Saturday, December 29, 2012

Theatre: Playing Catchup

Party People by Universes (Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp, William Ruiz, AKA Ninja), developed by Liesl Tommy. Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare, directed by Rob Melrose, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa by Alison Carey, adapted from the play by William Shakespeare, Directed by Christopher Liam Moore, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Henry V by William Shakespeare, Directed by Joseph Haj, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Animal Crackers by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, Music and Lyrics by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Reconceived from an Adaptation (deep breath) by Henry Wishcamper, Directed by Allison Narver,Oregon Shakespeare Festival

So there have been all of three posts on Grubb Street this December - This one, one wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, and one recommending other peoples's stuff. And there's a couple reasons for this sparcity of posts - part of it is a general post-GW2-ship lethargy, concealed briefly by the huggamugga of political posts that were, of course, time sensitive. But another was that I had a lot of things in the hopper I wanted to talk about, particularly play reviews from my now-temporally distances adventure in Ashland with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). I accomplished two reviews in detail, but have the other six sort of clogging the pipeline. I COULD abandon them, because, really, who wants to read reviews about closed plays?, but they are still out there hanging. But to do so would mean I abandoned a personal goal, and I want to talk about them. And hey, it's my blog, and so here you are.

So this one is to bat cleanup, saying not nearly enough about them, but collecting all my notes.

Party People is a musical about the Black Panthers and the Young Lords gangs from the 60s. No, no, it's really good, in the music comes off the street, fits snugly with acting, has heart-felt, has engaged performances, and attempts to give a well-rounded view of the rise and fall of these community gangs in the 60s. The central theme is 60s revolution as reunion. A lot of old party members are gathered together by two of the new generation, Jimmy (Ruiz) and Malik (Christopher Livingston) both to commemorate and to be confronted with their past. There is not a lot of shirking of responsibility here, nor is there a surfeit of those responsible for the faults and failure of the revolution.

Except the revolution didn't really fail, did it, at least in terms of getting people to the table. The sixties were a messy, turbulent, violent, deadly time, and over the years that followed, it enabled more peoples moved out of the shadows and into the common discourse.The struggles of the era were not for nothing, in that it enfranchised people who were up to that point excluded from body politic.

The other thing I've noticed with both this play and the earlier All the Way was the casual nature of government infiltration. Back in the day, the government swore up and down they were not spying on its own people, yet here we are fifty years later when we are all "Oh yeah, we were spying on our own people". Which begs the question about currently declarations of innocence about federal-authorized crimes.

This was an excellent one, a ground-level response to All the Way. If it tours, go see it.

Troilus and Cressida is half a great play. The first half, the story of the union of the Trojans Troilus (Raffi Barsoumian) and Cressida (Tala Ashe), set against the greater epic of the Illiad, hums with the wit and verve of the best Shakespeare. Their marriage is arranged by Cresssida's uncle, the aptly named Pandarus, who is taken for a great comic turn by Barzin Akhavan. All of this is set against the Iraqi occupation, where the Greeks (Achilles, Ajax, et al) are Americans, and the Trojans are mideastern. Neither of the sides come off well, as the American Greeks are militaristic brutes, and the Mideastern Trojans (with the exceptions of the title characters) indolent elitists. 

Anyway, in the opening acts, Troilus and Cressida are united, Pandarus capers and connives, the Greeks posture and strut, and Cressida gives us the depth we come to expect from Shakespeare's women. And then after intermission, the wheels fall off. The play now concentrates on the Greeks and the Trojans and their war. Cressida is given to the Greeks as the price for her father's cooperation, but her story and that of Troilus gets lost against the backdrop of the war itself. Indeed, Cressida folds in on herself in a manner similar to Kate in Taming of the Shrew, throwing in with her new captors - a turn of events that is played in later presentations as a range from surrender and Stockholm syndrome to a knowing play for survival. But the truth of the matter is that we don't know the intent, and in this presentation, Cressida ends the play in enemy hands, her intent unknown, Troilus is in despair and gives himself up to battle, and the Trojans retreat with the body of Hector. It is a bleak ending that grinds home the merciless and unthinking brutality of war, but in doing so, undermines the work of the first half. It feels as if, in collecting this play, something was left out to bring it together, and as a result it lands with a thump.

The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa falls into the category of Shakespearesque plays - leaving the plot intact, but moving the verbage and setting elsewhere. In this case, picking up the pieces of the original Merry Wives and dropping it into modern, post pro-gay voting Iowa. So Master Ford and Mistress Ford are now Alice and Francie Ford, gay couple, the messages Falstaff delivers are by text, Windsor Forest is now the Iowa State Fair, and the famous laundry basket is now replaced with a recycling bin. And Sir John Falstaff, the brawling, lecherous, drunken antihero, is replaced with Senator John Falstaff, loser of the Iowa caucus.

And for me, that's where it all falls down. The acting is spot-on from all sides, turning Iowa into a mock-Shakespearean wonderland where Slender Shallow, a gender-changed chainsaw artist, sounds like Keaunu Reeves warping Shakespearean verse, and the Mistresses Ford and Paige shoving Falstaff around with great merriment. But Senator Falstaff (David Kelly) is portrayed as Romneyesque - Good hair, tall, charismatic, nice dresser, fast-talking. But Falstaff is also a womanizer, a drunkard, and chronically short of change, all of which cannot be attributed to Romney. So Senator Falstaff comes off as venal as opposed to overblown, a lesser-than-life figure. The end result is a bit of fun, but empty at the core.

