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Ashland 2016: Twelfth Night

Ninety-nine percent of this year's production of Twelfth Night at OSF is sheer genius.  The set design for its nominal 1930s Hollywood transposition is clever in all the right ways, nearly all the performances are exceptional, and the comic swordfight between Sir Andrew and Viola-as-Cesario gets the single funniest execution I've seen in the 40+ years I've been attending the festival.  (Clearly we'd best not ask how many calla lilies they've gone through since the run started.)

And then we get to the twin-revelation scene, and the magic evaporates.

Now back in 2008, an OSF production of Comedy of Errors attempted the daring stunt of casting one (count him, one) actor in the role of both Antipholuses (Antipholi?), and likewise one (count again, one) actor in the role of both Dromios.  What's more, they made the stunt work -- a very clever bit of staging at the tail end of the play skated around the problem of producing both sets of twins onstage at once. Note to Christopher Liam Moore, director of this year's Twelfth Night: do not try this at home. Or at least if you're going to try it, commit to the premise and run with it.

It's not that Sara Bruner doesn't do a credible job of playing both Viola and Sebastian, though here she is merely very good in a cast where everyone else is outstanding.  Especially high marks go to Ted Deasy for a beautifully dry Malvolio, Danforth Comins for a hilariously high-strung Andrew Aguecheek (all the more remarkable given that Comins' other role this year is the Prince of Denmark himself), and Gina Daniels as Olivia, here imagined as an exotically sultry but reclusive film star.

Part of the problem is technological.  In absolute terms, the screen-projection trickery that allows Bruner to appear in both roles simultaneously is ingenious, and the execution is period-appropriate for the 1930s setting.  But it's also unfortunately primitive (or made to appear so) by comparison to modern film and television standards, and nothing in the run-up to the finale prepares the audience for what amounts to a left turn into pulp-era science fiction at exactly the wrong emotional moment.

More troubling yet, though, is what happens after the magic doubling effect is dismissed.  Bruner is left onstage as Viola/Cesario -- but in the very last moment, finds herself being treated as Viola by Orsino and Sebastian by Olivia, literally pulled in opposite directions at once.  In theory, this is obviously a nod to the questions of gender identity Shakespeare himself raises in the script...but as with the special-effects trickery, there's been no foundation laid for this interpretation of the character(s) anywhere in the preceding two hours.  One can certainly imagine, nowadays, a staging of Twelfth Night in which the "twins" are in fact two minds in one body, with the attendant gender-bending consequences -- but this is not that show.

And as a result, the last few seconds in which it tries to become that show fall absolutely, utterly flat.  Which is frustrating in the extreme, because in nearly every other respect this is a home-run production.

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/43522.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2016: Yeomen of the Guard

[crossposted from The Lone Penman]

If you are a Gilbert & Sullivan purist, you may want to steer clear of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's current incarnation of Yeomen of the Guard -- it is, I'm advised by the G&S purists in our tour group, a sufficiently free adaptation that they might as well have called it something else.  (Possibly Boys & Girls of the Golden West....)

If, however, you're the sort of person who doesn't mind a little country in your sort-of-light operetta (Yeomen being the G&S equivalent of one of Shakespeare's weirder, edgier "comedies", on the order of Measure for Measure) -- and especially if you're the sort of person who likes meta in their fanfiction and more than a little audience-generated improv in your live theatre  -- then run, do not walk, to the OSF box office and book your ticket now.

In fact, while the libretto is definitely retuned for this production, it's not as severely mangled as my purist fellow travelers might lead you to think.  Though the setting is a light-duty Wild West town square with props and costumes that wouldn't be out of place on a Muppet Show set, it's still called Tower Green, the yeomen are still called yeomen, and the intricate scansion that makes G&S what it is remains largely intact.

Indeed, the most unusual element of this staging isn't the cartoon-Western set design at all.  It's the fact that about twenty percent of the audience for the show is being seated right there on that cartoon-Western set...which includes an actual operational saloon bar, where (if you're among that part of the audience) you can buy yourself a beer or a soda or what have you at any time during the 90-minute duration of the performance.

