Thursday, July 31, 2008


LOL, I didn't want to write this review. Shakespeare Santa Cruz is so great, and they're nice, and their theater glen is wonderful and fragrant. But the Romeo & Juliet there is really bad, and after talking with famous Shakespeareans last night about my problems with the production after having put it off for a couple weeks, I realized it was more a problem with a horrible trend, and that needs writing about, so here we go.

The only thing good about the Shakespeare Santa Cruz production of Romeo & Juliet is Yvonne Woods. Her deliberate movements and commanding voice and presence somehow make Lady Capulet (!) the most interesting character in the play. It's too bad Shakespeare didn't write her a bigger part. The rest of the production was cluttered with bad costumes that didn't work; gypsy bits that didn't make any sense, do anything useful, or find a fit in the play; a singing, fortune-telling nurse who gets stuck in weird pantomimes with Friar Lawrence, and the least convincing Romeo I have ever seen.

But all that's not what I wanted to talk about. I think the production could have survived all of those faults were it not for two fatal errors. All the Shakespeareans I was with at Zynodoa last night agreed with rolling eyes.

Slow motion on stage is a very bad idea. If everyone on stage goes slo-mo when the lovers meet, the audience doesn't see the lovers because they're too busy watching Lady Capulet clap her hands very, verrry slowwwlly. It achieves precisely the opposite effect it was intended to. Slow-mo is a parlor trick that works splendidly in movies but has never ever worked on stage except for as a gag; when Broadway produces a Kung-Fu Panda show, watch for it. At San Diego's Old Globe, they did it, and in Santa Cruz they did it twice(!!): when the lovers meet and during their train wreck of a Mercutio/Tybalt death scene. And when Tybalt gets it, the Santa Cruz production makes its second fatal error. Usually, Romeo and Tybalt both get some of the audience's sympathy. After all, Tybalt doesn't want to die and Romeo doesn't want to kill him. The play goes to great lengths then to make sure Romeo doesn't deserve a death sentence. It was a crime of passion that happened to carry out what the Prince's law would have. But the audience is the jury, and if Romeo slits Tybalt's throat, we see cold calculation rather than hot rage so that when Romeo dies it seems a lot more like justice than it should, which is not at all.
If he kills Tybalt like he's some kind of Commando, no one will care when he dies; it's hard to feel bad for a predator. In San Diego, they even played a sound effect like "SHINNNKT!" when Romeo does the deed. A raw deal for the audience because they can't help but totally recall the murder when Romeo does himself.

Director Kim Rubinstein works at UC San Diego, so it's not too surprising that she's using the same faulty tricks that Seer pulled out at the Old Globe, but it is surprising that both directors think the gimmicks are a good idea.

I love Shakespeare Santa Cruz, though.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Best Shakespeare Movies and Hamlet 2?

Rotten Tomatoes came out ten years ago. I remember when it debuted, and I thought it was the best movie site online, and I still think so. It's mean and rotten, and that's important when you're spending ten bucks every time you're at a cinema.

Recently they did a 'best of Shax' list. I think some of it is B-U-L-L Shit, but all of it is kind of awesome, too. I like this list. It's promoting something called "Hamlet 2," which I am definitely going to see.

Here it is. And it's garnished 55(!) comments so far.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Bach at Leipzig in Santa Cruz

Itamar Moses, a young playwright, wrote the first play I saw at Shakespeare Santa Cruz
this year. At 31, he's a prodigy. "Bach at Lepizig" is a brilliant play filled with perfect comic banter as four would-be professors at the Thomas Schule audition for what they think is the most important position in German culture while a war brews outside. He manages to accomplish this with overlapping epistolary frames carried by unseen pigeons and the Shakespearean quirk of a play within a play that isn't actually a play but a device turning the production into a meta-play. At one point, Georg (everyone in the play is called Georg or Johann) writes a letter to his wife from prison, describing how to write a fugue. The already elegant description is made more elegant by the accompanying musical fugue playing in the background, building as Georg adds each voice. Then later, as if we didn't understand, all the Georgs and Johanns come out and speak lines in a way that they are all heard, but none completely understood, what we understand, oddly is the way a fugue works and consequently the way this and every other work of art captures us.