Henry V, on the other hand, was one of the highpoints of the OSF, the resolution of the previous years of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. Falstaff was promised to return at the end of H4P2, but the play opens with him dead and the manner of his death recounted by the former members of his court. Something happened here off-stage - I suspect (though do not have the resources to confirm) that the actor identified as Falstaff died or left the company between the two plays, and was so identified he was written out as opposed to recast. If he had perished, it was a fitting testimony to the character, if he had left the company, it was a bit of petty revenge. Someone with more Shakespearean knowledge than I could give a more decisive discussion (because I safely assume that, given the breadth of Shakespearean studies, someone likely has done so).

In any event, John Tufts was fantastic in taking Prince Hal fully into Henry V. This is the play with the great speeches, including the Band of Brothers speech and the positively meta narration of the chorus. There is a culmination here, both in history, in writing, and in acting. This is a moving performance, and one of the OSF's best.

We did, though sit next to a couple who came up from the Bay area just for the day, and they were slightly bewildered at the break about what was happening in the play. I told them that it was as if they had experienced Star Wars by seeing Return of the Jedi first, and then gave them a short potted history of the previous plays, so the scene where Henry killed one of Falstaff's followers suddenly makes sense. It was a great play, and a wrap-up of several years of this series of histories.

Animal Crackers is in the category of the non-Shakespearean Draw for the OSF - the non-Shakespeare play that can put butts in the seats. Pirates of Penzance did it the previous year, and it looks like My Fair Lady fits that category for the coming season. Yes, this is the Marx Brothers movie, and is based on a revival of the Kaufman play. I had a chance to read the revival text, and would have liked to have read the original play itself, just as a purist.

I say that because the play is dealing with so many veils of movie versions and revivals (just look at the credits, above) that the original material, slender as it is, gets a bit lost. The plot is grand dame Mrs, Rittenhouse (K.T.Vogt, Cinderella's Godmother in Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella), scores the coup of snagging Captain Jeffrey T. Spaulding (Mark Bedard, or rather Mark Bedard playing Julius Marx playing Groucho playing Captain Spaulding) as a houseguest. Chico (Daisuke Tsuji, brilliant) and Harpo (Brent Hickley, rubber-faced) arrive as musicians for the house party. Zeppo (a versatile Eddie Lopez) is in the movie Spaulding's secretary, but here takes on a slew of roles as the manpower-heavy Broadway production is converted into a smaller revival. That conversion is done with a bit of wink-and-nod stagecraft. In any event whackiness ensues, and the conclusion to the supposed plot is no more sound than in the movie version.

The actors are playing within the expected bounds for the most part. Mark Bedard as Spaulding (as Julius as Groucho as, well, you know) felt weak even for the matinee performance, and he seemed to take some time to warm up to the role. Daisuke Tsuji, on the other hand, brought a Chico that understood that vaudeville is a competition sport, and had an infectious enjoyment. Yes the jokes were old but he delivered them as if they were newly minted. We had nosebleed seats, and the miking on the actors was inconsistent, a rarity for the OSF. Some were miked, others were shouting to the bleachers.

Yet the biggest failing in the production was at the core. The movie version thrived on sending the madcap Brothers Marx into a straitlaced upper class household. Here, the household is as madcap as the Marxes. Mark Evanier, over in his blog, talked about making a Marx Brothers movie where Margaret Dumont was trying to be the funny one. This one did exactly that, and while Vogt neatly stole more than her fair share of scenes, it undercut the entire operation. Looking at the text, it feels like the socially-ambitious Rittenhouse is the only truly honest person in a mansion filled with gossips, art-thieves, impersonators, and, of course, Marxes (Marxi? Marxeses?)

In the end, it was great fun, but the serious Marxist in me (did I just write that?) wanted something a bit more. I'm glad this was not quite the museum piece I expected, but by the same time, felt that it was a bit underdone. Definitely worth seeing in the great pack of OSF plays, but a bit tepid on its own.

So where did it leave me? Loved Henry, Party People, All the Way. Can appreciate Animal Crackers and Troilus and Cressida for what they were. Felt meh about Merry Wives., but STILL found it better than most other theatre. Still looking for an aspiring dramatic student to explain what Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella was all about. And I'm looking at next year's collection with interest.

More later, 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday Season from all of us on Grubb Street.

More later,

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Meanwhile, Out on the Internet ...

Well yeah, with the release of Guild Wars 2 coming on top of Midgard and Star Wars: Scourge novel earlier this year, I'm in a bit of dry period. So let's see what some friends are up to -

Stan! (yes, that exclamation point is supposed to be there) Brown has been doing a Kickstarter for his cuddly cthuloid Christmas story The Littlest Shoggoth. The book has already made its basic numbers, and with about a week to go, is into stretch goals. If he gets to 10K, you get color interiors. If he gets to 13k, there's a stylish hardback in your future?

But wait, there's more! Check out the latest video!

Also, Tracy and Laura Hickman are writing their own Christmas tale, in process and available on-line. They are writing it as a serial novel (shades of Dickens) and making the entire project available as an e-book on completion. Go can go check it out here.

And since I am talking about private artistic-based operations, old friend and mighty TSR artist Larry Elmore. What began as a modest Kickstarter to create a Complete  Elmore Artbook has blossomed into a cascade of ever-shattered stretch goals (the most recent one being an invite to drop by the house and go for a motorcycle ride with Larry).

And finally, while I was writing this up, I was surprised to discover that Midgard (the world I've been working on with the likes of Wolfgang Baur and Brandon Hodges) has its own potential miniatures line on Kickstarter. Yeah, I probably missed a memo or two in the process, but go check THIS one out as well.

I swear, I have to get back in the saddle again. More later.