Monday, August 25, 2008

Critic's Corner

I've spent part of the past week at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. I've been making the pilgrimage to Stratford since 1970, and it has been a major influence in my love of theatre ever since.

Part of my secret identity as a theatre scholar is that I have a doctorate in playwrighting and dramatic criticism. So it's only natural that I would write some reviews of some of the plays I saw when I was there.

First, here's a video introduction to Stratford and the festival.

Here follows my thoughts on three of the plays I saw.

Fuente Ovejuna
Unless you're a theatre scholar -- or you took Dr. Delmar Solem's theatre history classes at the University of Miami -- you probably never heard of the plays of Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (1562-1635). But this contemporary of Shakespeare was probably the most prolific playwright in history, cranking out over 1,500 full-length plays, with about 450 still extant. Compared to Shakespeare -- and Lope de Vega is often called the Spanish Shakespeare -- the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon is a piker with his mere 37 plays.

The best-known work of Lope de Vega is Fuente Ovejuna. As Dr. Solem explained to me, the title translates literally as "The Sheep Well," but the play is not about a hole in the ground where sheep drink. It is a small town in Spain, and Lope de Vega wrote this play relating an actual event that occurred there in 1476.

While under the command of the Order of Calatrava, a commander, Fernán Gómez de Guzmán, mistreated the villagers, who banded together and killed him. When a magistrate sent by King Ferdinand II of Aragon arrived at the village to investigate, the villagers, even under the pain of torture, responded only by saying "Fuente Ovejuna did it."

That sums up the plot neatly, but in the new translation by Lawrence Boswell, the play explores much more than just a village rising up against tyranny. It explores the people's view of their status in Spanish society, the role of women in that time and their stature, and the intense feeling of community that brings these common folk together to stand up for themselves.

I must admit that when I first read the play, over thirty years ago in a translation that did its best to convey the language of the time, I didn't find it any of those. But in this production at Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre (a converted curling rink) Mr. Boswell has done a masterful job of finding nuances in words and characters that surely must have been intended by the playwright. The villagers are as multidimensional as Shakespeare's characters, and the plot, while complicated by the politics of the time, moves along smartly, never taking your eye off the real story, and that is how the people of this benighted village respond to their mistreatment at the hands of their government. There are powerful performances by James Blendick as the mayor of the village, Sara Topham as his daughter Laurencia, who is abused by the Commander (the wonderfully villainous Scott Wentworth), and Jonathan Goad as the peasant who initiates the confrontation by having the nerve to stand up to the Commander by protecting Laurencia's virtue. Robert Persichini does a wonderful job as Mengo, the shepherd, who provides both comic relief and the brutal truth in the role of the classic clown.

This play, as the villagers state under threat of torture, is not about them as much as it is about the sense of community: "Fuente Ovejuna did it." There is a populism to this drama, and where Shakespeare enlightens us and delves deeply into the human character, Lope de Vega shows us those human characters working together as one. (Shakespeare did not write a play with only the name of a town in the title and turn it into the main character, and no, "Hamlet" doesn't count.) Fuene Ovejuna is the main character in this play, and yet we never forget that there people who live there.

Hughie and Krapp's Last Tape
Brian Dennehy is a force of nature. With just a look he can hold an audience breathless for as long as he wants, and for a big man, his subtle moves, his sly grin, his glaring eyes will tell you what he's thinking.

Mr. Dennehy is appearing in two one-acts on a double bill here at Stratford; Hughie by Eugene O'Neill, and Krapp's Last Tape by Samuel Beckett. Both plays are unusual for each playwright; Hughie, set in the lobby of a 1920's fleabag hotel in New York, is a short and succinct piece, which, for those of us with the sitzfleisch to make it through three-plus hours of Mr. O'Neill's other works like Long Day's Journey Into Night, is a change of pace. But Mr. O'Neill gives us as full and compelling character in the person of Erie Smith, a down-on-his-luck gambler, as he does in any of the Tyrones, and watching Mr. Dennehy take him through the intricacies of his reminiscences of his late friend, Hughie, make you understand him in a word that would otherwise take a page or a scene.

