Saturday, March 28, 2015

More Shakespeare in Ashland

•Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing; Pericles.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, seen March 11, 2015

The house is full of high school kids
With robust lungs and sweaty ids,
Enthralled and mystified, they hear
The sweet Bard's lines drown in canned beer,
While I, morose and jaded, think
That Ashland teeters on the brink
Or vulgarizing English lit—
But then, I'd
think that, silly twit…
Eastside Road, March 14, 2015—
SO I SCRAWLED on a scrap of paper while enjoying a glass of Champagne at supper after the first play of the day. Shakespeare's weird and inexplicable collisions of violence, injustice, broad humor, transcendent recognition — all of it boiling down to reality, acceptance of reality, mercy, and love — mean more and more to me as I grow older, and teach me ultimately to enjoy and indulge even these noisy kids, who fill the lobby with wobbly high heels and eager tweets before the play, then sit with quiet good behavior and occasional misplaced laughter — at suddenly recognized meaning — as the performance threads its way through another determined director's attempt to render the Bard "relevant" to our time.

Much Ado about Nothing, yet another play about a pair of young lovers thwarted by an unjust dictate, and again presenting the Elizabethan range of classes from nobility to clodhopper, was directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz in the capacious Bowmer Theater, where we sat dead center. The biggest problem with the production, to me, was the decision to cast the role of Don John — the villainous illegitimate brother of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon; not at all the womanizing Don Juan you may have been thinking of — on a female actor, Regan Linton. (A 2013 graduate of the UC San Diego Acting Program, who uses a wheelchair because of a spinal injury, she makes her OSF debut in this role; I wouldn't be surprised to see her cast as Richard III in a few seasons.)

In fact, Linton is the first character to appear on stage in this production, mute, motionless, and veiled in a dumb-show before the action begins. Blain-Cruz clearly wants the irrational, even violent malevolence of her character to carry equal weight with the wit of the Beatrice-Benedick pair (Christiana Clark and Danforth Comins, both very good) and the broad comedy of Dogberry (Rex Young) and his lunatic crew of watchmen — but the distractions of the wheelchair, and hearing a woman continually addressed as "My lord," weakened that element.

Otherwise, casting worked out well. There was much play of tall and short: Clark is even taller than Comins, and both tower over the romantic couple, Carlo Albàn as Claudio and Leah Anderson as Hero. Jack Willis seemed to me a very sympathetic Leonato, even when gulled by Don John into rejecting his wrongly accused daughter, and minor parts — never really minor in Shakespeare — were well fleshed out.

Harold Bloom calls Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare's most nihilistic play, reducing love to a game of naughts; but he correctly finds its center on Beatrice's surprising request for proof of Benedick's newly confessed love for her: "Kill Claudio." This comes at the center of the play, which opened with her asking, banteringly, how many of the enemy Benedick had killed in a battle which precedes the play's action. And the play ends with a feigned death, recalling Romeo and Juliet and looking forward to The Winter's Tale. Everything about this play is artificial, symmetrical, contrived; only, as Bloom points out, the language of Beatrice and Benedick rises above contrivance and approaches poetry. (Even in prose, of which there's a fair amount.)

I'm not sure this production trusts that language to carry the play. Scott Bradley's scenic design is striking, and contributes to a surprising coup de théâtre; many of Kara Harmon's costumes add visual interest to their workmanlike efficacy. I've seen worse Shakespeare here in recent seasons.
A VERY DIFFERENT AFFAIR kept us alert in the evening, a rare production of Pericles. Not so much a play as a pageant, I suppose, it had a hard time making its way in the past couple of centuries; I hadn't seen it until two years ago, when the Pasadena company A Noise Within produced it successfully. (And they had done it once before, in 2001, before we began attending their productions.) At that time I wrote about the play generally, on this blog:
…It's one of the four late Romances, with The Tempest, A Winter's Tale, and Cymbeline… These plays extend Shakespeare's oeuvre out of the Elizabethan renaissance toward the Baroque; I think they look forward to Corneille…

One objection to these late romances has been their unbelievability. They depend on sudden rages, incest, redemptions, coincidence, chance natural cataclysms. Pericles begins with a hero who discovers a father-daughter incestuous relationship, and who can believe that? Later, it shows a young virgin abducted and sold into sexual slavery, and who can believe that? Yet in recent years [such] stories have become commonplace. No matter how theatrical and arbitrary his plots — most of them stolen from sources much older, of course — Shakespeare seems unable to escape contemporary relevance.

