Review: “Twelfth Night” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

John P. McCarthy

When Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival leader Davis McCallum tapped Moritz von Stuelpnagel to direct “Twelfth Night,” doubtless he felt he was getting someone who could mine the play’s rich veins of humor. Von Stuelpnagel was fresh off helming a successful Broadway revival of “Present Laughter” starring Kevin Kline. (The fact that Noel Coward took the title of his play from a song in “Twelfth Night” had to augur well.) And in 2015 von Stuelpnagel directed “Hand to God”, the much-lauded comedy that used a hand puppet to skewer Christian fundamentalism.

But of course proof of the shrewdness of the hire can only be found in the resulting production. Fortunately, McCallum’s instincts – and whatever else contributed to the decision to recruit von Stuelpnagel – were spot on. This “Twelfth Night” is hilarious – a tasty, immensely satisfying pudding that captures the comedic essence of the play.

One way to characterize von Stuelpnagel’s directorial approach is to quote the jester Feste and declare he is “wise enough to play the fool.” That is, he’s smart enough to accentuate the humor and let Shakespeare’s proclamations about the nature of love and any darker undertones in the text take care of themselves. He tries to squeeze out nearly every drop of humor in “Twelfth Night”, yet with a light touch that suits both the material and the casual, bucolic setting – a tent overlooking the mighty Hudson River roughly sixty miles north of Broadway. The company appears extremely willing, and for the most part able, to follow his deft lead. What transpires is accessible and well-measured – ideal entertainment for a summer evening. 

The key to the show’s emphasis on the sweet rather than the bitter, on jocularity rather than cruelty or psychological complexity, lies in the depictions of Duke Orsino and Lady Olivia. Their musings on romance can often come off as tediously pompous. Here, however, these two powerful figures atop Illyria’s food chain are treated as comical, as capable of seeming ridiculous and triggering laughter as their lessers. When Orsino (David Ryan Smith) delivers his famous speech about music being the food of love near the beginning of Act I, he’s not listlessly mooning over Olivia (Krystel Lucas) nor fatuously pondering amour in the abstract. He’s petulant and impatient – an aristocratic stalker of sorts. He’s a royal celebrity energetically fixated on a fellow celebrity.

For her part, Olivia is just going through the motions of mourning her late brother. Wearing dark glasses and enormous straw hat, she’s a glamorous movie star or diva surrounded by an entourage of sycophantic personal assistants and embarrassingly crass, boozed-up relatives. Aloof behind her facade of fashion accessories, surgical enhancements, and luxurious amenities, she rejects Orsino’s overtures and is committed to remaining beyond the reach of all her admirers and fawning fans. Nevertheless, when she encounters someone she fancies, even Olivia is prone to silly and gauche behavior. The object of her desire is Viola (Kerry Warren), the shipwrecked twin who, dressed as a young man called Cesario, joins Orsino’s household and is sent to woo Olivia on his master’s behalf.

When it comes to matters of the heart, Olivia and Orsino are all-too-human, and therefore potentially risible. This insight allows von Stuelpnagel to avoid getting bogged down in the specifics of their respective yearnings or those of any character. Love and/or sexual attraction are pretexts for comedy first and foremost; the audience isn’t prompted to question or theorize about either phenomenon. It doesn’t matter why Olivia instantly falls in love with the cross-dressing Viola. (Or whether she and her twin brother Sebastian look anything alike.) Who cares if it seems far-fetched that Orsino would immediately agree to wed the pining Viola upon learning she was posing as a man? All that’s necessary to tee up the comedy is for them to believe they are in love. In addition to a modicum of knowledge about theatrical conventions and narrative devices, Von Stuelpnagel is banking on the probability that contemporary theatergoers will bring a less rigid view of sexuality and romance. Add our familiarity with narcissistic celebrity types and much of the explicative work is already done, thus clearing the way for mirth.

Although Orsino and Olivia trigger a much higher percentage of the laughter than in most versions of “Twelfth Night”, the escapades of the nominally secondary characters – Olivia’s witless suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Sean McNall), her debauched uncle Sir Toby Belch (Kurt Rhoads), and her housekeeper Maria (Mary Bacon) – are still the source of the bulk of the humor. McNall’s Andrew is a preppy nincompoop clad in pink Bermuda shorts, Top Siders and a tennis sweater. He’s a like a wannabe frat brother (the flailing love child of Barney Fife and Mickey Rooney) and McNall delivers a terrific performance. As the hard-partying Toby, Rhoads sports a WWI-era uniform, a huge belly, and liquor-enflamed cheeks. In his twentieth HVSF campaign, Rhoads adeptly executes a sidesplitting urination gag. And during the night’s funniest sequence, Toby and Andrew employ some fake bushes and a garden hose while listening to Malvolio read the bogus love letter from Olivia that Maria has penned.

