08 March 2011

Showtime! (Part 1)

In case any of you haven’t picked it up yet, I’m kind of into theatre.

While I’ve been in London, I’ve (half-accidentally) fallen into the habit of going to see at least one play a week – usually on Thursday nights. Some of them haven’t been very good plays, but the practice has done a lot to help re-ignite my interest in the technique of theatre, expand my understanding of what’s going on in the field right now and, not least, remind me why I’m trying to get into this business at all.
If you’re interested, what follows is a list, with brief reviews, of what I’ve been seeing. Enjoy. I have.

The Taming of the Shrew (Courtyard Theater): Some of you know that I really dislike most interpretations of this play. But I found this performance entirely on my own initiative, and what’s more, paid ten pounds and bus fare for the pleasure of seeing it.
Why? Well, see, I was told there would be mobsters. And I like mobsters. They tote guns, they talk tough and some of them are really snappy dressers. Also, in the case of this play, some of them are terrifyingly insane. In this production, Petruccio (the one who ends up marrying and “taming” Kate) is a mob boss, albeit one of the smaller-time ones involved (the others are Kate’s mother, Baptista, and Vincentio, Luciento’s father…I would try to explain how all these people are related, but it would take too long. There’s a decent plot overview here). He shows up to his wedding day covered in blood spatter and toting a corpse in a bag. 

Did I mention he was crazy? Because he was. Almost convincingly so.

Overall, the production value wasn’t very good. The venue was a low-ceilinged little box in the basement of a school building, and the stage was about two feet up from the (folding chairs) seating area, giving you a completely unnecessary view up most of the actress’ (very short) skirts. This company decided to keep the framing device at the beginning of the play, which gave it a pretty slow start, and the lighting and sound choices were both weak and shakily executed. The mobsters thing was a fun concept, but someone hadn’t done their research very carefully, and it showed in the haphazard costumes and inconsistent vernacular.

Kate and Petruccio were the best thing about the whole thing. As aforementioned, Petruccio was a bloodthirsty nutter, and the actor who played him was a smallish, wiry guy, speaking the Shakespeare well enough that you sometimes forgot it was Shakespeare. He manipulated everyone he needed to, threatened when he needed to, killed for the fun of it, but he had such style you found yourself wanting to side with him. Kate, too, was a wonder – I was skeptical about her in the first half, because it seemed like she hadn't taken the character much deeper than “I’m a shrew and I hate everyone,” but she executed the slow turn (after being married to Petruccio) and final acceptance of her position (“taming” if you like) subtly enough that I believed it. Briefly.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that Petruccio talked her into faking it, as a distraction before he took out his cleaver and murdered everyone. I think that part's probably open to interpretation.

The Shoemaker’s Wonderful Wife (Kingston University Drama Department): This play is by Federico Garcia Lorca, author of such weird gems as Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba. It was put on by Kingston’s third-year (read: senior) drama students, and I had high hopes for it, since this would be my first real proof of what kind of quality this program produces.

Well, they didn’t let me down. I describe this as a “small and pretty play,” but in the opposite of a derogatory way. The set and action were entirely self-contained within their little space (a small wooden circle, about eight feet across in the black box theater), a reflection of disciplined and un-indulgent blocking. All the set pieces and props were painted in bright, simple colors, enhanced by the warm “homey” light that was used for most of the performance. All of the lighting was simple, and drew very little attention to itself except when dramatic  changes were made for, and then they were all the more powerful for their sparseness. Also, the entire performance was underlaid with music, one ensemble member playing the guitar for literally the entire duration.

The acting was in a sort of ensemble style, although there was a definite protagonist in the person of the shoemaker’s wife. It was a pretty simple story, with a hardworking, patient shoemaker unhappily married to his young, pretty, fanciful and entirely useless wife. Of course she drives him crazy. Of course he leaves, to teach her a lesson. And of course she has character-building Difficult Experiences, so that when he comes back (in disguise, of course) to test her, she’s actually in love with him for the very first time.
I don’t know if the play is originally meant to be a melodrama, but it was played with an unapologetic tilt in that direction, with a lyrical, almost dancelike quality that sometimes made you wonder if someone was about to burst into song.

Now, admittedly, I have a personal preference for a pretty, minimalistic aesthetic whenever it fits the story, so my review of this performance is more than slightly biased (I never said otherwise, did I?). But truly, I left this performance with a smile on my face, pretty colors dancing behind my eyes, and a catchy tune still running through my head. Sometimes that’s really all I want from a show.

The Doctor in Spite of Himself (KU Drama): Another performance from the third-years, I think, again in the black box. This Moliere play, performed in Commedia dell’Arte style, was staged on a full thrust stage of questionable effectiveness, as the actors seemed uncertain of how to play to an audience that was seated on both sides of them. The lighting was plain (only fitting, as commedia is traditionally played outside in the marketplace), and the small, live musical ensemble was cute and obviously talented, but some of their creative “effects” were really distracting. (A bicycle horn whenever someone gropes the maid’s chest? Really? Do you have any idea how often that happens in Commedia?)

This performance was more or less a fail for me, due largely to facts outside the performers’ control – that is, that commedia doesn’t play so well for an audience unprepared (or unwilling) to participate. The funniness of commedia comes at least half out of the reactions that the audience gives you, and while some of the casting and satirical bits were quite good, we as an audience just didn’t take up our role in making it happen. The show tried so hard to be funny, but most of the time it wasn’t, because the energy was so forced.

Now, possibly the venue was to blame – an outdoor performance and daytime might have made things quite different. If taken in a good humor, it was mildly entertaining, but the acting and directing stopped shallowly at making fun of archetypes and didn’t really give us anything deeper to be challenged or interested by. Under the jokes, commedia is meant to point at a universal tragedy. We laugh at a clown’s pratfalls because he’s so sad and confused; we enjoy stupid characters because they’re in deadly earnest. There wasn’t any feeling behind the tricks in this show. Everyone was a caricature, no one was a character. Harsh? Maybe. Blame my Commedia class for making me take clowning so seriously.

As You Like It (Rose Theatre): Second Shakespeare, the first one done right. I paid eight pounds to be a groundling (seated, thank goodness, but you have to bring your own cushion) at the Rose, which is the professional theater that Kingston works with here in town. This show had the biggest budget and most resources of any I had seen thus far in the semester, as evidenced, first off, by the fact that their entire stage was covered in dirt (and it’s not a small stage). Literally, covered. There was from a few inches to a foot and a half of the stuff in spots, representing a forest floor as convincing as anything I’ve seen in my backyard back home.

You can find info about the Rose (as well as a video with production stills, plus a few audience reactions) here. I liked this production a lot, although the first half was a bit slow and my rear was more than a bit numb before it was all over. (If I visit the Rose again, I think I might shell out for a real seat.) The story is about typical of Shakespeare’s comedies, complete with cross-dressing, hidden identities, true love and lots of marrying at the end. I was especially impressed with the actresses who played Rosalind and Celia. Celia brought a lot of bright, saucy energy to her essentially “sidekick” role, and she came across as the kind of fun companion that I would definitely bring with me if I was exiled into a forest, whether she had any useful skills or not. Rosalind, as she necessarily must do, carried off the show, managing the double role of charming Rosalind and sharp, sly Ganymede masterfully, although it was funny to see the trouble the actress seemed to have with shrugging off her boy’s stance at the end, when she’s meant to be a woman again.

The rest of the cast was wonderful as well, and even the bit characters did their part to keep the plot alive and moving quickly with their pointed characterizations. But the chemistry between Rosalind and Celia was the best done, I thought – even more fun to watch than Rosalind and Orlando.

Stay tuned for part two! I’ve more shows to add to this list, but I think that’s long enough for now…don’t you?


  1. This might help the next time you're looking to see something at the Rose: http://www.rosetheatrekingston.org/free-tickets

    I'm actually seeing "As You Like It" on Monday - but yep, that totally sounds like a Shakespeare comedy. His plays only really end in two ways.


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