Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Marian, or the True Tale of Robin Hood

While visiting my parents in Bellingham, we picked up this sweet, raucous outdoor play: Marian retells the Robin Hood story from a differently-gendered perspective. It was great fun. The evening was perfect, quickly cooling as the sun went down (not quite in our eyes) until we were all wearing our fleece jackets. We sat on concrete stadium-style benches in Marine Heritage Park, a downtown park with a sizable homeless/loitering population that, I think, events like this hope to reclaim in some way, or, they hope to help renovate the park’s reputation. (It was fine.) The set was simple – the troupe lugged it there, up and down a hill, by hand – but perfect. As I’ve written before, the set shouldn’t carry a play’s weight; elaborate sets and costumes can be great, but the acting and the play itself should do the heavy lifting.

The story opens in the usual spot, at an archery contest with grumpy Prince John presiding and Robin Hood in disguise. Except that Robin Hood is Maid Marian, already in disguise: that’s right, Marian is Robin Hood, yielding lots of costume/disguise changes and two-people-never-seen-in-the-same-place stuff. Marian/Robin should be our protagonist, but that role is shared by a character named Alanna, a lady-in-waiting, who does a certain amount of audience-facing narration, and (slight spoiler) ends up joining the Merry Men early in the play. Few of the Merry Men, in fact, are men at all.

Gender-bending is a theme, and while gender-bending is as old as gender conceptions (and absolutely Shakespearean), there were some modern twists here, including one of the Merry Men requesting they/them pronouns and a change to the group’s title to ‘Merry Men and Much.’ (All well-received.) Also, the script was an interesting mix of an older, more formal diction and a modern slangy one, which I think is always a good tool: once you’ve primed your audience to expect that period-style talk, the modern usages become totally hilarious in context. There was lots of physical humor as well, and no small amount of romance. We the audience were in stitches.

This production was more amateur than some: a few actors stumbled over a few lines, and the sound system (or the microphones? during costume changes?) cut in and out a bit. No problem. As I’ve written more than once, I love to see passionately produced and talented amateur theatre, even if there are a few glitches as here; and there is no question that this play was produced with passion and talent. I had a fabulous time; I was super disappointed when the play ended and wanted it to go on for hours.

Thanks, Sylvia Center folks, for romance and hilarity and poignancy. Hooray for Marian and her Merry People.


Rating: 9 arrows for joy.

Houston Shakespeare Festival presents Comedy of Errors

I went home a few weeks ago to see a favorite Shakespeare play as part of a favorite annual event. I’ve been attending the Houston Shakespeare Festival and other events at Miller Outdoor Theatre since I was a small child, and I’ve always loved seeing productions of Shakespeare, as I’ve written about before.

This year’s comedy was Comedy of Errors, a classic. This is Shakespeare’s first comedy, or among his first, and one that establishes several Shakespearean tropes: mistaken identities, twins separated at birth, love triangles (squares, hexagons…). Two sets of twins have been separated, forming two sets of master-and-servant in two rival cities. One set has a father; one set lives near their mother, but doesn’t know it. When the four younger men come into the same setting, hilarity ensues: wives mistake the wrong twins for husbands; goods are delivered to one twin, payment denied by the other. Classically, though, it all comes out right in the end.

my feet before the show

It was lovely being back on the hill at Miller in Hermann Park, with a blanket and a date and a bottle of wine. The setting was so much of it: with people all around me of all ages, skin tones, and configurations; families and couples and groups of friends and solos; picnics ranging from boxes of fast-food fried chicken through elaborate cheese-and-charcuterie spreads. I have to say, though, that this was not the best production I’ve seen the Festival put on. The Houston Press‘s review saw a show in which sound issues had been resolved, but the show I saw had some difficulties; the sound effects to match the slapstick comedic blows were often off, and there were some issues with the actors’ microphones. This was a shame, because the acting was overall very good. A few actors fumbled a few lines, giving a more amateur impression than I remember from years past. But I’m patient with artists doing their best. I was both puzzled and amused by the “exit, pursued by a bear” joke, which comes from The Winter’s Tale and not Comedy of Errors at all, but okay. There were some modernizations, including references to sports and the use of a group of (I’m guessing) elementary school-aged kids. I’m not sure what this contributed, other than to give young actors a chance at the stage, which is a thing I generally support and so I’m amiable about it, but again, puzzling as an inclusion here.

The thing that troubled me most was use of a stereotyped AAVE by the characters played by black actors. A prologue-style opening involved a rap performed by two actors, one black and one white, offering two rather different effects; this made me uncomfortable from the first moments, and every time a black actor stepped onstage, it continued. I don’t see how this contributed to any positive feature of the play. It seems to me that Shakespeare can be produced in two ways. First, it can be done “straight,” that is, played as Shakespeare wrote it, by actors of all races and appearances, without their race making any difference to the characters they play. Or, it can be modernized, and race (along with other constructs, social issues, identity politics) can be brought into the play. But this was neither. This was like straight Shakespeare but with black bodies played for laughs. Ouch. I’m quite surprised that other reviewers didn’t mention this aspect, because it bothered me considerably.

