By Pat Launer
History, tragedy, drama and death:
Hamlet, Richard, Henry, Macbeth.
It’s obvious; it’s very clear
It’s shaping up to be a Shakespeare year!
But there’s also so much more at play
From Uncle Tom to Georges Bizet.
From Zandra to Malashock and Eveoke:
Plenty to amuse, enlighten, provoke.
Well, if Shakespeare’s looking down, he must be a most happy fella. And if you’re a Bardolator, you are, too. Not only are we up to our Elizabethan ruffs in provocative plays, but at the same time, KPBS is airing a spectacular documentary series on the life of Shakespeare that is — incredibly — unearthing NEW information. Michael Wood has written, produced and hosted this spectacular blending of ancient and modern times. It plays like a mystery (and the Life of W.S. certainly was one). Ken Burns, eat your heart out. This is an absolutely irresistible production. Four-part series and two more to go. DON’T MISS IT! This Wednesday and next, 8-9pm on KPBS-TV (channel 15/cable 11). And, in case you miss(ed) it, it’s also available in book and DVD/VHS at pbs.org. Enjoy!
Last week, I talked about ‘Hamlet.” This week it’s “Macbeth” and “Henry IV” and next week I’ll tackle Richard (if I can get over the hump).
Sledgehammer Theatre, long-time lovers of blood and gore, supernatural stirrings and weird occurrences, is tailor-made for The Scottish Play. And director Kirsten Brandt really seems to be in her element. The wonderfully evocative sound design (Jeff Mockus ) is perfectly eerie and ominous. The set (Nick Fouch) is a multi-level series of ragged black drapes supported by poles (which serve as trees, ramparts, weapons), supported by David Lee Cuthbert’s ghostly lighting. The Weird Sisters (ranging from 3to 5 in number, played by both men and women) are certifiably weird. Dressed in diaphanous white, with faces gauzily covered and kabuki-like hand positions, they jerk and hiss like short-circuited electronic marionettes maniacally controlled by Hecate, their patron/high priest (usually a woman, here enacted by a man, the most malleable Ruff Yeager).
Brandt, as always, plays fast and loose with gender. The noble Banquo is portrayed as a stalwart, sexy commander by Laura Lee Juliano. Not only does her ghostly form appear at the banquet, but she hovers over all the later proceedings, draped in a ‘tree.’ Yeager’s King Duncan is a bit odd, dressed in a maroon velour running suit when he makes his first appearance, when the rest are in cargo pants, camouflage, leather or drapey long dresses. The costume design (Mary Larson) is the least integrated (and least comprehensible) part of the production. The rest flows well, and is generally well articulated, if occasionally declaimed. Brandt has rearranged parts of the text to excellent effect: The witches reiterate “Fair is foul” at the very end; there is a silent enactment of the brutal murder of MacDuff’s family as it is reported to him; and most interesting of all, during Macbeth’s Banquo-fearing musings (“To be thus is nothing”), Lady M stands high above, murmuring the same words as he, either egging him on or shadowing his forebodings and intents.
Donald McClure makes a brawny, intelligent/emotional MacDuff — potent, credible, sympathetic. But nothing is more potent than the highly physical, sensual interactions of Macbeth and his wife. Being a genuine offstage couple, David Tierney and Janet Hayatshahi exude a palpable sexuality. Tierney’s growing anguish is convincing. He starts out brash, aggressive and militaristic (if a bit bellowy), but, in this tightly strung script, he quickly begins to lose his soul. His Lady starts on an up note, strong and willful — “a smiling villain” (Oops! wrong play), not as evil as many but still self-assured and calculating at first. Her madness seems to come on suddenly, but it is frightening and convincing. Their growing physical/sexual distance could have been highlighted, especially in view of their early sensuality, but it is certainly intimated.
In a multi-role ensemble of nine, Yeager makes the most profound changes, from the casual/regal Duncan to the sloppy-drunk Porter, to the crotchety, kimono-clad Old Man with flowing white hair and beard, to the be-hatted Earl of Northumberland, Siward, here played as a dapper English businessman-cum-Inspector-Clouseau.
