Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

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Review | Cry, Trojans (Troilus & Cressida) | Text by William Shakespeare | Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte | Performing Garage | Wooster Group

… not nice guys …

Diving into disjunction, deconstructing anything and everything, and squeezing ambiguities out of certainties, The Wooster Group has always stayed theatrically steps ahead.  In staging this play they seem to have taken on their ultimate challenge because Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida is already a work of deconstruction … a few centuries avant la lettre.  So what’s left for The Wooster Group to do?  Exuberantly, they add their own disjunctions and ambiguities to Troilus and Cressida for a stimulating take on Shakespeare’s play based on Homer’s epic about that war between the Greeks and Trojans.

The play’s set conjures not ancient Troy but a derelict American Indian camp with a shabby teepee.  A video screen, continuing the set, shows smoke rising from the top of the teepee, setting up the game of competing realities, while at the same time enlarging the meaning of the action.

We’re on the Trojan side of things where proud, graceful and scraggly warriors return from battle, bare-chested, in motley Indian leather.  They cross the stage one-by-one in their individual versions of Indian-like dance steps as the gross sensualist, Pandarus, announces their legendary names: Aeneas, Paris, Hektor … Pandarus, like all the Trojans, speaks with an Irish brogue.  Each warrior wears a quiver that looks like it’s seen better days, with a mask at the top — Janus faced  to their own — a head with the features of an ancient Greek sculpture, deteriorating, empty.

So much for idealized, mythic heroes.   So much for the gods, too — the wobbly, empty heads recall that of Venus, a patron god of Troy and mother of Aeneas.

On the love front, Troilus, one of King Priam’s many sons, is in love with Cressida, a match enabled by Pandarus  (who’s lent his name to enabling sexual match-ups).  After a night of love, word comes that Cressida is to be passed over to the Greeks in a prisoner exchange — a cruel deal managed by her own father, who’s a traitor as well, having defected to the Greeks.  Nice guy.  Troilus defends Cressida — flaccidly — she’s handed over to the other tribe, the Greeks, who speak in English accents in contrast to the Irish Trojans.

The Greeks pass Cressida around like a toy, kissing her, she looks a little staggered but adapts readily and fast ends up in bed with Diomedes, whom she’s willing enough to love, surrendering to him without much fight her love token from weak-willed Troilus.

All the characters are one way or another weak willed and prone to betrayal, with the possible exception of Hektor, but they are stirred by thoughts of glory.  At a Council Meeting-Parliament Meeting–Pow Wow, the Trojans consider abandoning Helen to the Greeks in order to end the war but, in spite of an attempt at reasoning from Hektor and warnings from prophetic Cassandra, they opt in favor of keeping Helen and continuing the war which — in any construction — is a well-known really bad decision.

Video monitors project cuts from a movie about Eskimos, and others from a Hollywood film simultaneously with parallel action on stage, whether  arguments, violence, war councils, domestic tenderness.  The monitors will also switch to project what’s actually happening on the stage (or what’s almost happening — there’s a lot of play at work in this play).  Actors glance occasionally at the monitors to time their gestures for easy-going near simultaneity, linking tech and real, cute, but it’s not over-done.   It’s tantalizing and profound.

The cast is superb as actors, dancers and singers, and skillful at switching from Irish to English when they switch character from Trojan to Greek.  The choreography is varied and luscious in being unhurried.   The costumes and set are part of a single vision: appealing, complex, tacky.  The Indian dress worn by Kate Valk, The Wooster Group’s great actress, has layers and asymmetries that, like the set itself, suggests the long history of transformations of Homer’s story.

The deconstructive battering ram The Wooster Group has brought to other iconic works was less to the point for Troilus & Cressida because Shakespeare was fundamentally already there. Instead they build on the morally dour, unidealized and fragmented view Shakespeare wrote in Troilus and Cressida and underline through tech, and time and place dislocations its inherent generalizations, giving us basically what’s in the play, although it’s sometimes difficult to catch every word because of much going on at once.

Cry, Trojans is more narratively continuous than other Wooster Group productions, less staccato and less eccentrically acted.  In a word, it’s theatrically less radical, and easier to take (at moments of the first half, I wondered “is this easy listening Wooster Group?”).  But the second half jells powerfully.   Gentlest with its roughest play, The Wooster Group remains mind-bending.

Cry, Trojans plays at The Performing Garage in Manhattan’s Tribeca through February 2, 2014.  EXTENDED THROUGH FEBRUARY 15, 2014.   *Note: Cry Trojans will be at St Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, NY, March 24 – April 19, 2015.  For  information, click here: Cry,Trojans St Ann’s

P.S.  For another take on Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, click for Classic Stage’s Age of Iron. 

