Berkeley Rep’s Pericles: Prince of Tyre-less theatrics

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David Barlow (left) is Pericles and Annapurna Sriram is Marina in Mark Wing-Davey’s re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Below: Evan Zes (left), Sriram (center) and Rami Margron tussle over virtue and capitalism in a later chapter of the Pericles saga. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

There’s a rough beauty to director Mark Wing-Davey’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre now on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. The industrial look of the bi-level set by Douglas Stein and Peter Ksander indicates that this will be a utilitarian telling of this dubious Shakespeare tale – dubious only because we don’t really know how much (if any) of the play the Bard actually wrote.

From the giant crane that hoists everything from crystal chandeliers to pirates’ nets to the goddess Diana, to the sliding metal doors that bang and clang during scene transitions, this is a production that revs and lurches like an engine that could use a little more tuning

But that’s not to say that this re-imagining of Pericles by Wing-Davey and Jim Calder isn’t entertaining or even, at times, quite captivating. The creative team, also including costumer Meg Neville, lighting designer Bradley King, sound designer Jake Rodriguez and composer/music director Marc Gwinn and his three-piece band, have a lot of tricks up their respective sleeves, and they employ a lot of moving parts to dress up a tale that can always use a good dressing up.

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Wing-Davey and Calder have also done some heavy editing, which streamlines this choppy tale into just over two hours. The ensemble of eight plays multiple roles save for David Barlow as the titular prince. They bring a zesty humor to the proceedings, which range from the truly lovely (Pericles brings corn to a starving nation and we watch as their coffers fill with the golden food) to the ribald (Pericles’ wedding night with Thaïsa on an ultra-bouncy bed is a hoot) to the just plain goofy (as knights prepare to joust for the hand of a fair maiden, one of the contenders turns out to be Batman complete with sidekick, Robin).

James Carpenter plays several kings (one horrific, one kindly) with commanding authority and looks particularly good in a robe covered with images of his face. Jessica Kitchens is also effective in contrasting a sweet princess with a deceitful queen (whose gowns have shoulders to be envied by the most fashionable quarterbacks).

Because this play is so full of incident, it helps to have an engaging narrator (Anita Carey) to help stitch the adventures together, and it’s even better to have a narrator with a lilting Northern England accent.

The actors hurtle through the various episodes with verve, though they tend to get upstaged by props and scenery from time to time. It’s hard to compete with a full-on drenching from a storm at sea, especially when a realistic looking baby doll shows up. The contrast between hyper-theatrical, stretch-your-imagination tricks and the occasional human moments 
can be jarring.

Wing-Davey’s Pericles labors to make the most of a fractured script, but in the end, this take on the tale isn’t nearly as beguiling as California Shakespeare Theater’s 2008 production (read the review here). In that version, director Joel Sass used a storytelling approach (also with eight actors) that turned out to be as enchanting as it was moving.

This production has some dazzle and some heft and definitely some humor, but all that wacky set-up, which is really just an excuse for an impossible, tear-jerking happy ending, is practically for naught. The one thing that’s missing, amid all the storms and anachronisms and hard-working theatrics, is heart.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Pericles, Prince of Tyre continues through May 26 on the Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$77 (subject to change). Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.

Wrestling affections in Impact’s As You Like It

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Celia (Alexander Lenarsky, left) and Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis) while away the hours waiting for Orlando in Impact Theatre’s ultra-gender-bending As You Like It. Below: Phebe (Luisa Frasconi, center) attempts to woo Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis, right) as Celia (Alexander Lenarsky) and Silvius (Brandon Mears) bear witness. Photos by Cheshire Isaacs


Shakespeare didn’t drop any F-bombs in his comedy As You Like It, but that doesn’t stop Impact Theatre. There are lots of non-Shakespeare asides in this highly edited, streamlined version from director Melissa Hillman, but purists shouldn’t despair. Such contemporary additions are usually thrown in during scene transitions or to punctuate a joke that has already landed. And they’re a hell of a lot of fun, as is the entire 2 1/2- hour show.

Hillman and Impact often draw from the Shakespeare well, but rather serving the plays up straight, they’re turned into potent cocktails, with some darker and bloodier than others. With As You Like It, Hillman and her game cast are reveling in relationships. Some of the more Shakespearean touches in the show – like the characters of Jaques the grump and Touchstone the clown don’t fare as well because they’re too much on the periphery and don’t fit in to the gender-bending love stories jumping through hoops in the center ring.

