Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Thank you so much to everyone who follows me here! I'm shifting operations over to a new website (all these reviews and essays will be imported), so come find further updates at www.haileybachrach.com! 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Review: Nell Gwynn

Let's get the important questions out of the way right up front: there is a King Charles Spaniel in Nell Gwynn, Jessica Swale's new play going up at Shakespeare's Globe. She is only in one scene, and she received entrance and exit applause. Her real name is Molly. Her character's name is Oliver Cromwell. 

Yes, it's the Restoration: King Charles II is on the throne, the theatres are open again, and actor-managers are trying to figure out how to remake English drama after a ten-year break. Killigrew (Richard Katz), head of the King's Men,  learns that his rivals have a brilliant idea, which has recently been given the king's seal of approval: an actress. If they want to compete, they need one, too. 

Luckily for him, his leading man Charles Hart (Jay Taylor) has just the girl waiting in the wings. In between making love to her, he's been training up the orange-seller Nell Gwynn (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in the art of acting. This tangled mess of motivations-- love, art, economic advantage-- are a tidy preview of the trials to come as Nell charts her ascent from selling oranges to wooing the King of England. The journey is fantastically fun, easily the most unceasingly delightful show at the Globe this summer, but also has a genuine heart. 

In the theatre, Nell meets a buoyantly hilarious cast of oddballs, including Graham Butler's neurotic playwright John Dryden, Angus Imrie as the endearingly dumb Ned Spiggett, and Amanda Lawrence's scene-stealingly funny Nancy, the company seamstress and Nell's eventual confidante. The first act is largely a delightful take on the 'putting on a show' trope, interspersed with music and real questions about the nature and purpose of the theatre as it faces a seismic shift.

The play's attempts to insist that the Restoration was the birth of the Strong Female Character, and its repeated dismissal of every single female role of the early modern period as worthless were unconvincing and felt a bit lazy. Killigrew, trying to persuade John Dryden that he'll have more fun writing for real women, points out that because they're real, 'they don't have to be so feminine all the time.' It's a shame that this interesting idea is never quite explored, nor is the alternate subjectivity offered by the first (known) woman writers to have their plays professionally produced (though Aphra Behn gets a shout-out near the end). 

However, the first act particularly raised the specter of questions that have been swirling around the theatrical world with particular fervor lately. Former leading lady Edward Kynaston's (Greg Haiste) frantic insistence that the inclusion of those people will only sully the pure, traditional nature of his art sounds all too much like arguments recently used by those who insist that Verdi's Otello must be done in blackface, or The Mikado in yellowface. 

Less time is spent filling in the side characters in the court (though Sasha Waddell earns her moment of humanity as Barbara, Lady Castlemaine), with the compelling exception of King Charles. With Nell, David Sturzaker's giddily libidinous Charles can begin to tentatively reveal that his chronic indecision is not a result of stupidity or indifference, but the searing, unfaded memory of his father's execution, and his fear that any decisive action he takes will prove equally fatal. It's not the most rousing defense of Charles's legacy-- but then again, as Nell herself says, who cares? She only troubles herself with the opinions of people she's actually met. 

It's this perspective that makes Nell Gwynn, at its heart, a love story: not just the romance of the King and the Orange-Girl, but the many loves of Nell herself-- yes, the king, but also Charles Hart, also her family, also the theatre. Mbatha-Raw is effervescent and charming. She flirts like a master, but performs onstage with an almost self-consciously girlish glee. Her frank acceptance of who she is and what she has been is the source of both her power and her charm, and you never pause to wonder why every man who meets her seems to fall in love. 

The show combines to be much more than the sum of its parts. Propped up by excellent performances and sharp direction by Christopher Luscombe, Swale's greatest success is in capturing a chaotic, spirited tone of an era and art in turmoil, eschewing strong political statements (save feminist ones) for weaving a web of characters' rumors and opinions. The blurred lines between onstage and off, audience and actor, stage and court, jumble together to give the entire play an expansive, popular feel that suits the Globe perfectly. 

Also there's a dog.

Link/Review: King Lear With Sheep

I saw and reviewed King Lear With Sheep for Litro. There are actually sheep.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

That Victorian Lady, the Globe, and Authenticity

Certain corners of the internet have been fascinated by a Vox post by Sarah A. Chrisman, a woman who claims that she and her husband live their entire lives in an accurately Victorian fashion. She never explains how they came by a Victorian-era computer for blogging, but she does indeed blog and has written several books detailing how they come by and live with their period-accurate clothes and technology.

There have been a lot of really interesting pieces discussing the family, mostly negatively. Chrisman’s idolization of the Victorian era seems either cheerfully blind to, or disturbingly accepting of the sexist, racist, imperialist aspects of 19th century English culture. She also claims that she and her husband are historians (which they are, somehow) and that their Victorian reenactment is actually a large-scale research project, an experiment which has allowed them more authentic access to the period they study.

Questions about the place of reconstruction and reenactment are continually hovering in the air at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where I worked for the past seven months. The Globe now has two performance spaces: the Globe itself, occasional home to all-male ‘original practices’ (OP) productions; and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, modeled after the indoor theatres of the Jacobean period, and host of the Research in Action series, curated by scholars and intended to explore the interaction between Jacobean scenes and the theatre space. 

I’ve always loved history (and dressing up!) and the Victorian couple’s thinking brought to mind my own reasons for wanting to undertake the course of study at the Globe that I’ve just finished. I wrote in my admissions essay how seeing the Globe’s OP Twelfth Night had completely transformed my understanding of the play; I was sure that this transformation was because the production was all-male, in period costume and make-up, using period music and props. I hope it’s a credit to the program itself that I am now convinced it was only the sheen of authenticity that was so seductive (though it was still a great production). The most obvious example is the fact that I didn’t even see Twelfth Night at the Globe, I saw it on Broadway. My ‘authentic’ Jacobean experience was mediated through the 19th century American architecture, designed to facilitate theatrical experiences with goals very different from those of an early modern play.

But even if I had seen it at the Globe, we’d still have to assume that the Globe is a perfectly accurate reconstruction (which we can’t know if it is), and swap out Mark Rylance and Paul Chahidi for boys or young men (and how old or young, exactly, would they be?), and assume that the play had been staged and rehearsed in keeping with early modern rehearsal and staging practices (if we knew for certain what those were).

All of these ‘we just don’t knows’ are what these ‘authentic’ spaces and reenactments tempt us to be able to answer. Chrisman insists she can discover the truth of Victorian experience by wearing a corset and typing by oil lamp. Similarly, one of the many debates about the construction of the Globe has to do with the placement of the onstage pillars. During an interview I conducted, an actor at the Globe half-jokingly noted that he was pretty sure the pillars were in the wrong place: when I pressed him, he said more seriously that they just felt wrong, they didn’t complement his impulses as an actor. In his writings about the discovery of the Rose Playhouse, Sir Ian McKellan somewhat smugly points out that many features make perfect sense to an actor, like an apparent rake in the floor, or the fact that the stage faces the sun— but what about those that don’t, like the truly atrocious sightlines from the side galleries?

