Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Be bloody, bold and resolute

I caved today and pre-ordered the Tempest. Since it had such a limited release in theaters, I haven't seen it yet... but I'm really looking forward to September 13th! Stay tuned for a review.

In the meantime, free outdoor Shakespeare seems to be winding down. There's only one more weekend of Much Ado... and I'm planning on going... for a fourth time. :-) It keeps getting better.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (18 August 2011)

Love’s Labour’s Lost has never been one of my favorite plays. For one thing, it’s full of tedious poetry. I understand the point of this; after all, it’s a play about four guys trying to woo four girls, and during Shakespeare’s time, the way you did that was by writing the girls poetry. If, as in this story, the point is that the guys aren’t doing a very good job wooing the girls, the poetry is particularly troublesome.

But I didn’t have trouble with the poetry this time. The words were fresh and accessible and only slightly tedious from time to time. Unfortunately, the words were one of the better parts of this production.

Some background on the plot: The story is about four guys who decide to swear off women (as well as food and sleep and other necessities) for three years so they can study. Of course, the first thing that happens after they make this vow is that four women come on the scene, and the guys promptly fall in love. We would expect no less.

While there was plenty of wooing in this production, I completely missed the studying that should have been looming over their heads. There was more of a feeling that the guys were joining a Mason-esque secret Guys-Only society, not committing to a life of Academia. This could have been due to the fact that the stage was set up entirely as the outside of the castle (where most of the action happens, especially the bit with the girls, since girls aren’t allowed in the castle), and we never see what’s supposedly going on inside the walls. It could also be due to the picket-fence look and the No Girls Allowed sign.

The girls eventually point out (after mocking the guys mercilessly) that they can’t trust the guys’ vows of love since in making them the guys have broken their vows to study. At this point in the play, we pause for a moment and think, “Was that what they were doing this whole time? I forgot.”

Perhaps we forgot because we were so distracted over the way-over-the-top flirtatiousness of the women and the puppy-dog-like drooling of the guys. Seriously, it was too much. I don’t want to be a prude, but when the play starts out with the guys swearing off women by burning girly magazines (not without one last drool), and later when one of the gifts to the girls is a pearl-studded bra (worn in very plain sight), not to mention when the girls change in their tent, very much back-lit and visible, it’s too much.

Let me digress from the particulars of this production for just one moment: This is the kind of thing that gives Shakespeare a bad name. “But Shakespeare is crude and bawdy,” a friend told me when I complained about it at intermission. Yes. There are crude and bawdy things in Shakespeare (but not this much!), but when that’s all we see of him, when we can’t see anything else in the production for the bawdiness of it, then we’re missing out on one of the greatest students of human nature ever to set pen to paper. When productions play up the crudeness, it detracts from the main point of the play. And, believe me, in this instance it was played up. The girls aren’t written as floozies.

On a happier note, I vastly enjoyed seeing Gregory Linington (seen in Julius Caesar playing Cassius) play Berowne, the wittiest and possibly most grounded of the guys. Berowne’s wry humor and eloquent speeches in praise of love are so different from Cassius’s intense hatred and act-first-think-much-later attitude, and yet Linington was utterly convincing in each part.

The scene where the four guys overhear each other soliloquizing about how much he is in love is a perennial favorite of mine… and they did it hysterically. Their use of the stage was great – Berowne hid in the “balcony” area while the Ferdinand practically sat in the front row of the audience.

The set was visually quite appealing, with lots of bright colors – from the Kelly green Astroturf that covered the stage and the purple flowers everywhere to the ridiculous amounts of red and pink flower-petal confetti that seemed to fall at the least provocation. The whole thing had a very early-60’s feel. Whether that was the inspiration for the “freer morals” of the characters or visa versa, I’m not sure, but they certainly went together.