Olivia’s fool Feste (Michael Broadhurst) offers comedic counterpoint to the broad physical antics of this threesome. Broadhurst brings a millennial hipster’s calm to Feste’s word games, demonstrating that this jester is a different kind of disrupter than the drunken Toby or scheming Maria. Sly and methodical, he operates on a seemingly harmless intellectual plane, though he’s not above a clownish outburst or some cruel mimicry. Broadhurst doesn’t sound too confident (or melodious) when singing Feste’s songs but is more at ease when strumming an electric guitar and several other instruments.

The production appears to lack a unifying theme beyond the notion that comedy is king. That’s a virtue except insofar as it impacts the visual style, which can be described as ad hoc. The costuming is somewhat random. It runs the gamut from Malvolio’s Edwardian tailcoat to Toby’s doughboy uniform to a priest dressed as a 1960’s flower child to Olivia’s stylishly frilly dresses to plainer outfits that can be seen on the street today. Save for an underused, roughly twelve-foot long elevated wooden ramp that connects the Boscobel House lawn to the main performance space under the tent, there’s virtually no scenery or set pieces; and few props are utilized. Granted, the stunning natural backdrop provided by the Adirondacks makes trying to conjure Illyria less of a priority. And as a rule, a spare aesthetic is less objectionable than a cluttered stage. But there’s something skimpy about the design work in general, and when compared to other HVSF productions.

This places more emphasis on the blocking, movement, language and acting. Von Stuelpnagel’s staging of the second half of the play is admirably fluid, with the action unfolding rapidly and clearly. Music by three fine musicians (on violin, viola and clarinet) who are also members of the acting ensemble helps create the free-flowing vibe. Nevertheless, there are incidental passages that feel stilted and slightly undercooked, particularly pre-intermission. Either these scenes didn’t receive as much attention during rehearsals or they stubbornly resist the comedic imperative and can’t be made funny. It should be noted that most of these less lively scenes feature younger actors from HVSF’s Conservatory Company.

One major character does disappoint. Typically the source of much levity, Olivia’s steward Malvolio (Stephen Paul Johnson) feels like a true outlier in this production. Comparatively restrained and never expansive, it’s almost as though he’s been imported from another “Twelfth Night”. His officiousness doesn’t seem to warrant the mocking and humiliation he receives. To be sure, every Malvolio has to vie with Toby and Andrew for laughs; and no Malvolio can ever fully share in the joke, since he is so much the butt of the joke. There’s never a happy ending for him, no reversal of the reversal he suffers. But this Malvioli is truly eclipsed and muted.

One reason he seems out of step is that his preening self-regard doesn’t appear so outrageous or irksome when his boss (and would-be lover) is such a diva herself. Competition for laughs from unexpected corners – Orsino and Olivia – makes the role appear less amusing by comparison. Still, there’s something more in this “Twelfth Night” that amplifies Malvolio’s isolation and pushes him further outside of society, beyond the redemptive power of laughter. Indeed, Malvolio’s cardinal sin, and the root of his downfall, is his inability to laugh at himself. Not only does he take himself too seriously, he lacks the self-awareness to know when he’s being ridiculous. Even Andrew is able to laugh at himself and cop to the extent of his folly, albeit without fully comprehending how or why he appears so ludicrous and pathetic.

So here’s a message to be gleaned from this “Twelfth Night”. Namely, we are doomed if we cannot laugh at ourselves. Kudos to Moritz von Stuelpnagel and company for celebrating the balm that laughter can be and the positive effect that comedy can have. Sometimes you need to “vent thy folly”.  And sometimes watching other people do so is just the ticket.

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Twelfth Night” runs through August 26, 2017 at Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, NY. Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson

Review: 'The Taming of the Shrew' by Connecticut Free Shakespeare

Nancy Sasso Janis

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist
  • Connecticut Critics Circle

By the end of the play Petruchio and Kate have established their own unique road map to find their way--one that is equal in love and humor, equal in strength and equal in respect.” - Ellen Lieberman, the director of Connecticut Free Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’

Stratford, CT - I was excited to return to the grounds of the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in my hometown of Stratford CT. It didn't matter that I had to bring my lawn chair and bug spray or even that no one was allowed into the once beautiful theater that I remembered from my visits when I was just a teenaged Shakespeare lover. I could not miss a chance to see a production of a play by William Shakespeare on the historic grounds with a lovely view of Long Island Sound and I claimed a spot on the lawn with a large crowd for opening night of 'The Taming of the Shrew' performed by Connecticut Free Shakespeare. The free performances that run through August 21 are part of Festival! Stratford and the public is encouraged to come early and bring a picnic to enjoy before the comedy begins at 8pm.

