Thursday, June 30, 2016

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016: Great Expectations

Left to right: Nemuna Ceesay, Benjamin Bonenfant. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The works of Charles Dickens are classic melodramas, full of unlikely situations, emotions running high, and characters writ larger than life. It’s surprising, then, that stage adaptations aren’t more common. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s premiere adaptation of Great Expectations, directed by co-adapter Penny Metropulous, does the work – and Dickens – justice with strong themes and a stellar cast.

In keeping with Dickens’ novel, the adaptation of Great Expectations features extraordinary twists of fate, such as sudden changes in status and reputation: The main character, Pip (Benjamin Bonenfant), transforms from abused orphan to aspiring gentleman thanks to an unlikely benefactor. Bonenfant accurately captures Pip’s character in the midst of this whirlwind, more mutable and prone to error than, say, Oliver Twist, but still possessing a heart and a capacity for change.

The other characters can be divided between realistic, sympathetic comrades to Pip and larger-than-life caricatures. Among the former is Nemuna Ceesay’s Estella, who, although she claims her sole mission in life is to break men’s hearts, acts with a cold sympathy. Ceesay’s performance demonstrates to the audience both the repercussions of Pip’s elevation into the upper class and the integrity required to continue with her life choices, even when she knows they won’t make her happy. Herbert Pocket (Dylan Paul), as well, is a relatively grounded character, whose willingness to remain by Pip’s side throughout the play’s tribulations is nothing less than heartwarming.

In the latter camp lie characters like Pip’s abusive sister Mrs. Joe (Amy Newman), his pompous great-uncle Pumblechook (Brent Hinkley), and church clerk/aspiring actor Mr. Wopsle (Cristofer Jean). Rather than being well developed themselves, these characters9 support the characterization of Pip: They possess opinions solely to go against those of Pip’s, and, by association, the audience’s. That said, it takes significant comic talent to make these characters funny instead of enraging, and all three of the actors pull it off.

There are two people who have a hard time fitting into either category: the escaped convict Magwitch (Derrick Lee Weeden) and Miss Havisham (Judith-Marie Bergan), one of literature’s most famous widows. Dickens’ supporting characters are typically stereotypes; however, Weeden plays a nuanced Magwitch, exuding a feeling of danger and unpredictability even as he treats Pip kindly. Bergan’s Havisham, too, is ever-changing, moving from genuinely friendly to Pip one second to crazed sorrow the next. Her acting is at once scary, intricate, and fascinating.

Similar to works by director Mary Zimmerman (Treasure Island, The White Snake), which use minimal sets to better switch between multiple scenes, set designer Collette Pollard created a relatively featureless stage with dark colors to suit the wide variety of locations present in the play. The set doesn’t make any grand statements, but its use of space and pattern creates a vague air of tension and peril. Small candles scattered over the back wall allude to the mourning that has pervaded Pip’s life, as well as the light of hope that suddenly appears in front of him.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s adaptation of Great Expectations is an ideal form for experiencing Dickens. Dickens has developed a reputation for being long and complicated, yet the stage adaptation is easy to follow despite its numerous twists and turns. For people unaccustomed to reading Victorian literature, it serves as a great introduction to a legendary author.

Part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016 season.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016: The Winter's Tale

Left to right: Eric Steinberg, Amy Kim Waschke. Photo courtesy Dale Robinette and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The Winter’s Tale is one of Shakespeare’s stranger plays, most notable for its bear-themed stage direction and 16-year time lapse between acts 3 and 4, which marks the pivot from psychological drama into pastoral romance. Director Desdemona Chiang interprets the play through the lens of the Asian-American cultural experience, intensifying the tonal and aesthetic divide felt between the two locations in which the play takes place. By emphasizing this unique split between tragedy and comedy, the production differentiates itself from the rest of Shakespeare’s comedies.

The first part of the play is set in Sicilia, here, the courts of feudal China. To illustrate the grimness and fear that pervades acts one through three, the characters and set are dressed in dark greys; only a few streaks of bright yellow break the solemnity. Interestingly, characters’ dress is based on location rather than national heritage – visiting king Polixenes (James Ryen) wears a muted tunic while residing in Sicilia, yet a more colorful outfit back home in Bohemia.