But the presence of a live cash bar onstage isn't, in itself, what's novel here.  What's novel is that the audience in what's being called "promenade" seating essentially becomes part of the cast for that performance.  Those sitting on-set will -- not may, will -- find themselves moving from haybale to rocking horse to billiards table and back as the action ebbs and flows.  An actor might unexpectedly swap hats with you during a musical number.  Another actor might call you out for looking entirely too much like James Taylor.  Or someone could spill their beer right into the players' main traffic lane, thereby becoming comic relief for the ninety-odd seconds required for an usher to produce towels and clean up the spill.  [Yes, all of those things actually happened the night I saw the show.]  And all of those moments combine with the crisp, high-energy artistry of Ashland's crackerjack repertory performers to produce something that's not merely wonderful but wondrous.  Even for the many promenade denizens who aren't pulled into the limelight -- and, for the more traditionally seated audience -- the resulting explosion of sheer interpersonal chemistry makes for a uniquely delightful theatrical experience.

The consensus among our tour group afterward is that doing the show that way must be even more than usually complicated and exhausting for the actors, though a few of us also pointed out that for at least some of them, it's likely to have been the most fun they've ever been legally allowed to have onstage.

One can only hope that it's a sufficiently successful experiment for OSF to do it again.  Because next time, I want one of those promenade seats....

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/43316.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Filk: The Errantry Anthem

Very belatedly posted; I premiered this at OryCon this past November.

Errantry Anthem

words: © 2015 John C. Bunnell
music: “Don’t Slay That Potato” (Tom Paxton)

Inspired by Diane Duane’s “Young Wizards” novels (and some of the fanworks that have drawn on them). 

Oh, magic, they say, is a game for the young, that’s played for the ultimate stake.
It comes with a language unique and complete, and a vow ev’ry wizard must take;
There’s also a guidebook with useful advice; still, there is no guarantee
That wizardry’s gift will ensure you survive first contact with your Enemy….

‘Ware, now, the Fairest and Fallen, Death in its pocket again;
A Choice it proposes, its voice wine and roses,
Its offer beguiling, its countenance smiling;
But wizards well know, if down that road you go
From Death you cannot turn aside;
‘Ware, then, the Lone One’s temptation; instead in Life’s service abide!

Stories are told of three kids from New York who’ve had an astonishing run.
They’ve taken the Lone One down time after time, and still seem to think that it’s fun;
They’ve traveled the spaceways, brought planets to life, and saved us from Martian attack;
And even their friends who have died for the cause still seem to find ways to come back….

REFRAIN

The thing about this sort of magic: it spreads, and rumors, of course soon ensue
That all sorts of people have gotten the Book and taken up wizardry too;
Black Widow and Falcon, we rather suspect, might prove decent hands at the Art,
But a certain small boy with a tiger of plush?  The thought puts a chill in our heart….

REFRAIN

The Powers are fickle, and choose whom They will; don’t fret that they haven’t picked you.
Not all They select will survive their Ordeals, and Death takes all too many who do;
But magic’s not needed to live by the Oath, so if that commitment you’d make,
Then wizard or not, simply live by these words: “In Life’s name and for all Life’s sake….”

REFRAIN

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/43135.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Much Ado About Nothing

On the one hand, Much Ado About Nothing is arguably* in the second tier of the Shakespeare canon, even if one is looking mostly at the comedies (Merchant of Venice, Taming of the Shrew, Midsummer Night's Dream, and Comedy of Errors being the best-known and most respected of those).   On the other, Much Ado has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, dating from the Kenneth Branagh film in 1993 to the much more recent (and very good) Joss Whedon version released in 2013.

This year's OSF staging falls somewhere between the two movies in atmosphere -- it has a Mediterranean visual style not unlike the Branagh film, but the execution is distinctly modern.  It's funny where it needs to be -- one of the best running gags has Rex Young's Dogberry zipping around on a Segway, and Christiana Clark makes an especially energetic Beatrice.  It's also provocative where it needs to be -- actress Regan Linton plays a wheelchair-bound Don John with credible bitterness, lending an intriguing dimension to the darker side of the play's storyline. 