All the parts add up to a deliciously sinister evening. More than ever, “Macbeth” seems a cautionary tale. What better time than this election year to remind us that power corrupts, in the most heinous and damnable ways. All hail Macbeth!
Like “Macbeth,” “Henry IV, Part I” is also a leadership back-story. But here, the trajectory is reversed: a young, profligate man becomes greater with power. Prince Hal takes his growing responsibility seriously and is willing to put aside his puerile preoccupations to assume the mantle of a decent and dignified king. This year, the play could be seen as an object lesson, for pretenders or ascenders to the throne. Perhaps it IS possible not to have absolute power corrupt absolutely. At least we can hope.
Founded in 2000, The Poor Players mount classics that are true to their name only in production values. The bare-bones creations make Shakespeare relevant, current, lively and comprehensible — to aficionados and novices (especially young ones) alike. There are some delectable elements in this “Henry.” First is the clarity of the text and story, despite the many political/military machinations. Second is the precision of speech, which is more or less consistent throughout. Third is the edgy tone and take, which underscore the relevance and youth of the players and the protagonists. The performances are energetic and engaging.
The play deftly melds comedy and history, weaving scenes of court and military matters with bawdy antics. It’s the story of the rise and/or fall of three compelling characters. Henry, Prince of Wales (aka Prince Hal), the reckless, feckless youth who ultimately (in Part 2) morphs into a noble King Henry V. Then there’s that other Henry, Percy (aka “Hotspur”), his quick-tempered counterpart in the enemy camp. And of course, there’s Sir John (“Fat Jack”) Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest creations, a colossal personality in a gargantuan body, a witty, swigging, whoring rascal who’ll get his comeuppance later.
This vigorous triumvirate is powerfully portrayed by Poor Player regulars. Artistic director Richard Baird, who recently wowed audiences and critics as Hamlet, is terrific as that hot-head, Hotspur. He is dynamic and charismatic, both in his fiery rages in the face of battle and his teasing amorousness with his wife (sexy-playful Tara Denton). Baird is certainly a face to watch, and should be seen on local stages a lot more frequently.
As Prince Hal, Jeff Sullivan starts out a beer-swilling, dope-smoking, rock-music-listening slacker and practical joker but, like his character, he evolves over time, gaining enormously in stature and gravitas. In his Falstaff, Max Macke is channeling Michael Keaton’s ‘Beetlejuice’ with a whiff of W.C. Fields. But it works like crazy. He’s funny and quick-witted, appealing and sometimes appalling.
The rest of the cast of nine portrays some two-dozen characters, in director Baird’s hip, muscular, upbeat and updated production. The language, mercifully, remains intact. The fight choreography is excellent (Baird again, and Keith Hall, who plays several roles, including, hilariously, Falstaff’s right-hand man, the drooling stoner/drunkard, Bardolph).
Just one caveat about this surprisingly satisfying, if spare, production. It features a bit of olfactory overload. LOTS of cigarette smoking (in a very small space), and then there’s the air freshener spray. And for the auditorially sensitive, there’s also gunshot. But for the staunch of sense and sensibility, the show has all the history and comedy, action and emotion anyone could desire in the theater.
PRETTY IN PINK.. Hair?
No one could miss Zandra Rhodes in the audience. She’s the one with the hot-pink hair, of course, and the equally colorful outfit. And her scenic design for Georges Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” at the San Diego Opera was likewise unmistakably hers.
Just as David Hockney’s designs (for the jaw-dropping “Turandot”) were extremely painterly, each a stunning, frameable oil in its own right, Zandra’s creations are distinctly identifiable as textile designs. More abstract suggestions than direct representations, her trees are splashes of color, her rainstorm a series of light and dark gray slashes, her ocean a succession of undulating blue curves of varying hue. And her costumes! Orange and pink are frequent mates. But there are also saris of turquoise and multi-colored men’s wraps. But the most self-referential are the hot-pink, cotton-candy turbans that made no mistake who’d designed them and who’d be likely to wear them herself.
