What a beautiful night in the park I had last week. Thanks to a dear friend who hooked me up with tickets, I took my dad to see his very first Shakespeare in the Park! I tried to see Much Ado About Nothing last month, and the performance was unfortunately canceled due to those insane hurricane rains. Thankfully, we had better luck with King Lear, and the weather could not have been more ideal for an evening of outdoor theatre.
King Lear is a striking production (click here for a montage), although I wasn’t fully engaged the whole time. The reviews have been very mixed, and I can see where they’re coming from. I’m giving the show a solid “good” (I should note – my dad thought it was excellent). While the play wavered and lost my rapt attention in spots, for the most part, I was hooked in with the action, which drove ever forward during the three-hour tragedy. I felt Act II especially found its stride.
The cast is led by the incomparable John Lithgow whose Lear is adamant and stubborn and sad. Witnessing him fall into madness leaves us full of pity despite the arrogance that blinds him in the first scene of the play (Lithgow kept a wonderful blog throughout the rehearsal process for the New York Times. I encourage you to check it out if you’re interested in reading more about the behind-the-scenes work). The Fool, played excellently by Stephen Boyer, brings humor and wit to all of his scenes. Another acting highlight, as always, is Jay O. Sanders as Kent. Sanders is a constant favorite of mine in the park. I have had the opportunity to see him in Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His performances are always vibrant, full, and clear in his choices, no matter the role size. Sheffer Stevens as Edmund is also strong; I very much enjoyed his work in Act I as he connives against Gloucester and Edgar.
A few of the performances fell flat for me, perhaps only compared to the more brazen Lithgow. Annette Bening and Jessica Hecht (as Goneril and Regan, respectively) – and I’m a big fan of both – didn’t stir me as much as I’d hoped. Whether this was a directing or acting choice I don’t know, but their cold and calculating deliveries left me wanting more. What’s bubbling beneath the surface? I wanted more real connection between the characters, no matter the quality of the relationship. Perhaps their distant nature further adds to what pushes Lear over the edge, but I craved something deeper. For example, I found the relationship that developed between Lear and his fool to be very touching. It is clear that despite their jokes, they deeply care for each other, and as Lear veers toward madness, you can see him reaching out to his fool in a desperate hope to stay grounded.
There is an ominous percussion underlying most of the action, which sets the looming mood in addition to creating the booming thunder of that infamous storm. One of the best aspects of the play is how extremely clear the language is. We heard every word thanks to excellent diction and a clear understanding from all of the actors as to what they were saying. So while occasionally stagnant, it’s certainly a worthy production worthy of your time.
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Delacorte Theatre, Closing August 17th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Steven Boyer, Jay O. Sanders, John Lithgow, and Chukwudi Iwuji
Yes! I have gone to see yet another production of Twelfth Night. And each one is more inventive than the last. It’s such a pleasure to still be continuously surprised by a piece I know so well and that another version can still be filled with new jokes, new deliveries, and new character interpretations. This was the first time I got to see a show by Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company, and if you’re able to get downtown to the Abrons Art Center before it closes on February 23rd, I do recommend it for a jolly good time.
It’s super inventive, the actors are charming, and it is particularly fun to see it done in such a non-traditional way after viewing the Broadway production a few months ago. One of the highlights is definitely the set which is a character in itself. A half of a half-pipe (a quarter-pipe?) dominates stage right (of which the actors take full comic advantage) with a balcony above and a cellar beneath where the band hangs out drinking with Sir Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek. The Balkan brass band, by the way, is great, and they are well integrated into the story, not just hiding in the cellar but often becoming the focus of the action, bringing their own brand of humor to further enhance scenes.