Set in present day, the play revs up for a wrestling match that is played in high style, behind chain-link fence, no less (set by Anne Kendall) with Hulk Hogan-ish Charles (Stacz Sadowski) ready to pummel underdog Orlando (Miyaka Cochrane). The flashing lights, the great choreography (fight direction by Dave Maier) and even an errant crowbar make the match a play highlight. And when Orlando emerges victorious, we dive into the main love story involving him and Rosalind (Maria Giere Marquis), the daughter of a banished ruler (traditionally a duke, but here a duchess plaeyd by Marianna Wolff) who is kept at court to amuse her beloved cousin, Celia (traditionally a woman but here a gay man played with scene-stealing panache by Alexander Lenarsky). That Rosalind and Celia are BFFs is not only a given here but the heart of the story. When their story sends them away from court in disguise, well Rosalind is disguised as a boy named Ganymede, they end up in the Northern California town of Arden, where the action takes place entirely in a bar.

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I must say I missed a sense of the outdoors because that is one of the charms of the forest-set As You Like It, but when you perform in a low-ceilinged basement theater on a stage the size of a Pop Tart, you do what you can, and it never ceases to amaze me what the Impact crew manages to accomplish on one of the most restrictive stages in the Bay Area. At one point, as the action shifts from the court to Arden, we get a music video – almost like the opening credits to a sitcom – featuring the main characters in a rock band (kudos to filmmaker Martín Estévez). It’s a delightful touch, and I hoped for more, or that at some point the cast would strap on their guitars for a number, but it didn’t happen.

Act 1 ends rather abruptly, but the longer Act 2 gets a big boost in the form of Luisa Frasconi as Phebe, a short skirt and fur-wearing, Gold Star-sipping lass who can’t be bothered with doe-eyed Silvius (Brandon Mears), who’s as smitten as a man can be. The minute she lays eyes on Ganymede, she herself is smitten, but we know how that will go. Still, it’s great fun to watch Frasconi spurn Mears and drool over Marquis.

Speaking of Marquis, after having played Viola in Twelfth Night and now Rosalind, she’s become expert at playing girls dressed as boys. She’s believable in both parts and never lets us lose sight of the love-struck girl who makes a passable boy in a newsie cap. She’s charming, and her relationship with Lenarsky’s Celia never fails to keep the action grounded in affection.

From the eye-rolling bartender (Cassie Rosenbrock, who looks 16 months pregnant) to a Corin (Jon Nagel) ready to officiate at any flavor of wedding, there’s no shortage of things to like in Impact’s As You Like It.

[bonus interview]

I talked to Maria Giere Marquis about Impact’s As You Like It for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Impact Theatre’s As You Like It continues through March 30 at La Val’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$25. Visit www.impacttheatre.com.

Cal Shakes ends season with a moody Hamlet

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Julie Eccles is Queen Gertrude and Leroy McClain is the title character in Hamlet, the California Shakespeare Theater’s final show of the 2012 season. Below: McClain’s Hamlet meets the remains of poor Yorrick in the graveyard. Photos by Kevin Berne

On exactly the kind of temperate night for which they invented outdoor theater, California Shakespeare Theater opened the final show of the summer season. Hamlet, directed by Liesl Tommy (best known for her direction of Ruined at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in spring of last year) clocks in at about 3 hours and 10 minutes, and there are some glorious things in it. But on the whole, this Hamlet left me curiously unmoved.

But first here’s what’s good. Leroy McClain as Hamlet delivers a fascinating performance, pouring his heart and mind into the torrent of words that continuously pours out of the moody Dane’s mouth. You don’t have much of a Hamlet if you’re not riveted by the title character, and McClain certainly puts on a good show, especially when he’s affecting madness to upset the court. Director Tommy does some interesting things with the text, the most intriguing of which involves the famous “To be or not to be” speech, which Hamlet now delivers to Ophelia (Zainab Jah) as he clutches her in his arms. Given Ophelia’s fate in the second half of the play, having her hear this speech is a bold choice.

McClain is a nimble actor with charisma to spare, all of which he needs for a marathon like this. He (and the production) really springs to life with the arrival of the Players (Danny Scheie, Nichoals Pelczar and Mia Tagano). In addition to being a showcase moment for the comic heights and dramatic depths of Scheie, the Player scenes crackled with energy, perhaps because they were so overtly theatrical, when the production as a whole seems somehow strangely untheatrical.

But more of that in a minute.