‘The Taming of the Shrew’ is one of the Bard's comedies that is played very broadly by this troupe of actors and crew, most of whom are Equity members or candidates. This production is labeled a “retelling” of Shakespeare’s play and it was adapted and directed by Stamford CT native Ellen Lieberman. In her notes, she writes that she has resisted producing this piece for the past 16 years because it is “problematic, to say the least.” Over a year ago and with much preliminary study, Ms. Lieberman approached the script as a contemporary feminist and wanted Petruchio and Kate to “negotiate their relationship-still within the broad confines of the familiar battle.” 

The show began even before the curtain speech was over when a young man, perhaps inebriated, crashed the stage loudly singing "Happy," although he was wearing a microphone. The audience knew something was up when the stage managers were called onstage and invited him to put on a costume and sit stage left to watch the performance. Christopher Sly (Western CT State University grad Myles Tripp) did just that and often led the applause and broke into the action. The ensemble, that included WestConn alum James Goggin, sat on both sides of the stage as a kind of Greek Chorus until their entrances. Some provided a wide variety of sound effects that included a slide whistle, train whistle, tambourine, bird tweets and more.

For the most part, the sounds enhanced the slapstick comedy that was used throughout; for the purist, it might have been a little too Laurel and Hardy. It probably made the plot easier to follow for everyone in the audience, which is part of CFS’ mission statement, and did not overshadow the excellent performances of the diverse cast. While the costumes designed by Valarie Henry were Elizabethan, there were some hints of modern times, especially in the music sprinkled throughout. 

Craig Anthony Bannister returned to CFS to play the patriarch Baptista regally, and Karina Foy appeared for her sixth summer as the shrewish Katherina, the Kate who must be tamed by Petruchio, played well by Ian Eaton in his 14th summer with CFS. Marca Leigh played the lovely sister of Kate, Bianca, in pigtails. 

Joel Oramas made his CFS debut as the love struck Lucentio, Ryan Halsaver made his CFS debut as Hortensio, and Andrew Bryce made a very funny CFS debut as Old Gremio in green velvet. Mark Friedlander played the role of the fool Grumio, Uma Incrocci cross dressed to play Tranio well and Company Manager Alejandro Lopez was great in the role of Biondello. Every member of the ensemble served as understudies for a principal role, some pre- and some post-intermission. Speaking of intermission, it was deemed to be a “living intermission” that included singing, dancing with audience members, and the collection of free-will donations in buckets. There was also a list of high school students serving as technical interns. 

This season of Connecticut Free Shakespeare is dedicated to coworker Leroy Walton, who passed away in April at the age of 22. 
The sound for an outdoor venue was excellent and the lighting was good overall and at times spectacular, especially when the trees behind and above the stage were illuminated. If you go, bring picnics, blankets and/or lawn chairs. The shows are cancelled if it is raining; call 203 232-8455 for updates. 

Review: “Macbeth” at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival

John P. McCarthy

  • OnStage NY/CT Critic

Garrison, NY – Shakespeare was certainly familiar with single-sex casts. Men and teenage boys played every part on Elizabethan stages up until 1660. Nowadays, all-female casts are a fairly common way directors try to scramble the dynamics and boost the relevance of his plays. Phyllidia Lloyd’s all-female production of “Taming of the Shrew,” currently at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, is a fascinating example and a must-see for numerous reasons, not least being the chance to watch the great Janet McTeer limn Petruchio.

When “Macbeth” opened last Friday night at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, it was remarkable how much the stormy atmosphere and dark incantations of the first scene contrasted with the majestically balmy weather and the giddy mood of audience members, most of whom were picnicking on Boscobel House’s beautiful lawns minutes before entering the tented performance space. Still, it wasn’t necessary to douse one’s imagination in Rose to see beyond the actual meteorological conditions and serenely pastoral setting and conclude that the bluffs overlooking the mighty Hudson were ideal stand-ins for the Scottish highlands. 

As for acclimating to the fact that an all-female cast performs the tragedy, encountering the witches at the outset is helpful. No, the problematic feature of this production isn’t the single-sex cast or the climate, topography or relaxed vibe of the venue. It’s the decision to mount the play using only a three-person ensemble. It’s the number of actors, not their gender--and definitely not the abilities of Maria-Christina Oliveras, Nance Williamson, and Stacey Yen--that holds this “Macbeth” back. 

