Thursday, January 1, 2015

We will serve no wine past its time

When I finally rolled out of bed just past 11 a.m. PST on this first day of 2015 I found quite an array of stuff scattered about the floor:
  • An empty bottle that once contained José Michel & Fils Pinot Meunier Brut
  • The remnants of a 2014 New York Times crossword-a-day calendar
  • The empty box from the 2015 New York Times crossword-a-day calendar
  • Three astronomy magazines
  • My reading and crossword cheater specs
  • A copy of Food and Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast
  • A trail of hastily discarded clothing that extended out the room, down the stairs, and into the main-level hallway below
All of this said to me that Weisenheimer and my Sweetie, the Official Scorer are definitely not old fuddy-duddies for staying home, cooking in, and watching old movies on New Year's Eve, but rather that our approach to ringing in the new year was a rip-roaring, if somewhat untidy, success. It was also the capper of a really interesting week of observations about food, wine, and how they all play together. Henceforth, my takeaways from the last eight days of 2014.

The Weisenheimer table set for the New Year's Eve feast,
including three bottles of wine, just in case.
In our January 1 analysis of the previous day's culinary adventure, we thought that we must have saved the José Michel for last in an inspired WWJD moment. The bubbles were one of eight or ten really nice bottles that we'd purchased at a grower champagne tasting at West Seattle Cellars a few weeks ago. This wine was clearly the favorite tipple of our long, celebratory day—and we opened five bottles in all. Biblical accounts of the wedding at Cana say that when Jesus averted a riot by turning water into wine, the resulting juice was the best served at that celebration. This would be just the opposite of the reported local tradition of the time, one of serving a good bottle for the first round or two, then breaking out the cheap, second-rate stuff when the guests were already adequately inebriated. Personally, I suspect the savior never settled for plonk.

Yes. Five bottles of wine. I thought I might be able to slip that one by you. We started mid afternoon (this being a festival day, after all) with a bottle of our house bubbles, Veuve Devienne, a tasty and moderately priced sparkler that we lay in by the case, just in case. Sipping on the house champagne cocktail (a splash of simple syrup, a couple of dashes lavender bitters, top with bubbles, add lemon twist) while preparing the evening feast and baking brioche, we found that a bottle of the Veuve yields exactly six such libations. Three each seemed about right.

Around mid-day on New Year's Eve we had taken a leisurely stroll up to The Swinery, West Seattle's "Temple of Porcine Love," to see if they had any animal flesh worthy of our celebration of the past 12 months. We came away with a lovely and rather ginormous bone-in ribeye that fit the bill most handsomely. Also on the menu: my Sweetie, the Official Scorer's amazing Brussels sprouts, with bacon, cream, shallots, and gruyere; some pan-roasted potato wedges; and the aforementioned Weisenheimer brioche.

The four holiday wine stars: Christmas Eve with the '93 La
Ca'Nova Barbaresco, and New Year's Eve selections of '95
Peterson Petit Sirah, '00 Lionnet Côtes du Rhône, and '05
Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant. A good party, indeed.
As official house sommelier, it was also my gig to descend into the wine cellar and find a bottle or two suited to a big-ol' beefsteak and appropriate for such a celebration. At times like this I head first to the section of grand and age-worthy wines in the cellar. Most of these were purchased through the West Seattle Cellars collector club, through which we get a half-dozen selections each month. When I bring them home I cellar the bottles and mark them with a tag that includes info about when it was purchased, possible food pairings, and, if the monthly notes identify it as a saver, how long it might be aged. The "don't drink for X years" stuff goes way to the bottom of the racks, only to be moved up when X years approaches.

Yesterday my eye was drawn to a dusty bottle that was mysteriously untagged: A 1995 Peterson Petit Sirah. Without a tag, I had no idea of the lineage of this one, but as the calendar was about to turn over to 2015, it meant the wine was approaching its 20th birthday. It seemed like as good a time as any to crack it open. Better a year too early than a day too late, as they say.

I decided, though, to hedge my bets a little and also brought up a bottle of 2000 Lionnet Côtes du Rhône, a wine made entirely with syrah that had been a club selection in 2004 and was tagged "not 'til '09." This became plan B.

