Posts Tagged ‘shakespeare’

Apollo’s Girl

July 24, 2017


Measure for Measure
(Dir.: Simon Godwin)
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky
Shakespeare Center
Since TFANA’s move to Brooklyn to inaugurate its new theater with Julie Taymor’s magical production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, it has been emphasizing the director’s art, seeking new takes on the classics for its new audiences. Simon Godwin’s recent view of Measure for Measure was no exception. Godwin arrived from London with a formidable portfolio of reviews and awards, keen to reveal his solutions to this “problem play” and how to update an Elizabethan plot and setting so its relevance was underscored, yet its original context respected. 
Solutions: keep the city (Vienna) and its period styles, but modernize the costumes of some of the characters; here, the less-humane wear post-WW II business attire to indicate their administrative functions. Also, think of the subtext (which would have been familiar to London audiences in 1604): the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Church of England; it had driven Henry VIII to close the monasteries and convents, and fears of STDs and plague had also caused closings of the theaters and brothels as well, banishing them to the outskirts of town.

Vienna, a Catholic city, was known for its strict morality. Leave it to Shakespeare to marry the two geographies to make his points. And leave it to Shakespeare to focus on the elasticity of his characters’ interpretation and behavior as they confront that morality. They are marvelous at arguing their positions (you can always count on a good argument, and Measure for Measure doesn’t stint on chastity vs. promiscuity, or justice vs. corruption), and marvelously flexible at justifying their frequent changes of heart and mind. You will spot some thought-provoking parallels to 21st-century dilemmas. And of course there will be marriages in the end, following many reversals and equal measures of comedy and bloodshed. What would Shakespeare be without them?

A particularly confident and appealing cast included outstanding work from Jonathan Cake, Thomas Jay Ryan and the wondrous Cara Ricketts, who took no prisoners and gave the language and ideas their due in every scene. As a special treat, Godwin created a labyrinthine brothel to lead us into the theater; its dim lighting, erotic paraphernalia and actors energetically miming some of its featured activities were a way to get us in the mood for the play that followed. Expanding on that theme, Act Two opened in a nightclub run by Mariana (Merritt Janson) who sang a modern version of “Take, oh take, those lips away…” It was not altogether logical, but Ms. Janson was definitely one terrific singer!

Speaking of new audiences, one of TFANA’s recent coups was their double bill of Strindberg’s The Father and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, brilliantly directed by Arin Arbus and brilliantly double cast with Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson, who played to the rapt and discerning crowds filling the house for the marathon. In general, TFANA’s audiences are enthusiastic, but this time there were a lot of New York actors who came to learn from the fun, and ticket-holders from London, Berlin and California who had flown in to experience a theatrical summit.

The 2017-2018 season will bring new productions and outreach programs for those who truly relish theatre and are smart enough to plan in advance. Stay tuned for details and tickets:

The Fencer (Dir.: Klaus Häro. Writer: Anna Heinämaa)
NYC Angelika; Lincoln Plaza

The reasons for The Fencer’s presence on the 2016 Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Film will be immediately apparent from its cinematography (Tuomo Hutri); design (Jaagup Roomet) and flawless editing (Ueli Christen/Tambet Tasuji). Director Klaus Häro has made an excellently paced film that flows effortlessly; its cast (especially Märt Avandi in the title role), from supporting to bit players, is alive in every moment of the story. And if elements of the story seem familiar, the beauty of the production and the truth of its emotions and settings will keep you engaged.

What is not familiar to Americans is the reality of the complex politics that prevailed throughout most of the 20th century elsewhere, especially the impact of successive occupations by Nazis and Soviets in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states (The Fencer is based on a true story that takes place in Estonia). It imposed an explosive climate that ruined many lives and twisted the natural civic order for decades, laying waste cultures and traditions that recovered only slowly after the double blows of World War II and the Cold War. Millions were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

The Fencer makes this landscape clear in the swift progression of its tale, yet enriches every chapter and location with the tiny details that add a real sense of place and character and what it was like to be there; so you feel part of the story, rather than a bystander watching it unfold. The film’s perfect balance between issues and textures is extraordinary, like the positions, the moves and the concentration required to excel at the sport that gives the film its title. In the end, the sheer grace of the production and level of art and craft it exhibits make it a standout.


Kékszakállú (Dir.: Gastón Solnicki)
NYC Elinor Bunin Munro Center
Argentina seems to produce some of the most interesting (and puzzling) films around, and Kékszakállú is both. Gastón Solnicki claims it was inspired by Béla Bartók’s 1918 opera, Bluebeard’s Castle; a haunting work whose origins lie in Perrault’s French fairytales, or earlier (in real life) in Brittany. In every version there is darkness and mystery. Yet Kékszakállú is more often full of light and always full of water.