The Santa Cruz production, the Bay Area debut, was quite good. People loved it. I loved it. I guffawed at moments and moved to the edge of my seat in suspense at others. Director Art Manke blocked it so that the stage's shape became a tool rather than a hindrance to tell the story. I mean that I have seen too many plays this year on half-moon stages that ignore their shape and end up leaving out huge portions of the audience. Not so, here, and the costumes and lighting were masterful and downright impressive. The actors' comic timing was charming, and you got the feeling that they all knew each other very well and were having a great time together on stage. There was a chemistry on stage that permeated into the audience, and everyone had a wonderful time. As far as new plays, contemporary plays by living playwrights, this is one of the best I have seen in a long time.

In the spirit of remaining critical, though, the sword fight went on a bit longer than it needed to after we got the point that Johann is a dancer. It seems to be a twitch for directors to think that audiences come to plays with swords for the sword fights. But long vaudevillian bits with swords don't work because we live in a world where spectacle is available at a much higher caliber at the click of a mouse. I've never heard anyone say, "I wish that fight scene had gone on longer."

Other than that, though, what a play and what a production! I can't wait to see what else Shakespeare Santa Cruz has up its sleeve this season.

Bach at Leipzig runs until August 31, 2008

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

All's Well that Ends Well at the Old Globe

This will sound a little like cheer-leading.
When I was at Berkeley, a professor who is a famous critic told his class to read "All's Well that Ends Well," warning them that they would hate it. And what do you know? They all came back to class ready to talk about how much it sucked. They were intelligent students who knew how to scoff at something they didn't understand with big words, but it was a horrible display of wits steered by the power of suggestion. I learned two things watching intelligent people burn a play they'd only just read:
  1. The Republicans might be right about the way many political opinions are formed in college.
  2. No one should ever talk about a play they have not seen produced on stage.
"All's Well that Ends Well" was the best play at the The Old Globe Shakespeare Festival in San Diego this year. It's set in what I would call a Victorian era Paris and Florence. In France, it's all dark wood and lamps, with nice suits. The French King's wheelchair is one of the most beautiful props I have ever seen, and it only comes out once, I think. It looks authentic but how could it be? The King (James R. Winkler) is really sick when he is in that wheelchair, and believably healthy after Helena's miracle. It kind of feels like a real miracle has just been performed.
In Florence, it's all peasant dresses, soldiers, and a giant statue of Michelangelo's David, which got a huge laugh, and there was plenty of Italian flag waving. Great change of setting.
Bertram (Graham Hamilton) and the Countess (Kandis Chapell) were great—everyone was great. But when Helena (Kimberly Parker Green) gets her first speech, I was like, OMFG! Kimberly Parker Green is a very powerful actor who commands the stage like she owned the whole theater or maybe the whole world. She gave me goosebumps twice! That hardly ever happens. You want everything to work out for her Helena and when it finally does, you don't care about what reading students will say about the undeniably weird ending. All's well! and that's great! because we want it to end well for Kimberly Parker Green's Helena!

Parolles (Bruce Turk) was another thing that made the season. Shakespeare likes to push his audiences into joining in on the torture of his most loathsome characters only to make us feel bad about it later as we learn that they aren't that bad after all. It takes a really good actor to make the trick work. A good Malvolio will make an audience want to cry. A good Parolles in this case actually made many in the audience cry. Remarkable. His warning to braggarts is just heartbreaking, and we all want things to get better for Parolles, too. I think Bruce Turk might be a genius. He was also wonderful as Ford in Merry Wives.

They did one weird thing with a voice-over type reading of the letters, when the characters who wrote the letters come out aloft and say the lines rather than the person who is reading them. That was little lame I thought, but not too bad. I was on the left, and I think maybe director Darko Tresnjak forgot about us over there, as we weren't always able to see everything. But that wasn't horrible either. Everything else was marvelous. The sets, costumes, even the hair, were perfect. Lavatch (Eric Hoffman) was great, the song before intermission in Italian was fun, the reappearance of Helena, everything was great. And everything that could have gone wrong, didn't, and it all ended well, and everyone was happy when Helena and Bertram kissed.


Friday, July 11, 2008

Merry Wives of Windsor

I've heard too many intelligent people, Shakespeareans, say that "Merry Wives of Windsor" is a bad play to ignore it. The Old Globe in San Diego makes no attempt to ignore the play's ignominious reputation either. The program includes a blurb by Alan Brien that says "The Merry Wives of Windsor should be allowed to remain in the basement as the only really botched job in Shakespeare's repertoire." The other blurbs weren't much better, and they set my mind at ease a little because it seemed like they knew they were going against centuries of negative press. It also shows that they were willing to have fun.

Director Paul Mullins set his Merry Wives in the old west. It was the second cowboy setting I've seen this year. My expectations were low since Ashland's "Comedy of Errors" was so horrible, but they didn't need to be. The production was surprisingly very good. Falstaff (Eric Hoffmann) was great because he managed to be very funny, very gross, and even though we like him, we don't feel too bad about what befalls him at the hands of the wily wives. The wives, Celeste Ciulla and Katie MacNichol, were charming, by the way. The brilliant Bruce Turk was wonderful as Frank Ford, really the whole cast was great. They had to be great.

And as for the cowboy stuff, I think it worked incredibly well. A lot of time is spent in the saloon, a familiar scene and not as disgusting as the Elizabethan era taverns we're used to seeing drunks in on stage and film. There's woo-hoo dancing girls and sassy and saucy women all over. The production reminded me of the 1950 "Annie Get Your Gun" with Betty Hutton, when westerns were musical and fun and maybe a little campy. When the merry wives agree on a plan and shake hands, the comic potential in such an agreement isn't wasted; it's almost like a cartoon or an episode of "Saved by the Bell" when the gang gets together to develop an elaborate hoax to teach Screech a lesson--and isn't Screech just another Falstaff? The play wants to have fun. and vague memories of MGM movies set in 'the west' let this production get away with it. Meanwhile, the costumes helped tell the story, which is what they're supposed to do--hellooooo. I am sick of seeing plays in which the costumes don't do anything. Falstaff walks into Mistress Ford's parlor and flings his hat thirty feet to land on the mounted horns of an elk. Abraham Slender gets his hat pulled off with a string as if it were shot off. Falstaff's red long johns are a crack up with his big belly sticking through. And the last scene looks like the haunted mansion at Disneyland: scary and somehow friendly at the same time. Genius.

I can't believe I'm talking about "The Merry Wives of Windsor" like this. Next time I hear a bad word about this play, I am going to tell them about Paul Mullins at the Old Globe.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Old Globe's Romeo and Juliet

I think that "Romeo and Juliet" is a bullet-proof play. You can tear it apart as a director or actor, kick its teeth in and drag it out bloody for everyone to gawk at, and it will still please audiences. It's not like people haven't tried to ruin this play, but productions of it are never able to be quite atrocious enough to turn anyone off of it.

Every time I see "Romeo and Juliet" I roll my eyes at decisions the artists make, and I clench my fist and jaw when productions stumble over and over again. But in the end, when I'm asked if I liked it, the worst thing I can say is that it wasn't bad.

The production I saw in San Diego was proof of R&J's indestructibility. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. Everything felt clumsy and stuttering, like I caught the crew at rehearsal or on a very off night. It felt like nearly everyone involved was just sharpening their teeth. If I went into everything disastrous about the Old Globe's production of R&J this year, it would take much too much space for a blog entry. But I will say that every prop that could malfunction did, which was actually pretty hilarious.

But there were diamonds in the rough. Fresh-faced Heather Wood was delightful and tragic. She navigated the emotions Juliet so well that she played the stage like a carousel horse, hitting every golden ring perfectly. Laughs and tears for her, indeed. Watch that one. Catch her blowing bubbles when she makes her first entrance.

The other noteworthy was Owiso Odera as Mercutio. R&J is the play I have seen most, and I don't think that I have been more reluctant to let a Mercutio go. I am usually rather relieved when he dies. Not so here. When he left I was left wondering who would do all the heavy lifting. Odera also delivered the Queen Mab speech in a way that made me lose my sanity momentarily and think about taking back everything I've ever said or thought about Mab. It's a good actor who can deliver Mab without being tedious and lame. Odera even pulled off the conjuring bit in the second act.

Owiso Odera and Heather Wood both have fantastic names, so they won't be hard to remember, but it's nice that they give us many more reasons to do so.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Eye of Silence

I have a friend who holds a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley named Justin Botros. He is one of the most intellectually curious and creative people I know. One night we were discussing how spatial reasoning was as important a skill to develop in poetry as it is for architects. In poetic circles, we've been talking about the intersections at which architecture and poetry meet for a long time now. I don't know how much they talk about it in architecture classes, but when Justin Botros and I discussed it, his idea wheels started turning. The conversation quickly turned to the structure of Shakespeare's sonnets.

I am not an expert on the sonnets. I know a bit more than the average Joe, I guess, but I am far from being able to recite more than one, and I don't really know which number is which. Luckily, I know the leading expert on the subject, Stephen Booth. Stephen Booth's favorite sonnet is 15.

When I consider every thing that grows

Holds in perfection but a little moment,

That this huge stage presenteth nought but shows

Whereon the stars in secret influence comment;

When I perceive that men as plants increase,

Cheered and cheque'd even by the self-same sky,

Vaunt in their youthful sap, at height decrease,

And wear their brave state out of memory;

Then the conceit of this inconstant stay

Sets you most rich in youth before my sight,

Where wasteful Time debateth with Decay,

To change your day of youth to sullied night;

And all in war with Time for love of you,

As he takes from you, I engraft you new.

I told Mr. Botros about sonnet 15. Justin decided to do his own analysis of it through architecture. It is one of my favorite pieces of art that has been created around me, and I am very proud of the small part I played in its creation.

Monday, July 7, 2008


I grew up in the San Fernando Valley, but I haven't lived there in almost fifteen years, and until yesterday, I had not been to Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum. I don't like saying things like "should" but the whole time I was watching "As You Like It" in Topanga Canyon yesterday, I was thinking, "this is how Shakespeare should be experienced."

The stage is more of a porthole looking into a forest than a scaffold, and the actors don't meander on it anyway, using every possible spot within the theater gates. And there isn't one bad seat in the house. At half the price of the play I saw before this one, it was a bargain, too! The audience was enthusiastic and as varied as far as age/race/gender as I have ever seen, something I like to mention when talking about going to plays.

The play was funny and fast (directed by Ellen Geer), well-played (nearly everyone in the play was a pleasure), and beautiful. Costumes were perfect, and the songs delighted the audience (Melora Marshall).

This was the third play I've seen this year set in the cowboy days, and I wonder where this trend is coming from, and I wonder where it will end up. I thought it wouldn't work after seeing the "Comedy of Errors" in Ashland, but it was as great here as it was for San Diego's "Merry Wives of Windsor."

I want to Promote the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum as much as possible. I think it's worth a trip, and I want to see another play there soon. They don't take on airs or take themselves too seriously. They invite you into their home to participate in their favorite pastime. Everything seems a little DIY, which I adore because it somehow feels as if they actually care about the art of live theater, like a labor of love; it feels like this talented group of players understands something that everyone in theater should. I'm not sure what that is, but I think it has something to do with falling in love with your audience so that they can fall in love with you.

I want to mention Michael Lindsay because he was the best Touchstone I've seen in a long time, but I have to say that nearly everyone who took the stage in yesterday's production was an utter delight.


Sunday, July 6, 2008

Pericles at Orinda

Joel Sass's west coast directorial debut was rather wonderful. I wanted to write a long review about his production of Pericles, but I didn't get to see it until nearly its last night. So I will say only that I loved the costumes, the set, the fact that it was absolutely hilarious, the fact that the audience was thrilled by it, and that only a handful of players (like 8 of them) handled all the roles. I don't have the playbill, and I can't seem to find a list of players on the Cal Shakes website, but I want to say that the young woman who poorly played Cordelia in Cal Shakes's Lear last season did an incredible job in this season's production of Pericles.

I had never seen Pericles on the stage. It was a huge surprise how good this Pericles was. I want to see more of Joel Sass, and I have to find out what that Cordelia's name was so that I can keep an eye out for her, too.