Monday, August 11, 2008

Ashland in July (part four)

A View from the Bridge

On our second day in Ashland (July 30), we saw Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner in the afternoon (at the New Theatre) and The Comedy of Errors in the evening on the Elizabethan Stage. This was unfortunate. Not only were these the two worst productions (in my opinion) of the entire season, but it also happened to be my birthday! It was very nice, therefore, that both the productions we saw on the next day were so good -- in fact, two of the very best of the entire season. I have already described that evening's play, Othello. The afternoon production was of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, a play with which I was not familiar. It's a wonderful piece, and the OSF has given it a fantastic production.

The quality of the production starts off with the director. This is the one play directed this season by former OSF Artistic Director Libby Appel. She is a superb director, and very dependable. Everything I've seen by her has been excellent, and this particular production was no exception.

A View from the Bridge was written in 1955, almost exactly in the middle of both the last century and Arthur Miller's career as one of America's most distinguished playwrights. Like all good plays, including Miller's, it tells a story at once localized and universal, time-specific and timeless. Eddie Carbone (Armando Duran) is a second-generation Italian-American longshoreman living in the crowded Italian dockside section of Brooklyn, New York, in a cramped apartment with his wife Beatrice (Vilma Silva) and her niece Catherine (Stephanie Beatriz). Beatrice is pressuring Eddie to do two things he doesn't want to do: first, give his consent to letting Catherine quit school and go to work as a secretary to a local plumbing company; and second, permit two of her cousins from the Old Country to stay in their apartment while they look for work and lay low to avoid the immigration authorities. Eddie reluctantly agrees to both of her desires, which lead ineluctably to the tragic outcome of the play. We gradually learn that Eddie is deeply attached to Catherine emotionally as something between a surrogate daughter and an unattainable mistress. The arrival on the scene of Beatrice's cousins Marco (David DeSantos) and Rodolpho (Juan Rivera LeBron) immediately complicates everything. Marco's old country machismo and pride come into violent conflict with Eddie's similar traits, while the blossoming romance between Rodolpho and Catherine drives Eddie to distraction with his misplaced jealousies and increasingly paranoid projections.

I don't want to spoil the plot any further for those who, like myself, may be unfamiliar with the play. So I'll leave off describing it by stating that it ends badly for almost all concerned. Suffice it to say that the story unfolds in a seemingly timeless way, like some classic Greek tragedy transplanted to mid-century urban America.

This production was perfect in every respect. Armando Duran was so wonderful in the central role of Eddie Carbone that he will be permanently branded in my memory every time I think of this play. His performance was so real, so moving, so utterly genuine that he made me absolutely believe he was the second-generation Italian-American longshoreman he was portraying. Hopelessly tormented by his impossible feelings toward Catherine, and deeply torn between those feelings and his loyalty both to Beatrice and to his community, Eddie's very Sicilian sense of omerta clearly distinguishes him from another Miller tragic hero, the pathetic, end-of-the road Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman. Duran's total commitment to the role was obvious. He was Eddie for the duration of the play.

Duran was not the only standout performance in this play. This was one of those OSF productions in which every single role was distinguished by superb acting. Vilma Silva is apparently incapable of bad acting. Everything I've seen her in has been memorable--Emilia in Othello, and last season both Katherina in Taming of the Shrew and Vera in Distracted. (I can only regret not having had the opportunity in past seasons to see her as Viola in Twelfth Night and as Isabella in Measure for Measure, two great roles for which she would be perfect.) The amazing thing about Silva's Beatrice in this particular play was how completely she disappeared in the character. Silva perfectly conveyed Beatrice's emotional quandary, torn between the conflicting loves and loyalties in her life. At intermission, I was stunned to realize I had seen the same actress in an amazing performance as Katherina just last year. Needless to say, the two roles are utterly different in character.

Newcomer Stephanie Beatriz was similarly perfect in her characterization of the critical role of Catherine. Beatriz very persuasively portrayed the budding and dangerously naive adolescent caught, like the other principal characters, between conflicting loves and loyalties--in her case, between Eddie and Rodolpho. Neither did David DeSantos or Juan Rivera LeBron disappoint as the two immigrant cousins, Marco and Rodolpho; both were completely convincing.

Mention must be made of the reliable Tony DeBruno in the key role of Mr. Alfieri, the community lawyer. DeBruno is a workmanlike actor who never disappoints. Here, DeBruno made Alfieri--who fills the role in the play of narrator or Greek Chorus--a truly sympathetic character, the one person with whom the audience could most readily identify. He rounded out the outstanding cast in this truly astonishing production of the closest thing to a classic Greek tragedy I know of in American theater.


There were two other plays that we saw on this visit: Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner by Luis Alfaro, and--for the second time--The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler by Jeff Whitty. You can see my rave review of the latter here, dating from our first visit to Ashland this season. Suffice it so say that both Judy and I loved this amazing play even more on second viewing than we did the first time. That's saying a lot, since we loved it so much the first time that we decided to plunk down the big bucks to see it on our second visit to Ashland, forcing us to drive home late at night and arrive back in S.F. close to midnight. It was worth every penny just to see Robin Nordli, Kimberly Scott, Kate Mulligan, Gregory Linington, Anthony Heald and Jonathan Haugen on stage running through this hilarious yet improbably serious masterpiece again. We picked up a whole lot of references and jokes we had missed the first time, which was great. If you are going to Ashland, do NOT miss this production.

As for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner--well, there's really not much to say, regrettably. According to the program notes, playwright Alfaro is the recipient of numerous honors including awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Theatre Communications Group and PEN USA, two Kennedy Center awards for New American Plays, and a MacArthur "Genius Grant." Those awards could not have been for this particular play. Despite its generally good cast (the standout was the ever-wonderful G. Valmont Thomas as the central character's husband), it left us--and the rest of the audience at the performance we saw--scratching our heads and wondering just why OSF had decided to produce it.

What after all can you say about a play in which the food-addicted central character keeps putting on weight until she turns into a balloon and floats away, happily leaving her loving husband behind even though he has been totally supportive of her despite her weight "problem"? That's about all that happens, aside from a subplot about the lady's oversexed, narcissistic sister and her "I can't commit" LAPD boyfriend. Don't tell me this play is supposed to be a metaphor about the importance of love and caring for each other. There are many much, much better plays on that subject. We actually saw some of them this season. (Viz.: Our Town, Othello, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, Midsummer's Night Dream, The Clay Cart, and A View from the Bridge.) They are all far better than this mess of a play. (If you don't believe me, check out this New York Times review. Different production, but definitely the same play we saw.)

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ashland in July (part three)


In view of how disappointing the production of Comedy of Errors was this season, the good news is that the production of Othello was its opposite in every way. The play, and all of the actors in it, were as breathtakingly perfect as could be hoped.

If you're reading this blog, I will assume your familiarity with this particular play. Although not quite on the level with Hamlet and King Lear, Othello is still one of Shakespeare's most popular tragedies, not least because Verdi wrote his greatest opera using the story and Shakespeare's own text (in italiano, naturalmente.) (If you are unfamiliar with Shakespeare's play, I highly recommend seeing one of the several versions on film or video, either with Orson Welles, Kenneth Branagh & Laurence Fishburne, or Anthony Hopkins & Bob Hoskins.) After the performance we saw of the current OSF production, I've decided the play is now one of my favorites.

Any production of Othello stands or falls on the casting of the two central roles. In this respect, the OSF production is a winner. In the title role is Peter Macon, a newcomer to Ashland with a resume loaded with extensive experience in Shakespeare at numerous other companies. Macon's Moor was attractively honest, honorable, strong and virile from the start, with no obvious flaws where Iago's poison might work its way. In Macon's performance, Othello was too self confident and in love with Desdemona to fall victim to jealousy right away. One could see Macon weighing Iago's insinuations carefully, rejecting them out of hand at the outset, and refusing to give them credence until it appeared absolutely necessary to do so. This is no mean feat, in light of the relatively short span of time Shakespeare gives in the text before Othello does fall prey to jealousy under Iago's tutelage. I like this interpretation of Othello. The more it seems to the audience that Othello will be able to see through Iago's lies and retain his confidence in himself and in Desdemona, the more the inherent tension of the action and the ultimate tragic outcome of the play are heightened.

The other key role, of course, is Iago. The first half of the play really belongs to Iago; in many ways, he is the principal character until the moment that Othello succumbs to jealousy. This production benefits from one of the most perfect actors to play this role I could imagine. Anybody who knows Dan Donohue's work at OSF will know instantly what I mean. Last season he gave Caliban a creepily nonhuman, subterranean quality in The Tempest, and invested his Mercutio with such frighteningly manic energy that one suspected some of the Veronese youth in the ambiguously modern production of Romeo and Juliet had been experimenting with illegal substances. All of these qualities are appropriate to Iago as well, to be sure, and were certainly present in Donohue's portrayal.

But Donohue's was a perfectly calibrated reading with no hint of overacting or forced "villainy." To the contrary; his Iago's soliloquies were understated and quietly conversational as though he was making his plans up as he went along and inviting the audience along to help him work them out, rather than arriving on the scene as a fully formed villain to inform us of his carefully thought-out plan for vengeance. This was an almost creepily realistic interpretation, in that it made the audience feel complicit in what Iago was doing until it was too late to stop the terrifying chain of events. It was as though we were watching a truant boy playing with matches and combustibles without being able to stop him, while simultaneously becoming increasingly fascinated by his potential for senseless arson and wanton destruction. Get the idea? It gave me chills while I watched it. It still does! I found myself actually gasping audibly at key moments, even though I'm well familiar with the play and the text.

Iago's foil, Cassio, was well played by Danforth Comins. Cassio is not a particularly deep or complex character, but Comins made him interesting and sympathetic. I should mention that Comins is absolutely riveting and superb as the title character in this season's Coriolanus, a play which no afficiado of either the OSF or Shakespeare should miss. (See my earlier review, here.)

The only slightly weak point in the production, from my perspective, was the Desdemona of Sarah Rutan. Her reading was a bit too contemporary for my taste, both in inflection and in the "I am woman, hear me roar" style of her acting. Call me old fashioned, but I think the tragedy works better if Desdemona is more gentle and feminine than strong and willful. Think Juliet rather than Katherina. It is then all the more horrifying that Othello should fall prey to Iago's insinuations and suspect her virtue. On the other hand, Vilma Silva's Emilia--Iago's long-suffering wife--was flawless. (Silva, of course, was the incredibly magnificent Katherina in last season's Taming of the Shrew.) Christopher DuVal was a wonderfully hapless Roderigo.

Ashland in July (part two)

The Comedy of Errors

The second production we saw on the Elizabethan Stage was of a play purportedly by Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it wasn't at all glorious. Director Penny Metropulos has mounted a high concept production of Shakespeare's only farce, setting it in the American West of movie myth and indeterminate date. The production comes complete with actors giving their lines in irritatingly grating Texas accents and breaking into musical comedy songs at the drop of a ten gallon hat. For the first time at Ashland, I (almost) walked out at the intermission.

What's the problem with that, you may ask. After all, I wrote a good review of this year's Midsummer's Night Dream, which did a very similar thing by setting that comedy in a radically updated and very hip contemporary "fairy land." Well, in fact all of this Wild West schtick would be perfectly OK with me if it wasn't for one very big thing. And that thing is, that a very great deal of this Comedy of Errors production wasn't Shakespeare at all. At least half the lines read or sung by the actors, including most or all of the song lyrics, sure as goll durn don't come from the pen of no dang Shakespeare dude, dag nab it. (That last sentence had several more or less direct quotations from this Penny Metropulos "adaptation," just for flavor. Can you find them?) That was most obviously the case of the lines spoken in Spanish, and delivered by a character identified as Jose Luis who doesn't appear in any Shakespeare play with which I am familiar. Certainly not The Comedy of Errors. And Jose Luis wasn't the only newly invented character to appear in this production, either.

The one good thing about reviewing a production as annoying and misdirected as this is that I don't feel compelled to spend much time or effort writing about it. Listing the actors who did their parts well just isn't worth the effort. For one thing, in view of the heavy handed schtick, added lines, ridiculous accents, and phony dialectical changes to the text with which they had to wrestle, it was impossible to tell whether they were actually doing their parts well. I will nevertheless mention that several of my favorite OSF performers were in this production -- notably, Tasso Feldman and John Tufts as the two Dromios, Emily Sophia Knapp as Luciana, David Kelly as "The Colonel, a mine owner" (Angelo the goldsmith in the original), and Armando Duran as "Doctor Antonio Pitch, a snake-oil salesman" (Dr. Pinch in the original). Those individuals all did superb jobs laboring under the unnecessary burdens imposed on them by their director and the additional lines and lyrics composed by her and others. I can't speak for the other actors I saw on stage. I will simply assume that the campy performances they gave were the director's fault, and not theirs.

That's about all I have to say on this production, except that The Comedy of Errors is one of my favorite comedies, and I had been very much looking forward to seeing this one. I was therefore pretty pissed off at witnessing the way a ham handed director could ruin a perfectly good farce by loading it up with schtick and anachronisms beyond its limits of endurance. Simply put, Metropulos succeeded in draining the humor, the real comedy, and most of the laughs out of the play by forcing it to fit the silly concept she was determined to impose on it. I'm sure Shakespeare could have written a very funny farce about people like such directors, all too common nowadays. Unfortunately, it's becoming increasingly necessary to distinguish between productions of the real Shakespeare, and misbegotten pastiche productions like this one, cobbled together from a cannibalized Shakespearean text and pop culture cliches. Pity the poor dead Bard.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ashland in July (part one)

Judy and I returned to Ashland in July to see the rest of the season. (See my earlier reviews from our trip in May, here, here, here, here, and here.) We stopped off in Ashland on our way north to Portland, via Bend and Mt. Hood's Timberline Lodge, and then stopped off again on our way back south to San Francisco. This time around, we managed to see the remainder of the season, including the following plays: Othello; The Comedy of Errors; Our Town; A View From the Bridge; and Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. We found these five productions to be a mixed bag, with three of them of the very highest quality, one quite problematic, and one a real dud. (We also saw The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler again, just for fun.) Here are my reviews.

Our Town

We saw Thornton Wilder's Our Town presented on the outdoor Elizabethan stage on our first night. Our Town is a perfect play to perform in this setting, and it is a wonderful production. Although set with great specificity in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, starting on May 7, 1901, and superficially presenting in the simplest possible manner the principal life events in two village families (Gibbs and Webb), Wilder's play is actually timeless and universal. The action very simply recounts the everyday events of life and death in those families, objectively and yet sympathetically, without a trace of false sentimentality or mawkishness. We watch the characters grow up, fall in love, marry, age and pass away into death. As we do so, Wilder gently leads us to see that each and every moment of our seemingly ordinary lives is so fleeting and hemmed in by the inevitability of death as to be infinitely precious. The play is nothing less than a meditation on the most fundamental question of existence: whether there is any meaning or purpose to human life and death in the context of an apparently impersonal universe. In simplest terms, Wilder's answer is that life is defined by the inevitability of death; and that life is therefore given meaning by the extent to which we really live it. If we can become as observant and attentive as possible to each moment of the everyday miracle of existence, and stop taking the things or people of life for granted, the meaning of life takes shape in the very living of it.

The program notes from the relatively young immigrant Asian-American director Chay Yew recount how he considered Our Town "sentimental and dull" when he first encountered it in an "Introduction to Theatre" class, and later walked out of a regional theatre production, "bored and unaffected," when he was still in his 20s. When Oregon Shakespeare Festival artistic director Bill Rauch asked him if he was interested in directing the play in Ashland, Yew was naturally "apprehensive." Upon rereading the play, however, he found himself "at a loss for words--profoundly moved, awed and in a quiet joy" at the play's simple timelessness.

The director's confession rang quite true for me, for two reasons. First, it matched my own experience of the the play, which I found annoyingly cloying when I had to read it in high school. Second, in this new production as directed by Yew, I had the same experience reported by the director: a realization that the play was not sentimental or nostalgic, but actually quite moving and even profound. Yew's newly gained insights obviously enabled him to mount a production that brought Wilder's own intentions clearly to the fore.

The casting is completely color-blind, which greatly enhances the universality and humanity of Wilder's message. The amazingly versatile Anthony Heald--last year's Tartuffe, and an incredibly hilarious retro-queen in this year's Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler--serves as the foundation of all the action as the Stage Manager. I couldn't imagine a better actor for this key role. Heald's Stage Manager is warm, yet brisk; no nonsense, but with a gentle twinkle. All the other actors are similarly first rate. Particularly deserving mention are Richard Howard and Kimberly Scott as Mr. and Mrs. Webb. I loved the way these two actors melted so seamlessly into their characters that by the middle of the play one no longer noticed that Howard is a rather pale white man and Scott a dark complected African American.

And in that unconscious, subtle melting away of the superficial distinctions of skin color, the central message of Our Town was given substance: a message of universality, boundlessness, timelessness, and profound humanity. This production, so beautifully presented, made it clear just how great a play Our Town is. It truly deserves to share the glorious Elizabethan Stage with the works of Shakespeare for which that stage was built.