20 April 2016

The Tempest, by William Shakespeare

First, I want to say that I am a bad reviewer of The Tempest because I have very definite ideas about how it should be performed, particularly how Caliban should be portrayed. Second, I want to say that I genuinely believe in the project of the Rustic Mechanicals, which is to bring Shakespeare’s works to West Virginia. Keeping those things in mind, I am going to try and keep my claws in as much as possible in this review, because while there were bright spots in the recent Rustic Mechanicals production of The Tempest, overall I was disappointed.

Beginning with the good, this was one of the few productions of the play I’ve seen where I actually liked Prospero (played by Jim Matthews). Generally I dislike the character but Matthews played the part well, especially in Prospero’s solo portions and interactions with Ariel (Sarah Young). The silent opening scene worked really well, bringing out some of the best elements of physical performance, as Matthews conjured the storm and sent Young out to sink the ship. The rhythmic and ritualistic movements evoked the swirling maelstrom of the tempest much more convincingly than the scene chewing of 1.1—the mariners and nobles of the ship itself. One of the things that worked particularly about Matthews’ performance was the dignity he brought to the character, and the almost patriarchal good humor. This balanced really well with Young’s dancer-like portrayal of Ariel, with the fluid movements around stage evoking a lightness that reflects Ariel’s airy quality.

But for the most part overacting was the order of the day. I know there’s a school of actor training based on the go-big-or-go-home approach, but seriously, this production needed to be pulled back. When the overacting interrupts any possible suspension of disbelief it compromises the enjoyment of the theatrical experience. The most grating performance was Gonzalo (Samantha Huffman), who felt the need to talk loudly in an odd, old man accent (I guess, though on its own it didn’t particularly sound old manish to me). The voluminous white beard and the character’s dialogue would have been sufficient to signal that this was an elderly councilor. Another really odd performance—though I’m not sure whether this was properly overacting or just an odd performance choice—was Antonio (Celi Oliveto). The performance was oddly sexual, as though Antonio was trying to seduce Sebastian (Michael Vozniak) into murdering Alonso and Gonzalo. It’s hard to describe, but the performance came across as a “half way through murder the king and chill…” in a way that seems uncharacteristic of Antonio. Perhaps this was another performance where the stage beard, dialogue, and male costuming should have done the work without an additional accent.

There were times when the overacting either worked (or could have worked in a different production). In particular Stephano (Justin Grow) and Trinculo (Steve McElroy) were able to effectively overact because their characters are clowns, so going to the end of those performances work. Grow in particular—who, along with Matthews and Young, gave one of the best performances of the night—was able to play the excess of the clown without feeling like he had lost control of the overacting; the overacting felt purposeful and effective.

In a different show—one less run through with overacting—Miranda’s (Madison Whiting) vivacious bubbliness could have been an interesting interpretation of the character. Whiting spent most of the production with her eyes wide open, and moved with a ton of energy. In a more balanced overall production, this energetic performance would have been an interesting interpretation of Miranda, conveying her as the naïve, devoted daughter, who follows her father unquestioningly—there was no potentially rebellious edge to this Miranda, as many contemporary performers play her. But in the sea of overacting, Whiting’s performance blended into the general overdrawn quality of the production as a whole.

On the tech front, the performance was similarly divided. The musical selections were really lovely choices, matched extremely well to the actions going on on stage. During the silent opening scene, for instance, the swelling romantic music echoed Prospero’s conjuring of the storm with its rising winds and increasingly choppy waves. However, one of the biggest failures of the production was the lighting. The stage space of the Mon Arts Center, where I saw the play, is very wide but not very deep, so most of the dynamic action of the show ran stage left to right, with little up and down stage movement. This in itself isn’t a problem. But the lighting was all directed toward center stage, and the only light that filtered to the sides of the stage was what travelled all the way across the stage, dimming as it went. A good number of speeches were performed in the near darkness at the sides of the stage, which made it hard to see the characters (actors standing behind the pillars holding up the ceiling didn’t improve matters). Angling a few lights toward the sides of the stage could easily have solved this problem.

03 April 2016

Dancing at Lughnasa, by Brian Friel

Brian Friel is one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary dramatists. I’ve read several of his plays, and seen a production of Faith Healer a few years ago. So when M.T. Pockets Theatre announced they were producing Dancing at Lughnasa, I was keen on the prospect. Friel, like many other contemporary Irish playwrights, challenges stereotypes and idealizations of Irish history and culture, complicating all too often romanticized images of the Emerald Isle.

Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is set within a frame narrative narrated by Michael, who looks back on the events in the Mundy home in Ballybeg in 1936. The action centers on the troubles encountered by the five Mundy sisters: Kate, Maggie, Agnes, Rose, and Chris. The 1930s was a time of major change in Ireland, with the coming of industrialization (which puts Agnes and Rose out of work as glove knitters), and changes in the role of Catholicism under the newly independent Irish Free State. For the poor Mundy sisters it is a time marked on the one hand by wonderful new technologies, like their temperamental wireless radio named Marconi, but also a time of economic crisis, which weighs most heavily on Kate. Additionally, their malaria-stricken brother, Uncle Jack, has just returned from decades of missionary work in Uganda. And the other unexpected guest in the house is Gerry Evans, unmarried father of Chris’ child.

By and large, M.T. Pockets’ production—directed by Seret Cole—did a good job conveying 1930s Ireland, particularly in the set. M.T. Pockets is a relatively small black box, and the set of the Mundy kitchen offered the performers little room for the frequent dancing around the table, the ironing board, and the range. The physical layout of the space (the little space there was) conveyed the trapped and hemmed in atmosphere that hovers beneath the surface of the ostensibly cheerful Mundy home. A tension that periodically broke through the surface in fights—like when Kate prohibits the family attending the Harvest Dance—or breakdowns.

The acting was generally strong, with particularly good performances from Mara Monaghan (Maggie), Zabrian Evans (Rose), Gretchen Ross (Chris), and Tawnya Drake (Kate). Each of these characters have strong personalities and each of the actors brought those distinct characteristics to the fore. For instance, Maggie spends much of the play comforting her sisters, and Monaghan moved well between the contrasting emotional roles of cheery jokester and singer to shoulder-to-cry-on when Kate confesses her fears about losing her job and not being able to support the family (in what I thought was Drake’s strongest scene). Evans gave an excellent performance as the “simple” Rose (as the program calls her). Of the family she has the most exuberance for life, and Evans’ jaunty dancing and tendency to talk too loudly and joyfully conveyed that vivacity, even when it clashed with the general mood of the kitchen.

One sticking point with the performance was the use of Irish accents by non-Irish performers. Although Friel’s play is written to convey a particular time and situation in Ireland, I often with that actors would avoid fake accents. Some of the actors did fairly well—Monaghan, Evans, and Ross particularly—but many of them were either in part or as a whole unconvincing. Part of the problem is that Irish speech has a different rhythm than English/American speech, a rhythm rooted in Gaelic rather than in Old English, which is a branch of German. So it’s not simply a question of pronouncing the words like an Irish person, but of pronouncing the entirety of language in the rhythm, tone, and inflection of an Irish person (and particularly the accent of County Donegal, in Ulster). In particular, Trisha Hein (playing Agnes) had the most difficulty putting on a convincing brogue, and Joes Zavilla (playing the transplanted Welshman Gerry Evans) conveyed neither Wales nor Ireland in his accent.

Whether it was an accent difficulty or just a performance choice, Michael’s frame narration (played by Gregg Lowely) was the weakest point in the entire show. Lowely gave Michael’s lines with an…awkward pausing…between the clauses…somewhat like…William Shatner. Each clause was followed by a pause, rather than flowing organically from one phrase to the next. And the awkwardness of Lowely’s gestures—continually moving his hands between pockets, tie, lapels, etc.—added to the sense that he was uncomfortable with the lines and/or the accent. Little about Lowely’s performance conveyed that this was a deliberate character recalling events and trying to find or ascribe meaning to them.