Review | Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare | Directed by Tea Alagić | Classic Stage Company

… Where art Romeo and Juliet? …

What I liked best about this Classic Stage production of Romeo and Juliet was the depiction of the men around the Montague Romeo and those around the Capulets as young toughs with a contemporary style.  Nothing new about that, of course, think of West Side Story, and Shakespeare in contemporary dress is commonplace.  But Harry Ford (substituting the night I attended for T. R. Knight), with his thick body packed into leather and to-the-head corn rows makes a charismatic Mercutio, volatile, dirty-mouthed, amused and amusing, and the rest of the guys fit in to the idea, though they’re not consistently as convincing.

Shakespeare’s poetry is spoken throughout with an ineffective mix of over-contemporary-casual and over-emphasis on the last beat of each iambic line:  strange bed-fellows.  Much of the dialog is spoken so to-the-chest or throw-away, that it’s hard to catch — this is particularly true of Romeo, played by Julian Cihi, but in general the poetry and even a lot of the words are sacrificed in the name of contemporary naturalism.  The upshot:  the speech sounds artificial and the poetic power is lost.

What a relief when Daniel Davis as Friar Laurence is on stage: he speaks with complete naturalism while conveying the rhythms and beauty of the poetry, and the projection of his clear, emotionally powerful voice is exciting.  His strength makes the character of Friar Laurence seem more central than in other productions, and that in itself is illuminating.

Like Ford as Mercutio, Daphne Rubin-Vega plays Juliet’s nurse in a vivid characterization based on a contemporary type.  Rubin-Vega’s Nurse is a bust-in-your-face Hispanic woman with an alluring accent — think Chita Rivera — with a crisp, aggressive white blouse, black harem pants and high heels that rock her through a fascinating gait.  Excitement leads her to lapse sometimes into rapid-fire Spanish that even a native Spanish speaker might miss:  evidently the director thought it was OK for the audience to lose her words for the sake of naturalism and humor but — at the risk of being a stick-in-the-mud — with Shakespeare, I’d rather hear all the words.  Still, there’s a welcome freshness to bringing the nurse out of the shadows of servility and showing her as a feisty foreigner.

But Romeo (Cihi) and Juliet, played by Elizabeth Olsen, are the least effective actors in the production.  Passion? What passion?  Cihi never seems deeply affected by Juliet.  Juliet’s main approach seemed to be to raise her voice all-out loud to convey strong feeling, straining her throat.  There’s no erotic chemistry, even in bed.  Simply put, these two young actors have at this point neither the emotional depth nor the stage presence to carry such roles.

Instead of an ensemble flow in this production, there’s a range of styles and performance individuality.  It follows that the production leaves one with the impression of a few stellar bits.  Mercutio, the Nurse, and Friar Laurence are well worth seeing.

Romeo and Juliet  plays at Classic Stage Company in Manhattan’s East Village through November 10, 2013.

Review | Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare | Directed by Davis McCallum | Pearl Theatre Company

If you’ve never seen Henry IV Part 1, the Pearl’s production will bring you close to it and if you’ve seen it before you’ll love it all over again.

This last assumes you’ve loved it in the past which is probable because it’s one of Shakespeare’s best loved plays, for good reasons.  Among them, it’s hilarious.  Falstaff is so vivid and original a character, so complex and real, that it’s hard to believe he’s a creative invention;  and, in the character of Prince Hal, the play deals with issues of fundamental fascination and importance for all of us, growth to maturity.

The play moves between the broad canvas of politics and war–a Scottish rebellion against King Henry IV–to the intimate–father and son, husband and wife, and that unforgettable friendship that doesn’t quite fall into any one category between Hal and Falstaff.

What makes this so delightful a production of Henry IV Part I  is Dan Daily as Falstaff.  He’s superb—big bellied, of course, taller than anybody else around, with the vitality, wit joie de vivre and touch of sultry wickedness one wants in the character.  He’s an epicurean, with the allure and paradoxes that idea contains.  It’s fascinating to see this large man–and I mean really large–completely light on his feet, leaping on a table, doing a jig.  One sees and feels Falstaff’s thoughts–calculating or willful, assertive or accepting of a reversal–for a compelling cognitive instant before he speaks.

The question of Prince Hal’s maturity makes one pause, though.  What does it really mean in this particular play?  We meet Hal as a a wayward libertine under Falstaff’s spell, but that changes when his royal father is faced with imminent war.  Then Hal buckles down, putting his easy pleasures aside to support his father’s cause and become a fighter.  One could call this “taking on responsibility.”  Or one can question human purposes, and the meaning of responsibility.

Bradford Cover as King Henry IV conveys the tension in this powerful personality aswarm with conflicts:  his threatened yet adamant royal authority, and his disappointment with his pleasure loving son melded with underlying love.  Shawn Fagan captures the eruptive and wry personality of Hotspur, though the character could use more physical heft.  John Brummer is less original as the libertine and then chastened Prince Hal.  He isn’t Daily’s match, which limits the rapport between Hal and Falstaff.  As the Scottish rebel Douglas, Sean McNall gets the prize for the most authentic and charming Scottish accent.