The trouble is simply that while there's nothing really wrong with the production, it just doesn't sparkle as brightly as OSF's home-run shows of the current season -- it lacks the zip of Head Over Heels or Guys & Dolls, and can't match a play like Sweat on the social-relevance scale.  It's simply a very good staging caught among a handful of flat-out spectacular shows, and it can't help but feel a little bit overwhelmed by comparison.  For what it's worth, I'd count Much Ado as the slightly better show of the two Shakespeare plays we saw -- Antony & Cleopatra is a bit more unevenly executed. 

In terms of the weekend as a whole, though, this feels like one of OSF's strongest recent seasons, and I'd happily go back to catch several of the shows we missed on this visit (notably Pericles and The Count of Monte Cristo, though tickets for the former are reportedly very hard to come by at this point).

 ===
*Our nominal tour leader (an English professor from my alma mater) would argue with me about this.  She expressed the opinion several times during the tour that Much Ado is possibly Shakespeare's *best* comedy in terms of craft and characterization, which is one of the reasons she chose to have the group see it rather than the Festival's production of The Count of Monte Cristo on the outdoor Elizabethan stage.  Me, I'd have picked Monte Cristo....

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42831.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Guys & Dolls

By contrast to Saturday's shiny new material, Sunday brought us two solid theatrical standbys.

Discussing the matinee, Guys & Dolls, ought to take less space than yesterday's shows...simply because what we got was an absolutely classic old-school Broadway stage production.  Simple set (with a few flashy touches), briskly enthusiastic choreography, uniformly confident acting, and musical numbers performed with energy and verve.  A sufficiently trained ear might have caught one or two performers switching registers in order to hit one or two particular notes -- but that ear wasn't mine, and as far as I'm concerned, the door I walked through into the Angus Bowmer shell might as well have been a portal into the New York theater district.  The show was just that good, and while I am usually stingy about handing out standing ovations (unlike most of Ashland's theater-goers these days), it took me less than three seconds to get up at the end of this performance.

I'm struck, though, by one observation.  Where Head Over Heels (see yesterday's entry) got much of its energy from direct interaction with the audience, Guys & Dolls draws virtually all of its oomph from its own onstage presence.  It's not that the audience isn't on board and enjoying the ride -- far from it -- but the energy that drives this production is essentially self-sustaining.  And while this is far from a bad thing (overall, it's an indication that the show has been and will be consistently superb from its first to its final performance), it's a marked contrast to much of the Festival's other recent work.

Mind you, I'd still have liked to see Pericles Prince of Tyre, the rarely-produced Shakespeare play running opposite Guys & Dolls in the Festival's black box theatre that day.  But the show I did see was a six-stars-out-of-five production of a first-rate musical classic, and that's an experience absolutely worth having.
Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42588.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Head Over Heels

Strictly speaking, in one respect I am totally the wrong target audience for Head Over Heels, as prior to viewing this musical I couldn't have told you that the Go-Gos were, in fact, a genuine (and highly successful) '80s rock group.  Nor, despite having been the archetypical liberal arts English major back in the day, had I taken more than a passing glance at any of the versions of Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia.  And if you'd told me that someone had decided to fuse the Arcadia and a whole catalog of Go-Gos music into a rock musical, I'd probably have asked you what you were smoking.

I am now here to tell you that someone has done exactly this, and that the result is, to apply an over-used but apt modern superlative, awesome -- and I use that term in its classic sense, of "something which inspires awe".  I should add that where theater is concerned, I am not easy to awe.  Specifically, the librettist for Head Over Heels is Jeff Whitty, perhaps best known as the father of the Tony-winning Avenue Q, which may go some way toward explaining why this show actually works.