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The other scene that pulsed with life and passion was the bedroom scene between McClain’s Hamlet and Julie Eccles as his mother, Queen Gertrude. The emotional honesty and intensity of this confrontation, simply played out on and around the queen’s bed, told the story of a disintegrating family better than any other in the production.

Dan Hiatt as a pompous but likeable Polonius wrings laughs and poignancy (except when he has to join the ghost parade with a bloody gut), and because it’s always good to see Hiatt do anything, it’s nice to have him back toward the end as an unsentimental gravedigger.

I liked that the ghost of Hamlet’s father (played by Adrian Roberts, who also plays newly crowned King Claudius) was turned into a jittery zombie with gore peeling off his face, but I found Jake Rodriguez’s eerie sound design much scarier than the ghost himself.

So with all these strong performances, why did this Hamlet only come alive in fits and starts for me? I think it has mainly to do with the concept behind the production – or maybe lack of a clear concept. Clint Ramos’ set is like a post-apocalyptic Holiday Inn, a dreary cement bunker and an empty swimming pool littered with junk ranging from chairs, tattered pink lawn flamingoes, thrift store lamps, stacks of books, children’s toys and the kind of heavy-duty lights you see on construction sites. But then Ramos’ costumes are slick and stylish, beautifully tailored modern gowns and suits. I just plain didn’t get it and never felt the production did anything to clarify the characters, their stories or their landscape, emotional or otherwise.

For this reason, I would say that to enjoy this Hamlet you should be fairly well versed in Hamlet before you get to the theater. It’s pretty apparent something’s rotten in the state of Denmark, but just what that something is remains more cloudy than clear.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

California Shakespeare Theater’s Hamlet continues through Oct. 21 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from Orinda BART. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Othello: not a fan but a grudging admirer

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Craig Marker (left) is Iago and Aldo Billingslea is Othello in the Marin Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice. Below: Billingslea with Mairin Lee as Desdemona. Photos by David Allen.

When faced with the prospect of seeing another production of Othello, I usually gird my loins, wipe my nose with a strawberry-embroidered hanky and settle in for a show I know I’m not going to like much. As a theater critic, I suppose I’m not supposed to have a bias for or against certain plays, but that’s really nonsensical when you think about it, especially plays you’ve seen over and over and over again. I’ve been doing the theatrical criticism thing for almost 20 years now, and I’ve seen Desdemona choked (and choked and choked again) a number of times, in good productions and bad. And I’ve never really been moved by the play. Certain performances made an impact, but more on an intellectual than emotional level.

Perhaps I should have skipped the latest Othello at Marin Theatre Company, but the prospect of seeing two actors I admire greatly, Aldo Billingslea and Craig Marker as Othello and Iago respectively, was too much to resist. I have to say I’m glad I saw the production because these two formidable local talents do not disappoint. Watching Billingslea transform from noble warrior to blushing groom to murderous, jealousy-enraged monster is captivating. And Marker’s boyish earnestness somehow makes Iago even more coldhearted than usual. Even from behind a scruffy beard, Marker can’t escape a look of innocence that contrasts sharply with the evil spewing from his lips.

Billingslea and Marker perform a beautifully calibrated duet of provocation and victimization that erupts into a finale can’t help but satisfy when Othello realizes what a tool he’s been and Iago is exposed for the inveterate villain he really is.

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What gets me about Othello is that until that final section when all the plot machinations start to take hold and the bodies start to drop, I really couldn’t care less about any of it. The motivations, the exposition, the supposed justifications for the coming blood bath – it’s all just so much rumbling to me, and none of it really adds to the final act, which would still have a visceral impact without any of it.

So while I’m slogging through the first two-plus hours of the nearly three-hour MTC production directed by artistic director Jasson Minadakis, I have time to notice the set by J.B. Wilson. It’s two towers of a battlement connected by a wooden walkway with half of a big stone sphere visible between the two towers. The more I looked at the set, the more I realized what it reminded me of: Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the sphere is like that giant boulder that nearly steamrollers over Indy in the opening sequence. And the lighting by Kurt Landisman is distinctive as well – very dark and shadowy like Shakespeare noir…or a really moody new restaurant in a hip Cypress neighborhood.