Though not usually my favorites, the battle scenes in this production are a high point, staged with passionate and convincing one-on-one duels, metal on metal.  They’ve been  exhaustively rehearsed to the point of total actors’ ease, so the fights seem completely spontaneous.

Above all, though, this Henry IV Part 1  is about Dan Daily’s Falstaff, which I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed.  I sure did.

Henry IV Part 1  plays at the Pearl Theatre on West 42nd Street in Manhattan through March 17th.

Dave Shaw as a Caliban leaps, over-excited by the new brew -- wine -- that David Gautchy as Stephano (L) and Brendan Boland as Trinculo (R) have introduced him to.  Photo:  Robert Ruben 

The Tempest by William Shakespeare | Directed by Sarah Hankins | Music by Melanie Closs | Sylvester Manor Windmill | Green Theatre Collective, Shelter Island, Long Island

… Prospero on Shelter Island …

At the beginning, Ariel heads the storm tossed boat like a great, gleaming figurehead, thrown now this way now that by the waves and wind but at the same steady, distant, a spirit beyond the terror of those aboard who grip the ropes that are the boat in this wondrously outdoors presentation of Shakespeare’s Tempest by the Green Theatre Collective.  It’s brilliant staging by Sarah Hankins, acrobatic, all-out acting, and a hint of things to come in this outstanding production.

The play is presented on the lawn facing the windmill dating to around the

Jessica Giannone as Ariel, masked, wields some magic, helped by a masked Spirit.  Photo Robert Ruben  

Jessica Giannone as Ariel, masked, wields some magic, helped by a masked Spirit.  Photo Robert Ruben

time of The Tempest, on the Sylvester Manor farm.  Bring a blanket to sit on — the actors have laid out blankets, too, with minimal props and costume changes (here a scarf, there a jacket).  A rope lying on the grass marks the stage.  No barriers.  How quickly we are in their world!

Prospero explains to Miranda the circumstances which brought them to this island where, beyond themselves, there are only Ariel, the gross, sensual Caliban, and some numinous spirits hovering between being and imagination.  Prospero has to provide an explanation because, through his magic, and the powers of his spirit servant Ariel, their isolation is about to end with the landing of a parcel of Europeans whom Prospero for his own purposes has drawn in from the shipwreck.  Among them are Prosperos’ evil brother Antonio who usurped Prospero’s Dukedom of Milan and Antonio’s friend Alonso, the King of Naples.

With the arrival of the shipwrecked men, Shakespeare wastes no time to show us that while raw nature — the island before Prospero arrived — is rank with witchery and torture, the civilized Europeans are no better.  Greed and drunkenness abound, murderous plots arise on the dime.  No one in power is safe: not Antonio, nor Alonso, nor Prospero himself.  Aptly, and in keeping with the interpenetration of the natural world and the workings of human beings that suffuses this production, as the conspirators spun their plots, an osprey seeking prey circled high above the actors and audience.

Two of the venial retainers, Stephano and Trinculo, coming upon Caliban, take refuge with him, tease him, delude him, mock him and exploit him — all the things that “civilized” people do with those they regard as “savages” — and this is written early in the Age of Exploration.  The actors bring to life Shakespeare’s wildly inventive comic situations, madly imaginative misunderstandings and gross and profoundly witty jokes of double meanings with such vitality, athletics and exuberance the the audience burst into applause.

Dave Shaw as a Caliban leaps, over-excited by the new brew -- wine -- that David Gautchy as Stephano (L) and Brendan Boland as Trinculo (R) have introduced him to.  Photo:  Robert Ruben 

Dave Shaw as a Caliban leaps, over-excited by the new brew — wine — that David Gautchy as Stephano (L) and Brendan Boland as Trinculo (R) have introduced him to.  Photo:  Robert Ruben

Miranda’s naïve wonder offsets the cynicism of the wheeler-dealers — but how trustworthy is love at first sight?  The first of the shipwrecked men she sees is the handsome young Ferdinand, son of Naples’ King.  Setting eyes upon his good looks (the only men she’s known up to now are Caliban and her father), she’s thrilled at what she regards as an emissary of a brave new world.  (Would it were so.)

Reading a man’s good looks as virtue can get a girl into a lot of trouble but luckily Ferdinand’s as much in love with Miranda as she with him: he doesn’t let her down, and holds to the vows of pre-nuptial chastity Prospero exacts from him — and, youth being youth, it’s lucky the wedding comes soon!  It’s attended — enhanced, enlarged, enchanted — by wonderfully singing spirits of the island.  Another creature of nature joined the cast when, just in time for the wedding, a grey dove, bird of love, lit on the edge of the windmill’s roof and watched the proceedings from its high perch.