Asked, after the play, how she would sum it up, the director said that she thinks of it as a man's journey toward grace. In spite of every calamity, Pericles finds resolution. Wife and daughter, each long thought dead, are returned to him. Perseverance is rewarded.
It is generally assumed that Shakespeare did not write the first two acts, which were likely provided by George Wilkins, a lowlife hack (according to Bloom) who was probably a hanger-on at the King's Men, Shakespeare's theater company. In them the young prince Pericles, prince of Tyre, leaves home on a projected voyage-of-entering-manhood; answers a Turandot-like riddle to disclose the king of Antioch's incestuous relationship with his own daughter and escapes with his life; then travels on to the coast of famine-struck Tharus, for no apparent reason but to demonstrate his empathy and largesse.

Next his ship is wrecked in a tremendous storm, and he emerges, looking like Caliban (who in fact he was, in a recent Ashland production of The Tempest ), soon to be welcomed in spite of his ruined clothes to the court of Pentapolis where the king, Simonides, has a beautiful but aloof daughter, Thaisa, a devotée of the goddess Diana, who nonetheless marries Pericles to end the second act.

Shakespeare's hand is immediately recognized in the three acts that follow. Thaisa conceives on her wedding night, but the child is born in the midst of another terrific storm at sea. Thaisa doesn't survive, and the superstitious crew insists she be buried at sea. Those passages are magnificent, recalling the power and exalted futility of the storm in King Lear but proceeding with much more concision.

The baby, Marina, survives, but is taken by pirates and sold into prostitution — a fate she evades through simply the persuasive powers of her innate goodness. Pericles is unaware of these eventualities; assuming Marina as irrevocably lost as Thaisa, he withdraws into a brooding dejection. Ultimately, however, everything comes round.

Pericles continues, I think, Shakespeare's mature expressions of reservations about both Christianity and Judaism. There's something in late Shakespeare that wants to transcend established monotheism: he likes "the quality of mercy," but in the late romances attributes it to a generalized force, personalized in this play by the goddess Diana, but in fact not really a personal quantity at all: an abstraction.

Because we see Shakespeare's plays one at a time we tend to think of them as all coming from a single source. But because so many devices reappear from play to play, especially in these late Romances, it seems to me they are all different stages of a single thing, and that that thing is a thing in flux. Shakespeare is the author of the thirty-seven plays, of course (or 39, or 40) ; but he is also the transition from Ben Jonson to, say, Corneille. In Pericles more than any other late Romance it seems to me he's looking backward to the Elizabethan drama, asking himself if it's possible to retrieve its more eventful, less psychological human drama. Perhaps the box office had asked him to make a last stab at that; perhaps the actors had.

I think he succeeded in that look back, but was content to get on with Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest, ultimately to retire, like Prospero, and take up the long big final retrospection.

There were a few little glitches in this production, I think — notably casting the villainous queen Dionyza and the virtuous Thaisa on the same actor, the very good Brooke Parks whose striking face made it hard for me to decide which of these women she truly was. Probably my weakness; no one else's. As I say, she was very good; so was Jennie Greenberry as Marina and (more successfully differentiated) Antiochus's daughter; and so too was Michael J. Hume as Helicanus and, strikingly, in travesty, Bawd, the wife of the owner of the third-act brothel.

Others were evenly successful in the other roles. Best of all, Wayne T. Carr was completely admirable in the title role, growing, aging, developing over the sixteen to twenty years of the play's span, winningly young and energetic and optimistic at first, harrowed and injured at the center, abject and despondent toward the end, to return, through a literal deus ex machina (okay, dea ), to a transcendently ennobled state. There was a majesty to his performance, and it lifted the entire cast and production to a very high level.

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