It was a joy to see new interpretations of well-loved characters. From the opening moments, the deliciously melodramatic and lovesick Duke Orisno (Dito van Reigersberg) had me rolling with laughter. The same goes for the lanky Sir Toby (James Sugg) whose physical comedy knows no bounds, and it’s so much fun to watch Olivia (Birgit Huppuch) lose control as she quickly falls head over heels for Cesario, who is actually Viola disguised as a man (Kristen Sieh). Something that really struck me was Viola’s reaction to seeing Olivia for the first time once her veil is lifted. It shed new light on that moment and that scene for me, this idea of Viola seeing her competition for the Duke’s love for the first time and having to listen to Olivia shun him over and over. This was played out much more emotionally than I’ve ever seen it portrayed, and I appreciated the depth found in the scene.
Now I’ll be honest, the show didn’t completely blow my mind across the board. Several parts are slow, and the ending didn’t thrill me. It lacked the weight I think is needed for the end of Twelfth Night. I feel like the audience missed the tragedy of Malvolio’s story. He continued to be made a mockery through his final moments. And there is a heaviness that lies in the last scene with the abrupt ending to Toby and Andrew’s friendship that I felt was missing. I also prefer productions that push the subtext a little more of the Duke being drawn to Cesario over the course of the play. This was something I particularly loved about Mark Rylance’s production. But true, it is up to director interpretation how to best handle the sudden shift the Duke has when he proposes to Viola in the end. I personally prefer hints throughout in order to build to that ridiculous moment.
But all that aside, if you want to see an incredibly creative, fun production of this Shakespeare romp (and can’t afford Broadway), definitely get down to Grand Street for a grand ol’ time.
Twelfth Night, Or What You Will
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Dan Rothenberg
Abrons Arts Center through February 23rd
Photo Credit: Josh Koenig
Pictured: James Sugg and members of the Balkan brass band
Have I mentioned Mark Rylance is amazing?
On January 2nd during snowstorm Hercules, I sat in the Belasco Theatre once more to see Twelfth Night‘s counterpart, Richard III – the other all-male Shakespeare production playing in rep until February 16th. For my Twelfth Night review and more details of Mark Rylance’s brilliance, click here.
What’s fantastic about Rylance’s Richard III is the way he draws in the audience, the way he shares his secrets with us. He confides in us from the opening moments, and we therefore root for him. We cheer him on throughout his bloody tirades, and we laugh with him as he manipulates everyone around him. We feel smarter and superior alongside him because we are “in the know.” We root for him until he no longer roots for himself. As Richard loses his swagger and falls into a kind of guilty despair (or insanity), we are left wondering what happened to the man who once strutted across the stage with such confidence and vigor. The other noticeable trait of this Richard is his sincerity with his fellow characters. In this brief New York Magazine interview, Rylance talks about not playing the obvious evil or falsehood that is largely associated with Richard but rather being as genuine as possible when in the company of others. Why make the other characters fools? Instead they can fully trust this man right up until he betrays them. What it comes down to is that you should go see anything Mark Rylance does. Anything.
That said, I will say that this production didn’t strike me the way Twelfth Night did. I found myself conscious of the staging/blocking in a way that never even crossed my mind during the ever-flowing Twelfth. And Richard may be five minutes shorter, but it felt longer. It drags more than I’d like, and I was so angry with myself for being bored. Note: this mostly happened whenever Rylance left the stage.
I also wanted much more from Lady Anne (the actor doubles as Sebastian). He felt very one-note to me, particular during his big scene with Richard. Now, this is an epically hard scene, and anyone who has ever played the role, whether in acting class or a full production, knows the challenges it brings. Anne is grieving at her father-in-law’s funeral when she is approached by Richard who killed both her father-in-law and her husband. Over the course of a five-minute scene, Dick convinces her to marry him (!). It’s insane to play. She has to journey through so many emotions to get to this point: hatred, disgust, betrayal, desperation, surrender, love, [insert additional acting choice here]. But this Anne yelled for most of the scene, and I was quite disappointed.
