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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Fun and Frustration in Romeo and Juliet

Review of Willamette Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
11 August 2013

This has been an odd summer. I’ve been working weekends, which means I don’t get to as much Shakespeare as I would like, and also, when I do get to it, I don’t often have the time to write up my thoughts on what I saw right away. So I’ve been forced to rely on an overtaxed memory to write this review… which doesn’t seem fair to the production. On the other hand, it means that this is about the things that really stuck out to me instead of incidental details. So maybe it’s not ALL bad after all.

Now that we have the disclaimer out of the way, on to the review. I am not a huge Romeo and Juliet fan. Never have been. I could never understand why it was touted as the world’s best love story. It’s not! It’s a pathetic love story… and not pathetic in a wonderful romantic way, either. Pathetic in a “well that was dumb and look what it got you into! If either of you had an ounce of maturity or common sense, you’d both still be alive right now” way. But I went to see Willamette Shakespeare’s production because the cast list and director looked pretty amazing. And I’m so glad I did.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. Well… as thoroughly as one can enjoy a tragedy where you kind of want to throttle whoever was responsible for the tragic outcome. But even that means that the actors made me care enough about what was going on to be upset when things go sideways.

I was especially impressed with Chris Ringkamp’s Romeo. He was a totally believable love-struck sap… not too over the top, but enough that from time to time you remember he was just as “deeply” in love with Rosalind at the beginning of the play. His reaction to seeing Juliet at the balcony was priceless.

Tamara Burgess’s Juliet was also quite good. She did an excellent job convincing me she was 13, which is so important to the believability of the story itself. And she was very much in love… I particularly liked the way she couldn’t just say goodbye to Romeo at the end of the balcony scene, but kept calling him back to tell him something else.

For all the tragedy waiting in the wings, I found the first third of the production hysterically funny. Of course, that’s the typical love-struck idiots part before the full weight of their messed-up families comes into play.

Juliet was obviously closer to the Nurse (Mindi Logan) than she was to her mother. In fact, Lady Capulet (Meredith Ott) felt very much like a socialite who had never had much time for her young daughter until now when suitors are starting to hover. She doesn’t give Juliet much reason to bring her woes to her or confide in her. 

And that brings me to my main take-away from this production – tragedy strikes when teenagers are left to sort out the world on their own. They should have had someone with more wisdom and experience to help them navigate the world… but instead all they get from their parents is more problems because of the feud. The Nurse and Friar Lawrence (Tom Mounsey) aren’t any help, really. But their parents are distant and distracted, so they have no recourse. 

Romeo and Juliet may never be my favorite play, but thanks to director Matthew Pavik and the cast, I can see its merits and understand a little better its high place in Shakespearean circles. I still don’t  think it’s an exemplary love story… but as a story about two very broken and messed up families, it has a lot going for it.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Upcoming Shakespeare Summer 2013 to Summer 2014

Because I'm going to try to be better about making it to local Shakespeare, I've once again compiled a list of what's happening when. Many of the local colleges (MHCC, PCC, Reed, PSU, George Fox) don’t have their theatre schedule up on their web sites yet, but I'll try to update this closer to the beginning of the school year, if any of them are doing Shakespeare. (I'll also update this with links to my reviews... if and when I write them!)

And on a completely random note... how in the world are we getting so many productions of Cymbeline lately? In 2011, Northwest Classical did it... and then in 2012 Portland Center Stage... and now we have PAE and Oregon Shakespeare Festival and next spring University of Portland?!?! I'm not complaining -- I love Cymbeline! -- but for one of the lesser known plays, it's certainly getting a lot of attention!

The good news is that it looks like even without going to Ashland, there's quite a bit of Shakespeare this year. Not enough for one play a month (because there's a dry spell November through January), but otherwise, it looks like an interesting year. Maybe a little heavy on the tragedies... but oh well.

Now – Aug. 24 
Romeo and JulietWillamette Shakespeare
My Review: Fun and Frustration in Romeo and Juliet

Now – Sept. 2 

*Now – Oct. 11 
CymbelineOregon Shakespeare Festival

*Now – Oct. 13 
A Midsummer Night’s DreamOregon Shakespeare Festival

*Now – Nov. 3 
Taming of the ShrewOregon Shakespeare Festival

*Now – Nov. 3 
King LearOregon Shakespeare Festival

Aug. 17 – Sept. 29 

Aug. 17, 25, Sept. 29
Comedie of ErrorsOpsFest

Sept. 20 – Oct. 13
Richard III NWCTC 

Feb. 28 – March 30
King LearNWCTC

April 5 – May 11 
OthelloPortland Center Stage

April 8 – 12 
CymbelineUniversity of Portland

May 23 – June 22 

May 23 – June 22 
Titus AndronicusPost5

Summer 2014 
Antony and CleopatraPAE 
A Midsummer Night's DreamPAE     

*Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland (not quite local... but I feel compelled to include them because, I mean, it's Shakespeare!)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Of Rings, Rats, Ducats and Cell Phones -- PAE's Merchant of Venice