Prospero accomplishes all his purposes:  he recovers his Dukedom, chastises his brother appropriately — but finds it in himself to forgive, and settles his daughter into a royal marriage.  Now he can fulfill his promise to free Ariel, and set aside his powers to enchant, parallel with Shakespeare who sets aside his powers to enchant — by ending the play.  But first Shakespeare reminds us of his purposeful desire — to entertain.  That he does.

The naturalism of the production makes the play very close, clear and immediate.  Never has Prospero’s isle seemed more magical.  Never has being outside, and near the actors, seemed more essential to the full experience of theater — except, that is, for last summer, when this talented group of strolling players in this same venue produced an unforgettable As You Like It.

Melanie Closs’s music is so delicate and evocative that when the characters speak of the unearthly beauty of the music on Prospero’s island, one hears it just that way.  It’s part of the magic.

The six fine, young actors of the cast all play several parts except for Jessica Giannone, who plays, leaps, dances, and sings the ubiquitous Ariel.

Often they play their opposites.  David Gautchy, who plays the wise but mysterious Prospero, is also Stephano, the drunken steward who cavorts with Trinculo and Caliban.

Dave Shaw is an aggressively physical, athletic, distorted figure of a man as Caliban — as well as the courtier Gonzalo who in kindness had originally saved Prospero and the baby Miranda.

Hal Fickett, a love smitten Ferdinand, uses inventive body language to convey a cynical Sebastian.

Gina Fickett plays the wonder-filled ingénue, Miranda, who becomes a woman through her love for Ferdinand, and quickly takes on a mannish gait and voice to play none other than Prospero’s evil brother, Antonio.

Brendan Boland is the brooding King of Naples who believes his son is lost at sea, and also an agile drunk, Trinculo, who seeking cover from a storm, finds himself sharing a blanket with the decidedly smelly Caliban.

I felt what theater at its best can make you feel — exhilarated and enlarged.  I thought — and think — I’m lucky to have seen Green Theatre Collective’s The Tempest.   Try your luck, too!

The Tempest played July 14th and 15th at Sylvestor Manor, Shelter Island and plays at Quail Hill Farm, The Apple Orchard, in Amagansett July 18th, 19th, 20th, 21st and 22nd.

David Gautchy takes a bow in the white jacket that "makes him" Prospero the Duke of Naples, with left to right Hal Fickett, Gina Fickett, Dave Shaw and, far right, Brendan Boland.  Jessica Giannone is (unfortunately, apologies Miss Giannone) behind David Gautchy, maybe because Ariel does disappear in the end.   Photo:  Robert Ruben                                                                                             

David Gautchy takes a bow in the white jacket that “makes him” Prospero the Duke of Naples, with left to right Hal Fickett, Gina Fickett, Dave Shaw and, far right, Brendan Boland.  Jessica Giannone is (unfortunately, apologies Miss Giannone) behind David Gautchy, maybe because Ariel does disappear in the end.   Photo:  Robert Ruben

Review | King Lear by William Shakespeare | Directed by James Macdonald | Public Theater

… not in our stars …

The cast is so star studded* that it’s surprising that this production comes out no more than a serviceable Lear.   But that’s still a lot:  since it’s such a great play, and all the words (except for the Fool) come across with full clarity it’s a rewarding evening.  You understand all the actions, motivations, and entanglements of the plot and come out feeling you have an enhanced understanding of the play.  That’s worthwhile.  The language seems immediate, not distant.  Good.  But the poetic power is damped, and the production seems disjointed.

I went to see this Lear because I have been fascinated by Sam Waterston’s brilliance as an actor on Law and Order and so wanted to see him on stage.  It turns out that as Lear, he’s best in the quieter scenes, the ones that lend themselves to just the sorts of tv close-ups we’re used to seeing him in.  We watch his face registering evolving situations with great subtlety, calculating, negotiating, gauging his own responses — you see his mind at work.  But in the passionately emotional scenes, such as Lear on the heath, or the death of Cordelia, he strains.  Not that he holds back — he reaches courageously for big, but it eludes his grasp.  Darn it.  He looks silly — not tragic or even pitiful — shuffling around in his long johns with one shoe on and one shoe off.  A lot of poor decisions were made in the staging of this play.

The most compelling performance — by one of the greatest actors in the world today — is John Douglas Thompson as Lear’s loyal follower, the Earl of Kent.  Thompson’s Kent is vigorous, wily, and self-sacrificing, ready for any task, physical or mental, to protect the King and the Kingship.  Thompson brings his rare physical power and athleticism to the role:  to convey an urgent  moment, he takes the breadth of the stage in three strides.  He’s miscast though, as Kent who, at times, verges on the obsequious, not Thompson’s natural mode by a long shot.  I would like to see him as Lear.