The wealthy young women whose repose and aimlessness Solnicki captures are on the verge of adulthood. They find themselves on diving boards in public pools, paddling in hidden gardens, swimming in the ocean, and resting in front of pipes billowing steam in a sausage plant. There is little dialogue; from time to time, excerpts from Bartok accompany their action. It’s something of a social commentary (though an elliptical one), with the foreshadowing of socioeconomic difficulties to come. Yet Solnicki’s saturated images and the music create a sense of dread that gradually and subtly intensifies. The last frames reveal one of the women standing on a ferry with her suitcase, relocating, perhaps to a better life. But has she (or any of the other women) grown up? That’s for you to decide. If you like very elegantly filmed mysteries, this one’s for you to solve.


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There’s good news and bad news…

The good news: Damian Woetzel has been appointed the new President of Juilliard.


The bad news: our Commander-in-Chief is draining the swamp and creating a tar pit.



Apollo’s Girl

June 8, 2015

Theatre, Film, Film, Film

apollo and lyre


Two Gentlemen/Brooklyn til June 20…
Open Roads/FSLC til June 11…
Dior and I still playing (as it should!)…

two gentelemen 2One of the best songs in Pierre, Natasha, etc. begins, “In 19th-century Russia, we write letters, we write letters….” Apparently Derek McLane (the brilliant scenic designer of The Two Gentlemen of Verona) believes fervently that the power of the written word transcends countries (Italy) and centuries (somewhere in the late 16th), two gentlemen 1and has magicked the stage of TFANA’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center into a monument to the epistolary life. Letters flutter from the ceiling and the walls like so many ardent butterflies, and come and go with the cast like rubber bands connecting friends, enemies, and lovers. And that’s only for starters.

Let’s talk about the cast: it’s serving up another irresistible meal from Fiasco Theater, with actors changing parts and props in front of your eyes, speeding on and off the boards at every opportunity, playing instruments and singing the occasional song, andyeswriting letters for very special deliveries by their cast-mates whenever possible. Chalk this two gentlemen 3concept up to the co-direction of Jessie Austrian and Ben Steinfeld, and to the antics of Noah Brody, Paul L. Coffey, Zachary Fine, Emily Young, and the irrepressible Andy Grotelueschen. (Special kudos to Zachary Fine whose multiple personalities include the dog, Crab, who steals your heart while making you howl with laughter.)

two gentelemen 5Speed and deep smarts reign over this happy band. If you notice that they seem almost to read one another’s minds and their performances appear seamless, it’s because they met and bonded at Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA acting program and (fortunately for us) just kept on going. There is nothing about mistaken identities, hilarity and pathos they don’t know how to mine for theatrical gold. Two Gentlemen, as probably Shakespeare’s earliest play, is both deepened and burnished by cast and crew until is shines. It’s superb playing from its first letter to its last (Think of the letters as the of their day) and ends, like so many of Shakespeare’s works, in marriage.

To be honest, Fiasco’s projects are never to be missed. I was lucky enough to see their Cymbeline, and promise you that Two Gentlemen is in the very same league. You have until June 20th to see what Fiasco can do and reap the fruits of their labor!

Open Roads

open roads1

There are always surprises in Italian cinema, and this year’s Open Roads had a few that were unusually compelling. One was a series of shorts, 9×10 Novanta, whose novel premise was two-fold: to make use of Istituto Luce’s 90  years of archival footage and to bestow unlimited access to its forgotten treasures on ten young Italian filmmakers. Not surprisingly, World War Two figured prominently in the chosen frames. Perhaps it was an idea born in committee, but its results were entirely personal and fascinating, gleaming with the politics and humor that are hallmarks of Italian cinema. As the shorts sped by, their individual ingenuity gathered strength, turning into a collective vision that assured the future of film (at least in Italy). Give thanks for the committee, for the filmmakers, and for Istituto Luce for understanding that one should never throw anything away. Especially archival footage! (I fully admit to having had a very soft spot for Istituto Luce ever since their Pasolini Restrospective at P.S. 1:
see and scroll down to Italy Rules.)

The Dinner

This was an exceptionally intelligent story, whose the dinnertwisty plot about two brothers turning into enemies after a long friendship and a tradition of monthly dinners had one of the best scripts ever (credit de matteowriter Valentina Ferlen, director Ivano De Matteo, and novelist Herman Koch, on whose book the film is based.) Tensions build when the parents learn that their teenage children have not only misbehaved, but may have committed a serious crime. But the facts are not presented in linear fashion; they are revealed piecemeal, revisited with new information, and hinted at to keep you guessing as you assemble and reassemble what you have seen, and what you intuit. The real pleasure is in seeing the revelations of character (they are deep) as much as of story, and the balance between action and morality. De Matteo won three awards at the Venice Festival, and they are not likely to be his last.


