Shakespeare

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet feature image

Bedlam, the estimable theater company founded in 2012, has a reputation for reinvigorating classic texts with a combination of raw energy and incisive interpretation. At its best, Bedlam distills a work to its bare essence using a small cast to reveal the play’s soul, which apparently had always been hiding in plain sight. Their production of Saint Joan, for instance, employed just four actors and revealed the vigor and immediacy within Shaw’s verbosity. The same four actors performed Hamlet as a giddy romp that also succeeded in finding new depths of pathos and urgency. And their adaptation of Sense and Sensibility managed to plumb the theatricality from Jane Austen’s 19th-century novel with 21st-century showmanship.

Bedlam’s latest production, Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, described in the show’s publicity as a mash-up of Uncle Vanya and Romeo and Juliet, takes a different approach. Rather than burrowing into the separate plays for new subtextual insights, the adaptation by Kimberly Pau looks outside of the texts for inspiration. The dramaturgical merging attempts to show how the classic works complement each other through their über-textual parallels. The final result, unfortunately, is as ungainly as the show’s title. The production ultimately numbs Chekhov’s aching anguish and neuters Shakespeare’s romantic poetry.

Susannah Millonzi as Sonya and Eric Tucker as Astrov in Kimberly Pau’s  Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet.  Top: Zuzanna Szadkowski as Yelena/Juliet and Edmund Lewis as Vanya/Romeo.

Susannah Millonzi as Sonya and Eric Tucker as Astrov in Kimberly Pau’s Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet. Top: Zuzanna Szadkowski as Yelena/Juliet and Edmund Lewis as Vanya/Romeo.

Actually, the mash-up designation is rather misleading. While one might expect this appellation to be a classical cocktail mixed with equal parts Vanya and equal parts Romeo and Juliet, the primary focus is essentially on the former. Pau has provided a script that is a generally faithful version of Chekhov’s play with just two eliminated characters (Vanya’s mother and Sonya’s former nanny), but the rest of the existentially afflicted individuals are all present.

For the first two thirds of Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet, directed by Eric Tucker, audiences can expect a fairly straightforward interpretation of Chekhov’s masterwork. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the lives of Vanya (Edmund Lewis) and Sonya (Susannah Millonzi) are thrown into turmoil with the arrival of Sonya’s father and pedantic professor, Serebryakov (Randolph Curtis Rand), and his young wife, Yelena (Zuzanna Szadkowski). Astrov (Tucker), the neighboring doctor and dabbler in botany, has become a permanent fixture in the home, and his passionate love for Yelena wreaks emotional havoc on the household.

Vanya also loves Yelena, and both Sonya and Yelena love Astrov, and although no one dies as a result of star-crossed passions, their fates are even worse: except for the haughty professor, the characters will presumably live in eternal misery and loneliness.

In Bedlam fashion the proceedings are punctuated with cheeky anachronisms and choreographed chaos. When Vanya threatens Serebryakov with a gun, for example, the characters scream that he is “going postal,” and Yelena has a momentary daydream/dance break underscored by the 1980s lovers’ anthem, “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” Moments of emotional turmoil are highlighted with actors forcefully rolling set pieces into and out of the playing space. (John McDermott’s scenic design, which playfully creates a Russian estate with moveable birch trees, office furniture, and an iconic samovar, is spot-on.)

Tucker and Szadkowski. Photographs by Ashley Garrett.

Tucker and Szadkowski. Photographs by Ashley Garrett.

The Romeo and Juliet tangents offer little in the way of emotional or intellectual illumination. At times, there are moments of cleverness, such as in a reference to Vanya’s dream. This prompts Astrov to metamorphose into Mercutio and recite his well-known Queen Mab monologue. There is also an extended riff late in the play in which Vanya fantasizes about killing Serebryakov, and the characters assume an alternative reality. Vanya/Romeo and Yelena/Juliet are romantically tragic in ways that undercuts the quotidian tragedy that Chekhov presents.

If the amalgamation does not effectively serve Chekhov’s and Shakespeare’s works, the five-member ensemble (with an on-stage musician, John Coyne, who masterfully accompanies the cast in periodic Russian folksongs) tears into the material. Alternating between rough-and-tumble acting and broad comedy, each actor also has quiet moments to show the sense of solitude just under the surface.

Les Dickert’s impressive lighting (with a special nod to the birch trees with red fairy lights) and Charlotte Palmer-Lane’s mix of contemporary and period-inflected costumes (including putting Yelena/Juliet in a white wedding dress for most of the second act) provide a waking dreamlike quality to the proceedings.

Chekhov purists might be more inclined to see the current production of Uncle Vanya across town at Hunter College. Richard Nelson’s spare, quiet production seems more radical in its simplicity. The Bedlam production needlessly and regrettably complicates the play with its infusion of dramatic schizophrenia.

