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Sunday: November 13, 2011

How Do You Make Hamlet Even More Tragic?

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:38 PM GMT-0500

Do what the grad students in Shakespeare Studies at Mary Baldwin did in the performance I saw tonight (directed by Zach Brown):

1. Leave out Fortinbras entirely.

2. Have Horatio ignore Hamlet’s plea at the end of the play, drink the poison, and die. His last words were, of course, “The rest is silence”.

The result: I believe Osric is the only member of the upper classes left alive to inherit the throne. The accession of King Osric I would be a truly tragic outcome.

If any of my readers are in the Shenandoah Valley, there is a second performance tomorrow night at 7:30. The theater’s website is here.

Wednesday: February 10, 2010

BBC Shakespeare On Sale

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:42 PM GMT-0500

Since I wrote about the BBC Shakespeare DVDs two and a half years ago, prices have dropped on both sides of the Atlantic. You can now get the American discs for $99.99 per set, down from $149.99, but that still means paying $389.96 for only 20 plays at Amazon, which comes to roughly $19.50 per play. (One of them is 10% off right now.) The UK box, containing all 37 plays, lists for £199,99, but is on sale right now at Amazon UK for only £81,97, or roughly $128 (US), which works out to less than $3.50 per play. Of course, you will need an all-region DVD player to view them in the U.S., but those are not expensive, and are useful for watching other films not available in Region 1 coding.

The icing on the cake: Amazon UK usually subtracts 15% when shipping expensive items to U.S. addresses, since Americans, not being eligible for the National Health, aren’t expected to pay the VAT tax that finances it. That would bring the price down to less than $3.00 per play, plus shipping, which was fast and reasonably-priced when I bought the set a few years ago.

It’s nice to have all the plays, since the ones not available in the U.S. box sets are precisely the ones you are least likely to see in a theater.

Wednesday: January 13, 2010

Anticipatory Tenterhooks (Is That a Googlewhack?)

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:16 PM GMT-0500

What’s the best thing about the American Shakespeare Center’s production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, opening tomorrow night? There’s no way to tell, but the best thing I know before seeing it is that the same actor (John Harrell) is playing Lucifer and the Pope — not to mention the Holy Roman Emperor and the Duke of Vanholt. Whether the implicit parallel owes more to Marlowe or the ASC, and what (if anything) they will do with it, I do not know. I’m looking forward to this play more than most. Dr. Faustus is one of the two books I loved in high school and still love. (The other is Borges’ prose.) I don’t really ‘get’ most of Shakespeare’s plays (especially the comedies) from reading them, but Dr. Faustus has a simple — or at least linear — and powerful plot.

As for my title question, yes: there is one previous use of the phrase. Of course, this will make two.

Sunday: September 27, 2009

Review: Sweeney Todd at ShenanArts

Filed under: — site admin @ 1:36 PM GMT-0500

In three words: very well done. I was going to add “for a little theater production”, but I’ll just leave it at that. The principals, Brian Holsopple as Sweeney Todd and Barbara Spilman Lawson as Mrs. Lovett, were particularly strong: I especially liked her expressive eyes in the mad scenes (not that it’s easy to separate these from the other scenes) and his physical dominance of the stage (if that’s the word for it). Morgan McDowell, as Anthony, also struck me as particularly strong, though I didn’t much care for his obviously fake sideburns. I’m told the mop of curly black hair is his own. It took me most of the show to figure out who he reminded me of: Michael Jackson in his late years, but with a real nose and not quite so pale. (My date for the evening thought he looked more like Elijah Wood as Frodo in Lord of the Rings.) Jayne Gallagher, as Johanna, looked perfect for the part — very 19th century hair and dress –, and her singing and acting were also excellent. Like most of the cast, both are still in high school. Everyone else, including the ensemble, was much more than adequate, though one or two of the secondary characters were a little weak in volume or not as perspicuous in pronunciation as I would have liked. The sets were well done, too: low ceilings meant that the second-story barber shop was only about four feet higher than the first-floor pie shop and basement bakeroom, but they managed that well by sliding the fresh bodies in the barber chair off to one side and having them reappear through a trap door in front. (I’m sorry if that’s a ‘spoiler’ for any of my readers.) In sum, well worth the $12 ticket.

There is one more show, today at 3:00pm, so if any of my readers are in the central Shenandoah Valley there’s still time to get there. Verona is five miles north of Staunton. ShenanArts’ website is here. I would be there myself, if I didn’t have way too much work with a midnight deadline.