Bill Irwin, a great clown, is miscast here as the Fool.  A Fool isn’t a clown — different meanings, different purposes — but Irwin plays the role as a clown, including clown face make-up (white face, short red vertical lines above the eyes), baggy costume and oversize, floppy shoes.  I sure missed the motley!  Most important, the odd, fascinating closeness between Lear and his Fool is lost.  These two hardly seem to know one another.  Also Irwin is the only member of the cast who can’t always be understood.

The other roles are generally well played by experienced and well known actors  who speak Shakespeare’s language with clear naturalism.  Still, the characters often seem emotionally separate, their words and actions foregone conclusions governed by the lines of the play rather than by their responses to one another, as if they’d rehearsed their parts too much by themselves, and not enough together.

The straightforward content, if not the full emotional and dimensions and poetry, comes across.  Seeing this play is a reasonable way to get to know better Shakespeare’s masterful Lear.   One would expect more, though, with all that star power.

King Lear plays at the Public Theater in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village through November 20th.


Review | Shakespeare’s As You Like It at Sylvester Manor Windmill | Performances July 16 and 17 | Directed by Sarah Hankins | Green Theatre Collective, Shelter Island, Long Island

… the Forest of Arden …

What could be better than circling the fruitful fields of Sylvester Manor’s Community Supported Agriculture farm to arrive at the windmill, sitting on the verdant grass, and in this idyllic, mid-summer setting watching a beautiful production of Shakespeare’s great pastoral comedy performed by talented and idealistic actors of the Green Theatre Collective?

Nothing could be better.

We wait for the play to begin, some people nibbling the organic crudités and sipping wine. A thin cord rests on the top of the bouncy grass, marking the “edge of the stage.” Are those the actors seated — like ourselves — on picnic blankets on either side of the windmill?

Melanie Closs as Amiens. Background L: audience;  R: actors Photo: Robert J. Ruben

Melanie Closs as Amiens. Background L: audience;  R: actors Photo: Robert J. Ruben

A nature spirit appears — Amiens, played alluringly by Melanie Closs, moves in and around singing the gentle, insinuating “Come Hither.”  You bet!

Orlando, persecuted and cheated out of his inheritance by his older brother Oliver, flees with his faithful servant Adam, first having fallen in love with Rosalind, daughter of the banished Duke Senior.  Duke Frederick, who usurped his older brother, the good Duke Senior, but had allowed Rosalind to stay in his court since she was his daughter’s, Celia’s, friend, but still hating her as her father’s daughter, now throws out Rosalind, who has fallen in love with Orlando;  her dear friend Celia, and the Jester Touchstone accompany her into banishment.  Rosalind goes disguised as a young man, “Ganymede,” and Celia, disguised as a poor lady, takes on the name Aliena to suit, as she says, her current situation.

All these loving, free spirits find their way to the Forest of Arden where, it happens, the exiled Duke has also found his way, living with some retainers. Tragedy ends in death, and comedy in marriage: this is a comedy and it ends in several marriages, but not before the course of true love has many chances to be confounded.

If you had any doubts about whether there’s such a thing as love at first sight, you’ll know for sure when Hal Flickett as Orlando is literally struck dumb, head over heels in love with Rosalind, his hands straining to convey to her the words of his ardor, locked in by his overwhelming passion.

Jessica Glannone as Rosalind matches his at first sight passion with her own, and holds it through the hilarious scenes where, she entrains him in her Ganymede disguise to woo her in the forest  “as if I were Rosalind”; she also plays Audrey, a country girl with a country style.

Seven actors play many parts (as all of us do, as Shakespeare reminds us in this play). Since Close and Flickett play one and Glannone two, the other four actors are kept really busy — shifting with skill and speed among characters, mood and — from palace to forest — locale.  It was fascinating to see David Gautschy switch — by slipping off his vest — from the nasty older brother Oliver to the poetic, free associating Fool Touchstone;  can this really be the same man!? Gautschy expressed all the poetic nuance and suggestive liberation of one of Shakespeare’s great Fools who convey a sense of depth that just won’t let you go.

Brendan Boland brought an outstanding quality of intelligence and weight to Jacques, whose melancholy provides a leaven to the idyllic fantasy of As You Like It. Boland brought to the famous “Seven Ages of Man” passage a passion equal, in its way, to that of the lovers — and by “sans everything” he had moved me to tears.

Gina Rivera was dynamic as the humorous, tough-minded Delia, a foil to the romantic Rosalind. It was touching that she played Adam the old servant as lame and weak-kneed while having a dancer’s freedom of movement:  free and in the forest, she came up with some heart-lifting light dance steps and a terrific cartwheel expressive of the buoyancy and joie de vivre of the play.