Uncle Romeo Vanya Juliet plays through Oct. 28 at A.R.T./New York Theatres Mezzanine Theatre, 502 W. 53rd St. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For a performance calendar and tickets, visit bedlam.org.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Henry VI

Henry VI

Three productions of Henry VI, William Shakespeare’s seldom staged trilogy, have cropped up Off-Off Broadway since January. The latest, by the ambitious National Asian American Theatre Company (NAATCO), brings epic pageantry and violence to the intimate Mezzanine space at the A.R.T./New York complex on West 53rd Street.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III

Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III

Two years ago New York theatergoers had the opportunity to see Kings of War, Ivo Van Hove’s compilation of five Shakespearean history plays. Tracing the royal lineage of Henry V through Henry VI and ending with Richard III (with a few additional coronations in between), Van Hove’s four-hour-plus production was a grand, sweeping, and technologically sophisticated epic. Working on a much smaller scale, director, adaptor, and actor Austin Pendleton has created his own synthesis of the battles between the Houses of Lancaster and York for Wars of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III, which is currently playing at the 124 Bank Street Theatre. A mashup of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 3 and Richard III and running a mere three hours, Pendleton’s adaptation offers its fair share of both theatrical rewards and pitfalls.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

King Lear

King Lear

In 1940 British critic James Agate said of John Gielgud’s King Lear: “I do not feel that this Lear’s rages go beyond extreme petulance—they do not frighten me!” No such reservation afflicts Gregory Doran’s intelligent and well-spoken Royal Shakespeare Company production, which stars Antony Sher as the king—the Shakespearean role that Sher, who last year played Falstaff at BAM, says will be his last.

 

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night

The Fiasco Theater production of Twelfth Night is energetic, clearly spoken and firmly middle-of-the-road. The company, with standard members, must try to cast every actor in a part, even if the requirements are slightly off. In Shakespeare’s story of twins, a brother and sister, who are shipwrecked in a foreign country, Illyria, where they have amorous mix-ups before they are reunited, an audience may notice that Emily Young’s slender Viola bears little resemblance to Javier Ignacio’s chunkier Sebastian, apart from wearing glasses and a ribbed, russet sweater, though it’s unlikely that will spoil one’s enjoyment.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Makbet

Makbet

It’s always an adventure sitting down to watch Shakespeare. Where will this production send its viewers? To what time period or country? Will it be set in a fast-food restaurant or trying to stay as close to a traditional production as possible? The Dzieci Theatre company has taken a risk with its recent production of Makbet, a gypsy-infused performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Matt Mitler. The play is presented in a shipping container in the back of a junkyard in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Although it is an uncomfortable place to ask audience members to sit, the underlit and claustrophobic quarters alert the audience immediately to the darkness of the play.  

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure

Measure for Measure (1604) has long been considered one of Shakespeare’s problem plays. Partly it’s because of corruptions in the printing, but also, as a purported “comedy,” it’s never fully satisfying. In the right director’s hands, though, it can be deeply intriguing and memorable. 

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Hamlet

Hamlet

Waterwell’s production of Hamlet is probably not for the first-timer to Shakespeare’s masterpiece. Under director Tom Ridgely, the tragedy has been reset in Iran of the early 20th century rather than Denmark of the 1500s. Parts of the play are spoken in Farsi, and if, for instance, you didn’t know what Hamlet’s father’s Ghost says to him, you’re going to be out of luck, since the physically and vocally formidable Barzin Akhavan speaks entirely in Farsi. Other passages require familiarity with the play to be understood, notably Hamlet’s exchange with Ophelia about lying in her lap during The Murder of Gonzago, or Hamlet’s crucial plan to insert lines of his own. (The last, however, is covered by some English dialogue later, but until that arises, a new listener would be confused.)

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Hamlet. A Version

Hamlet. A Version

Boris Akunin’s Hamlet. A Version reimagines Shakespeare’s classic tale of political intrigue as a multi-layered murder mystery. Akunin, a Russian writer best known for his Sherlock Holmes–like character Fandorin, which has a cult following, does not write just for thrills. His Hamlet is a tragedy but also a whodunit.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Othello

Othello

Star wattage backed up by first-rate acting gives Sam Gold’s production of Othello a must-see status. Indeed, one suspects that without the celebrity power, Shakespeare’s rarely staged tragedy might have taken even longer to reappear on the boards. (John Douglas Thompson gave a superb interpretation in a traditional production back in 2009, although there is currently a rap version, Othello: The Remix, playing in midtown.)

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Othello: The Remix

Othello: The Remix

As one of Shakespeare’s most famed tragedies, Othello has seen quite a number of adaptations over the years. The artistic duo Q Brothers take their stab at adapting this timeless play with Othello: The Remix, which discards Shakespeare’s original iambic pentameter in favor of modern rhyme set to rap music. In the spirit of Hamilton and other sung-through and hip-hop-infused musicals, Othello: The Remix is 80 minutes of fast-paced lyricism—spun live by cast member DJ Supernova and with hardly a breath in between. While there are a few questionable production choices, the massive amount of creative energy and impressive talent on display in Othello: The Remix make it hard to resist.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Coriolanus

Coriolanus

The playbill for the Red Bull production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged Coriolanus gives the time period as "Rome, 493 B.C.E. Here, now." But, under Michael Sexton’s direction, the latter prevails: military men in camouflage fatigues and dress greens, a First Citizen with a T-shirt that reads “You can’t have capitalism without racism,” and several female soldiers all declare it’s now. There’s virtually nothing identifiable from 493 B.C.E. 

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

A Civic Jewel—and Free!

There is something appropriate about offering Shakespeare for free in the parks of New York City. Like the great rivers and mountains of the earth or the stars and planetary system—which charge no admission for us to admire them—Shakespeare is a force of Nature that belongs to us all.

