Thursday, August 09, 2012

Further on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Eastside Road, August 9, 2012—
(minor corrections August 10, 2012)
the degree of comfort the producing team has with the presentation of [Shakespeare] plays to these audiences. How is Shakespeare relevant, or approachable, or (let's face it) marketable in 21st-century United States of America?
A pair of plays we had yet to see when I wrote that post throws the problem into sharp relief. Shakespeare's histories and certain of the "problem plays" are deep examinations of the motives determining individual behavior in societally pivotal, even crucial moments. They are about political events, never more so than in Troilus and Cressida, a disturbingly deep and bleak psychological portrait.

And Robert Schenkkan's All the Way is a similar portrait, though more narrowly focussed: on the first hundred days of Lyndon Johnson's presidency, when his powerful political determination pushed civil rights and anti-poverty legislation through a recalcitrant legislature.

The relevancy of Schenkkan's play is obvious to audiences of my age, of course: we remember those days, and see parallels between those issues and others facing us today. (In fact, of course, among today's issues are the continuation of Johnson's "Great Society.") We can hope that the near term of All the Way makes its significance clear even to young audiences today, though I suppose we shouldn't take this for granted.

But how make the issues behind and within the Trojan War meaningful to today's audiences? This production of Troilus and Cressida updates the action, as the director, Rob Melrose, explains:
Our production takes inspiration from the looting of the Baghdad Museum during the U.S. invasion of Iraq. We are overlaying a modern perspective on an ancient story. Like the layers of Shakespeare's sources, we are seeing the Trojan War as the beginning of a long history of East-West conflicts: the Persian Wars, the Crusades, the Vietnam War, the Gulf and Iraq Wars. In the detritus of war are reminders of the cultures that were here before.
This is a little confused, I think. Melrose's third sentence needs a bit of unravelling. To be fair, it has its own source earlier in his program note, where he cites Shakespeare's "obscure sources known only to scholars": Homer, Chaucer, Boccaccio.
In many ways, this play is a collaboration among Shakespeare and his three literary equals across time. The result is a richly layered text that constantly revises and comments on its source materials.
But the result is, after all, a Shakespeare play, a finished work of art (as is Chaucer's magnificent psychological novel Troilus and Criseyde); it can stand on its own merits. To add to its already rich store of historical, legendary, and literary references even more — ranging from the Crusades to the pillaging of the Baghdad Museum! — is hardly likely to make the play simpler or more direct.

Except, in fact, by shouldering aside much of the play's content — details revealed in the character's lines — by a constant substitution of contemporary references: machine guns, helicopter chop, sirens, cocaine and drug-sniffing. Pandarus is portrayed as a situation-comedy funny uncle; Helen as brainless sexpot, Cassandra as an inexplicably troubled aunt who shows up in her head-scarf from time to time for no particular reason.

Only Shakespeare's language is truly respected, not his take on the content it expresses. This has its absurd results, as when sidearms that are clearly handguns are referred to as swords, or when GIs look heavenward when referring to the gods. To dismiss these absurdities as unimportant, because after all realism is hardly the point, is to overlook the greater issue they reveal: by making Troilus and Cressida "relevant" to an audience familiar with Afghanistan and Iraq but not Chaucer or Homer, productions like this divest the play of Shakespeare, furthering the cultural illiteracy they want to counter. The look and sound of this production, growing largely out of television and movie portrayals whether of battle or poolside languor, renders the sound of Shakespeare's dialogue quaint and often opaque.

So ultimately this is not Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, but someone else's. The main points of the play are there: war is absurd, there's little honor among these people; we really ought to stop behaving this way. But Shakespeare's complex and fascinating characterizations are little more than caricatures, and so the effect of the play is repetitious and heavy-handed. Shakespeare had more subtle things in mind than a morality play — he always does. If the richness and depth and, yes, subtlety and ambiguity of his work has to be sacrificed to make him understandable by today's audience, it would be better not to present him at all — to consign him to the obscurity which this Festival apparently believes already conceals Homer, Chaucer, and Boccaccio.
I'M TEMPTED HERE to investigate some clever branching format to give you your choice: shall we turn next to the mess that is Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella, or the success of All the Way?

All the Way, Robert Schenkkan's play about Lyndon Johnson, is conventional drama, tightly focussed on LBJ as he takes office in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, whose very different style — Massachusetts, glamor, wealth — has until then marked the vice president as little more than a country bumpkin. Or so thinks LBJ, who is/was, in fact, a sensitive, intelligent, apparently sympathetic politician, hampered by his often crude expression but clear-eyed and realistic when it came to the political process.

The play…

Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella was so unpleasant a production that we left at intermission, so I really have no business at all writing about it. Once again, then, let me turn you over to the codirectors' program note:

Almost 30 years ago, as a college student, Bill wanted to learn more about theatre that speaks to a cross section of society… Taking one example of each of the three great populist movements in Western drama… he laid three texts side by side. With all three plays staged in the sae space at the same time, Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella was born.
The trouble with this idea is that…

Oh, the hell with it, clever formatting has no place here — though it shows what happens when a clever idea gets in the way of trying to get to the bottom of something. Let's continue with All the Way, which really impressed me for its skill in keeping a number of parallel lines in balance, continuingly present through the three-hour two-act play, persuasively depicting a large number of familiar, complex, interesting characters: Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Lady Bird Johnson, George Wallace, J. Edgar Hoover, Hubert Humphrey, Robert McNamara, Walter Jenkins (LBJ's top aide)…

All these men but the last are well-known to those of us who paid any attention at the time; and the time was of course the middle 1960s, at just the cusp between JFK's New Frontier and the cultural revolution attending the rise of the Vietnam War, when the excesses of the youth movement severely compromised the success of the "Great Society" that LBJ was trying to engineer.

It was a time resonating with the current moment, when many of the programs and legislative codes put in place in the 1960s are being attacked, and there's a very real danger that they may even be repealed. I'd hesitate to call Schenkkan Shakespeare's "literary equal," as Rob Melrose refers to Homer, Boccaccio, and Chaucer: but he's a similarly telling and ingenious playwright. I was impressed by his By the Waters of Babylon, staged at OSF in Ashland in 2005; Handler, which centers on a snake handling church in the Appalachians, had played there in 2002. Those plays deal with societal confrontations between groups with dramatically opposed, tightly held attitudes; All the Way is a logical continuation of the theme.

Bill Rauch, the Artistic Director of Oregon Shakespeare, directed both those previous Schenkkan plays, and he directed All the Way as well. I don't see how he could have done it much better. The parallel politics of LBJ's administration, the recalcitrant Dixiecrat-driven Senate Byrd, Thurmond, Eastland, Russell), and the emerging civil rights movement, itself split between judicious elders (King, Abernathy, Wilkins) and the impatient youths (principally Stokely Carmichael) were beautifully balanced, orchestrated you might say; and the fact that many of these supporting roles were double- and triple-cast was no detriment: not only costuming and makeup, but acting and directing kept a complex set of issues on point and abundantly clear.

There's humor here, though one audience member groused that for people of her generation J. Edgar Hoover could never be a sympathetic character, let alone amusing. I found him both, in fact; I thought he was better treated than the hapless Hubert Humphrey, the one historical character who didn't seem quite right.

The frequent humor, concentrated on near-fools like Humphrey and Hoover (the characters, not the real men!); the double-casting to populate a wide gamut of types and classes; the interweaving of political and individual power-juggling — all this is of course very Shakespearean. Of all the plays I've seen so far in the "American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle" series commissioned by OSF, it is the most Shakespearean, resonates best with the historic mission of this theater company.

(We did not attend a second new play commissioned within the cycle, Party People, a performance by the UNIVERSES collective. That was a mistake: I've heard very good things about it. We'd been misled by the title and early publicity; when we ordered our season tickets, we thought to save money on both this and an update of The Merry Wives of Windsor. We were right only half the time: perhaps we'll return for it later in the season.)

All the Way only opened a week or so before we saw it, but this was a solid production and performance. It was so absorbing I could imagine returning for a second look. It should join the repertory, I think; I'd be surprised if it didn't turn up in the Bay Area sometime in the next few years.
CAPABLE OF A SUCCESS like All the Way, how could Bill Rauch make a theatrical mistake like Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella? I have no right to "review" it, as I left at intermission — along with five friends with whom we spend a week in Ashland every summer. (The fourth couple had wisely opted to sit this one out.)

The idea was intriguing, a mash-up of characters from three widely different settings somehow interacting in a new context. Euripides'Medea has beckoned me since hearing the Judith Anderson performance, recorded, sixty years ago, and the Scottish play was still in my mind from the beautiful and relentless production at OSF in 2009 (and the oppressive yet compelling production of 2002), and the production of Akira Kurosawa's retelling of it as Throne of Blood in 2010.

I had assumed for some reason — well, for no good reason at all, of course — that the Cinderella would come from a fairly serious staging of that familiar tale: based on, say, Charles Perrault, or the brothers Grimm, or perhaps Jacopo Ferretti's libretto for Rossini's opera La Cenerentola. Wrong: Rauch turned to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, originally produced for television. I've never seen that version, I'm happy to say: judging from the little of it I saw in Ashland in this production, it's annoyingly cartoonish and simple-minded, brash and foolish.

Years ago it occurred to me, while watching a production of Charpentier's opera Louise, that you could make a charming and thoughtful thing of a Paris-themed opera in which Louise and her father, Mimi and the others from Puccini's La Bohème, perhaps Donizetti's Maria di Rohan (which I've never seen or heard), and of course characters from Offenbach's La vie parisienne all bump into one another — in the streets, at a café, perhaps at a dance. They'll have a lot to tell each other, I think. If I were to do it, there'd be pauses and quiet passages. the sources would not merely co-exist, often competitively; they'd intersect, aware of one another, bringing further layers of thoughtfulness and meaning — and, yes, humor along the way, as well as sympathy.

Perhaps that happens in the second act of Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella. If so, perhaps someone will tell me about it. I'm afraid I didn't linger to find out. Instead I left the theater, confused and a little irritated at the money spent by me, the much more money and time and energy spent by OSF, and the implications that the Artistic Director of the theater has taken advantage of the splendid actors and other resources at his disposal to stage what was, in fact, a college student's idea, now, according to his program note, "a lifelong passion project."
FINALLY, A PARAGRAPH or three on the ancient Kaufman and Ryskind send-up Animal Crackers, written for the stage in 1928, adapted into film two years later. It's the latter that's well known, of course, because of the presence of the Marx Brothers, who repeated their stage roles.

It's surprising, now, to recall that Animal Crackers is a musical. There are some fine songs, particularly "Watching the Clouds Roll By" and "Three Little Words," and of course both Chico's piano and Harpo's harp were given prominent solo "specialties". The OSF production involves an onstage combo: piano, trombone, reeds, bass, and drums, and they were first-rate. In general I've liked OSF's occasional musical — The Guardsman and She Loves Me come to mind — when it's done fairly straight; this was no exception to that.

But the musical is the least aspect of the show. What Animal Crackers is, in this production, is a zany romp of a comedy, with lots of debt to vaudeville. I don't like to linger on performer descriptions in these accounts, but I have to comment on the actors who, in representing Captain Spaulding, Emanuel Ravelli, The Professor, and Horatio Jamison, have to represent also Groucho, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo. Not long into the evening you forgot they weren't the Marx Brothers themselves. The show was hilarious from beginning to end, and I wish I could see it once a month for the rest of my life. Go see it if you possibly can.

• Troilus and Cressida (Shakespeare; directed by Rob Melrose): New Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Oregon; closes November 4.
• All the Way (Robert Schenkkan; dir. Bill Rauch): Angus Bowmer Theatre; closes November 3.
• Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella (Bill Rauch and Tracy Young, adapted from Euripides, Shakespeare, and Rodgers and Hammerstein; dir. Rauch and Young): Angus Bowmer Theatre; closes November 3.
• Animal Crackers (Kaufman and Ryskind/Henry Wishcamper; dir. Allison Narver): Angus Bowmer Theatre; closes November 4.

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