Remember the blind girl in Salvo, and how she granted Mafia hit man Saleh Bakri salvation when his job would have made it impossible? Well, she’s back (Sara Serraicocco), this time in a very different role that she inhabits just as perfectly. Chlorine is, cinematically speaking, strong stuff, in which the storytelling is lean and the camera is allowed to do its work.

Serraicocco’s dream is to compete in synchronized swimming. chlorineBut she works in the mountains in solitude, cleaning a motel that includes a pool in which she has to train on the sly, and a brother and father who are her responsibilities. This is a character study with two surprises that develop slowly and explode fast. A debut feature from director/writer Lamberto Sanfelice Sanfelice, Chlorine was nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and a Cyrstal Bear at Berlin, and make clear there will be more to come from actress and filmmaker. For Open Roads schedule/tickets:

Dior and I

tchengFrėdéric Tcheng has learned his art and craft the hard way: by wielding camera and Avid for and/or with others: as editor and co-director of Diana Vreeland: the Eye Has to Travel, and as cameraman, co-editor and co-producer of Valentino. (I really loved that film!)(;

Based on Dior and I, I’d say he has nothing left to learn and can fly, spectacularly, on his own. Under what must have been terrifying pressure for even a gifted filmmaker, he undertook to follow the story of how Raf Simons prepared and triumphed with his first collection for the House of Dior with only eight weeks to pull it off.

Where the filmmaker’s own triumph (and gifts lie) dior and iare in cinematography and editing; multiple cameras capture every moment of the eight-week marathon in closeup and long shot; editing is a marvel of reduction, like a great sauce. More: Tcheng is a master of character; Simons is on camera a lot, but never for long, yet you know everything about him by the time he climbs the grand staircase to join his models for the show’s finale. Even more: Dior’s enormous behind-the-scenes crew who cut, stitch, sew (by hand) and cheer on each garment, have only (supremely well-chosen) moments to reveal themselves. And Tcheng is there to capture and place them so that, somehow, you know everything about them, too. Of course the film is a joy to watch and listen to, but it’s not only about fashion. It’s all about that universal subjecthuman nature. Tcheng has done couture, and I’m willing to bet he’s ready to do anything at all….

This Just In…

A press release from the Museum of Art and Design, mirror1revealing that they will have an all-35mm retrospective of Andrei Tarkovsky’s films (all seven features) plus a documentary about him (Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) by Michal Leszczylowski. For those of you mad for film and mad for art, these will be mighty nights at MAD.

Cooper’s London

February 4, 2015


What a Blast!: Optimizing Oppenheimer
(Stratford: It’s not just about Shakespeare…)

The newly commissioned play, Oppenheimer, by Tom Morton-Smith is a total triumph for the Royal Shakespeare Company in every way. It introduces an exceptionally talented new playwright, who has risen to the demands of his commission and the requirement to use a large ensemble company brilliantly; a strong new director and his team; and much acting talent that one will want to follow. Every element meshes beautifully to make a truly gripping, dramatic, thought-provoking and thrilling event.

morton-smithTo begin with, Morton-Smith has given the production the strongest possible foundation in a script that’s compellingly intelligent, beautifully constructed, dramatically articulate and deeply theatrical. He’s made vivid and real the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the whole team of extraordinary geniuses (and their wives, lovers and military keepers) involved in the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb. Without simplifying, the script manages to make clear and comprehensible the politics, the philosophical implications, the military and political context in which the project developed and the enormous moral issues it raised—all the while also explicating the physics so that a lay audience can actually get the drift.

Britain OppenheimerThe director, Angus Jackson has forged an ensemble of actors into a deluxe team working in synch throughout the play’s three-hour journey. His staging engages the audience not only with the words of the text but with movement. One of the compelling metaphors for how hard and constantly the scientists grappled with their problems is having the oppenheimer.jpg1actors fall to the floor from time to time—a floor that is also a blackboard— to scribble their formulae as they invent them. The set, choreography and costume design work as an almost Brechtian conceptualization, placing the story clearly in its historical period, strongly evoking the era of World War II in America—its music, its outfits, its politics.

The play is remarkable in evoking the inhabitants of Los Alamos and the sense of the isolated and intense hothouse world they were living in. it also interweaves the personal lives and Oppenheimer-2complicated relationships so naturally with the politics and the physics of that strange, dreadful, complex, terrifying, and confused-yet-heroic time that one is enveloped in the pressures, the psychological stresses and the sheer manic fun that everyone must have been having. The musicians not only deserves praise for their idiomatic playing of era’s contemporary music but the actors in the show as well, who play the piano and the bongos, and sing. When the interval comes, get back to your seat in good time because there is a vibrant and evocative cabaret act that introduces Act II before it starts.