Fight director Dave Maier gets some vigorous sword fighting out of the cast, who hold swords in one hand and mini-shields in the other, so there’s lots of satisfying clanging going on. Speaking of the cast, the supporting players who impressed me most were Liz Sklar as Aemilia, Desdemona’s lady in waiting. Aemilia is such an impressive woman – so powerful, loyal and forthright. You have to wonder what she’s doing with a slime bag like Iago. Anyway, also good in the supporting cast are Nicholas Pelczar as Rodorigo and an underused Dan Hiatt as Desdemona’s pissed-off father. The other players were uneven and often seemed out of their depth with the Shakespearean language.

In spite of all the good things, this is still Othello, a play that tests my patience. In the end, this Othello left me wanting, as so many other productions have, wanting ever so much (you should pardon the expression) Moor.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Shakespeare’s Othello continues through April 22 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $34-$50. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Let’s give Impact’s Titus a big, bloody hand

EXTENDED THROUGH APRIL 7
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Reggie White is Aaron and Anna Ishida is Tamora in the Impact Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Below: Lucius (Caitlyn Tella) comforts her grieving father, Titus (Stacz Sadowski). Photos by Cheshire Isaacs

Anna Ishida has a scream to remember – the kind of scream that startles your unborn children. She could supplant Jamie Lee Curtis as the Queen of Scream, but until then, she’s wreaking bloody havoc in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, this season’s revitalized Shakespeare project at Berkeley’s Impact Theatre.

Artistic Director Melissa Hillman is particularly adept at trimming a Shakespeare play to its most vital parts and shooting it through with a kind of energy that tends to surprise anyone who has forgotten that, in the right hands, Shakespeare can be lean and mean.

With Titus, which is really the Saw of the Shakespeare canon, Hillman has her work cut out for her, not in the lean-and-mean department but more in the “why is this worth doing beyond the blood and gore?” department. Her adaptation, a brisk and blissfully brutal two hours, comes up with an interesting answer to that question.

Often dismissed as Shakespeare’s most violent and therefore most worthless tragedy, Titus has sort of come into its own in the last century or so. Our view of violence has finally caught up with or reverted back to the level seen in the play, which is remarkably high. Sons fare especially badly in the play, though the worst of it is saved for a loyal daughter. In many ways, Titus is a few sex scenes away from being a new cable series.

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Hillman and her cast – an astonishing 16 people on a stage that can feel crowded with two – achieve a tone here that really works. You see it established especially in the performances by Ishida as Tamora, the vengeful Queen of the Goths, and Stacz Sadowski as Titus, a brave soldier and questionable father. Ishida is tough and sexy and intense. She’s not exactly a cartoon villain, but she’s not exactly real either. She’s somewhere in between, and that’s just about perfect.

Sadowski’s Titus is trickier, especially in this abbreviated version. He goes from being a noble hero to the murderer of his son in minutes. He’s attempting to be a great man one minute and accusing everyone of treason the next. He’s all over the place emotionally – “the woefulest man that ever lived in Rome – and Sadowski, a big, imposing fella, can barely keep up. But when things start to get really intense, the actor’s canny performance fuses the raw emotion of loss and violence with the overblown revenge drama to create a man of Shatnerian dimensions.

After horrible rapes, mutilations and murders, Titus gets punked by Tamora’s lover, Aaron (Reggie White in a devilish performance). The results are horrific, but the scene gets laughs. How could they not? It’s silly and sad in equal measure and way too much of both. So why not play it like Capt. Kirk and make it work?

Unlike brainless slasher movies, Titus at least makes a potent point about the inevitably awful results of revenge, and Hillman’s production lets that come through loud and clear. This is a giddily gory affair with full credit going to blood technician and props designer Tunuviel Luv, blood captain Joe Mason, fight director Dave Maier and weapons captain Carlos Martinez (also a member of the cast) for emphasizing the futility (and entertainment value) of barbarous violence.

There’s some unevenness in the cast, but in addition to Ishida and Sadowski, there’s some impressive work by Mark McDonald and Mike McDonald (I’m going to go out on a limb and say these nearly identical young men are brothers) as evil brothers Chiron and Demetrius. To say they give deliciously wicked performances may be revealing too much.

Also affecting is Sarah Coykendall as the doomed Lavinia. In a victim role, Coykendall brings some real starch and strength. And a shout out to Martín Estévez for his videos – most notably a completely believable CNN debate between three talking heads arguing over who should be Emperor of Rome. It’s a nice contemporary touch. After all, what is senseless violence without the 24-hour news cycle?