I'm not even going to try to explain the plot (such as it is), except to observe that it is (a) in the broad general neighborhood of Shakespeare's more convoluted comedies and late romances -- it is perhaps not a coincidence that OSF is also producing Pericles Prince of Tyre this year -- and (b) also in the broad general neighborhood of the two stage adaptations of classic Marx Brothers movies OSF has produced recently.  What's of greater importance is the degree to which the show doesn't merely play with the metaphorical "fourth wall", but gleefully tunnels right through it into the audience.  And that's no metaphor -- John Tufts, as a classic Shakespeare-league Fool crossed with the Leading Player in Pippin (and this show's nominal master of ceremonies), spent part of the intermission strolling through the house, plopping briefly down in one of the best seats in the theater while talking casually to various audience members.  At least half the cast began the evening by stationing themselves at intervals throughout the aisles several minutes before curtain time; I realized this when I looked up from my playbill, noticed an eight-foot pool of purple skirt stretched across the concrete behind me, and realized that the animated (and entirely off-the-cuff) conversation I'd been overhearing from the next row back was taking place between one lady in the aisle seat and one of the principal female players.

And it only got wilder from there.  When curtain time did arrive, Tufts strode out to center stage and introduced himself -- both as himself and as his character -- then went on to do the same for several of the leading performers.  Then there was the Oracle of Delphi, who admitted that her gift of prophecy was made possible because she was reading ahead in the script.  (Yes, Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem got there first in the original Muppet Movie, but Whitty and the Oracle -- later to be known as Linda -- promote the shtick from an amusing throwaway gag to a key plot and thematic point near the climax.)

What prompts the occurrence of awe, though, is that all of the Shakespeare-grade romantic foolery (including lots of gender-bending) and fourth-wall insanity is wrapped in a 24-karat Rock Musical soundtrack.  As I noted earlier, this was my very first encounter with Go-Gos music, and while '80s girl-group rock is not at all my usual beat, it was impossible not to be drawn in by the energy and vigor of the songs.  My only frustration is that the enthusiasm of the orchestra occasionally overrode the vocals during musical numbers, making it difficult to make out lyrics, but that was only an intermittent issue.

Verdict?  If you are a fan of any one subset of the source material (Whitty, Philip Sidney, Shakespearean comedy, rock musicals, etc.), this is a must-see.  And there may be a bonus bit of off-the-wall resonance for the genre-fiction fans in the gallery.  It occurs to me that Head Over Heels -- and the Go-Gos sound -- blends '80s rock and fantastical elements in a way that fans of Seanan McGuire's music may find especially appealing.  And in the reverse context, one of the more memorable performances in the show -- the role of Princess Pamela -- comes from actress Bonnie Milligan, whom I'd argue is a passable ringer for Seanan....

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42339.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Sweat

[curses oversensitive post-nuking netbook keyboard]

[deep breath]

Now then.  This was the first of two world-premiere productions we saw on Saturday.  Sweat is written by Lynn Nottage, and concerns a handful of industrial plant workers in Reading, PA as they deal with upper management's efforts to break the union.  There are two mothers, each with a son, one with an ex-husband, plus the bartender and busboy at the tavern where they hang out after work.  Most of the action takes place in 2000 (the date being tied to the ratification of the NAFTA trade agreement), but there's a framing element that occurs eight years later.

As the summary may suggest, the script's political slant is about as subtle as King Kong climbing the Empire State Building.  That said, Nottage's real story lies less in the politics -- however strenuously tilted -- and more in the tensions that arise when well-intentioned people make choices that force them into unwanted opposition to one another.  One conflict arises when one mother is promoted to a low-level management position both have been fighting for...and is promptly forced to help implement an anti-union lockout against her friends.  Another occurs when the Hispanic busboy takes a strikebreaker's job at the plant (the pay, unsurprisingly, being far better than his busboy's wage), thereby angering both of the locked-out sons.  Strong performances all around make it clear that none of these characters want to be at odds, but are propelled by circumstance into confrontations from which feel unable to back away.  I'm not sure how well this show might hold up in the hands of a less talented company, but for OSF, it's a compelling if uncomfortable presentation, executed thoughtfully and with conscience.

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/42096.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Ashland 2015: Antony & Cleopatra

Time once again for the annual Shakespeare Festival pilgrimage.  As usual, I'm visiting with a tour group from Whitman College (go, Fighting Missionaries!).  Not usual: my parents are sidelined this year owing to a (minor but perfectly mis-timed) health issue, so I am representing the family on my own.