Samuel Barnett as Queen Elizabeth, on the other hand, once again impressed me. I very much enjoyed his Viola in Twelfth, and I loved seeing him play a statuesque queen this time around. There is an extremely challenging scene in Act II between Elizabeth and Richard, and it was so fantastic. The verbal swordplay and push and pull between these two actors was simply enticing. Elizabeth is an excellent match for Richard, perhaps the only real match to his wit, and Richard knows it. In their final exchange, Elizabeth stole the power back, and upon her exit, the audience cheered for her. And ohhh man, the look we got from Richard was unreal. He stared out at us with eyes of daggers, and it was clear we were no longer his friends. In fact, we may be next on his list.
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Tim Carroll
Belasco Theatre through February 16th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Mark Rylance
This is how it’s done people. What a delight this production is. Brought over from Shakespeare’s Globe, Twelfth Night is in rep with Richard III through February. Both productions are being presented in the original Elizabethan style. There is on-stage seating resembling the levels of the Globe, period costumes and corsets, and most noticeably, an all-male cast. And although I haven’t seen Richard yet (review to come in January), I have a hunch that if it’s anything like Twelfth Night, neither is to be missed this Broadway season.
My good friend Courtney was my theatre pal for the evening. Oh! Would you look at that? She also happens to have a kick-ass blog! Anyway, we haven’t stopped talking about the show. The actors are excellent across the board and are a hoot to watch because it’s clear they’re having so much fun. And after sitting through Macbeth a few weeks ago listening to actors who don’t have a handle on the language, what a pleasure it is to hear Shakespeare’s words spoken the way they were meant to be spoken. Every single person up on that stage knows what they are doing, and as a result, every single word is brought to life. The poetry pours out of the lines, and there is a sense of great clarity surrounding each scene. Guys, even Ben Brantley and I agree: “They let the language lead them to the characters. Because they know what they’re saying — and where what they’re saying comes from — we do, too.” If I had to pick from his entire canon, I would say Twelfth Night is my favorite Shakespeare play. I’ve seen three different productions (including Shakespeare in the Park and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon), plus the film, and even so, I still heard lines in new ways. I got to discover the comedy and wit of this piece all over again.
And don’t even get me started on Mark Rylance. This man, I mean, I can barely talk about it. Ever since I first laid eyes on his work in the farce Boeing Boeing, for which he won a Tony Award and gave THIS brilliant acceptance speech, I have not missed a show of his in New York. He starred in Le Bête and Jerusalem (for which he won his second Tony), and now he is back for these two Shakespeare plays. I look forward to seeing his Richard in January; in Twelfth, he takes on the beautiful, somber yet sassy Olivia.
Watching Mark Rylance is the equivalent of taking an acting class (read a great Q&A here). Never have I seen an actor discover on the line more. For you non-theatre folk out there, in Shakespeare, actors are encouraged to discover/have the new thought/get the idea/change tactics as they speak (“on the line”). However, many actors react and then speak when in fact the words are there to help them. Every word that comes out of Rylance’s mouth is a true discovery. It is so clear that you can catch shifts within him from syllable to syllable. Each moment is a surprise for him and therefore us. Okay, okay, I’ll stop gushing now. Go see him.
What more is there to say really? I could bore you with details or recap the story, but I don’t think it’s necessary. What counts is that Courtney and I were equally blown away (along with everyone else I’ve talked to). The direction is effortless and the acting organic. The characters and inner-relationships are incredibly well-developed. And it may have a running time of 2 hours and 50 minutes, but it never feels like it.
Oh, and those of you out there afraid of Shakespeare plays for fear that you won’t understand, this is the one to see. Billy would be proud.
Twelfe Night, Or What You Will
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Tim Carroll
Belasco Theatre through February 16th
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Samuel Barnett and Mark Rylance
I’m sorry to declare that if you’re a fan of Macbeth, the current production up at Lincoln Center is not the one to see. Maybe you caught the more interesting Alan Cumming production a few short months ago. Or there’s still time to go see the abstract, interactive Sleep No More at the McKittrick Hotel. This more traditional approach, on the other hand, starring none other than Ethan Hawke as Mac, just sits there, barely filling the vast stage that is the Vivian Beaumont. True, the set and lighting designs are epic and at times beautiful, but they cannot make up for the significant lack of stakes within the scene work.
