Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Winter’s Tale and The Merchant of Venice

For the Public Theatre’s summer season of Shakespeare in the Park, the company returned to the old notion of repertory. Outside of a few principal roles, the two plays would be acted by the same core company of actors. The leads in both shows return to Shakespeare in the Park––Al Pacino having starred in JULIUS CAESAR in 1987 and Ruben Santiago-Hudson having previously starred in HENRY VIII in 1997. Now Mr. Santiago-Hudson leads THE WINTER’S TALE along with a super cast of contemporary talent that includes Jesse L. Martin, Linda Emond, Byron Jennings, Max Wright, Hamish Linklater and Jesse Tyler Ferguson. As King Leontes, Mr. Santiago-Hudson, struts about the stage bellowing. Although it is part of the character that he is driven to near insanity by his jealousy, there is very little to like in this all consuming and unreasonable character. Thankfully his character is absent for a good portion of the more comical second half where Max Wright as the Shepherd and Jesse Tyler Ferguson as his son (“The Clown”) make merry with great comic invention. A rapidly emerging young actor, Hamish Linklater, brings a quirky, strange humor to Autolycus the rogue. His clever thievery, mostly aimed at the Shepard and his son, make for comedy gold and the three come of as a kind of ancient Marx Brothers act. Jesse L. Martin has a great presence and with much less to do, steals the show from the dominating King Leontes.

Over all, Michael Greif has directed a clear and clean staging of the play with the effectively simple set by Mark Wendland and colorful costumes by Cint Ramos completing the package. Original music by Tom Kitt understores the action with a live band playing throughout. This detail gives the production another layer of class, for the music could have been more economically recorded, so cheers to the Public Theatre for keeping it live!

After several scenes, Al Pacino appears at the farthest up stage point of entry and walks down towards the audience greeted by welcoming applause in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. He is of course, Shylock, the character he also played in the film version. His reading is typically “Al Pacino” graced with a Jewish accent, but he is a commanding presence and I accepted him wholeheartedly in the role.

Earlier in the day the usually modestly attended “Queen’s Line” for tickets was double the length it was for THE WINTER’S TALE. I used the “Queen’s Line” for the first time this year and found it to be extraordinarily civilized in comparison to the Central Park line. One day a summer for each show, there is a line in the boroughs and on that day the performance is dedicated to that borough. The vouchers are given out at 1 PM and the line can be cleared in about 20 minutes. You take your voucher to the box office between 4 PM and 7:30 PM and get your real ticket. If you don’t show up by 7:30 PM, your ticket is given away to the next person waiting in the standby line. For Al Pacino, the standby line was also double the length from THE WINTER’S TALE.

But, back to the production: Directed by Daniel Sullivan and set in the Edwardian period, Mark Wendland designed a series of circular tracks that enabled rotating rod-iron gates and two platforms adorned with a spiral staircase and decorative iron work to quickly move and redefine the playing areas for each scene. Combined with Jess Goldstein’s costumes, the production looked more like E. M. Forster’s England than Venice, but the location of the play is rather insignificant. The idea of the Edwardian London businessman sits very well with the play.

Historically this play is placed in the category of comedy, however, it is anything but a comedy. What kind of comedy has the protagonist demand his pound of flesh (don’t forget the phrase comes from this play) literally? No it’s not figurative––Shylock is going to stick a knife into Antonio (Byron Jennings) and dig out that pound of flesh. He is legally able to do so before a court because that was the deal if Antonio couldn’t pay off his bond. But, there is a loophole! If Shylock sheds any blood (because the deal is for flesh and not blood), then he forfeits his assets to the state. Wait, there’s more: Shylock doesn’t have to give up his assets if he agrees to forsake his Jewish religion and become a Christian. I hate the politics of this play. What I loved was this terrific cast which included Jesse Tyler Ferguson providing the only real comedy, Jesse L. Martin who got to sing and give his RENT fans a thrill and the resplendent Lily Rabe as Portia. What makes this play a comedy in the Shakespearian sense is the lunacy of two ladies dressing as men and posing as lawyers––and getting away with it. Then there is some insane business with mixed up wedding rings and the couples all get back together in the end. None of this is actually funny, however. It’s all very serious, though there is humor within it, but it is the implausible turns of plot that make it a comedy. If a playwright were to submit this script today it would not be called a comedy and it would be promptly dropped in the recycling bin, but it’s Shakespeare so it’s gold. Although, trying to make an ancient play work is a director’s challenge and delight and it has been done this summer in a wondrous way.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

American Ballet Theatre's Swan Lake

If I can’t live by the rules of classical ballet then I shouldn’t go, but still I must gripe and after all, what is a blog for? First I will tell you that the American Ballet Theatre’s production of SWAN LAKE (having premiered in 2000) is beautifully designed by Zack Brown––looking like a Monet painting. There is also the treat of having sixty pieces play one of the most famous ballet scores known to man. The main theme pops up in all kinds of media––used several times in the earliest Universal Horror films such as DRACULA and THE MUMMY. On Broadway we hear the theme in the “Dream Ballet” of BILLY ELLIOT. The score continues to be stirring and haunting. It is rich with dramatic possibilities––possibilities that have not been explored in the recent incarnation choreographed by Kevin McKenzie (though based on an older traditional staging). The story as described in the program notes is much more detailed than what is realized on stage. What occurs on stage is a mere sketch of a story to barely hold together a series of bravado solos and presentational group dances. The famous Act II with the swans is only a novelty of white tutus making various formations. Pretty––yes. Theatre––no. Of course there is an audience looking at a stage with performers of grace and stunning ability––and we are indeed in a theater building––but there is very little dramatic action. This “newer” staging really means a new set and costume design. Otherwise it is still stuck in the 19th Century. This is my gripe and I won’t be able to change the Ballet, but I wish today’s choreographers would reimagine these old ballets because something very exciting could come out of this dynamic score.

When Matthew Bourne came along in the late 1990s with his reimagined SWAN LAKE it was a revelation. He told the same story (nearly), but gave the characters motivations, objectives, tactics, and still found room to show off the athletic technique of the ballet dancer. Story came first and then dance and the blend was satisfying as both theatre and a dance exhibition. In fact, this fall we will be seeing a remounting of Matthew Bourne’s SWAN LAKE at the New York City Center. No one else is taking Mr. Bourne’s cue. He seems to be the only one bringing the staging of classic ballets into the 21st Century––we certainly aren’t getting it from the New York companies. Shakespeare’s plays are constantly revived and they are always reimagined. To see them in a “traditional” staging at this point is actually a novelty. It is a wonder that the Ballet is mostly cemented in the past.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Burnt Part Boys

At Playwright’s Horizons, home of some of the more amazing small musicals, another new musical treat, coming over from the Vineyard Theatre, was presented in a charming production. This bluegrass operetta has music by Chris Miller, lyrics by Nathan Tysen and a book by Marian Elder. Just where Marian Elder ends and Nathan Tysen begins is a point of confusion, for the libretto is the kind of collaboration where the piece is so unified that it seems as if it had to come out of one mind. In this small theater, Joe Calaroc has simply staged a quest story about three kids who hike many miles through treacherous terrain to reach the Burnt Part Mine. The depiction of this journey is done on Brian Prather’s warm and woodsy set by the movement of several ladders and chairs to break up and change the playing area for every need imaginable––and imagination is the key for we the audience fill in the blanks after the unit set and actors believably create the largely imagined world.

The small cast is not famous, but top notch, with the young Al Calderon playing the 13 year old Pete––protagonist of the story and remarkable star performer of the show. This boy is given half the score to sing on his own and is saddled with numerous emotionally rich scenes that ask as much if not more than the most demanding male roles in musical theatre. The fantastic news is that Mr. Calderon is up for the task and sings and acts the role with an emotional honesty any actor should aspire to. Mr. Calderon is known from the cast of the musical 13 last season and the DVD of the 75th ANNIVERSARY RADIO CITY CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR. He has a promising future if his past few years of work on stage are any indication.

Pete’s best friend is the geeky Dusty (Noah Galvin) who reluctantly joins the journey along with Frances (Molly Ranson), a runaway tomboy with the smarts to get the group through numerous obstacles. Both render their characters with detail and perform their musical selections with sensitivity and comic aplomb. Pete has stolen some dynamite from his older brother and plans on blowing up the mine to make it impossible to reopen after his father parished there in a cave-in. Charlie Brady plays the older brother Jake and Andrew Durand is his friend Chet, who chase after the kids to stop them from making a big mistake. Rounding out the cast is a small chorus of men who play combination set manipulators, miners and “Greek Chorus”: Randy Redd, Asa Somers and Steve French. Their tight harmonies make the choral music delicious. Michael Park plays a myriad of fictional characters from Pete’s imagination––his boyhood heroes––who show up whenever he needs some advise on which way to turn. A nice duality occurs when after trapped in the mine, Pete’s father comes to him as a ghost––the same actor who had played Pete’s heroes all along. This time all the rest of the group sees Pete’s vision, including Jake, who is able to finally find closure with his father.

The plot serves mostly to cradle the exploration of relationships between the group of friends. Their individual fears, desires, morals and personal goals are challenged with their great sense of community holding them together through a trying ordeal. This is a beautiful little musical, odd in its style and unique in its voice and though its time in New York is now over, hopefully it will rise again in the small professional and community theaters of the world time and again to deliver its sweet heartfelt story.