May 30th, 2011

Galen 2013

Julius Caesar

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Julius Caesar
by William Shakespeare

All the best moments of this production of Julius Caesar come before Shakespeare's words are heard on stage:

  • The banners in front of the New Theater venue and in its lobbies memorialize assassinated leaders from Xerxes in ancient Persia through Indira Gandhi in modern India. Stark and powerful, these black and white statements promise an accessible, strong, and contemporary evening.

  • Before going dark, Vilma Silva (Caesar -- no problems for me with this gender twist) introduces herself and asks that the audience participate in the play by cheering for her, and the cast divvies up the sections of seats and cheer leads the "Hail, Caesars!"s of each audience block. What fun this is going to be!
And, then the play starts and everything falls to a luke-warm, confused, rushed mess.

I have enjoyed many productions of Julius Caesar.  I have seen most all of the cast of this production excel in many Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays. 

So, what is different this time?

I suspect that director Amanda Dehnert was simply out of her league.  This evening had no vision, no clarity, and no life.  The banners and initial cheer leading must have been someone else's idea -- my seat mates suggested that other people were brought in the save this production -- because there are no banners, no sustained audience cheering, and no energy the rest of the awful evening.

Specific things were plain wrong:
  • Too few actors played too many characters in too small a space.  In the theater-in-the-round configuration of the New Theater, the audience is intimate with the actors.  Anyway, in Ashland audiences recognize the actors.  So, Anthony Heald is Cicero and he doesn't become a different person in the ensemble just because they stuck a hat on him. If you're going to economize on actors, do a five-character play.  The New Theater isn't the right place for  known OSF actors to play many parts.
  • Ako was hideously miscast as the Soothsayer... and everything else.  She has a thick accent which distorts her words and hides her emotions.  As the "Beware of the Ides of March" lady she was halting and impotent.  It made no sense that Caesar -- or anyone -- would have even remembered her or her predictions.  Awful.
  • People ran on stage and ran off stage too much.  Quick, confused.  We couldn't track which character an actor was supposed to be in this appearance, and the story seemed be cut and endlessly long at the same time.
  • The audience was revved up to participate in the play.  We got to cheer Caesar a couple times in the early scenes, but then, nothing.  Why not? Similarly, the striking banners decorated the entrance to the New Theater, but there were no professional banner in the play itself.  Why not?
  • The performance had too much high-school quality Symbolism.  After being stabbed, Julius takes five minutes of pained, gesturing silence to float offstage in her gory robes. Then she appears as a ghost with kabuki movements in the second part of the play.  Endlessly. She smears gray goo on her foes as they die on stage.  She looks ethereal and ghostly and meaningful.  Oh, vomit.
  • Too many lines are delivered off-the-cuff as the characters moves on/off stage.  This problem is compounded by the constant motion I already complained about. The audience is never sure on which person to focus, and important lines seem to come randomly from all over the stage.

  • In last year's five-start Hamlet, Dan Donahue (Hamlet) delivered some of Hamlet's best-known speeches as simple lines.  I love underplaying.  Dan was terrific! Yet, this Caesar didn't feel subtle, it felt haphazard. Like the actors wanted to get the lines out and get done with the night.

None of the actors or crafts people connected.  The normally sure Richard Hay's set looked unfinished   Props hung out at the corners of the stage.  The costumes were weird. My husband and I compared notes and discovered that at one point we were both counting the number of zippers one character wore.

A performance this uniformly disappointing was mis-cooked by the director.  No point in tsk-tskking over a woodenly delivered line here or an odd sight line there.  Instead we're going to remember Amanda Dehnert.  She deserves it.

Ozdachs Rating:  2 Syntaxes out of 5 
(the stars are for the sights and sounds that occur before the play begins)
Galen 2013

Imaginary Invalid

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
Imaginary Invalid
written by Moliere
adapted by Oded Gross and Tracy Young

Nothing is more pointless than dragging a 450-year-old social satire on to the stage with the original words, digs, and references in tact.  I was not looking forward to a dusty homage to Moliere, but my expectations were low anyway because Imaginary Invalid was the designated -- and mandatory -- silly farce for 2011.

Fortunately, Oregon Shakespeare Festival choose to be faithful to the spirit of Moliere instead of being slavishly bound to the original text.  This Invalid is all about the 21st Century and its health care issues, and the freshly adapted show is a thoroughly enjoyable pointed romp.

The script contains a tolerable amount of references to modern politics and inside-OSF theater jokes to reward the cognoscenti. There is also a very cute interview that Rodney Gardiner (the musician Guy) conducts with a random audience member at the start of the second act.  Customized theater is fun, even if Invalid isn't as changing as friends say that director Tracy Young's Servant of Two Masters was in 2009.

David Kelly (Argan) and K.T. Vogt (Toinette) sustain the good humor with appropriate slapstick timing and great glances.  There's lots of music in this Invalid, and Kelly has a very credible voice throughout. 

Each of the islands of quirkiness were well played and fun to watch.  Terri McMahon (Beline) was a perfect stereotype self-absorbed younger wife.  Robert Vincent Frank (Monsieur Diafoirus) was nice bit of pushy father, and his voice added depth and strength to the ensemble singing.  Daniel T. Parker (Dr. Purgon) was a fun pompous ass, and Daisuke Tsuji (Thomas Diafoirus) and Nell Geisslinger (Louison) were terrific nerdy lovebirds. Kimbre Lancaster (Angelique) and Chris Livingston (Cleante) were well cast as the pretty daughter and her hopeful suitor.  Jeff King (Beralde) was indeed a clean character who was the man who was actually sick, and U. Jonathan Toppo (Monsieur de Bonnefoi) was fine in his brief appearances a sleazy lawyer. [Thanks to apparentparadox for sorting out this list.]

Christopher Acebo's set was a relief.  It was rich yet simple, traditional, and a nice break from the video infused magic that I truly have loved in other performances. 

Imaginary Invalid isn't filled with life-changing insight.  The Seize-the-Day message is simple and simplistic.  But, OSF delivered that advice in 2 1/2 hours of quality entertainment.

Ozdachs Rating:  4 Syntaxes out of 5 
Galen 2013

The Language Archive

Ashland, Oregon
at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
The Language Archive
by Julia Cho

I saw the opening performance of The Language Archive in February and suffered much embarrassment on our drive up to Ashland for our annual Memorial Day visit as I was asked about the play.  Even when I was prompted with a listing of the title, cast, and writer, I could not remember a thing about the story itself. It took me many, many minutes to recapture the inability of linguist George (Rex Young) to communicate with those who mattered to him, first his wife Kate Mulligan (Mary) and then his assistant Susannah Flood (Emma). Then the counterpoint older couple who communicate in the language of love, Richard Elmore (Resten) and Judith Delgado (Alta), came back into my mind.

I am not surprised that the Archive had disappeared so thoroughly from my memory.  The 2-1/4 hour show is pleasant enough, well acted, predictable, heavy handed, and (obviously) forgettable. 

Julia Cho's script doesn't stand the test of time... in this case just a couple months.  George is in charge of recording languages before they become extinct.  He's fascinated with words the the subtleties of communication, in particular the way "I love you" is expressed in different language. Of course, those are the very words he cannot say to his wife, or, it turns out, anyone.  Get it?  The language guy studying "I love you" cannot say "I love you" to save his own emotional life. And, yes, the play is a tad self-indulgent, even as it is also fun to watch go by.  Fortunately, the production is not as humorless and self-important as production podcast, but it is unsubtle at best.

There's wit in the show and the actors do yeomen jobs letting us glimpse at just how stifled George is in his various relationships.   We are repeatedly charmed by Resten and Alta and their ability to speak, communicate, and live most fully.

Mary leaves George to follow her heart and winds up stumbling on a dream job of nurturing yeast and baking bread.  This subplot is straight out of Kerry Greenwood's Corina Chapman murder mystery series. On opening night, the second act starts with the smell of freshly baked bread in all corners of the theater -- a nice touch, although I have heard that the olfactory lagniappe is no longer noticeable. Still, you will get the point.  Mary moved on and found what she needed.

Emma, Resten, and Alta move on in their own ways too.  We see how George's constipated emotions restrict the range of his life experience.  Just to make sure we understand how wasted George's life is, we get an epilogue narrative that tells us that George never gave himself to life. 

The end-of-play wrap up was produced in the leaden way that weighed down the entire show.  A character spoke to the audience and told us what happened.  Throughout Archive the fourth stage wall was broken down and the audience was addressed, usually to give us some complex explanation which we either didn't need to know or else we should have been acted and not discussed.  Archive's epilogue was no smashing Six Feet Under coda.  But, then again, the main story was no quality drama, either.

If the Archive experience sounds cut and dried, it is because it was.  I enjoyed watching the acting and listening to the lines.  It just wasn't compelling or memorable theater. 

Ozdachs Rating:  3 Syntaxes out of 5