The show is simply superb. And above all, oppenheimer-rsc-swan-theatre-theatre-review-atomic4John Heffernan suggests the spirit, the soul, the intelligence and the difficulties of being J. Robert Oppenheimer, responding to the needs of the military, the political and the personal exigencies of his life. His genius, his detachment, his confusions are all portrayed; his body language seems extraordinarily right; and one also understand his stature as a man capable of leading the team to build the bomb faster in a grizzly race with the Germans–a bomb that he hopes will be so frightening that it will put an end to war.

The play has many wonderful, memorable moments, not least the two appearances of a bomb in Part Two and the use of everything from bebop dancing to Native American movement and rhythms. Many of the actors stand out, steadmanespecially Catherine Steadman as Jean Tatlock Dylanand Hedydd Dylan as Jackie Oppenheimer. In fairness, every performance is memorable. But above all Heffernan’s performance is so staggeringly good that I came away thinking he’s going to be an actor very much like Alec Guinness – a man who can disappear into and become every role he takes on. His awkward body language, his speaking rhythms and tone of voice, his completely non-slip American accent never for a moment allow you to think that you are watching an actor – he simply is J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is a fine example of what theatre can achieve when it is at its best – telling its story entertainingly, grippingly; provocative; and engaging both the emotions and the intellect throughout. I have nothing but praise for this production, this script and this company. Finally, Oppenheimer deals impressively and lucidly not only with the topic of the building of the A-bomb and its aftermath, but with the inevitable march to manhattan projectMcCarthyism and the Cold War. This play manages to make its bigger-than-life characters achingly human, evoking both our sorrow and our pity for a turning point in global history. There are rumors of a transfer to the West End and, perhaps, to New York—a fitting tribute to the birthplace of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer is in repertory in the Swan Theatre, Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon, UK until 7 March 2015. It will open in London for an eight-week run on March 27. A must-see! tickets

Much Ado about Love, Lost and Won

LovesLaboursLost-Review-ImageThe RSC has paired new productions of Love’s Labours Lost and Much Ado About Nothing to promote the idea that the latter is the mysterious lost play Love’s Labours Won. Certainly, for centuries, everyone has noted various connections of theme between the plays; and it has always been said that Rosaline and Berowne are a sketch for Beatrice and Benedick.

For those reasons alone it’s interesting to see Edward Bennett and Michelle Terry take on both roles. I attended a matinee of the first and an evening bennet terryperformance of the second on the same day. I was impressed by the committed ensemble work of the actors, the evocative sets and costumes of Simon Higlett, the terrific music by Nigel Hess. Because of the anniversary year of the outbreak of World War One, the first play was set in July 1914, and the second just after the war, so that the men of Messina were returning from its carnage.

It’s a clever ploy, and it enhances enjoyment of both plays in some ways; but it doesn’t really convince me of the premise. Nor do the two plays being done together entirely work. They don’t really illuminate each other except peripherally. In fact, I am pretty convinced after the abrupt ending to Love’s Labours Lost that the play referred to as Love’s Labours Won is not an alternative title for Much Ado About Nothing, but actually a lost play. Love’s Labours Lost felt to me as if it hit a surprise climax, rather like the scene in Much Ado in the church that spins the play into an other, darker sphere. I propose therefore that the final scene of Love’s Labours Lost is the climax of a ten-act structure, the climax of a play and its sequel, and that Love’s Labours Won has to be a real sequel continuing the same story with the same characters a year laternot just another, later and better play that happens to share some of the concerns, themes and even character types of the first.

That said, I enjoyed the experience of the two plays enormously. They are good to see together because of the way chris smallChristopher Luscombe has conceived the interpretations and cross references; they are certainly worth a trip to Stratford. There are many felicities in Luscombe’s approach, not the least in some of the cross castings, among them Nick Haverson as Costard in the first and Constable Dogberry in the second. Sam Alexander, who plays the King of Navarre charmingly in the first play, turns into the wicked Don John in the second. Everyone on the stage is deserving of praise.

The RSC is continuing with its policy of intelligent and integrated repertoire that tends to cross-fertilise ideas and also displays an exemplary eye for casting. Christopher Luscombe’s pacing tends to be a bit on the fast side, which is not a bad thing with these comedies, and he has a great sense of invention for business that fleshes out the characterizations and the action. This is a thoroughly intelligent and enjoyable presentation of both plays and well worth seeing for oneself.

Love’s Labours Lost and Love’s Labours Won (Much Ado About Nothing) continue in repertoire at the RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 14 March 2015.

Cogito: John Branch

March 11, 2013

JB photo-painting by RC 2


Fearless Predictions
Bedlam at the Access and More

Hamlet and Saint Joan (in alternation through April 7, Bedlam, Manhattan): Last spring, one of New York theater’s nifty little trick questions was to ask friends if they’d heard about the small-cast Saint Joan running on Broadway. The explanation lay in bedlam theatrethe location of the Access Theater, where the Bedlam company performs—it’s on lower Broadway. The production was no gimmick: it vivified Shaw’s historical drama in an unconventional staging that used only four actors and placed scenes on the stage, in the seats, and even in the lobby. (See my review at St. Joan.) Now Bedlam is reviving that show and also tackling Hamlet with the same four actors. Though I haven’t attended yet, it’s a good bet that the same bedlam hamletcommitted and imaginative rethinking that burnishedShaw has been applied to Shakespeare.!tickets

Hamlet (March 15–April 13, Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven): yale hamletPaul Giamatti, a graduate of the Yale School of Drama, returns to New Haven to play the melancholy Dane. The American film complex turns many actors of broad ability into narrowly defined commodities—“pigeonholing” is the term—but it hasn’t done that with Giamatti. He’s virtually a chameleon, so there’s no telling what he’ll do with this role. Giamatti, now in his mid-40s, probably won’t be the youngest Hamlet you’ve seen, which may make the prince’s recent studies in Wittenberg problematic, but different editors and even different editions differ on how old the character is. As with Juliet and others, anyone who’s the right age may be too immature for the role. Sarah Bernhardt, who ignored gender as well as age when she took the part, may have overreached, but at least she knew that playing Hamlet didn’t depend on externalia.

Pierrot Lunaire(March 28–30, Yale Cabaret, New Haven): Yale Cabaret shows are single-weekend productions created by Yale School of Drama grad students, not to be confused with the longer runs and mixed student/professional creative teams used in other shows at the school or at Yale Rep. This event will present a theatrical staging of Arnold Schönberg’s song cycle, which is currently enjoying a handful of performances in honor of its centenary year. It can be argued that the entire 19th century was decisively killed off during the second decade of the 20th by events as varied as the Great War, the sinking of the Titanic, and the immense cultural ferment in Vienna, which produced Pierrot Lunaire. It’s a groundbreaking piece for solo voice and small ensemble that employs Sprechstimme (a cross between speech and song) and abandons traditional Western tonality, though without adopting the full rigors of serialism, which Schönberg developed later. Bonus: the Yale Cabaret, true to its name, always offers food and drink.

Silkwood (March 20, Signature Theatre, Manhattan): One of three films written, in part or in full, by the late Nora Ephron that are being presented in the Signature Cinema series this spring. Silkwood dramatizes the story of Karen Silkwood, a factory worker who met a mysterious death after trying to call attention to problems at a Kerr-McGee plutonium-processing plant. Superficially akin to Norma Rae and The Insider, it differs from both in taking a more ambiguous viewSilkwood3--www-bfi-org-uk-photo-credit of its central character, which makes it more admirable in my book. It was mostly shot near Dallas, Texas, rather under the radar, to keep Kerr-McGee from catching wind of it and trying to shut it down; surprisingly for anything that involved director Mike Nichols (not to nicholsmention Cher, or Meryl Streep, though she wasn’t then the monument she has become), the tactic seems to have worked. Personal note: I worked on the shoot as an extra and appeared in a short but crucial moment. Signature Theatre tickets

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Cooper’s London

December 15, 2012


An Orphan in Stratford

The one play not to miss at Stratford this season is The Orphan of Zhao in a new adaptation by James Fenton. The play is probably the Hamlet of China and is quite an extraordinary story. Greg Doran (Stratford’s new artistic director) has given it a wonderfully conceived treatment, clearly influenced by Brecht’s Theatre of Alienation concepts at their most successful.

orphan of zhaoBeginning with a balladeer who sets the scene (a lovely and ultimately affection-inducing turn from Jeremy Avis) and who returns regularly, magical aspects of the tale are dealt with in various ways including puppetry influenced by Eastern traditions that is highly dramatic. Characters address the audience, engage them, arrive announcing their biographies – never do you not realize you are in a theatre being entertained and yet never do you not suspend disbelief and accept the actors for the characters they are supposed to be. Feeling also a bit like one of Shakespeare’s really strong, plot-driven istory plays, the story is said to be based on real incidents in the history of China deriving from the 5th Century before the Christian era.

swan-theatreThe play exists in several versions, but as part of a season in the Swan Theatre that sets Shakespeare in the context of his times, the version adapted here is the popular one from the 17th century. Given that there is a ballad/fairy tale element to the characters, they are remarkably complex and recognizable not only as archetypes but as human beings as well. And the acting, as always in a Greg Doran production, is at the highest level. Everyone does his or her part exquisitely well, but I was particularly struck by the Princess of Lucy Briggs-Own, by Jake Fairbrother as the Orphan of Zhao and by Chris Lew Kum Hoi as the ghost of the son of the doctor, Cheng Ying, who is played with immense sympathy and pain by Graham Turner. But the star of the show ulitmately, aside from the Orphan himself in Part Two, is the superb Joe Dixon who plays the villain and pivot of the plot, Tu’an Gu.