Saturday: September 19, 2009

A Missed Opportunity for Aesthetic Synergy

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:22 AM GMT-0500

The American Shakespeare Center is currently doing four plays in rotation at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton: I Henry IV, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and Titus Andronicus. All are delightful in their different ways. Unfortunately, Titus is not the Saturday matinee either today or a week from today. If it were, theatergoers could see Titus Andronicus at the Blackfriars at 2:00, take a break for dinner, then drive up to Verona (6-7 miles north) for the 8:00 show of Sweeney Todd at Shenanarts. I’ve only seen one of their shows, That Scoundrel Scapino, adapted from Molière, but it was very well done by a cast of high school students, with grade-schoolers for the chorus of ‘Zanni’.

I don’t know whether any of the local restaurants serve beef and kidney pie, but that would be the perfect culinary accompaniment to my hypothetical Saturday outing. Oh, well, there will probably never be another opportunity for this particular multi-sensual aesthetic adventure. There is at least one other play I know that features a cannibal feast (Seneca’s Thyestes), but it is rarely performed today, and the dinner in it is apparently some kind of stew or casserole, not a meat pie.

Tuesday: August 25, 2009

Ahem . . . .

Filed under: — site admin @ 8:06 PM GMT-0500

When you have an event scheduled for August 24th, you should probably not have it listed under August 25th on your website:

Clicking the date on the calendar takes one to another page that lists the date as August 25th twice more. It’s a good thing I live a block from the theater, so I didn’t waste much time getting there and back and wondering why the theater was dark and no one was inside. On the other hand, a friend and I did go to the theater twice, returning home in between to check the website and see if I’d read the date wrong, or if the show had been moved or canceled at the last minute. No one was outside, either, the first time, and only two others the second time, so apparently most Blackfriars theatergoers get their news some other way.

Of course, I’m more disappointed by missing the show than annoyed by the relatively minor inconvenience: I’ve never seen Cymbeline. The Texas group’s Antony and Cleopatra last year was quite good. Hmmm . . . was that the problem? Yes, a quick check of my records shows that last year’s show was on August 25th, a Monday. Apparently someone copied last year’s record and failed to adjust the date. I’ll be sure to demand double my money back next time I speak to someone in the ASC management.

Oh, well. Now I can do a better job on the on-line Education courses I’m taking, which have a midnight deadline for submission of three essays. I sent one in last night, but the other two need quite a bit of work, and I can now give them my full attention for an uninterrupted four-hour stretch. I probably shouldn’t say this where one of my instructors might see it, but I’d still rather have seen Cymbeline.

Sunday: August 16, 2009

The Merry Wives of Windsor (ASC vs BBC) I

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:32 PM GMT-0500

Like everything else they’ve done, I’ve immensely enjoyed the American Shakespeare Center‘s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, playing through the end of November, along with Much Ado About Nothing and Titus Andronicus (more about them later). 1 Henry IV will be added to the rotation in early September, George Villier’s The Rehearsal (apparently a cruel parody of Dryden’s tragedies) in October.

I don’t really ‘get’ plays without seeing them more than once, and I’ve seen the ASC Merry Wives four times so far. However, before writing about the production, I thought I’d better look for something to compare it with — something besides their productions of other plays, I mean. I had never seen or read the play before seeing it here, and still haven’t read any scholarship or general essays on it — didn’t want to prejudice my reaction. I have now read it in the Arden edition with most of the notes, watched the 1982 BBC version (the only one available on DVD), and also watched one of the operatic versions, Salieri’s Falstaff (1799), which I had previously seen at Wolftrap and once on DVD, though not recently. (I’ve also seen Verdi’s Falstaff at the Met and on DVD, though not recently, and won’t have much to say about it here.)

Here are my thought so far, for what they are worth:

Text: Both versions had a few cuts. The ASC omits the subplot about the three German horse-thieves (IV.3 and IV.5), along with some of the scholastic humor, though they include the “Castalian king urinal” (II.3), whatever that means (according to Arden, no one knows). The only cuts I noticed in the BBC version were a couple of jokes in the Latin lesson (IV.1) including (oddly) the one that comes across most clearly to a Latinless audience, the one about “the focative case”, which anyone can hear is a dirty joke even if they’ve never heard of the vocative case in Latin or the anatomical meaning of ‘case’ in Elizabethan English.

Humor: In general, the ASC missed fewer opportunities for jokes. There were 3-4 jokes in the BBC version that I hadn’t caught at ASC, mostly in Dr. Caius’ French accent: he calls Anne Page ‘On Podge’and his rival in love ‘Sir Huge’ and when he calls his servant ‘that knave Rog-by’ he pronounces the second word kuh-nave. I assume it is intentional that his repeated “by gar” sounds almost like ‘bugger’. He also asks for his “green pox” (i.e. box), which is more a Welsh than a French accent, though there are other instances of that in the play.

On the other hand, the BBC production missed at least a dozen opportunities that ASC seized. I don’t want to give too many examples, since I hope some of my readers will come to see the play and be as surprised and delighted by them as I was the first time around, but here are two:

  • The look on the face of Mistress Ford (Sarah Fallon) when she reads in Falstaff’s letter (II.1) “You are not young, no more am I” and again when she overhears her husband’s reaction to the news that Falstaff is wooing his wife, saying to Pistol “Why sir, my wife is not young”.
  • When Ford (John Harrell) says “Buck? I would I could wash myself of the buck! Buck, buck, buck! Ay, buck! I warrant you, buck –” (III.1), he kicks the basket hard on each repetition of “buck”. (I hope they arranged some sort of padding for that side of the basket, since Falstaff is in it and barely fits. Perhaps Ford is actually kicking the frame. I’ll have to try sitting on that side of the stage next time I go.)

Sets and Props: The BBC set was of course far fancier, particularly the indoor scenes. I liked the huge timber that bisected Falstaff’s room at waist-height and forced visitors to duck under it. His buck basket was nicer, too, though the clothes in it were far too generic: the ASC’s clothes included a fair percentage of underwear. And Falstaff’s hornèd hat was not obviously made from a football helmet, as at the ASC. On the other hand, Falstaff’s gingham dress was better at the ASC. Of course, these are far from the most important features of a production.

Words: I had trouble hearing all the words in the BBC version. If this were a stage play recorded live, I could blame the technicians, but it was made for TV, so there’s really no excuse. Not that the diction was terrible, but to take one tiny example, I wouldn’t have comprehended Falstaff’s comparison of Pistol and Nym to a “gemini of baboons” (II.2) if I hadn’t already heard the phrase clearly at ASC. When I’m at the Blackfriars, I don’t even notice the actors’ competence in pronouncing and projecting their lines, and reinforcing them with gestures. I just take all that for granted until I see a non-ASC play.

Characters: I’m still gathering my thoughts about the various Pages and Fords. In the mean time, here are some notes on the other characters:

Falstaff: Richard Griffiths (BBC) was a disappointment: too short, too thin, too soft — almost effeminate, and way too young. He looked 25, and I was surprised to learn from IMDB that he was 35 when the film was made. Nolan Carey (ASC’s Nym) played Falstaff in the MFA production of 2 Henry IV earlier this year, and also looked too young, but there’s only so much you can do with makeup, and youthful looks are to be expected in a student production. He was tall enough and fat enough for the part, though his fat suit got a little carried away in the (how shall I put this?) man-boobs area. James Keegan’s ASC Falstaff is, or appears to be, taller, fatter, older, and at the same time more vigorous than Griffiths, and he wears his fat suit very naturally. He is, in short, imposing. I’ve only dipped into my two recordings of Verdi’s opera lately (Haitink at the Royal Opera House in 1999, with Bryn Terfel in the title role, and Muti at La Scala in 2001), but all three of the operatic Falstaffs I’ve seen have the appropriate height, heft, and general vigor and dominance. Muti’s Falstaff, Ambrogio Maestri, ruins this with a hair style blatantly lifted from Krusty the Clown, but that’s another story.

Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and Mine Host of the Garter: With no doubling of roles and (presumably) a much larger budget, the BBC does a good job with these four. I found it hard to understand the stylistic jokes in both versions (Pistol’s Marlovian boasting, Nym’s “humors”) and had to read about them in the Arden edition, but I suppose that is inevitable.

Shallow: Alan Bennett (BBC) is a harmless and very decrepit old man, while René Thornton, Jr. (ASC) is a hilariously dirty old perv, though he is too big and healthy to look quite as decrepit as he ought.

Slender: Richard O’Callaghan (BBC) is depicted as a fop, in fact looks a bit like some depictions of Shakespeare, and his “I am not altogether an ass” is fairly convincing. The ASC Slender (Chris Johnston) is altogether an ass and then some, and comes across as very young and a total dork — hilariously awful.

Fenton: Not much to say except that Tobias Shaw (ASC) is younger and much handsomer than his BBC counterpart.

Sir Hugh Evans: The BBC Sir Hugh’s Welsh accent, though presumably authentic, was nearly undetectable, at least to my untutored ears. Apparently the BBC thought putting a real Welshman in the part (Tenniel Evans) would suffice, but his failure to audibly mix up his Bs and Ps and so on ruined many of the jokes. Perhaps they were afraid of offending the Welsh, but a fake Welshman with a comically-exaggerated accent, like Chris Seiler at the ASC, would have been funnier. (Cf. Henry James, “The Real Thing”.)

Dr Caius: Daniel Rigney (ASC) looks much younger than Michael Bryant (BBC) and also (therefore?) less threatening, both to his servants and to Sir Hugh. I’m not sure whether that’s a plus or a minus or just a difference. I’m also not sure whether making Dr Caius and Slender look twice the age of Anne Page is a good thing in so far as May-December matches are both historically plausible and creepy, or whether that distracts from the main lines of the plot. Still thinking about this.

