By Pat Launer
It’s a perfect mid-summer for a Winter’s Tale,
Star-crossed lovers or a Rapechild’s travail.
Tragedy is the common thread;
But of the Current Nobody, nought can be said.
Shakespeare’s penultimate play, “The Winter’s Tale,” is more than a little tricky to enact. It requires a deadly storm, talking Time, a queen-turned-statue who comes back from the dead — and most famously, a man who “exits, pursued by a bear.” If it isn’t done right, the tonal changes can be frightful – a stark shift from tragedy in the first half to comedy in the second — and that second half can be rendered thoroughly unbelievable or ridiculously farcical. Fortunately, at the Old Globe’s Shakespeare Festival, it’s done wondrously right, under the pitch-perfect and meticulous direction of Darko Tresnjak. This theater visionary has already wowed us with intense and striking productions of Marivaux’s “La Dispute” at UCSD, “Pericles” at the Globe and a light-hearted “Comedy of Errors” that’s running this summer on the Festival Stage. Now, he tackles the tragic-comedy Shakespeare wrote just a few years before his death and right before his final masterpiece, “The Tempest.” The two plays bear more than a passing resemblance; in both, a powerful man heaps misery on those he considers his adversaries, but he eventually finds his way to forgiveness, reconciliation and a more robust ability to love.
Many of Shakespeare’s earlier themes and character types also appear here: a wildly jealous leader who accuses his wife of infidelity and is (directly or indirectly) responsible for her death. The demise of a young son, the banishment of a daughter. The exiled princess raised as a rustic. Loyal courtiers who will not be compromised and tell their leader the unvarnished truth. A courtroom scene where the accused is humiliated. A royal court contrasted with an idyllic pastoral locale. Simple and wise country-folk, sycophants and connivers, and young lovers from feuding families.
Every episode has something of the fable about it. There is no real villain here (except for King Leontes, in his violent rage, warring with his own better nature). But there is magic and redemption and a happy ending for all (well, almost all; the beleaguered servant stays inside the bear, and the young prince remains dead, though his mother is revivified and his sister is reunited with the family). In the play, it is women who soften a madman’s heart and help him to heal. So it makes perfect sense that Tresnjak would turn the Chorus into Time, an elegant, white-clad female, who guards an hourglass, changes the season, sprinkles snowflake-white petals on the coffin of a dead young prince. And near the end, when the statue of Hermione, the wronged Queen, is about to be brought to life, she appears draped across the lap of Time, in a gorgeous, two-woman Pietà . Tresnjak creates many beautiful, subtle images that echo Shakespeare’s heart-rending words. A rocking-horse opens the production, the young prince, Mamilius (earnest, convincing Michael Drummond), playing wistfully with his toy, dropping those ‘snowflakes’ on it, a portent of the wintry end that will cut short his childhood. Later, his father, the King, will call his Queen a “hobby-horse,” meaning an adulteress. In similar fashion, York Kennedy’s delicate and sumptuous lighting repeatedly forefronts or highlights the action, just as Christopher Walker’s sound and music underscore it. Linda Cho’s costumes reflect the dichotomous nature of the play’s disparate parts: rich colors for the court in Sicilia , bright, garish attire for the Bohemian rustics. The raucous sheep-shearing festival is filled with laughter, love, joy – and a polka!
The performances are magnificent. Bruce Turk makes the crazed mood-swings of Leontes credible and his anguished grief palpable. His reunion with his long-dead spouse, played with stately, elegant majesty by his real-life wife, Katie MacNichol , is heartbreaking. Charles Janasz is marvelous as the King’s loyal adviser, Camillo , and Kandis Chapell is a wonder as Paulina , the indomitable courtier who is merciless with the King in staunchly defending the Queen and reminding him of his wrongs. Yet it is also her wizardry that ultimately brings Hermione back, when after 16 years, she feels the King has grieved enough and is ready for redemption and reconciliation.
Tom Hammond is affable and thoroughly likable (except when he reproves his son) as King Polixenes , whose lifelong-friend, Leontes, accuses of infidelity and betrayal and schedules for assassination. Jonathan McMurtry is ideal as the Old Shepherd who finds and raises the abandoned baby princess. He’s forever frustrated by his Clownish son (amusing Liam Craig) and the thief Aytolycus (the very funny — but not musical — Evan Zes ) who can rob the shirt off a back — and even pilfer a few items from the front-row audience. As the unwitting young lovers, children to the two Kings, Matt Biedel is brawny and adorable, while Eve Danzeisen is somewhat shrill and lusty, showing no sign of her royal birth. But they’re completely, believably lovestruck .
This may be one of the most stunning and cunning productions of this play you’ll ever see. Tresnjak has spoken of his love for Shakespeare’s “bruised beauties,” the sometimes neglected plays. His sensitivity and dramatic wizardry makes them dazzling, incandescent and irresistible.
In repertory on the Old Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
Uncanny. Two new Japanese-inspired anti-war dramas playing in town at the same time: Marianne McDonald’s contemplative, elegiac “…and then he met a woodcutter” and Nick Green’s violent, hard-hitting “Chrysalis Rapechild.” One is informed by Noh drama; the other by the ultra-violent anime. Both designers (George Yé and Nick Fouch) created stark, Zen-like environments. A lone tree. A single white flower. Both directors have been true to their source and inspiration. George Yé’s production is as spare as a koan; Esther Emery’s “Rapechild” is fraught with danger, militancy, battles and death. Both plays have Buddhist underpinnings, the authors citing historical texts as resources. Both make powerful statements about the effects and cost of war, though McDonald’s play unfolds in 16th century Japan , and Green’s is set in a former and futuristic world of the imagination, in a time of warlords and body-strewn battlefields. The implications for our current political quagmire are clear: Yé makes his allusions direct, with explicit video projections of Vietnam and G.W. Bush. One of McDonald’s central characters is a woman who has lost so much all she wants to do is kill herself . Emery (and Green) keep their references and relevance covert, implied. They introduce a woman who wants to be a warrior (in order to exact revenge), and two soldiers who blindly follow orders, no matter how absurd they are (‘watch that flower,’ they’re told – and they do).
Both productions are beautiful to behold, striking and stylized. Ye’s is slow and precise, Emery’s is equally scrupulous, but more aggressive. Both use puppets – traditional shadow puppets by Yé, life-sized dummies by Emery (designed by her mate, Fouch), as well as a huge, two-person, fiery-eyed monster for the warlord. The dummies represent the dead, and they repeatedly fall and ‘bleed’, their heads cleverly dropping as a red scarf ‘spurts’ from their necks. Both plays sometimes tend toward the didactic, both could use tightening, and both make their philosophical points too directly at times, quite obliquely at others. Emery had the advantage of working with far more experienced actors, and that makes a difference in the level of production.
Robin Christ is potent and disquieting as Shade, the evil ghost-mother of Rapechild – partnered with the haunting presence of Butoh dancer Charlene Penner, who worms her way into Rapechild’s being. Together, they represent the immoral, malevolent force of vengeance, fighting violence and murder with violence and murder. The ghostly apparition exhorts the young girl to kill the father who slaughtered her mother. Janet Hayatshahi is powerful and compelling as the nameless Woman, a war profiteer who finds the abandoned baby and takes her in, just as she picks up anything else she can nab from the dead on the battlefield. She tries to raise the girl with positive values, even in the midst of insanity and mayhem.
Similarly multi-faceted are the two soldiers. David Tierney, the older and more experienced (Soldier 2), is in love with the beautiful young Rapechild, and he teaches her to wield a sword, though he tries to protect her from danger. Bryan Swarberg is Soldier 1, a doltish, unquestioning combatant who only does what he’s told by a commanding officer. He kisses Rapechild, who’s fallen for him, but he’s quick to betray her to satisfy his own hunger. Joey Minnich provides comic relief as the antic Monkey who jumps around spewing guidance and spouting Buddhist wisdom. As Rapechild, Rhianna Basore starts off innocent, ingenuous, but becomes increasingly worldly, combative, indomitable , though doomed. She grows with the role and demonstrates the perils of perpetuating violence.
McDonald’s play ends on a note of hope; people can change and they can act selflessly. Even diehard samurai warriors can display altruism and compassion – even for their sworn enemies. Green’s play ends far more darkly; we’re left with the feeling that the violent cycle will inevitably continue.
Emery, who serves as both producer and director of “Chrysalis Rapechild,” is using the space and treading in the theatrical footsteps of Sledgehammer theatre. Hers is a dazzling production, forceful, violent, visually arresting, enhanced by Nick Fouch’s multi-level set and Jennifer Setlow’s spectacular lighting — blood-red for the excellently staged battles (choreographed by Andy Lowe and Raab Rashi ), with stunning pinpoint spots on a face, a flower. The set, lighting and Paul Peterson’s forceful sound design are magnificently integrated.
Ultimately, it all depends on your taste in Japanese theatrics. Do you favor the traditional or the futuristic? Quiet fatalistic acceptance or an uncompromising assault on life? The meditative or the cantankerous? Of course, you don’t have to choose. You can indulge your yin and yang, and see both.
“Chrysalis Rapechild” plays at Sledgehammer Theatre, through August 14.
“…and then he met a woodcutter” just completed its run at Cygnet Theatre.
QUÉ PASA, R&J?
Three dozen kids, nine high schools, two border communities and one Bard. For two years, the Romeo y Julieta Project, an educational outreach program of the Old Globe and a co-production of the Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT), has worked with scores of students to prepare a bilingual, binational , bicultural production of Shakespeare’s timeless love story. I attended the final performance, in Chula Vista , and it was a total trip. The kids were really into it, the bleachers at Memorial Park were full. The energy was high and the dancing was stupendous. Many of these kids attend the Preparatoria Federal Lázaro Cárdenas, which has an intensive dance program. In the ‘masked ball’ scene, they demonstrated terrific talent in a huge array of styles – from waltz to salsa to hip hop to (surprisingly) Irish step-dancing and Broadway tap. The standout mover was Antonio Gonzalez as a black-clad, skeleton-masked Death figure (La Muerte ), who haunted the proceedings, moving stealthily (or with jerky Michael Jackson maneuvers) to insinuate himself in the action and foreshadow the coming doom. From what I’ve heard, the Globe is going to help the mega-talented 18 year-old pursue professional dance training and career.
Under the direction of Peter Webster (who also translated and adapted the play), there were many fascinating twists on the original. Romeo and his family, for example, were all Anglo. Juliet/ Julieta and her clan were all Latino. The friends and followers were a racially mixed bunch, and the languages were intertwined as well.
For each of the performances (three in Tijuana , two in San Diego ), the English-Spanish balance was different. It was 70%/30% in Friday’s Balboa Park performance, but more like 50/50 in Chula Vista . There were even some performances where Mixteca , an indigenous language, was used. That required flexibility and linguistic agility on the part of the alternating cast. Not unexpectedly, the native speakers of each language were more comfortable, clear and fluent in their mother tongue. But everyone did a fine job. The cast I saw included Karina Torres García as a very volatile Juliet, and Michael Guzik as a more centered, but no less determined, Romeo. Matios E. C. Berhé had both potent and humorous moments as Mercutio/Mercutio (at one performance, the role of ‘ Mercutia ’ was played by a girl). There were a few adult actors as well, including Sandra Ruiz as Juliet’s strong-minded mother, and Blair Whitcomb as a benign Friar Lawrence. It was obvious that the message of family feuds and street fighting, gangs and divided loyalties, repercussions and reconciliations, were not lost on the participants or the observers. This was an impressive effort for all concerned. It’s possible that this experience even served as a life-changing experience for some cast-members. Here’s hoping the project is re-funded for more cross-border examination of the seminal works – and potential effects—of the theater.
At the Lyceum Theatre, through July 31.
NO WORD ON NOBODY
Caught the last performance of the La Jolla Playhouse Page to Stage production of “Current Nobody,” the latest creation of playwright Melissa James Gibson ([sic], “Suitcase”)… and boy, am I frustrated! The works-in-progress of the PTS project prohibit any critical review. So, mum’s the word, though I wish I could say more. Look for this provocative play in a full production, hopefully some time in the near future.
HOT TIME IN THE OLD TOWN
Broadway is sizzling this summer. Not only the weather is hot, but the Great White Way is blazing. Eight weeks into the 2005-6 season , box office sales are up 9% over last summer, with a 5% increase in attendance, making for the industry’s fastest start ever. Six musicals (including “The Lion King,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Monty Python’s Spamalot ,” – soon to be seen at the Wynn Las Vegas) were playing to capacity and selling standing-room tix. Several dramas (“Doubt,” “The Pillowman ,” “Primo”) are also doing record business. Probably due to a big tourist influx (thanks to the weak dollar), even old warhorses (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Phantom of the Opera”) have been at near-capacity. This puts Bway on track to set records for attendance and gross sales. I hope the trend is contagious, and spreads westward.
HOT NEWS FROM THE BARD
Good news for Bardolators . The theatrical sovereigns of England — Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen — have announced that they’re embarking on a year-long festival that will present every play, sonnet and long poem written by William Shakespeare. The Complete Works, as the festival is called, will be staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford , beginning April 2006. It’s billed as the first time that all the Bard’s 37 pieces have been presented at one event. It also promises to be the biggest festival in the history of the RSC, which will stage 15 of the productions, including a new musical version of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” starring Dench, and the return of McKellen as King Lear. Theater companies from around the world are lined up to take part. Actors will perform in the 1000-seat Courtyard Theatre (scheduled to open July 2006), in a new outdoor theatre – The Dell – and a temporary 100-seat studio, as well as in Holy Trinity Church , the burial place of The Bard.
QUEER EYE ON ANATEVKA
Just got this hilarious news bulletin from Josh Ellis (former communications director for the La Jolla Playhouse), now living in New York :
“ With news that Rosie O’Donnell will be playing Golde opposite Harvey Fierstein on Broadway in “Fiddler on the Roof,” beginning shortly after Labor Day, I feel there is a new gay spirit in Anatevka. This may be very confusing to Yente the Matchmaker.”
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“The Winter’s Tale” – beautifully designed and directed. Director Darko Tresnjak is a wonder, and he teases outstanding performances from his talented ensemble.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“Moonlight and Magnolias” – the comic backstory behind the screenplay of ‘Gone with the Wind.” Great performances, and lots of laughs (often based on clever references to GWTW).
At the Old Globe, through August 14.
“Confessions of a Mormon Boy” – not much new ground broken in this coming-out story, but writer/performer Steven Fales is irresistible.
At Diversionary Theatre, through August 21.
“The Merchant of Venice ” – Richard Baird does it again. Excellent direction, marvelous performance (Shylock). Sensitive and nuanced production.
At the Academy of Performing Arts in la Mesa ; thru August 14.
“Tomfoolery” – great comical/cynical/musical fun. Tom Lehrer’s satirical songs are timeless… and versatile, irresistible performer Kristen Mengelkoch makes them sing!
A Renaissance Theatre co-production, at North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 7.
“Macbeth” – marvelous direction (Paul Mullins), costumes (Linda Cho ) and truly spooky, chilling moments make this “ MacB ” a standout.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“The Comedy of Errors” – Director Darko Tresnjak shows his sillier side, with a farcical, slapstick production that’s precisely directed and humorously performed.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“ 42nd Street ” – glorious celebration of Bway’s glory days. Wonderful performances, outstanding choreography and dancing. Sheer delight!
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 28.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , closing (after >250 performances), on September 4.
Do something august this August: go to the theater.
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.