17 July 2016

Romeo & Juliet, by William Shakespeare

As everyone knows, Romeo & Juliet is the greatest love story ever told. Officially. Of course, the reality of the play is slightly less romantic and more teen suicide-y, but such is life. Or death, in Romeo and Juliet’s case.

One of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Romeo & Juliet tells the story of two young people from feuding families—the Capulets and the Montagues—who fall in love. They are married in secret to avoid their families’ enmity, but when Romeo is banished for killing Juliet’s cousin in a duel the romance takes a turn for the worse. In (rather hyperbolic) despair, both young people contemplate suicide, until Friar Laurence comes up with a plan to reunite them: he will give Juliet a potion to simulate death, and then he and Romeo will pick her up from the Capulet family tomb. But messages go awry and Romeo only hears that Juliet has died, so he goes to the tomb and poisons himself, and upon waking to find her husband dead, Juliet stabs herself.

The West Virginia Public Theatre did an excellent job bringing the play to life, under the direction of Jerry McGonigle. The acting was good, the aesthetic was consistent, and the performance was engaging. The Neoclassical setting of the Metropolitan Theatre felt right at home with the production.

Despite the play being a tragedy, I felt the most memorable performances were actually the comic pairing of the Nurse (Mya Brown) and Peter (Mark Combs), and Romeo’s friends Mercutio (Joe Bussey) and Benvolio (Lonnie Simmons). Brown gave an especially strong performance as the Nurse, presenting her with a slight Mammy flavor, which worked really well for the garrulous Nurse. For instance, when relating the story of Juliet falling face first as a child, Brown’s timing was perfect as she repeatedly cut off Lady Capulet to laugh and repeat the story joyfully. And Brown’s interactions with Peter provided a wonderful comic relief that for me ended up overshadowing much of the tragedy of the play. Combs played the uncomprehending servant Peter delightfully, conveying his confusion and uncertainty through both body language and facial expressions.

Bussey and Simmons also gave strong supporting performances as Romeo’s companions. Bussey presented Mercutio as a kind of swaggering, over-sexed, combative frat boy, which perfectly conveyed the character’s inherent mercurial quality. Often loud and vulgar, Bussey’s best scene was during the fatal duel with Tybalt (Rick Mugrage). In that fight he combined the joking irreverence of his earlier scenes—instead of drawing his parrying dagger Bussey gives Mugrage the finger—with a deadly seriousness that combined both sides of the character’s personality. Simmons played a different role as Romeo’s friend Benvolio, but his compassion and concern for Romeo was performed just as compellingly. Especially early in the performance, when Benvolio tries to raise Romeo’s spirits, Simmons conveyed how much Benvolio cares for his friend.

The performances of Romeo (Gareth Marsh) and Juliet (Margaret Dransfield) were strong, though I feel overshadowed by some of the supporting characters. I have mixed feelings about Dransfield’s performance of Juliet. She was vivacious and actively engaged in pursuing Romeo, but I didn’t get a sense of aristocratic dignity or the softness often associated with Juliet. There were times when this more assertive Juliet worked really well, and times when the inflection or performance style fell wide of the mark. Marsh played a good, though conventional Romeo. He was dominated by melancholy, and one problem with the way Marsh played the role was that it erased any distinction between Romeo’s initial (ostensibly false) love for Rosalind, and his later (ostensibly true) love for Juliet. There’s an interesting argument to be made that Romeo doesn’t really love Juliet (whether she loves him is a different matter whatever), but loves the melancholy of thwarted love. I’m willing to buy that reading of the play, but I’m not sure the Public Theatre presentation did enough to suggest that reading in this performance. Instead, Marsh’s performance conveyed the same quality of love for Rosalind and for Juliet, which undermines our belief in Romeo and Juliet’s true love and ultimately in the tragedy of them dying for love.

The only real shortcoming of the performance were a few lighting issues. There were times when a character stood to one side of the stage and cans were used to light that side, but the lighting missed the character (or, more probably, the character missed the mark to stand in the lighting). At the end of the balcony scene, for instance, Romeo stood stage center right, but the lighted area was to his right, so Romeo delivered several lines from the dim edge of a lighted area.

One major technical success, however, was the stage fighting. The production involved extensive, multi-person stage fights, which were beautifully choreographed and performed. Considering how difficult and dangerous stage fighting is to choreograph, Darrell Rushton (fight director) and the cast did an excellent job.

10 July 2016

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare

This review starts with the same disclaimer as my last Rustic Mechanicals review: I really like the project of a dedicated Shakespeare touring troupe for West Virginia. I find their mission basically admirable.