The glitzy opening night was Valentine’s Day, and many sported pink to honor the designer. Many others were wearing her couturier designs… one most apt, sported by Erica Torre of the Athenaeum, adorned with hearts and lips. Luscious.
And oh yes, there was an opera, too. Not typically considered Bizet’s best (“Carmen,” penned 12 years later in 1875, is still one of the world’s most popular operas), “The Pearl Fishers” has a somewhat silly story, unaccountably set in Ceylon. But the San Diego Opera has turned the infrequently-produced piece into a masterwork. The detail of the production is outstanding, starting with the design, continuing with the orchestra, under the assured direction of Karen Keltner, and the chorus, which was in excellent voice. Not to mention the angular, athletic and decidedly Asian-influenced dance interludes created by John Malashock. The high point of the choreography is the “wild dance of joy” in Act III, complete with wonderfully fanciful animal-head masks (even if the festivities are in celebration of the impending death of the doomed lovers).
Amid all this color and pageantry, the most dazzling part of the evening, by far, is the soprano — lithe, lovely and gorgeous-voiced Isabel Bayrakdarian. She plays a demure priestess overcome with love, while the tenor (a hunter) and baritone (leader of the fishermen) duke it out over her. We all know the tenor always gets the girl, but the first-act duet between the two men (“Au fond du temple saint”) is especially excellent. By the end, tragedy seems imminent, but baritone Russell Braun reneges on his promise to have the lovers killed for betraying his trust and inciting his envy, though it brings on his own demise. Full-voiced tenor Michael Schade is a robust and loving huntsman who escapes the funeral pyre with his priestess just in the nick of time.
The cast makes the most of the score, which boasts some beautiful, lyrical melodies. All three Canadians are vocally and dramatically impressive, but Bayrakdarian could break your heart with her glittering high notes and sumptuous lows. However hard that name may be to spell and pronounce, you’re bound to be hearing more of it.
The only complaints I had about the production were a bit of visual overkill, especially in the opening, what with trying to take in the music, the supertitles, the set, the costumes and the dancers; it seemed a little hyperactive. Rhodes’ designs, Malashock’s dances and Andrew Sinclair’s direction all became more focused and less flamboyant as the evening wore on. But then, there was that anachronistic gunshot at the end. Throughout the production, this seemed like a fairly primitive or fanciful society, with knives and spears and staffs as weaponry. And then all of a sudden, this gunshot comes out of nowhere. It certainly made for a stark and shocking ending. It was the final auditory image, but the evening’s other sights and sounds left a more lasting impression.
GET DOWN, GET FUNKY
It was two years ago when I first saw Eveoke Dance Theatre’s “Funkalosophy.” It blew my mind. Maybe you can’t go home again; this revised version just didn’t get to my gut in the same way. There seemed to be less hip-hop than I remembered, more of that evocative chain-link dance (“Fences”), less of the adorable and charismatic Anthony Rodriguez (performing his own choreography, ‘Hip-hop is Everywhere”). But the dark and painful, woman-killing piece, “Bonnie and Clyde ’97,” performed first by Eminem from the male POV and then by Tori Amos from the woman’s, remained as heart-wrenching as before.
The dances in the 90-minute evening were created by Gina Angelique or Ericka Moore. Moore is always striking as a dancer; her “Niggas Way Back” was especially stirring. And when she teamed up in other pieces with April Tra and Elizabeth Marks, their years and comfort together really shone through.
If you haven’t ever seen this evening of Eveoke, it will open your eyes to the variations and applications of hip-hop, whether or not it develops in you a ‘Funkalosophy’ of life. The introductory remarks by Angelique, showing people how to move to the music, and the later audience participation, seemed gratuitous.
Angelique and company, always making potent political statements, are effective in unearthing a female empowerment perspective, even in the hip-hop/rap world, an often-violent/ugly/misogynist realm. Her use of props (fences, balloons, apples) is imaginative, although sometimes it wears out its welcome. But she always ends on an estrogen-energized high-note (in this case, “Your Revolution,” by Sara Jones and DJ Vadim), which leaves us all (male and female) uplifted, energized and inspired.
Extended through March 14.
UCSD Theatre and Dance is a busy busy place. Three openings in one week: “I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle!,” “Richard III” and “Eurydice.” Hold onto your historical/satirical hat!
By the end of the week I will have viewed all three, but for now, I can only report on one production. What can I say? I’ve already seen five shows this week.
“I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle!” was created over a decade ago for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the country’s most renowned traveling political comedy company, which is hellbent on debunking the ‘official story’ of any issue they set their sights on. Many moons ago, in its early heyday, the show made its way to San Diego.
In the piece, the target of playwright Robert Alexander is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” that 1852 classic that gave us the immortal and much-maligned characters of the eponymous Uncle Tom (a latter-day Oreo) and the murderous Simon Legree (archetype of the white supremacist).
The play takes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, which she claimed to have been written by God, turns it inside out and smacks it upside the head. Her tired old stereotypes get to meet their maker, as Uncle Tom, Topsy, Eliza and company put Beecher Stowe on trial for perpetuating negative images and failing to get their story right. Each has the opportunity to reinvent him/herself and to tell the tale as they believe it should be told, retooling the story from an Afrocentric perspective. In the process, the narrative retains a good deal of its original power but also makes piercing comments on matters of race past and present. The bottom line is that, though the Civil War is long gone, the racial/ethnic battles are far from over. The UCSD production underlines the point, with its minstrel-show setup and ‘performances’ of racist/sexist/homophobic jokes interspersed throughout. Some of this material is ugly and awful, but that, of course, is the intention.
There’s a lot of fun here, accompanied by some wonderful stage pictures in Bill Fennelly’s direction. There’s also more than a bit of amateurish excess. Images are piled up in a Watts-Tower-like heap. Every black stereotype is highlighted and reiterated — onstage, in projections, in jokes, in multiple incarnations. All right, already, we get the point. Some of it’s amusing or pointed or painful; some not. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King find their way into the mix, as do police brutality, race riots, Civil Rights sit-ins, Affirmative Action. There’s Richard Pryor onscreen, and Chris Rock, presenting some of their unexpurgated material. There’s a hip-hop number, and a tap-dance. Blackface. Comments on the LAPD. The National Anthem to start it all off (everyone stood, and no one seemed to see the irony). The set, costumes, lighting and sound were all appropriately over the top.
But there was a disturbing conclusion here, too: The suggestion, by Beecher Stowe herself, that the book should not only be forgotten, it should be burned. Censorship is a surprising and unsatisfactory solution. But then, the piece goes on to an even more shocking ending. Topsy goes into the audience, gets aggressive, offensive, in people’s faces. And then, the pacifistic Uncle Tom turns to the spectators, who are by this time becoming noticeably uncomfortable, and he says, “Y’all think she came from nowhere? Y’expect she just grow’d?,’ making mockery of a line in the original text. Then, as if in response, the glaring, searching spotlight is shone directly into the eyes and faces of the audience, to underscore the point that we are all complicit in the plight of modern African Americans.
It’s agit-prop, all right. Making lots of points (too many, maybe) without a shred of subtlety. But the ensemble is terrific (12 actors playing some 25 roles), with standout performances by Quonta Beasley as the anti-social orphan, Topsy; Bradley Fleischer as the monstrous Legree; Owiso Odera as peacemaker Uncle Tom and Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha as the renegade freedom fighter, George.
If you like your political satire on the grand, exaggerated scale, with a huge injection of collective guilt and culpability, you’re gonna clap yo’ hands and stomp yo’ feet for this one.
THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Macbeth” — just as dark, spooky, intense and supernatural as you’d expect from Sledgehammer; it doesn’t disappoint. At St. Cecilia’s through March 21
“Kimberly Akimbo” — spectacular, uproarious, poignant, incredibly well acted and directed; at 6th @ Penn Theatre, through Feb. 22 (extra matinee added 2/22).
“Women Who Steal” — deliciously wicked, wonderfully acted, directed and designed. At the San Diego Rep through Feb. 22
“Fully Committed” — a genuine tour de force by David McBean; he’s a knockout: 40 characters — and a whole lot more! At Cygnet Theatre, EXTENDED through March 7
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.