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

The underlying concept is traceable to the idea of a female chorus, which is partly the role served by the three witches, “the wayward sisters”. In her Director’s Note, Lee Sunday Evans writes, “Women are often outside the cycle of violence.” While “capable of violence” they “are more often witnesses to it” because they are less likely to be in positions of power. They tend to be the victims of violence or the ones left behind to deal with its aftermath and therefore in a position to observe and comment on events. 

Setting aside the validity of this proposition, hinging a production of the Scottish play on it seems somewhat counterintuitive. No doubt the witches are outsiders, but they are more than mere spectators, wrinkled chorines; they are catalysts of the action via their prophecies and encounters with Macbeth. Even more strikingly, the character of Lady Macbeth belies the notion that women are typically bystanders and rarely authors of violence. 

Evans might argue that “Macbeth” offers exceptions that prove the rule and thus lends itself to unisex casting. If so, her further claim that women gain a special understanding by primarily functioning as witness and chronicler is crucial. In fact, it’s the key to deciding whether her version works. According to her hypothesis, the female perspective, one step removed from the action, gives women deeper insight into the “violent pursuit of power” than those who seek it, i.e., men. The point is not that gender distinctions are fluid or mutable and so don’t matter. Just the opposite. Having females embody male characters and utter their lines should yield unique wisdom about the mayhem that springs from unbridled ambition. 

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to determine whether or not that occurs. First off, it’s asking a lot since it should entail close readings of the text and detailed comparative analysis with other performances. Second, it’s not easy to embark on that interpretive process when, initially at least, you spend so much effort sussing out who is who and keeping up with the story. That’s not to say the company doesn’t do a decent job of guiding the audience. The ensemble members often, but not always, announce the name of the major character or utter a stage direction in unison—for example, “Enter Banquo.”  And remembering, or apprehending for the first time, the broad outlines of the plot doesn’t take too long. But comprehension isn’t the main casualty. 

The chief drawback with this production is that doesn’t engage or involve the audience as much as it ought due to its scale. By having three actresses perform all the parts, the play feels severely pared down, almost shrunken and borderline muddled. Already Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, this “Macbeth” seems rushed and condensed, like its only hitting the highlights of the play. This has the virtue of expediency—the running time, including intermission, is a mere two hours—but it makes it harder for audience members to become engrossed emotionally, to appreciate the poetry, and to interpret and analyze. In the production’s defense, the majority of the killing happens off-stage, so the seeming dearth of incident and spectacle is organic to a degree. Yet the staging doesn’t have enough energy or provide a big enough visceral impact to compensate for the rather shapeless narrative. 

Now the good news. All this pertains to the first half of the play more than to the second. In other words, it gets better and finishes strong. Prior to intermission, the blocking is mechanical and the movements are formalized; the actors appear confined and restricted, perhaps to illustrate the idea of woman as having no choice but to remain still and bear witness. But if they are stuck at one remove from the action, then the audience is pushed even further away. And at two removes, we feel shut out. Not until the second half when the emotional fallout of the Macbeth’s brutality is dramatized do things loosen up. The actors do their best work and the play demands your full attention. Oliveras gives the character of Macbeth a modern, colloquial sense of humor that works surprisingly well. Yen is aptly conniving and then believably deranged as Lady Macbeth. And Williamson communicates Macduff’s grief and anger with a graceful fierceness that is absolutely riveting.  

The production has other virtues. Since the performers often break into song, it highlights how integral singing and music are to “Macbeth”. And one can’t deny that the basic device gives certain themes and particular lines greater, often ironic meaning. “Unsex me here!”; Lady M’s interrogation of her husband’s manhood (“Are you a man?”); and the prophecy concerning Macbeth’s capitulation to one not “born of woman” are three examples.  

On the technical side, sound and lighting are relied upon to help delineate the action and designers Eric Southern and Stowe Nelson are up to the challenge. By placing six light strips on stools at the back of the tent, Southern accentuates the artificiality of the proceedings and the impression that everyone’s identity is being cross-examined, audience members included; and the use of a portable spot at the end of the play is quite brilliant. Nelson has created precise, evocative sound effects that sometimes serve as de facto scene changes and frequently denote essential comings and goings. 

In general, Evans and HVSF deserve credit for presenting an interpretation of the play that dares to be intimate and small-scale. It whets the appetite for seeing the tragedy performed by a full compliment of female actors. A bigger production would stand a better chance of achieving Evans’ goal of a “communal reckoning with the devastation and destruction in the story of Macbeth”. As they are deployed here, three actors, no matter how talented, cannot bring about the inter-subjective moment of clarification she seeks. 

To paraphrase Lady Macbeth, both the concept and the attempt to execute it are confounding. One unfortunate result is that it risks further marginalizing the female perspective by feeding the stereotype that women are best suited to bemoaning the costs of violence and are ill-equipped to take steps that might prevent violence from happening in the first place.  

Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s production of “Macbeth” runs through August 26, 2016 at Boscobel House and Gardens, 1601 Route 9D, Garrison, NY.

Review: As Yet, Still Untamed. ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ by the Queen’s Company.

Thomas Burns Scully

  • OnStage New York Critic
  • @ThomasDBS

When it comes to staging Shakespeare on the indie stage, the pressure nowadays seems to be to find a new take, a new way of telling the story that no one else has thought of. Some of them work, some of them don’t. Gender-bent casting is an old trick, but it is one that has worked in the past. It’s advantageous in New York, given the ratio of male to female actors in the city, and it can be used to make a point about the message of the chosen play. So when that play is ‘Taming of the Shrew’, and the cast is all-female, what message does that send? It’s not a play that really works in a modern context, given its sexist themes and out-dated philosophy. In a conventionally cast production it’s hard to make it work without extensive re-writes, so does an all-girl cast make it better, or worse? The answer is… well, neither.

The plot of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ is interesting, varied and available for your perusal online. If you’re not familiar with it, I don’t have time to baby you, go read a Wikipedia. The Queen’s Company are a company that specialize in all-female Shakespeare, and this production is right within their wheelhouse. Their take, at least in this instance, of women playing all the parts, is to have the women playing men play the men as men and not as women. The issue with that is that some of the women doing it are better than others. Amy Driesler (as Lucent and Curtis) is transformative in the men she plays, completely embodying a masculine identity. It’s like Cate Blanchett in ‘I’m Not There’, she’s that good. Others, however, just seem like women in trousers and fake beards doing deep voices. Elisabeth Preston (as Petruchio) falls under this banner. She’s not a bad actress, by any means, but because she’s working so hard at being a man, and so physically is not, you are constantly distracted by who she is rather than who she is pretending to be. She falls in to the uncanny valley for women playing men. Again, I stress, she’s obviously very talented, but what the overall effect here is distracting.

Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio), Tiffany Abercrombie (Katharina) Photo: Bob Pileggi

Elisabeth Preston (Petruchio), Tiffany Abercrombie (Katharina) Photo: Bob Pileggi

I know it’s going to sound like I’m getting down on this production a lot in this review. In reality I don’t hate it, and I admire the vision of the Queen’s Company, but this particular showing just has so many points of conflict I can’t not talk about them. I’ll take a moment here, then, to highlight the stuff that really does work, because this show has a few strokes of genius. The first is to have Bianca played by a blow-up doll. That’s just hilarious. All her lines are cut, bar a couple that are done for her by an off-stage Kelsey Arendt, and the actors make some great stage business out of her, including a rather daring tango. Katharina's final monologue, too, works brilliantly. Tiffany Abercrombie delivers it marvelously and it’s a wonderful distillation of everything the character has been through. Director Rebecca Paterson also makes use of lip-synced musical numbers, with actors pretending to croon away in order to further the emotional action. I can’t see purists loving these, but I found them engaging and entertaining. So there is stuff to like here. There’s just also so much that frustrated the bejesus out of me.

Nailing down exactly what I don’t like about this production is very hard. I suppose it’s an accumulation of muddled moments all failing because of the same banner. That banner is the idea that you can somehow fix the inherent sexism of Shakespeare’s text with any amount of staging conceits. You can’t. Apparently the only way to make this script less sexist is to cast Heath Ledger. They try and lampshade the play’s sexism with a brief skit at the start of the play. It’s doesn’t work. Women play all the male parts. It doesn’t work. They cast a blow-up doll to make a point about Bianca. It’s really funny, but it doesn’t work. This play is still sexist as fuck. It still is about a strong, independent women, who is psychologically tortured by a man who tricks her in to marrying her, has her will broken, and then stays married to him at the end of the play because… reasons. No matter how they frame it, and they try and frame it every which way but Wednesday, they can’t get away from the fact that play endorses, or at least excuses, rape culture. Which, when performed by a company of all women, sends a weird message. Interesting to think that the weakest thing about a production of Shakespeare is Shakespeare himself.

