Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ashland Festival 2015 – part the first

Our American friend Jeff Burdick, an academic with a particular interest in Shakespeare, has again been lucky enough to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. He saw nine plays, not all of them by Shakespeare. It seems to have been a fantastic season, played in three theatres, so I shall break his wonderfully detailed critique into three sections. Today we’ll visit Jeff’s take on the plays at the Thomas Theater. (Naturally, Jeff uses American spelling!) The photos are from the Ashland website. I hope they don't mind our 'borrowing' them!

This year begins the Shakespeare Decade, an ambitious project to mount all 37 plays in the next ten years. Assuming I don’t keel over, drool uncontrollably, or forget who I am, I’d like to be here for nine more years and see it all. We’ll see.

I’m going to record the plays by theater because the theater environment makes so much happen. The first is the Thomas Theater, a remarkable black box where no one sits more than 7 rows from the stage, which is generally a thrust but can be reconfigured into a central square surrounded by audience. It seats around 300, depending on configuration. It is a beautiful venue. Stage spray is a danger, of course, but being able to see every muscle in an actor’s face, every ripple of emotion across the eyes – there can’t be a better way to see theater. Two plays this year in the Thomas: Pericles and Long Day’s Journey Into Night. I sat in the third row for Pericles, the second for LDJIN.

There are several elevator trap doors, extensive ceiling structures for dropping things down – all quite invisible to the audience. State of the art lights are used to great effect.

Pericles is strange in several ways. Shakespeare did not write the first two acts but did write the final three. The big question here is what did he see that made him want to complete the play? Perhaps money, perhaps he saw something in the frenetic introduction of characters and events that he could untangle into something that made sense. What results is one of the more popular plays he wrote, often performed, often talked about in his own time. And one of the few plays that almost no contemporary theater attempts.

The stage is bare. A series of platforms that seem to mimic waves, royal steps, a temple’s steps. A flat thrust toward the end where two elevator trap doors will figure large.

The play opens with a king offering his daughter for marriage. But there is a secret, a riddle. The answer, we know, is that the king has been sleeping with his own daughter, and the suitor who guesses that will be victorious for her hand. Of course, we’re bewildered from the beginning. Why would the king embed the disastrous secret in a riddle to be solved? Many have tried, many have died. The King wants his domination to be known, apparently. Our hero, Pericles, also a king, will attempt the riddle. The daughter is paraded out. Her gown is sleek and modest, rising high on her neck, but also quite sexy since it is a clinging, full-length gown, and she is beautiful. When it comes time for the riddle, she turns her back on Pericles: her gown’s back plunges all the way down to reveal her long and beautiful back – tattooed with the riddle, which is in elegant script.

Remember that this outrage is performed within feet of the audience – gasps of horror.

Her father has literally violated her body for life, and this is the body she offers to her suitor. Pericles, no dummy, solves the riddle almost immediately but couches his answer so he won’t enrage the king. (Yes, it continues to make little sense that the king wants to reveal and hide the truth). Pericles has won; Pericles must leave because he perceives that his life is in danger. And so begins a life of wandering, ship wrecks, a marriage and the loss of his wife at sea in childbirth, the loss of his child. Pericles seems to be cursed, storm tossed (literally and figuratively), and fully in the hands of fate, which is cruel.

The rest of the play will follow his journey and, in the very end, in what feels like grace, represented by a goddess, the daughter who was lost at sea and the wife who died at sea are, in fact, alive and well and reunited. The closing scenes gripped our hearts. I wasn’t alone in having tears in my eyes. Powerful stuff.

Alert: one must simply accept the fact that I identify with actors and events so much that I am frequently wiping my eyes. I am not stoic. One should not sit next to me if one is easily embarrassed. Or lacking a box of Kleenex.

So, what sets this apart? Music: each act opens with a chorus (If you’ve seen  Henry V you know how effective that can be) who sums up action, introduces the next phase, etc., certainly a helpful device in a play with 5,000 separate plot shifts. The opening chorus was sung, songs intervened at many points, sometimes actually taking the form of sung dialogue but more often in extended soliloquy or intervals. Following the intermission, the entire cast sings together, rounding up the plot points, setting the tone for the second half, when reconciliations begin. The music was a tiny bit too modern sounding rather than appropriate to the time but it was well done, and it was effective. The discoveries at the end of the play are caused by reprisals of earlier songs – a beautiful touch.

Stagecraft. My favorite moments, outside of acting genius, are the magic that can be done on stage, the illusions. Certainly the tattooed back was one of those. But two others stood out in this play. The first is the storm that washes Pericles onto shore. An enormous silk scrim covered the entire stage, painted splotchy with sea colors. Stage hands at each side rippled, sometimes violently, the cloth so it looked like the surface of the ocean. Pericles, who was drowning, pops up through a slit and with swimming motions (and submerging motions) struggles against the sea. Very effective with lots of sound effects and flashing lightning – but then something miraculous happened. As he approached shore, the scrim suddenly was withdrawn to the back of the stage and as its trailing edge retreated, it was lit to look like tumbling waves. Pericles is left on the shore with the waves retreating. Magic.

The storm at sea was a sight to behold. Again with the lights and the noise. Pericles stands on a swinging platform. The rigging where his crew are hanging on for life is swinging violently. Men trying to hold down ropes are unfooted and swing out over the abyss. I would not have been surprised to discover that my own chair was in motion.

The same swinging platform was stilled for a late scene when a goddess, who has suddenly intervened to set everything right (deus ex machina), is ensconced in her temple, and the platform is raised high so she appears as a statue.

The acting at Ashland is always excellent. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone, right down to the spear carriers, who was not fully dedicated and focused. This play was no exception. Wayne Carr played the lead and Amando Duran played the chorus – the two standouts here.

Unfortunately, costuming was poor. People were draped in layers and layers of mostly white linen cloth, pants that didn’t fit and that made them look fat and unkempt – very weird. At one point, Pericles entered wearing what appeared to be a Coco Chanel white fitted jacket with bright gold buttons. It did not fit, physically or any other way.

Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a harrowing journey. Four hours of claustrophobia. It is, in my opinion, one of the two greatest plays in the American theater: Glass Menagerie is the other. Streetcar named Desire probably should also sit in the pantheon, but it is of a different nature. LDJ requires, at a minimum, four great actors; five if you can get them. Ashland found five. Even the maid had us mesmerized. The staging was quite conventional: an old home, fairly shabby and old fashioned, though once grand. And all within inches of the audience. We could see every bead of sweat, every tear (and there are many), every ripple of a nerve across the face.

James Tyrone is a famous actor whose career stalled on the Count of Monte Cristo, which he bought as a convenient box-office draw and which he spent his entire career taking across the country, thereby destroying his art and his reputation. He is stingy, always afraid of the poor house. (These are based on O’Neill’s real family, though in a strange turn, he names himself Edmund and a dead baby as himself, Eugene – opposite the real names). His wife is an opium addict who has relapsed after a stint in the asylum. Two sons: Jamie is also an actor though prefers drinking and whoring, Edmund is the younger, more obviously sensitive brother who is dying of consumption. All three men spend much of the play under the influence of alcohol. The past haunts them; the future seems only to hold destruction. We watch one day as these four people who love each other desperately injure each other viciously time after time.

[Note that I’m also attending a production of the Count of Monte Cristo, the same version that O’Neill starred in.]

In four hours, I saw not one moment that I did not believe completely. The boys want to rescue the family. Jamie does it through drinking it away; Edmund is convinced that he can restore his mother to health – as she slips away into her own past. It is a tragedy and an unrelenting one. There is no redemption, no hope. I walked out of the theater reciting Macbeth’s “Tomorrow” speech – full nihilism, staring into the abyss.

“Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolf” isn’t actually more destructive than this play is, though I’ve heard it described as the most destructive play.

Simply an amazing four hours that slipped by and lingered on at the same time. 

Cast: Michael Winters (Last year’s Prospero, whom I did not especially like in that role, but perfect in this one), Judith-Marie Bergan (what an amazing actress she is. Every ripple of nerve and muscle in her face showed, her hands almost separate characters as she used them to absorb her shame and fear), Jonathan Haugen (Jamie), and Danforth Comins (Edmund), who is on stage virtually every moment and has to go through laughter and drunkenness and complete collapse – and everything was spot on. Autumn Buck as the maid, who stood up to this household and humanized it, seeing the quality that they did not see themselves.

Jamie is a drunk, and so one is tempted to see him as a toss away, nothing but a foil. But it is clear that he cares so deeply that he can’t do what Edmund does, and that is try. He has lived in this hell longer and with greater perception and without the optimism that Edmund brings. A devastating portrait – often funny, often so honest that it hurts to watch.

I identify with Edmund, and in fact one of his monologues was a piece I used for auditions back in my acting days. In some ways, his story parallels my own, so I come at this play with emotions on the edge. I told a colleague last night that if Edmund had keeled over from his consumption during the play,  I could have completed it for him, not because I know all the lines but because I lived much of this, too.

Comins was amazing in every way. He is on stage for virtually every minute of this play, and it is an extraordinarily taxing acting job. He can’t be just one thing. He must be funny and sober and drunk and destroyed and ill and angry and optimistic– one after another in such quick succession that it is amazing that any actor can pull this off. And he does.

Side note: He also pays Benedict in Much Ado (next post!). Also brilliant.

The final scene with Bergen, as she finally retreats back to a time before her children who ruined her life (who are listening in while their hearts break) gave me chills that lasted well beyond the curtain call. Absolutely believable as she put off her age and her damaged self to be the young woman she started out to be. I don’t know how old Bergen is, but I would guess well into her 70s. During this last scene, she sits on a couch with her knees pulled to her chest like an 18 year old, her eyes bright with the promise of a life as a concert pianist or, her other dream, being a nun – without the husband and children in the room.

Certainly one of the finest productions I’ve seen of any play. The play ended around 5 p.m.; I was still awake at midnight, thinking about it. 

Next week we'll see Jeff Burdick's take on the plays at the Bowmer Theater.