Saturday, October 18, 2014

Four by Shakespeare (2014)

This year hasn’t been a great one for my drama reading project. I’m not sure why, but I have had a hard time sticking with a play. Probably, fewer consecutive evenings with free time have been a factor. Whatever the case, I have done less reading.

However, now that the kids are getting older, I have had the chance to see more plays live this year than I have since I was kid free. My youngest (age 3) isn’t there yet, although she tried with the two most recent ones, but I have been pleasantly surprised at how much my sons, ages 8 and 6, have taken to Shakespeare. Last year, I took them (along with my older daughters, 11 and 10), to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They laughed through the whole thing, and have begged to be allowed to go any time my wife or I want to go see a play. Unsurprisingly, they love slapstick, but they also got many of the puns and verbal wordplay.

This year, we made the effort to see four plays.

My wife and a girlfriend of hers made an extended trip and saw several plays, including this one. Since the kids and I were already planning to be at Bryce Canyon National Park for the Astronomy Festival, we worked it out so that I could send my littlest home with Amanda and take the older kids to see Comedy of Errors.

This play has a special meaning to me. The lovely Amanda and I saw it together on our first date, some 15 years ago, at a local theater. To share this experience with the kids was an opportunity too good to miss.

Comedy of Errors is a classic Shakespearean plot centering on two sets of twin brothers raised apart, and indistinguishable from each other. When they find themselves in the same city, hilarity ensues.

While Comedy of Errors is primarily a vehicle for slapstick and wit, but it also conceals a serious edge. The Bard explores jealousy and male-female relationships as Antipholus of Ephesus and his wife fall victim to unfair conclusions about each other and their motives as a result of the lack of information about the existence of Antipholus’ twin. Entirely innocent actions appear sinister outside their context, and each is all too willing to believe the worst about each other.

The Utah Shakespeare Festival is rightly regarded for its high quality - indeed, thoroughly professional - productions. The outdoor theater-in-the-round feels authentically Elizabethan, the costumes and sets show a delightful attention to detail, and the acting is first rate. (I’ll particularly note that all the voices projected exceedingly well.)

I am not a purist when it comes to Shakespeare: I enjoy the twists possible when the plays are transformed from their original setting to another time and place.

In the local production Amanda and I saw years ago, a framing story of a radio broadcast hijacked by actors tired of doing yet another Christmas play was used, along with a minimalist set and a small cast that played multiple characters. While interesting, I found that it was a little hard to keep track of who was whom. Of course, this is probably a hazard of extremely low budget theater, where enthusiasm is in greater supply than funding for costumes and sets.

The Utah version was set in the wild west, which I thought was an inspired choice. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies are really not set anywhere in particular. The Greek and Italian cities could easily be, say London and Paris - and sometimes are used to make insults at the French. In any event, Comedy of Errors worked perfectly well set in a gun-toting boom town. One touch that the kids found particularly fascinating was the remote controlled tumbleweed.

I should start out with a bit of background on this venue, as it is a bit unusual. Will Geer, best known as “Grandpa Walton,” wasn’t always a beloved character. In the 1930s, he was a major player in the US Communist party, and was blacklisted for refusing to rat out other members. Eventually, the panic blew over, the worm turned for Joe McCarthy, and Geer was able to work again.

However, during the interregnum, he sold his Santa Monica property, and bought some (then) rural land in Topanga Canyon, where his friend Woody Guthrie had a shack. The intent was to grow and sell vegetables, and do the hippie thing long before it was popular. The property became a bit of an artists’ colony, before Geer eventually had the idea to found a theater troupe and use the property for performances. After Geer’s death in 1978, the rest of his family continued with his vision, and Theatricum Botanicum, now directed by Will’s daughter Ellen, continues to put on a variety of plays (with an emphasis on Shakespeare) and concerts at its unique outdoor venue. If you live within reasonable driving distances of the Los Angeles area, I would certainly recommend catching a performance during the season. (June-September.)

All’s Well That Ends Well isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays. It is a comedy in form only, one of the dark “problem plays” of which A Winter’s Tale and Measure For Measure belong. The plot veers into a happy ending only at the last minute, transforming what would otherwise have been a compelling tragedy into a triumph of persistence on the part of the heroine.

Awarded the husband of her choice after curing the king of an illness, the servant girl Helena picks the son of her masters, the arrogant Bertram, who spurns and abandons her, telling her he will never be her husband until she bears his child and obtains his ring. Shakespeare chooses to upend class distinctions by having Bertram’s family embrace Helena as a foster child, and encourage the match. It is only Bertram himself who feels he is too good for a mere servant girl.

Theatricum Botanicum further twisted this idea by a creative casting decision: All the nobility were African American, while the servants were white. This isn’t quite the shock in 2014 that it would have been in the 1960s. Or even the 1980s. Nevertheless, it did highlight the discomfort in seeing one race subservient to the other, and like any good flip, the dissonance is all the more telling when it is the opposite of our cultural baggage.

Two actors in particular stood out from a strong cast. First, Will Geer’s granddaughter Willow Geer, was outstanding as Helena. The character is both challenging and full of possibility. Helena is a great example of a strong woman, capable of great feeling and greater action. She is able to gain permission to travel to attempt to cure the king - using the knowledge of medicine she was given by her father, who considered her the equal of a man. She convinces the king to let her try. She is nearly driven to despair by Bertram’s rejection, but she has the presence of mind to make the most of the opportunities given to her. Shakespeare writes the part with equal elements of emotion and strength, something women were rarely allowed to have in literature at the time and for the subsequent 300 years in too many cases. Willow Geer brought a lot to the part, which dominates the play.

The second was Melora Marshall as Lafeu, the aged nobleman. Marshall not only looked the part of an old man, but got the mannerisms and cracked voice perfectly. (In fact, she fooled my kids.) Lefeu is the perfect counterpart to the cowardly and irresponsible Paroles, Bertram’s worthless companion. As Lefeu says,

“[B]elieve this
of me, there can be no kernel in this light nut.”

Or this one:

"Here is a pur of Fortune's, sir, or of Fortune's cat, - but not a musk-cat, - that has fall'n into the unclean fishpond of her displeasure..."

Or, at the end, when all ends well, my kids’ favorite line:

“Mine eyes smell onions, I shall weep anon.”

  1. Macbeth (Bakersfield College)

Our local community college puts on a couple of Shakespeare plays each year, which is quite an undertaking, all things considered. The actors are typically a combination of faculty, local thespians, and students. Thus, the acting is not as uniformly good as in a professional production, the budgets for sets are smaller, and the treatments of the play a bit more experimental. Still, BC generally puts on good events, and I never feel bad about supporting local students in their endeavors.

Of the two plays put on this year, I felt that the Macbeth production was the weaker, primarily because of the high number of student actors. The concept was good, and the lead parts were well done, but some of the bit parts could have used some polish.

BC usually uses their outdoor theater (recently renovated) for their productions. It’s not a bad venue, but it does nothing to help the voices project. The actors must do it all, and do it consistently despite the changes in emotion and mood, or words tend to get lost. There were several occasions when I couldn’t hear, and I imagine it was worse for the older patrons.

That said, the parts of Duncan, Macbeth, Lady Macbeth, and Macduff were well played, and a number of the lesser parts as well.

For this production, the cast made the decision to go with an (almost) all female cast. Apparently, this decision was made because of the lack of female roles, and the abundance of females auditioning for said roles. Actually, neither play had a particularly large number of women as they were written, and many parts were small. Hence, the fun of flipping the script. (In Shakespeare’s time, all the parts were played by men.) The setting chosen was that of a soviet-style kingdom in the cold war era. All the iconography and costumes match this, and the aesthetic of the set was that of the Berlin Wall.

Although Macbeth is presumably well known to most of us - I read it as part of my 12th grade English class - I thought I might comment on a few things.

First, Shakespeare has slandered Macbeth even more than he did Richard III. Although he did kill Duncan, he did so on the field of battle, fair and square. In addition, both Macbeth and Duncan - who were around the same age - had reasonable claims to the throne, and Duncan’s father had murdered some of Macbeth’s family. Beyond that, Macbeth actually ruled for 17 good years, enacting a number of popular and just laws. Most notable was the remarkably forward looking (for the 11th century) right of women to inherit property. When Malcolm defeated and killed Macbeth, it was with the assistance of the English, who were less interested in justice as in expanding their territory. Also, even in the most anti-Macbeth histories, it was clear that Banquo was a co-conspirator. That, of course, wouldn’t fly for Shakespeare, who knew that King James I claimed descent from Banquo. And thus, Banquo became a victim too.

The other thing that really struck me this time was that Lady Macbeth manipulates Macbeth into doing her bidding by attacking his manhood. The conception of manhood that dominates the play is one of bloodlust and power without compassion. Lady Macbeth asks to be “unsexed” so that she may act without conscience. Macbeth feels the sting of his wife’s words, and ruthlessly eliminates all “softness,” that is conscience, from himself, to the point where he barely flinches when his wife commits suicide. Indeed, even now, there is no worse form of insult to a man than to call him “unmanly.” Soft. A pussy. A - let’s be honest - a woman. No worse insult. And so, we glorify the worst effects of testosterone and call them “manliness.”

And yet, although Shakespeare does portray women in this play as the source of the crime, as it were, I don’t think he agreed with this portrayal of masculinity. Near the end, after Macduff hears of the slaughter of his family, he weeps. Malcolm tries to tell him to “take it like a man,” and redirect his pain into hate and violence. Although Macduff does take his revenge, he does so fairly and without unnecessary malice. He also responds to Malcolm with his own version of manhood. “I must also feel it as a man.”

  1. The Taming of the Shrew (Bakersfield College)

The BC production of this play was given the twist of portraying Petruchio and his henchmen as pirates. If anything was going to make Petruchio’s bizarre behavior make sense, this would be it. The idea of a sort-of-reformed pirate looking to settle down and find a rich wife isn’t far fetched, and a bearded, outlandish Petruchio worked quite well.

It helped that Katherine was played by Cody Ganger, the real life wife of Kevin, who played Petruchio. Cody is a fixture of the local theater scene, specializing in comic roles, and utilizing her rubber face to best advantage. The two of them had a real spark on stage, clearly enjoying the flirting and frisson.

Other parts were filled in by notable local thespians. Bob Kempf, director of The Empty Space, a local theater, played Baptista, complete with an over-the-top pipe. Kempf has played so many memorable roles throughout the years. From Oberon to Sir Toby Belch to Prospero, to say nothing of his hilarious turn as the noveau riche in Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Randy Messick, BC’s longstanding theater professor (my wife loved his Shakespeare class enough to take it a few times during nursing school for a change of pace) as Vincentio. Brian Sivesind, who played a key role in the production of Comedy of Errors on our first date, as the dirty old man Gremio.

The Taming of the Shrew can be an awkward play to watch sometimes, because it feels misogynistic at times. Indeed, if one reads it perfectly literally, it is a bit of an ode to male dominance and female submission.  I find it a bit hard to believe that even in Elizabethan times this would have met with approval, as there was already a move away from the permissive attitude toward domestic violence. Shakespeare himself wrote many strong female characters, and didn’t seem to feel threatened by women who didn’t kowtow to men.

There have been many interpretations of the play, particularly of the final speech where Kate extolls the virtues of obedience and submission. Some - including this one - have her deliver it with just an edge of sarcasm, indicating that either she is putting Petruchio on, or that the two of them have an understanding.

I lean toward the latter, particularly. One of the best books on Shakespeare that I own is Isaac Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Although primarily concerned with explaining the historical and literary references within the plays, Asimov also gives his editorial spin to the works, often coming up with interesting and convincing interpretations.

In Asimov’s view, Kate is clearly secondary to Bianca in everyone’s eyes, but particularly in her own father’s opinion. She therefore reacts by spurning all comers, adopting the posture not just of a shrew, but of a misanthrope. In order for Petruchio to pierce the armor, he must first reduce her resistance through his craziness and “kindness” that looks like cruelty. Only once she is able to give up, is she she able to see his love and accept it. In this view, the two of them are a match, and he truly sees the good in her, despite his blustery talk about marrying for money.

Whether one finds this convincing or not, it was hard not to see it at work in this version, because of the natural chemistry between the leads. Nobody could ever find Cody to be “tamed” in that sense, and the little wink at Kevin lead naturally into “Kiss me, Kate.”

BC’s production plays up the farcical elements, which were naturally of interest to my children. In this way, the questions of gender and power are allowed to be subsumed in the hilarity of two outrageous characters, both of whom find love in spite - or perhaps because - of their quirks. Amanda and I have always had a soft spot for this play because we too were persons that many assumed would have difficulty finding someone to tolerate us, and then assumed we would fight constantly due to our strong personalities. Instead, we recognized that we were a match. We shrews two have been tamed.

For more on the local productions, here is the local press.  Also, there is a facebook page for the Kern Shakespeare Festival

No comments:

Post a Comment