So the end result of this production is, essentially a big fat zero. It’s positive points can’t overrule the fact that it’s a play about abusing women for fun and profit that rules in the man’s favor. Even if that man is now a woman, that’s still fucked. So there’s no great reason to go and see this show, but then there’s no great reason not to either. The cast are pretty good, not all of them make great men, but some of them do, and the rest all act pretty good. Some laughs are had, but the message of the play, combined with the directorial vision come off as a muddled, sexist mess. So see it or don’t, I’m not fussed. It’s not bad, it’s just not good either.

The Queen’s Company’s production of ‘Taming of the Shrew’ ran at the Wild Project until May 1st. For more information about the Queen’s Company, visit their website (queenscompany.org), follow them on Facebook (As ‘The Queen’s Company) and on Twitter (@queenscompany).

This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded by TimeOut NY, the New York Times, BAFTA US and other smaller organizations too numerous to mention. His writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man. 

Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)

Review: 'Romeo & Juliet' at Hartford Stage

Stephanie C. Lyons-Keeley and Wayne J. Keeley

He Said:

What do you do to make an iconic Shakespeare play like Romeo & Juliet seem fresh and original? Especially one that we all hated to read in eighth grade, and then many of us like myself came to enjoy and appreciate in later years? One that has been parodied and satirized to hell in every medium from cartoons to video games? One that has been updated and modernized in plays and movies via what has come to be another classic, West Side Story?  And finally, one that has a classic cinematic treatment in Franco Zeffirelli’s screen adaptation of Romeo and Juliet?

The task of breathing new life into Romeo & Juliet seems comparable to Man of La Mancha’s “Impossible Dream.” Nevertheless, director Darko Tresnjak has succeeded in Hartford Stage’s new production of Romeo & Juliet. In order to determine why it succeeds, it is necessary to analyze the various components of the production.

First, the scenic design (by Tresnjak as well) hits you immediately upon entering the theatre: a wall of crypts from floor to light grid. Each one is engraved with an Italian name, lit with a candle and decorated with a glass vase and flowers. I touched the set wall after the show and it felt like a real engraved tombstone. After I was reprimanded by security for touching it (I’m such a child, just ask my wife), I was told that each name on the crypts was picked out of a Verona directory and engraved on the set panels. My first thought was where the heck is the balcony? The only other real set piece was a rectangular pit with gravel in it that crunched under the actors’ feet. Unlike the lavish sets in Zefirelli’s film or the set dressing pieces found in a typical Shakespearean work, this set cast a somber pall of death over the stage. And what about that gravel pit? Perhaps it was to be a metaphor for the saying that true love travels on a gravel road?

Another component of any successful production is good casting. In Zefirelli’s film version, Olivia Hussey, then 15, WAS Juliet. Tresnjak selected his cast wisely with the aid of Binder casting. Relative newcomer and handsome Yale grad Chris Ghaffari made the perfect love struck Romeo, mixing just the right blend of vulnerability, machismo and comic timing. Experienced actress Kaliswa Brewster set the perfect tone as the doe-eyed innocent yet fiercely independent Juliet. They had great chemistry together as the doomed couple. (Don’t worry, there was a great balcony scene as well as a morning after scene.)

Photos by T. Charles Erickson.   

Photos by T. Charles Erickson.

 

Kudos to the supporting cast as well. Veteran stage actor Charles Janasz was spot on as the well-intentioned but misguided Friar Laurence (the great actor Milo O’Shea played the role in Zeffirelli’s film). Celeste Ciulla, an oft-used Shakespearean actress in Tresnjak’s plays (this was their seventh collaboration) gave new life and breadth to the often one-note portrayal of Lady Capulet seen in other productions. Timothy D. Stickney was persuasive as Capulet, doting father yet strict and demanding disciplinarian. (As a father of a fourteen year-old girl, I could certainly relate to Stickney’s character mood swings.) Kandis Chappell was compelling as Juliet’s nurse, torn between her love for her charge and her loyalty to the house of Capulet. Wyatt Fenner as Mercutio and Jonathan Louis Dent as Tybalt were the perfect dueling hotheads that set the fate train in motion (nice fight sequences courtesy of fight choreographer Steve Rankin). Bill Christ as Prince Escalus and Chorus, Robert Hannon Davis as Montague, Cousin Capulet and Apothecary, Alex Hanna as Benvolio and Friar John, Stephen Mir as Balthasar, Julien Seredowych as Paris, and Callie Beaulieu as Lady Montague and Servant rounded out the talented cast. A final shout out must go to Raphael Massie who doubled as the illiterate Gregory and Peter and stole his scenes in both character portrayals.