The point of the play is that keeping your word is more important than anything else. That point came across decently at the end of the play, but it had to shout to be heard over the din of the crudeness. This was definitely one time when the bawdiness was completely gratuitous, and pretty much spoiled the show for me. Yet again, Love’s Labour’s Lost comes up as not a favorite, but this time for completely different reasons.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Julius Caesar (17 August 2011)

Julius Caesar was just another example of how the space you use impacts the production. The New Theater is small, and for this show, was set up in the round, a set of bleacher-like seats on all four sides, and entrances at the four corners. Our seats were right up at the top of one of the sets of seats, so I could look behind me and down into the backstage area. Brilliant.

This set-up made for an extremely minimalistic set (i.e. there wasn’t one)… or maybe they decided on an extremely minimalistic set and arranged the theater accordingly. The actors would occasionally drag out chairs from the wings… or on several occasions, a table. The lack of sets helped draw the audience into the action, taking away all other distractions and putting us right there with the conspirators.

Director Amanda Dehnert made an interesting decision in giving the part of Julius Caesar to a woman, and Vilma Silva did a wonderful job with it. Since the setting was modern, I didn’t have any problem with Caesar being a woman. In fact, her charisma with the crowds (played by the audience with a little help from the rest of the cast) gave her an Evita-esque feel. Since Caesar was a woman, the bit where Caesar’s wife tries to persuade him not to go to the senate on 15 March obviously had to be tweaked. They ended up giving Calpurnia’s dream to Caesar herself, and giving many of Calpurnia’s lines to Mark Antony. This, in turn, gave Caesar and Mark Antony a much more intimate relationship, which worked for me.

The way the stage was set up, the actors spent much of their “off-stage time” sitting practically in the audience. It felt very informal… and yet it wasn’t distracting at all. Lighting helped draw the attention away from them, but you always knew they were there… watching. And then, once Caesar was killed, her ghost spent the rest of the play on the sidelines, watching, occasionally interacting, especially when someone was killed, which happens a lot since this is a tragedy. Occasionally I would forget that she was there. Then, when I noticed her again, sitting in the audience or hovering somewhere, it gave me chills. It went a long way to emphasizing that this story is bigger than any one person or event, that the ghost of Caesar will never fully leave the conspirators alone, that the consequences of their actions are far-reaching, and that in the end, it was all for naught.

And while we’re on the subject of small, the cast for this character-heavy play was very small. The four main actors (playing Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cassius and Mark Antony) were augmented by seven other actors playing all the rest of the parts (24 of them!). It wasn’t always easy to keep all the parts sorted out, but at the time, it didn’t really matter, because the essentials were there. Who really cares, in the long run, if it’s Casca, Cinna, Trebonius or Decius Brutus after all? Danforth Comins played Mark Antony. During the first half I was a little disappointed, because Mark Antony wasn’t the hateful character I remembered him to be. But in the second half, from Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral on, he was a nasty piece of work. Gregory Linington was very good as Cassius, I thought. He was impulsive and a firebrand and intense.

At the end, as is the case with most of Shakespeare’s tragedies, the stage is literally filled with dead bodies. But over and above all the blood and death, the clever staging and simple but effective special effects, the message of the play stood out: Don’t try this at home; it doesn’t work. And when you think about the political unrest in Elizabeth’s time, it’s easy to see why the politically safe Shakespeare chose this story to tell.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Just back from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival where I saw Julius Caesar and Love's Labour's Lost (reviews will come soon)... and also Pirates of Penzance, but that doesn't really count towards Shakespeare. That means that I have seen five separate productions of Shakespeare plays this month alone. But the even bigger landmark is that I have now seen 24 different productions of Shakespeare in the last two years. And I'm just getting started!!!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Review of Portland Actors Ensemble’s Much Ado About Nothing (13 August 2011)

I was very thankful intermission came when it did. My cheeks hurt from smiling and laughing. And then, after intermission Master Constable Dogberry came on… and my cheeks hurt again.

This is Portland Actors Ensemble’s 42nd season, and seeing Much Ado About Nothing gives you a hint about why the group has been around so long. They obviously love what they do, and they do it very well.

Director Asae Dean set the play in Napoleonic times, as evidenced by the empire-wasted dresses and Master Constable Dogberry’s fantastic hat and coat. Despite the play’s more serious side, Dean has made sure the action moves right along and the humor is never far away. Just when our hearts are about to break for Claudio as he discovers the truth about Hero, Master Constable Dogberry chimes in with a reminder that he is “an ass.” Or when Leonato challenges Claudio to a duel, Antonio (Leonato’s brother, hysterically played by Patrick J. Cox) goes overboard attacking Claudio with his cane, and we can’t help but laugh.

There are so many good performances in this production that it is impossible to list them all. Sara Fay Goldman plays Hero, and plays her very well. But where she really shines is as Master Constable Dogberry, leading his watch of Keystone Cops, who look like they would be very much at home in the Pirates of Penzance. Goldman’s over-sized gestures and expressions could make the part funny, even without Dogberry’s mixed-up vocabulary, but together they are brilliant. Racheal Joy Erickson’s Beatrice is delightful. She is witty, but not too biting, smart and sassy, but also sweet and loveable. Arthur Delaney throws himself into the role of Claudio 110 percent. Jenny Newbry Waters plays Don Pedro’s brother, Don John, with marvelous intensity and villainy. And Patrick J. Cox’s little old man Antonio threatens to steal the scene every time.

The sets are quite minimalistic, but that doesn’t detract at all from the performance. The latticework trellises and folding chairs are simple but ample. My favorite sets, however, were the “trees” made out of green umbrellas adorned with lemons and leaves, and held by two of the actors. Brilliant!

Possibly the only drawback of this wonderful production is that the music is a bit rough. But when everything else shines so brightly, we can perhaps pardon a slightly-less-than-stellar song or two. Besides, conditions in the parks are not entirely favorable to music, and not everyone is comfortable singing a cappella.

Much Ado About Nothing runs through Labor Day weekend, and it’s only getting better. (The few rough edges I saw opening weekend were completely gone two weeks later.) Go see it, if you possibly can. It’s a wonderful afternoon of theater absolutely free. For dates and locations, visit

Friday, August 12, 2011

Review of Willamette Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well (6 August 2011)

This is Willamette Shakespeare’s third season of doing outdoor Shakespeare in the Portland area. Last year I got to see their Midsummer Night’s Dream… twice. This year they tackled one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, All’s Well That Ends Well. There’s probably a reason this one is lesser known.

Even though the play itself has some serious flaws (in my opinion), Willamette Shakespeare did a great job. The WWII setting (the second time I’ve seen All’s Well done in this time period) fits crazy well with the play, what with the soldiers and wars going on in France and Italy. Helena’s Rosie-the-Riveter look was great. And uniforms are always good regardless. Anna Gettles did a stellar job with Helena, managing to make her somewhat sympathetic and likeable – no small feat with a character that is conniving and pushy and who will do anything to get her man. I didn’t feel like she was a scheming mastermind as much as someone who followed her love with puppy-dog-like affection and devotion.

Bertram (played by Kristopher Mahoney-Watson) is, of course, completely unworthy of such love. Kristopher could have gone even farther with the part, in my opinion. I didn’t always feel like he was 110% in the role. And yet, if he had gone all out, I’m not sure I would have believed Bertram’s change of heart at the end. So perhaps all’s well that ends well?

Sarah McGregor did a wonderful job as Diana, Bertram’s other love interest, but where she really shone was in her role as the King’s nurse. She may not have had any lines (or very few, I don’t remember), but her stage presence was hysterical.

Nathan Wright (Lavatch and other smaller parts) stole the scene every time he was on stage. His small gestures, facial expressions and the cheesy German accent he put on as the “Interpreter” made me laugh… and laugh… and laugh.

