Monday, July 26, 2010

The Great River Shakespeare Festival's Great Othello

Othello. Dir. Alec Wild. Perf. Corey Allen, Doug Scholz-Carlson, Christopher Gerson, Tarah Flanagan, Shanara Gabrielle, Michael Fitzpatrick, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jack Forbes-Wilson, Jeff Schaetsky, Andrew Carlson, Evan Fuller, David Coral, Kate Mazzola, and David Rudi Utter. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2010. Photo Credit: Corey Allen as “Othello” and Shanara Gabrielle as “Desdemona.” Photo by Alec Wild.
One of the best reasons to attend the GRSF's Othello is that you'll be able to see Corey Allen play the eponymous role. Allen is new to the Festival this year, and I hope he makes it an annual event. He brings a powerful subtlety to the part, brilliantly acting the most complicated sections of this most complicated play in a way that makes it seem natural and effortless.

This staging of Othello is very, very good. One of the most affecting devices used in the production is an imagined exchange of vows between Desdemona and Othello. The play opens with the characters introducing themselves. Desdemona and Othello each place their hands on the other's heart and say, "I am your own for ever."

The line is taken from late in the play at the point of Othello putting himself into the hands of Iago:
Othello: Now art thou my lientenant.
Iago: I am your own for ever. (III.iii.480)
The action manifests the way Iago has taken the loyalty Othello had for Desdemona and transferred it to himself.

Chris Gerson's Iago clearly wants the audience to like him—and he succeeds! Gerson uses Shakespeare's words—and, particularly, the humor in the lines—to invite us to participate in his vision. We get the impression that no single motive presented by the text is enough but that the sum of them—together with something undefinable that the audience may be exptected to provide—makes his plan seem to be just on the edge of reasonable.

In Iago, we glimpse the devastating effects of a jealous mind long before those emotions are brought out of Othello's. Indeed, the production at large seems to emphasize the latent or blatant jealousy in each of its characters.

Roderigo (magically played by Andrew Carlson) has his own lusts and jealousies, and he is easily led by them when Iago, the master puppeteer, pulls the strings. Carlson and Gerson have a remarkable chemistry on stage, and that chemistry spills over into the audience. Like Roderigo, we are duped by Iago into participating in the downfall of Othello and Desdemona.

Cassio (Doug Scholz-Carlson) is jealous of his reputation, and Scholz-Carlson puts the anguish of that jealousy into his speech on reputation. There—and elsewhere—the performance is stupendous.

Shanara Gabrielle plays a very strong Desdemona—not only when defending her marriage to Othello in the face of her father's objections but also later, as she attempts to assert her innocence. This strength prevents us from reading her last words as weak and submissive. Instead, it's possible to hear those words—"Nobody; I myself. Farewell" (V.ii.124)—as words of almost implausible forgiveness and mercy.

I wish I had more time to talk about the setting. The stage is stark but beautiful, and a few subtle changes mark the switch from Venice to Cyprus. After the change, the background presents three Arabesque windows with a light cross-hair screen and a doorway with a partially-lowered gate. The shapes pick up and mirror the supports of the upper stage.

Allow me a moment of regret over the loss of one of my favorite lines in the play. The sound that announces Othello's arrival in Cyprus in this production is a bell, not the "Trumpets within" for which the text calls (II.i.177-78.s.d). Because of that technical exigency, Iago says, "The Moor! I know his signal." The line actually reads "The Moor! I know his trumpet" (II.i.178). That may not seems like much of a change, but it eliminates a pun that is entirely in character for Iago. When we hear "I know his trumpet," it's hard not to also hear "I know his strumpet"—an apt polysemy for a moment when Iago's mind is dwelling on Desdemona as a means to undoing both Cassio and Othello.

The play ends the expected way: the bed is tragically loaded with three bodies, the silence of Iago hangs heavy over the stage, and the audience is left to work out for itself how it should take what it has just witnessed. Was it entertainment? Was it a warning? Was it an indication of the supernatural once more at work in Shakespeare's drama? Was it an accusation that the heart of each audience member contains the seeds for such jealousy and evil? Or was it some combination of these?

Find out by attending one of the two remaining performances of Othello!

Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Comedy of Errors: A Masterpiece at the Great River Shakespeare Festival

Comedy of Errors. Dir. Paul Mason Barnes. Perf. Corey Allen, Doug Scholz-Carlson, Christopher Gerson, Tarah Flanagan, Shanara Gabrielle, Michael Fitzpatrick, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jack Forbes-Wilson, Jeff Schaetsky, Andrew Carlson, Evan Fuller, David Coral, Kate Mazzola, and David Rudi Utter. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2010. Photo Credit: Michael Fitzpatrick as “Antipholus of Ephesus” and Christopher Gerson as “Dromio of Ephesus.” Photo by Alec Wild.
Yesterday, I saw one of the best productions of a Shakespearean comedy—any Shakespearean comedy—that I have ever been privileged to see. The Great River Shakespeare Festival has, once again, provided a masterpiece with its Comedy of Errors.

The production is filled with perfect moments. The set, the lighting, the music, the acting, the singing, and the physical comedy were all exactly right. Paul Barnes, the director, is to be commended for his sweeping vision of reconciliation, grace, and redemption that permeates the play.

There's so much to say about this production that I need to break it into categories to give each part its due in this review.

Sets and Setting:

As is only to be expected at the Great River Shakespeare Festival, the settings were impressive beyond belief. The set is intricately designed, with beautiful wrought iron, interesting ramps, a raised center platform (which holds a grand piano and a grand pianist) and, in the background, silhouettes that give the impression of Spanish moss and balconies.

For the setting of his production, Paul Barnes has chosen New Orleans during Mardi Gras around 1931. It's an inspired choice, and one that contributes materially to the meaning of the play. In New Orleans, the Sacred and the Secular have an easygoing relationship. During Mardi Gras, it's a city of masks and revelry, of license and carnival—but with a religious dimension, as the season of Lent is about to begin. The Comedy of Errors likewise has the carnival of mistaken identities and the world turned upside down—but with the threat of execution hanging over it. New Orleans was clearly not chosen flippantly but with a clear sense of the way its significance could be integrated with the significance of the play. Added to that is a cultural familiarity with witchcraft, voodoo, and the occult in general—and a fear of these elements from outsiders. The play and the setting share that as well.

The deep southern accents develop out of the setting, and they work well for this play. They're broad, over-the-top, not-necessarily-absolutely-authentic accents, and their effect is to add a musicality to the lines, slowing them down (for the most part) and enhancing the audience's appreciation of the speeches—particularly where rhymed couplets are involved.

Acting:

There isn't an actor in this production who is not brilliant. Each one gives absolutely everything to the part, and the whole becomes that much greater than the sum of its parts as a result. I wish I had time to write about each actor; because I don't, a representative sampling will have to do.

Jonathan Gillard Daly presents an exceptionally moving Egeon—the father of the twins who, because he is from Syracuse and has ventured into the forbidden territory of Ephesus, is doomed to face execution at the end of the day. His speech about the loss of his wife and one of his sons (and that son's servant) and the compounded tragedy of his other son (and his other son's servant) leaving home many years ago did not just help establish the plot. It created an immediate sympathy that carried over throughout the play. The audience gratefully appreciates the Duke's merciful (and, quite possibly, mercenary) decision to allow Egeon to attempt to gather the required 1,000 marks for his bail from the citizens of Ephesus. Throughout the play, Egeon re-appears, asking all the Mardi Gras revelers for a donation ("In Syracusa was I born . . .") and occasionally breaking into a chorus or two of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