The play is a commentary on autocratic government versus enlightened authority, full of paradigms about Totalitarianism that make it politically relevant to all eras, and drawing parallels to the history of China and Europe in the 20th century and even right now. But ultimately it works because you care about the characters from the very first moments of the play. And because its is brilliantly lit, costumed and designed, you also retain a strong visual memory of each character from their first entrance. The Orphan of Zhao is definitely worth the trip.

In repertory at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 28 March 2013.

Wiving it Merrily in Stratford     wives poster

The new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor introduce a new director to Stratford, Phillip Breen–and on the evidence of this production, we should begin anticipating his next as soon as the curtain falls. Breen has imagined the play in the Windsor of today, yet somehow also evoked the period of its composition– perhaps because of the wonderful set that evokes the old town, new suburbs and a scary Herne’s Oak. Not a line reading goes awry; and the cast is strong and hilarious because they are playing the characters not as comic caricatures but as real people.

'Desmond Barrit is a curmudgeonly con-man of immense charm as Falstaff; and the merry wives themselves are brilliantly differentiated: Sylvestra le Touzel is a solid, stolid and somewhat smug Meg Page; Alexandra Gilbreath is a fun-loving and slightly louche yet respectable Alice Ford; and Anita Dobson as Mistress Quickly steals the scene every time she appears , and is a wonderful Queen of the Fairies in the last scene in the bargain. One empathises with Frank Ford’s insane jealousy (both the pain and the insanity) as well as George Page’s blocky, bourgeois belief in his wife and in his right to dictate the marriage of his daughter, Anne. All the townsfolk and hangers on are delineated with great care and precision, down to the children being taught by Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson (based, it is thought, on Shakespeare’s own teacher). Shallow, Slender, Simple, Fenton and even the host of the Garter Inn are memorable cameos and make real sense of the story. Laughs abound and are never arbitrary.

Playing in repertory at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 23 January 2013.

Meantime, in London: Delectable and Kissable Kate

kate2Here it is again – another Kiss Me, Kate, this time at the Old Vic. Trevor Nunn, who has directed about 30 Shakespeare plays in his time as well as several blockbuster musicals, does it again, and it is a splendid production! I have seen it done more revealingly; I have seen it done more spectacularly; I have heard it sung more evenly. But this is a very substantial evening in the theatre and enormous fun in the bargain. And if you’re in the mood for entering  a time warp into 1948 and seeing how they did it on Broadway in those days; and if you feel like seeing Kiss Me, Kate, this version will not disappoint.

Transferring from the Chichester Theatre Festival of last summer where it was a big hit, Kate adapts well to the ambience of the Old Vic in London. Hannah Waddington, who is simply magnificent, plays the spoiled, grumpy but ultimately loveable Lili Vannessi who plays Kate in kate4The Taming of the Shrew. Alex Bourne is Fred/Petruchio – he has the looks and presence to have been in the original production. These leads have, as they used to say, chemistry. The choreography by Stephen Mears is energetic, exhilarating and inventive; and the number “Too Darn Hot” is dazzling in his hands. David Burt and Clive Rowe pretty much stopped the show when they brushed up their Shakespeare. Instead of a pantomime this year, the Old Vic now has a Christmas show of sophistication, glamour and wit for grown-ups.

Playing at the Old Vic Theatre, London, until 2 March 2013.

 What Will Would?

The famous all-male 12thnight6Twelfth Night first performed at the Globe Theatre ten years ago has been revived, directed by Tim Carroll, and then transferred to the West End’s Apollo Theatre. A well-conceived permanent set does double duty for it, as well as for a very good Richard III, with which it plays in repertory, with Mark Rylance in the title role.

Get there early and watch the men making up and getting ready in a pretend dressing room area onstage before the play starts; a lovely conceit because, when you see them reappear in their parts (some dressed as the women they play), the mixture of recognition and surprise is a singular experience. Mark Rylance is a standout as Olivia, performed as if played by a male actor in Kabuki who suddenly discovers uncontrollable sexual desire when he/she first sees “Cesario” – performed in a finely judged characterization of Viola and Viola-in-drag by Johnny Flynn. Malvolio is warmly played by Stephen Fry – the perfect, gentlemanly Puritan who is overthrown by sexual desire and ambition when gulled by people he has offended.