Man does not live by wine alone! Sweetie,  the Official Scorer,
gave Weisenheimer some mini brioche tins for Christmas. He
tested them out for the New Year's feast. As yes, he notices that
Sweetie, the Official Scorer, often gives gifts that are as much
for herself as the recipient. And we don't mind a bit!
Weisenheimer sensed trouble upon opening the Peterson, when the first turn of the corkscrew merely broke off a chunk of cork. Each subsequent twist only crumbled the cork further. Even the butler's friend opener was of no help, and I was left with shoving a zillion little cork fragments down into the bottle as my only way of getting it unstopped.

Fortunately, we have a Vinturi wine aerator, one of the features of which is a screen that will catch bits of cork and largish hunks of sediment that might be lurking in the wine. So I poured the Peterson into its decanter through the Vinturi, filtering out the flotsam and at the same time giving the wine its first gulp of fresh air in twenty years. Curious, I poured a small glass and gave it a taste. My reaction—too late. There wasn't much happening there at all, in the nose or on the palate. Dang. So, I popped open the Lionnet and gave it a taste. Reaction: Meh. Maybe too late with this one, also.

I went back to the cellar and brought up a sure winner for plan C: A 2005 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant. Always great, totally age-worthy, and I liked the concept of having all of the wines for this meal being from years divisible by five. Plus the Doon has a screw-cap; no corks to pulverize.

At this point, I decided to put all three bottles on the table and just see how they developed. We probably had an hour or so before dinner, so everyone could breathe a little and we'd find out what we had when dinner arrived. The table looked like one of our dinners with our dear friends, the Schillings, at Marywood Manor in Orange, California. Wine lovers all, we often open two or three bottles at a meal, their identities kept secret, and give everyone a glass for each. Everyone gets to guess what each wine is, and rate them. The game wouldn't be quite as good for our New Year's Eve feast, as I knew which wine was which, and my Sweetie, the Official Scorer, also had tasted the Peterson in advance, and made the same sort of face she makes when I suggest putting ketchup on hot dogs or adding "Christmas With the Chipmunks" to our holiday music playlist. It made me think she would surely recognize the Petit Sirah come dinner time.

When the feast was served, we dug in and gave the three wines a taste. Over an hour or so, a miracle had occurred. We both rated the Peterson as emphatically the best of the trio! My Sweetie, the Official Scorer, thought at first that it was the Le Cigare Volant. I would have made the same guess on tasting it again, except I knew which was the Peterson. I admit that I had to pour another glass—I knew it was the one in the decanter—to double check, just in case I'd mixed them up. Sure enough, the Peterson had completely changed and was actually a fantastic wine. Probably two things happened. An extra hour to breathe was most beneficial, and, like many wines, it was a different and wonderful thing consumed with food compared to a sip on its own. We drank up the Peterson and about half of the Cigare. We more or less left the Lionnet alone; half the bottle is re-corked, and a couple of mostly untouched glasses are still on the dining room table.

After dinner we popped open the José Michel and had our first sips before watching To Have and Have Not (in salute to the great Lauren Bacall, who passed away during 2014). We recognized that the Michel is better than the house stuff. It's also about four times its price. Is it four times better? Well, probably. Steve, Slim, and Eddie headed off to the boat at about five minutes to midnight, we toasted the New Year, and retired for the evening.

Come morning—OK, I guess it was probably more like early afternoon—I did a little digging to learn something about the Peterson. We keep all of the notes from our wine clubs in three-ring binders in the cellar. Sure enough, I found the Peterson listed in the West Seattle Cellars collector club from December of 1997, so it turns out we'd had that bottle on hand for 17 years and one month. Here's what the notes said, in part:

"Robust, with lots of tannin, this wine has the stuffings to age for 15-20 years if you want it to... The palate has a lot of power, and it will be a good accompaniment some day for a hearty winter meal."

OK, we nailed that one. I like to imagine that the tag for this bottle, misplaced somewhere along the last 17 years, reads "drink this with a pan-seared ribeye on New Year's Eve, 2014." Prescience.

We pulled another ancient bottle out way back on Christmas Eve for our traditional feast of game hens and other yummies. This one was a 1993 La Ca'Nova Barbaresco that was in the wine club of July 1998. Notes for this one said, "Try to keep your hands off of it until at least 2005." We did. There was no mystery this; a delightful wine from first sip that was still drinking marvelously twenty-one years after being plucked from the vine and stomped.