Doug Scholz-Carlson and Christopher Gerson are stunning as the two Dromios. Their position is carefully crafted. They sing, from opposite sides of the stage, "Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child" and share idiosyncrasies like pulling on their ears when deep in thought. There's a considerable sensitivity in their portrayals, particularly at the end of the play (about which, there is more to come). The comedy the two deliver is peerless. There are moments when they break into song, accompanied by the ubiquitous piano music; occasionally, they start to sound like Dr. Seuss, as in this passage delivered by Dromio of Ephesus:
A crow without feather? Master, mean you so?
For a fish without a fin, there's a fowl without a feather;
If a crow help us in, sirrah, we'll pluck a crow together. (III.i)
Photo Credit: Tarah Flanagan as “Adriana.” Photo by Alec Wild.
Tarah Flanagan plays Adriana (who is, at one point, called "shrewish" by her husband) with delicacy and humor. Although worried about her husband's absence and puzzled by his lack of attention to her, she does not step over into the commedia delle'arte stereotype of The Shrew. Instead, she demands our sympathy—all the more so because, in this production, her husband does seem to be guilty of some of the philandering she suspects. Adriana is also portrayed as marvelously witty and funny. This is most evidently the case during one of her long speeches near the end of the play. In it, she summarizes the course of events, acting out all the plot points she mentions. When she gets to the line "the abbess shuts the gates on us," she brilliantly portrays the Abbess (whom we have just seen as a relatively reasonable woman) as a vicious dragon-monster beyond all telling of it:
Anon, I wot not by what strong escape,
He broke from those that had the guard of him;
And with his mad attendant and himself,
Each one with ireful passion, with drawn swords,
Met us again and madly bent on us,
Chased us away; till, raising of more aid,
We came again to bind them. Then they fled
Into this abbey, whither we pursued them:
And here the abbess shuts the gates on us
And will not suffer us to fetch him out,
Nor send him forth that we may bear him hence. (V.i)
The presentation is calculated to bring the house down—and, last night, it did exactly that.

Music:

Music pervades the play. Sometimes, it's gospel music. The entire cast sings "When the Saints Go Marching in," "O Happy Day," and "Amazing Grace." Sometimes, it's folk music. We hear bits of "I am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger" and "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Sometimes, it's a piano accompaniment. At the beginning, it's something of a retrospective of the seven years of the festival—the opening number mentions locations from every play the festival puts on. In all cases, it works seamlessly with the play.

Ending:

Although the play could be presented as just heading to the punchline—the epiphany where the two sets of twins are revealed and all the mistaken identity cleared up for good and all, neither Shakespeare nor Paul Barnes will let it rest there.

At the end of the play, it's reunion time. The father is reunited with his wife and his two sons. The mother is reunited with her husband and her two sons. Each of the sons is reunited with his brother, his mother, and his father. And the Dromios are united with each other.

That amazing moment is punctuated by the Abbess leading the assembled company in "Amazing Grace." At the performance I saw, the audience started to laugh at that point—perhaps suspecting an intentional irony or overstatement—but they soon became moved by the number instead of amused by it. Indeed, the grace of reunion and reconciliation are overwhelming at that point.

But it doesn't stop there. Most of those who have been reunited have been reunited with three other people. The Dromios are the exception. After the rest of the company has settled down, they sing "I once was lost but now am found." I have seldom seen anything more moving than their reunion. They only have each other restored to them—but they have found each other, and, it seems, they have found themselves. The stage devices that are used to emphasize their emotional reunion are enough to bring the most hard-hearted audience to tears.

Those stage devices (which I'm able to fill in now that the season has ended) border on the overly-sentimental and might be viewed as merely manipulative—but I found them moving, tasteful, and meaningful.

As the two Dromios approach each other, they each pull a mismatched pair of baby shoes from their back pockets. That moment was intriguing. Somehow, in the middle of the shipwreck that befell them when they were infants, their shoes got on their feet—but in such a hurry that one had a left green and a right red shoe (and vice versa for the other). They each had been carrying the unmatched pair all the time since the shipwreck.

The search for identity, the emotional unsettlement, the chaos of a life lived apart are all embedded in those shoes. The two Dromios, in absolute wonder and awe, show each other the shoes; they then untie the laces and match the pairs.

The significance of the exchange had so many layers that I neglected to see what was happening on the rest of the stage. When I looked away from the Dromios, the Antipholuses (Antipholii?) also had baby shoes and were grinning to beat the band, but I'm not sure where they came from.

One idea that came from the almost-but-not-quite identical shoes was one presented by the text of the play itself and underlined in this production. Even though the Dromios are identical twins, they are also individuals. While Dromio of Syracuse can't abide the thought of marrying Nell, the other twin's fiancée, who "is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her" (III.ii), Dromio of Ephesus is devotedly in love with her. All in all, it was one of the most delightful moments I've ever experienced in a theatre.

The end of the play fills the stage, the play, and the auditorium with grace and joy.

