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Measure for Measure Review: A Shakespeare for the Age of Mike Pence and Harvey Weinstein, via Elevator Repair Service

There are moments in the “Measure for Measure” by experimental theater company Elevator Repair Service at the Public that offer the purest Shakespeare on any New York stage; this occurs when they project the Bard’s words on the backdrop as the performers are reciting them. But even here, it’s only when an entire verse is projected, and scrolls up slowly, that there’s clarity. Most of the time, the projected words are scattered, fragmented, overly large, scrolling up at great speed, all of which renders the text unreadable.

The scrolling word play feels like a metaphor for this avant-garde production of Shakespeare’s last comedy as a whole: It’s hard to read. There are watchable moments, occasional visual appeal in the design, even some touching scenes. But it’s difficult to figure out – or appreciate — what director John Collins is up to.

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Midsummer Night’s Dream Review: Public Theater Upstaged and Upstaging

Director Lear deBessonet’s production in Central Park of Midsummer Night’s Dream is star-studded and jazzed-up, but the first thought on passing through the gates of the Delacorte Theater is that it’s also been upstaged. The first show of Shakespeare in the Park this summer, ‘Julius Caesar,’ with its Trump-like Caesar, made national news and caused an angry blacklash. This led to disruptive behavior by some who attended, which explains why the Public has now hired security guards who check our bags.
That “Midsummer” has proven uncontroversial – except perhaps to Shakespeare purists – is surely all to the good by almost any measure.

But it suddenly struck me that there was actually a lot of upstaging going on within the production.

Danny Burstein as Nick Bottom the weaver more or less upstages everybody else in nearly all the scenes that he’s in, hamming it up as a hammy amateur actor. So does Phylicia Rashad as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, in all the scenes she’s in – except the scenes they’re in together, when he’s turned into an ass and she’s been bewitched into falling in love with him.

Annaleigh Ashford’s performance as Helena upstages the rest of the quartet of lovers, whose fickleness in love is aided by mischievously sprinkled fairy dust. Her Helena, first spurned by both Lysander (Kyle Beltran) and Demetrius (Alex Hernandez) in favor of Hermia (Shalita Grant), then madly pursued by both, gives a broad, physical performance — leaning on her would-be lovers like a large plank of wood, sliding inertly as they drag her across the stage, hopping up and down, shrugging, making faces – all of which call to mind both her Tony winning performance as the clumsy ballerina in You Can’t Take It With You and her eager puppy dog in Sylvia.

Maybe it would be more polite, perhaps even more accurate, to say these performers stand out, rather than that they upstage. Besides, these are the biggest names in this production, and isn’t a star by definition supposed to stand out?

But what should we make of Bhavesh Patel  as Theseus the Duke of Athens and De’Adre Aziza as Hippolyta the Amazonian, who is his bride to be? They are more or less upstaged by their elaborate, exotic costumes, designed by Clint Ramos – and by the huge dead animal (is it a wolf?) that Theseus slaps on the stage as the play begins.

One can argue that the director’s staging — all that clowning around, along with the original music by Justin Levine (a mixture of snazzy and soulful jazz) —  sometimes upstages Shakespeare’s language. (I’ll say here that, for all his comic business, Burstein stands out for his clarity in speaking Shakespeare’s verse.) But if Will’s words do sometimes seem to be pushed aside for deBessonet’s direction, such a dynamic is certainly nothing new — either for Shakespeare in the Park nor for Midsummer Night’s Dream (e.g. Julie Taymor’s production of the play, which opened the Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center .)

Kristine Nielsen, like Burstein, delivers her Shakespearean verses like a pro, which is ironic, because her performance otherwise baffles me.  She plays Puck,and is  the least puckish Puck I’ve ever seen – daffy sometimes, shambling at times, but lacking the impish energy one (ok, I) associate with the character. Nielsen occasionally seems almost to be sleep-walking, an impression helped along by her pajama-like costume. I’ve loved Nielsen in everything I remember seeing her in, from “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” to “Hir” to “Present Laughter.” so I’m tempted to see her as being upstaged by herself.

