Monday, July 16, 2012

Hamlet... in a Cemetery

Review of PAE’s Hamlet (14 July 2012)

To begin their 43rd season, Portland Actors Ensemble took a straightforward, streamlined Hamlet and set it in Portland’s oldest cemetery – Lone Fir Cemetery. The setting was magical. To watch a play that echoes unceasingly with the inevitability of death while surrounded by tombstones is an amazing experience.

The cast had to work hard to live up to the setting, and in many cases they succeeded. The entire production was fast-paced and intense. Occasionally the intensity seemed over-the-top for those of us with front-row seats, but it was necessary with audiences in the hundreds night after night.

Manipulation oozed from every angle of this play – Old Hamlet’s Ghost (Mark Rothwell) manipulating his son, Polonius (Curt Hanson) manipulating his daughter, Claudius and Gertrude (Mark Rothwell and MaryAnne Glazebrook) manipulating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Samson Syharath and Sam Burns), Claudius manipulating Laertes (Peter Schuyler)… the list goes on and on.

Doug Reynolds was a convincing if young-feeling Hamlet. He made us feel the pressure the character was under – the pressure to be the perfect son (both to his demanding, dead father and to his self-centered, oblivious mother), the perfect prince, and the perfect boyfriend. He had to keep up appearances the entire time and had no one that he could be himself with. Ophelia (played by Kayla Lian) would have been the one person Hamlet could have poured out his heart to, if her brother and father hadn’t gotten in the way. Then Hamlet recognized that she was a chink in his armor and he couldn’t afford the distraction, which provokes the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. But we really did feel that he loved her very much.

Kayla Lian did an amazing job of showing the strain that leads to Ophelia’s madness. It was very clear that, despite his many shortcomings, she loved her father very much. In fact, the whole family dynamic with Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia was touchingly and beautifully done.

Polonius (Curt Hanson) was perfect. He was a believable rather overbearing father and trusted advisor to the king, while at the same time being a tedious windbag. Hanson’s comic timing and delivery were brilliant.

Mark Rothwell’s performance of Claudius was remarkable, also. Every time he was on stage I hated him a little more… and when you’re playing a villain that means you’re doing a good job. He reminded me of a slug, or something that gives you that slimy feeling. He was self-centered and evil with a thin veneer of charm and polish – a perfect stage politician.

The production was filled with wonderful moments – many of them brilliantly awkward and funny. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern excelled at awkward, as did Adam Thompson playing Reynaldo (and various butler-esque minor moments). Charlie Pierce made an excellent gravedigger… and watching someone play with a skeleton in a cemetery was an experience I won’t soon forget!

My main concerns with this production were with bigger conceptual things. For one thing, the way the players were presented bothered me – turning the leading player into a woman and implying some past between Hamlet and her didn’t help my view of Hamlet’s character. Say what you want about princes or college students or whatever, I still feel like it weakened the character and called his relationship with Ophelia into question somewhat. With that kind of history, you almost feel like Laertes and Polonius were right to tell Ophelia to keep her distance.

Director Bruce Hostetler also majorly minimized the Horatio / Hamlet friendship and turned Horatio (Scott Fullerton) into a glorified babysitter the entire time. This did help to isolate Hamlet and require him to put up even more of a fa├žade, but when everyone in the play dies, you kind of want the one person left on stage to be someone you’ve come to love and sympathize with. This didn’t happen.

In fact, the entire second half was plagued with continuity issues because of the way the play was cut down. Now, I totally understand the need to cut the massive play so that people are able to sit through it. And I don’t know how I could have done it myself. But I would not have taken out Hamlet’s encounter with Fortinbras’s army (Act 4 scene 4 – the whole impetus for the “How all occasions do inform against me” speech) or Hamlet’s ill-fated trip to England. I was not convinced by the “Oh, he just decided not to go all of a sudden” way that was handled. When Hamlet forges the letter that sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, it is a significant step in his journey, and not one that can be left out.

The ending (after everyone dies) was also cut down significantly, leaving out what I think of as the zinger – the “this was the point of this story” moment – and weakening the end considerably. I missed
“So shall you hear
of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
and, in this upshot, purposes mistook
fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads. All this can I
truly deliver” (5.2.422-428).

So while it was overall a good performance and the actors played their parts very well, the whole thing lacked a cohesive feel and a main point that resonates with the audience as they drive home.

The cemetery was very, very cool, though.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Post5's Dream

Review of Post5 Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (13 July 2012)

The great thing about theatre is that no two perspectives on any one play are the same. Each production I see helps me understand the original better. Each director, designer and actor has his own view of what’s going on, and when you put those all together, you get a unique production that (as long as the perspectives are actually drawn from the script) helps the audience see the play in a way they never have before.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream seems particularly suited for this. Something about the play itself brings out the quirky creativity in people and lends itself to clever concepts and settings – sometimes a little too clever for the play’s good. But, honestly! What are you supposed to do with fairies, young people, courtiers and laborers-turned-thespians, not to mention magic spells and someone with a donkey’s head?

Post5 Theatre’s Dream took some getting used to. Directors Erica Terpening-Romeo and Caitlin Fisher-Draeger set it in Athens, Georgia, and gave everyone (all the mortals, at least) thick southern accents. Some of the actors handled this better than others, but overall I found I wasn’t a huge fan of listening to Shakespeare’s language with the extra challenge of sorting out an accent. (I’m not going to get into the discussion here of how English sounded in Shakespeare’s day. All I can say is, I didn’t live then.)

