Friday, August 16, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Measure for Measure and Mary Stuart

By coincidence or karma, the two plays we saw last night were both about power: the lust for it and the consequences of it.  Shakespeare's Measure for Measure and Schiller's Mary Stuart (in a new translation by Peter Oswald) both look at what happens when people try to grasp for something that is invisible and intangible.

Measure for Measure, directed by Stratford veteran Martha Henry, was placed in post-war Vienna and tells the tale of the Duke Vincentio enforcing strict moral laws, including the death penalty for having sex out of wedlock.  Seriously.  Just such a case has arisen; Claudio and Juliet have visible proof that they have been engaging in pre-marital sex, and the unhappy couple face the gallows.  And in a test of his own power structure, the Duke decides to take off for the far reaches, turning power over to his deputy Angelo, only so that he -- the Duke -- can sneak back into town disguised as a friar and see how Angelo is doing with his new-found powers.

As expected, Angelo makes a hash of it.  Isabel, a nun and the sister of Claudio, pleads with Angelo to grant her brother clemency.  Sure, replies Angelo... if you'll sleep with me.

The story goes on from there in typical Shakespearean semi-comic fashion, concluding with all being worked out, [spoiler alert] the young lovers being saved, and Angelo getting his comeuppance.  There are the usual comic characters, including Elbow, a constable who does a nice bit of reminding us of the constable in Young Frankenstein.

Ms. Henry's direction is smooth and swift, and the cast, as always, is comfortable in bringing out the nuances of Shakespeare's language, even if it does -- as happens to me -- take a few moments for my Shakespeare translation device to kick in.

The point of the play is that political hypocrisy and sexual misconduct is as universal as ever in high office.  We all recognize the characters here; we've seen them paraded across cable TV and Buzzfeed, and there's a cottage industry of unmasking the anti-abortion congressman who paid for his mistress's two abortions or the anti-gay crusader hiring a well-muscled "intern" to travel with him to Aruba.  Shakespeare and Ms. Henry and the cast do a neat job with it.  My only quibble is that Shakespeare himself seems to exact some rather intentional cruelty on sympathetic characters; for instance, allowing Isabel to think that her brother has been executed until the very last minute, and the Duke colluding on this falsehood.  If we are to be relieved by the happy outcome, it's a bit of a torture to mete it out in such small measures.


Mary, Queen of Scots, was imprisoned and then executed by Queen Elizabeth I in 1587.  There's no record of them ever meeting face to face to work out their claims to the English throne, so Friedrich Schiller, the Romantic poet, gave us a fictional "what if" in his play Mary Stuart. In this new version by Peter Oswald and directed by Antoni Cimolino, the queens meet on a field of battle -- literally -- and the outcome, while never in doubt by history's telling, becomes a drama about power, gender politics, and religious fanaticism that sounds awfully familiar to the audience in the 21st century.

Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna, both Stratford stalwarts, take on their roles as dueling queens with gusto, and although I was unfamiliar with the play before I saw it, I can imagine that both Schiller and Oswald had fun imagining what these two powerful personalities had to say to each other because it truly comes across in the dialogue and Mr. Cimolino's inventive blocking.

As a tale for our age, it's not hard to grasp the connection between the hard-core religious zealots of that time -- Catholic vs. Protestant -- and our own.  People who are willing to kill and die for their faith is nothing new and nothing the theatre hasn't dealt with before, but we Westerners -- the "enlightened ones" -- like to think that it's only those Others who do such crazy things such as invite martyrdom and suicide or incite rioting against the infidels and blasphemers.  Even when you take into consideration the Crusades and the Inquisition, those are thought of as both medieval and, well, uncivilized.  But the brutality of the faith ran strong in 16th century Britain, and you can't turn on the TV or the internet today and see its descendants carrying forth against the abortionists and the radical homosexuals.

Mary and Elizabeth were rivals not just for the throne but for the faith.  We know how that turned out, but we're really haven't changed much since then.

Labels: , ,

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Fiddler on the Roof

The world is made up of little communities, each with their customs, traditions, and stories.  It doesn't matter where you come from; we all have a sense of tribalism, whether it's through religion, ethnicity, or even sexual orientation.  Humans cluster in like-minded groups.  It's our nature.

This simple fact is what makes Fiddler on the Roof so compelling and such a universal story.  A shtetl in Russia in 1905 isn't much different than a neighborhood in Los Angeles or a pueblo in New Mexico: they are bound together by common bonds, and even when the bonds are frayed or broken, there is still a sense of community, of belonging, of purpose.

I had a hard time getting through the performance of Fiddler on the Roof at Stratford.  It wasn't because the production was terrible; quite the opposite.  It was magnificent in every detail, from the casting of all the roles to the set, which often consisted of little houses that represented the town of Anatevka like a table model.  The music was flawless, the choreography and staging on a par with anything you'd expect on Broadway, and the story itself; clear and passionate, humorous and heart-rending.  And I spent a great deal of time flashing back to 1972, when, at the tender age of 19, I performed a very, very small role in a production of the musical at the University of Miami.

Our cast had a large Jewish contingent.  Many of the cast members had family who had either survived or been lost in the Holocaust.  For them, the story of Jews scratching out a living in what is now the Ukraine under the thumb of Tsarist Russia, always under the cloud of the pogrom yet to come, made the story of family, tradition, and faith all the more important and immediate.  And when I, a naive young kid from the Midwest who only knew from Judaism what you learn from friends at a private high school where the only question was how well did you clean up at the bar mitzvah, began to immerse myself in the story of Tevye the milkman and the town of Anatevka, my world expanded to understand that not only was there life outside of my cocoon of WASP culture, it wasn't so much different than the traditions I grew up with and accepted as my way of life.  Except no one was trying to wipe me and my way of life off the face of the earth.  For what was supposed to be a small part in a musical comedy, it was a lesson of life that still strikes me to the core more than forty years later.