Their performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was better than their productions of The Tempest or Much Ado About Nothing, so I was pleased with that. I think one of the reasons this show was more successful is that the clown scenes—with Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, Feste, Maria, and to a certain extent Malvolio—make up a much larger proportion of Twelfth Night than they do in the other shows, and based on the three shows I’ve seen so far, clown performances seem to be the Rustic Mechanicals’ strong suit. My speculation would be that this is because clown roles can better withstand overacting because of the natural rambunctiousness of the characters. Clowns can get away with being less polished if the performances are enthusiastic, whereas more serious characters look doubly bad if they compensate for an unpolished performance by overacting.

Jason Young (Sir Toby) and Kaici Lore (Maria) probably had the most convincing pairing of the play, with Michael Vozniak (Malvolio) and Isaac Covey (Sir Andrew) in strong support. Young and Lore made Sir Toby and Maria the lively heart of the show, presenting them as intimate, conspiratorial, vivacious, and jolly. In particular Young’s predilection for song gave Sir Toby a distinctive swagger and liveliness that suited the character extremely well. Of course, without the straight man Malvolio, much of the humor of the clown scenes would be lost, and Vozniak did an admirable job playing the sneering, social climbing, quasi-puritan. Although weaker in his more serious scenes with Olivia (Gretchen Ross), Vozniak’s facial expressions were hilarious when he was surrounded by the singing and dancing Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste (Doug Seckman), as well as during his attempts to bend Malvolio’s puritan scowl into a smile. This is the first performance I’ve seen where I liked Covey’s work, though the timing of his lines continues to bother me.

But nothing in the clown scenes bothered me as much as the more serious scenes. Ross is a good performer, and her portrayal of Olivia effectively combined the dour haughtiness of Olivia’s mourning and the flirtatious desire of her love for Cesario. But the other serious characters—Viola/Cesario (Celi Oliveto), Orsino (Jeremiah Smallridge), and Sebastian (Steve McElroy)—didn’t sell me. There was no real chemistry between any of the lovers, though there were moments when Oliveto and Smallridge were clearly trying to act chemistry. But it didn’t really play. Their moments of looking deeply at one another and then turning suddenly away came across more as stagy melodrama than genuine emotion or desire.

The biggest disappointment of the production was Oliveto’s performance as Viola/Cesario. Now, to be fair, this is a challenging role and two of the three times I’ve seen Twelfth Night it’s been done badly. Oliveto’s primary facial expression was a kind of shocked anxiety. The performance hovered between worry about Olivia being in love with Cesario, sorry for Sebastian’s ostensible drowning, and anxiety than Orsino didn’t love her—all of which were conveyed with virtually the same facial expression. This performance collapsed Viola from a clever woman establishing control of her own situation to a scared girl paralyzed by fear (we know she’s clever because she matches wits with Feste, and we know she exercises a certain degree of control because she positions herself close to Orsino).

The other problem with the serious portions of the play—and the same problem occurred the first time I saw Twelfth Night years ago—is the desire to stand center stage and look out to the audience for every speech. For both Oliveto and McElroy, the bulk of their speeches were delivered as direct addresses to the audience. With a humorous aside it’s fine to address the audience. Give them a wink and a nudge if the mood takes you. But a soliloquy loses much of its power when spoken as though it’s in conversation with the audience. If your character is pondering something or working something out for themselves, don’t act like you’re reporting it to the audience. Consider it. Be speculative. Wander the stage space contemplatively. And if there’s other characters on stage with whom you’re having a conversation, don’t ignore them to talk directly to the audience. It looks weird.

My last critique is of the space itself. This production was hosted by MT Pockets theatre company, in their new performance space. The space needs better lighting. Right now, all the lights are set up behind the audience and shine generally toward center stage. Even putting aside the problem of not having can lighting above and to the sides of the stage, the existing lighting isn’t properly oriented. The sides of the stage are in semi-darkness, meaning that whenever a character delivers lines as they are leaving the stage, we lose the tail end of their scenes in the darkness.

Finally, I think the Rustic Mechanicals made one excellent choice with their production of Twelfth Night, which was modernizing the songs. Twelfth Night has a number of musical numbers that connect thematically to the events of the play, but because they are renaissance tunes modern performers often seem to struggle with them. To surmount this difficulty, the Rustic Mechanicals substituted modern songs played and sung largely by Seckman as Feste. The songs were well chosen, because, like the originals, they reflected the thematic concerns of particular moments in the play. For instance, Feste’s famous closing song in which he declares “The rain it raineth every day” was modernized into Blind Melon’s 90s classic “No Rain,” a song with similar themes about alienation, apathy, and yet a strange kind of hope.