The play has issues – it ought to be rated PG-13 at least because of all its “adult content,” and for a comedy, it isn’t all that funny. But for all that Willamette Shakespeare made it quite watchable. I went this time thinking that maybe Shakespeare was being ironic with his title – after all, is all well that ends well? Should this be considered a happy ending? Are Helena and Bertram going to have a terrible life together? Does the ending somehow make all the deception and “infidelity” and scheming OK? This production gave me hope that perhaps, after a bumpy start, things would look up for the “happy” couple.

The show runs through August 21st. If you want to add this play to your list of “seen it and have a vague idea of what’s going on in it” plays, this is the way to do it. Check out Willamette Shakespeare’s web site for locations and times.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Review of Portland Shakespeare Project’s As You Like It (5 August 2011)

Director Michael Mendelson set As You Like It in France in the 1930’s. While there isn’t anything in the play itself that makes it a good fit for the pre-World War II era specifically, there also isn’t anything about that time that really detracts from the play either. The audience knew it was the 1930’s by the costumes and that the setting was France by the accordion music, which isn’t necessarily much to go on. But since the Forest of Arden is supposed to be a very “other” place, there was just enough setting and not too much.

I have so many good things to say about this production right off the bat. The casting was brilliant. The acting was amazing. Christi Miles as Rosalind was delightful, as were Darius Pierce (Touchstone), Andy Lee-Hillstrom (Silvius), Rhianna Walton (Audrey), Jake Street (Orlando), Dana Millican (Phoebe) and Melissa Whitney (Celia). Jill Westerby made a very melancholy and sympathetic if rather harsh Jacques. David Heath’s Adam melted my heart. Mary Kadderly’s music played on a single accordion and sung by the cast was perfect. The set’s mult-colored aspen trees were whimsical, enchanting and just plain spiffing.

Unfortunately the whimsy of the sets didn’t carry over to the rest of the play, which took a much darker approach to the story than I was completely comfortable with. I’m not saying there wasn’t comedy; the audience really enjoyed Touchstone’s antics, and the humor in Shakespeare’s words came out loud and clear. But the levity didn’t extend to what is really a very funny plot. I felt like we were asked to take very seriously ridiculous situations, like love at first sight (which the characters don’t even take all that seriously), the absurdities that occur with a cross-dressing heroine, love triangles, and someone so head-over-heels in love that he will post reams of love letters on trees.

Granted, the play itself has some quite serious and moving bits – Rosalind’s banishment, the bits between Adam and Orlando, Oliver’s repentance – and this production handled these bits very well. But Mendelson seemed to completely miss the fact that basically As You Like It is a fairy tale, and as such, should be handled lightly throughout. Fairy tales can be dark, but they seldom take themselves very seriously. They know they are absurd, and they don’t try to be anything else. Instead of a hysterical story with enough twists and turns and awkward situations to fill a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Mendelson gave us a serious play with distressingly problematic situations and some very funny characters. This approach may work with some of Shakespeare’s other comedies (All’s Well That Ends Well, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice, possibly even the Tempest), but for a play that is so absurdly whimsical as As You Like It, it fell flat.

All that aside, it was a very well-executed production, and I’ll be interested in seeing what else Portland Shakespeare Project comes up with in the future.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Shakespeare Haiku

A couple of weeks ago I was challenged to summarize a book in haiku. Since this is me we're talking about, I went for Shakespeare's plays. Here are the eight I have come up with so far. Can you name the plays?

Witty repartee;
webs of deceit make mischief
and yet true love wins.

Paralyzed by thought:
revenge his father's murder?
Everybody dies.

Exiled in forest,
Bad sonnets posted on trees
and happy endings.

Mischief-making sprite,
confusion among lovers --
Was it all a dream?

Four men, sworn scholars
foreswear their books in favor
of four femmes fatales.

King's madness caused by
Filial Ingratitude;
Everybody dies.

Ancient Rome teems with
Political intrigue and

Ancient Rome teeming
With political intrigue
And assignations.