I remember seeing Richard Dreyfuss and René Auberjonois in BAM Theater Co.’s Julius Caesar in 1978 (definitely dated myself with that one) – a production with period costumes and very little extrapolation and/or interpretation of the original dialogue and thinking this is how Shakespeare should be performed!  How far I’ve come. I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that the costumes in Hartford’s production consisted for the most part of muted contemporary dress (thanks to costume designer Ilona Somogyi). The only time we saw any color was when Juliet was first introduced. Otherwise, the muted colors and shades of black, white and gray dress, combined with the minimalist set and the light and dark lighting all enhanced the overall somber atmosphere. Indeed, the use of flashlights at certain points and well directed spots (thank you lighting designer Matthew Richards) creating grotesque shadows on the wall was quite effective in creating an eerie feel, particularly in the final scene.

And the touches of originality and creativity were brilliant (and I am quite certain that even Shakespeare would approve of them). Mercutio’s bicycle was a great touch. The dance at the Capulet’s coming out party for Juliet was an engaging scene, as was the coy playfulness of the balcony scene. And the hint of necrophilia by Paris at Juliet’s presumed deathbed was priceless (you’ll know what I mean when you see it).

Finally, just as the classic cinematic treatment of Romeo and Juliet had the great Zeffirelli at the helm, in order to succeed this play version needed a great director. Fortunately, it had one in veteran Shakespearean director and Artistic Director of the Hartford Stage, Darko Tresnjak. Mr. Tresnjak’s CV is longer than my arm and his award list is longer than my leg (I’m so jealous).

All of the above elements were nimbly crafted and exploited to the max. Put them all together and you have a great piece of exciting theatre – even if it is just another production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. This is a play for all ages and a great intro into the classics for the young culture vultures of tomorrow. Wherefore art thou Romeo? At the Hartford Stage, of course.

She Said:

Why, oh why do I do it to myself? And won’t I ever learn? Albert Einstein has been credited with saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” So I guess seeing Romeo & Juliet, in any version, and hoping for a Hollywood ending is futile at best – “A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool,” said the illustrious Shakespeare.

But that aside (and prepared with tissues in my pocket), Wayne and I had the grand opportunity to see the epic production at Hartford Stage – what has become one of my very favorite venues. There isn’t a bad seat in the house and it feels like a bit of Broadway smack in the middle of Connecticut. As we filed in to the packed house and saw the illuminated, empty stage designed to represent the tombs of those who’d passed before, I was grinning ear-to-ear. There was a center pit of white stones, its use later to be revealed. The set’s simplicity was contrasted by a gravity and an intensity – and it was fabulous. I later went on to read in the program that the inspiration for the set design and other aspects of the production was Italian neorealism, or the Golden Age of Italian Cinema – its emphasis on the artistic representation of Post-War Italy. Darko Tresnjak, artistic director of Hartford Stage, both directed Romeo & Juliet as well as created the scenic design.

I only have vague recollections of prior productions of this archetypal tale of the idealistic, star-crossed lovers and I was looking forward to Tresnjak’s interpretation. As soon as the actors took the stage, it became clear that there was to be a twist on the traditional – it wasn’t just set design that encapsulated neorealism, but also costumes, lighting, and other elements of the aesthetic. And what’s more, there was a beautiful diversity to the stellar cast who collectively represented multiple races and ethnicities.

The Capulet/Montague story needs no retelling here, so I instead will focus on the pieces of the gestalt. The acting was top-notch and what I would expect at Hartford Stage. Shakespeare is a beast to many, but each player in this dynamic troupe was spot-on – no word missed or line dropped. Chris Ghaffari as Romeo was the handsome heartthrob; funny, endearing, and he took the physicality of the role to a new level. Kaliswa Brewster as Juliet was flawless in her portrayal of the demure, love-struck protagonist. And the extraordinary, impassioned love between them? It was authentic to the point of goosebumps. 

Kandis Chappel (a veteran of the stage including Broadway and Off-Broadway) as Nurse was intermittently funny and warm as the doting caregiver to Juliet. Wyatt Fenner as the mercurial Mercutio delivered a staggering Queen Mab monologue, stealing scenes oftentimes, including when he rode his bicycle round and round in circles on stage. Jonathan Louis Dent as Tybalt had the perfect blend of macho aggression and family loyalty. Charles Janasz completely delivered as the well-meaning Friar Laurence.