So, a tip of the Santa hat to Matt Mabus, who was the founder of West Seattle Cellars and its proprietor when our two star wines of the holiday season were included in the collector club, and to Jan Martindale and Tom DiStefano, current operators of the shop, who continue stocking our cellar with wonderful treats today that we'll be enjoying in 2030. It's great to have folks who know their stuff in our local wine store, and we're fortunate that we have a good cellar in which to age wines that need it and will delight us when they're really ready to drink.

One of my traditional tasks for the first days of the new year is to go through the cellar and move the "don't touch" wines that have reached their save-until dates into the section of bottles that are ready to drink. Maybe I'll purposely lose the tag on one or two. Could make for a good story some day.

Happy New Year; 2015 is off to a great start!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

OSF good fun: Cocoanuts and Comedy of Errors

The acting company at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a supremely talented bunch. We continue to be amazed at how absolutely hilarious they can be. The laugh-meisters had ample opportunity to show their stuff this past season in two outstanding comedies: Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and the Marx Brothers classic The Cocoanuts.

Brent Hinkley, John Tufts, and Mark Bedard as the Marx
Brothers in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of The
Cocoanuts
. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
The Cocoanuts was adapted by OSF's own Mark Bedard, from the original book by George S. Kaufman and music and lyrics by Irving Berlin. Bedard even did some extensive sleuthing to turn up some original Berlin tunes that had long been separated from the stage script of the show.

The production, directed by David Ivers, was a reunion of the cast of the Marx's Animal Crackers staged at OSF in 2012, bringing back Bedard as Groucho, Brent Hinkley as Harpo, John Tufts as Chico, and K.T. Vogt as their Margaret Dumont-esque foil.

The show includes a couple of the brothers' best bits: the Why a Duck discussion between Groucho and Chico, and the wild, two-bedroom chase scene featuring the brothers, con-woman Penelope Martin (played by the also-hilarious Kate Mulligan), and the bumbling Detective Hennessey, portrayed by David Kelly, who may well be the most hysterical actor of the group. It has been nearly two months since we saw the show as I write this, and Kelly's rendition of the tune "The Tale of a Shirt" continues to work its way into my head. It is most welcome there.

David Kelly, center, as Detective Hennessey, who really wants
his shirt, with the rest of the cast of The Cocoanuts. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
While the story and characters are familiar, there was plenty of ad-libbing and playing off, and in, the audience, from which the brothers swiped a variety of personal items to use in their schtick. At the performance we attended they came away with some gaudy green sunglasses and some snacks. A festival insider tells us that at one performance they lifted a rather intimate toy from the handbag of a teenaged girl in the crowd, yet somehow resisted the urge to make her the butt of jokes.

If not for Water by the Spoonful, this production of The Cocoanuts would have been our choice for best-of-festival. hands down.

The other great comedy of the season was Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, directed by Kent Gash. Instead of Syracuse and Ephesus, the two sets of long-separated twins reside in Harlem and Louisiana at the time of the Harlem renaissance in the late 1920s.

Tobie Windham, left, as Antipholus, and
Rodney Gardiner as Dromio, in OSF's
Production of The Comedy of Errors. OSF
photo by Jenny Graham.
This production featured Rodney Gardiner, who played both Dromios, and Tobie Windham, who portrayed both Antipholuses. (Antipholi?) Tyrone Wilson was marvelous as Egeon, Bakesta King a delight as the Courtesan, and R.J. Foster cut an authoritative figure as Duke Solinus. All were delightful in romping through the twists and turns of mistaken identity, missing necklaces, purloined purses, and the like. Fitting to the era, the music of Harlem swing kept our toes tapping.

The one slight mis-step in The Comedy of Errors came at the end, with the big reveal that the two sets of twins had been reunited. As the same actors played both twins, and did an amazing job at somehow turning up immediately after an exit in a completely different corner of the theater, I'd wondered how Gash would pull this off. He simply introduced two more actors at the end, dressed the same as the other Dromio and Antipholus. I was hoping for something a bit more clever.

That said, this Comedy was also a lot of fun. It's good to mix in some laughs with some of the heavier plays in the festival.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

eSe Teatro / Central Heating Lab: Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle

You would think coming home from two weeks at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we would have had our fill of theater. You would be wrong. The Weisenheimers never get enough of theater. Plus, some artists we know, respect, enjoy, and admire—along with some artists we were about to be introduced to—were putting on a show. So we went. 

That show was Don Quixote & Sancho Panza: Homeless in Seattle, by Rose Cano, directed by David Quicksall, by eSe Teatro and the Central Heating Lab at ACT, and starring José Amador and Will Rose. It was every bit as beautiful, butt-kicking, and bold as the best of what we saw in Ashland.  

The play is structured the way Cervantes' novel is: an episodic journey. What holds the story together is less a narrative "arc" and more character and theme. Which is fine by me. Something interesting should happen to someone interesting; beyond that, plot is overrated.

Rose (left) and Amador share a sandwich in eSe Teatro's
production of Rose Cano's Don Quixote & Sancho Panza:
Homeless in Seattle
. Photo by Stephanie Mallard Couch.
This play's two primary characters are strange bedfellows who rescue each other in Seattle and stay connected on the streets in a sort of weak molecular attraction (by which I mean, rather strong) until their paths irrevocably fork. The themes are chivalry (by which I mean something so much more than men perfunctorily holding doors open for women); virtue, morality, manliness, being a gentleman, being a caballero. Also, friendship. And, the porosity of all sorts of boundaries: time; spaces indoor and out, public and private; bodily integrity; sanity. Some of these episodes were heartbreakingly hilarious (like, working a day job walking around a conference as wi-fi hotspots); some were just heartbreaking.

The performances by, and chemistry between, Will Rose and José Amador were riveting. Rose as Don Quixote brought a taller-than-life, naive, tender courtliness to every moment, delivered entirely in Spanish. My high school Spanish cannot take the credit, it was Rose's performance (and undoubtedly Cano's writing and Quicksall's direction) that made the story and meaning so clear, even as I picked up every few words and some of the grammar. Rose's language, body and voice, was exquisitely lovely to hear and see. 

Amador as Sancho Panza played translator, foil, protagonist, protector, interpreter, chorus, conscience, sidekick, muse...shit, he was busy. He grounded Rose's Quixote's loftiness and provided heat for his light. Every moment, he was so alive, so observant, so quick, and so present, even as Quixote became more remote. 

This play landed. It was simply impossible to watch it without thinking of the person I see once or twice a week at a downtown intersection and exchange pleasantries with while waiting for the green light, but whose name I do not know. Without thinking of the people I never knew who have died or been hurt here at the hands of police violence but whose stories have become like memories. Without thinking of the people I know well who suffer from illnesses of body and mind with few options for help, and plenty of exposure to judgment. 

I would love to learn more about Cano's process writing this play. My understanding is that, in addition to drawing on her own experience as an interpreter at our local ERs, she held readings and workshops with people who live in Seattle without a roof to call their own. 

The attention to detail in the set, props, costume helped make the most of the tiny, intimate space in the Eulalie Scandiuzzi Space at ACT. And the ensemble supporting cast did an outstanding job: Ian Bond, Steve Gallion, Angela Maestas, Xochitl Portillo-Moody were nurses, sirens, street kids, medics, memories, and more as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza made their way through dreams and reality in a play that hit home.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

ArtsWest: The Mountaintop

We have had a long and bumpy relationship with ArtsWest. In the beginning, we did everything we could to support the theater, giving 'til it hurt, subscribing, inviting our friends and hosting after-show parties. However, ArtsWest has had a lot of ups and downs in its artistic choices and direction, and we have not subscribed for many years, choosing instead to attend individual shows that looked like they might be substantive. 

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton is indeed substantive, nourishing theater. This entirely absorbing, two-character, 90-minute play speculates on the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life, and poses the question: what if god sent a messenger to help Dr. King as he is called home? What if he knew his life on earth was about to end? What would he say?


Camae (brianne a hill) and Dr. King (Reginald André Jackson)
in ArtsWest's production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall.
ArtsWest photo by Michael Brunk.
That sounds a bit lofty, but in fact this play is down to earth. brianne a. hill plays the potty-mouthed, sassy, street-tough angel whose first assignment (she was murdered just the night before) is to escort Dr. King to the other side. The writing and the pitch-perfect performance by Reginald André Jackson cut through the hagiography around Dr. King so that he could be portrayed as a real man—a brilliant, extraordinary man, but in the end, a man. 

The play is set on the night of April 3, 1968 in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. King spent the last night of his life and where, the next day, he would be shot on the balcony. The set, designed by Burton Yuen, made us voyeurs into this room, with the door and window to the balcony as backdrop. We understand it was a faithful recreation of the Lorraine, and the many small details helped ground the play, making the setting vivid and helping to make the characters human by contrasting the ordinary and mundane with the weighty themes of the play. 

As the play opens, Ralph Abernathy has just stepped out for cigarettes, and Dr. King calls room service for coffee. Camae is the lovely maid who brings the coffee and handles Dr. King's flirtations, rants, arrogance, anxiety, and grief with aplomb. 

This is a very funny play, and the timing and energy from hill and Jackson bring out that humor. It is also a painfully serious play, as Dr. King wrestles with his failings, his mortality, and his god. I found the scene where the angel Camae shows Dr. King the future in fierce and flawlessly delivered poetry to be especially moving. 

I'm going to have to stop saying I categorically dislike video in plays. The use of a video montage to show Dr. King the future was appropriate and effective. We were talking about video in plays recently with a friend of ours who works in theatre, and he said people are learning how to incorporate video into plays well. The design team for this production certainly did it well.

Sadly, our experience was not quite as entirely absorbing as it should have been based on the artists' efforts. A man in front of us, in the front row, chose to converse with his seat partner through the show in a perfectly audible stage whisper. So disrespectful to the actors, and so distracting for people around him. What would you do—complain to an usher? Well, here's the thing: he was an usher. Doh. Dear ArtsWest: please ask your ushers not to converse during the show. Thank you.  

ArtsWest has a new artistic director, and their tagline is "fiercely compelling theatre." Sounds audacious, but hey, audacious is good. The Mountaintop is certainly that kind of theater, and we hope to be back many more times.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

OSF: Water By The Spoonful

Would you be interested in a play set in an internet comment thread? Sounds dreadful, right? Before seeing Water By The Spoonful, directed by Shishir Kurup at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I probably would have said that a website is not good dramatic material. Ugh. Don't go there.

Well, playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes went there, with exquisite, beautiful results. 

The design roles are often the last to get mentioned in talking and writing about theatre, if they're mentioned at all, which is really a shame, because the design elements—the shape of the stage and its situation relative to the audience, the set, the costumes, sound, lighting, props—all have so much to do with the experience of theatre. Theater is enacted in physical time and space, and it is one of the most collaborative arts. 
Daniel José Molina in OSF's Water by the Spoonful

So I'm going to start there. In Water By The Spoonful, Sibyl Wickersheimer's set was nothing short of genius (she also designed the fantastic Unfortunates last year). It was abstract, spare, and simple, and added so much to the storytelling. The set consisted of 13 simple, illuminated squares, with the space of a narrow path between them. The boxes upstage were cantilevered like an open laptop. The row that formed the backdrop displayed the website community members' avatars when they were online. All of the boxes were illuminated with a shimmery and, yes, watery blue until they were needed to evoke the setting of a particular scene in watercolor washes. 

It was fascinating to watch how director Kurup used the spaces in between the squares and the spaces on the squares to create a sense of space, distance, and connection, and to help make it abundantly clear when people were interacting online and when they were interacting in person. Geoff Korf's lighting was integral to the physical set and the story, and he and Wickersheimer collaborated on video design that helped make the story come alive. The sound by John Nobori also helped make clear the distinctions between in person and online, indoors and outdoors. And costume designer Raquel Barreto avoided the OSF goofy costume trap. The costumes were appropriate and relevant, and the characters seemed comfortable wearing them.

All of these design choices were critical because the story weaves together the lives of the members of an online recovery website founded by "Haikumom" with Haikumom's family and their history. It is a powerfully moving story about some of the incredibly tough barriers that keep us apart and traces these very human characters' superheroic attempts to connect anyway. I'm not going to do a synopsis here because I'm not going to forget the story, almost anything I could say would spoil its unfolding, and really, you should drop everything and see it if it plays anywhere near you, or even read it

When you do see it, I hope you see performances as outstanding as we saw. Each character has demons and in the course of wrestling them each character is awkward, brave, annoying, heroic, clueless, wise, tragic, comic. Each actor embodies and portrays their own particular character's particular demons and journey. Vilma Silva as Haikumom gives an indelible performance of a character who is unforgivable and forgiven, irredeemable and redeemed, unfit and a blessing. Daniel José Molina's acting is like jazz; he's playing with more notes, more chords, and more combinations under his fingers than most actors. His Elliot gives the story energy and forward motion. Bruce A. Young is heartbreakingly adorable as Chutes&Ladders, and Celeste Den as Orangutan makes you want to shake her and hug her. Barret O'Brien is appropriately cringeworthy as Fountainhead and it's fascinating to watch him become a "real" person as John. Nancy Rodriguez is back after several years' absence from OSF, and we enjoyed her return as Yazmin, Elliot's cousin. 

Water By the Spoonful is actually part two of a trilogy. I don't know why OSF didn't start with the first play, Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue, but we're looking forward to the third play, The Happiest Song Plays Last, at OSF in 2015. As part of her research for these plays, Hudes interviewed her cousin Elliot, an Iraq war veteran, and other family members and wove these fictional stories out of the emotional truth of her family's experiences and relationships. The process sounds fascinating. The results are great art.

Monday, September 29, 2014

OSF: Two Gents, Tempest

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival produced The Tempest and Two Gentlemen of Verona this year and they were....ok. But we've noticed a bit of a trend. Of the four Shakespeare plays each year (and OSF is dropping down to three next year), one or maybe two of them is great, and the others are just....ok. One shines and the others fizzle. How can that be? Are they economizing with some of the Willy shows on preparing, thinking, creating, and rehearsing time? They wouldn't do that....would they??? Or is it just one of those things?

Dennis Arndt in OSF's The Tempest.
We wouldn't have missed The Tempest, directed by Tony Taccone, out of gratitude to Dennis Arndt for many years of great performances in Seattle (he's an OSF alumnus, but this is our first time seeing him in Ashland). He brought a sensitivity and totally believable pathos to the role of Prospero. However, the production did him no favors. The casual, conversational approach to speaking Shakespeare's lines might have worked well in the black box Thomas Theatre, but didn't quite carry in the Bowmer. 

And nothing about the set helped him out. It started out promising enough, with a dramatic and beautifully set tempest scene. I liked the idea to create an expansive, abstract landscape, and it was a lovely shape, curved up at one corner to be a hill or what have you, and clever traps throughout. But once the clouds and waves magically rolled away, we were left with...wine colored shag carpeting. It didn't exactly transport me, at least not anywhere I wanted to be, and it made the actors seem small. 

The costumes were goofy and sometimes distracting. For example, the magic robe of rope for Prospero seemed to distract him, and us. I was especially annoyed that the Incredible Hulk green-yellow powder (what is that foul stuff??) distracted from an energetic and compelling performance by Wayne T. Carr as Caliban. And while I love meta humor as much as anyone, nods to other work (like Angels in America) seemed out of place in this show.

We saw Two Gents outside in the Elizabethan Theatre, directed by Sarah Rasmussen and cast with all women, and as I mentioned in my Richard III post, the ladies did not entirely nail it. Some of the actors couldn't make themselves clear even with the amplification, and several potentially dramatic moments were swallowed. The Weisenheimer's comment was that the whole production was "beige."

Christiana Clark as Proteus and Sofia Jean Gomez as Valentine
in OSF's Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Here are some highlights, though: Erica Sullivan, supremely skilled and talented, as Julia. Judith-Marie Bergan as Lucetta. Vilma Silva as Antonio. And the whole all-women endeavor was worth it to give K.T. Vogt some meaty stage time as both Launce and the Duke. She has been fantastic in everything we have seen her do here. Kjerstine Rose Anderson also brought the funny as Speed. But, man, Vogt and Anderson had to sweat bullets for every laugh. I don't know if our late September Tuesday night audience was especially soporific or what. Even Picasso, playing Crab, seemed to be half asleep. I think Vogt and Anderson were putting out 60 watts for every candlepower by everybody else at the Lizzie that night. Ladies, I appreciate your labors.

The thing is, Wooden O's Two Gents this summer in the park, directed by David Quicksall, kicked OSF's ass. As did Seattle Shakespeare's Tempest in 2009 with Michael Winters as Prospero, Hana Lass as Ariel, Kerry Ryan as Trinculo, and Peter Dylan O'Connor as Caliban. It's wonderful that we're able to see Shakespeare done well right here in Seattle by the O, Seattle Shakespeare Company and GreenStage. We still love OSF; they've given us a chance to see plays—Shakespeare, other classics, and new work—that we likely wouldn't have had a chance to see otherwise. But it's just a reminder that OSF is not a gimme, and there's some wonderful work being done by small, local companies, presumably on a fraction of OSF's budget.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

OSF: Richard III

We've been looking forward to Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of Richard III all year, and especially Dan Donohue's turn in the titular role, and we were not disappointed. Richard III was the high point of our first time here ten seasons ago, and we enjoyed seeing another interpretation.

In this production directed by James Bundy, Richard is a comedian; and I absolutely mean this as a compliment. He sees into and through the dark humor of court politics. Just as a comedian sometimes skewers his audience, Richard skewers those around him, and channels his hostility into a deadpan "can you believe this guy?" and "I can't believe I got away with that" incredulity. He mugs for the audience in his constant asides, and drew more laughs than one or two of the comedies we saw here. Something was niggling at me through most of the first half of the play, and at one point shortly after intermission, some combination of gesture, mannerism, a set of Donohue's jaw, and a particularly meaningful look at the audience, and it came to me in a flash: it was as though he was channeling the brilliant Robin Williams. Of course, this was Donohue's show, and he was riveting. I wouldn't have missed a single turn of phrase and gesture. He held us in the very palm of his withered hand.

Dan Donohue as Richard III. OSF photo.
Most of the women in this production turned up the heat on Richard with sparkling performances. Robin Goodrin Nordli might just be the best Queen Elizabeth I've seen across four productions, three of which were very good (this one, OSF 2005, and GreenStage 2007; Intiman's 2006 directed by Bartlett Sher was completely forgettable). Nordli absolutely nailed the scene where Richard courts her daughter, fooling him but not us, and obviously having no intention whatsoever to give her to him. Judith-Marie Bergan was blistering as Richard's mother. And they didn't get fancy with Queen Margaret, making her all sepulchral or anything. She was played with straightforward venom by Franchelle Stewart Dorn. Tess Hemmerling just about made off with the show as Richard's younger nephew, the Duke of York.

I appreciated the restraint in the set designed by Richard L. Hay. There are very few places where you can see theater outdoors in the tradition of a stage that is shaped the way the Elizabethan is, with its multiple levels, pillars, trapdoor, thrust configuration, and, instead of a backdrop, entrances and exits upstage rather than (just) the wings. The design of the theatre causes the actors to interact differently with each other and with the audience than in a proscenium arch theatre, where the actors are little figures in a diorama. It's not so much that Shakespeare was breaking the "fourth wall" all the time—and never more than in Richard III—as that there was no fourth wall then.

Actors, directors, and designers often don't seem to know how to do theater outside. And to be fair, why should they have that training, since there will be so few opportunities to work outdoors. Which is a bummer for people like me who have seen how wonderful really good outdoor theater can be.

One of the consequences of the lack of training for the outdoor theater is that OSF finally capitulated and installed a fancy schmancy sound system in the Lizzie, a development we were not looking forward to. Based on Richard III, we were relieved. It could have been a lot worse. The amplification was subtle and skillful. Spoken lines still sounded like they were coming from the actor's location on stage, and they wisely refrained from playing around with all the bells and whistles I'm sure the system gives them, only getting woo-woo during the ghost dream scene.


Two Gents a few days later proved that amplification isn't enough if the actors don't have the skills to be clear. Several of the younger cast, though miked, were difficult to understand. Most of the principal actors in Richard III have played that stage for many years and know what they're doing, so they were easy to understand. They created characters and scenes and drama and told a thrilling story, not with technology, but with their voices and bodies and skill; and for that: bravo.