Sunday, March 21, 2021

plays or things

I've had success at watching movies and watching/listening to live or prerecorded concerts on my computer. Stage plays, though, seem more problematic. Actors have to raise their voices and make expansive gestures on stage, and somehow that doesn't transfer to the tiny medium so well. A staged Amadeus I saw early on in the pandemic worked well, but its successors have lacked something.

One recent attempt was a production of Lillian Hellman's rarely-seen Days to Come. In this case the problem wasn't the production so much as the script's way of loading the stage with a large number of characters without explaining who they are or how they relate to each other. I quickly felt lost and gave up.

A local group called the Tabard Theatre, which performs in an old warehouse space in downtown San Jose, up a rickety set of stairs or an even more alarming old freight elevator, offered the option of neither of these for a production of a one-woman play about Erma Bombeck. A ubiquitous newspaper feature columnist up to her death in 1996, Bombeck spun tales of life as a suburban wife and mother in Ohio (she'd actually moved to Arizona, but didn't reveal this) that I always enjoyed as passingly amusing if not actually, you know, funny. Nostalgia is independent of how well you really liked the thing you're nostalgic for, and I didn't mind a return visit to old Erma, so I bought a ticket to opening night: apparently they were going to do the thing live for the entire run. There was a small audience of production staff, I guess, who laughed occasionally and kept it from being totally dead. Like many Tabard actors early in the run, Carolyn Ford Compton froze up on her lines occasionally, but did pretty well. It wasn't awful, but I'm sure I'd have enjoyed it a lot more if it could have been in person.

How about Shakespeare? I really liked the National Theatre's strange and spooky Midsummer Night's Dream (a bootleg copy of which is up: see it while you can; it's fabulous), but I wasn't much more impressed with the American Shakespeare Center's Twelfth Night than I'd been when I saw their R&J in person a few years ago.

Latest was the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2017 production of Julius Caesar. I didn't see this live for some reason, though I went that year. Maybe I was just tired of ridiculous stagings of Julius Caesar: one OSF production, years ago, set it in a banana republic. This one seems to have been set in the bargain basement department of Mad Max. No leather (that's what made it bargain basement), but very grungy. Lots of plastic buckets. Brutus gave his big soliloquy working up the courage for the assassination while dressed in a muscle shirt and barefoot. The battle scenes were strange stylized things in which all the actors playing both armies, all facing front and not interacting, moved their arms around in unison choreographed patterns, while deafening noises pounded out of the speakers.

OSF stalwart Danforth Comins was Brutus, giving off an imperturbable air even while being highly perturbed. Cassius (Rodney Gardiner) was wily and eccentric, faintly reminiscent of Don Rickles: I don't know where I get these ideas. Mark Antony (Jordan Barbour) yelled out his funeral oration, in fact he yelled out most of his part throughout the play. The best piece of acting actually came from Barret O'Brien as Decius, making funny his lines convincing Caesar (a weary Armando Duran) that the omens are actually good and he should come to the Capitol. As I've noted before, it's all in the lines already; you just have to say them properly. Like this:

DECIUS: This by Calpurnia's dream is signified.
CAESAR: And this way have you well expounded it.
DECIUS [confidently and a bit smugly]: I have!

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