NO ONE MORE AWARE than I how badly this blog's been neglected lately. Please excuse this neglect, and prepare for more. I've been away, and I'm about to set out again.
There was a time when I posted fairly detailed notes on such travels, sending them as group e-mail "dispatches" to a list of readers that ultimately grew to over a hundred — too big for the e-mail managers of that day, whereupon I began this blog, a little over nine years ago. There have been over six hundred posts since then, on topics related to travel, books, music, art, theater, politics — whatever I've felt like writing about.
I write these things mostly to find out what I think about things. I don't know why I want to know what I think about things: it's probably simply a habit, formed a long time ago, when something (or more likely some one) led me to believe it was one's duty to examine meaning.
Yesterday we drove home from a four-day tour to Ashland, Oregon, where we've been in the habit of seeing plays put on by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Comments on those plays have formed a number of posts to this blog over the years, all the way back to July 2005; and apparently there are those among you who are interested in these comments: I notice someone from Oregon City has just looked in on last March's remarks about three plays we saw earlier.
This year we decided against seeing the entire season, for two reasons: I've been growing increasingly impatient with re-interpretations of Shakespeare — Troilus and Cressida was the last straw — and we've been unenthusiastic about too many of the new plays by new playwrights. It hurts to say that; one always wants to retain curiosity and enthusiasm for the work of one's own time: but now that I'm in my eightieth year I find too often the "new" is merely the latest revelation of ignorance of yesterday's "new."
So we saw three plays last March: The Cocoanuts; The Tempest; The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window; and enjoyed all of them. We stayed away from Ashland through the summer, and returned last week toward the end of the season for a final threesome: Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and the most promising of this year's new plays, The Great Society.
I'll give you the most negative report first: Richard III was damaged almost beyond repair by the new "sound system" the festival administration has installed in its outdoors Allen Elizabethan Theatre, which attempts to reproduce Shakespeare's Globe Theater. We sat at almost the exact center of the audience, just under the edge of the balcony, seats 11 and 13 in row L, twelve rows back from the apron. Many, perhaps all the actors wore body microphones. The sound was carefully managed, I'm sure, but much of the time spoken lines drifted to us as much (or more) from the clusters of loudspeakers high above the stage as from the actors themselves. You could put this to good use in a production designed to take advantage of it — the ghost of Hamlet's father could take on new and terrifyingly disembodied presence, for example — but until this sort of thing is familiar enough to be ignored completely it will always be, for me, at best, a technical gimmick, distracting from the performance. It's as if Richard were to muse on the winter of his discontent through a megaphone.
Another distraction: the choice of the deaf actor Howie Seago, who is also mute, to play Hastings. His lines were spoken by Omoze Idehenre and signed, in American Sign Language, by Seago. I can understand the desire to extend theatrical boundaries, to widen the community of actors; but sometimes this works better — Seago was useful, interesting, and sympathetic as the ghost of Hamlet's father, but quite a distraction inRichard III .
These problems were particularly unfortunate because otherwise there was much about the production, and its performance, and James Bundy's direction, that seemed both effective and faithful to the text. I was taken aback by the amount of humor Bundy found, but it was made faithful to Richard's persona by the powerful yet subtle acting of Dan Donohue in the title role.
The women in the cast were particularly strong - Idehenre as Mistress Shore, Kate Hurster as Lady Anne, Robin Goodrin Nordli as Queen Elizabeth, Franchelle Stewart Dorn as a magnificent Queen Margaret, and Judtih-Marie Bergan as the Duchess of York. An extremely interesting play could be devised keeping their lines, trimming other roles, and thus presenting the familiar psychological drama from a completely different perspective.
Shakespeare's comedies, to my mind, suffer less from extreme directorial departure than do his tragedies. (By their very nature, the Histories are another matter altogether: they're successful either as literal representations of the time they treat, or when brought forward to underline parallels between their events and those of the present day.)
The Comedy of Errors was set in 1930s Harlem and played by a cast of black actors (with a couple of minor exceptions), and I thought the result worked perfectly, enlarging a white audience's understanding of the black American experience of that era while maintaining Shakespeare's goofy rewrite of commedia dell'arte and Plautus. The actors were superb, clowning much of the time yet finding moments of pathos and edginess when appropriate, playing with asides to the audience, sight gags, pratfalls and the like, yet projecting real character and preserving the sentimental magic of the inevitable recognition scene at the close. The whole play went by very quickly, without an intermission; I could happily have sat through another performance as an encore.
Speaking of Shakesperian Histories, Robert Schenkan's The Great Society continued the pageant opened a couple of seasons ago with the same playwright's All The Way. The subject, of course, is the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, his access to office following the assassination of J.F. Kennedy in 1963 and his triumphal passage of the Civil Rights Act forming the first play, his inability to continue the social reforms he envisioned and his entanglement in the Vietnam War the new one. The Great Society is long and detailed, but dramatic and fascinating. It is pageant, I think, not play, because it is the historical events that seize the audience, not the personae of those who shape or succumb to them. Jack Willis was superb in the lead role, and he was supported by a fine set of actors in such roles as Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Hubert Humphrey. The deliberate attempt to make a contemporary American counterpart to such plays as Henry VI is audacious, no question about it: but it has been successful. This is important theater, restating the essential purpose of theater, to tell a community's stories to the community, lest the historical lessons otherwise be lost and forgotten.