The other bit that I took a while to warm up to was their depiction of the fairies, who had some vaguely Native American vibe going on, complete with body paint and feathers. I will admit that the body paint (in fluorescent yellow, orange, green, pink and purple) was fun and funky, and they used it to good effect later on, but especially at the beginning, the fairies were a little too weird for me.

On the other hand, the way the directors had the fairies be present for the whole play, sometimes just watching on the sidelines, sometimes actively participating in bits where Shakespeare doesn’t explicitly have them on stage, was quite clever, and I liked it very much. They provided sound effects and contributed to the general enchantment of everyone else in the forest by occasionally smearing someone with pink or green paint – pink producing love and green envy or anger. While I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare is trying to point out that humans generally need little interference from the fairy world in order to make fools of ourselves, the fairy contribution to the insanity was a nice touch.

The set – a kind of scaffold supported by tree-like structures – provided handy perches for the fairies, and lent itself to some quite entertaining staging. It looked quite versatile, also – very impressive.

The costuming was problematic for me. The fairies wore as little as possible (low slung yoga pants and a bra?), and Helena and Hermia’s tops were inappropriately tight (Helena’s) and low (Hermia’s). That, coupled with over-the-top sexually suggestive physicality, keeps me from recommending the play. Don’t get me wrong: I know what’s going on in the play; I just think that it really doesn’t have to be that R-rated.

Orion Bradshaw’s Puck was a little disturbing at times until I started thinking of the fairy as a little boy who doesn’t know when something is appropriate and when not. From that point on, I enjoyed his performance very much.

The four lovers were quite good, and after a while, even the southern accents worked in this setting – especially with the girls. Jade Hobbs especially threw herself 110 percent into Helena, and did a marvelous job.

And then… the Rude Mechanicals. I nearly laughed myself sick when they were on stage. They were all quite brilliant, but especially Todd Hermanson as Bottom and R. David Willie as Flute. All the preparation for the play within a play was appropriately silly and great, but the play itself threatened to steal the show. From the Lion’s (Andrew Forrest’s) “mane” made out of a tutu to the Wall (David Wade Granmo) slowly melting under its own weight and Quince (Kerry Ryan) the director mouthing everyone’s parts along with them and correcting their pronunciation, it was amazing! And then, after all the silliness, they switched midstream and make the ending poignant and touching… Bravo.

I have yet to see a production of Dream that I am wholly satisfied with – no one’s vision is quite like mine – but each one I see helps me understand the play a little better, and for that, I am grateful. Post5 Theatre’s Dream may not be mine, but I think, under all the awkward accents, ill-conceived costumes and inappropriate actions, they caught the spirit and the heart of the play, as Puck says, “Lord what fools these mortals be.” Sometimes, it’s good to remember that… and to laugh at ourselves.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Measure for Measure -- Mercy and Justice

Review of NWCTC’s Measure for Measure (7-7-2012)

Measure for Measure is not for everyone. The whole plot revolves around what can only be called “adult content.” That being said, however, Shakespeare uses this framework to explore the delicate balance between justice and mercy, much as he does in Merchant of Venice (only better, in my opinion). Shakespeare is obviously thinking back to Matthew 7:1-2, especially where it says, “by your standard of measure it will be measure to you.” Some may be disturbed that in the end Shakespeare’s plea for mercy appears to let everyone off the hook for their lewd behavior, but for me at least, the take-away was more that living according to the spirit of the law is often harder than just blindly adhering to the letter. It’s better to extend mercy and change someone’s life than to cut that life short.

Because of its subject matter, Measure for Measure must be a very difficult play to stage, and yet director Butch Flowers and his talented cast and crew did a tasteful and very good job with it. They successfully navigate around the myriad pitfalls and avoid the temptation to go overboard with the innuendos and raciness. Even the costuming, which in many plays is inappropriate with much less motivation, was modest. If you’re going to have a problem with this play, it will be with Shakespeare’s story, not with Flowers’ vision of it.

Technically the play was beautiful; sets, lighting music and costumes were all just right. Performance-wise, it was brilliant. There wasn’t a single character that didn’t sparkle. Jayson Shanafelt’s intensity and fixity of purpose made for an excellently awful Angelo. Bonnie Auguston’s Isabella was a believable novice nun in an awkward and tight spot. And Chris Porter made an great if somewhat abrupt Duke Vincentio. Joe Healy’s Provost and Nathan Crosby’s Claudio were both wonderfully sympathetic, as was Clara-Liis Hillier’s Mariana. The whole production was well-paced, and Jason Maniccia’s comic timing as Lucio was hysterical. The bits with the executioner and his apprentice had me in absolute stitches – well done, Matt Pavik and David Burnett!

As I was watching I had a hard time thinking of any way the production could be improved. But as I thought more about it and eavesdropped to the responses of the audience, I think perhaps a little more emphasis on the mercy vs. justice theme would have helped. That, however, is really the only thing I can think of that would make it even better.

Measure for Measure is a powerful play, but not one that is necessarily accessible or even appropriate for everyone. It’s lesson, however, is one that bears repeating:

“For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13).

Monday, July 2, 2012


I feel I must apologize for my woeful neglect of this blog lately. All I can say is that June is an insane month. I've had several Shakespeare moments that I haven't had time to write up (finally saw Coriolanus, went to Hamlet in the cemetery, spent some time questioning the main point of the Tempest... stuff like that), and I hope to get some reviews done soon. But now for something completely different:

I stumbled on this happiness while doing research for my latest writing project. This is now my favorite way to enjoy the sonnets:

I had heard some of these before in a CD set called "When Love Speaks," but there's a few in this collection that aren't in that one... like...

Of course, some of these people could read the phone book, and I'd love it. How much more when it's beautiful poetry by my favorite author?