Review of Portland Actors Ensemble's Merchant of Venice (6, 12 July 2013)
Oh, Merchant of Venice. It’s a great play, full of ups and downs, drama and humor, love and revenge… and open to so many misinterpretations and pitfalls. How are we supposed to deal with the anti-Semitism? Was Shakespeare anti-Semitic to have written something like this? Was that just the culture of Shakespeare’s age? What about the bromance between Antonio and Bassanio? Is it anything more? And suddenly you’re mired in a bog of politically correct ways to play it, with the sensibilities of today taking center stage instead of the plot and story itself.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the Merchant of Venice. But I always approach productions of it with trepidation and concern that Shakespeare’s story will somehow get lost amidst the clamor of what people think it should be.

I shouldn’t have worried about Portland Actors Ensemble’s production. (I should never worry about their productions, since I’ve been going regularly for more than 10 years and have yet to see one I didn’t like!) Director Bruce Hostetler and his stellar cast have woven the many seemingly conflicting elements of the plot together into a beautiful, seamless story that doesn’t jar where it’s not supposed to, that makes you walk away thinking about deeper things than social prejudice.

One key to understanding this play is recognizing that Shylock is a villain. He is also a Jew, but I believe that was more of a necessary plot device for Shakespeare than any statement about race. In order for his plot to work, Shakespeare needed a money lender to be the baddie. In today’s world, we have many options for that kind of role – loan sharks, banks, the Mafia – but in Shakespeare’s day if you wanted to borrow money, you went to a Jew. Simple as that. James Peck does a masterful job at reminding us that Shylock is not a nice guy. He gloats. He grumbles. He laughs at Antonio’s need. He cares more about his money than he does about his daughter, Jessica (as brilliantly shown when he kisses Jessica goodbye… and then comes back to kiss the briefcase of money goodbye). Even in some of the more “sincere” speeches about how Jews are people, too, Peck’s delivery reminded us where it’s all going – Jews are people, too, and therefore can be vindictive and vengeful and evil.

Another reminder that Shakespeare doesn’t have it in for all Jews is the character of Tubal – Shylock’s associate. Tubal is actually the first one to bring up the idea of mercy in the trial scene. And when Shylock pays no attention to him, Tubal (Enrique Andrade) refused to have anything more to do with him. Though he didn’t say anything, Andrade made it perfectly clear that Tubal does not condone his fellow Jew’s actions and that not all Jews are cut out of the same cloth. Jews are people, too, which means they don’t fit into boxes and won’t be tidily categorized… even in a Shakespeare play that leans fairly heavily on stereotypes.

For a play that we tend to think of as being all about justice and law, there’s an awful lot of romance going on almost constantly. Lorenzo (Benjamin Newman) and Jessica (Megan Chambers) win the Most Adorkably Sweet Couple Award for long, awkward silences and many blushingly sweet looks. Gratiano (Benjamin Sheppard) and Nerissa (Elizabeth Gibbs) win the Most Likely to Argue Award for bringing together two characters with plenty of spice and spunk. But the Most Unusual Couple Award has to go to Salanio (Clinton Clark) and his cell phone – a delightfully modern device that rendered many an info dump and long monologue advancing the plot actually entertaining and fun to watch.

Let’s not forget Bassanio (Sam Burns) and Portia (Jenny Newbry) though. Burns’s Bassanio is earnest and a good friend and slightly more mature than his sidekicks Gratiano and Salanio, but is still impulsive and has absolutely no business sense whatsoever. When things go skew-whiff, Bassanio is a loyal if somewhat ineffectual helper. He’s also delightfully na├»ve and totally smitten with Portia.  Newbry’s Portia provides a good counter to this. She’s 100 percent girl and very much in love with Bassanio, but you can tell she’s the brains behind most of what goes on. She bats her eyelashes and turns on the charms to get her unwelcome suitors the Prince of Morocco (Alistair Morley Jaques) and the Prince of Aragon (Enrique Andrade) to pick the wrong boxes. And she makes plans to help Antonio when all Bassanio can think of is being there with him. Together they are lovely.
I could wax eloquent about so many things… but time and space prevent me. I’ll only mention Launcelot Gobbo (Michael Kutner) and Old Gobbo (Alastair Morley Jaques) as wonderful examples of Shakespeare’s Clowns. Kutner’s version of Launcelot’s shoulder angel and shoulder devil had me in stitches… and his Brando impersonation was great! And to whoever thought up the Rats-on-a-Stick… disgustingly brilliant. ;-)
Through all this I discovered a theme that I hadn’t seen before, one that I need to think about more and unpack later – the letter of the law vs. the spirit. It’s there in the courtroom scene… it’s there in the lottery for Portia’s hand in marriage… it’s there in the dispute about what really happened to the rings… and it’s a good reminder of what’s really important in life. But that’s a discussion for another time.

For now… Merchant runs until July 20th. It’s definitely worth the watch, if you can make it. Details at portlandactors.org.