Friday, September 20, 2013

The Tenth Muse; A Midsummer Night's Dream

Ashland, Oregon—

I WRITE THIS POST unhappily, without enthusiasm. No one likes to be forever complaining. But this trip up to Ashland saddens and even alarms me. This afternoon's new play has its promising moments, but its flaws should have beem addressed in rehearsal. And tonight's production of a Shakespeare classic, here at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, was unspeakably bad.

The new play, The Tenth Muse, by Tanya Saracho, is set on a fascinating plot: nuns and novices in an early 18th-century convent in Mexico discover a play written decades earlier, in more enlightened times, by a nun who ultimately was sent to the stake for her perceived godlessness. One aging sister, nearly blind, recalls the story; three young arrivals at the convent learn it, find the script, and play at playing it. 

Repression and artistic freedom, and gender politics to an extent, are the heart of the play, and are expressed through often incisive characterization. But the language is stilted, many details either implausible or perfunctory, and Laurie Woolery's direction encourages cartoonish amateurishness in the play-within-play at the center of the piece, which needs tightening and greater focus. 

A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of Shakespeare's early masterpieces and poses few problems. The structure is clear, the four levels of its large cast symmetrical and interesting, and the poetry remarkably beautiful. Nobles, young lovers, rustics, and the magical faerie element present a world view that ultimately resolves law and society, individual love, and Nature.

But the characteristic Shakespearian clownish humor lays a trap for many directors, who seem to feel it necessary to extend it to every corner of the play and its cast. That happens in Christopher Liam Moore's direction this year. The lines are rushed sing-song, often in broad Black American accents. (Why must black actors so often be asked here at OSF to speak like this? It seems disrespectful.) the magical element is swamped by lights, costume, sound. 

The Pyramus and Thisbe goes on and on, patodying itself. And Theseus and Hippolyta are transformed from Athenian nobles to a priest and nun who run a parochial high school, in a directorial concept quickly dropped after the opening scene, awkwardly returned at the close.

There seems to be no reason for such distortion unless to try to sell Shakespeare to audiences otherwise content with sitcoms and trash television. This of course patronizes audiences; it also is contemptuous of the plays. Many OSF productions are memorably good — this year's Streetcar Named Desire, for example. But the new plays given their premieres seem often to be given too much respect by their productions, the Shakespeare little or none, and the tendency seems to me to have been increasing in recent seasons. The audiences and the company deserve better.

1 comment:

Michael Strickland said...

Is there anything worse than bad theater? I think the fear of it has kept me away from many great productions over the years, but there are only so many times you can stumble out of a theater in the middle of a performance without looking like a rude, crazy person.

My personal standard is probably a little too high, but can be boiled down to this: "If I could be acting or directing this better than what I'm seeing (and I'm a barely mediocre actor/director who knows the difference), then I'm probably going to want to get out of there." It's why I usually feel safe going to the theater in New York. Even when a play or production or performance isn't particularly good, there are almost always compensations in at least some of the departments.

Another thing I've noticed is that black American actors in New York Shakespeare productions, at least the ones I've seen in Public Theatre shows over the years, usually have the best diction and are the most articulate reciters of poetry in the cast. No idea why this is so, but it's always been the case in my experience. So to hear that the Ashland Festival indulges in "broad Black American accents" with its black actors is disheartening. And you're right, it's disrespectful.