One of the most striking performers is mariaPaul Chahidi as a plump, middle-aged, extremely intelligent and wry Maria. The production is pitch-perfect and the line readings are vibrant with primary meanings and subtexts.  Having men play women’s roles, though not exactly as in Shakespeare’s theatre (they were teenage boys then, not fully mature men) still illuminates many things about how the original audiences perceived the productions and about the sexual ambiguities of the tale. However, the real success here is simply that the text is brilliantly served, impeccably acted and at times allows the darkness of the self-delusion, frustration and anger in the characters to come through clearly. If you can get to only one thing in London this season, I would say this should be it.

Playing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London until 10 February 2013 in repertory with Richard III.

Cooper’s London

July 29, 2012



Julius Africanus is Big!

Once upon a time there was a famous Wayne and Schuster (remember them?) comic sketch spoofing Julius Caesar, where everyone was dressed in togas but the whole story was handled as if the assassination had happened on Dragnet. Since then, Julius Caesar has been set in many places and eras–and as far back as Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre the parallel to various contemporary tyrannical states has been drawn.

Greg Doran’s new production of Julius Caesar for the Royal Shakespeare Company builds on that tradition. Though the language is all Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England, the talk is about Ancient Rome. But when you enter the theatre you find yourself in an arena in an African country; people are celebrating a festival. At the entry to the arena, its back to the audience, stands the colossal statue of the dictator. The mood is contagious; the audience is caught up and, as the play starts (“Knew you not Pompey?…”), the aptness of setting the play in a contemporary and troubled African state with all its jockeying for power is understood by the spectators both on, and off, the stage.

Jeffery Kissoon is perfect as Caesar; Cyril Nri a crafty Cassius; and Adjoa Andoh touching and troubling as Portia;. All the characters make sense. But if you are collecting performances to remember (despite being clearly part of an ensemble that works together seamlessly), Ray Fearon is the Mark Antony you have been waiting for. His attractiveness, his power; his ability to switch from playboy and Caesarean acolyte, to calculating rhetorician, to steely and almost heartless triumvir, and finally to a philosophical warrior already irritated by and wary of the young Octavius, the range and energy that Fearon brings to his portrayal are breathtaking. But Paterson Joseph is equally compelling as a brilliant Brutus who is, indeed, the only one to join the assassination plot for selfless motives.

This production is strikingly theatrical and understands that power politics is theatre. And the funeral scene is a truly compelling climax and switching point in the play, as it should be. Fearon’s appearance to speak over the corpse of Caesar, in the way he shifts moods and plays his audience, is unforgettable.

Most of the individual moments that we all remember and treasure in this play were gripping in tone, and the rhythm of the evening is solidly worked out. Nevertheless, I thought the cast was still settling into the concept and there were a few awkward moments. Nor was I entirely convinced by the decision to keep up the African accents to the degree that they did – they could, I thought, have faded them a bit more into the background, though at times their lilt made for readings of familiar lines that certainly caught the attention.

The play was on at the main house in Stratford, but it is transferring to London for a run in August and September, and I suspect that by then it will have settled down completely. I found the performances so compelling and the concept so seriously intelligent that I’m tempted to see it again in London if I can, though it will not be quite the same on a proscenium stage as it was on RSC’s thrust stage at Stratford.

But I am also excited by the prospect because Greg Doran has explained in recent interviews that he was inspired to attempt the African setting after seeing an edition of Shakespeare’s complete works from Robben Island in which Nelson Mandela had written his name beside a passage from Julius Caesar. He was fascinated by this marginalia “asserting that [the play] spoke in a particular way to his continent.”

This made Doran ponder why Julius Caesar was the most heavily annotated play in that Robben Island Shakespeare. “Then, when I was talking to John Kani, the South African actor, he said to me: ‘Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s African play.’ I think it was he that told me that Julius Nyerere, who was the first President of Tanzania, had translated the play into Swahili and also that it’s the play that is the most often performed in Africa. Then you look at African history over the past 50 years and see that there have been many candidates for casting Julius Caesar.”

This Julius Caesar is definitely one not to miss! It will play at the Noel Coward Theatre in London from 8 August until 15 September, and then tour throughout the UK. And it augurs well that Gregory Doran will be the next Artistic Director of the RSC.

P.S. The play was filmed for British Television and, with luck, may screen in the US later this year.