All this talk of upstaging may give the wrong impression. “The Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Central Park offers the kind of fun and free summer evening’s entertainment that the Public has been providing at the Delacorte for 56 summers — that my parents first took me to when I was four years old, that I went to every day as a teenager, working there summers as an usher, and that I will be attending no matter who’s offended, until I am indeed slumbering there while those visions do appear.

 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
By William Shakespeare
Choreography by Chase Brock
Directed by Lear deBessonet

Featuring Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); De’Adre Aziza (Hippolyta); Kyle Beltran (Lysander); Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom);Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom); Justin Cunningham (Philostrate); Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer);Austin Durant(Snug); Shalita Grant (Hermia); Keith Hart(Third Fairy); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute); Robert Joy (Peter Quince); Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy); David Manis (Egeus, Cobweb); Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy); Patrena Murray (Snout); Kristine Nielsen (Puck); Bhavesh Patel (Theseus); Richard Poe (Oberon); Phylicia Rashad (Titania); Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling); Judith Wagner (Mote); Warren Wyss (Mustardseed); Benjamin Ye(Changeling Boy); Rosanny Zayas(Understudy)

 

Scenic Design by David Rockwell
Costume Design by  Clint Ramos
Lighting Design by Tyler Micoleau
Sound Design by Jessica Paz
Hair, Wig & Makeup Design by Cookie Jordan
Original Music by Justin Levine

Running time: 2 and a half hours, including one intermission.

Free

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is on stage through August 13, 2017.

 

Review: Hamlet Starring Oscar Isaac at the Public Theater. Directed by Sam Gold

As you might have heard, Oscar Isaac walks around in his underpants in the Public Theater production of “Hamlet.” But the most startling visual occurs much later. There’s a sudden, striking and initially mystifying shift more than three hours into the show, when Sam Gold, its aggressively inventive director,  seems to have turned Shakespeare’s tragedy into performance art.

Polonius (Peter Friedman, in modern business suit) is lying dead on the orange-red carpet, when his daughter Ophelia (Gayle Rankin) leaves the theater up the right aisle to fetch the kind of huge metal planter that’s a common sight in office lobbies, pulls out the leafy plant from it, and dumps all the dirt from it on Dad. Then she leave the theater up the left aisle to fetch an identical planter, and dumps that on him as well. Afterwards, she goes backstage and brings out a garden hose, sprays her father with it, and lies down next to him, in the mud, the hose dribbling water. In this way, we see Ophelia “drown” onstage.

But they’re not done. Both of them soon rise up from the dead, and play with skulls.

It takes a moment to realize that Polonius and Ophelia (or rather, the performers who were portraying them) have turned into the gravediggers – a scene (which many directors cut or sharply reduce) that eventually leads to the familiar “Alas, Poor Yorick” speech by Hamlet while he holds up a skull.

One can argue that Gold is being practical here. There are only nine cast members in this production of a play that calls for more than two dozen characters. Polonius and Ophelia are now dead, after all, which frees up the two actors to take on secondary roles. And if they are going to take on new roles, they might as well do so ….memorably.

Yes, this will confuse many in the audience, but maybe confusion is part of Gold’s concept; isn’t Hamlet the character confused?

The unusual staging with Polonius and Ophelia is just the most vivid example of what’s evident from the get-go: Sam Gold aims to stir things up with this “Hamlet,” and he’s using his playbook from past productions to do so. Like his recent Broadway production of “The Glass Menagerie,” the set and costumes of this “Hamlet” are modern and minimal. Like “The Flick,” “Hamlet” takes his time; it’s nearly four hours long, although that includes two intermissions. Reminiscent of Gold’s recent “Othello” at New York Theatre Workshop, the first scene of “Hamlet,” between the sentinels, Horatio and King Hamlet’s ghost, is performed entirely in the dark; and then later the house lights come full up on the audience.

There are more syringes than swords in Gold’s “Hamlet.” The death of the King in the play-within-a-play is stretched out and played for laughs. Jazz cellist Ernst Reijseger is a constant presence on stage, underscoring the play, his presence sometimes acknowledged by the characters. This is a production that values cleverness over emotional engagement.

Yet, for all this fiddling around, and despite too many moments of director-engendered incoherence, Gold’s “Hamlet” ultimately worked for me. This is largely for the same reason that I was glad I saw the Gold-directed “A Doll’s House Part 2” – the acting.

Or, more precisely, one actor: the Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac, better known as a screen actor (“Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Show Me a Hero” mini-series on HBO), and as a recently-minted blockbuster star (“X-Men: Apocalypse” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”) But Isaac is also a graduate of Juilliard, and his classical training shows.

Now, Isaac doesn’t entirely escape Gold’s zealous directorial touches. He not only walks around in underpants and a t-shirt for a substantial amount of time — when Hamlet is feigning madness; he also comes out wearing a paper toilet seat cover around his neck. He delivers the “To be or not to be” speech lying down – which mirrors the very first image of the production (before the dialogue begins), of his father King Hamlet lying down on a folding table, dead.

But Gold’s radical interpretation of the play did not for me undermine the power and clarity of Isaac’s Hamlet (the way I felt Gold’s radical direction of The Glass Menagerie did to Sally Field’s Amanda.) Given how many extraordinary actors have taken on Hamlet, it would be foolish and maybe even arrogant of me to attach a superlative to Isaac’s performance. But he avoids many of the traps of the role; for example, he doesn’t love the sound of his own voice too much when delivering the most famous soliloquies in the English language. Isaac is adept at plumbing the lines for their meaning; his delivery is nearly conversational, and remarkably accessible. If he doesn’t emphasize the poetry of Shakespeare’s language as much as other artists have, neither does he disrespect it.

Isaac is backed by a few standout performances, in particular Ritchie Coster, who portrays Claudius, Hamlet’s murderous stepfather with a hint of thug about him (aided by some muscular tattoos); this seemed just right. Peter Friedman, always reliable, offers a solid Polonius, and Keegan-Michael Key, of the Key and Peale comedy duo, makes a vibrant Horatio, Hamlet’s friend. But Key is also the hammy player in the confusing play-within-the-play who milked his death like a vaudevillian, and Coster also portrays King Hamlet, the ghost, which occasionally added to the confusion (Is this King Claudius now, or King Hamlet’s ghost?) Gayle Rankin feels miscast as Ophelia — as fragile and distraught as an Olympic wrestler who’s gone punk. Or maybe that’s exactly the type Sam Gold wanted to cast; after all, Rankin plays Sheila the She-Wolf in the current Netflix wrestling series, GLOW. She certainly knew how to pin down that garden hose.

Read Hamlet

click on any image by Carol Rosegg to see it enlarged

 

Hamlet
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Gold
Scenic Design by David Zinn
Costume Design by Kaye Voyce
Lighting Design by Mark Barton
Sound Design by Bray Poor
Musical Direction, Composition and Performance by Ernst Reijseger
Cast: Roberta Colindrez (Rosencrantz); Ritchie Coster (Claudius);Peter Friedman (Polonius); Oscar Isaac (Hamlet); Keegan-Michael Key (Horatio); Gayle Rankin (Ophelia); Matthew Saldívar (Guildenstern); Charlayne Woodard (Gertrude) and Anatol Yusef (Laertes).

Running time: 3 hours and 45 minutes, including two intermissions.

Tickets: $115. $20 day of show lottery tickets,

Hamlet is scheduled to run through September 3,2017.

Will on TNT: Shakespeare in A Punk TV Series

“Who will want a play by William Shakespeare?” his wife Ann asks him, unkindly, in their home in the hick town of Stratford-Upon-Avon, as he is about to depart for London in 1589 to become a playwright. It’s a crafty first line in “Will,” a TV series that launches tonight on the TNT cable network: The show is clearly banking on the hope that, since almost everybody four centuries later wants a play by William Shakespeare, there will be an audience for a speculative TV series about his early career in London.
“I can’t spend the rest of my life making gloves,” Will tells Ann.
“We have three children,” she says in rebuttal.
But it’s no use. Off goes the 25-year-old William Shakespeare (portrayed by the 24-year-old Laurie Davidson) in the first of ten episodes in the series — a series that features, among other attributes, a cast of soap opera-level hunks and beauties in some extremely graphic scenes of torture, slightly more demure humping, and the first rap battle in iambic pentameter.