Sicilian king Leontes (Eric Steinberg) and his queen Hermione (Amy Kim Waschke) are the central characters in the first part of The Winter’s Tale. Steinberg’s Leontes conducts himself with cold, regal bearing, and his descent into paranoia doesn’t seem unexpected – indeed, from the beginning there is a threatening air about his performance that says that something is about to happen. Waschke’s Hermione, so honest and sympathetic that the audience can’t help but take her side, and her lady Paulina (Miriam A. Laube), the passionate, principled voice of reason, may be unable to change his mind, but their performances certainly convince the audience. Also of note is child actor Naomi Nelson as heir to the throne Mamillius – her performance is sweet without being saccharine.

The play is cut roughly in half by the stage direction in which the character Antigonus “exits, pursued by a bear.” I mention this not only because many audience members anticipate this scene, but also because it is easy to fall into a trap and make the bear goofy or melodramatic. Chiang takes a risk in going for a spectacular rendition of the scene, yet it accomplishes what it needs to – it’s scary and unexpected instead of ridiculous. The transition into the land of Bohemia afterward is like a breath of fresh air.

In contrast to the sterile, minimalist sets and dress of Sicilia, Bohemia is filled with bright colors and complex costumes. Loosely based on the American West during the 19th century, the second part of OSF’s The Winter’s Tale conveys the peace and harmony espoused in pastoral art without being corny. The characters are so inviting, they create nostalgia for a time and place that never existed.

One of the standout performers in the second half is Stephen Michael Spencer as pickpocket and rogue Autolycus. Spencer has a gift for physical comedy, whether it’s snagging coin bags from someone’s purse or acrobatically concealing himself behind a set piece. His appearance onstage – and it occurs frequently – is practically a guaranteed laugh.

As The Winter’s Tale ends famously with a merging of the tragic and the comic, the dramatic and the pastoral, Desdemona Chiang’s OSF production adds an additional layer by merging East and West. Anyone from a theatre veteran to someone just becoming acquainted with the stage could gain insight into one of Shakespeare’s most complex comedies.

Part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016 season.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016: Hamlet

Left to right: Jennie Greenberry, Danforth Comins. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a masterpiece filled with ambiguity. Why does the titular character take so long to exact his plan of revenge? How real is the ghost of the old king? What is the source of Ophelia’s madness, and what goes through Hamlet’s mind as the events of the play unfold? Though many productions are comfortable with merely asking these questions, this season’s raw, powerful production of Hamlet dares to provide answers.

In an unusual portrayal, Danforth Comins’ Hamlet is practical and focused. He sees his plan to kill Claudius as renewed purpose for his life, and thus most of Hamlet’s actions and dialogue in the first act become small parts of his grander scheme. In this production, it could be said that Hamlet’s fatal flaw, instead of obsession with his uncle, is overconfidence in his plotting; he shows genuine remorse when his scheme starts claiming innocent lives in the second half of the play. This is a fresh and interesting decision on the part of Comins and director Lisa Peterson; many productions portray Hamlet as becoming icy and uncaring the moment he decides to assassinate Claudius.

Other standout characters include Horatio (Christiana Clark) and Polonius (Derrick Lee Weeden). Clark is sincere and emotional without betraying Horatio’s stoic background, and provides a breath of air amidst the unfolding tragedy. In the nest of vipers that is the Danish court, Clark’s Horatio says what she means without ulterior motive. Weeden’s portrayal of Polonius is sympathetic, if a bit na├»ve; he struggles to maintain the delicacies of his life, but he doesn’t condescend and is a truly caring father. Even Hamlet recognizes this, despite tormenting him throughout the first half; the look of surprise on his face as the dead Polonius falls out of the curtain is a defining moment of his character, and we as the audience understand why.

The sets and costumes (Laura Jellinek and David C. Woolard, respectively) are some of the most profound and meaningful technical theatre I have seen. The promotional materials for the play describe doom metal as a major theme; Hamlet holds a guitar menacingly on the front of the playbill. Yet although the heavy metal is always prevalent on stage (the available furniture is only a few clusters of speakers), the guitars start up solely when peering into the mind of Hamlet, with the exception of Ophelia in the depths of her madness. Allowing only Hamlet the use of the play’s flashiest theme focuses the play internally, making it less about Danish political intrigue and more about the prince’s personal disintegration.

 The use of color in the production deserves special attention. At the beginning of the play, all the characters dress in blacks, whites, and grays, bringing to mind the formality of the aristocracy. As the court sinks into chaos, insanity, and death, red – in the form of blood, light, and props – slowly engulfs the entire stage. Of note are the red highlights present in Ophelia’s hair from the very beginning of the play, subtly hinting at both the collapse of the royal family and her personal decline. The traveling players, however, blast the stage with bright colors to signify their detachment from the rest of the cast.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 production of Hamlet lives up to expectations set by their stellar 2010 version, yet takes significantly more risks. The outlandish doom metal theme could have been overused; the interpretations of the characters could have been misconstrued. But instead, the 2016 production of Hamlet becomes one of the greatest, most outstanding productions that OSF has staged in recent memory.

Part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016 season.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016: The Wiz

Left to Right: Ashley D. Kelley, J. Cameron Barnett, Christiana Clark, Rodney Gardiner. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s adaptations of classic musicals are frequently highlights of the season. The shows go beyond just pleasing crowds; directors explore the context and meaning of each musical and use the Festival’s resources to bring their interpretation to life. OSF combines the glamour of classic musicals with an outstanding ensemble cast to create a fun, enchanting production of The Wiz, the musical that unites L. Frank Baum’s children’s book The Wizard of Oz with the African-American musical styles of the mid-1970s.

Any adaptation of The Wizard of Oz relies on the likeability of Dorothy, who in this production (through August 13) is played by Ashley D. Kelley. Kelley’s portrayal is everything one would expect from the character – a Dorothy not without her faults, but brave, kind, and principled. She serves as not only the protagonist, but also the foil to many of the goofier characters in the play, which makes her determination as funny as it is charming when compared to that of the weaker-willed characters.

Within Dorothy’s party, the standout character is the Cowardly Lion (Christiana Clark). Clark zeroes in on her character immediately – a coward who serves as comic relief, but honestly tries to improve – and goes 100% into her rendition. The Lion steals the show in almost every scene she’s in, and is also responsible for some of the funniest jokes in the show. That said, the Scarecrow (J. Cameron Barnett) and the Tinman (Rodney Gardiner) also put in great performances, and the four of them (including Dorothy) make a fun, lovable group.

Much like the original book, three witches appear throughout the story; however, the Good Witch of the North (Michele Mais), named Addaperle in this production, gets significantly more time onstage than in the source text. Addaperle is the most direct indication that The Wiz is a loving satire of The Wizard of Oz instead of a faithful adaptation, with a lot of metahumor and jokes about her disappointing magical power – Mais delivers the straight-faced performance required of her. Also notable is the Wicked Witch of the West, Evillene (Yvette Monique Clark), whose gleeful villainy and sheer power are as thrilling as they are terrifying.

One cannot write about this show without discussing Jonathan Barbour’s Wiz. Barbour’s charisma and musical performance in his introductory song, “So You Wanted To Meet The Wizard” make it one of the most memorable parts of the show, and he maintains high energy for the remainder of the play. His consistently high internal status is an unexpected twist on the famously insecure character; even when found out as a fraud, the Wiz continues to believe that he is significantly more powerful than everyone else. It’s an unusual interpretation that works well considering the show’s focus on confidence and belief in oneself.