But as Slate’s really nice article puts it, ‘The “past” was not made up only of things. Like our own world, it was a web of social ties. These social ties extended into every corner of people’s lives, influencing the way people treated each other in intimate relationships; the way disease was passed and treated; the possibilities open to women, minorities, and the poor; the whirl of expectations, traditions, language, and community that made up everyday lives. Material objects like corsets or kerosene lamps were part of this complex web, but only a part.’ Wearing Victorian clothes and using Victorian furniture does not magically grant you insight into the era itself; to judge by Chrisman, it may well distract you from more critical, complex forms of intellectual engagement-- including questioning how something as broad as the Victorian era (or the Jacobean, or the Elizabethan) could possibly be narrowed down to a single set of opinions and aesthetics.

Similarly, we are not an early modern audience. Thinking that we can watch a scene performed in a reconstructed space and use our opinions and impulses to recreate the way things were really done is to forget the most essential pieces of the puzzle: the culture, the society, the other plays we’d seen that week or in our lifetime, the things we’d read that morning, the gossip around town. The most conspicuous example in the case of early modern performance practice is the boy player: we will always find men playing women to be more unusual than an Elizabethan or Jacobean would have, and even then, we can't really know how realistic or artificial they considered those performances to be.

It’s incredibly tempting to think that the right architecture or the right outfit can offer a shortcut to understanding a time period or a culture that we love. I am a huge fan of living history, and artifacts and reconstructions have immense value. But it’s dangerous (to good history, anyway) to forget that in many essential ways, we are not doing or seeing what Victorians and Elizabethans and Jacobeans did and saw.


(Also, just to be clear, however bad their historiography, nothing justifies some of the abuse and threats that Chisman reports receiving. That's just awful.)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Link: Spanish Tobacco, English Hemp, and Shakespeare

This has been one of my favorite pieces so far for the Globe! We wanted to weigh in on the recent resurgence of the study that discovered traces of cannabis in pipes unearthed from Shakespeare's backyard, so here's my take.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Link: Spanish comedia and Juana Ines de la Cruz

Here are two blog posts I wrote for Shakespeare's Globe's new production of The Heresy of Love, one on playwright and all-around fascinating woman Juana InĂ©s de la Cruz, and one on drama of the Spanish Golden Age. 

Friday, July 17, 2015

Review: Richard II

Richard II has long been sort of an article of faith with me, as far as Shakespeare plays go. I devoutly believed that it could be great, even though I had never actually seen any live evidence-- and indeed, several instances which seemed determined to prove that the play was just inherently quite slow and boring in spite of the beautiful poetry, or (in the case of DruidShakespeare's marvelous adaptation) could only succeed if significantly trimmed down. But I should have foreseen that if anyone could prove otherwise, it would be the director of the hugely delightful Beaux' Stratagem, Simon Godwin, who is clearly having a very productive year, given that he has also just opened a gorgeous (and in my case, faith-affirming) production of Richard II at the Globe. 

I recently heard a director say that she has never produced Richard II because she works with an ensemble, and Richard II has nothing worthwhile for an actor besides the title role. This very often seems true; the major productions of the last few decades are inextricably paired with their lead actors: the Ben Whishaw Richard, the Fiona Shaw Richard, the David Tennant Richard. But Godwin has built his ensemble with performers so compelling, and allows every scene to fill with such engaging urgency, that for once the world of the play manage to expand beyond the long shadow of the King himself. 

A world over which he has wholly cast the shadow of his own sunlight is, of course, just what Richard likes to imagine: crowned at ten years old (in a beautiful opening sequence alternately featuring Thomas Ashdown and Frederick Neilson as the child Richard), Richard has grown up to be a giddy, self-centered monarch, certain that his crown and power are  his due by divine right and not things that must be upheld by steady rule, prudent spending, and politic dealings with his nobles. 

Charles Edwards as Richard is everything this complex role demands: frivolity mixed with sensitivity, a dazzling intellect that only gradually begins to creep out from behind the facade of entitled delusion. His delicate Richard is compelling even at the height of his vanity, and amply fills out the tragic dimensions of the latter scenes. It is a sensitive, nuanced performance.

Swanning around a dazzling gilt set, surrounded by a quartet of high-voiced favorites in satin and brocade, the implications of his aesthetic are inescapable, though not (as in many productions) ever made explicit. Indeed, he and Anneika Rose present one of the warmer potential versions of Richard's relationship to his Queen, with the textually nameless French princess (called Isabel, after Richard's historical queen, in the program) proudly taking her place amongst the giggling, whispering cloud of courtiers until suddenly left bereft by Richard's departure and her own abrupt loss of position. 

Richard's opposite and eventual rival is his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, a role that an article I read recently described as 'completely thankless.' But if this is its theatrical reputation, you wouldn't know it to see David Sturzaker's performance. His sharp, patient, and deeply feeling Bolingbroke defies the easy interpretations of his character as a quick-tempered proto-Hotspur or a ruthless Machiavellian climber. Godwin and Sturzaker suggest a Bolingbroke swept away in the strange current of shifting power that leads without any explanation from Bolingbroke publicly protesting he does not seek the crown, to Richard's Queen overhearing by accident that her husband's deposition is imminent. Where Richard is obsessed with pageantry, Sturzaker's Bolingbroke is like a stage manager, continually delivering silent commands in the background through looks and gestures, a tendency which ultimately demands far closer attention from his subjects than Richard's flamboyant performances ever did. But deep down, though it takes a quieter form, Bolingbroke is as determined as Richard that he end up the hero of his story, and movingly horrified when he realizes that that is not to be. 

This production makes the play feel more than it ever has for me like the story of three families, three branches of the family tree descending from the oft-invoked King Edward III: his last two living sons, John of Gaunt and the Duke of York, now patriarchs with sons of their own; and the necessarily fatherless King Richard, whose recklessness, flanked by York and Gaunt's steadiness, draws continual attention to the skipped generation of rulership, the king who never was. While this structure makes sense textually, it rarely feels alive in performance; that it manages to do so is thanks to the stand-out performances of William Gaunt as Bolingbroke's father John of Gaunt (yes, really), William Chubb as a scene-stealingly sarcastic and endearing Duke of York, and Graham Butler as his increasingly unsteady son Aumerle, Richard's cousin and confidant, who seems to be an almost unwilling survivor of Richard's fall. Sarah Woodward and Sasha Waddell also deserve mention for their refreshing interpretations of the Duchesses of York and Gloucester respectively, and for making so much of the little they are given. This is not a play that is very kind to actresses. 

