Theatre Round-up Post: Signature's Sweeney and Shakespearean Shenanigans

A friend of mine was complaining just yesterday about the overuse of the word "shenanigans" in recent years, but as it regards the title of this post,
a) Alliteration trumps ALL
and b) He doesn't read this blog, anyway.


To start things off, last week featured a romp with my very favorite Richard (keep your hunchbacks!) at the Shakespeare Theatre in their Richard II, part of their Leadership Repertory.

Let me get this out of the way now- I spent my senior year of college working on a thesis project about the theatricality of kingship in the history plays. It was epic (for an undergrad) and it CONSUMED me for nine months, months gloriously spent rolling around in Richards and Henrys and all their assorted hangers-on. (Actually, that sentence makes it look like my undergraduate experience was a LOT more exciting than it really was, but I am ok with that) So please understand that I mean it when I say that I LOVE the history plays an ungodly amount. Prince Hal is my favorite Shakespeare character of all- I have a "Hal's Angel" t-shirt in my closet back home, no lie (just wish the joke was mine, but I stole it from the Bogdanov/Pennington ESC productions 'The Wars of the Roses').

I KNOW AND LOVE ME SOME HISTORY PLAYS. This means that I went into Richard II with high hopes and heavy expectations, so I know that I am not your average reviewer.

Michael Kahn's production, for me, creates some problems for itself even as it tries to solve them. For one, he interpolates text from the anonymous, unfinished play Thomas of Woodstock. In some ways, this catches the audience up on some history that Shakespeare's audiences would have already known- King Richard II made some pretty piss-poor decisions in his day, and the Thomas of Woodstock incident is one of them. Shakespeare's play alludes to these events, but only in Kahn's version will you see them. Is this a good thing? It catches the audience up on some facts, sure, but for that, doesn't MK have Akiva 'The' Fox, dramaturg extraordinaire? He gets to write those program notes for a reason, and catching us up on the context is one of them.

My Shakespeare friends would probably rather I continue on this thread, but the rest of you have probably already started skimming to try and figure out when I actually get into the good stuff. Except that the text IS the good stuff and by including the Woodstock bits, Kahn has changed the way we interpret the king, creating something that comes pretty damn close to a black and white binary of Good King, Bad King between Richard and Henry V. Which it is emphatically NOT.

Anyway.


The man of the hour is Michael Hayden as Richard, and he does a credible job fulfilling Kahn's vision of the king. My main problem is that Kahn's king is very much at odds with my own understanding- for Kahn, it seemed most important to show Richard as a lame-o, incapable of rule and deserving of what he gets. As a result, Hayden plays him as vain and self-centered, so much that we have a hard time finding sympathy for him as he slowly falls to Charles Borland's Bolingbroke. Of course, I once had a desktop background that read "Richard II is My Homeboy," so when he sits upon the ground and longs to tell sad stories of the death of kings, or cannot believe that he can still be Richard without his crown and title, my heart will always feel a pang. The best production will give you Richard in his foolishness and his despair and you will suffer with and for him. I remember writing all those years ago that the key of Richard's deposition is that it is the final turning point: Richard has finally won over the hearts of his listeners... except that he won the wrong crowd- he wins the audience of theatregoers, not the audience of nobles listening coldly to his anguish. At Sidney Harmon Hall last week, I'm not sure that Richard ever won our hearts, and it's a grave pity. I think Hayden might have been able to produce a fascinating Richard, but for my tastes, this wasn't it.

Also, he had a BUTT UGLY WIG, which didn't help.

Actually, there were a fair number of poor sartorial decisions on that stage, most notably in the realm of trousers. I leaned over to my blogging compatriot at one point, stole her pencil, and wrote in the margin of my program one word: SPARKLEPANTS. Perhaps the SPARKLEPANTS don't show up quite so SPARKLY from afar, but from our fourth row seat, they SPARKLED like a Cullen only DREAMS of SPARKLING up in the Pacific Northwest.

SPARKLEPANTS.

Sorry- that was the last time.

Anyway, I'd love to tell you more details, but inexplicably, the Shakespeare Theatre has not included ANY cast or production team information on its website for the play (BOO!), my compatriot has my press packet, and I forgot my program at home.


In conclusion, if you love Richard II, this is a servicable enough production. If you don't already feel that way, I doubt that you will go to this one and love it as I do, which is a great pity. Despite there being wonderful opportunities for humor in the text, my compatriot noted that the first laugh didn't come until TWO HOURS into the show (which is about when they took the intermission break, BAD CALL, MK). This is problematic. Maybe Kahn could add a drunk scene?

Sadly, this is a no capslock production, but at least it didn't really invoke the Capslock of RAGE. Just the lowercase of disappointment.




Next up was a Tuesday night trip out to Signature Theatre for a good old-fashioned frolic with everyone's favorite demon barber, Sweeney Todd. Considering that I'm trying to write my master's thesis this week, it was just the catharsis I needed!

Also- I have no qualms in stating here and now that a number of local reviews spoiled what was an exciting staging trick that took me COMPLETELY by surprise when I saw the show. My jaw was on the FLOOR and I was CHORTLING in glee and as the show ended, I sat there grinning and thinking to myself, OH NO. YOU. DI'NT. (OH YES THEY DID) It was SWEET and I would rather hang up my blogging shoes for good than spoil it for you.

Sweeney is a production that, while it doesn't break new ground or make you rethink your entire conception of the show, is a good demonstration of the fact that sometimes? THAT IS OK! Like Evan Lysacek in the figure skating world, you can also shine just by doing a good show really, really well (don't worry, Johnny Weir, you know you have my heart forever and ever, I just needed the right metaphor, promise we can still wear pink tassels together?) (also, Johnny, since we're talking, I want to heap kudos on you for your press conference today- you are all class and I admire you fiercely) (oh, and Johnny, may I recommend that, if you find yourself needing to catch up on a week of theatre-blogging, you might not want to be drinking wine at Busboys and Poets while you write, as you may end up talking to your favorite figure skater in parentheses)

AHEM.

SO RIGHT! SWEENEY! YEAH! This production I have been STRONGLY recommending all week. Ed Gero may not be as strong a singer as I might like in my Ideal Sweeney, but my GOD, he acts the BEEJEEZUS out of the part. He is thrilling and dangerous and has a wig that Michael Hayden's would run screaming away from if ever they met, JUST like you'd want a Sweeney wig to be. As Mrs. Lovett, Sherri L. Edelen is just fantastic- anyone who sat through the misguided Burton film will rejoice to hear a Mrs. L that can sing with vocal support! There's a wonderful relationship between Gero and Edelen that was a treat- a Mrs. Lovett who is genuinely in danger from her serial killer barber friend, because he is a SERIAL KILLER BARBER FRIEND (with potential benefits). For all that she's drawn to him, she knows that she's playing with the proverbial fire, and it makes for an exciting show.

As ever with a Signature musical, kudos have to go out to the ensemble. They sing the hell out of the score (now with bonus expletives!) and own the stage. The supporting work all around is quite good, and it's a surprisingly refreshing, palate-cleaning experience of blood and death and cannibalism in the Industrial Revolution. WELL PLAYED, SIGNATURE.



Finally, I have to talk about the other side of the Shakespeare Rep- Henry V. Gentle readers, DO NOT DESPAIR. David Muse brought me a H5 that ticked a LOT of boxes on my How to Make Rudesby a Happy Girl (and Win a Great Review!) List. (DC theatres- anyone who wishes to obtain a copy of this list is WELCOME TO IT, please leave your card at the desk and I will be happy to tell you how to make ME happy).

