespeare pointed out in Hamlet's advice to the players, "And let those that play your clowns
speak no more than is set down for them. For there be of them that will themselves laugh, to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the mean time some necessary question of the play be then to be considered. That's villanous and shows a most pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it" (Hamlet 3.2.1914-1919).

And that's amusing when you note that the one place the shtick and silliness didn’t feel out of place was with the Mechanicals… and that’s because basically everything they’re doing is ridiculous in the extreme already. As usual, they may have been my favorite part of the production. I kind of missed how I usually tear up at the end of Pyramus and Thisbe… but Bottom (Michael Godsey) tacked on a couple extra death scenes, and I got my tears after all from laughing so hard at him reenacting Romeo’s, Ophelia’s and Cleopatra’s last moments.

I do want to add that the acting was quite good. Patrick Cox is always fun to watch, no matter what part he has, and he did Oberon proud. The four lovers (Mariel Sierra, Tara Herschberger, Matthew Sunderland and David Bellis-Squires) were delightfully smitten with… whomever. And massive kudos again to Kate Belden who made me love Puck despite the train wreck of a costume.

Dream runs one more weekend – Aug. 30 – Sept. 1 – at Reed College. Performances start at 3.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Two Gents… or… Are They?

Review of The Playmakers' Two Gentlemen of Verona
8 September 2013

Two Gentlemen of Verona is a problematic play… especially the ending. But it’s also one of the funnier ones, and, when well done, as fledgling company the Playmakers proved, it can be riveting and delightful and frustrating and adorable and aggravating and ridiculous all rolled into one. But then, that’s kind of life, isn’t it? Seldom are things quite as cut and dried as we would like, and happy and silly emotions come mingled with frustration and sorrow and pain. So why should a play from a playwright known for his keen grasp of human nature be simple or easy?

It’s a typical Best Friends Both In Love With The Same Girl story, complete with backstabbing, betrayal, unexpected forgiveness and reconciliation. You see, Proteus has a girl (Julia, played by Kayla Lian) and Valentine doesn’t. But Valentine leaves town and instantly falls for Silvia (Foss Curtis). Then Proteus follows Valentine and discovers Silvia for himself. Proteus and Valentine are practically brothers – and Zach Virden (Proteus) and Colton Ruscheinsky (Valentine) bring this out exceptionally well. The feeling you got was not so much that Proteus was really in love with Silvia, but that he couldn’t leave his best friend’s shiny new toy alone, and that all his own cool toys paled in comparison with the novelty of something that belongs to someone else. Immature? Yes. But honestly… aren’t we all sometimes?

Julia really does love Proteus. I’m not really sure why. We don’t get to see too much of the chemistry between Julia and Proteus. Most of what we do see is the two of them making cow eyes at each other and bemoaning the fact that Proteus must leave town for a while. This is where I see the play falling down a bit… and I don’t think it’s this production in particular; it’s Shakespeare’s fault. But, there was  a moment when Virden and Lian showed us that these two probably are a very good match: Proteus and Julia (who at this point is dressed as a boy), are teasing Silvia’s other suitor, Thurio (Josh Gulotta). Their verbal banter and witty wordplay show that they at least have the same sense of humor and probably would be quite good friends, in spite of the romantic side of things.

And it’s important to the plot that Julia and Proteus really are a good match… because even though he leaves her and finds himself “in love” with Silvia (who recognizes him for the worm that he is and despises him for it), in the end he apologizes for everything and goes back to Julia. Does she take him back? Is all forgiven and forgotten? Well… possibly forgiven, but the look on Lian’s face as they walked off together was a pretty good indication that Proteus’s indiscretion would not be forgotten for quite some time.

Valentine, meanwhile, has a wonderful speech about being banished from his Silvia – very reminiscent of Romeo’s, except that Valentine’s is somehow even more touching and feels a bit more sincere instead of just ridiculous. Or perhaps it’s just because we looked ahead in the story and know that Two Gents ends well and Romeo and Juliet doesn’t.

And while Ruscheinsky made it easy to love Valentine throughout the play, Virden made it very easy to love Proteus as he grapples with his decision to dump Julia and pursue Silvia… and just as easy to hate him when he’s plotting against his best friend. But we wouldn’t be so frustrated over Proteus’s stupid choice if we didn’t care for him as a character to begin with.

I would be remiss if I didn’t even mention Lance (Max Maller) and the dog, Crab. The play would be funny enough without them… but once you add the monologue about the dog into the story, it becomes pure gold, and Maller nailed it. (For my taste, one or two of the clown’s more bawdy jokes were overemphasized, but I feel like that’s because there was so little “adult humor” in the rest of it that the more PG-13 things stood out.)

On the technical side of things, the entire cast handled Shakespeare’s wordplay and potentially awkward rhyming couplets very well. My only complaint on that point was that occasionally, when they were facing the other way or when it was a quiet, poignant moment, or when the traffic on Interstate Ave. got noisy, I couldn’t hear all the dialogue. The courtyard at Disjecta Contemporary Art Center is an intimate enough space that this shouldn’t have been a problem… but for some reason, it was. The space seemed perfect for this kind of production, though, and director Avital Shira had the actors use the many levels well.

I also enjoyed the musical interludes. Kate Berman has a beautiful voice… and a well-timed chorus from “Falling in Love is Wonderful” or “Why Can’t You Behave?” or “As Time Goes By” added a modern note of irony to the age-old story. Props to Musical Director Amir Shirazi.

So Two Gents may be a problematic play plot-wise, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t be a delightful show, and a thought-provoking one. Was Shakespeare being facetious when he titled it Two Gentlemen of Verona? Because neither Proteus nor Valentine really act like my definition of gentlemen. At least not to the girls. But then, maybe the play is more about the friendship between the guys than it is the romances with the girls. Hmmm… something to think about.