The drama comes across as stale with nothing really hanging in the balance. This is Macbeth we’re talking about! The murderous, bloody, envious story of Macbeth usurping King Duncan’s throne and then destroying everyone in his path in his desperate attempt to hold on to the throne. Instead, when something serious goes down, the moments venture toward melodrama. You know something is wrong when the most effective moment in the show is when the dining room table suddenly appears covered in lobster after Banquo’s untimely end. It’s quite surprising given that Jack O’Brien is the director. I like his work; he rarely disappoints. Is direction the core issue at hand here or is it the acting?
I love Brian d’Arcy James as Banquo. The man has an incredible singing voice, and his speaking voice is just as musical. I found myself wishing he had played Macbeth. And Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth was quite astute. Her work, including the infamous “Out Damn Spot” monologue, was some of the best in the show. John Glover is also charming and enticing as one of the bearded witches. As for Ethan, while I have enjoyed some of his film work, he has never particularly impressed me on stage. Granted he is fearless and always ready to take on any part, no matter the size, but he yelled his way through Henry IV and all three parts of The Coast of Utopia. In this, his voice is all one note. There is no music in his sound, and I left craving something more.
The show doesn’t open until November 21st, and I’m very curious what the reviews will report. The running time is just under three hours. I wonder if any cuts were made from the original script. Hecate and the weird sisters are followed around by crawling gremlin-like things. My friend had a nice nap during Act II. I’m not quite sure what else to say. The bottom line is Shakespeare needs stakes. Period. If that is missing, particularly in one of the tragedies, then why is the story needed?
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Jack O’Brien
Lincoln Center Theater through January 12th
Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson
Pictured: Ethan Hawke and Anne-Marie Duff
I was very excited to see the all-female production of Julius Caesar at St. Ann’s Warehouse, directed by Phyllida Lloyd and brought over from the Donmar Warehouse (a fantastic theatre in London). I know that sentence sounds like a set up for the show being disappointing. And it wasn’t, but at the same time, I also wasn’t as blown away as I’d hoped to be. Perhaps I went in with expectations too high. This happens to me more often than I’d like.
But after thinking it over since this particular Halloween outing last Thursday, I think the underlying issue is that I am simply not a big fan of the play. Is that sacrilegious to say, Shakespeare fan that I am? Caesar has never done much for me as a reader or audience member. I’ve been trying to figure out why, and I keep coming up relatively empty. Is it because I have trouble relating to the story? Do I not sympathize with any of the characters? Unclear.
Given that the story bores me, this production did a pretty decent job of holding my attention. First off, it is set in an all-female prison #orangeisthenewblack. The audience is escorted by extremely stern guards (ushers) into a sterile prison of pipes and scaffolding and lectured about how to behave before being led to our seats. I love this kind of thing – immediately transporting us into a new environment and setting the scene before we even take our seats.
These (very talented) women tell the iconic story that we know so well, straying only occasionally from the classical text for a handful of contemporary references (e.g. the prophecy of Caesar’s demise is a Libra horoscope). They have a fantastic grasp of the language, and they also stick to all of the original pronouns, referring to each other as men. This is typically a very male-heavy show, but it should be noted that the power or strength of that overwhelming testosterone is not lost with this cast.
Lloyd plays with the location and convention of the prison throughout but not as much as I would have liked. These were the moments that particularly grabbed me and made me sit forward in my seat – the recognition and awareness of the surrounding reality, like in Alan Cumming’s Macbeth. If anything, this switched things up from the standard plot. Whether or not the play does anything for me though, the cast is fantastic, and you get the feeling when the show ends that there is still more story to be told.