Artistic Director Stephen Burdman has made it the mission of the New York Classical Theatre to bring free Shakespeare productions to various parks during the summer: following this year’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the late romance The Winter’s Tale, brilliantly conceived, acted, and deeply moving, to boot. 

The Winter’s Tale, first performed 405 years ago in 1611, is about the fallout of a king’s jealousy when the ruler, Leontes, wrongly imagines that his devoted wife, Hermione, has consorted with his best friend, King Polixenes, and that the child she is to bear him is not his. Only after the death of Leontes’ young son and sole heir, Mamillius (Peyton Lusk is delightful in the role), followed by the death of his faithful queen, does the king awaken from his madness and see his foul crimes for what they are.

Here is a feast of self-deception, delusion and jealousy for Shakespeare to plumb in all of the pity and horror his majestic language can inspire before the play resolves, after an improbable leap of 16 years in time, on happier notes: the reunion of the two friends, Leontes and Polixenes; the forthcoming marriage of their children, Florizel and Perdita; and most ridiculously wondrous of all, the revelation that the statue of the long-dead queen is really a living and breathing Hermione, now returned to the bosom of her husband and family. If the question is whether or to what extent a particular performance of The Winter’s Tale allows the audience to utterly suspend their disbelief when confronted by such leaps in time and “happy” endings, the production did very well indeed.

Brad Fraizer in his beautifully acted role as Leontes carries the emotional sweep of the play from his increasingly insane jealousy to the extremes and horror of recognition of his crimes, and from there to the reconciliations wrought by Time and Chance. It is a challenging role.

David Heron as his beloved childhood friend, King Polixenes, is commanding and passionate in his role. Hermione, so profoundly wronged by her husband, is portrayed by Mairin Lee with a queenly elegance, dignity and sensitivity. Mark August, who plays the clown, Autolycus, is extraordinary and deserves special mention for his comic brilliance and gifts. So, too, does the stirring performance of Lisa Tharp as Paulina, maid in waiting to the Queen, whose impassioned rebuke to Leontes for his treatment of his wife is heart-piercing. For all of the loveliness of the outdoor setting, it also places special demands in clearly projecting Shakespeare’s language, to which the cast rose magnificently.  

As the play moves from Act II to Act III, the audience also moves—from Clinton Castle (Leontes’ court in Sicilia) to a lawn overlooking the Hudson River (the shores of Bohemia). Burdman calls this his “panoramic” technique, a method by which the audience is less a witness to the actions before it than at the center of those actions. It is as if the viewers were really accompanying the courtier Antigonus, sent by the mad Leontes to abandon his own newborn daughter, Perdita. Over the Hudson, just in front of the audience, is a real cloud-flecked sky with real birdsong mixing with the sounds of the city in the background. Scene iii of the next act takes place on a different lawn (another location in Bohemia) to which the actors, again, lead the audience. The scene is one of a sheep shearing and, as evening gathers, the audience sits amid trees and grass exactly as they might at a real sheep shearing.

In Burdman’s “panoramic” approach, the entire park is our stage. There are no sets. Scenes are acted in different areas of the park with the audience sitting on the ground or grass, and the staff, in the first row of the audience, shining flashlights on the characters once it has become dark. Shakespeare’s language and his dramatic exploration of human character and heart fill the entirety of the space with no theatrical paraphernalia to draw off attention. And the effect is simply stunning, as less proves so much more! There is no lovelier way to spend an evening than to allow Shakespeare’s magic to sizzle and cast a net over you and over the city itself. 

Meet outside Castle Clinton in Battery Park at 7 p.m. nightly (except Thursdays) through Aug. 7 (via 1 train to South Ferry or the 4/5 to Bowling Green). The Winter’s Tale will then move to Brooklyn Bridge Park from Aug. 9-14 (take F train to York, 2/3 to Clark or A/C to High), also at 7 p.m. There will be no performance on Aug. 11.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Breaking Gender Barriers in ‘Shrew’

New York theater is known for challenging the status quo, and  that is what the Queen’s Company is all about—breaking down barriers by creating gender-blind performances of the classics and reaching out to a broader, more diverse community in its perspective on those classics, in particular Shakespeare. Artistic director Rebecca Patterson’s vision shows she understands that Shakespeare transcends time and place. His characters represent all of humanity and hit at a deeper core—the truly humane one. Because every actor was cast according to how her personality fit the role, not according to gender, the production is an organic ensemble theatrical experience.

photo by Bob Pileggi

Patterson, a Lucille Lortel Award winner, is an actor’s director. Every moment in the play was active, honest and alive with brilliance. Having the role of Bianca played by the lovely Sweetie Doll (a blow-up sex doll) was a hysterically funny touch. In that single choice, Patterson shows one of the most important themes of the play—women’s oppression by men’s control of sexuality. Choices in music that fit key moments of the performance further heighten that theme and the emotional tension of this famous love story. Particularly funny yet thought-provoking was the pantomime of a Tina Turner song performed by Petruchio’s motley servants, led by Ashley Samona Baker as Grumio. As they perform, Katharina fights her shrewish instincts to be right. The lyrics and their playful performance reveal the inner conflict of that moment when Kate breaks and realizes she is fighting a losing battle.