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Impact Theatre’s Titus Andronicus continues an extended run through April 7 at LaVal’s Subterranean, 1834 Euclid Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $12-$20. Call 510-224-5744 or visit www.impacttheater.com

Project bridges Spacey and SF

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Kevin Spacey and Haydn Gwynne in the Bridge Project’s Richard III, coming to the Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season. Photo by Manuel Harlan

The Bridge Project, that transatlantic experiment in blending American and English actors and designers is slowly wending its way to a close after three seasons. The final lap of the project, a collaboration between the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), The Old Vic in London and director Sam Mendes‘ production company, is Shakespeare’s Richard III starring The Old Vic’s artistic director, a dude named Kevin Spacey.

Neither Spacey nor Mendes made himself available to the press to promote the San Francisco stop on the R3 world tour, so I wrote a feature for the San Francisco Chronicle about the Bridge Project itself.

Read the story here.

SHN is now employing “dynamic pricing,” which boosts ticket prices when there’s high demand. For example, the night after R3 opens – we’re talking about Thursday, Oct. 20 – most available orchestra seats are – gulp – $400. Seats in the very back of the orchestra are $175. Spacey is great and all, but that’s a lot of money for three hours and 20 minutes of evil king.

Here’s a glimpse of Spacey and company at work.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Richard III continues a short run Oct. 19 through Oct. 29 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $35-$400. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Cal Shakes’ Shrew anything but tame

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Kissed and cursed: Erica Sullivan is Katherine and Slate Holmgren is Petruchio in the California Shakespeare Theater production of The Taming of the Shrew. Below: The excellent supporting cast includes (from left) Liam Vincent, Dan Clegg, Danny Scheie and Nicholas Pelczar as suitors to the lovely Bianca. Photos by Kevin Berne.Photos by Kevin Berne

If you think you’ve seen The Taming of the Shrew, you might want to think again. Director Shana Cooper’s production – the season-closer for the California Shakespeare Theater – is fresh, feisty and full of insight. Many a Shrew can make you cringe, but very few, like this one, can actually make you lose yourself in the comedy, the provocation and the genuine emotion underneath it all.

Cooper brings a sense of contemporary flash and fun to the production, from the bright yellow accents in Scott Dougan’s double-decker set (backed by a colorful billboard-like ad for a product called “Tame”) to the zippy song mash-ups in the sound design by Jake Rodriguez. The music is especially fun. You can hear strains of Madonna’s “Material Girl” followed by a flash of the “Wonder Woman” theme song one minute and revel in almost an entire number (“Tom, Dick or Harry”) from Kiss Me Kate, the next. In this tale of love that is purchased, battled over and maybe even deeply felt, the song “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” takes on intriguing textures, both comic and dramatic. Even the lighting by York Kennedy has a crystal-clear energy all its own.

The real miracle of Cooper’s production is that there are interesting characters in it other than feral lovers Kate (Erica Sullivan) and Petruchio (Slate Holmgren). Credit this to successful direction and a superb cast full of some of the Bay Area’s most versatile comedians. Of particular note are the suitors to Kate’s beauty queen little sister, Bianca (Alexandra Henrikson): the tailor Gremio (Danny Scheie), dapper dan Hortensio (Liam Vincent) and intellectual Lucentio (Nicholas Pelczar). When the action shifts away from the central taming story, it doesn’t feel like we’re just biding time until we get back. Even the servants – Dan Clegg as Tranio, Dan Hiatt as Grumio, Joan Mankin in a trio of nicely etched roles – feel richer than usual. Rod Gnapp in the thankless role of Kate and Bianca’s father, even emerges more fully fleshed out than usual.

Scheie, as usual, gets away with comic murder. Even the way he says the name of his beloved, Bee-ANK-uh, gets a laugh to say nothing of what he does with the phrase “turkey cushions.” Pelczar, Clegg and Theo Black as Biondello have an inspired bit of shtick in the first act involving the exchange of hats. The Marx Brothers would be proud. Almost as good is the timing of Clegg and Pelczar exchanging clothes, undressed to their matching skivvies for the line beginning, “In brief…”

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There are so many wonderful details in this production that its 2 1/2 hours zip by. When Petruchio is late for his wedding, a description of his wild attire precedes his arrival, building up certain expectations that costumer Katherine O’Neill more than meets when he actually steps on stage. The outfit should be savored as a surprise, but let’s just say that amid the Saran Wrap there’s a starring role for Holmgren’s left butt cheek. Hilarious.

There is particular satisfaction in the richness of the Kate and Petruchio scenes. Their first scene together, which received a well-earned round of applause at Saturday’s autumnally temperate opening-night performance, is a prolonged seduction as much as it is an intense fight. Cooper, with the help of movement coach Erika Chong Shuch and fight director Dave Maier, turns it into a memorably acrobatic dance that infuses every line of dialogue with meaning. And it’s sexy as hell, thanks to Sullivan and Holmgren’s expert execution.

The trajectory of Kate and Petruchio’s love story – and that’s really what it is here – is clear from the first time they see each other, and each, almost in spite of themselves, likes what they see. Sullivan and Holmgren have red-hot chemistry from the very first, and they’re so good together you really do want them together. Kate’s got emotional troubles and Petruchio’s actually terrified by her, a state incompatible with his alpha-male bravado. But they both dive in, each a little crazed and carried away until they reach an understanding about how deeply they are willing to invest in their union and in each other. The taming here is mutual, and in the end it isn’t taming so much as maturing. Theirs will not be a shallow marriage of arrangement, though that’s how it begins. Unlike Bianca’s meet-cute relationship with her groom, Kate and Petruchio will likely still love on another tomorrow.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed director Shana Cooper and Cal Shakes Artistic Director Jonathan Moscone for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
California Shakespeare Theater’s The Taming of the Shrew continues through Oct. 16 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24). Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station and the theater. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

M M M My Verona: Rockin’ at Cal Shakes

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Rock the uke: Dan Clegg (center) is Proteus in California Shakespeare Theater’s world-premiere production of The Verona Project. Below: Nate Trinrud (left) is Valentine and Philip Mills (at microphone) is Sylvio. Photos by Kevin Berne

 

Let it be known that the world premiere of California Shakespeare Theater’s The Verona Project is a hell of a lot more fun than The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the Shakespeare play on which it’s based. In fact, I can think of several Shakespeare plays I’d like to see turned into original rock concerts. Troilus and Cressida the Musical, anyone?

Amanda Dehnert has essentially reinvented Two Gents, which thought to be Shakespeare’s very first play, and actually made it interesting. She is the director, writer and composer of a high-concept show that takes elements of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, GrooveLily’s Striking 12 and Berkeley Rep’sGirlfriend to become a presentational musical/rock concert with some story thrown in.

The result is a lovable, enjoyable if not always successful show whose rough patches actually add to the charm. There’s nothing overly slick or polished about The Verona Project, and that’s a good thing. The central idea is that a band called The Verona Project has created a concept album based on Two Gents and they’re going to treat us to a concert performance of that album.

The set (by Daniel Ostling) is a decorated concert stage (think window display at Anthropologie) with doors and desks and staircases that roll on and off. The eight actors are also the eight members of the band, playing guitars of various kinds, the accordion, various horns (none of which can really be heard very well), drums and assorted noisemakers. David Lee Cuthbert’s lights have to be rock concert lights first, musical theater lights second, and he manages to do both successfully.

Dehnert’s idea is that she’ll take the non-annoying aspects of Shakespeare’s story and reinvent the rest, so we get two best friends, Proteus and Valentine, growing up in a small town and reaching that moment of decision when they become young adults. Val (Nate Trinrud) elects to see the world and discover himself, so he leaves their quiet hamlet of True and heads off to the big city. That leaves Pro (Dan Clegg) at home with his first-ever girlfriend, Julia (Arwen Anderson), who also happens to be the only girl in town (“There must be something in the water!” is a running joke).

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Pro’s parents think their son should be more like Val and head into the big, bad world before he settles down with Julia, so without too much resistance, Pro heads off to the city to catch up with his buddy. He stays in touch with Julia with two cans and a very long string (a concept more twee than charming).

But Val is doing just fine on his own. He gets a job as a wordsmith – he creates poems and stories for people who need them (a concept more charming than twee) – and promptly falls in love with Sylvio (Philip Mills), the son of the Duke, who has been engaged to a girl practically since birth. (Fans of Two Gents, all three of them, will notice Dehnert’s nice gender bending here – in Shakespeare, Sylvio is Sylvia.) The romance between these boys is really where the heart of The Verona Project lies until much later in this nearly three-hour musical exercise when Julia emerges as a hero in her own right. It’s just so inherently satisfying that the sweet gay boys and the smart, courageous girl carry the show.

There’s a dark shadow under the stories of love and friendship and growing up, and that shadow is loss – especially loss of parents and spouses. A great deal of time is spent in graveyards and dealing with ghosts in this tale. In fact, the most beautiful song in the score is “The Quiet,” a song the women sing during a graveyard scene. Amid all the love is a lot of loss, and that seems just about right.

All the actors are appealing, and there are some nice small turns by Harold Pierce as the messenger Speed (his droll humor is invaluable), by Adam Yazbeck as the grief-addled Duke, by Marisa Duchowny as a variety of moms and Elena Wright as the smarter-than-anyone-thinks Thuria, the girl Sylvio is supposed to marry.

The disappointment in the show for me is in the music. Dehnert’s score is good more in theory than in practice. The songs tend to be over-long and lose shape and impact as they proceed. And though the cast members handle their acting duties admirably, their musicianship is all over the place. The vocals are intermittently wonderful and awful. Some of the singers – like Duchowny and Trinrud – are absolutely wonderful. Others struggle, and that’s distracting. Also, the musicianship is not stellar, neither are the vocal arrangements.

But, rather surprisingly, all that stuff is not a show killer. Dehnert and her cast attack this story of maturation, love, change and grief with such integrity that it all sort of works. There’s energy and enthusiasm and heart to spare, and that goes a long, long way toward making The Verona Project sing, almost in spite of itself.

[bonus video]

 

FOR MORE INFORMATION

California Shakespeare Theater’s The Verona Project continues through July 31 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way (one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel on Highway 24), Orinda. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org.

Titus serves up revenge, blood rare and steaming hot

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And daily the kids’ special is…: James Carpenter (in apron) is Titus in California Shakespeare Theater’s first-ever production of Titus Andronicus. Anna Bullard as Lavinia is pushing the cart, while seated at the table are Stacy Ross as Tamora and Rob Campbell as Saturninus. Below: Carpenter and Bullard deal with unimaginable torture. Photos by Kevin Berne

Director Joel Sass has such a strong, infectious sense of storytelling that he even makes Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, proclaimed to be the Bard’s bloodiest play, enjoyable.

It’s not that the play, which has a single issue on its gory mind – the futility and waste of revenge – isn’t interesting. It’s compelling and hideous at the same time.

But what Sass does for the California Shakespeare Theater’s season-opening production of Titus – the first in Cal Shakes’ 37-year history – is heighten the theatricality of the tale, elevate it to grand and glorious storytelling rather than an endlessly horrific parade of one bloody special effect after another.

Of course there’s blood, and lots of it. First we see bloody swords (but not how they got that way). Then it’s a blood-smeared lip from a fight over a woman. Then the slicing and dicing begins in earnest. The blood, it does flow, especially from slit throats.

This is a muscular production of a tough play, mean in spirit and humor. If Shakespeare’s goal is to illuminate the way ego-driven revenge turns life into a cesspit for everyone involved, he certainly succeeds.

But Sass creates a surprisingly beautiful production. At first, the crumbling cement bunker of Emily Greene’s set seems too solid and overwhelming. But then Russell H. Champa’s start playing with the surfaces and shadows of the set, and suddenly the stage can be as menacing or as lovely as Sass needs it to be. There are masked extras, banners fluttering in the chilly summer breeze and some striking costumes (by Paloma H. Young), all in service to imbuing some beauty and striking images into the stream of ugly behavior.

Even the way Sass transitions from one location to another – using moving columns that look like they’re made of rusty metal – can lend moments of grace.

When characters are awful in this play, they’re bone-deep awful. Aaron the Moore (played by Shawn Hamilton) has to be Shakespeare’s most unrepentantly revolting character – the only thing this man regrets is any good deed he might accidentally have committed. He causes deaths and mutilations as a means of entertaining himself.

If he’s at the top of the horrible heap, the power mongers and the sadistic spoiled brats are just underneath. In the first category falls Saturninus (Rob Campbell), Rome’s new emperor and possessor of very funny dirty little chuckle. His new bride is Tamora (Stacy Ross), the queen of the recently vanquished Goths, and though she pretends to be a hot-to-trot new bride, she’s really scheming, Lady Macbeth-style, how she’s going to exact her revenge on all of Rome.

Tamora’s two sons, Demetrius (Chad Deverman) and Chiron (David Mendelsohn) are twisted, beast-like savages whose disgusting fate – probably the most famous aspect of this infrequently produced play – is, it must be admitted, quite dramatically satisfying. And from the looks of the diners on stage, quite tasty.

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The Army of Awful unleashed in the play does its worst (best?) work on Roman hero Titus (the always remarkable James Carpenter) and the members of his family who haven’t already been wiped out by battle duty.