Drawing from traditions of glitzier Broadway musicals, The Wiz discards any sense of modesty and goes completely over the top with its presentation. Lines of glamorous chorus dancers dressed in glittery lightning-bolt outfits become the tornado that whisks Dorothy to Oz; later, the same dancers wear suits of golden sequins to become the Yellow Brick Road. The costumes of Oz denizens are elaborate almost to the point of camp: the Tinman, for example, has a hat that looks like a can top and a Terminator-esque laser eye, and the Wiz’s costume in his first appearance defies description. The sheer audacity of these design choices is entertaining on its own, but the clothing is not without meaning; for example, costume designer Dede M. Ayite made the intelligent decision of dressing Dorothy in plain, regular clothes, accentuating the contrast between the girl from Kansas and the strange land she visits.

The Wiz at OSF is more of a conventional musical than some of the Festival’s previous work, like the “backstage” My Fair Lady or the gritty The Unfortunates. The most direct comparison would be to 2010’s She Loves Me, which also used a set and theme that were fairly standard. However, the production values, wonderful cast, and sheer heart put into this show make it an absolute must-see. If you’re looking for a night of pure entertainment, this show is difficult to top.

Part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016 season.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016: Twelfth Night

Left to right: Elijah Alexander, Sara Bruner. Photo courtesy Jenny Graham and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

I happened to see the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night on an early trip to the Festival in 2010. This year marked my first opportunity to see OSF produce a play I had seen here once before. Beyond the reframed setting of Twelfth Night, which shifted from a supersaturated Elizabethan era into the Golden Age of Hollywood, multiple adventurous changes in interpretation by the director and the actors demonstrate the versatility of Shakespeare’s language, as well as OSF’s capacity for experimentation.

This season’s setting is a clever choice, playing off Twelfth Night’s themes of music, comedy, and love in fresh ways. Olivia is a calculatingly dramatic film star, Duke Orsino her director, and the remainder of the cast mostly the various hangers-on who have been basking in the light of the Hollywood elite since the first studios were established. Besides supporting the text, these new roles allow for off-script antics – including, of course, the glamorous musical number at the end of the show – similar to those in OSF’s excellent 2012 rendition of Animal Crackers.

Along with the broader themes of the play, many of the individual characters develop in unexpected ways. Chief among these are Danforth Comins’ Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Rodney Gardiner’s Feste. While Shakespeare wrote the character Aguecheek as a gutless coward, Comins portrays him as a careless fop, never without a martini glass in hand, someone who isn't afraid of combat as much as he simply doesn't care for it. The humor in the script shines through with this variation, which allows Comins plenty of room to creatively interpret the part.

Gardiner brings the same nervous energy that made him an incredible Nathan Detroit in last year’s Guys and Dolls. He creates a version of Feste that – surprisingly for one of Shakespeare’s fools – actually cares what other people think about him. Rather than an untouchable fountain of one-liners, Gardiner’s Feste is an average Joe who happens to have a talent for entertaining (and annoying) people. His performance demonstrates the endless permutations to which Shakespeare’s language can be taken, and the actor employs of broad theatrical talent when performing it.

The rest of the ensemble also makes tremendous contributions to the work. Ted Deasy plays a stuffy, formal Malvolio who provides the most physical comedy out of the entire cast. Sara Bruner performs the roles of twins Viola and Sebastian with innocence and cheerful vigor. Elijah Alexander’s Orsino, adopting a German accent, assumes a high status over the rest of the cast – an interesting choice, considering the character is prone to be overcome by bursts of emotion. And Olivia, portrayed by Gina Daniels, hides her true intentions in as many ways as she has costume changes.

Christopher Acebo’s gray-tone set matches the color scheme of 1930’s Hollywood; against this background, lighting director Robert Wierzel plays bursts of red and blue as needed for the emotional needs of the scene. Beyond the spectacle one would anticipate from OSF, Twelfth Night also includes tasteful film effects thanks to Shawn Duan – included throughout the play, the movies evoke the magic that turn-of-the-century audiences encountered when they experienced film for the first time.

OSF’s 2016 production of Twelfth Night finds unique places to grow the text, but doesn’t stray so far from core themes to be unrecognizeable. The production is a symbol of the importance the Festival places on reimagining Shakespeare’s canon on both obvious and subtle levels. This capacity for change and the company's willingness to reinvent their voice each year, makes OSF a fresh experience season after season.

Part of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival 2016 season.