The Great River Shakespeare Festival's Comedy of Errors is astonishing in every respect. And only four more performances remain! Make every effort to see one of them.

[Editor's Note: The Seventh Season of the GRSF is now concluded. The Eighth Season, however, will provide deeply significant and worthwhile productions. Start making plans for next year now!]

In the meantime, Bardfilm is off to this afternoon's performance of Othello. The review will follow!

Links: The Great River Shakespeare Festival.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Littererchewer: Tony Harrison reads "Them & [uz]"

Harrision, Tony. “Them & [uz].” Selected Poems. New York: Random House, 1987. 122-23.

The Poetry Channel has a marvelous video of Tony Harrison reading his exquisite "Them & [uz]," a poem about (among other things) literature, education, received pronunciation (i.e., "The Queen's English"), and the sterilization of Shakespeare.

Harrison's reading is spot on. For one thing, he knows exactly the vowels he's talking about, and "he do the police in different voices" (T. S. Eliot's working titled for "The Waste Land") magnificently.

The poem opens with two Greek vowels ("αἰαῖ"), a sound of lament or mourning, which are immediately followed by two Yorkshire vowels ("ay, ay") that connect the ancient to the modern.

The scene changes to the image of a schoolboy reading the opening of Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale": "My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk, / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk" (1-4), but he doesn't get more than four words in before he's interrupted by a teacher complaining about his accent.

Two stunning (and Shakespeare-related) couplets follow:
"Can't have our glorious heritage done to death!"

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

"Poetry's the speech of kings. You're one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!" (5-8)
It's terrific—but hearing Harrison read the poem is the best way to encounter the poem:

video

The ending contains equal parts humor and bittersweet pain. Stunning.

Them & [uz]

for Professors Richard Hoggart & Leon Cortez

I

αἰαῖ, ay, ay! . . . stutterer Demosthenes
gob full of pebbles outshouting seas—
4 words only of mi 'art aches and . . . "Mine's broken,
you barbarian, T.W.!" He was nicely spoken.
"Can't have our glorious heritage done to death!"

I played the Drunken Porter in Macbeth.

"Poetry's the speech of kings. You're one of those
Shakespeare gives the comic bits to: prose!
All poetry (even Cockney Keats?) you see
's been dubbed by [^s] into RP,
Received Pronunciation, please believe [^s]
your speech is in the hands of the Receivers."

"We say [^s] not [uz], T.W.!" That shut my trap.
I doffed my flat a's (as in "flat cap")
my mouth all stuffed with glottals, great
lumps to hawk up and spit out . . . E-nun-ci-ate!

II

So right, yer buggers, then! We'll occupy
your lousy leasehold Poetry.

I chewed up Litererchewer and spat the bones
into the lap of dozing Daniel Jones,
dropped the initials I'd been harried as
and used my name and own voice: [uz] [uz] [uz],
ended sentences with by, with, from,
and spoke the language that I spoke at home.
RIP RP, RIP T.W.
I'm Tony Harrision no longer you!

You can tell the Receivers where to go
(and not aspirate it) once you know
Wordsworth's matter / water are full rhymes,
[uz] can be loving as well as funny.

My first mention in the Times
automatically made Tony Anthony!

Links: The Poetry Channel.


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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Extending Shakespeare's Biography: Shakespeare in The Twilight Zone

“The Bard.” By Rod Serling. Perf. Jack Weston, John Williams, Henry Lascoe, Marge Redmond, and Burt Reynolds. Dir. David Butler. The Twilight Zone. Season 4, episode 18. CBS. 23 May 1963. DVD. Image Entertainment, 2004.

Speculations about what Shakespeare would be doing if he were alive today are not uncommon. Would he be Twittering? Would he be composing Broadway musicals? Would he make it to Hollywood? Would he make it in Hollywood once he made to Hollywood?

In one such extended speculation, The Twilight Zone offers a Shakespeare brought back from the great beyond to help a failing tele-script writer. And Shakespeare doesn't look too happy to be in 1963 or to be in The Twilight Zone.

It's a outstandingly funny episode, and it's all the more remarkable for its characterization of Rocky Rhodes, the most devoted disciple of Stanislavsky that ever lived—played by a very young Burt Reynolds! He'll make an appearance in the clip below, criticizing Shakespeare for not liking Tennessee Williams.

