Saturday, July 1, 2023

Shakespeare and not-Shakespeare

What with pandemics and all, this was the first year that the new(ish) artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has really put her imprint on the productions. Her name is Nataki Garrett, and she's a Black woman from Oakland. She's not the first woman to hold the post, but she is the first Black, and she's putting an urban American Black sensibility on the shows.

Which is fine. I'm not one of those alte kochers who whine about the good old days. In fact, when I heard that some were thus whining, I wrote her a letter saying, roughly, "Ignore them. You do what you do." And I hold by that. What's my business is whether I personally like the results or not. And on the basis of four plays over the last two days, the verdict is ... decidedly mixed.

OSF has been shining for some years now at stage musicals. This year they did Rent. An excellent choice for the current theme - a dozen artistic types of various backgrounds and ethnicities living in a rathole community building in NYC in the 1980s, amid AIDS and drug addiction. (Reminded me of the Ghost Ship in Oakland, and I worried about the building catching on fire.) It was a straightforward production with minimal sets. Everybody acted and sang with tremendous gusto, and it was magnificently done. The only odd point was that the actor playing the leading character of Mark was Black, which dilutes some of the racial tension from the story. It was all new to me - the only song from it I knew was "Seasons of Love" (which I knew only as 'that song whose lyrics begin with a long number') - and due to acoustical congestion from the accompanying band it was hard to make out what anybody was singing (there's very little spoken dialog). I only knew what was going on from having B. explain it all to me beforehand. But thus equipped, I enjoyed it immensely.

But that made Romeo and Juliet redundant and superfluous, even though we saw that first. Garrett directed this, and set it in a 2020s version of the same thing: roughly-housed, homeless, and mentally ill people in contemporary Oakland. The setting had nothing to say that Rent didn't already say better. And, like most overly creative Shakespeare re-settings, it didn't fit well with the play. The specifics of the production didn't help. R&J is an overlong, talkative play, and it wasn't cut nearly enough. Some lines were altered to cope with anachronisms, but just as many weren't, and the problem of Friar Laurence's message to Romeo not getting through in a universe with smartphones in it was not addressed. The cast performed with sincerity and the leads spoke their lines well, but they were fighting against the production and it just mostly didn't work, exceptions noted below. If you want to set a classic work in a raw contemporary setting, it's best to toss the text and put the theme and plot in a new work. Like turning La Bohème into Rent. Or, for that matter, turning Romeo and Juliet into West Side Story.

But it still has to be adapted well, and lack of that is what sank the new adaptation of The Three Musketeers. Dumas was quarter-Black, right? So why not make a Black version of his most famous novel? It was a good notion, but the execution was disastrous. It started with a cat (Jamyl Dobson) who claimed to be Dumas, but didn't look or behave anything like a simulacrum of the real thing, rapping out an introduction in a manner suggesting he'd seen Hamilton too many times. The storyline was presented faithfully to the book in the original setting, but the dialog was written down in a way implying that to be Black means to be a downmarket media caricature of 2020s American urban Blacks. Everybody calls each other muthafuggas all the time (and this in a show marketed to children!), and it just sucked the big one. It was so bad, we walked out before intermission.

It didn't have to be like this, and interestingly R&J, problematic as it was, showed a better method. Newcomer Jada Alston Owens, the best actor in the cast, gave a serious modern Black ethnic accent to Juliet's most famous lines, which worked strikingly well, and Mercutio (understudy Amelio Garcia) rapped out the Queen Mab speech to a found-percussion beat, which was brilliant. But the words were Shakespeare's.

The last item on our bill was another Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, and this worked better because the adaptation was applied with a lighter touch. It was filled with early 20th century popular music of a variety of genres, but this didn't turn it into a musical like OSF's last Merry Wives. Feste sang in the adopted styles, but Feste is supposed to sing, and the music was otherwise restricted to snatches at scene-changes. It added liveliness to what was mostly a pretty dull performance, apart from Jaysen Wright as an unusually energetic Sebastian, and Al Espinosa (who was Orsino in the last production of this we saw) absolutely brilliant as a Malvolio of toweringly regal self-regard, which he kept up even in the scenes of the character's degradation.

One A, one B-, one D, and one F; last year was an A and a D. That's not a very good GPA. I've given up on OSF before when it entered slack periods, and we'll be giving thought about whether to go next year at all.

1 comment:

  1. R&J an overlong, talkative play... It never occurred to me to think of it thus when I required it in the Shakespeare class I taught, as I always did in part because it has been a common selection for high school English in regional schools, and I wanted the students, most of whom intended to teach, to get the chance to work with it for a week anyway.

    My take on the play is that it is about falling in love, about eros, and that this is something that really happens. Probably less often now than formerly. To head off student assumptions that people don't really fall in love, that romantic love may be truly transformative, I would have them read a bit of Dante's La Vita Nuova (taking it as testimony of experience and not as fiction) and an 1840 letter of Hawthorne to Sophia Peabody, written a couple of years before their marriage.

    Juliet and Romeo have an experience of a kind of grace; from which Romeo falls (after Mercutio dies from Tybalt's attack). That is the real tragedy. The palmer/pilgrim of love falls back into the conventional cycle of revenge. The rest is interesting enough, moving enough, but in a sense it is just details.

    These modern-setting versions of Shakespeare clash with the meanings of plays such as R&J, because they suggest we should approach the plays as the modern people we are, who know that Shakespeare harbors various notions that we san see through.

    The only "Shakespeare movie" I would show my students was Kurosawa's free adaptation of the Macbeth story, Throne of Blood.

    Dale Nelson