The Friday night show was Shakespeare's Antony & Ceopatra, which we've seen (surprise) a time or two before -- most notably in 1993, when the then-artistic director was playing Antony and the tour group somehow managed to score front-row center seats, so that we got a row of Roman legionaries marching right along in front of us, close enough to step on stray candy wrappers and drip sweat onto our shoes.

I enjoyed this year's production, though I don't think it was the equal of the 1993 version.  The two best performers, I thought, were Derrick Lee Weeden as Antony and Jeffrey King as his follower Enobarbus.  I've liked Miriam Laube in other roles, but in this production Cleopatra comes off as too much a slave to her emotions rather than their mistress.  To be fair, it's likely this is as much the director's choice as Laube's -- that being OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch in this case.  I also recall the queen's handmaidens, especially Charmian, being more of a force in the earlier production, whereas in this one they were little more than scenery -- and disastrously costumed scenery at that.  [I am not alone in this last sentiment; our faculty tour leader allowed as how she could have made their outfits at home.]  Fortunately, the overall staging and costuming was much better, than that for the handmaids, and I'd count the production as a whole satisfying but short of being exceptional.
Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/41829.html); feel free to comment here or there.

OryCon 2014: Where I'll Be

OryCon begins tomorrow (where did the time go?), and I have an unusually busy schedule for the weekend.  (Three panels as moderator?  What was I thinking?  What were they thinking?  Don’t answer that….)  Here’s where you’ll find me:

Friday, 4 pm • Oregon • Funny Filk
*Andrew Ross, John C. Bunnell, Cecilia Eng, John R. Gray III, Frank Hayes

Sharing the songs that tickle your funny bone.

Saturday, 11 am • Idaho • Hold Onto Your Reader
*Shawna Reppert, John C. Bunnell, Diana Francis, Frog Jones

The wrong word choices can throw your reader right out of the story. Learn how to maintain suspension of disbelief.

Saturday, 1 pm • Hamilton • Back Story: Too Much, Too Little, Just Right
*John C. Bunnell, Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Matthew Hughes, G. David Nordley, Erica L. Satifka

What to use, what to lose. Writing the details without having to explain every last one.

Saturday, 4 pm • Roosevelt • Improv Writing
*John C. Bunnell, Susan R. Matthews, Todd McCaffrey

Everyone starts the first couple lines of a story and then passes the pad clockwise. We`ll continue each other`s stories for about a page and then read them out loud to each other. Not specifically for writers, any and everyone welcome.

Saturday, 5:30 pm • Grant • Reading
John C. Bunnell

Sunday, 12 noon • Madison • Synopses, Summaries, Book Descriptions and Other Horrors
*John C. Bunnell, Jason Gurley, Matthew Hughes, Bill Johnson, MeiLin Miranda

Few things exasperate writers more than condensing their masterworks into a single page synopsis–or worse, a 150 word book description!  What to include, what to exclude, and strategies to keep it fresh and reveal your voice without sounding unprofessional.

Sunday, 1 pm • Idaho • Structurally Speaking
* Dale Ivan Smith, John C. Bunnell, Matthew Hughes, Bill Johnson, Mary Rosenblum

Stories have rhythm. Is there One True Pattern, or can we mess with it? Are we really bound to the Hero’s Journey, or are there other models?

Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/41532.html); feel free to comment here or there.

And in the milestone department...

It's official -- I have all the relevant reservations made for my 30-oddth college reunion next month.  (It's "-oddth" because the college has combined my class with the next two in line, so we have a three-year swath of classmates showing up.)

While I've kept up with news of the college over the years, and been to a number of alumni events locally (last weekend's Shakespeare trip was also an alumni tour), I believe this will be only my second trip back to campus since I graduated.  That is much too long, and I am very much looking forward to seeing both the school and the returning classmates.
Crossposted from my mirror-journal on Dreamwidth (at http://djonn.dreamwidth.org/41463.html); feel free to comment here or there.

Confucius Say....

"I am totally a folklore pirate. Ahoy, mateys! Slow down your fairy tale and prepare to be boarded!"

-- Seanan McGuire

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