I should give you the caveat of my glee, however- remember the Prince Hal love? Hal grows up to be Henry V, so I'm always going to be a little bit biased towards my favorite ne'er-do-well gone good (with a few detours into the problematic).

But look- the opening moments of the play, before Hal was even on STAGE, put me into Muse's corner. Muse has chosen to take the metatheatrical Chorus of the play and split the part in three, creating a trio of distinct personalities that lead the audience through the play. It's a device that works splendidly, and when you combine it by having the chorus enter the stage with the house lights on and ACTUALLY USE THE THRUST STAGE AND ADDRESS THE AUDIENCE PROPERLY? Well. My heart might have done a girlish flutter in my chest. Just saying.

As the King, Hayden really gets a chance to shine. It's true that it's just easier to be charismatic when you're directed to be the hero, rather than a spoiled whiner, but HEY, that's not Hayden's fault. He did a great job- engaging, imminently watchable, and the right mixture of charm, charisma, and self-doubt. He does excellent work here that really impressed me- I'd been underwhelmed by his performance last year in The Dog in the Manger, but his Henry was enough to turn me right round. AND MR MUSE KEEPS THE FRENCH PRISONERS AND DOES NOT SWITCH IT TO AFTER THE BOYS IF YOU KNOW WHAT I AM TALKING ABOUT REJOICE FOR YOUR AMBIVALENT HERO WHO IS NOT ACTUALLY MADE OF SUNSHINE AND RAINBOWS!!!

There are a number of excellent directorial choices made by Muse, but I do have to call him out on one truly terrible decision: Falstaff. Trust me, sir, if you're gonna do it, that ain't the way to use Sweet Jack Falstaff.

The tennis balls, however, had me in a FIT from the moment of the reveal. Totally unexpected, totally hilarious.

Which reminds me- OH TOM STORY. I HEART YOU. His Dauphin was a source of great enjoyment and it does remind me that the York Family Follies section of Richard II was a DELIGHT, which- what did you expect when you combine Ted van Griethuysen, Naomi Jacobson, and Story?

I also would be horribly remiss not to mention Floyd King's Bardolph, who breaks my heart with his (TOTALLY NOT IN THE TEXT BUT I AM OK WITH IT BECAUSE IT, AS STATED, BROKE MY HEART) protests at the sentence pronounced on him by his old friend, Hal. Mr. King's next moments are miraculous- this is why King has the reputation he holds in this town.

It's true that some moments don't quite work- the Funny Accent Brigade never quite takes off, for one, which is a pity. But others really do- Rachel Holmes as Katherine is wonderful, and her scenes are played to the full extent of their potential charm (the fact that Katherine learns English because she knows she's about to be a woman in an occupied country, or that her future hinges on a stipulation in a treaty and she has no choice but to marry the man whose forces just slaughtered PROBABLY EVERY SINGLE GUY SHE KNOWS- heyyyyyy, who cares? I've seen productions that go this route and it's FASCINATING, but it's also not nearly as fun- surprise!).


I have NO problem in FLAILING WILDLY at you to go see this play. The time files, Hayden makes me want to dig out that old "Hal's Angel" t-shirt,* and Muse's direction finds plenty of wonderful opportunities to remind us of why generations have thrilled to this play. GO NOW. DOOOOOO IT.


* HAVE I EVER TOLD YOU, GENTLE READERS, THAT I GOT TO SIT NEXT TO KEITH BAXTER AT A SCREENING OF 'THE CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT' AND OMG IT WAS LIKE HAL NIRVANA??????

WELL. I HAVE TOLD YOU NOW.

Comments

There is much that is win about your post, but most especially:

Akiva 'The' Fox


So he shall henceforth be known as for me.
R said…
I remember writing all those years ago that the key of Richard's deposition is that it is the final turning point: Richard has finally won over the hearts of his listeners... except that he won the wrong crowd- he wins the audience of theatregoers, not the audience of nobles listening coldly to his anguish.

I like that!
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