The overall plot centers on Julius Moomer, a television scriptwriter who uses black magic to bring Shakespeare to Hollywood. He hopes Shakespeare will help him make it big.

And Shakespeare does help—but the studio executives can't quite figure out what to do with his scripts. And the sponsors keep objecting to certain lines and wanting to change things. In what appears to be a Romeo and Juliet-inspired script, for example, they alter the balcony scene. The male lead meets the female lead in a subway station rather than on a balcony. Later, a horrified Shakespeare learns that his ending has been changed. Esmeralda (the Juliet analogue) doesn’t kill herself. She runs away with a bass fiddler from Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five.

As a result, the script seems to be a hodge-podge of Shakespeare and modern (modern to the 1960s, that is) lingo:
Actor One: “Oh, come, Olivia. Cast off those benighted colors and . . . and gaze as a friend on Greenwich Village. Let not forever with your veiled eyes seek your noble boyfriend in the dust. It is common, I know. But all that live must die.”

Actor Two: “Oh, it’s easy for you to say.”
The best parts are when Shakespeare works his own lines into the conversation—often citing their source. Here's the knock-down-drag-out fight that ends Shakespeare's career in television:

video
Shakespeare: “‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude.’ That’s from As You Like It, Act II, scene vii.”

Moomer: “Hey, Will! Will! Hey! Wait a minute, Will! Wait a minute. What are you doing? You're going to louse up the whole deal. What am I going to say to them in there? What am I going to tell them?”

Shakespeare: “Tell them simply that ‘Foolerly, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.’ Act III, scene i, Twelfth Night. And you, Julius Moomer, foolish mortal who could have covered himself with a cloak of immortality, to you, Julius Moomer, who has succumbed to the rankest compound of villainous smell that ever offended nostril—to you, Julius Moomer . . . Lottsa Luck.”
Shakespeare, in that moment, seems to prove himself the master of both the language of his day and the language of ours, even as he disparages the modern television industry with lines spoken by Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor:
By the Lord, a buck-basket! Rammed me in with foul shirts and smocks, socks, foul stockings, greasy napkins; that, Master Brook, there was the rankest compound of villanous smell that ever offended nostril. (III.v.89-93)
All in all, the episode provides a humorous and fascinating use of Shakespeare and his biography—extended, in this case, to 1963.


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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

When are you heading to the Great River Shakespeare Festival?

Othello. Dir. Alec Wild. Perf. Corey Allen, Doug Scholz-Carlson, Christopher Gerson, Tarah Flanagan, Shanara Gabrielle, Michael Fitzpatrick, Jonathan Gillard Daly, Jack Forbes-Wilson, Jeff Schaetsky, Andrew Carlson, Evan Fuller, David Coral, Kate Mazzola, and David Rudi Utter. Great River Shakespeare Festival. Winona, Minnesota. 2010.
I'm heading down this weekend to catch an afternoon of Comedy of Errors and an afternoon of Othello, and I couldn't be more thrilled.

Actually, I could be more thrilled, but that would involve spending a month or two at the festival, and that just can't happen this year. I suppose it's fair to say that I'm as thrilled as it's feasible to be! After all, who wouldn't be thrilled with the prospect of seeing two Shakespeare plays with these delightful people:


Before the green-eyed monster of jealousy bites you, book your tickets at the GRSF website. After all, this year's festival ends on the first of August! And, if you come this weekend, Bardfilm might be willing to autograph your computer, iPad, Blackberry, or whatever device you use to read this blog.

Bardfilm is normally written as one word, though it can also be found under a search for "Bard Film Blog." Bardfilm is a Shakespeare blog (admittedly, one of many Shakespeare blogs), and it is dedicated to commentary on films (Shakespeare movies, The Shakespeare Movie, Shakespeare on television, Shakespeare at the cinema), plays, and other matter related to Shakespeare (allusions to Shakespeare in pop culture, quotes from Shakespeare in popular culture, quotations that come from Shakespeare, et cetera).

Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
All material original to this blog is copyrighted: Copyright 2008-2012 by Keith Jones.

The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest