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Facing the Stage
NoDef's drama critic offers a guide to viewing three local Shakespeare productions premiering over the next month
In a rusting iron works, one man’s suffering will exponentially amplify among seven performers. An outdoor museum will transform into a magical forest where time slides into slumber. And, towards the bend in our river, a group of politicos in suits will jostle over who is a “man of the people.” With JazzFest finishing up Sunday, the rest of May and early June belongs to the Bard.
New Orleans theatre enthusiasts are about to find out how wide and deep the talent pool is in this city. And Shakespeare is going to be the determinant. In a period of just over a month, three Shakespearean productions are going to open in three very different neighborhoods and with three very different energies: Neutral Ground’s Titus Andronicus, The NOLA Project’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane’s opening production, Julius Caesar. Produced respectively in the Bywater, City Park and on the Tulane campus, the three shows represent an unintentionally ambitious project among some of the most highly regarded theatrical professionals in town. Patrons are going to see how much quality theatre the city can sustain in a compacted space of time. If it works, the project could kick-start a whole new audience for live theatrical performance in New Orleans. The stakes are high, and it is only fitting that Shakespeare should be engine of opportunity.
First up is the internecine bloodbath, Titus Andronicus. Opening today at The Old Iron Works on Piety St., the production is the dream-show of director and “horror movie fiend” Robert E. Lee. For Lee, Titus is a “ridiculous crowd pleaser,” and a text he and his Neutral Ground companions have desired to tackle from quite some time. Lee has made the decision to split the character of the beleaguered Titus among seven members of his company. This choice, which began as a response to events beyond his control, has evolved into a commentary on how much suffering one man can absorb before he fractures. Lee’s Titus is “a world without heroes,” and places the rigidity of Roman energy into a collision course with the more “sweaty” organic bearings of the hated Goths. These ideas about one Shakespeare’s most controversial texts found a home in The Old Iron Works. His design team was immediately inspired by the structure’s decaying feel to bring a Steampunk sensibility of goggles and rust to the proceedings. Featuring the talents of Andrea Frankle, Ross Britz, and Lucy Faust, Titus Andronicus is free to the public during its limited two-week run.
The following night, audiences can give themselves theatrical whiplash by journeying over to the Besthoff Sculpture Garden to see The NOLA Project’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The group of young NYU grads is no stranger to The Bard. Last year, they comprised the majority of the cast for Buzz Podewell’s elegant production of Love’s Labors Lost at The New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane. Furthermore, they did a site-specific work, Get This Lake Off My House, which was inspired by The Tempest. They also had a production of Twelfth Night in the halls of the New Orleans Museum of Art itself. This latest offering is collaborative effort between the project, City Park and a number of the other young theatrical companies in town. Director Larimer sees the sculpture garden complementing the play as “a world initially structured” that gives way to a more “chaotic and flowing” reality behind it. As the show moves with the garden, so does the audience. He sees Midsummer as three distinct worlds: the royals grounded in our times, the mechanicals possessing the retro feel of the “timeless masses,” and the woodland denizens as collectors of the detritus that ephemeral mankind has left in its wake. Along with the NOLA regulars, it stars two of the best actors currently working in New Orleans: Emilie Whelan and Jason Kirkpatrick.
All the while, the final of these three shows will be plotting its arrival for the first week in June. The Shakespeare Festival opens its 18th season with the great struggle of conscience and power: Julius Caesar. Despite being a company that prides itself on continuity, the festival will welcome three new faces to its Lupin Stage in the roles of Brutus, Cassius, and Antony: John Neisler, Silas Cooper and Shad Willingham. Director Amy Boyce Holtcamp has set the Roman saga in an unstable America of the 1930s where the mob has more to fear than fear itself. For Boyce-Holtcamp, Antony’s line of “mischief, thou art afoot” speaks to not only the political chicanery of the time of Huey Long, but it also is an “echo of our modern political discourse” that prioritizes birth certificates and college transcripts. Festival artistic director Ron Gural sees this abundance of Shakespeare as a “sign of the times.” He believes our “contemporary turmoil” is in search of voice that clearly articulates the anxieties around us. He points to not only the outburst of The Bard locally but in the plethora of articles, movies, and productions that have sprung up nationally in the last few months.
NoDef’s Guide to Viewing Shakespeare
Of course, you can count on each show receiving a full review in short order. However, the purpose of today’s column is to serve as a primer for what to watch for as you decide if these disparate companies are up to the challenge. Shakespeare is tricky business, not only because of the encrusted resistance less schooled theatre goers bring with them, but also on account of the legions of his lovers who are lying in wait for any deviation from their purity of vision. But desperate attempts to jazz up the presentation or slavish adherence to the text are the least of any good company’s worries and neither is a guarantor of enjoyment. Instead, if you want to measure success, look to answer three questions: how do the actors handle the language, does the concept illuminate the text, and are the supporting players the equal of their leads? If these productions answer those questions positively, you will/should have a thrilling time regardless of whether you sit on a folding chair, amidst a grassy field, or in the comfort of a traditional theatre.
Handling the language is a two-fold operation for the actors. Larimer said his cast has to strike a balance between “conveying meaning and honoring the verse.” That is an on-point analysis of the juggling act faced by all three shows. First, the actors have to clarify the story. Titus, Midsummer and Caesar are all labyrinth plots. Titus is a murderous nightmare of deceit and triple-crosses, Midsummer contains three comic streams that cross currents throughout, and Caesar is a Machiavellian street fight to see who will become the first among equals. The viewer should listen for the performers’ abilities to use the verbs to predicate and drive the action. Those verbs are signposts for your understanding; the actor’s mastery of them will determine your access to the story. Neither ample gore nor comic bits will make a difference in your enjoyment if you do not know who is killing who or why a face is funny.
Actors in control of the narrative can then relish in the poetry. Elizabethan playwrights used iambic pentameter not for future punishment of high school sophomores, but instead because it was the verse closest to the rhythm of the English language. If it is done right, it should sound like heightened English spoken by someone grooving within the word play, classic rap. No matter the emotion, there should be a hint of delight in the delivery. Used properly, it can be an ally in the communication of the plot: accelerating the action, enriching the character, and using contrasts to establish depth of theme. Furthermore, provided the tale is clear, the poetry helps establish place. Most of the plays were written without the benefit of complex technical elements, and the Elizabethan technique of spoken décor substitutes for the bells and whistles of elaborate design. The poetry of Titus soaks the world in blood, Midsummer’s language literally creates a forest, and Caesar’s words envision a world unbalanced by a power vacuum. If you can close your eyes and see it, the actors have done their diligence.
I am no opponent of conceptualized Shakespeare. From Orson Welles’ Voodoo Macbeth to Michael Bogdanov’s twisted vision of Taming of the Shrew up into present day radical reimaginings from Punchdrunk Theatre Company, setting The Bard in locales, times and energies other than his own is an honored tradition and can produce thrilling results. But doing so needs to answer the question of illumination. In other words, the choices, be they traditional or postmodern, should clarify the meaning of the text, not obfuscate it. If the design decisions help you understand the play better, then the concept has taken the first step to accomplishing its mission. Over a decade ago, I saw a production of Twelfth Night at The Alabama Shakespeare Festival directed by Kent Gash. It was set in a Hollywood vision of the 1930s, a world of Busby Berkeley, Bringing Up Baby, and Our Man Godfrey. A woman performed the fool Feste changing costumes in each scene. One moment she was Marlene Dietrich in tuxedo drag, and the next, she was Carmen Miranda in a fruit hat. Once Feste’s motif had been established, the point became clear: the fool was a shape shifter that changed image to either send up or point out the foolishness of her target. Costume clarified text.
Pay close attention to the supporting players, they are the backbone of the success of any Shakespearean production. I am not issuing a platitude here. None of these three shows can be carried by a single performance. Caesar’s mobs must be a dangerous organism, Midsummer’s forest needs to be populated with characters from three separate plays, and an audience must believe that every agent in Titus capable of murder. Too often in this town, patrons have seen Shakespearean battles populated by remnants of the German Army at the end of World War II: old men and children. It is very hard to take Richard III seriously if the opposing army looks like the Dungeons and Dragons club. The measure of any good production of Shakespeare is its spear-carriers; they need to look like linebackers. No matter how good your Hamlet is, the production will fail if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot match wits, Horatio cannot exude decent loyalty, and Laeretes’ pain is not real. Watch to see if there are any skips on the vinyl of an otherwise pristine effort when an actor decides a role is too small. Everyone speaks for a reason in Shakespeare. Popilius Lena has only two lines in Caesar, and they set off the tensest sequence in the play.
Of all this comes down to how the directors of these shows handle their affairs. Ultimately, Shakespeare as a medium belongs to the figure bellowing out from the third row. More than one company in town has learned that relying on one actor to carry you across the finish line makes for a cult of personality, and not a vibrant production. Directors are the ones who construct story, provide concept and handle the casting. If all of the three elements covered are in place, there is only one remaining question: does this particular production speak to its audience’s lives? It will not only be a measure of the timelessness of the texts but also the ability of its executors to communicate the astounding now that lurks within these four hundred year old documents.
Into the breach!
Dead Huey Long, Emma Boyce, Elizabeth Davas, Ian Hoch, Lindsay Mack, Anna Gaca, Jason Raymond, Lee Matalone, Phil Yiannopoulos, Joe Shriner, Chris Staudinger, Chef Anthony Scanio, Tierney Monaghan, Stacy Coco, Rob Ingraham,
Cheryl Castjohn, Sam Nelson
Brandon Roberts, Rachel June, Daniel Paschall
Michael Weber, B.A.
B. E. Mintz
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