Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Amusing deluded glove, rayon

Ashland, Oregon

SO BEGINS — not quite — just about my favorite Shakespeare play, which we saw last night. We saw it a little over a year ago, done by the Los Angeles company A Noise Within in their small deep-thrust theater in Glendale: there it was poetic and romantic, the director’s attention concentrating on Shakespeare’s marvelous text.

Here in Ashland in the much larger Elizabethan Theater, open to the night sky and seating a much larger audience confronting a more conventional stage (though lacking curtain and proscenium), Peter Amster’s direction focussed on another aspect, almost an opposite one, of this rich and complex play: its clowning. Linda Morris was a fine, brash, good-hearted Viola, and Robin Nordli — last year’s Hedda Gabler! — was winning if sometimes ditzy as Olivia. But it is when Shakespeare (and Amster) send in the clowns that this production comes completely to life, reaching out into the big audience whose laughter often drowned out the cast.

Oddly, this was set up at the very beginning, when Michael Elich, as Orsino, speaks that marvelous line: If music be the food of love, play on...  The line was overstated, loud, round, and slow, amusing Orsino’s attendants as much as the audience. Orsino is a difficult role to play, I think, central to the play, but not promiinently present; engaging, but not always sympathetic; romantic, but rarely convincingly so. If Mozart and da Ponte had made an opera of this play (oh how I wish they had) his role would have gone to the baritone who sings Don Giovanni. Michael Elich played the role here, and very well indeed (helped immensely, as was everyone, by Shigeru Yaji’s costumes), but in this production he directed your attention not to Olivia but to Sir Toby Belch, somewhat his counterpart at Olivia’s end of town. (For this play, like so many of Shakespeare’s, divides its setting into two camps.)

Robert Sicular was Sir Toby, and he elevated what is often an accessory role into a central one. I think Sir Toby stands often for the playwright himself — commenting on the other characters, the action, even referring, especially in this setting, to other plays in the canon. Dost think because thou art virtuous there’ll be no more cakes and ale? In which case Sir Andrew Aguecheek, wonderfully idiotic in Christopher DuVal’s performance, is perhaps many of us in the audience, standing on uncomprehendingly, blankly repeating bits of text back when spoken to, bumbling in foreign French, giving up, hiding from the constant onslaught of wit and repartee, which goes on whether he comprehends or not. And poor put-upon Malvolio, in Kenneth Albers’ rendition (which recalled his recent Lear from time to time), is of course Shakespeare’s satirical portrait of his rival Ben Jonson.

Altogether it’s a production of Twelfth Night to contemplate, consider, and enjoy. Not by any means the definitive production — but can there ever be an exhaustive interpretation of this play?

IN THE AFTERNOON we had seen quite a different play, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Perhaps you know the argument: four musicians gather in a 1920s recording studio in Chicago, where they will back a blues singer, Ma Rainey. She’s late, held up by a traffic incident that’s escalated into a minor skirmish in the constantly present race war. Cracker recording engineer, Jewish agent, imperious blues diva, Amos and Andy trombonist and bassist, cynical and self-educated pianist. Most of all, Levee, the young trumpeter whose own music is in the future, as definitively as his hatreds have been formed by the violent incidents of his past.

Timothy Bond’s direction was marvelously taut, linear, detailed, and his cast perfectly assembled. I’ll refer you to the program for all the names, but I can’t fail to cite Kevin Kenerly, always memorable here (a brilliant sullen Romeo; a complex, near-pathological kid brother in Topdog/Underdog): his portrayal of Levee was funny, louche, driving, brittle, and finally eruptive. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom could slide into melodrama: his intelligence, which contains in addition the collective intelligence of the director and the entire cast, sends the play instead into the rank of great tragedy.

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