Apollo’s Girl

April 9, 2012

Theatre for a New Audience:
The Taming of the Shrew
(Duke Theatre, through April 21)

When informed that TFANA’s new Shrew would be post-Feminist, I thought “What would Betty Friedan do?”. But not to worry: In addition to having mounted a marvelous interpretation of Shakespeare’s second comedy, the company has thoughtfully included a Perspectives section in the program that bolsters both sides of the script’s arguments; it contains a breezy pro-finale encomium from Meryl Streep, and a substantial quote by Germaine Greer, that set any pre-attendance agita to rest:

…[Petruchio] wants [Kate’s] spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping…Kate’s speech at the close of the play is the greatest defense of Christian monogamy ever written. It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both…

Well, readers, it doesn’t get any better than that. Except for the production itself. The energy of the cast rises like caffeine mist from the stage and simply never lets up. But there are always shimmering peaks and psychological valleys in succession that keep you laughing and crying and, occasionally, a tad off-balance—yet always interested. You know it’s superlative when the prospect of its happy ending seems occasionally less than certain.

So what have we, then? An updated (but never bent out of shape) take on a beloved classic, set in a 19th-century frontier town of wooden slats tacked together (Louise Nevelson meets Little House on the Prairie). The frame of drunken tinker-cum-lord is set up, and the troupe of strolling players, in Elizabethan motley, begins the story.

Here’s the best part: the play, the players, and the pitch-perfect direction of Arin Arbus, TFANA’s associate artistic director. I am sorry to have missed her earlier work, but Shrew is enough to make it clear that her love of language is equaled by her love of its physical expression in both face and body. The Duke’s compact stage stage is alive with the possibilities afforded by her talents for guiding a cast that has not one weak link. Yes, everyone has their moment, for Shrew is not only etched in Shakespeare’s nimble wit, but has probably the best war-of-the-sexes dialogue ever written. That said, as good as the actors are, and as perfectly cast, the play finally rests on the talents of its Petruchio and its Kate—Andy Groteleuschen (recently of Cymbeline) and Maggie Siff (the Jewish department store heiress who gobsmacked Mad Men’s Don Draper). Here, they are evenly matched, and unstoppable. The great set pieces of their duels crackle with gusto (and you can hear every syllable) as Petruchio tames his bride by denying her sleep, food, and fashion. See them run!

What conclusions can we draw from this bulletproof masterpiece, still galvanizing actors and audiences for over 300 years since it first played in London? That it has stood the test of time, that its humor still makes us laugh, and that it inspired Cole Porter to write his best musical; the songs were his own, but he helped himself shamelessly to Shakespeare’s text (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!).

We’ve already quoted Germaine Greer; now it’s time for Meryl Streep: “…So why is selflessness…wrong?…Service is the only thing that’s important about love…Duty. We can’t stand that idea, either…But duty might be a suit of armor you put on to fight for your love.” And there’s more: we know that Betty Friedan mellowed in later life. What would she have done? She would have loved this production. I certainly did!

Apollo’s Girl

September 25, 2011

Cymbeline: Endless Pleasure, No Guilt!

Admit it: I just saw Fiasco’s Cymbeline twice, two nights in a row. And time did not wither, nor custom stale it the second time around; rather, I anticipated certain moments,and simply luxuriated in their charms.

A good thing it was, too, because the very first time I saw Cymbeline it was at a local big venue, with a very big cast, and a director whose work I have always admired. But none of the skill of its production could disguise that fact that it’s just not a very good play. Press notes at the time described it as a “Romance, combining comedy, tragedy and history….an epic tale of power and magic…its action sweeping across Britain and Italy as two warring powers clash, until its eventual joyful conclusion.” In other words, a play that couldn’t decide what it wanted to be when it grew up.

Fiasco, however, has magicked it into something small and very wonderful, shrinking a cast of twenty-six into a handful of smart and agile players who are not afraid of being silly for the fun of it, or of turning on a dime and digging into the best lines until you cry. They know their stuff well enough to know when to bend the rules, can play seven instruments at just the right instant to heighten a mood, and enact multiple roles with a minimum of props and accessories. Then there’s the Fabulous Trunk (by Jacques Roy) which doubles as a receptacle, a bed, a passageway, or whatever the moment calls for.

This Cymbeline’s spontaneity is, of course, the result of years of stubborn collaboration between six Brown M.F.A. graduates overcoming doubts, other jobs, and uncertain finances in order to return to it three times before embarking on the Barrow Street Theatre version. This time, trailing very big reviews and adding several producers to ensure a longer run. If you love inventive theater and the cheeky confidence of a cast that knows you’re in very good hands for the evening, Cymbeline is what to see!

P.S. Jessie Austrian and Noah Brody, Cymbeline’s star-crossed but ultimately triumphant lovers, plan to marry in October. Note to Fiasco: why not try All’s Well That Ends Well next time? For now, go see cymbeline!

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