David Shaw was especially busy in terms of sheer number – five distinct characters and speaking parts. I especially enjoyed him as Charles the Wrestler in the scene where, as a strong man, he’s bested by the underdog Orlando.

In today’s NY Times (07/18/ll) Charles Isherwood, commented about the Royal Shakespeare Company productions in NYC,  “… these are among the most consistently clear Shakespeare stagings I’ve seen, at least in term of simple intelligibility.” The same can certainly be said of the Green Theatre Collective’s “As You Like It” – and they were acting with the acoustics of the great outdoors and the wind in the trees! I never missed a word — or a joke, or an idea. The gorgeous language was completely accessible – for the time, the language of Shakespeare, of the actors, and of the audience was all one.

It was a privilege and a joy to see Shakespeare so well and so appropriately performed. Thanks to Sylvester Manor Farm for extending itself in the direction of the arts, and bringing this play our way. I’m greatly looking forward the Green Theatre Collective’s future performances.

So far this summer this traveling troupe has played As You Like It in Maudsley State in Newburyport, Massachusetts, at the Musical Pagoda in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, New York, and at Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island, Long Island, NY.

Green Theatre Collective will perform the play at Franklin Stage Company, Franklin, NY, on July 23 and 24.

Taking a curtain call -- with not a curtain in sight ...  L-R Melanie Closs, Hal Fickett, David Shaw, Jessica Glannone, Gina Rivera, David Gautschy, Brendan Boland.  Photo:  Robert J. Ruben

Taking a curtain call — with not a curtain in sight …  L-R Melanie Closs, Hal Fickett, David Shaw, Jessica Glannone, Gina Rivera, David Gautschy, Brendan Boland.  Photo:  Robert J. Ruben

Review | Double Falsehood by William Shakespeare* and John Fletcher* | Adapted by Lewis Theobald | Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

A rumored connection to Shakespeare’s the thing here — not the play.

Is Double Falsehood  based on a play Shakespeare wrote* in collaboration with John Fletcher,* that has come down to us through an 18th-century adaptation by Lewis Theobald?  Classic Stage would like us to entertain that possibility.  It’s worthy to examine Shakespearean controversies but — theater is theater and this is not a good play.  And there’s nothing of Shakespeare to experience in it.

In Valencia, Spain, Roderick, the older son of the Duke is dutiful and responsible while the younger brother, Henriquez, is a rake.  Henriquez, out of town, sends Julio to collect money from the Duke and, having gotten his good friend out of the way, proceeds to woo Julio’s beloved, the well-born Leonora.  Attracted at the same time (“double falsehood”) to virtuous, lower class Violante, he rapes her onstage (Shakespeare?).  Leonora’s father tries to force her to marry Henriquez, and Julio, returning in time to interfere with the wedding, is bested in a fight by Henriquez (?) and sent on his way, while Leonora faints and her father discovers her suicide note in response to the hateful wedding prospect.

Julio becomes crazy, ranting in the wilds and stealing food from shepherds, while Violante, disguised as a boy, is servant to a shepherd who, realizing she’s female, threatens her sexually, though she’s spared by the arrival of Roderick.  He’s there though, actually, to help Henriquez steal Leonora from her refuge nunnery (and Roderick’s the good brother ?).  He speaks about honorable action but (with inconsistency, not complexity of character) we see him collaborating with Henriquez to violently abduct Leonora.  Somehow, though (somehow?) they all arrive back at the ducal palace where Julio is reunited with Leonora, and so is Henriquez with Violante who, we understand, is about to marry her rapist (?).  I felt sorry for the actress, Mackenzie Meehan as Violante, who had to stand there and make that look like something having to do with Shakespeare.  There’s no girl for Roderick, even though he’s the first born and his father’s heir (?).

The characters are thin conventions;  the only one with any interest is Henriquez because he’s nasty, and played with vigor by Slate Holmgren, though Henriquez lacks the depth of characterization of Edmund in Lear :  he’s melodramatic rather than driven.  As questioned (?) above, and commented on by others,* several plot turns seem not only un-Shakespearean but anachronistic.  But what makes the play particularly dull to sit through is the language, flat, cliched and without metaphoric inventiveness.

The best thing about the production of Double Falsehood are the quotations from an interview with Jorge Luise Borges that Brian Kulick, the passionately committed and talented Artistic Director of Classic Stage, includes in his introductory essay to the play — nothing like close contact with a fine writer like Borges.  But there’s no contact with Shakespeare in Double Falsehood — close or distant.  That one can point to crossed loves and girls dressing as boys and the fast changes of fortune — well, that’s pretty general.

* For a discussion of texts Theobald may or may not have had in hand that may or may not have related to Shakespeare in writing what Theobald claimed was his adaptation of a play he said was written collaboratively by Shakespeare and Fletcher, based on the story of Cardenio in Don Quixote, places to start are:  Classic Stage’s introductory brochure, and the entries with bibliographies on Double Falsehood in Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia — the Wikipedia article in its skepticism of the link to Shakespeare is very amusing.

