Friday, September 27, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Cymbeline

Here's my fantasy about Cymbeline: Shakespeare, at the end of his career (1610ish), wrote act V, scene v of Cymbeline as a sort of technical exercise in plot and threw it over the fence to Fletcher and said, here, upstart, you write the rest. And he was showing off. And then Fletcher wrote three hours of soap opera to cover everything that happens at the end. I know, heresy...but you never know...

The end of Cymbeline unravels 19 plot points by my count one right after another. It's like being at a bar sitting through some guy's three hour set up for a 19-punch-line joke. I do love a good long set up, and as long as the wine is flowing, what the hell. Whether you're reading it or watching a performance, if you can slog through the first four and four-fifth acts, the ending is a hoot.

I think the director's job in Cymbeline is to make sure everyone can keep it up right through the end; the resolutions need punch to prompt our laughter as it all just gets so silly and the ending is entirely happy. ("Oh, I forgot to tell you! I gave the queen fake poison." "Hey, he's a girl! And our sister!" "Oh, I can tell you that. I killed him." "Hey King, I stole your kids after you were such an asshole to me. Here's the bill for raising them." "Thanks for saving my life and all, but I have something better to do than save yours right now." "The soldier who saved your life? Yeah, that was me." And on and on.) 
Anthony Heald as Dr. Cornelius and Robin Goodrin Nordli
as The Queen in OSF's production of Cymbeline. OSF
photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Director Bill Rauch's Cymbeline at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival was high-energy, even on a cold night, between raindrops, to a half empty house as relatively few of us braved the elements for a rarely produced Shakespeare play. The cast wrung belly laughs out of the small, damp audience. I even got a kick out of the silly costumes. Seriously, I never seem to know what the designers are thinking when it comes to costumes at OSF. It seems like they do stuff just because they can. This year, they apparently had a bucket of pointy ears to use up donated from the set of Lord of the Rings. I suppose it was all a bit of pop-culture-reference fun, as there were also broad references to Disney's Snow White and other iconic fairy tales.

I have no complaints about any of the performances. Everyone played their symbolic and one-dimensional characters to the hilt and all were thoroughly entertaining. I am going to call out Robin Goodrin Nordli as the wicked queen. We know she has comedic chops; lately, though, she's been delicious playing Shakespeare's evil women: a note-perfect Lady Macbeth a couple years ago and a particularly revolting Regan in this year's King Lear. The nameless queen in Cymbeline is the archetype of myths, and she plays it up to be the stuff of childhood nightmares after reading too many Grimm's fairy tales. 

Also, Peter Frechette was terrific as the royal interpreter of American Sign Language (ASL) to Howie Seago's Cymbeline; skillful and often moving, without competing with Seago's fine performance. I loved what they did with ASL—in particular, having the wicked queen and her horrid son Cloten (a hilarious Al Espinosa) communicate with Cymbeline in gross, hackneyed hand gestures, clearly never having bothered to learn his language even as they joined his family, while those who love and are loyal to him never fail to communicate in proper and fluent ASL when Cymbeline is present, even when he's being a dick.

I suspect Rauch chose to do Cymbeline in the same year as King Lear to highlight the relationships between parents and children, their duties and loyalties to each other. In this spirit, Rauch expanded on Shakespeare's apparitions, adding ghost moms for Imogen and the princes in addition to the ghosts of Posthumus Leonatus's parents. That's fine. It didn't detract, but I can't read too terribly much depth into Cymbeline no matter how many dead parents you throw in. Shakespeare wasn't covering any new ground with this one. Indeed, it's a bit of a pastiche as shadows of finer characters from Shakespeare's career make a curtain call. With Cymbeline, it's best to go big or go home, and OSF went big for an entertaining, satisfying evening.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Seattle Fringe Festival 2013, Waiting for Godot and Aisle 9

While I was galavanting to San Francisco and back on business, the Weisenheimer saw two of this year's Seattle Fringe Festival offerings: Waiting for Godot and Aisle 9. He was so impressed that he got tickets for me to join him on Saturday, during the 60 hours I was home between business travel and fun travel. 