It would be nice if Shakespeare gave us a little more to like about Titus and his clan other than their inherent morality (especially compared to everybody else), but in the end, that’s what defines them and makes us root for them. That morality, though, is hardly an effective shield. The cost of grief and loss and horror takes its toll, especially on Titus.

With the garish, over-done makeup worn by the actors, we’re continually reminded that this is theater at its most grandiose, but such theatricality doesn’t always mask the fact that Shakespeare is really going overboard here. The rape and mutilation of a young woman (the noble Anna Bullard as Lavinia) is especially hard to stomach in an evening’s “entertainment.” When the playwright has Lavinia, whose hands have been cut off and tongue cut out, carry her father’s severed hand in her teeth, you know there’s something more than emphasis on horror going on. Perhaps he’s gotten a little carried away (happily, director Sass keeps the hand tastefully inside a satchel).

It could be dark humor, but after a certain point, all this pretend violence is really not funny. And for the ending to hit home all that horror and gore needs to have added up to something.

In this three-hour production, thankfully, the ending does pack a wallop. The bodies pile up, the horror ebbs, but the cycle continues. As you might expect, the ever-astute Shakespeare didn’t have much faith in mankind to ever end the seemingly nonstop rush of violence and idiocy spawned by revenge.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

California Shakespeare Theater’s Titus Andronicus continues through June 26 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Free shuttle to and from the Orinda BART station. Tickets are $35-$66. Call 510-548-9666 or visit www.calshakes.org for information.

Final analysis: Cutting Ball’s Tempest is a head-shrinker

EXTENDED THROUGH DEC. 19!

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Caitlyn Louchard (left), David Sinaiko (center) and Donell Hill are the only three actors in director Rob Melrose’s chamber version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a Cutting Ball Theater production at EXIT on Taylor. Photo by Rob Melrose

High-concept Shakespeare gives me a rash. I should modify that. Most of the time, when directors impose some great new twist, time period, setting, the result merely obscures rather than heightens the play itself.

That said, my favorite Merry Wives of Windsor of all time was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version, which was set in an “I Love Lucy”-like 1950s. The laughs were so big the actors had to hold and hold and hold. I was sure they had tinkered with the script, but when I ran to my Riverside Shakespeare after, it was all word for word. If a director’s concept pulls you deeper into Shakespeare’s world, I’m all for it.

When I heard that director Rob Melrose, one of the brilliant minds behind Cutting Ball Theater was turning The Tempest into a three-person chamber piece set in a psychiatrist’s office at the bottom of a swimming pool, I was hesitant but intrigued.

Looking at Michael Locher’s set at the EXIT on Taylor, I was impressed even though it looked more like a jungle gym than a swimming pool with a great back wall for Cliff Caruthers’ attractive video projections. The ladders on the sides of the stage allow for feats of physical dexterity on the part of the actors that enliven the action.

When the play started, with Miranda (Caitlyn Louchard) on the couch and Prospero (David Sinaiko) behind the therapist’s desk, the idea of a head-shrinker Tempest seemed inspired.

Prospero is all about playing manipulative head games with everyone around him, so it only makes sense that he would be a psychiatrist. But as the first scene began to play out, I wondered if, in this scenario, Prospero was actually Miranda’s father (would a father really psychoanalyze his daughter?) or if, through patient transference, he was more of a father figure. It soon became clear that he was indeed her father, which just ended up seeming weird.

I soon lost the psychiatrist thread and just saw a scaled-down Tempest that featured some intriguing performances – Louchard is a wonderful Ariel and Donell Hill is superb as Caliban (he’s fine as Ferdinand, too). Sinakio’s Prospero never came to life for me because I couldn’t really figure out who he was supposed to be. Also, having your Prospero appear as other characters (Sinaiko also plays Alonso and Stephano) really steals focus from the center of the play and diminishes the character – even if the concept has all this drama taking place in his head.

With the introduction of the revenge characters and the comic relief characters, Melrose’s production really lost me. The challenges of this chamber production erupted into confusion, and confusion turned into boredom. A friend who had never seen The Tempest before was lost almost from the beginning and left feeling like it was a play she had no interest in seeing again.

Cutting Ball productions are never easy, but their challenges often result in thrilling theatrical experiences. This Tempest certainly has its challenges but comes up short on the rewards.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Cutting Ball Theater’s The Tempest continues an extended run through Dec. 19 at EXIT on Taylor, 277 Taylor St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$50. Call 800 838-3006 or visit www.cuttingball.com for information.