Double Falsehood  plays at Classic Stage Company in NYC’s East Village through April 3.

Review | The Age of Iron from William Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and Thomas Heywood’s Iron Age | Adapted and Directed by Brian Kulick | Classic Stage Company

(Also pertinent … Cry, Trojans (Shakespeare’s Troilus & Cressida), by The Wooster Group)

Just about the entire legend of the Trojan War is told — or at least “covered” — in The Age of Iron, from Paris’ abduction of Helen to the sack of Troy by the Greeks using their ruse of the “Trojan Horse,” all the way to the suicide of Ajax.  Brian Kulick achieved this mainly by appending to Shakespeare’s play, which is focused on a short period toward the end of the war, the “beginning” and the “end” from another Elizabethan play, Heywood’s Iron Age.   The Age of Iron is beautifully produced and you both hear the poetry of Shakespeare’s language and understand every word.

Even those Shakespearian idioms and figures of speech that are not current in today’s English make sense and have a strong impact as if suddenly one understood “Elizabethan,” a magic I can’t explain and that I found particularly rewarding about this production.

Was it effective to fit the whole story into one drama?  There are pluses and minuses.

Homer begins the Iliad at a time late in the war and concludes it before the war’s end, as does Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida.  Paris doesn’t slay Achilles with an arrow to his heel in the Iliad, there’s no Trojan Horse, no sack of Troy, no vote among the Greeks over awarding Achilles’ armor, and no suicide of Ajax.  In giving themselves a sharp focus, Homer and Shakespeare knew what they were doing — no surprise there — but there is great adventurousness and effect in Kulick’s telling of the story.

There’s a real satisfaction to getting the complete narrative, or most of it, under one’s belt in a single evening.  And not unimportant, it’s genuine fun to see dramatized the source of those famous figures of speech we use all the time — “Achilles’ heel,” “Trojan horse” (though I’d liked to have seen the horse).  On the other hand, in giving us the whole story, The Age of Iron loses some dramatic impact.  The play is presented in two parts, and part 2, where many people start getting killed off, and eventually we leave Shakespeare and move into Heywood, becomes overlong and somewhat wordy.

Still, the heart of the excellently staged (on a field of sand), acted, and directed production is Shakespeare’s fascinating, perverse play, with his language at full sail.  In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare turns on the tables on expectations.  The great heroes turn out to be venial:  Achilles doesn’t meet Hector in fair fight but pulls in his gang of Myrmidons to attack and kill him — and then takes full credit!  Ulysses’ sophistry beats Ajax’ heroism.  Troilus and Cressida’s pure love is sullied.  Some call that “problematic,” but to watch the conflicts and interactions of these fully written and oh so human characters is intensely interesting.  What a leap of imagination — the banquet where the leaders of the Greeks and Trojans agree to a truce so that for once they can drink and dine together, and can’t manage to keep the peace for the duration of a single evening!

Troilus and Cressida would have been enough to produce.  A more ambitious and overarching choice was made.  What would off-Broadway be if it wasn’t ready to fulfill new creative visions?  One leaves this banquet fully satisfied.

The Age of Iron plays at the Classic Stage in NYC’s East Village through December 6th. 

The Age of Iron - Troilus & Cressida

Finn Wittrock as Troilus and Dylan Moore as Cressida Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Review | Shakespeare’s Hamlet | Starring Jude Law | Directed by Michael Grandage | Broadhurst Theater

… a two man show …

Sometimes theater goers will say of classic plays, “I saw The Seagull — or A Doll’s House — or Hamlet — recently, I’m just not ready to see another one”. Fair enough, but Jude Law puts such a distinctive mark on Hamlet that, believe me, you haven’t seen this, ever.

His Hamlet is a younger man than most seem to be (regardless of the actor’s age).  His performance is athletic, unquestionably charismatic (the audience applauds after every great scene like after an aria in an opera), and openly vulnerable.  He listens to others intensely, and his words, thoughts and actions come as genuine responses flowing from within — the script falls away and Shakespeare’s character emerges as a real, conflicted, engaged man.  He’s all over the stage.  He gives himself completely, with a great actor’s generosity, to the performance.

Law does full justice to the astonishing poetry without any archaic distance to separate us from the language — we hear the way he talks.  In this he’s helped by the production’s unobtrusive modern dress that underscores the play’s timelessness.  You hardly notice whether the actors are wearing Elizabethan costumes or not.

