Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Sense and Sensibility, Folger Theatre

The Folger Theatre's Sense and Sensibility, in an adaptation by Kate Hamill and directed by Eric Tucker, proves a long-standing hypothesis of mine: when adapting great works of prose, the best adaptations are the most boldly theatrical.  The less they bind themselves to mimicking the exact tone of the source material, and the more they allow themselves free range to find the nuances that most excite them as theatre, the stronger the production will be.

Luckily, Hamill and Tucker as the main collaborators involved here (both members of Bedlam, a theatre company familiar to DC audiences who saw their productions of Hamlet and Saint Joan at the Olney Theatre Center a few seasons back) prove this hypothesis with aplomb, excitement, depths of genuine feeling, and a wealth of unrepentant theatricality and stylization.

Most important in this adaptation is the freewheeling spirit of exploration of a familiar story, shaking loose the centuries that have accrued around the story of the Dashwoods, and putting the emotional focus squarely on the relationship between the two eldest sisters, Elinor (Maggie McDowell) and Marianne (Erin Weaver).  The two actresses play the sisters' tumultuous, but deeply loving relationship with enormous sensitivity; it's very clear from both performances why these sisters can have difficulty connecting with each other, but likewise how much each others' lasting happiness is their first priority.  More so than in any other adaptation I've seen of Jane Austen's story, I felt the love between these two characters and the uncomfortable desperation of their social situation.  The entire ensemble is clearly relishing their various roles, and work and move absolutely seamlessly in the rolling set designed by John McDermott.

The Folger has extended this run through mid-November, and I highly, HIGHLY recommend you take advantage of it and see this production if you haven't already.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Two Minutes' Traffic: Angels in America Parts 1 and 2, Round House Theatre

Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches; Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika (co-produced by Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, performed at Round House)

Angels in America is the kind of play that looms large in the consciousness of twentieth century American theatre, but the epic scope which demands incredible feats from its cast and inevitably lengthy run times can make it a tricky sell for theatre companies.  Everyone wants it to be done, absolutely- but it's always nice when someone else can produce it, so that you can just go see theirs.  In this case, Round House Theatre and the Olney Theatre Center have combined forces to make the mountain a little more scaleable; each theatre's artistic director helms one half of Tony Kushner's two-part masterpiece, and the two theatres are co-producers of each play.

The two plays have their own distinct challenges, but directors Jason Loewith and Ryan Rilette navigate the shared world of the play seamlessly, as Loewith sets the plates spinning with careful art in Millennium Approaches and Rilette reveals their ecstatic, heartwrenching payoffs in Perestroika.  James Kronzer's stark, yet expansive set serves both plays well, while Clint Allen's projection designs allow the set to tremble and throb as angelic visitors come nigh.

Tom Story's Prior is truly the heart of both plays; his performance is raw and ravaged, but desperately maintaining his dignity as Prior's world unravels bit by bit.  Sarah Marshall is a protean wonder, playing more characters than anyone else, and in particular, imbuing Hannah Pitt with an obstinate vitality.  Dawn Ursula and Jon Hudson Odom are other strong standouts in a spectacular cast that includes Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Jonathan Bock, and Thomas Keegan.

Angels in America is the type of play that demands to be seen, and you would do well to heed its timely call at Round House.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare Theatre Company

What do you need to create a good Romeo and Juliet? To do any Shakespeare can be a challenge, because of the anticipated struggle with the language, or with twisting and unfamiliar plots. Sometimes, however, a challenge exists because of the opposite reasons: the language and plot are SO familiar, they've become embedded into our cultural consciousness. Such is the case with Romeo and Juliet, where the struggle can come from audiences who think they already know all they need to know about the play. The blasé, self-styled authority is a peculiar challenge all its own, whether they come convinced that Romeo and Juliet is a play about overwrought teenagers who kill themselves for no good reason, or they know every word so intimately they'll be dissatisfied if an actor chooses a "wrong" inflection for a word or phrase. Both can be deadly, so how best to avoid them?

The short version is, Be smart. Choose the story you want to tell about the star-crossed lovers of Verona, and put in the work to MAKE it work. Alan Paul, Associate Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, has here the job of engaging this most basic, most difficult challenge, and doing so in his first foray directing Shakespeare for his company. The great work begins long before the curtain rises, and its a pleasure to say that Paul did indeed put in the time and labor with strong results. It's all too easy to say that Romeo and Juliet are foolish teens who make colossally poor choices, and claim that their fabled great love story is nothing of the kind. The problem with that approach is that it doesn't make for good theatre. Instead, Paul gives us a production that believes in the love story at its core, while not ignoring the danger of the violence and decay imbued in the world that surrounds it.

Ayana Workman is undoubtedly the soul of this Romeo and Juliet. Her youth and vitality bring Juliet vividly to life, from the moment she enters, the effect is instantaneous: you cannot cynically brush aside this young woman's story because she's "only" a teenager or because you know the story too well. That's what makes you twitch in your seat--Workman's Juliet is SO young, so alive, so pulsing with intelligence, bravery, and determination, and before the night is through, Juliet will have died.  The story feels immediate, terrible, and terribly real.  Andrew Veenstra brings the production a Romeo who is as captivated and charmed by her as the audience is, trying hard to distance himself from his first entrance from a fight he wants no part in.
Ayana Workman as Juliet and Andrew Veenstra as Romeo in Shakespeare Theatre Company's
production of Romeo & Juliet, directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

I was also terribly pleased with the return of Jeffrey Carlson to STC, last seen in the title role in Hamlet in 2007 and 2008, a performance which I may or may not have seen six times (spoiler, gentle reader: I did).  What I loved best about Carlson's alternatively brooding and manic Hamlet was the prince's ferociously fast mind that moved at a pace ten times quicker than anyone else's in Denmark (with the lone exception of a gravedigger). Carlson's Mercutio shares some of that same energy, with a mind moving at a speed his stillness might belie at first glance, and his Queen Mab speech is the most appealing I've seen.  Audiences always want more Mercutio than we get, but I felt it acutely in Paul's production.

The Capulets, Montagues, and their assorted hangers-on inhabit a dark red, two-level space designed by Dane Laffrey, conjuring something like the decaying, rotting glamor of a hotel or club that used to be the pinnacle of decadence.  The glamour of the surroundings is fading and oppressive, like something you might register dimly through the fog as your week-long bender reels to an end.  Here, the deep red haze is one that comes from marinating in violent and bloody feuds that no one is able to escape, whatever side they take or try to deny.  I confess, I'm not entirely sure why the second level was there, as it wasn't used to particular effect, except that someone probably thought a balcony was de rigueur for any Romeo and Juliet.  Kaye Voyce's costumes were a miss for me; as soon as my companion likened Romeo's look to Justin Bieber, I was done for.  Mercutio's party suit, however, can stay.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Romeo & Juliet, 
directed by Alan Paul. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What I return to when I consider this Romeo and Juliet is not the imperfections, but the way in which, more so than in any other Romeo and Juliet I've seen in recent years, I found myself rooting for these crazy kids: couldn't they, just this once, make it? Could we at least pull a West Side Story here? No?  Ah, well.  I might have some quibbles, but Alan Paul's production reminded me of so many reasons why Romeo and Juliet is a genuinely good play.  With something so familiar, we can sometimes forget that simple truth, but here, it's hard to deny.  I imagine that this production may not be popular with everyone, but for my taste, I can see the thought and care that went into creating its heart. I can appreciate the actors' text work that shapes the verse, and I can hope that this production will grab some students at the school matinee and make them feel the tug on their hearts that Shakespeare can also be for them.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare Theatre Company

Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s production of The Taming of the Shrew that opened Tuesday night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company is not exactly Shrew as we’re familiar with it, and it’s going to be up to the audience members if that’s a good thing, a bad thing, or both.  Much has been made in the lead-up to this production of the all-male nature of the cast, but that’s hardly the most daring move made on stage.  Indeed, there’s quite a lot of the night that happens off the stage and into the public spaces of STC’s Sidney Harman Hall; Iskandar is a director known for immersive theatre and has worked very hard to pull the Harman in line with his aesthetic.  On opening night, actors in full costume mingled with patrons and danced outside the theatre. Likewise, much has been made of the Piazza D’Amore market and the Padua Finishing School that take over the lobbies as well, but I’m not clear how these elements really function, as the crowd made the lobby difficult to navigate, much less investigate. It’s not necessarily my favorite thing for theatres to try and do, but I could see plenty of patrons who were delighted by the proceedings.

Efforts to open up the stage of the Harman within the theatre itself (sans proscenium) functioned much more smoothly and seamlessly—Seth Reiser’s lighting design was sumptuous and consistently beautiful throughout the night, while Jason Sherwood’s magnificent gilded set was a wonderful and adaptive frame for the characters.  Many productions find opportunities to let the actors wander amidst the audience, but few actually go as far as Iskandar and allow the audience to enter the actors’ space by coming on stage during the extended intermission, where actors perform both music and extended makeouts.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. Photo by Scott Suchman.

But what of the play itself? That’s where Iskandar makes his boldest choices and where he ventures into the murky territory of adaptation.  It seems as though, while in the early stages of preparing to direct this production, Iskandar created what amounts to a fanmix of Duncan Sheik songs for Shrew and proceeded to weave those songs throughout his production, letting them inform and build upon certain ideas he had for characters.  The result is somewhat jarring—when characters leave Shakespeare’s dialogue and transition into modern pop idioms, the heightening effect of music isn’t quite enough to compensate for the lessened textual complexity.  It’s through these songs, however, that Iskandar adds another layer to the story of Bianca, Lucentio, Tranio, and Biondello. Instead of the (relatively) straightforward story of Lucentio’s courtship of Bianca, Iskandar has decided to complicate matters by having Tranio pining for Lucentio while Bianca sighing over an equally lovelorn Biondello.  It’s an interesting idea, but I found myself much more taken with elements of Oliver Thornton’s Bianca that took place within Shakespeare’s text, rather than outside it. This Bianca clearly adores performing femininity and likewise enjoys how very good at it she is, and how this brings her a certain cachet within her society.  Thornton is exceptionally good at showing that however much Bianca loves the thrill of being beautiful, she doesn’t love the objectification and commodification that her beauty forces upon her.  She marries Lucentio as the best option available to her, not because it’s what she would choose for herself; like her sister, however, she doesn’t have a lot of agency within this world.

The cast of Shakespeare Theatre Company's The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar.
Photo by Scott Suchman.

This is not my first all-male Shrew; that distinction belongs to the 2007 production by Ed Hall’s Propeller theatre company. At the time, I noted that by having the actor Simon Scardifield playing Katherine, the audience saw a Kate that could give as good as she got, before Hall took the production to a very dark place (a place, admittedly, that provided the most tonally consistent and earned reading of Kate’s final speech I’ve ever encountered).  When you removed actual female bodies from that particular Shrew, Hall’s production could heighten the violence beyond what an audience might be able to bear to watch inflicted upon female characters. It seems like a logical conclusion and a reasonable justification for an all-male Shrew, but it’s not the course that Iskandar has chosen for his Shrew.

Instead, this Shrew actually makes the best case I’ve yet seen that these crazy kids Katherine and Petruchio might actually have a ghost of a chance. Instead of staging amusing fisticuffs during the characters’ first meeting, Maulik Pancholy’s reserved and hardened Kate seems inclined to give Peter Gadiot’s Petruchio a chance—if he can earn it.  Pancholy’s Kate wants so desperately to be seen as more than her reputation, and it’s incredibly affecting to watch her torn between the slightest hope that this might be something new, and angry resignation that Petruchio only offers more of the same old scorn.  At several points in the production, we can see hints of their partnership emerging—Kate can take the piss out of someone if she does it with Petruchio as part of a team of equals.  The problem is, of course, that even (especially?) with an all-male cast, it’s just not good enough that Petruchio claims that he can act shrewish himself to teach Kate a lesson, because PATRIARCHY.  Even if Iskandar allows Kate to beat Petruchio while he refrains from hitting back, the fact that this scene comes amidst days of abuse where she has been denied sleep, food, or water means that Petruchio is still an abuser who has all the power in this society and this relationship, not a romantic lead on a noble quest.  It’s the real problem of the play, and Iskandar hasn’t found a way around it, despite making an effort.