“Will” was conceived by Craig Pearce, an Australian screenwriter and actor who is a frequent collaborator with Baz Luhrman – on Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge, the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby, and even Romeo + Juliet. That film’s 1970s punk treatment of Shakespeare’s tale of doomed lovers offers a hint at the tone taken with Will, which uses a punk score. On his departure to make his career, we hear The Clash’s “London Calling.”

But the actors wear Elizabethan costumes, both the exteriors and the interiors are persuasively detailed re-creations of the period, and there are some clever almost-Shakespearean lines that one could take as the early stirrings of the future full-fledged poet genius.  Since so little is known about the young Shakespeare, one can more or less accept the scenes in the first episode of “Will” that lead to his first London production. We see Will seeking out the home of James Burbage (Colm Meaney) with a play in hand for Burbage’s theater company. But his son Richard Burbage (Mattias Inwood), when discovering this rustic at the threshold, laughs in his face, and shuts the door in his face. Will is saved by Burbage’s daughter Alice (Olivia DeJonge), who takes a liking to him – and maybe more than a liking? — and escorts him to her father’s theater, where James is right at that moment desperate for a play.

“I have a play,” Will shouts out. It’s about a heroic English king, Edward III (Shakespeare did in fact write Edward III, and some scholars speculate that it was produced as early as 1589, though most think not.) “There’s love, war, death and betrayal,” Will says.
“Does it have any comedy?”
“The Scottish characters are quite funny.”

The reason why Burbage was stuck for a play is that the hugely popular Christopher Marlowe won’t do any more plays for him; Marlowe is being paid more by a Burbage rival not to write..
There is something seductively evil about Marlowe – helped along by his portrayal by hot punkish Jamie Campbell Bower

But Marlowe figures in a plot that drives much of the non-Shakespearean aspects of “Will.” Will is a Catholic who has been asked to bring a letter to his cousin, the Jesuit Robert Southwell (Max Bennett), who is in hiding from the authorities, in particular the queen’s chief inquisitor, Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner.) It is illegal to be Catholic in England in 1589 (hence the scenes of torture), and Will’s letter falls into Topcliffe’s hands, thus setting up what will obviously provide some tension for the series. Will Will be unmasked as a Catholic; will Topcliffe capture and torture him? And what of Alice?

Since history doesn’t reveal for sure that Shakespeare was ever Catholic, much less involved in the Catholic resistance — among much else presented in “Will” —  theater lovers who are enticed into the journey through this cable TVland biography should be prepared to leave the Bard behind.

“Will” is on TNT Mondays at 9 p.m. ET

Shakespeare’s Death, and Death in Shakespeare, 400 Years Later

William Shakespeare is said to have died 400 years ago today, on April 23rd, 1616, at the age of 52,  having written about death many times and in many ways, as the chart below makes clear.

As Jim Neson, the artistic director of the Irondale Ensemble Project, pointed out to me in my story of the 400th anniversary for DC Theatre Scene, death was ever-present in the England of Shakespeare’s time; one in three children died before the age of 10;Shakespeare’s only son Hamnet died in 1596 at the age of eleven. “Certainly it crept into his writing and world view. Is there a more profound meditation on the subject than the soliloquy “To be or not to be” or a the last few lines of the 7 Ages of Man speech?  Henry V begins shortly after the death of a successful king and its ramifications, the central plot device of Julius Caesar is an assassination that triggers a civil war, Rosalind in As You like It is banished from the court “on pain of death” and Hamlet’s attempt to avenge the murder of his father ends with the entire royal family dead and the kingdom about to be taken over by a foreign power.”

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