When I can look past this problem with the play–which is on the one hand a huge problem, but on the other hand present for rather few minutes of the evening overall, because the black actors were few–I’m glad to see Shakespeare in the park, for free and produced for the love of it. My date found this, his first Shakespeare play, funny and accessible and fun, for which I’m grateful. I’m glad to see the crowds gather to take in a classic comedy, and I’m looking forward to seeing further endeavors. But this one, not the finest effort of a long-lived institution. I hope they do better next year.


Rating: 5 chains.

San Diego’s Old Globe presents Uncle Vanya

I previewed this one for you a few weeks ago.

Uncle Vanya started slow but ended up enjoyable. The first half, pre-intermission, dragged a little; Grammy felt so, and I did, and I heard similar murmurings about us. I suspect the conversational model for this production (see that earlier post) contributed to this impression, as it indeed took more audience effort to engage with the actors and their lines. And here’s a major flaw in the model: we had read quite a bit about the quietness and the recommendation to use the offered assistive listening devices. We were greeted upon arrival with further cautions on this point. But then we were told that the device was incompatible with hearing aids. Grammy was told that she could take her hearing aids out to use the device, but that her hearing aids should be sufficient. Well, they weren’t. She pretty much missed the first half of the production. We set her up during intermission, and she caught the second half fine, but we did some pretty serious debriefing after the show about what she’d missed, so that she really got the overall story only after the fact. I’m very disappointed in this aspect. It’s a shame that after such effort was taken, we were so poorly served. An innovative production can only be appreciated to the extent that it can be taken in.

That said, the second half picked up in pace (and I found it much funnier), and Grammy could hear, and I observed that the crowd around me perked up. It’s really a fine play by Chekhov, only it requires a little patience. The acting was fine! And the theatre is a lovely space: small and intimate and atmospheric. There is something so special about a theatre in the round. (I spent the first half watching an elderly gentleman in the front row across from me sleeping. He woke up but good in the second half.)

In a classic sense, the plot of the play involves several formations of unrequited love; the resentments of family, class, income, and caregiving roles; and general frustrations about the shape of human lives: family, and our relationship with the natural world. There is a fair amount of humor, but the chief feeling is one of distress. Also classic is the sense that if only these people would talk to each other outright, much would be resolved; but if this is an exasperating tendency of fiction plots, that’s only because it’s an exasperating tendency of people in real life. In the end, I felt sympathy for most of the characters, despite their flaws. I thought the acting was wonderful, especially Vanya, and the doctor, and Sonya, and I thought the production over all was a good one–setting, props, theatre management–and I, at least, had no trouble hearing. But again, the failure to serve my Grammy with the much-discussed assistive listening devices is a crying shame. I enjoyed it, but certainly have some criticisms. As always, I feel very lucky to take in fine theatre in a beautiful city and with great company. Thanks, Grammy.


Rating: 7 glasses of vodka, naturally.

upcoming: San Diego’s Old Globe presents Uncle Vanya

For today, a little background information on a review that is to come.

This week, I am so lucky to spend time with my Grammy in beautiful balmy southern California. Among other things, she takes me to such very fine events as this production. And clips all the relevant papers for me to peruse.

Grammy’s paperwork

This is such a different production that I wanted to do a post ahead of seeing the play, so that you get the same preview I did.

Much is being made of this play in advance. This translation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya by Richard Nelson, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky was commissioned by San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, where I still remember seeing Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona with my Grammy and Pop when I was ten. (Lucky, lucky girl.) Pevear and Volokhonsky are today’s “pre-eminent latter-day translators of Russian translators” (from The San Diego Union-Tribune, and I certainly don’t know any better). The theatre installed an extra row of seats for the first time, so an already intimate space becomes still more so. And, stepping away from ingrained theatre traditions, according to a letter sent to my grandmother when she purchased the tickets:

Over the past eight years of his work as both playwright and director, Richard Nelson has been exploring what’s been dubbed a ‘conversational theatre.’ In it, the characters speak, behave, and interact as truthfully as possible, and the audience listens in. The actors focus with uncommon rigor on each other, and invite the audience to lean into their interactions. They don’t artificially turn to the audience, they don’t ‘cheat out’ to make sure they are always seen at every moment, they don’t push their voices to be heard. They simply converse with each other as people do in real life, as if no one were watching. And the audience listens, closely, as if overhearing a conversation at the next table in a restaurant.

Therefore, we are urged to pick up assistive listening devices, which are being provided in larger-than-ever numbers, to help us hear this quiet conversation. Director Nelson points out that Uncle Vanya is “a family play… a very complicated family play, but it’s a family play” with the smallest cast of any of Chekhov’s works.

Some years ago, I saw a play at Houston’s Alley Theatre that referenced this one, but other than that, this is my first experience with Chekhov, though his reputation of course precedes him. I’m really excited to see Chekhov performed at all, but this unusual production sounds especially interesting. It’s always such a treat–to see my Grammy, to see the Pacific Ocean (off her balconies!), and to see fine theatre in such a lovely little space as the Old Globe. I mark my gratitude here, then, and I’ll get you a review of the play in weeks to come!

movie: Twelfth Night (1996)

Last week I reviewed the play. But wait, there’s more! My required reading for residency also included a viewing of the movie, from 1996, directed by Trevor Nunn and starring such names at Helena Bonham-Carter, Richard E. Grant, and Ben Kingsley.

For me, this film contributed to the play as printed on paper in its music, its scenery (shot in Cornwall) and, as always with Shakespearean productions, the lively acting. As much as I love the written word, Shakespeare’s comedy always benefits for me from performance–maybe this is definitive of theatre. Of course as well the lack of stage direction leaves the filling out of the drama to the producers (actors etc.). And Twelfth Night is somewhat special in including lyrics, which only improve when set to music. Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh as the twins, Viola/Cesario and Sebastian, make a perfect pair: I’m impressed at the likeness, and wonder if every production gets so lucky. (I so wish I could go to Houston for the Festival!)

While Shakespeare never feels particularly dated to me–I would not be the first to call him timeless–this movie somewhere feels more placed in time, despite being set in a different time than when it was filmed. Perhaps the pacing felt a little slow? I’ll always recommend seeing this stuff performed, though.


Rating: 7 scenes in a barn.

National Theatre Live presents War Horse (2014)

National Theatre Live does it again with War Horse, an encore edition of a performance from 2014. Husband and I saw this live-filmed play at a San Antonio movie theatre on December 8, 2016. I am again going to rave about a stellar story, staging and performance (as well as the NT Live delivery system which I love more and more).

war-horseThe story, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, involves a horse and a boy. The year is 1912. Boy’s drunken father unwisely obtains horse while drunk, and boy is tasked with training and racing horse til it becomes saleable at a profit. The boy, Albert, names his horse Joey, and the two become very close; then World War I breaks out, and drunken dad sells Joey to the army. This is an evil thing for him to do, although he does point out later that the army would eventually have come for the horse under anyway. Joey sees battle and various masters. Albert runs away to lie about his age and join the army, in search of his beloved and noble friend.

It is a striking story with all the right emotional notes. Elements of Black Beauty and White Fang, etc., but that’s really to say that the best animal stories contain the same elements, not that anyone is copying anyone else. I cried twice (no spoilers here); but I will say that in the proverbial sense, when librarians (etc.) talk about books and ask “does the dog die?” – here, the dog does not die. This is a figurative dog, y’all. Added to the classic beloved and noble animal story is war; youth and innocence; friendship, loyalty and reconciliation; even some family dynamics. Very thorough and appealing, theme-wise.

But how does this great story with so much potential make it to the stage? Well, the first problem is working with animals, right? So the smart folks at NT Live worked with a South African puppet company, and the results are mindblowing. The horses are life-size (at least), operated by three puppeteers. As a colt, Joey is worked by three people moving alongside; but as an adult, two puppeteers stand inside the body of the puppet, and one outside operates the head. No efforts are made to hide the puppeteers. The show opened with a few lines of monologue and a song while colt-Joey explores the stage, as (I interpret) the audience gets a chance to get used to this set-up. In these moments, I concentrated on seeing the horse and not his three operators; but I quickly turned to watching the operators themselves, because what an interesting job! Immediately, this choice became a non-issue: the horses were astonishingly lifelike. They articulate complexly: every joint of the legs, the full curve of the neck, tail and ears, accompanied by the snorts and breathing provided by the puppeteer actors, as well as full-body shivers or heaving breaths – all of this absolutely brought a convincing, living horse to the stage. The actors who occasionally appear to the eye nearby (they’re there all along, but only occasionally did they appear to me, so absorbed was I in the horse himself) only add to the impression of artistry.

On top of the complicated and inspired puppetry, the company used lighting, projection and sound effects to bring a whole world to an extremely simple stage design. As we’ve seen before most notably in A View From the Bridge, the settings and props were minimal, but very effective. I won’t say too much about this part. But I think it’s fascinating how very much can be done with so little, with the not insignificant contribution of lighting effects; and here the light & sound helped to emphasize another thread of the plot, in a neat trick that I’ll leave for your viewing pleasure, because you’ll want to rush out and find this performance near you.

Of course the acting was superb, blah blah… one expects that from National Theatre Live, and they absolutely meet expectations. I’ve said it before, but the beauty is that this unique format – the live-filmed stage play on a movie theatre screen – really takes advantage of the best of both worlds. I get to see some of the world’s finest actors close-up, more cheaply than flying to London, with a pack of peanut butter M&Ms I snuck into the theatre. This is certainly one of the finest NT Live plays I’ve gotten to see, and I feel so lucky.

I don’t think the cinematography necessarily did as much as in some shows I’ve seen – fewer close-ups than I remember, that sort of thing – or maybe it just disappeared in the richness of the whole experience. This is certainly not a weakness. The shots varied and moved with the action, and it was all perfectly effective. I’m not sure I can think of a way to improve upon this performance and the way it was delivered to me in central Texas.

Perhaps the best part of all of this for me was that Husband really enjoyed it, too. Frankly I was a little worried he’d find it slow; but the emotional impact of the story, and the wild achievements of the creativity of staging & the puppets themselves, impressed him as they did me. There you go, folks, the highest praise: pleases all audiences.

I always recommend NT Live highly. This might just be the best I’ve seen (I don’t know, who can choose, don’t miss A View From the Bridge or Jane Eyre either). It’s playing in a number of theatres; please do yourself a favor and see if you can find a showing. Enjoy.


Rating: 10 collars.

Globe On Screen presents The Merchant of Venice (2016)

I went to see Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice recently, as part of the Globe On Screen series (similar to NT Live, a live recording of a stage play in London).

merchant-of-venice

I don’t think it’s terribly arguable that this is Shakespeare’s most anti-Semitic play: it centers around Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who agrees to make a loan with “a pound of flesh” as the collateral. He then insists on taking his pound of flesh, even when the principal is offered back to him by the borrower’s friends. A court case ensues in which he is defeated and forced to surrender his wealth and convert to Christianity. This, it is implied, is a just ending. The other side of the plot involves a courtship that ends in (classic Shakespeare) a double wedding and a happily-ever-after for two playful couples. Oh, and a third couple: Shylock’s daughter elopes & converts herself to marry a Christian. Oh happy day.

It is a very fine play, with perfectly pitched wit and humor as well as a few memorable dramatic scenes, perhaps most famously Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. And it was beautifully performed, of course, by the Globe’s professional team. And yet… it’s hard to watch the nastiness that is inherent to the play itself. (There is some casual racism, in addition to the anti-Semitism, when the heiress expresses dismay at a suitor’s dark skin, and hopes for no more “of his complexion.”) As is so often the case with Shakespeare–himself a shadowy historical character, if you’ll excuse the pun–we wonder now what exactly he meant: arguments have been made that this play actually intends to draw attention to anti-Semitism so as to work against it. I think of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I read as sneakily feminist rather than the opposite. But The Merchant of Venice feels pretty hateful to me.

As my parents and I recognized, this production highlighted the religious conflict, especially through the physical performance of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who speaks volumes with her facial expressions; and especially-especially in the final scene. Shakespeare’s text finishes with the lovers’ lighthearted, celebratory lines. But this stage production followed those lines with a painful scene in which Shylock is baptized while his daughter wails and mourns. It made me physically uncomfortable. Finishing on this note, rather than kissy-kissy, drives home the play’s more sober points.

So was Shakespeare merely using the material he knew, speaking in the slurs of his time? Was he a Jew-hater with an ax to grind? Or was he slyly hoping to point out the hypocrisies of anti-Semitism? Shylock is indeed an abused underdog: he lists the crimes committed against him, says he wishes only for fair treatment, points out that charging interest on loans is how he makes a living, and isn’t it his right? In these points he is sympathetic (in the sense that the reader/viewer naturally sympathizes with him). When Antonio defaults on the loan, his insistence on the pound of flesh is increasingly vindictive and unreasonable, especially when the principal loaned is offered to him again, then doubled. I remain unclear on how exactly the default occurs: were they just late getting the money back to him? Anyway. Shylock is less and less a likeable character as he rages on, demanding blood–although he does have a point about what the legal system owes him, and likewise, that he is only handing out the kind of treatment he’s received in the past.

If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.

Still. Nobody likes him when he waves his knife around.

But then, upon legal defeat, the forced conversion really rankles with me. I was left unsettled by the whole business. The romance is nice, and the comic disguise-and-other-capers business between the lovers is as great as Shakespeare always is when it comes to that stuff. But I can’t sit right with the treatment of the Shylock character. How are we supposed to work with this kind of material today?

I don’t have the answer to that. I give this performance a good rating: it is a good play, well-produced. But it didn’t leave me sighing with pleasure.


Rating: 8 uncomfortable moments.
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