We are indeed here in Ashland now, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, for our ninth year. But I loved kicking off 14 shows in 16 days with Beckett back home. One World Theatre's Waiting for Godot is a kick in the pants, and these guys know what they're doing. They should, as three of them—Shawn Belyea, Jeff Page, and K. Brian Neel—played these parts 23 years ago. A Seattle Weekly review praising that 1990 production griped only that the actors were 20 years too young for the roles, thus providing the inside joke for this revival.

The cast of Waiting for Godot.
Clockwise from upper left: Belyea,
Page, Neel, and Moore.
I think of Godot as our time's mystery play for post-Christian people. Ok, for me. It is dripping with references to scripture, salvation, sacrifice, torture, slavery, faith, redemption and, natch, waiting for someone who never happens. It is elegantly simple, highly structured and ritualized, and practically liturgical (liturgy=work of/for/by the people) as the cast milled around in costume but not necessarily in character before curtain and during the intermission, interacting with the audience, talking about and playing with hats, and generally creating the sense that we had come together to do the Beckett. (Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to do some the name two or three are gathered fuck it. Nothing to be done.)

I loved the clowning, the ramshackle Laurel-and-Hardyesque funny business, the outrageousness of everything that happened, even as nothing happened—twice (in Vivien Mercier's famous assessment). Gogo is aimless, and Belyea played him with a wonderful agelessness, as a lunk of a kid and a sleepy old man. Page's Didi was piercing and frowny, as if there was always something just beyond his grasp. Neel was squirmy disturbing as Lucky, and Moore was perfectly pompous and anguished as Pozzo.

Alas, I didn't see it 23 years ago, but I like to imagine Belyea, Page, and Neel are even funnier and more grotesque than they were then. As Page said in a lovely quote in our playbill, "We don't have to be precious to the Beckett, we have to be precious to the funny." I hope they and Moore do it again in another 20 years. 

Plays that delve into the conduct of people's broken romantic relationships generally aren't my favorite thing. Turns out, I'm afraid of Virginia Woolf and some of the other stuff Edward Albee has written. We walked out of ACT's Rapture, Blister, Burn at intermission in large part because the relationship stuff between exes was so boring. Radial Theater Project's Aisle 9 is about a couple's relationship at three points in their lives, and I'm glad the Weisenheimer chose it because, even though it might not be my favorite subject matter, I liked everything else about it. Not a surprise, given that Aimée Bruneau was involved, conceiving and directing the project.

This play was written by three different playwrights. K. Brian Neel (yes, Lucky in Godot; talented guy!) wrote a quirky-funny, engaging first act, where our characters Ben and Oona meet in aisle 9 of a grocery store in 1983. Keri Healey wrote the present-day act in which Ben and Oona bump into each other in the same aisle of the same grocery store, shortly after their divorce, and loop through multiple versions of that meeting—real or imagined? And Wayne Rawley closes the play with Ben in the ruins of the condemned grocery store meeting one last time with Oona's spirit and memory, a touching close, with some futuristic Twitter funny business. 

Erin Stewart and Sam Hagen in Aisle 9.
Photo: Truman Buffett.
Bruneau weaves these separate acts together into one whole, using lovely ideas like costumes and the act of dressing and undressing to mark the changing years and relationship roles; shopping cart bumpercars and ballet; and grocery baskets that seem to carry the stuff of years. I'm so curious what the process was. How much discussion did each playwright have before writing, with Bruneau or with each other? Did they read each other's plays? However Bruneau and the playwrights did it, it all gelled.

The performances from Sam Hagen as Ben and Erin Stewart as Oona had everything to do with the play being so enjoyable. Ben and Oona are barely likable characters, but Hagen and Stewart made them vulnerable and human, and made us care. Their performances took what could have been an interesting idea and experiment with some snappy writing and smart direction and turned it into a living, breathing play.