Fiddler on the Roof is about Jews in Russia in 1905.  But it could be about the Puritans in 1605, the Quakers in 1650, the Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in 1831, the Irish in 1848, the Palestinians in 1948, or Cubans in 1959.  It's about all of us.  The theme of Tradition that runs through the play is what binds it together.  From the opening number to the last notes as the people of the town leave after being forced out, holding on to small things -- a pot, a shoe, a book, a faith -- keep the tribe and life together even as they are scattered to the winds to end up in Chicago, Jerusalem, or Miami. 

Labels: , ,

Stratford 2013 -- Blithe Spirit

The first Broadway musical I ever saw was High Spirits.  It was in September 1964 at the Alvin Theatre, and it starred Tammy Grimes, Edward Woodward, and Beatrice Lillie.  Written and directed by Noel Coward, it was the musical version of his play Blithe Spirit.

I don't remember much about the musical except that Beatrice Lillie was a hoot as Madame Arcati, the ditzy medium in bunny slippers who rode a bicycle across the stage and conjured up spirits with a ouija board.  I'm told the critics were not kind to the show, but it had a respectable run (375 performances).  If it didn't tear up Broadway, though, it wasn't because of the source material.

Blithe Spirit is one of Mr. Coward's more farcical plays, but it contains the comedy of manners that he's famous for in works such as Private Lives or Present Laughter.  In this production at Stratford under the direction of Brian Bedford, the dialogue crackles along and the pace is fast enough that there are no gaps.  And the acting is finely tuned; plays like this run the risk of being over-arch and overly clever, but Mr. Bedford knows that understatement is an element of farce as well as over-the-top.

It does not hurt that there is an element of situation comedy throughout the play.  Characters speaking to ghosts to the befuddlement of the unknowing other people in the room was a staple of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, but Mr. Coward uses it to the right degree so that it doesn't become a worn-out gimmick even to an audience who has seen it before.

There is not a lot of depth to the play beyond the comedy and the situation, but when you consider that the play was written in the middle of the London Blitz, opening in July 1941, Londoners needed something light and funny.  It worked; the play was a huge hit, and when it came across the ocean to New York, it ran for years.  This production shows why.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Stratford 2013 -- Waiting for Godot

When I was a Very Serious Theatre Student in high school and college, I, along with my fellow VSTS's, studied the works of Samuel Beckett as if they were the Sacred Scrolls that contained the Cosmic Truths of Real Theatre.  That melodramatic stuff by Eugene O'Neill and Arthur Miller was so self-important and strenuous when it tugged at the heartstrings, and comedy by the likes of Neil Simon was barely worthy of a glance.  Inge?  Middle American sophistry.  And when they labeled Beckett's work as "Theatre of the Absurd," there was some far deeper meaning to the words than just being "absurd."  Nothing absurd like the Marx Brothers or Abbot and Costello.  Even Charlie Chaplin, with all his introspection, didn't rise to the level of Beckett's definition of  "absurd."  There had to be depth beyond what the audience saw.  After all, Beckett was Irish and who knew more about depth than the Irish.  And he lived in Paris and wrote in French.  We just knew there had to be something more to his works.  Every word, every phrase, had to be dissected, parsed and analyzed, and many a night we spent trying -- as we did with Pinter -- to plumb the depths of his heaviosity, accompanied, of course, by chemical enhancements and Pop Tarts.

All these years later, it becomes clear that Samuel Beckett not only appreciated the absurdity of Charlie Chaplain, the Marx Brothers, and even Abbot and Costello, but he emulated them.  Waiting for Godot (and, by the way, it's pronounced "GOD-oh," not "Go-DOH."  As Brian Dennehy explained in a Q & A session after the performance, "Godot" is Dublin slum slang for God.  Beckett was from Dublin.)  The characters in the play are comic pairings of the same style as the comic geniuses as Groucho, Harpo, and Chico, and the dialogue in some scenes is evocative of Who's on First.  The overall effect is stunningly simple, and the blade of Beckett's wit and meaning slips effortlessly to the bone.

The context of the play is also important.  Beckett wrote it shortly after the end of World War II, a time when Europe was as desolate as the scene he describes for the play: "A country road.  A tree.  Evening."  Beckett himself barely survived being arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris in 1942, and spent the war working with the French Resistance.  If he'd been caught, he would have most likely been executed.  That, along with the desperate devastation he saw around him, surely played a role in his work.  And Waiting for Godot shows it, but not in the way you might think.

In spite of the desolate setting, the poor and struggling characters, even the pain and sorrow that they bear and inflict on each other, and like the leaves that appear on the branches of the bare and seemingly lifeless tree, there is hope, albeit faint.  [Spoiler alert]  And while Godot does not arrive as promised, Vladimir and Estragon will be back to wait for him.  "Nothing to be done."

Labels: , ,

Hey, I'm Back!

What, it's only been a year, right?

The Stratford Festival Theatre

Welcome to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.  This year we are seeing Waiting for Godot, Blithe Spirit, Fiddler on the Roof, Measure for Measure, and Mary Stuart.

I have never seen a full production of Godot; this one has Brian Dennehy in it, so I can’t wait.  I’ve never seen Blithe Spirit, but I saw the musical version of it in 1964.  It was called High Spirits, and it was by Noel Coward as well.  Fiddler on the Roof?  Oy, been in it… forty plus years ago at the University of Miami Ring Theatre.  I played the Russian priest… what else?  And I have never seen Measure for Measure or Mary Stuart.

I'll be posting my reviews/thoughts about the shows here, so check in and see what I've got to say

Labels: ,