Tuesday, October 4, 2016

5.5 plays by Shakespeare

When B. and I went to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in March, only one of their five Shakespeare plays of the season had yet opened; we filled our card with other material. But that one Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, was outstanding, and its excellent Sir Andrew, and last year's truly great Benedick, Danforth Comins, was to star in Hamlet this summer. I had to see what he would make of the Dane, so I returned a week ago to catch all five of the Shakespeares in three days.

Comins was good, but I would not call this an outstanding Hamlet. He played an anxious, nervous Prince, more notable for his body language than his speech. The show otherwise lacked much pitch or tension, a problem facilitated by a profoundly wooden Claudius. (He stood up at the murder of Gonzago, but any emotional reaction to it had to be guessed at.) The production's most unusual feature was that Hamlet never speaks his most famous line. He came on stage, stuck a microphone - this was a semi-modern production that occasionally used them for emphasis - into the face of an audience member, and coaxed her into saying "To be or not to be." (I'd like to see her blog post: "I played Hamlet at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.") Then he took the mike back and continued the speech. This was funny, but pure gimmick, contributing nothing to the art of the work.

Perhaps inspired by the number of Asian-American actors in the cast, the production of The Winter's Tale featured a Sicily set in Han Dynasty China and a Bohemia modeled on, if anything, the Patchwork Girl of Oz. As with The Tempest, the plot largely consists of people sitting around talking about what they're going to do later. A good production of either consists of disguising this. By that standard this was not a good production, though it had some fine performances, particularly by Cristofer Jean and Miriam Laube as Camillo and Paulina, the two most long-suffering of a large cast of long-suffering courtiers.

Twelfth Night was still great the second time, even with a lately-cast understudy playing Orsino. Also great was Richard II, a play I tend to consider wordy and overstuffed, but not this time. Christopher Liam Moore, playing Richard, is short with a high voice. These aided in a portrayal of the king as fussy, pompous, and out of his depth. In the Flint Castle confrontation, he was dwarfed by a huge cape that literally spread across the stage. But after Richard's fall, Moore deployed a powerful inner strength that gave sympathy to the character and made his fate moving. The rest of the cast was also consistently terrific, especially Tony DeBruno as Uncle York.

Timon of Athens was carried by the big, bold Anthony Heald as Timon and the smaller, wiry Vilma Silva (yes, a woman) as Apemantus. Their scene of dueling curmudgeons near the end was a terrifically hot rendition of one of Shakespeare's least-known gems.

But! I stayed on for an extra day, so that the day after I saw Timon I could catch a special one-off performance of a staged reading of Kenneth Cavander's translation of the play into modern English. That's the .5, because it's only half Shakespeare. You've heard of this project to update all of Shakespeare: it's been denounced widely for its sacrilege. The idea is that Shakespeare's language is now too antique for the average audience to fully comprehend at speed, so why not translate it to a modern form as is done for other languages? And they started with Timon because it doesn't have any famous speeches where you can hear how they mangled the poetry.

Well, I bought the text of the updated Timon, and they did mangle the poetry. Contrary to the claim, the rhythm is often altered or ignored. However, it's not dumbed down, and the line-by-line translation preserved the particular ornate floweriness that's Shakespeare's most distinctive quality. It read well in the actors' hands, and I confess: not knowing Timon well, there were some critical plot points that I missed in the original-text production that were entirely clear in the modern-text version. Plot, structure, and the feel of the large-scale flow were unchanged, but it was as if the play's windshield had been thoroughly wiped down.

The entirely different cast did make for a different feel in other respects, especially in its much more stolid Timon, read by Jeffrey King, who had stared imperturbably as Bolingbroke at the king in R2. But that didn't affect the experiment. Purists may mourn my defection, but I'd be willing to try another of these.

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