Krapp's Last Tape is an unusual play for Beckett; starkly real and harsh as compared to the absurdism and other-worldliness of End Game or Waiting for Godot, but with touches of humor and even slapstick, albeit given that minimalist treatment by the playwright who made Harold Pinter seem verbose. Again, it is Mr. Dennehy's portrayal of Krapp that makes it work. In the opening moments of the play we see Krapp sitting at a table surrounded by his tapes and his tape recorder, but it's the eyes...the haunted, terror-filled, angry, lost, and eventually pitiful look in them that holds you and doesn't let up, even when his back is turned.

There's a central theme to both plays, and that's the sense of loss the main character feels and cannot overcome. And in both plays there is a listener that acts like a chorus. In Hughie it's the Night Clerk who stands by passively and responds in a few words that cuts right through to the truth and reality, providing a counterpoint and a foundation to Erie Smith. In Krapp's Last Tape it is the tape recorder, playing back Krapp's words from thirty years ago and brutally reminding him of what he was, what he wanted to become, what he never achieved, and what he lost.

It's Mr. Dennehy that makes these plays work so well, and once again Stratford has proved its ability to choose both the right plays and the right actors to make it work.

Casear and Cleopatra
George Bernard Shaw always has something to teach in his plays, whether it's something as profound as Jack Tanner discovering the life force in Man and Superman or something as basic and class-defining as speaking properly in Pygmalion. Once again we have the teacher and the pupil in the form of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, and once again we have the situation where the master becomes the pupil.

Christopher Plummer takes the stage here at Stratford like the consummate performer that he is, and regardless of how many other things you've seen him in, be it in film or on stage, you never think of him as Christopher Plummer, but as the character, and that is the true hallmark of a fine actor. You're not seeing Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music or General Chang in Star Trek Six, as millions of movie goers think of him; you're seeing Julius Caesar. And not the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare, either, but a man with a sense of humor, limits, and self-awareness that isn't seen in any other portrayal of him. Shaw's voice is very clear in this play, but it's not so overwhelming that you forget that you are looking at a historical figure about whom everyone thinks they know and who's famous utterance, "Et tu, Brute?" is so well-known it shows up in cross-word puzzles every week. Mr. Plummer handles the role with effortless grace and charm so that you care deeply about Caesar, regardless of his manifestation as a conqueror.

But he would have a lot rougher go at it if he didn't have the amazing counterpoint of Nikki M. James as Cleopatra. She is both a girl and a woman, a petulant child and a powerful queen; endearing and frightening. Shaw knew how to write women of equality, and he does so here, but in the free-flowing and utterly devastating performance Ms. James gives, you feel as if Shaw's vision of a 16-year-old girl taking on and holding her own against a much older and more experienced warrior was written with Ms. James in mind. She's given the thankless job of taking a character who has been portrayed in so many ways and has become such an archetype that the mere mention of the name "Cleopatra" gives you visions of Elizabeth Taylor (and Tallulah Bankhead) that all you can think of are the really bad jokes about asps (i.e. "fangs for the mammary"). Not this time. Not only does Cleopatra become fully dimensional, Shaw even tweaks Shakespeare by giving us a prequel, as it were, for Antony and Cleopatra. In this case, take the Shaw.

The rest of the cast does a great job, including Diane D'Aquila as Ftatateeta and Steven Sutcliffe as Brittanus. The set, by Robert Brill, was simple yet powerful with towering sandstone pillars and portions of a sphinx. The Festival stage, which was the original three-quarter thrust designed by Tanya Moiseiwitsch, was the right venue for this play; Shaw does well in three dimensions, and director Des McAnuff knew how to make it work without making the actors look like they had to be constantly moving to be seen by the audience; a technique a lot of directors in thrust and round have yet to master.

(Cross-posted from Bark Bark Woof Woof.)

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