In his famous speech in the penultimate scene of the play, the lonely, imprisoned Richard tries to 'people this little world' with his imagination. Very often, this is how the play itself feels: faintly drawn characters fluttering around Richard, who is himself the only real, full person onstage. But Godwin's vision is more expansive-- more history play than tragedy, many people's stories rather than just the one. The result is a boisterous, generous production that is not afraid of letting laughter butt right up against tragic sincerity, or of letting other characters become as important as the lead, or of letting the sad story of the death of kings be genuinely enjoyable, too. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: The Beaux' Stratagem

To judge from the publicity for the National Theatre’s The Beaux’ Stratagem, and indeed, from the first scene of the play itself, you might be forgiven for thinking that the main characters are the rakish ne’er-do-wells Thomas Aimwell and Frank Archer, who have spent their fortunes in London and are thus off to the country to find themselves an heiress and divide her fortune between them. Standard stuff of Restoration comedy so far. Samuel Barnett plays Aimwell, the impoverishred younger brother of a viscount, easily besotted but determined to make a go at being mercenary; Geoffrey Streatfeild's Archer, who is posing as Aimwell’s servant (this time ‘round, he is careful to note: in the next town— which they never reach— they will switch places), is the more skilled heartbreaker, more devoutly fixed on making money.


But while Aimwell and Archer drive the plot (amazingly, Aimwell’s efforts to callously marry the lovely Dorinda (Pippa Bennett-Warner) for her money don’t go quite as planned), director Simon Godwin firmly places the play’s heart in the hands of Susannah Fielding as Mistress Sullen. She is the married woman with whom Archer becomes enamored, whose husband’s charming personality is, as is traditional, made quite plain by her married name. Beautiful and clever, her apparently stock-comic desire to commit adultery gradually gives way over the course of the first act to reveal genuine, profound unhappiness. 

Often when a director decides to turn a comedy into one character's tragedy, it shakes the entire play out of balance and drags the tone of all the scenes into an unpleasant muddle (Malvolio in Twelfth Night is a common example). But that's in clumsier hands than Godwin's. Fielding anchors the play in humanity (while also being very funny herself), so that the rest of the play can soar off into batty comic delight. It's difficult to talk about the play in much more detail without giving away the wonderful jokes behind the series of musical numbers, Aimwell's newfound martial valor, the deadpan butler who makes friends with Archer while he is disguised as a footman, a suspicious French priest, and the band of highwaymen who nearly derail all of the lovers' plans. 

The sheer opulence that the National Theatre's size and budget permits is put to excellent use. There is something, in these cash-strapped days, so delightful about seeing a character who is meant to be a surprise arrival enter and, rather than recognizing him from doubling some early minor role, sharing the characters' surprise. There is gorgeous live music (composed by Michael Bruce, music direction by Richard Hart), lovely costumes (particularly for the beaux, design by Lizzie Clachan), and a detailed but efficient multi-story set.

The Beaux' Stratagem is another perfect example of the comic style I've previously praised in the works of Blanche McIntyre and Adele Thomas, where allowing characters (and especially the female characters) to have true human dignity not only makes the play funnier, but helps create a sense of forward momentum in plays that could very easily descend into giddy, directionless farce-- and in the process, offering a reminder that the concluding marriages and engagements these comedies are about more than just sex. They are symbolic of the genre's promise of renewal, and a reminder that the comic rebirths at the end of these plays are even better when they stem from something worth leaving behind. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Review: King John

I don't think I've ever read anything about Shakespeare's King John that doesn't at some point call it something along the lines of "infrequently performed" or "seldom seen." So consider this your requisite mention of the fact that for most of its life, people have considered King John pretty crap. After all, it is a play about King John that includes neither of his reign's two most famous features: Robin Hood (technically from when he was Prince John, I guess) and the Magna Carta. 

But the common thread between both these well-known stories and Shakespeare's play is John's illegitimacy as a ruler. As the villainous Prince in Robin Hood stories, he has all but usurped his older brother, Richard the Lionheart, off fighting in the crusades. And he was forced at sword-point by his nobles to sign the Magna Carta (or so the simplified version goes), promising them certain rights in the face of his mismanagement of the kingdom. 

Shakespeare's John is a temperamental tyrant, stoutly backed by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in seizing the throne from his older brother Geoffrey's son Arthur after the death of his oldest brother, King Richard. By right of primogeniture, the throne should be Arthur's, and Geoffrey's widow Constance has rallied the French king and his son Louis to fight for Arthur's claim. 

If this sounds vaguely confusing... it is. Or at least Shakespeare sometimes makes it seem that way. Part of King John's checkered production history doubtless has to do with the fact that the play's plot seems to careen out of control, devolving into subplots and intrigues that spring up seemingly out of nowhere. But director James Dacre and the company do a remarkable job of sifting through the loose threads, highlighting apparently throw-away lines (like an early comment of John's about looting monasteries for money for his wars) that gain unexpected significance later on and teasing out unexpected resonances that help shape the central characters' journeys, even if many of them (by Shakespeare's design, not a failing of the actors) are lines and circles rather than arcs. 

Music features heavily, not just as background or pre-show adornment, but within the scenes themselves. Lines are set to music, and many of the scene transitions are accompanied with hymn-like, choral settings of particularly essential words and phrases, which also helps to knit the play-- which skips from darkly comic to tragic to political with abandon-- into a more cohesive-feeling whole.  

But all of Dacre's excellent work in structuring the production would be worthless if it weren't resting on such excellent performances. Jo Stone-Fewings's King John is splendidly petulant. He has the perfect look of a medieval king, which literalizes the contradiction Queen Eleanor astutely notes in the opening scenes: that his kingship is a question of appearances and possession, not of right. 

Barbara Marten and Tanya Moodie's rival queens Eleanor and Constance are formidable and stately. Constance's eleventh-hour lament for her captured son is a staple overwrought audition monologue, and it was a breath of fresh air to hear it delivered with a dignified grief that did not blunt the character's sharp intelligence. 

The show-stealing role is that of Philip Falconbridge, the bastard son of John's older brother Richard, the only entirely fictional main character in any of Shakespeare's histories. Alex Waldmann combines irreverent charm, boisterous arrogance, and genuine feeling. Ciaran Owens does some scene-stealing of his own, making a big impact in the relatively small role of Louis the Dauphin, whose glowering and preening provides a silent, foppish parallel to the Bastard's running commentary. The stubborn confidence of Owens' Louis, particularly in the later scenes, shifts the play away from Shakespeare's usual characterizations of the cowardly, villainous French, and instead casts much of the blame for the play's chaos on Cardinal Pandulph (Joseph Marcell), a meddling Papal legate.

The date of King John's composition is uncertain, but most scholars put it in the mid 1590s, after Shakespeare had finished the Henry VI plays and Richard III, but before Richard II and the Henry IV plays. Watching it, however, the play that came to mind was Troilus and Cressida: they share a sharp cynicism at their heart, though King John ultimately offers at least a superficially hopeful conclusion. But the penultimate image is striking: the Bastard, not the soon-to-reign Prince Henry holds the crown-- implying not, I think, some secret desire for usurpation, but the continuance of the cycle that began with Eleanor and Constance: those who might be best suited for power can only-- because of their birth, their class, their gender-- watch from the sidelines. 


Stay tuned, as well... on June 13, King John will he performed in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for one night, and I'll be there. I'm very excited to see how such sprawling, combat-filled show fits into that little space, and I'll be sure to write about it. 

Friday, May 22, 2015

Link: Henry V

My latest for Litro Magazine is about three productions of Henry V, including DruidShakespeare and the Unicorn Theatre's adaptation for young audiences.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Review: As You Like It

The Lady Parts blog recently posted a casting notice for Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It which described her like so: "a saucy, sexy heroine who saves herself (and others) all while getting her man."

....well, it's not wrong? "Saucy" is indeed a word Rosalind uses to describe her intended behavior when she is in disguise as the shepherd boy Ganymede. Sexy... well, her lover Orlando thinks so, though in his self-centered, Petrarchan rhapsodies, he probably wouldn't use exactly that term. But the only thing Rosalind can really be said to save anyone from is sexual frustration: the real danger lurks outside of the Forest of Arden where she, in her own words again 'proves a busy actor' in both the pursuit of her own desires and others'. She does get her man, though. But only after teaching him how to deserve her. 

That dangerous outer world where the play begins-- the dual courts of Duke Frederick, who exiled his brother, Rosalind's father; and that of Oliver de Boys, who has robbed his youngest brother Orlando of his inheritance-- seems best characterized in the Globe's current production by irrational hate. Oliver (William Mannering) confesses that he has no idea why he hates his brother so much, and Duke Frederick refuses to give his reasons for suddenly banishing Rosalind under pain of death. Orlando (Simon Harrison) brings traces of this fury and violence with him into the forest when he flees there, only to be quickly and easily pacified by the exiled Duke (David Beames, who also plays Frederick) and brought over to placid country living, where the only intrigues are romantic and the only violence done to deer. 

On the other hand is Rosalind, who is also forced to flee to save her life, and decides to do so disguised as a boy. I don't know exactly how to describe what Michelle Terry does except to say that it is wholly winning. Her Rosalind shrieks and shouts and flails and makes faces and is dazzlingly clever yet utterly gobsmacked by her feelings for Orlando. It's thrilling to watch a woman onstage behave with such inhibition, and for that behavior to be framed as joyfully funny, not as laughable and worthy of mockery. And Terry's Rosalind does not derive this inhibition from her masculine guise-- it is what characterizes her private games with her cousin Celia (Ellie Piercy, equally charming). Living as Ganymede simply allows her to bring all her exuberant weirdness out in public. Rosalind and Celia are perhaps Shakespeare's greatest female friendship (the field of competition isn't large), and director Blanche McIntyre's greatest strength there and throughout the play (and one she also demonstrated in The Comedy of Errors) is perhaps her ability to recognize that comic characters can be absurd and human simultaneously. 

Another sterling example of this is James Garnon's Jaques, melancholic follower of the exiled duke. I frankly tend to find Jaques insufferable, but Garnon's depiction transformed my understanding. Rather than playing up the character's pomposity and protestations of melancholy, his understated performance suggests something profoundly truthful about Jaques sadness, while avoiding the kind of hyper-naturalistic performance that does not work particularly well with classical texts in general, but especially not at the Globe. Oh, and he's funny, too, and finds what seemed to me at least to be a genuinely original spin on the classic 'All the world's a stage...' speech.

In a strange way, though, As You Like It could be Shakespeare's most naturalistic play. Nothing much happens; the events are mostly structured around watching different characters encounter each other and just seeing what comes of it. It's a testament to McIntyre's skill that even so, the play never feels shapeless and the pace always seems brisk. It's a delightful play about people finding themselves and each other; thankfully, this production doesn't try to turn it into something more by making it Dark and Serious. Its ethos is perhaps best expressed (as so many things are) by Rosalind herself: "I had rather have a fool to make me merry than experience to make me sad." As the first half of the play makes plain, such experiences cannot always be avoided... but As You Like It is more in the business of merrymaking. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review: Romeo and Juliet

I'll just put this out there right up front: I'd never seen a good, live production of Romeo and Juliet. (Well, okay, one caveat: I saw it at OSF in I think 2007? And I remember that I liked the production, but I genuinely can't remember a thing about it except the costumes. I also saw an hour-long, four person version, but that's not quite the same. If I've seen other good ones, I can't remember them.) I absolutely adore the play, but I forget that fact sometimes because it is being constantly misinterpreted and misrepresented.

So I'm pretty thrilled to have finally seen a truly lovely, moving Romeo and Juliet. 

All the previous productions have had myriad problems, but the most utterly lethal one, every time, has been the Juliet. Time after time, directors seem to forget that Juliet is required to carry essentially the entirety of act four and most of act five by herself, and cast wispy, pretty actresses who can float around a balcony but are incapable of presenting (and, I suspect, even recognizing) Juliet's intelligence and the steely resolve which drives her through the latter half of the play. 

Basically what I'm saying is, thank God for Cassie Layton. Her artlessly youthful, awkward, practical Juliet anchors the play, and Layton carries Juliet from giddy confusion at her first encounter with Romeo (she doesn't quite know what's going on, but she knows she like it) through a subtle, gradual maturation to laughingly, and convincingly declaring to the Friar, "Talk not of fear." Her eroding innocence and complete self-assurance make it impossible to dismiss her suicide as stupid youthful impulsiveness: both she and Samuel Valentine's Romeo carry so entirely the weight of their circumstances it is wholly possible to believe that they are left with no other choice. Romeo's lament that he has "stain'd the childhood of our joy with blood" rang particularly strikingly-- they begin as innocents, but they do not end that way. 

Co-directors Dominic Dromgoole and Tim Hoare overlap and intercut scenes, drawing extra attention to the language of fate and foreboding that pervades the play, and highlighting the repetitions of language and imagery across successive scenes. The stylized opening chorus and the very well-carried final speeches by the parents and the friar (usually interminable if they aren't cut, here feeling vital and weighty) remind us that this is in fact a civic tragedy: the original sin that must be punished is the intolerance and hate-mongering of the parents, not their children's daring to love each other. 

Valentine (that's his name, I swear) imbues Romeo's self-centered dreaminess with an endearing sweetness, and a willingness to love that's not just limited to Juliet and the unseen Rosaline: he's warm and affectionate with his friends and mentors (Tom Kanji as Benvolio and the Friar and Steffan Donnelly as Mercutio) and seems genuinely open to reconciling with Tybalt, though the latter (Matt Doherty) will have none of it. This Romeo's earnest efforts to avoid violence, both with Tybalt and Paris, added an additional dimension to his near-catatonic grief at the news of his banishment: he mourns the thought of losing Juliet, certainly, but that crazed edge to his torment certainly seems to be equally borne of guilt and horror at what he has done. 

The balcony scene is suffused with genuine joy and wonder, and Dromgoole and Hoare are unafraid not only to allow the first three acts to be lighthearted, but don't try to erase the comic moments written even into the latest scenes. Kanji and Donnelly's drunken wanderings as Benvolio and Mercutio are very charming, and Lord Capulet (Steven Elder) emerges as surprisingly funny. He is flanked by Hannah McPake's steely Lady Capulet and Sarah Higgins's completely delightful Nurse, both of whom prove cannier than their sex and station allow them to openly appear. They do what Juliet cannot: push aside their own desires, lower their eyes, and surrender, after some resistance, to Lord Capulet's demands. No wonder he is so willing to believe in Juliet's sudden reformation. 

Atmospheric music contributes to the stylized tone, and the acts are bookended with a relatively lighthearted musical number featuring the company as the band, plus a very charming jig that frankly comes as a relief after the devastating final scene in the Capulet tomb. Dromgoole, as ever, knows exactly how to tread the line between a contemporary audience's naturalistic expectations and the presentational, theatrical nature of Shakespeare's actual writing. Elevating the material in this way, rather than making it stagey and artificial, grants permission to believe in everything: of course Romeo and Juliet are perfect for each other, of course it's true love, it's right there in the poetry.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Link/Review: Golem

This is my first contribution to the super awesome Litro Magazine: a review of 1927's new play Golem at Trafalgar Studios. 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Link/Essay: Dueling and Romeo and Juliet

Here's a post I wrote for Shakespeare's Globe's blog about Romeo and Juliet and the Elizabethan culture of street violence!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Review: The Merchant of Venice

How do you solve a problem like Shylock? The British theatre scene is going to take several cracks at the question this season: the Almeida's production of The Merchant of Venice ran this winter, and both Shakespeare's Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company are presenting it this summer. I saw the Globe's version first, and their answer to that question is compelling and simple: cast Jonathan Pryce. 

One of the reasons I hate labels like 'romance' or 'problem play' or 'late comedy' is because they imply a chronological progression of Shakespeare's work that simply doesn't exist. The Merchant of Venice was probably written in the mid 1590s, but this early comedy shares all the troubling aspects that supposedly characterize 'late comedies' like Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well. The relatively straightforward comic story of the debt-ridden gentleman Bassanio's attempts to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia, can hardly hold up an air of levity when laid against the story of the Venetian merchant Antonio, whose 'joking' bond of a pound of his own flesh against 3000 ducats takes a turn when Antonio defaults on the debt and the Jewish moneylender Shylock becomes determined to claim his bond.

Director Jonathan Munby creates a convincingly dangerous Venice, filled with drunken, thoughtless aristocrats whose revels-- as we see in an extended masquerade sequence at the beginning of the play-- are capable of seamlessly devolving into anti-Semitic violence. Dominic Mafham's apparently mild-mannered Antonio, pining away with unrequited love for Daniel Lapaine's particularly dense Bassanio, displays virulent bigotry against Shylock. Its suddenness and violence, combined with the sharp, charming intelligence of Pryce's asides, weights the play at once in Shylock's favor without falling into either of the most dangerous traps: turning him into a comic caricature, or portraying him as a nebbish victim whose later retaliatory violence seems to have no cause. 

Despite his many early asides, Pryce's Shylock is ultimately opaque: when he says the bond will only be a joke, and laughingly insists to Bassanio that he would gain nothing by actually claiming Antonio's flesh, it is unclear if he is setting up a long game, or really intends to make peace. Either way, the elopement of his daughter Jessica with Antonio and Bassanio's friend Lorenzo becomes an essential hinge, granted particular weight in this production by allowing the love between Jessica and Lorenzo to be genuine rather than, as is so often the case, cynical and bleak. Ben Lamb plays Lorenzo as staunchly well-meaning, though increasingly aware that there are more differences than he expected between himself and his canny, converted wife. Phoebe Pryce (surely an awkward role to be playing opposite your actual father) is an active presence even in silence: her Jessica is always watching, and unlike so many portrayals, she rejects an overly simplistic understanding of Jessica's situation. Ms. Pryce not only seems to understand, but is able to wonderfully subtly depict Jessica's simultaneous love for Lorenzo, confusion and isolation in her new culture, dislike for her father's repressive household, and affection for the man himself. 

The richness and depth of the Pryces' characterizations makes it difficult for the Portia and Bassanio's half of the story to rebalance the scales, though some of the wittier secondary characters-- Gratiano (David Sturzaker), Nerissa (Dorothea Myer-Bennett), and the clown Lancelot Gobbo (Stefan Adegbola) in particular-- really shine. 

It seems fairly obvious that the sudden and alarming rise of anti-Semitic violence in Europe is why everyone has decided to put on The Merchant of Venice this year, though none of the theatres in question have actually said so thus far. But the questions this production-- and particularly its trial scene-- raised for me were about power more broadly. The horror of the trial, for me, lay in the ease with which the law was turned against Shylock. We witness the full power of the state come bearing down on him, and the glee with which Portia, Antonio, and the Duke of Venice himself see it happen. They will do anything to turn the law against him. 

The margins of The Merchant of Venice seethe with otherness: a Moroccan prince, a 'Moorish' maid servant, Portia's complaints about suitors who cannot speak Italian-- even Adegbola's increasingly cheerfully rebellious Lancelot, as an emissary from the lower class, contributes to the continual battering of the facade of homogeneity that the rich, white, Christian central characters seem so determined to preserve. While this production only faintly raises the specter of this power, perhaps that is correct: it shifts on the sides and underneath. Shylock can only impotently rage at the society that oppresses him, that steals his daughter from him-- and against this backdrop, is vicious vengeance is rendered, if not good, certainly not nonsensical. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Review: The Broken Heart

After a point, it must have gotten difficult for Jacobean dramatists. Revenge-filled bloodbaths are in, and sooner or later, your audience isn't going to bat an eye at your traditional stabbings, stranglings, or poison-coated objects. You need to come up with something really odd.

Luckily, John Ford was ready to deliver. 

The Sam Wanamaker's latest revenge tragedy in a season full of them, Ford's The Broken Heart (directed by Caroline Steinbeis) concludes with some of the most bizarre and upsetting methods of death the new theatre has seen so far. And remember they also did Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. 

Actually, The Broken Heart has occasional echoes of 'Tis Pity: its central character (at least at first) is Orgilus, a young man whose engagement was abruptly broken off by the lady's brother, Ithocles, who gave his sister away to someone else (someone else who, at one point, becomes convinced that his new bride, Penthea, is sleeping with her brother, among others). Orgilus has been driven frantic by his loss, and busies himself with obsessing over his own sister's chastity and disguising himself as a monk. Ithocles, meanwhile, has returned from war and is showered with praise, titles, and rewards from the King-- but finds that all this is worth nothing, because he has fallen in love. This is a source of twofold pain: he is in love with Princess Calantha, whom he can never hope to wed, and his new understanding of the pain of thwarted affection has caused him to feel unassuageable remorse for what he did to Orgilus and Penthea. 

What's most fascinating about the play overall is its gestures towards a very modern-feeling psychological complexity. Ithocles, for example, has undergone a genuine change of heart that Orgilus refuses to acknowledge. Luke Thompson's dynamic and compelling Ithocles, by turns glowing with youthful arrogance and staggered by the weight of his own guilt, could almost be the hero of a play written 300 years later. Unfortunately for him, in Brian Ferguson's manic Orgilus, he's matched with an old-style revenger, and their clash seems almost to be as much stylistic as moral: Orgilus cannot believe that Ithocles can possibly have truly changed. It seems at the last that Ithocles can't wholly believe it, either. 

Equally well-drawn by Ford and well-performed are the ladies, Amy Morgan dominating the first half as Penthea and Sarah MacRae's Calantha bursting center stage in the second. The play flits from perspective to perspective, allowing many characters-- the women included-- to take control of the story at different moments. It's not until late in the second act that the familiar steps of the revenge tragedy are set into motion, and by then it's abundantly clear that these characters will not conform quietly to their traditional roles-- though there still are, as mentioned above, plenty of deaths carried out in spectacularly bizarre manners. 

Steinbeis's production joins Jacobean and steampunk-Spartan in costuming combinations that don't always make complete sense, but are unquestionably striking. She wisely allows the tone to be frequently comical, especially in scenes with Pentha's husband Bassanes (Owen Teale), the King of Argos (Joe Jameson), and even Orgilus and Ithocles. A favorite gesture is letting all the courtiers awkwardly laugh at the king's bad jokes. However, everyone is treated fairly-- which seems like a strange thing to say. But the complexities of Ford's characterizations could easily be smoothed over by an inattentive director; similarly, the blurring of comic and tragic could allow the ending to descend into violent farce, as was somewhat the case with 'Tis Pity earlier this season. Steinbeis and the actors, however, allow all the characters the dignity of their complications.

The Broken Heart is the only extant early modern play set in Sparta, and fittingly, the dominant note for most of its characters is stoicism: excessive displays of emotion are roundly mocked, impeccable self control the highest form of honor. I'm still not entirely convinced as to how a revenge tragedy was meant to make one feel-- not genuinely sorrowful, surely? The admirable resolve with which every character faces their demise makes it difficult to feel sad, exactly. Or have we just lost the ability to connect to such stylized emotions? But this production comes closer than most-- not that its characters would want you to admit it. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Some Thoughts: Othello

I had the opportunity to see Playing Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe, their educational performance that is being presented for free to secondary schools in London. Though I feel like I've seen about a hundred Othellos recently, this production illuminated some things in interesting ways that seem worth highlighting.

Othello himself (played by the preposterously handsome and very talented Lloyd Everitt) is presented as more explicitly foreign than I've previously scene: he speaks with what I believe is a West Indian accent, though I'm not entirely sure. While quoting Othello in the scene before we've actually met him, Iago (Jamie Beamish, whose magnetic and mercurial Iago's finest hour is when he extravagantly decries honesty in favor of wisdom in order to regain Othello's trust) imitates this accent, leaving us unsure until the next scene if this is actually a trait of his, or just exaggerated racism on Iago's part. In the text, Othello is of course specified as being not only racially other, but foreign as well-- he's not just a black Venetian. The accent is a useful reminder of this double difference, and draws attention to Iago's many references to Othello perhaps not being acquainted with the customs of the country... which helps make Othello's belief in Iago's lies still more credible. 

The setting is World War I, which some people are probably totally sick of this year, but I think works really well for the play. It allows for the explicitly military setting that I'm increasingly viewing as an essential element of the play, along with rigidly divided and traditionally signified class differences that are equally important and sometimes a little too blurred in a contemporary setting. 

The play is only an hour and 50 minutes with no interval, and some of the heaviest cuts are to Desdemona's speeches, including entirely excising her speech about following Othello to the wars. Obviously, I am usually hugely opposed to the all-too-common impulse to cut female characters' lines just because they don't seem very important (they are!!!), but in this case, it has a really interesting effect that I definitely didn't hate. Stripped of most of her speech at the beginning of the play, Desdemona (Bethan Cullinane) becomes much more of a cypher, and it then becomes strangely easier to believe in Othello's suspicion because she is so constantly cheerful, polite, and performative in her sweetness. It is easy to imagine her lying to her father, and I was very aware, when she denies to Othello that the handkerchief is missing, that she instantly resorts to cheerful lying rather than just telling the truth. Only after Othello is fully convinced of her adultery do we begin to see Desdemona's real character-- and therefore, her innocence. It strengthens Othello's character without ultimately depriving hers of too much depth. (But in general I think we should just let ladies have all the lines they can get.)

The scene where Iago gets Cassio drunk is rapidly becoming one of my favorites, and has often proved to be a really excellent moment of crystallization for a lot of a given production's ideas, especially about class. In this case, the soldiers sing and play a drinking game to which Cassio only vaguely knew the rules, and which quickly devolves into a gleefully seized chance for the enlisted men to haze their officer. In response, Cassio drunkenly attempts to salvage his dignity with a flash of rage, which leads smoothly into his attack on Roderigo. Freddie Stewart's is a more openly self-interested Cassio than many I've seen lately, more completely disdainful of Bianca, and hinting at a genuine interest in Desdemona early on. 

The violence is all very sharp and well-handled, some of the best hand-to-hand combat I've seen in a while, particularly a chillingly intimate moment (and a nice foreshadowing of what was to immediately follow) in the penultimate scene when Roderigo attacks Cassio and Iago wounds him. As Roderigo stumbles away, Iago comes up directly behind Cassio and covers his eyes with his hand. Cassio manages at first to block Iago's thrust (which, unlike many where he hastily goes for the hamstring, is clearly intended to be a killing blow) and they grapple there for a few moments before Iago manages to redirect and go for the leg.  

Obviously this production is after something much different than most things I talk about on here, but I appreciated that the director (Bill Buckhurst) and team clearly did not decide that being an educational production meant that they didn't need to bother clearly thinking through a concept or trying to achieve nuanced and well-conceived performances. In fact, though the style is often more declamatory and outward-facing than I've gotten used to seeing lately in the Sam Wanamaker, I think in many ways the scenes that more completely eschew naturalism in this way are the most successful, and a useful reminder of the style of performance the space demands. 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

I sometimes think that the most effective plays invite an audience to step into the mind and heart of someone whose point of view the have never previously had cause to consider; to spend an evening looking through someone else's eyes. This is what The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted from Mark Haddon's novel by Simon Stephens, achieves. 

Masterfully directed by Marianne Elliott, Curious Incident sees the world through the eyes of Christopher Boone, a fifteen-year-old boy who is somewhere on the autism spectrum, confused by people but brilliant at mathematics, and determined to set the world to right when he finds his neighbor's dog stabbed with a rake in her garden. Graham Butler presents Christopher with complete, guileless sincerity and impressive physical control. Elliott and her designers create a technological dreamscape: a black box of a set intersected with a light-up grid, projections of mathematical equations, numbers, drawings, and noises, roiling ensemble movement by Frantic Assembly's Vicki Manderson-- and Christopher at the center of it all, whose alternating coldness and intensity, when cast against this depiction of his elaborate and confusing perspective on the world, become perfectly understandable. Christopher sees his journey as an epic quest or a Sherlock Holmes adventure, and the play itself never mocks him by reminding us to think of it otherwise. 

The action is complemented by narration 'written' by Christopher and read out by one of his teachers, Miss Siobhan (Sarah Woodward). From her, as well as Christopher's neighbors and parents, we get glimpses of the workings of the world outside Christopher's mind. We see or overhear only the conversations and exchanges that Christopher does, but often we receive information from them that he does not. It's a really remarkable and effective layering of Christopher's subjectivity and our position as outsiders looking into his world; we are never fully pushed away from our alliance with him, but we simultaneously can fill in richer details about the 'real' world that all rush to the forefront in the beautiful final moments of the play. 

Curious Incident takes full advantage of the opportunities presented by live theatre (at one point literally declaring its intention of doing so) and revels in the limitations. I never thought that this might make a good movie (a far-too-rare feeling with new plays, in my opinion) and more significantly for an adaptation, I never found myself wondering about the novel. Not that I'm not curious to read it now, as I'm sure it's very good, but the storytelling and even the narration never left me picturing words on the page, or wondering how a scene would have been illustrated with prose. The story felt not like prose slightly twisted to fit onstage, but essentially theatrical. 

The success of such an unusual story in both London and New York probably speaks for itself, at this point. But it's always exciting to experience such a moving, well-crafted evening at the theatre. 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review: Othello

There are a lot of factors, of course, but I think one of the reasons that West Side Story worked, and continues to work so well is because gangs are one of the last areas in contemporary life where audiences will readily accept that murderous violence can spring up at the drop of a hat. Frantic Assembly's Othello, running at the Lyric Hammersmith, adopts this setting, and the feel does remind one of West Side Story, but it manages to achieve its startlingly contemporary feel with Shakespeare's original language. 

Said language is, admittedly, in a shortened form-- 100 minutes with no interval, though the scenes were adapted masterfully and nothing essential felt lost-- and delivered in heavy Northern accents that had the London A-levels students sitting around us giggling for about the first quarter of the play. Boys and girls alike have track pants and trainers, the ladies in crop tops and the boys in hoodies. They smoke and drink and play the slots machine in the corner, the 'Turkish fleet' consists of unseen honking cars and a brick thrown through a bar window, and lieutenancy is conferred by passing along custody of a baseball bat. Scenes are supplemented with long, silent sequences of dynamic, hip-hop inflected dance that tells the story as clearly as any of the dialogue. 

Othello's (Mark Ebulue) difference is marked in many ways besides his race: he's more obviously muscular than other men, southern-accented, and calm and steady in contrast to the impulsive exuberance of the others-- which makes the change that Steven Miller's temperamental Iago is able to work in him so sinister. This is not an Iago who is able to think ten steps ahead-- we see him working it all out in the moment, sometimes almost a beat too slowly (as when Roderigo threatens to expose him)-- and the excitement and tension of watching this process is at least as compelling as more composed Iagos playing ringmaster. 

Kirsty Oswald's Desdemona is perhaps my favorite I've ever seen: spirited and defiant not just to her father, but throughout. She does not cry for the entirety of the final two acts, as so many Desdemonas unfortunately do, but teases, flirts, and fights for her life. She's no chaste angel, but it is equally clear that she would never betray the man she loves. One of the most interesting examples of director Scott Graham's adaptation is the rearrangement of scenes and entrances to allow Desdemona and Othello to have an early scene alone. I'd never before realized that they are, in the original text, never left by themselves before he kills her. Here, they are allowed a moment of intimacy and private tenderness that grounds their love in more than just public protestations. Desdemona's friendship with Emilia (Leila Crerar) is one of equals, and the latter's desperate loyalty comes from a form of friendly love that is much more recognizable to a modern audience than the mistress/servant relationship. After shrinking from Iago's cruelty and allowing herself to be casually groped by most of the others, Emilia blazes to life in the final third of the play, and when she finally seizes the right to speak for herself, she is fearless and formidable. 

The set (design by Laura Hopkins) moves seamlessly from very dingy bar to back alley, but even when safely indoors the walls will undulate to underscore the characters' uncertainty and distress-- as Cassio (a charming Ryan Fletcher) is getting wasted, for example, or Iago is panicking about how to plant the handkerchief on him. Though the excellent dance/movement sequences peter off towards the end of the play, the final moments of violence are viscerally shocking in a way that such well-trodden tragedies often cannot quite manage. I was most aware, during the final moments, of how young everybody seemed to be-- and that unlike the glooming peace that ends many versions of Othello, the cycle of violence here has no end in sight. 

Friday, January 9, 2015

Adaptations: Into the Woods

All in all, Into the Woods is-- fine. The cast are all good to great, everything looks very pretty. But frustratingly, I think if a little more time had been spent thinking not about just putting the musical onto the screen, but adapting it to the screen, it could have been a truly great musical movie. 

What I mean by this is, Into the Woods' jokes, subversions, and structure are built on top of theatrical tropes, not least the device of the intermission itself. It's a musical that's made to be cut in half, and its structure within the acts-- especially the first-- relies on repetitions, reprises, montage-esque group numbers, and direct address. Rob Marshall did not grapple with how to translate any of these devices to film, beyond cut-away montages for the group numbers and changing some direct-address songs to be delivered to other characters. But more than the slight awkwardness of these choices, it's missing the point: Into the Woods riffs not just on fairy tales, but on the way those stories are told in the theatre. I don't know what cinematic devices could replace things like the false ending before intermission, but I'm sure such tropes exist, and utilizing them to turn Into the Woods into a movie that comments on film in the same way the play comments on theatre would have pushed it, in my opinion, over the line into becoming the movie musical that finally cracks the code. This might also have forced the filmmakers to think harder about the story they were telling, and pushed them away from some cuts and changes that ultimately left the second half, which is supposed to be the weighty one, feeling a bit bloodless. 

This hinges, in part, on a decision that I thought I would hate but instead found almost worked: actual kids playing Jack and Little Red Ridinghood. After Little Red's number, I was firmly in the "no" camp-- the song lost all of its hesitant glances towards impending adulthood, and the sexual elements just felt like an unfortunate implication. But after both her and Jack (who I felt straddled the becoming-an-adult line better than Red) delivered their songs to the Baker, I began to be intrigued by the idea of the Baker becoming a sort of semi-unwilling receptacle for children's stories, and hoped it would maybe replace stepping into his father/narrator's shoes as a reason for becoming a storyteller himself at the end. It also made me look anew at the progression of the lessons learned, seeing more clearly that in the first half, the children (and to a great extent, the Baker and his Wife, and the Witch as well, are still like children) come of age and learn their expected lessons. And then in the second half, the adults realize that the lessons don't stop now that you're grown. Unfortunately, that's not quite what happened. 

Yes, they don't kill Rapunzel. And it doesn't work. The Witch learning that you have to let your children go is easy and boring; the Witch finally being proven right that the world is dangerous, but finding only loss in the victory is complicated and interesting and much sadder. Losing the reprise of "Agony" also doesn't work, and not just because it clearly would have been amazing-- but because you lose not only the comedy, but the weight behind the Prince's later confession that he thought marriage would mean an end to longing. And finally, while losing "No More" almost works, it's just a huge shame, and makes the Baker's decision to return feel far too quick and easy. All of these choices combined to make the problems of the second half feel much simpler and shallower than those of the first-- which is, of course, the opposite of how it ought to feel. 

There's a lot of good too, mostly in the performances-- which might be a first in 21st century movie musicals. I was completely enamored with James Cordon and Emily Blunt's Baker and Wife, and I thought the decision to have Cordon narrate was the best thing you can do if you can't have the narrator visible. They had fantastic chemistry and the exactly right sense of partnership. I only wish that Lapine hadn't felt the apparent need to water down their prickliness from his original script: they never really fight here, never snap or get angry, and there's something lost (particularly in "Moments in the Woods") when their fantastic teamwork isn't paired with reminders that their marriage is also difficult, and they don't always get along. But Emily Blunt escapes Joanna Gleason's long shadow, and James Cordon made me badly wish I could have seen his rendition of "No More." 

 Anna Kendrick is utterly charming, though Cinderella probably suffered most from the oddly quick and shallow feel of what would be act two. Aside from my total shock that Chris Pine can sing, there's nothing to say about "Agony." You just have to see it.

And the film itself is unquestionably worth seeing. But I suspect those who are encountering Into the Woods for the first time on screen will need to look to the stage to understand what has made it an enduring classic of musical theatre. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top Plays of 2014

I'm positive that there are things I'm missing from early in the year, because I only have notes through April with me now. But, in chronological order, here are my top ten plays from 2014. It was harder to narrow down than I thought it would be, and so when it was a close call I went with the ones that have stuck with me, and that I've kept thinking about long after I saw them. It's been a pretty remarkable year for shows like that. 

1. Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812: This is probably cheating, since I saw it for the first time shortly after moving to NYC in 2012. I absolutely adored it then, and I absolutely adored it when I saw it again after its move from Ars Nova to a bigger midtown location. It's a rock opera, written by Dave Malloy and directed by Rachel Chavkin, adapted from a small slice of Tolstoy's War and Peace. Young, naive Natasha Rostova travels to Moscow to await the return of her betrothed, Andrey, from the wars, but finds herself enchanted by the beautiful and not wholly trustworthy Anatole. Her story eventually intertwines with that of Pierre, Andrey's best friend, unhappily married to Anatole's sister. Dave Malloy originated the role of Pierre (though he was no longer playing it by the time I saw it in 2014) and Philippa Soo, playing Natasha, is staggeringly talented and a name to watch. 

The music is beautiful, the performances were spot-on, the staging was inventive and made sitting through a three-hour rock opera adaptation of a Russian novel a positive delight. Oh, also, the actor playing Dolokhov gave us free wine because we happened to be sitting with someone he knew, so... all around, everything you want from an evening of theatre. 

(seriously, if anyone reading this doesn't know this show, download it at once, it's truly great) 

2. Twelfth Night: Okay, this one is probably also cheating, because I also saw this in both 2013 and 2014. But it's part of the reason I'm here in London now, so that's probably important. And this production completely transformed the way I look at Twelfth Night, which I freely admit I never much liked before, and now consider one of my favorites. This production allowed me to rediscover the joy in the play, which a lifetime of watching knock-offs of the Trevor Nunn film version had almost completely sapped away. It was my first all-male production, and I found the experiment fascinating-- and also that it justified my impulse that there is more than just nerdy dramaturgical interest to be gained from understanding early modern playhouse practice as deeply as possible... which in turn helped me justify the mostly completely batty decision to come to London. 

3. Cripple of Inishmaan: This play taught me that I might possibly like two things I thought I didn't: Daniel Radcliffe's acting, and Martin McDonagh's writing. Blasphemy, I know-- but the only thing I ever read of his was The Pillowman, and then I was too traumatized to read more. But Inishmaan was an utter delight, and I will be the first to acknowledge that I seriously misjudged Daniel Radcliffe's talents-- and more importantly, I think, his humbleness and his obvious dedication to working hard at the job of acting, not just coasting along as a movie star, as he obviously could. 

4. Much Ado About Nothing: I was terribly excited for Shakespeare in the Park's Much Ado About Nothing, and the show far exceeded my high expectations-- mostly by completely transforming those expectations. Like Twelfth Night, this production completely changed my understanding of the essential dynamics of the play. Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater's Beatrice and Benedick were unlike any I've seen in the best possible way: rather than being obviously the two smartest, coolest people in the room-- so that the question of their getting together only seems to be an eye-rolling matter of when-- they portrayed the quarrelsome lovers as proud and prickly, lashing out when you sense they'd rather reach out, if only they weren't too afraid of being mocked. This is not to suggest that the pair were soaked in maudlin self-loathing, but rather that their vast intelligence and genuine high spirits were also undergirded with a strong instinct for self-preservation. Most interestingly, this had the effect of raising actual questions about their eventual union. Would they actually manage to overcome their quips and fear to get together? Their public denials in the last scene read to me, for the first time ever, not just as a silly final layover before the inevitable happy ending, but a moment in which there seemed to be a real chance that they would choose pride and safety over happiness at last. 

5. Two Gentlemen of Verona: My wish for 2015 is that more people start producing all-female Shakespeare that a) isn't The Taming of the Shrew and b) doesn't feel like it needs to hedge its bets with explanations, framing devices, and commentary. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Two Gentlemen of Verona was a perfect example of the power that simply presenting a play and letting women embody it can have. The gender decision spoke for itself: director Sarah Rasmussen wisely recognized that no more adornment was required.  

6. Into the Woods: I'd never actually seen a live Into the Woods before this production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It's a hard play for many musical theatre fans to see, I think, because the filmed Broadway version casts such a long shadow. But Amanda Denhert's production straddled the perfect line between staking an interpretive claim and sucking the magic out of the show by privileging the director's vision above the strength of the play itself. It was, in other words, sufficiently different from the original version to shake off the specters of Bernadette Peters, Joanna Gleason, and Chip Zien, but did not feel the need to achieve this by, say, setting it in modern-day New York City.  

7. Julius Caesar: Yet another production that helped me see a play I thought I knew very well in an entirely new light. As I wrote, the trouble with Julius Caesar often seems to be that all the good bits-- or at least all the famous bits-- happen in acts 1-3. But Tom McKay's beautiful, soulful Brutus so fully inhabited the heart of the play, it became not just a story of politics and assassination, but a character study that had to be followed to the bitter end. 

8. The James Plays (plus part 3): I can't stop thinking about these plays. Weeks after seeing them for the second time, I had to go buy the script because I couldn't stop trying to remember lines, scenes, and moments. The last time I can remember seeing a play and it having that kind of effect, the play was by Shakespeare. The opening scene of James I might be one of the best-written first scenes I've read, full stop. I've linked them anyway, but my reviews are so far from encompassing what I've come to think and feel about these plays, because I wrote the reviews right after seeing them, and it turns out these plays take much more time than that to fully unfold. 

9. Charles III: When I first read about Charles III last spring I was desperate to see it, and I'm so glad that I not only got the chance, but it was exactly as awesome as I thought it would be. I was worried that I wouldn't understand the politics of it, but Mike Bartlett's drama is much more human than that. It's a classic Shakespearean historical tragedy, and its setting in the near future rather than the past only serves, somehow, to reinforce this feeling. As the man said, what's past is prologue. 

10. The Knight of the Burning Pestle : How often do you feel pure, joyful delight in the theatre? Not often enough. But what's so remarkable about Burning Pestle is that it achieves this joy without just being a confection of a play. It's terribly silly, but it's not shallow. George and Nell ground the play, radiating warmth and welcome. If more plays reminded people that there's no right way to go to the theatre, maybe more people would come.