Fun side note: I should mention that at one point during the show, during the big senate scene I believe, all of a sudden I noticed someone sitting upstage in one of the chairs. After a little while, I thought to myself, is that person a part of the show? That doesn’t look like a woman. Yup, that’s a man…holding a program – an audience member who somehow managed to take a seat within the set and then sat there for close to 15 minutes, from Caesar’s death scene (spoiler alert) up through Mark Antony’s huge monologue. He was practically one of the conspirators. Hi-larious.
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
St. Ann’s Warehouse through November 9th
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks
Pictured: Harriet Walter
It’s an odd thing. Sometimes it looks like everything’s been done just right: a talented cast, creative director, nice set, beautiful park, some laughs. And yet I walked away from Love’s Labour‘s Lost feeling unaffected. I sat there wishing I was laughing as hard as the people around me, but instead I felt like a bystander, observing from the outside of the Delacorte.
The very simple plot (I’m serious, there’s nothing to it) follows three men and their king who all take an oath to give up life’s pleasures and withdraw from society for three years in order to dedicate their time to their studies. In this contemporary adaptation, these men make this promise at their five-year college reunion, and in addition to rejecting women, they give up beer, bongs, porn, the list goes on. Of course, then four women from their pasts arrive, and we know this oath isn’t going to last too long, thereby making us doubt the weight of their oaths made later to love and stay committed to these women.
That’s it. That’s the plot. The women disappear for like, half of the show. There are random other characters who pop up for a few minutes here and there purely for comic relief.
So what left me feeling so untouched you ask? I’m honestly still in the process of figuring out a concrete answer. This is the second of two Shakespeare in the Park productions this summer, and it is very much a modern adaptation. It’s been turned into a musical, with a new score and adapted book by Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers. Purists, be warned: the original Shakespeare text has been left in the dust. When it does crop up (rarely), it is brief before the songs take over again or more contemporary exchanges take its place.
I don’t mind modern versions of Shakespeare plays; in fact, I encourage them and love to see new approaches. But I did have a hard time with how little original text was used. I kept wondering why they even bothered to keep it. As a result, the jokes felt thin to me. They were easy laughs because it’s funny to juxtapose Shakespeare against a profanity or colloquial phrase. He said the f-word! Such a novelty! But why not only have a couple moments like that and then work to find what’s funny in the original material? Why are extravagant, flamboyant costumes necessary to get laughs? Shakespeare gives us all that we need. I don’t know, maybe I am a purist, but I think if you’re going to change the play to that degree then leave it behind entirely, instead of just referencing it when it’s convenient.
Some will argue that this production makes Shakespeare relatable for a modern audience, but I don’t think all of the hoopla is necessary. People continue to attend Shakespeare in the Park, not only because it’s free, but because Shakespeare remains relatable and entertaining even today. As I exited the park, I found myself thinking about Joss Whedon’s recent film, Much Ado About Nothing. This was a fully contemporary approach to Shakespeare, but the text remains, the comedy reads, and an audience packed with Avengers, Buffy, and Firefly fans connected to it and found themselves enjoying (and understanding) a Shakespeare play thanks to this medium.
This production left me thinking: are any of these choices justified? Most of the “bits” felt random because they knew they would get laughs. The songs make up the majority of the play, but they felt put on and not fully earned by these characters. I like this composer; I’m a big fan of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (the same creative team). But except for “Love’s a Gun” (sung by the always-amazing Rebecca Naomi Jones) and a couple of other fun numbers, the music didn’t add to my experience.
Please don’t get me wrong; this is a wonderfully talented cast including Daniel Breaker, Colin Donnell, Jeff Hiller, and Rachel Dratch, not to mention director Alex Timbers whom we all know I love (see my Here Lies Love review). But this comedy felt mapped out. There are some genuinely funny and surprising moments. I just wish the rest of it had been as genuine.
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Written by William Shakespeare, Song by Michael Friedman, Book Adapted and Directed by Alex Timbers
Delacorte Theater, Shakespeare in the Park 2013
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus
Pictured: Bryce Pinkham, Colin Donnell, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe