Review: Much Ado About Nothing

2014-07-06 19.44.56The skies are clear; the warm summer day has cooled off; the pondside setting is gorgeous; your seats are terrific; you’ve got a glass of wine and are about to see a free play with friends. And there are no guarantees in the theater, but the Public usually puts on a damned fine show with an excellent cast and high production values. No wonder Shakespeare in the Park is so popular!

Last night was the final performance of Much Ado About Nothing, so this post is a bit useless for the rest of you, but it does give me a chance to endorse Shakespeare in the Park, so I’ll go ahead and do just that. This production, directed by Jack O’Brien, was really a delight from the very beginning. The prologue in Italian, the vegetable garden at the front of the stage, and the sun-drenched lighting beautifully called to mind an Italian villa in summertime. I feel transported just thinking about it, actually. The show was nearly three hours long, but didn’t ever drag, because it was full of wit, romance, high jinks, and of course, Shakespeare’s poetry.

Lily Rabe was sharp and very funny, nearly flawless as Beatrice. Though she is basically always flawless, right? Even better was Hamish Linklater as Benedick. During the first act I got a bit distracted by his wild beard (he eventually shaves it off, as you might remember), but he brought a nice mixture of brashness, physical humor, wit and energy to Benedick. Plus there was Brian Stokes Mitchell as Don Pedro. Casting people: if you want charm and gravitas in your show, Brian Stokes Mitchell should be the first guy you call. Not to mention his glorious singing. It’s definitely been too long since he starred in a Broadway musical.

Anyway, it was an utterly wonderful evening, and all four of us sailed out of the theater on a Shakespeare high. And we weren’t the only ones, as the following story might tell you:

In the bathroom line at intermission, a girl ahead of me told her friends: “This is great, but I thought we were going to see the original Shakespeare. I didn’t know they were going to translate it.”
Her friend said: “This IS the original Shakespeare.”
“No it isn’t. It’s in modern English. I can understand everything!”
Another friend of theirs interjected: “Well there are a few different translations….”
“No, there aren’t! This is the same Shakespeare as it always is!”
“Shakespeare wrote in old English,” the first girl kept insisting.

At this point the lady ahead of them jumped in before I could: “No, it’s not like Chaucer, they don’t have to translate. This is the original Shakespeare. But this show is one of the easier ones to understand. They’re not all like this one.”

I was fairly astonished at this whole exchange. I wonder if the modern American accents in the production threw that girl for a loop? But in any case, she made an excellent case for Shakespeare in the Park as a free event. To be honest, I’d been feeling a little fed up with the whole Shakespeare in the Park thing, even though it’s a summer tradition. The long wait for tickets (we arrived before 4 am on Sunday morning) prevents so many of us who love theater from being able to go. I hadn’t been in several years. I know what you’re thinking: Wow. I never knew Julia was so incredibly entitled! She thinks she should automatically get free Shakespeare tickets just because she likes shows? Which is why I was happy to be reminded that not everyone who sees these shows are part of the theater community. Lots don’t have any familiarity with Shakespeare at all. That’s the whole point, if I’m not mistaken?

Next up at the Delacorte is King Lear, which I will try to see (it’s the year of Lear, after all!), though a summer evening tragedy doesn’t hold quite the same appeal. But the Public definitely earned my good will with Much Ado, so bring on the next eight hour wait, I suppose!

My grade: A+
Running Time: 3 Hours
Ticket Price: $0 (with eight hour wait)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes*

*- Everybody stood, except for my roommate (the birthday girl! Happy birthday Rachel!) who was really reluctant to do so because she was worrying about what I’d say in my Standing Ovation Watch.

Review: Macbeth

2014-06-21 07.58.01“It’s like Sleep No More, but with ACTUAL SHAKESPEARE!” That was my main thought immediately after entering the Park Avenue Armory for Kenneth Branagh’s Macbeth, in town until June 22. That’s because this production isn’t just a performance of Macbeth; it’s an experience. Upon walking into the Armory, you’re encouraged to wander around through all the rooms in front: they’re stunning, high-ceilinged, wood-paneled — your basic gorgeous 19th century design. In each area you can read information on the various clans of tenth-century Scotland as well as the history of the Armory building. Eventually you wander into your own clan room, and are led into the theatre with the rest of your group. (I was a MacDuff, as you can see from the playbill.)

At which point Macbeth really begins to astonish. You’re led through a barren, moorish field, which sets a very dark and foreboding tone after the pageantry of the clan rooms. After being led past a Stonehenge-like stone circle, you’re brought to bleachers on either side of the action. The production (directed by Rob Ashford and Mr. Branagh) itself is a proudly muddy 2 hour performance with lots of drums, dramatic lighting, rain, and of course, much blood and gore. It’s a passionate, intense production with few lulls. Parts go by so fast that I would find myself getting frustrated: Stop running around and let me listen to the words for a few minutes, people! Sitting in the last row might have been part of the problem. But this production was so busy dazzling and astonishing me that I had a hard time finding my way into the emotion of it.

2014-06-19 10.28.20That might also be because of the style of Kenneth Branagh’s performance, which is incredibly Shakespearean.  Traditionally when I describe someone as Shakespearean I mean they have an outsized stage persona, a fierce energy. (Love him or hate him, Al Pacino was certainly “Shakespearean” in this sense in The Merchant of Venice.) But at the moment I’m thinking of this term in a different way: as a consummate member of a Shakespearean acting troupe. Mr. Branagh’s line readings are always impeccable, he’s committed, he has a deep understanding of Shakespeare, he doesn’t hog the stage, he has diction for miles. What he doesn’t have, in my view, is the ability to disappear into a character the way some actors do. He doesn’t give you the chills. His Macbeth was not worlds away from his Hamlet, or even his Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, simply because he brings the same intelligence and understanding to every role.  Alex Kingston as Lady Macbeth gave a more outsized performance; to me she suited the production a little better than Mr. Branagh did.

It might be too late to see this Macbeth; it closes tomorrow, and I had to wait many hours in line to get a ticket. I had mixed feelings about the production, just because I feel like the (literally!) splashy parts tended to outshine the story itself. But it’s one of the more creative theatrical endeavors I’ve seen this year, and features a simply stunning use of theatrical space. Well worth a few hours in line.

My grade: B
Running Time: 2 hours with intermission
Ticket price: $21 at the box office
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

Review: King Lear (NT Live)

2014-05-01 18.59.19For those of us who can’t easily pop across the pond, NT Live had a virtual alternative: a recording of King Lear, currently at the National Theatre in London. If you missed the screening, it’ll be on again at BAM on May 31.

Initial reaction: Simon Russell Beale, you are a motormouth, sir. I say that in the most complimentary way. I was dumbstruck at how he can wrap his tongue around Shakespeare’s elaborate text, and so quickly. Almost too fast. By the time I had digested one thing he’d said, he was three steps ahead of me. His take on Lear was that of a man suffering from a physically and mentally degenerative disease (he said in the intermission documentary that he was trying to portray something akin to Parkinson’s). He was terrific, though you expect nothing less from the guy. Sam Mendes’ production was set in some kind of modern totalitarian state, and featured stunning visuals and an absolutely enormous cast. If the first act dragged a bit (maybe that’s just something I’ll have to get used to with Lear) the second act was totally spellbinding.

The production was pretty clearly the best of the three King Lears I’ve seen this year (the BAM and the TFANA are the others), but of course it was on video, and that always makes it lose a few notches. Actually it makes a production lose a load of notches. It’s great to have access to absolutely marvelous performances that you’d never be able to see otherwise.  But (and I know this is incredibly obvious) it’s so much less interesting than real theater is that it’s almost not even worth it. Watching a baseball game at a bar can be just as fun as watching at the game at a stadium (and I should know). Theater isn’t really like that. A few reasons off the top of my head:

  • The visuals don’t quite come through as well: When I saw the sets I thought “Oh I bet that looks GREAT in person.”
  • I like being able to choose what to look at myself. Stop bossing me around, camera crew!
  • The audience tends to be more responsive when they’re in the same room as the performers are.
  • You don’t get the visceral physical reactions (that eyeball scene! Out vile jelly indeed) that you would if you were seeing it live.

On that note, I don’t understand the appeal of something like the upcoming NT Live production of The Curious Incident of a Dog in the Nighttime, which is also coming to Broadway in the fall. Why on earth would you pay $25 to see a show you could see in the flesh in six months? Why would you ever want to see War Horse on video? It played here for ages! It’s on tour! I’m mystified.

On the other hand, I suppose I’m thinking of this as an incredibly privileged person would. (“But it’s not even WORTH it to fly coach. Just go first class!”) I get to see a lot of theater, and have lost all concept of what life is like when you have to make a monumental effort to go see a show. This wasn’t always the case. When I was a theater-obsessed teenager, I’d often have to wait TWO YEARS before getting to see a new musical at the Fox in St. Louis. I’d have flipped out if I could have seen a screening of Sunset Boulevard or Titanic right when they opened on Broadway. Though musicals are rarely filmed for TV anyway, so perhaps that’s an uneven comparison. Who knows though — maybe NT Live will inspire a similar theater-at-the-movies series over here for all those theater-obsessed types that can’t go see shows regularly. Well, it works for opera.

Review: King Lear

2014-04-17 19.22.45I write this wanting to say that Shakespeare failed me, but I’m actually pretty sure that I failed Shakespeare.

Last night I went to see King Lear at Theater for a New Audience. An extra treat, as it was my first time attending their lovely new Brooklyn performance space (verdict: looks great; I love the double balcony). I went to see it because I’ve decided to completely buy in to the #yearoflear marketing ploy and go see that great tragedy as many times as possible this year. I’ve already seen Frank Langella at BAM, and bought a ticket to the screening of the Simon Russell Beale London production in a few weeks. Plus I’m hoping to see John Lithgow Shakespeare in the Park, and, erm, I think there’s another one this fall.

All this to say last night was my second out of five Lears this year. It was a thoughtful, clear production (Arin Arbus directs), and Michael Pennington was a composed Lear. (My pull quote: An intelligent Lear in an intelligent production from an intelligent theater company.) But if I’m going to be truthful I have to say that I had trouble keeping my eyes open. To begin with, it was loooong. 3 hours, 15 minutes; the first act alone was 1 hour 45 minutes. (I think this production could have done with two intermissions.) And the production never ignited the way the BAM one did a few weeks ago. I usually laugh at Edmund’s two-timing Goneril and Regan, and the Fool’s witticisms, but neither I nor many others in the audience seemed to respond much to what was onstage. Perhaps we were just a quiet bunch. But not until Gloucester’s eyes get plucked out (oh that scene is so gross) was I really sitting up and taking notice. The rest of the time, I let the verse wash over me like a lullaby.

But I still think it was mostly my own fault. I’d been out late the night before celebrating my birthday and to be honest, I was operating on just a few hours sleep. I’m no Shakespeare expert, but I have seen enough of his plays to know that if you aren’t feeling sharp that day, you’re unlikely to appreciate it much. In fact, I generally try to book tickets for matinees if I’m going to see Shakespeare. Daytime Julia is always a little more appreciative of that stuff than nighttime Julia.

Moral of the story: please learn from my mistakes (though I never seem to). Those with hangovers shouldst not attend Shakespeare plays. Julia, thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.