The cast is perfect. The entire ensemble deserves praise for playing multiple roles with ease. Elizabeth Preston as Petruchio was spot on. Catherine Dalton as Hortensio was delightful in her Brant Russell physicality. Their playful interaction was reminiscent of Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. But Preston was no overacting pirate; she was more like Depp in Chocolat—sexy, sensitive, cool. She captured Petruchio’s arrogance and willfulness, but also his vulnerability. Preston reveals Petruchio’s genuine respect and interest in Katharina when Petruchio reflects on how Katharina aggressively deals with Hortensio as the ill-fated music instructor: “Now, by the world, it is a lusty wench. I love her ten times more than e'er I did.” Preston’s performance breaks the gender barriers, yet nothing is overstated or falsely posed. In her direction, Patterson has shown the true meaning of Petruchio and Katharina’s relationship—they represent all the nuances of falling in love and giving oneself over completely to another.

photo by Bob Pileggi

Tiffany Abercrombie is a stoic Katharina, creating a mother of the modern woman. The chemistry between Petruchio and Katharina is crucial to this play, and these two sensual interpretations reveal perhaps a more honest point Shakespeare was making—that love is not a prideful battle but a partnership made from love and respect. Under Patterson’s thoughtful direction, Abercrombie’s heartfelt confession as Katharina, as she infamously reprimands women, becomes more a proclamation of true love. And Petruchio’s response becomes that of a repentant faithful lover.

Their final kiss truly is a declaration of respectful love. It no longer is an issue of man’s will against woman’s but more about how wonderful love can be when it is with the mate who is a perfect match. Patterson’s interpretation gives Shakespeare’s play a fairy-tale ending of renewed faith in love, not a battle of wills and submission.

The set, lighting and costuming were simple and basic, with a dance of colors rich with textured fabrics of wool, fur, and velvet fully enhancing the raw beauty of the time and place of this wonderful play. Muted blue lighting against the brown wools and furs for the servants, the burgundy velvet for Baptista, and the bold red lace for Katharina mirrored the emotions of the characters but also reflected the barriers of caste and class.

Patterson’s talented entourage of technical artists worked seamlessly within her artistic vision. Set designer Angelica Borrero, lighting designer Alberto Ruiz, costume designer Elizabeth Flores and sound designer Beth Lake created an atmosphere that set the tone and playful mood of this timeless story. Patterson and her troupe really honored Shakespeare and all he represents in theatrical history. For Shakespeare lovers, this is a must-see production.

The Queen’s Company’s The Taming of the Shrew runs through May 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3rd St., between Avenues A and B). Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and at 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are available by calling (866) 811-4111. Tickets are 2-for-1 on Tuesday nights. For information, visit http://QueensCompany.org.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Q&A: The Queen’s Company’s ‘Shrew’ Is on Message

The very notion or necessity of taming an outspoken, independent woman—or a shrew—is about as offensive as it gets. It’s a criticism Shakespeare came up against even in his time, so any production today must partly run afoul of such discussion. But Rebecca Patterson has been directing the play long enough to know better. Having first done Taming of the Shrew in 2005 and having workshopped it for the last few years, she’s secure in the knowledge that Shakespeare always moves “toward the light” and doesn’t worry that the real message will be lost.

OffOffOnline: What is your interpretation of The Taming of the Shrew?

Rebecca Patterson: Shakespeare is a humanist. He has extreme compassion for people who are getting the short end of the stick, so this is not a battle of the sexes. It’s about marriage and the oppression that happens at the most intimate of places, which is in our hearts and our bedrooms. On the other hand, he’s also extremely honest, and writing in a misogynistic time. This meant he explored his world but still hoped to shift domination and submission in relationships on a path toward egalitarianism.

OffOffOnline: Are we allowed to laugh?

Patterson: That’s what’s so amazing about the play. It’s dark, it’s dangerous, and it’s funny. Of course, the situation Katherina is caught in is not funny. But one of the most empowering things you can do is laugh or tell a joke.  So there are points that are hilarious, but the one thing that is often ignored is the Bianca story. What I’ve done—given the expectations for her suitors—was have her played by a—

OffOffOnline: By what?

Patterson: A blow-up doll.

OffOffOnline: Oh, really.

Patterson [laughing]: Exactly. A blow-up doll is perfect, because she’s what everybody wants her to be.

OffOffOnline: Does she speak?

Patterson: That’s what made it so easy to lift out her lines. She doesn’t really affect anybody and doesn’t have any effect. So people talk around her, but she does speak at the end because even the blow-up doll finds her voice.

OffOffOnline: What are you trying to get across by using an all-female cast?

Patterson: Nothing. One of the things that I’ve found is contemporary women are better able to channel the Renaissance male reality, which is emotionally accessible and strong. Still, Shakespeare is all about humanity—not necessarily men and women. So if we do an all-female cast, it resonates simply as human.

OffOffOnline: Why do you think women have better access?

Patterson: Because contemporary men from a young age are taught not to show their emotion, but the Renaissance man must have a fully expressed emotional life to understand Shakespeare’s journeys. You have to see into their souls, and that degree of inner transparency is easier for contemporary women.

OffOffOnline: How else do you diverge from the original?

Paterson: Shakespeare is like a diamond: there are so many difference facets. But I am true to the words that are spoken. The only thing is I have streamlined some scenes because the theatrical expectations are different from the audience. Still, people always ask if I keep the final scene where Katherina lays out the expectation that women had to be subservient. That’s what he wrote. Shakespeare was being honest, but the play doesn’t end there. We take a modern context. For anybody who’s been caught in a marriage of subservience, there’s a journey that still needs to be taken—especially for the dominator to get to a place where they can truly love.

OffOffOnline: Was Shakespeare the only one who wrote in rhyme?

Patterson: They all wrote that way at the time. It was thought that the elevated speech was how you unleashed the human heart. Shakespeare was just the one who did it best.

OffOffOnline: What if you don’t necessarily speak Shakespeare. Can you still enjoy this?

Patterson: My actors are extremely talented and well trained classical actors. So people walk out of our play, and say, “I’m impressed how you updated the language.” But we don’t. The trick is you have to find the rhythms of the language. I liken it to rap. So we make him strut, and the consonants and vowels actually reach inside of us to play our hearts.

OffOffOnline: How do you see your role as a director?

Patterson: My actors see the text as I do, so all I do is guide them to places where there might be a misinterpretation. It’s less about doing it wrong, and more about “There’s something else here” or “I don’t think this is what the moment is about.”

Tickets can be purchased by calling OvationTix at (866) 811-4111 or online at web.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/621/1459483200000. The Taming of the Shrew runs through May 1 at the Wild Project (195 East 3rd St. between Avenues A and B) in Manhattan.
Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Henry V

Henry V

Henry V, the capstone of the Royal Shakespeare Company productions at BAM in this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death, is a robust staging of a play often regarded as excessively jingoistic. Yet in the hands of director Gregory Doran, it proves far more nuanced than that, a lively and fascinating mixture of the heroism and opportunism that war produces. Alex Hassell inhabits the nobility of Henry V more persuasively than he does the callow prince in the two parts of Henry IV; tall and strapping, he bears the weight of duties with confidence and speaks the renowned speeches thrillingly.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2

Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 feature image

Shakespeare’s two plays that focus on the reign of King Henry IV are a panoramic view of medieval life. The historical portions, which occur early in the 1400s, take on the question of a monarch’s duty to his country, not least of which is preparing the heir to take over. Ignoring his father’s complaints, Prince Hal (Alex Hassell), Henry’s heir, fritters away his time with lowlifes, notably Falstaff, the fat, rascally knight who is one of Shakespeare’s great creations. The political maneuvering of nobles in rebellion also shapes the narrative about high-born responsibility, leadership and compassion.

Matthew Needham plays Hotspur in  Henry IV, Part 1 . Top (from left): Antony Sher as Falstaff, Sam Marks as Poins, and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal.

Matthew Needham plays Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1. Top (from left): Antony Sher as Falstaff, Sam Marks as Poins, and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal.

Yet in the tavern scenes and, in Part 2, the country scenes with Justice Shallow and Silence that involve conscription of men for war, the life of the common man is portrayed, more closely reflecting Shakespeare’s own time. From the king down to the lowest conscriptee, the plays provide a broad view of issues that touched Queen Elizabeth I and her subjects.

As Henry IV, Part 1 opens, the king (Jasper Britton) announces plans for a crusade to Jerusalem to retake the city from the Saracens—something he promised in his last speech in Richard II, the chronological predecessor (and also part of the RSC’s visit to the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Quickly, however, Henry is advised of rebels gathering against him: the Earl of Northumberland (Sean Chapman), a former ally in deposing Richard II; his brother, the Earl of Worcester (Antony Byrne); Northumberland’s son, and Lady Percy’s brother, Lord Mortimer (Robert Gilbert). Chief among them, though, is Matthew Needham’s stunningly good Hotspur, a fierce, intemperate warrior whose skill at arms is set against the dissipated life of Prince Hal (Alex Hassell). The trip to the Holy Land must be postponed.

Falstaff, the surrogate father to Hal, is embodied by Antony Sher, a great actor who has nevertheless seldom tackled comedy. Anyone who has seen him in classical roles (Massinger’s The Roman Actor, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Marston’s The Malcontent) knows he is a master of the language and a powerful stage presence. As Falstaff, though, something is not quite right. Sher growls a lot to sound dissipated and lumbers around to seem overweight. He can nail the wit, but one has the impression of someone giving a grand performance (and Falstaff is an actor at heart) but not completely inhabiting the character. He’s great fun to watch, but his roistering as Falstaff doesn’t feel natural. Yet there are splendid moments: when he’s trying to connect with his cronies in the darkness on Gad’s Hill to rob some pilgrims, he comes on, stepping slowly and whispering loudly, “Poins? Poins?” to find his compatriot.

Needham (right) with Jasper Britton as King Henry IV. Photographs by Richard Termine.

Needham (right) with Jasper Britton as King Henry IV. Photographs by Richard Termine.

In a similar way Hassell is not totally persuasive as Hal. Frivolity and callowness don’t sit naturally on him, but as he assumes the gravitas required of a future king, he becomes more persuasive. He gives the speeches clearly but, perhaps because he’s the centerpiece of three plays, there are times when they’re closer to masterly recitation than insightful characterization.

In Part 1, however, Britton, overshadowed in Richard II by David Tennant’s terrific performance, comes into his own as Henry, the usurping king who struggles with his son’s wastrel ways. His halting first lines, “So shaken as we are, so wan with care,” present a royal whose voice literally trembles. And news of Hotspur’s valor against rebels brings joy until his counselor Westmoreland remarks, “It is a conquest for a prince to boast of”—pointing up that Hal should have been leading the victory. The haunted Henry’s grappling with his son’s fecklessness is an important through line for both parts. Part 2, however, also affords Hassell the opportunity to navigate from Hal’s callowness to something that fits the actor better: nobility and valor.

Looser than Part 1Henry IV, Part 2 also lacks Hotspur. Moreover, the lower-class scenes in it prove a slog. One problem is that Antony Byrne’s Pistol, a swaggering braggart soldier, is a type that may have been funny 400 years ago but grates now. Made up as a yob, with thick black mascara under his eyes and a braid, and dressed in a punkish leather outfit by Stephanie Arditti, he is a tedious figure, offsetting Falstaff’s raillery. Thus, much of the first half of Part 2 is an ordeal, redeemed after intermission by Oliver Ford Davies’ hilarious Justice Shallow, paired with Jim Hooper’s wide-eyed, perplexed Silence.

Hassell as Hal banters with Sher as Falstaff.

Hassell as Hal banters with Sher as Falstaff.

But the most memorable scenes are those with Hotspur. “I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” says Joshua Richards’s Gandalfian Welshman, Owen Glendower, a behemoth in skins and long gray beard, and Hotspur’s in-law. To which Hotspur replies: “Why, so can I, or so can any man/But will they come when you do call for them?” And his scenes with his wife (Jennifer Kirby) are both touching and frustrating; though in love, each tries to connect emotionally with the other and doesn’t always succeed. Other standouts are Sam Marks’s vital Poins and Richards (again) as a red-nosed, dryly comic Bardolph, one of Falstaff’s cronies.

The plays are rich with smart business by director Gregory Doran. With Hotspur on a tear, his father, Northumberland, grabs him by the scruff of his neck and forces him to his knees. Some extended comic business with the serving-boy Francis plays beautifully (and sets up a cameo for Henry V). One clumsy interpolation, however, is Doran’s opening Part 2 with Rumour (Byrne) coming on in modern clothes against a field of projections of #Rumour. It may be intended to parallel gossip on the Internet, but it’s a jarring moment.

Though the first part is the stronger play, together the pair are an indispensable challenge that any lover of Shakespeare’s work will want to experience. They aren’t often done together, and this is an opportunity to hear verse-speaking of a high order and experience outstanding, if not flawless, productions.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2 play in repertory with Richard II and Henry V through May 1 at BAM Harvey Theater (30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix Street in Brooklyn). Tickets start at $35. Visit www.bam.org/theater for information.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Richard II

Richard II feature image

Gregory Doran’s production of Richard II at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is a thunderous start to “King and Country,” the umbrella title for Shakespeare’s histories of three consecutive kings, Richard II, Henry IV (in two parts) and Henry V, visiting from the Royal Shakespeare Company, where Doran is artistic director.

Perhaps “thunderous” is not the right word, since David Tennant’s Richard is never shown at war, but is a frivolous and arrogant ruler as the play opens. He holds himself imperiously aloof in the early scenes, clutching his orb and scepter, but Tennant also finds much humor in the flawed character. The play turns on family relationships, and in describing his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, the actor terms him “my father’s brother’s son” with slight hesitation between the words, as if Richard is saying to himself, “I’ve got to get this tricky part right.”

Jasper Britton (left) is Henry Bolingbroke and Matthew Needham is his son, Harry Percy, aka Hotspur, in  Richard II . Top: King Richard II (David Tennant, right) with Sam Marks as Aumerle.

Jasper Britton (left) is Henry Bolingbroke and Matthew Needham is his son, Harry Percy, aka Hotspur, in Richard II. Top: King Richard II (David Tennant, right) with Sam Marks as Aumerle.

In order to fund wars to subjugate the Irish, Richard plans to tax the rich. With Bolingbroke banished for feuding with another noble, and his father, John of Gaunt, dead, Richard seizes the inheritance that belongs to his cousin, and goes off to war, where he is unaware of a rebellion at home: Bolingbroke has returned from exile to claim his inheritance and is likely to depose Richard. At the center of the play is the issue of divine right: does the king rule as God’s representative on Earth? Is everything he does God’s will?

Doran plays up the notion of Richard as a divine figure with costume supervisor Stephanie Arditti’s white robe that gives Richard, with very long hair, the look of Christ. The language of Christianity is threaded throughout: “balm,” “water” and “Pilate.” In a climactic scene, Richard himself calls his eventual killer “Judas.” (It’s a key change from Shakespeare, where Richard is slain by Sir Piers Exton, an assassin; this murderer is closer to home.)

The other key relatives in Richard II besides the short-lived John of Gaunt (Julian Glover), who delivers the speech about “this earth, this realm, this England” thrillingly, are the Duke of York, the last of seven sons and also Richard’s uncle, and his son Aumerle (Sam Marks), who becomes Richard’s cousin-with-benefits in Doran’s reading—the homosexual subtext is more forthright here but not unheard-of. Oliver Ford Davies plays the Duke of York with a booming voice, by turns denouncing his nephew Bolingbroke and then backing off. Torn between believing the king is chosen by God, yet finding his regency while the king fights in Ireland is undermined by men with troops, he finally says, “I am neuter” in a great Shakespearean pun.

There is a brief appearance, too, by Harry Percy (Matthew Needham), who will become known as Hotspur by Henry IV, Part 1 and is already clearly a man of action and sinew, albeit a bit dim.

Britton (right) with Sean Chapman as Northumberland. Photographs by Richard Termine.

Britton (right) with Sean Chapman as Northumberland. Photographs by Richard Termine.

Richard II is all verse, and is spoken commandingly here. Tennant raises the pitch of his voice as the lightweight king. His delivery of “For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings” is beautifully staged—his dwindled retinue all sit, although it’s clear their butts are unfamiliar with the Earth. When Richard then takes off his crown and contemplates it, the parallel of Hamlet looking at Yorick’s skull is unmistakable. (Some critics viewed Tennant’s Hamlet in 2008 as the best since Laurence Olivier’s; this New York debut is mandatory for anyone who regrets missing that.) The crown itself is used again when Tennant spars wittily and cleverly with Bolingbroke. He takes it off and holds it out to his side. “Seize the crown,” Richard tells Bolingbroke, and then, in the tone of coaxing a dog to fetch, “Heee-re, cousin.”

With the language on display, the primary feature of Stephen Brimson Lewis's set is a catwalk that descends at times for Richard’s court appearances; projections, including a white stag and a bloody moon, add color. Trios of trumpeters and plainsong singers in the side balconies provide considerable aural texture, while the smell of incense is an unexpected addition of medieval atmosphere along with Tim Mitchell’s tenebrous lighting.

Any quibbles are minor. Occasionally a character lowers a voice and a word or phrase is dropped. Leigh Quinn’s Queen is passionate and speaks clearly, but one wishes her power of projection were as strong as her acting.

Overall, though, Doran has created this 14th-century Shakespearean world with great precision, attending not just to Tennant’s towering performance, but to tiny moments: the forgetfulness of Jane Lapotaire’s Duchess of Gloucester, the dry joke cracked by a lady-in-waiting and the chilling prophesies from a minor character: “The pale-faced moon looks bloody on the earth/And lean-looked prophets whisper fearful change.” This Richard II is curtain-raiser to what promises to be a landmark visit.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II plays in repertory with Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, through April 21 at BAM Harvey Theater (30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Place and St. Felix Street in Brooklyn) through April 29. Tickets start at $35 and are currently on standby for this performance. Visit www.bam.org/theater/2016/richard-ii for information on availability or the day-ticket lottery.  

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

A Game of Treachery

Letter of Marque Theater Company’s Double Falsehood is a tight and neat production of a play credited to William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, and adapted for the 18th-century stage by editor Lewis Theobold. There is some debate whether Shakespeare actually wrote this play, but director Andrew Bothwick-Leslie, in program notes, suggests that audiences put that aside and enjoy the ride through this “wild and unnerving story.”

Double Falsehood is a story of betrayal, forced marriage, rape and reconciliation. Duke Angelo, played by Nolan Kennedy, has two sons. Roderick (Welland H. Scripps) is upstanding, while the other, Henriquez (Adam Huff) is a hooligan. Henriquez causes a lot of trouble for everyone because he can’t keep his desires for women who don’t want him to himself. First, he rapes Violante, played by the wonderfully physical Poppy Liu. At one point, when she is overcome with disgust after Henriquez’s violation, she rubs and hits her body as if she could physically rid herself of the experience.

Next, Henriquez insists on marrying Leonora (Montana Lampert Hoover), his friend Julio’s (played by Zach Libresco) love interest. He does it because he can. After all, he is a nobleman, which trumps Julio’s power. Not only that, Leonora’s father, Don Bernardo, played with weight and depth by Ariel Estrada, is so hungry to align himself with the Duke’s wealth that he forces the marriage to take place even though Leonora refuses. Like King Lear, Don Bernardo is full of hubris and self-import. And also like Lear he is humbled in the end, but not before he bellows in rage at his daughter to make sure she marries Henriquez.

As the enfant terrible, Huff does an excellent job and resembles a young Johnny Rotten with his shaggy light-blond hair, which he spikes at times or slicks down at others. His nimble, earthy walk and demeanor give him the charm of a snake making its way slowly toward its prey. Unfortunately, all in his path are hurt by his actions, and he shows no compassion or remorse. He feels perfectly entitled to get what he wants.

The costumes, by Claire Townsend, are an intriguing mix of metaphors, and emphasize the quality of the characters well. Some wore more traditional-looking Elizabethan garb while others, such as Julio and Henriquez, wore contemporary clothing. Henriquez’s costume, in particular—red sneakers, a red hoodie, and a long black coat with gold embroidery on the front—made him look like a hipster straight out of Williamsburg and heightened his “I don’t care what anyone thinks” mentality.

One of the best scenes that Bothwick-Leslie stages is a simulated horseback ride through the woods by Scarlet Maressa Rivera, who plays a citizen, and Gerald, a messenger of sorts. Rivera “rides” through the woods as other cast members run past her with tree branches and a drum beats to indicate horse’s hooves. It’s a wonderful and original idea that is twice as enjoyable the second time. Nolan Kennedy, who plays the Duke, is also the music director, and the lovely musical scenes including a trio singing about death and love, accompanied by Kennedy on the ukulele.

The company did a good job of using the Irondale Center playing area in a beautiful old church. The space has been rendered wide open (no pews or built-in stage, etc.). It can’t be transformed into a black box, but the company utilized rolling panels and a small platform, conceived and designed by Steven Brenman, to create a smaller performance space. At times, the panels were removed to show a wider space, or more distance between places. In Elizabeth theater, time and space were indicated through language, but these small visual indicators helped orient the viewer, especially at the end when there was little movement and a lot of dialogue.

Luckily, all’s well that ends well, in the manner of Nicholas Sparks’s romantic novel The Notebook. When Leonora and Julio are finally reunited at the end of the play, they run to each other and Julio scoops her up high into his arms. Cue the rain. It’s a soppy and romantic moment, but effective nonetheless. If it started out worse than real life, it ends better and, although Henriquez’s actions are particularly heinous, our faith in redemption and justice are restored.

Letter of Marque Theater Company’s production of Double Falsehood plays through April 9. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday at the Irondale Center (85 S. Oxford St, Brooklyn). Subway directions: C train to Lafayette Avenue; B, D, M, N, Q, R, 2, 3, 4, 5 trains to Atlantic Avenue/Pacific Street; G train to Fulton Street. Tickets are $20; a limited number of tickets will be given away free to the public. To learn more, visit www.lomtheater.org.

 

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post

Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones

The first of Shakespeare’s quartet of late romances, Pericles (1608) is certainly one of the least known of his plays. Most scholars agree that the first two acts are by lesser light George Wilkins. Yet the production at Theatre for a New Audience is so engaging and visually sumptuous that one can only wonder it’s not a staple of the canon.

The opportunity to notch Pericles, the 35th of Shakespeare’s 37 plays that he has directed, has brought British director Trevor Nunn to Brooklyn. And Nunn’s genius in handling the notoriously corrupt text has pulled it all together, even though the main story splits into two and then three parts as the hapless Pericles endures loss and separation from his family.

Antioch is where Wilkins sets the plot in motion. There Christian Camargo’s prince, wooing the daughter of King Antiochus (Earl Baker Jr.), must solve a riddle to win her hand. Otherwise, his head may end up with others sitting atop cypress-draped spears. But the answer exposes a deadly secret, and Pericles flees the city. Unable to settle safely in Tyre, Pericles hands the reins to Helicanus (Philip Casnoff), his trusted adviser, and wanders around the Mediterranean. He has numerous setbacks and adventures, including marriage to Gia Crovatin’s elegant, demure Thaisa (a princess). They have a daughter, Marina, named by Pericles after Thaisa dies in childbirth, and he leaves her to be raised by friends as he heads to reclaim his throne. Betrayal and misfortune follow, and, believing Marina dead, he withdraws into misery. But, as Shakespeare turns a corner from his tragedies to the life-affirming romances, miracles do happen. 

It all sounds pretty sappy, but it’s as spirited as Game of Thrones, what with jousts, shipwrecks and even pirates. Using gossamer, pleated tunics and gowns, costume designer Constance Hoffman creates distinct Levantine kingdoms: white for Pentapolis; black for Tarsus; indigo in Tyre; and in Mytilene, bright, Arabic-style clothes. The set by Robert Jones features an upstage wall with a large circle with panels that open to reveal varied terrains: a desert, perhaps, or, in a stunning coup de théâtre, a huge gray moon with the goddess Diana. 

The story is based on a Renaissance novel by John Gower, who appears as the Chorus, eagerly spinning out the tale. Raphael Nash Thompson invests him with authority and sometimes a rich baritone, as he sings portions of the verse to an extensive score provided by Shaun Davey and played by 10 musicians from the PigPen Theatre Company, several of whom double in the small roles.

Nunn takes other liberties with the text, drawing on Wilkins’s 1608 novelization of the play for information to smooth out bumps. A nifty scene is interpolated when the surrogate Helicanus tries to quiet the demands of other lords for an explanation where their prince has gone, in front of a visitor that Helicanus suspects is an assassin. It’s a well-written scene, but it’s not from the play. One can sense Nunn’s sure hand in even the smallest details—when that same assassin, Oberon K.A. Adjepong’s Thaliard, arrives in Tyre, he looks around and says, “So this is Tyre, and this the court,” with a snort of disgust and an air of superiority. 

For the most part, the actors handle the language with skill. Although Pericles is, like Job, more victim than agent of his destiny, Camargo speaks the verse confidently and is as heroic as the part allows, growing from callow youth to a man chastened by life’s hardships. 

The more colorful roles are seized with relish. John Rothman as King Simonides is a merry monarch, trying to get his daughter, Thaisa, and Pericles to pair up. The strapping Ian Lassiter as Lysimachus, governor of Mytilene, starts off as a randy patron of the brothel where Marina is determined to keep her chastity and charts a touching transformation to her ally and eventual suitor. Will Swenson is a well-spoken Cleon, the starving King of Tarsus, whose life and country Pericles saves. Yet years later Cleon becomes morally hamstrung after his wife, Dionyza (Nina Hellman), plots Marina’s murder.

Not all is perfect. Patrice Johnson Chevannes as the Bawd misses a lot of the humor in the part. And the Marina of Lilly Englert is a major drawback. Englert radiates innocence and purity, but when she speaks, she sucks air audibly before every line and sometimes between phrases; the character sounds like she’s having an asthma attack. Her irritating aspirations mar some key moments, including the great reconciliation scene with Pericles.

On the whole, though, this rarely staged romance is a feast for the eyes and the ears, a gem from a master Shakespearean director that you won’t want to miss.

Trevor Nunn's production of Pericles runs through April 10 at Theatre for a New Audience at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center (262 Ashland Place between Rockwell Place and Ashland Place) in Brooklyn. Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday-Saturday, and matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets $75-$85 and may be ordered by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post