Mistress Quickly: Without giving away too many details for those who haven’t seen the play, Alison Glenzer (ASC) makes very effective use of her skirt and cleavage for comic purposes. The BBC Quickly was rather dull, at least by comparison.

Bit Parts: I don’t have much to say about the servants except that I couldn’t tell whether Ron Cook’s Peter Simple (BBC) was supposed to be 15 or 40 — he always seemed to be one or the other, nothing in between, which was a bit disturbing, and his simpleness looked like cliché mental retardation, while Erin Baird (ASC) comes across as none too swift but mostly naïve and very young.

The BBC postmaster’s boy and the other male ‘bride’ at the end were played by actual boys who could plausibly pass for girls. At least I’m assuming they were boys: it wasn’t easy to tell, which I suppose was the point. More farcically, the ASC uses the two biggest available men in the cast, René Thornton, Jr. and Nolan Carey. In this case, as in most cases, I prefer farce to verisimilitude.

How to sum up? If you’re anywhere near Staunton, Virginia, come see the play.

Shakespeare at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:04 PM GMT-0500

I moved to Staunton, Virginia a year ago last week for a number of reasons, but primarily so I could go to plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse. I’d been driving 4 1/2 hours each way from Raleigh every few months to see three shows in a weekend, so when a good Latin-teaching job in a neighboring county was advertised, I jumped at the chance to live a block and a half from the theater and go whenever I like. In my first year in town, I saw 105 performances of 17 different plays, or roughly two per week, not counting unstaged readings and MFA productions. (The Master of Fine Arts in Shakespeare Studies program at Mary Baldwin College is closely associated with the American Shakespeare Center, and the MFA students put on several shows per year at the Blackfriars. I went to all four shows of their As You Like It: it was that good.) It’s time I started posting about what I have seen.

My qualifications for theatrical reviewing are questionable: over the years I’ve read a lot of plays, mostly ancient, seen only a few until I moved here, and acted in none. I’ve also read very little, theoretical or practical, about post-classical drama. However, I won’t let that stop me. First up: Merry Wives of Windsor, later today.

Please note: If you are only interested in reading my reviews of Blackfriars productions, use this link. If you are interested in reading all of my theater reviews, use this link.

Sunday: July 19, 2009

Racine: Phèdre (UK National Theatre)

Filed under: — site admin @ 11:52 PM GMT-0500

I drove to Charlottesville today to see an HD broadcast of Racine’s Phèdre by the UK National Theatre, with Helen Mirren in the title role. Some desultory thoughts:

  1. At 56, I was probably younger than the median audience member. I hope they are being replaced by the newly old as they die off.
  2. The set was all scabby white concrete walls and floors on a more-than-human scale, like a modern art museum without any art on the walls, the kind where the art wouldn’t be missed. The vaguely archaic water fountain was an odd touch. On the right was a low wall with a bright blue sky behind it, which very effectively suggested a seawall with the shore just behind it.
  3. The Paramount Theater is well worth seeing in itself, and I’m going back in a week for a live performance of The Marriage of Figaro by Ashlawn Opera.
  4. When I saw Tartuffe in Charlottesville a couple of months ago, I was surprised by how simple the plot was, compared to Shakespeare’s comedies. With Phèdre, I was surprised how complicated the plot was, but that’s because I was semi-unconsciously comparing it to Euripides and Seneca, not Shakespeare. (It’s been 35 years since I read any Molière or Racine, and I’d never seen either on stage.)
  5. The translation, by Ted Hughes, worked tolerably well. It was advertised as ‘free verse’, but might as well have been prose, for all I could tell. It was mostly successful at avoiding stiff archaisms and disconcerting modernisms, though “futile placebo” sounded odd for a classical hero or a neoclassical playwright. The best line came from the nurse, Oenone: “this longing for death is going to kill us both”. How much of that is Racine, and how much Hughes, I do not know.
  6. The sound effects were irritating: mostly dull roars (to respresent the adjacent sea?) and indistinct wooshes. There were two glitches in the transmission, where the picture froze and the sound went off or changed to static, but neither lasted more than 4-5 seconds.
  7. I wondered whether people would clap at the end. It’s a natural response to a successful production, but the actors couldn’t hear us, and we knew it, which made it unnatural after all. As it turned out, there was plenty of clapping broadcast from London, so the brief flurry of scattered local claps quickly died down. The actors couldn’t see us, either, so most of us headed for the doors as soon as the show ended, not sticking around to watch the actors take their bows, assuming that was also broadcast.
  8. As for the acting, what can I say? Very professionally done, probably as well-done as a prosy translation of a verse play in a foreign language can be done. I’d like to see a French production some day, though I’d need subtitles. I will certainly go see the National Theatre’s next simulcast, All’s Well That End’s Well in October. I’m curious to see how it will compare to the American Shakespeare Center’s touring production, which will be previewing in town the first week of September.