The youthfulness of this Hamlet lays an interesting slant on his tangled involvement with his mother, his father, and the saturated sexuality of his mother’s new marriage to his murdered father’s brother.  “Why doesn’t he kill Claudius?”  “What’s his problem?”  To the many answers to that central puzzle, Law brings what seems to me a new take — though a man physically, he’s still somehow a boy living at home caught up in youthful conflicts.  The care with which he listens to others and himself suggests he’s still formative.  He’s not yet ready for the burden that’s placed on him.

If only the rest of the actors were as good as Law!  They are uniformly routine stereotypes in the way they play their characters (Claudius, Gertrude), some seem to be thinking about something else (Horatio), some are strained (Ophelia) and some are downright dull (Laertes).  They mostly spring from London’s Donmar Warehouse theater that has a big reputation, simply not lived up to in this production.

All the weight of the play is on two men’s shoulders — Jude Law and Shakespeare.  Luckily they’re both in brilliant form!

Hamlet plays at the Broadhurst Theater, 44th Street West of Broadway, through December 6.

p.s.  How interesting that two film actors created two outstanding Shakespearean characters this year — Jude Law as Hamlet, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago in Othello, reviewed by me here.

Review | Shakespeare’s Othello | With Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Ortiz and Jessica Chastain | Directed by Peter Sellars | Public Theater and Labyrinth Theater Company

… honest Iago …

This is a wonderfully open Othello, easy to enter, listen to, live with awhile with no sacrifice of Shakespeare’s language and meaning.  It’s done in generalized modern dress, with TV monitors used for atmospheric slide projections placed center stage like gleaming mosaics.  The actors, sometimes using cell phones, link naturalistic, current English and Shakespeare’s language so that one hears Shakespeare’s language as ones own.

The cell phones raise a laugh at first but they’re no joke, so when, for instance, the Duke of Venice needs to communicate with his military commander, Othello, the interactions are conveyed in a way that’s true to Shakespeare’s conception of the distances his play covers.  It’s part of the openness and breadth that characterizes this production.

Center stage beneath the bright abstractions of the slides is the slanted platform of Othello and Desdemona’s bed.  They are intense, physical presences — we’re kept very aware of their bodies throughout, her slim, pale femininity, his dark, muscular masculinity — and even when they have no part in a scene they’re shown entwined, enamored, while other action takes place around them, a visual embodiment of an essential truth of the play about loving — “too well”. Sometimes, in the free form movement of the actors, Iago looks in on them:  yet another reason for jealous Iago to be jealous.

All the characters are often onstage when not specifically part of a scene, which heightens the sense of the flow of nature, and the thrust of cause and effect that drives this story of love, ambition and human frailty towards its tragic conclusion.  Walls, in this remarkable vision of Director Peter Sellars, would seem like artifice.

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago is no lean, devilish, sharp dresser in leather slyly dripping venom into the ears of his victims, as Iago is usually pictured.  He’s full-faced, beer-bellied and very scruffy — a beer drinking buddy as we see him with Cassio, and even Othello.  Most remarkable — thrilling, really, is the way he insinuates and tempts openly and in full voice, a soft-sell with no hint of the secretive about it.  There’s no apparent reason for Othello, or Cassio, or Desdemona, or his poor shill Rodrigo, to doubt him — anyhow, who could doubt anyone with such big blue eyes (is this the first blue-eyed Iago?  certainly with a sweatshirt and baggy pants!).  Still, as time and events move forward, the characters, each in his or her own way, do begin to suspect, and the fascination grows as we seem them not suspecting enough — thanks to the synergy of their natures and Iago’s versatile play with them.

What an interpretation Hoffman has come up with — to make Iago actually look and act like the “honest Iago” Othello takes him for.  But the audience, with the benefit of foreknowledge, sees in the subtle range of expression in Hoffman’s face what’s being missed by the characters on stage:  his calculation, smart changes of tack, recognition of opportunity, glee at getting under someone’s skin — above all, his total focus on his goal: bring down Othello.  Playing Iago with such seeming lack of guile, while keeping the audience in contact with the truth about him, underlines the irony.  And it’s sure fun to watch!

As the seed of doubt takes hold, John Ortiz as Othello maintains his commander’s outer control yet lets you sense in a reddening of his face, a narrowing of his eyes his entry onto the tortuous path Iago has set out for him.  Ortiz makes his background as a naturalistic actor with a detectable New York accent appropriate, and even charming, for the tough outsider Moor, though toward the end he seemed strained to reach the vastness of Othello’s anguish.  As Desdemona, Jessica Chastain lets us see beyond the conventional blond ingenue to the talented and even feisty woman Shakespeare has scripted.

There are places where the body language becomes a little too loose-contemporary for the script — e.g., Desdemona lying down listless in the presence of those she doesn’t know well.  But all in all this production’s modern dress and techno touches make a welcome bridge between then and now but don’t distract from the fact that the play is timeless.

Othello plays at NYU’s Skirball Center in NYC’s Greenwich Village through October 4.

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