I do have to peevishly note my least favorite Iskandar change in the entire play. Andre De Shields plays the role of Gremio in the first half, and plays him admirably—this is no knock against his performance. Unfortunately, Signior Gremio has been transformed inexplicably into Monseigneur Gremio, making one of Bianca’s suitors a member of the Catholic clergy, for whom marriage is clearly off the table. It’s the kind of change that’s not only unnecessary, but simply doesn’t make sense when the text as performed clearly has the character angling for marriage, not sex.  The fact that the program calls him a Cardinal is just embarrassing, as that’s an entirely different title within the church to Monseigneur, but that’s only icing on the cake of a poor choice.

There are many, many good ideas in this Shrew, and STC is absolutely to be commended for bringing a director like Iskandar into their fold and taking the risk that this production entailed.  I always rather see a production overreach than play it safe and boring, and Iskandar certainly didn’t produce a snoozer.  There are so many smart choices made on the stage, from design elements that created a fantastical Italianate eleganza in the Harman, to very smart scenework from the talented ensemble.  Maulik Pancholy’s Kate and Oliver Thornton’s Bianca are creations that will stay in my imagination for a long time and resonate across all future productions that I see, which is exactly why I seek out new productions of familiar plays again and again.  I would love to see this production trimmed of the Sheik, so that I could really see what Iskander did with Shakespeare’s text, but I rather fancy that that’s not a production he’d be as interested in creating.  I’d also be interested in seeing a production even more unfettered to tradition, freewheeling its way through the parts of the text that most interested Iskandar, excising anything that didn’t, and adding all the trappings he’d like.  There’s something about this production that’s more similar to the quasi-Shakespeare that dominated stages of the seventeenth and eighteenth century, where creators new endings that they preferred and added all the songs and dances their hearts (and audiences) wanted.  It’s not that Iskandar’s production goes against tradition—rather, it wholeheartedly embraces traditions that audiences are just a little less familiar with.  Even if this production was ultimately a mixed bag for me, I absolutely applaud its spirit of invention and the daring that brought it onto the Harman stage.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Pillowman, Forum Theatre

Once upon a time, there was a writer named Katurian K. Katurian.  He lived in an unspecified, totalitarian state with a police force that perhaps relied a little too much on torture and execution during its investigations than an ideal police force might. His stories were dark, tortured little fables that didn't so much seek to teach a lesson as to unsettle. He hoped his stories would impress readers with his cleverness and his skill, and above all, he hoped that his stories would outlast him.

In Forum Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, we can't help but be drawn into Katurian's world. Under Yury Urnov's direction and Paige Hathaway's set design, the Silver Spring Black Box has become one central boxed-in police interrogation room, surrounded by three walls of potential interrogators.  The audience itself is seated behind tables, watching as Jim Jorgensen's Tupolski and Bradley Foster Smith's Ariel question, attack, intimidate, and cajole Maboud Ebrahimzadeh's Katurian into revealing his truest stories. In Urnov's production, we are (for the most part) urged away from the occasional vague Eastern European noun in McDonagh's script into seeing this world as our own. Robert Croghan's costume designs for the primary actors place them into recognizable tropes; in particular, Smith seems like he stepped out of an 80s cop drama and Ebrahimzadeh could have walked right off the street and into the cell. It's also undeniable that Urnov has presented us with a scene of a man of color being brutalized by two white members of the police force; this Pillowman doesn't feel the need to lean into this casting to excess, trusting the audience to be aware of the visual and its implications without losing the subtlety of McDonagh's play.

As I've told many friends, The Pillowman is probably my favorite play written in the last 15 years, and it's one of my great Theatrical Regrets that I had the opportunity to see the original production at the National Theatre in London in 2003 (and in fact, was living across the street from the theatre and so could have gone at any time) and just... didn't go.  I saw the wonderful staging at Studio Theatre in 2007 that starred Tom Story, which fully dramatized Katurian's stories for the audience. Urnov's production, by contrast, is scaled down, with each story presented in a different way. At times, it feels like the production tries a little too hard to think of something new for each dark fairy tale, but there is a charm in wondering just what you'll get next.  The ensemble (rounded out by a wonderful James Konicek as Katurian's brother Michal and Emma Lou Hebert in several roles) is truly excellent, rising to the challenge of McDonagh's dialogue and the plot's dark twists and turns.  Ebrahimzadeh in particular is absolutely mesmerizing, from an affable charm in the first act to a haunting desperation as his situation takes an abrupt turn in Act II. Pillowman is a story about stories and the power they hold, and it's a story in excellent hands at Forum Theatre.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

1984, Headlong at Shakespeare Theatre Company

In Headlong’s production of 1984, directed and adapted by Robert Icke and Duncan MacMillan and currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, nothing is comfortable, onstage or off.  Even in the audience, we aren’t allowed to relax comfortably into our seats, safe behind the fourth wall.  We are prey to bright lights shining into our faces, loud noises, visceral stage violence that—we are warned by the placard outside—may cause problems for those of “nervous dispositions.”  But the desire of the playmakers to unsettle its audience goes beyond the physical; from the moment the lights go up, the audience is challenged on what their own relation to a familiar story is going to be for the next 100 minutes.  Just exactly what version of Winston Smith’s story has the ensemble read, Orwell’s or Smith’s own? Does the familiarity of cell phones indicate that we’re in our present day? Or are we somewhere, or sometime, else?  And who exactly are “we” in this story?

The answers don’t come easily, nor should they. Headlong’s production of one of the most familiar stories of the twentieth century is invigorating and potent. The language of Orwell’s dystopian future has become part of our own cultural lexicon, so much so that when the members of the ensemble first speak the words “Big Brother” or discuss the merits of Newspeak, the audience chuckles to hear the familiar back in its original context.  But the power of Orwell’s novel, brilliantly realized in Icke and MacMillan’s adaptation, is that it has always been a story simultaneously about the past, present, and future.  Program notes tells us that in crafting their adaptation, Icke and MacMillan seized upon the epilogue, set in an even more distant future that had also read the story of Winston Smith.  In their production, we in the audience are also implicated—we have likewise watched Smith (, played here by actor Matthew Spencer) when he doesn’t want to be seen, when he believes himself to be most private, on stage and viewed on screens.  We have to interrogate ourselves, both for what we’ve seen onstage, and for what we may likewise see out in the world beyond the theatre.

Adaptations can often be under pressure to justify their existence. We’ve counted 1984 as a seminal piece of literature for decades, why must it now be a theatre piece? Icke and MacMillan find their answer in several ways, first by the deliberate ways in which they challenge the way in which the audience engages with the story and with its own role as an audience, aided by their design team (Chloe Lamford, Natasha Chivers, Tom Gibbons, and Tim Reid).  Through their talented ensemble, the directors are able to take the subjective experiences of Smith’s story and embody them.  We inhabit a murky and dreamlike world where no one is quite as real as Smith, where actors can suddenly appear or disappear in an eye blink, or robotically wipe down a table that isn’t entirely there. It's a tribute to the careful treatment of this world by the actors that no one is quite as real as Winston Smith, and so no one can truly be trusted.  Hara Yannas's Julia comes closest, but we can feel the doom always right on the horizon for them both, whether or not we remember the details of Room 101.

1984 is not an easy piece, but it is an important one.  That said, quite a lot of theatre that gets labeled as “important” can also be called “deathly dull” and “weighted down with their own importance.” This production remains deftly handled throughout, speeding us to our inevitable conclusion, and buoyed by the skillful and unrepentant theatricality of its adaptation.  This production is strongly recommended, both as a high bar in what the theatre can do for a familiar story, but also for theatre’s power to move us, unsettle us, and challenge us to look at the world again—and to not forget all that we’ve seen.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Othello, Shakespeare Theatre Company

In Ron Daniels' production of Othello at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, audiences are greeted first by Ricardo Hernandez's stark set design. Eschewing the proscenium for the paneled walls of the Harman stage, Hernandez gives us a raked platform, industrial fans, and oil barrels on stage right and left. The sound design by Fitz Patton in similarly spare; instead of the overuse of underscoring so prevalent in many productions today, only rarely does Patton sneak into the scene, enhancing a moment with gradually swelling drums or music. Emily Rebholz's costumes largely keep to high and low military uniforms, or simple dresses of the period (the continuing conflicts after WWI). Daniels' intention seems to be to steer clear of the trappings, and let Shakespeare's play stand on its own, with this company, in this space.

The company of the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of Othello,
directed by Ron Daniels. Photo by Scott Suchman

Unfortunately, the production rarely breaks free of the mundane. Rather than leaving the stage bare that is filled by the emotions and the performances, the stage often feels as though it dwarfs the actors. Daniels' desire to create a world in which the inevitable tragedy feels justified by a recognizable world of psychological realism engenders a stage of scaled-down performances that rarely excite. I found myself searching, increasingly desperate as Act I trudged onward, for the passion that supposedly drives Shakespeare's characters in this play. Faran Tahir as Othello, Jonna Roberts as Iago, and Ryman Sneed as Desdemona give performances that are thoughtful, careful, and seem inconsistently motivated by the passions they claim aloud, too interior to fill the empty space of the Harman. The pacing of the first half in particular seems to drag, which also saps energy out of the events that need to be building to an unbearable tension.

There are some moments that nevertheless managed to grab my attention, even in the overlong Act I. Patrick Vaill's Cassio, spurred by Iago into drunkenness and a fight that loses him his coveted position serving under Othello, brings a dynamism and humor to the stage that lifts the scene up and gives Roberts's Iago a wonderful foil to play against. I also appreciated a shift in Rebholz's costume design for Othello in Act II, taking him out of his military uniform and into robes that belied his seeming assimilation into the Venetian military culture. These kind of design choices are a wonderful opportunity to question assumptions about the character and the play, opening a window into the play that might otherwise remain unexplored and unopened, and it was interesting to see these shifts coming late in the play through costume design.

Ryman Sneed as Desdemona and Faran Tahir as Othello in the Shakespeare
Theatre Company's Othello, directed by Ron Daniels. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ultimately, I cannot recommend this production. To my eyes, Act I was a slog and Act II left me cold. As I watched the play, I began noting elements Daniels had set up that should have created a production I enjoyed. Shakespeare without extraneous trappings is often the most visceral and can cut right to the heart of the text; I was also pleased to see that actors were often directed to address the audience directly, something so basic to Shakespeare's stage that is all too often forgotten. Somehow, the elements were all there, but the production never came together in a way that excited me, and Othello is a tragedy that should, if nothing else, rouse its audience.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Folger Theatre

Note: the following review does reveal several elements unique to this production. Proceed at your own risk; here be spoilers.

When mounting a production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, the temptation to tinker with a familiar play must be (understandably) very difficult to resist. In Aaron Posner's Director's Notes for his production currently running at the Folger Theatre, he cites four previous productions of Midsummer that have touched his life, and gestures towards the inevitability that many of the audience will have a similar wealth of Midsummers They Have Known lurking in their memory. The challenge for any director is to dive into the familiar and find something that speaks to them strongly enough in the text to justify their own new production. It's no surprise that, true to form, Mr. P isn't able to trust Shakespeare's text to get the job done, a tendency I've never understood in his productions for the Folger. The piece is bracketed by a new prologue and a rousing musical number that transitions out of the mechanicals' bergomask (as well as some other interior tweaks). It's not that Shakespeare wasn't averse to a prologue himself, or didn't end every play with music and a jig in keeping with the contemporary traditions; more that, once again, it seems more important that we the audience sense the hand of Aaron Posner guiding the play.

The results can at times be a mixed bag of a Midsummer. Eric Hissom and Erin Weaver make an excellent team as Oberon/Theseus and Puck, and I did enjoy the conceit of the mechanicals as a group of young women, still in school and venturing into the theatrical thicket. Holly Twyford does excellent work as Bottom, although her role within the mechanicals social world seems unclear (are both she and Richard Ruiz's Peter Quince their drama teachers? If so, that relationship ultimately becomes muddied as time goes on and the text can't support it). It's worth mentioning, however, that when Weaver's Puck transforms Bottom into the strange half-ass, half-human creature that so terrifies the mechanicals, I have never before felt such pity for Bottom. In the altered costume, Twyford's Bottom became a grotesque, quietly confused and suddenly lost and alone. It's a genuinely affecting moment created by Twyford, Posner, and Devon Painter's costume design. I later found myself quickly warming to the final musical production number, thanks to the willingness of the cast to Go There with absolute commitment to Erika Chong Shuch's choreography, but wondering why the musical element couldn't have been woven into the world of the play earlier? I was actually reminded of Posner's Twelfth Night for the Folger, which I think included music VERY successfully in its narrative; in that case, music was already a part of Shakespeare's play, and Mr P. didn't have to suddenly forge new ground by simply incorporating more of it.

Ultimately, I enjoyed quite a lot in this Midsummer. As much as I grumble about Mr P's tendency to fix what isn't broken in Shakespeare, I acknowledge that I'm often the only one muttering in the back of the theatre when everyone around me is delighted with the final production. He assembles good people, from his actors to his designers, and with a text like Shakespeare's, that can take you pretty far. This is a production with a lot of charm, and I'm happy to be charmed for two hours at the Folger.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Two Minutes' Traffic: As You Like It (Center Stage), Collaborators (Spooky Action Theater)

As You Like It, Center Stage Although Wendy Goldberg's heartfelt and stylish production of Shakespeare's As You Like It closed on February 14, it's no less important to take note of savvy, sensitive renderings of Shakespeare even after their runs end. The production has been particularly notable as an entry into the world of cross-gendered Shakespeare, a practice which always makes the most sense in plays where the lenses through which characters perform their gender are doubled and tripled. Goldberg wisely doesn't worry about having her actresses perform masculinity any more than Julia Coffey as Rosalind worries about performing her femininity when her character is ostensibly playing Rosalind while presenting as a young man named Ganymede (it makes sense when you know the show). The always-captivating Sofia Jean Gomez as Orlando brings an easy strength and appeal to her character-- it's easy to see just why Rosalind falls as hard as she does for this handsome stranger when they meet. Mattie Hawkinson's Celia favors fashionable feminine attire (Anne Kennedy's designs across the board are a wonderful complement to the wide array of characters) because those particular clothes suit who her character is, just as naturally as do the clothes we choose to present ourselves to the world each day. Goldberg's production uses the gender of its company as any other tool at her disposal, to be deployed strategically in ways that expand the audience's understanding of character and story, but never AS the story itself. Center Stage, currently undergoing renovations, is housing its productions at Towson University, so I do hope that some of you were able to make the trek up to see this production.

Collaborators, Spooky Action Theater John Hodge's play about politics and the responsibility we have over our own power in troubled times is a fascinating and wonderfully weird play, currently running at Spooky Action Theater, directed by Richard Henrich. Hodge's story mixes fact and fiction as it imagines a theatrical collaboration conducted in secret nights between playwright Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Stalin himself. Along the way, Bulgakov finds himself more culpable for harm, and more entwined in the nightmares of Stalin's tyrannical policies than he'd ever dreamed possible. The play uses a gallows humor that never forgets the terror of the gallows itself, mixing jokes and dread into a strange and terrible cocktail. Henrich's cast does a wonderful job with the humor of the story, finding the laughter in the absurdity of the situation Bulgakov stumbles into, and the performances of Paul Reisman as Bulgakov and MacKenzie Beyer as his wife, Yelena, are deeply heartfelt and moving. Unfortunately, the cast struggles to find the real menace that must haunt Bulgakov at every turn. While Joe Duquette manages the seemingly impossible task of giving us a Stalin with a twinkle in his eye, it can at times be difficult to believe he's truly capable of the kind of terrible actions we must believe. I like this play very much, and there's a lot of good work in the ensemble; I'm just not sure that the production ever quite manages to balance both sides of the scale of menace and humor equally.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound, Shakespeare Theatre Company

More and more these days, we've been hearing debates about the role of the critic in the theatre today.  What purpose are they meant to serve for the audience? For the creators? What's the place of a critic in a world when traditional journalism gives less and less space to theatre? And what do we do with the--saints preserve us-- theatre bloggers?

Left to right: Naomi Jacobson as Mrs. Drudge, Robert Stanton as Moon, John Ahlin as Birdboot, and John Cagtron as Simon Gascoyne in the Shakespeare Theatre Company's production of "The Real Inspector Hound," directed by Michael Kahn. Photo by Scott Suchman. 

Michael Kahn's paired productions of two one act plays (Richard Bridley Sheridan's The Critic in a new adaption by Jeffrey Hatcher, and Tom Stoppard's more recent The Real Inspector Hound) give us a chance to realize that these same debates have been around for at least the last several hundred years.  It's a distinct pleasure of this particular pairing to actually have the opportunity to see two different masters of the theatre approach the same topic and craft their own particular spin on the same joke.

Of the two pieces, The Critic is probably a little more uneven, if only because of Sheridan's specific structure of his play. Its first scene is overlong and exposition-heavy to introduce us to a trio of theatre critics, including Robert Stanton's Mr. Puff, a critic who cheerfully and audaciously pursues his own interests and has, in fact, written his very first play.  All this seems to be in service of a few jokes at the expense of various Types of theatre critics and exists to bring us to the second scene, in which Puff presents a rehearsal of his glorious monstrosity of a play, impishly worsened by the friendly assistance of his critic friends (John Ahlin and Robert Dorfman).  While the ensemble plays up to the comedy of Puff's terrible play admirably, and there are some delightful gags to be had, I found Stoppard's Hound to be a much tighter piece and one which, to the modern audience, has a more interesting point of view.  Rather than "look at how ridiculous theatre critics and terrible plays can be," Hound gives us the opportunity to poke fun at these targets while also giving us a surreal and reality-warping night at the theatre for two critics.

While this is a wonderful night for Stanton, it must also be noted that I would happily watch Naomi Jacobson gruffly dusting knick-knacks as Hound's Mrs. Drudge for two hours and call it a splendid night at the theatre. It's also quite nice to see Hugh Nees take a fine turn in both acts, first most notably as the theatre's prompter roped into the action of Puff's play, and then as Stoppard's Major Magnus, recklessly wheeling himself across the stage and making menacing pronouncements.  Kahn's direction finds wonderful moments for everyone in the ensemble, giving opportunities for physical comedy both broad and subtle, just as the moment demands.  James Noone's scenic design and Murell Horton's costumes both likewise go deliciously over the top for The Critic and then scale back to very careful precision for Hound.

For good or ill, critics will always be among us, whether they dissect the play over beers in the bar after the show, write in the most revered of newspapers, review for academic journals, or even have a theatre blog.  Each critic has their own audience and shares their assessment for others to take as they will.  Some aim for pull quotes, some for a chance to flaunt their intellect, some even for an opportunity to sell their plus-one ticket, apparently. While I don't bemoan the state of newspapers for writing about world events like Mr. Dangle in The Critic, I do write because I enjoy seeking out and taking part in the discourse that surrounds my favorite art form.  While it can be a little unnerving to watch actors poking fun at theatre critics for two hours, one can't deny them the opportunity to have a little fun at our expense when they've weathered our own opinions for so long. I found Kahn's dual production to be great fun, and one that largely avoids the pitfalls of veering into too much inside-baseball-style playmaking.  Come for Puff's magnificent wig, stay for the Stoppard to come- you won't regret it.