With a cast of 23, it is too hard to mention each by name, but other notables include Alex Hanna as Benvolio, Romeo’s attentive and caring friend; Raphael Massie injected humor as Capulet servant Peter who also doubled as Gregory; and Julien Saredowych as the presumptuous Paris, suitor to Juliet. The young Juliet’s parents, Timothy D. Stickney as Capulet and Celeste Ciulla as Lady Capulet illustrated the fine line that exists between love and hate – even of one’s own progeny. Robert Hannon Davis as Montague and Callie Beaulieu as Lady Montague brought life to these somewhat muted characters.

For choreography of the incredible fight scenes, kudos to Steve Rankin assisted by Sean Chin. Matthew Richards, assisted by Jane Chan provided incredible lighting design, making wonderful use of flashlights to create large, looming and purposeful shadows. Other delightful elements included the vibrant dance sequence at the Capulet masquerade ball and the perfection of the moving set pieces, including the balcony and Romeo’s acrobatics in the classic scene.

The simple, garb – contemporary by Shakespearean standards yet seemingly undated, designed by Ilona Somogyi – injected a delightfully distinctive tone to Tresnjak’s production. It is clear that his vision ultimately was realized through his smooth incorporation of classic with modern. 

I continue to be impressed with the quality of the work at Hartford Stage and look very forward also to seeing more of Tresnjak’s stellar direction. This is one incredible and elegant piece of stage work – one I would highly recommend!

Romeo & Juliet continues through March 20, 2016 with a running time of 2 hours, 45 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. For more information about this production and about Hartford Stage, please visit www.hartfordstage.org. 

 

Review: 'Measure for Measure' at the Long Wharf Theatre

Tara Kennedy

I was delightfully surprised with Long Wharf Theater’s presentation of Measure for Measure. A Fiasco Theater creation, I should have known that I was in for a more innovative performance. Fiasco is the group responsible for the recent New York City minimalist production of Sondheim’s Into the Woods.

Photo:  T. Charles Erickson

For those – like me – who are unfamiliar with the central plot for Shakespeare’s lesser-known comedy, I’ll fill you in: the reigning Duke of Vienna (Andy Grotelueschen) decides to leave his post for a bit, and leaves his cousin, Angelo (Paul L. Coffey) in charge with Escalus (Jessie Austrian) continuing her post as second-in-command. Angelo is known for piety and righteousness and gets right down to business: he has Claudio (Noah Brody) arrested for fornication and sentenced to death. Claudio’s friend, Lucio (Ben Steinfeld), thinks that is a bit of a harsh punishment, and with Claudio’s encouragement, goes to see Claudio’s sister, Isabella (Emily Young), who has just taken the oath of chastity in a convent. Isabella agrees to see Angelo to plead for her brother’s life. She is successful in persuading Angelo, but for a price: her virginity, which she is unwilling to give to him. The Duke gets wind of this (he is of course still hanging around Vienna disguised as a monk), and counsels Isabella and Claudio. Thus ensues a number of plots to outwit Angelo involving multiple instances of mistaken identity – including a sexual bait-and-switch – which brings us all to a happy ending (it being a comedy and all).    

All of the actors play multiple roles and do so with brilliant effervescence and energy. There was not one flaw amongst the actors in this extremely well-acted performance. Mr. Steinfeld’s Lucio was filled with humor and fun; he often received a burst of applause following his scenes. Ms. Young’s Isabella was compelling and engaging; she had me hanging on her every word during her appeal for her brother’s life. 

Additional elements enhance the experience: a cappella musical numbers set the Elizabethan mood perfectly; full disclosure: I have a huge aversion for a cappella music and I truly enjoyed these musical interludes, which speaks volumes. The addition of cello and percussion between and during scenes was also a nice bonus. I am a big fan of minimalist sets. I feel the performers should be the focus; I find using fewer set pieces often leads to innovative and clever set design. Measure for Measure takes advantage of minimalist design with movable doors and a few interchangeable pieces. These were credibly trans-formative and inventive. 

Measure for Measure is an intriguingly fun, thoroughly enjoyable production with a pinch of bawdy and a dash of charm: a real treat for any theater lover! Running now through December 20th. 

Review: 'Twelfth Night' at Connecticut Repertory Theatre

Anthony J. Piccione

This past summer, I had the honor of attending all three shows in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nutmeg Summer Series on behalf of On Stage. I remember all three of those shows being some of the best examples of musical theatre that I’ve had the privilege of watching as a Connecticut theatergoer, and I couldn’t have asked for better show to review as a new writer at On Stage. However, this past week they were about to produce a very different kind of show: One of William Shakespeare’s most well-known comedies, Twelfth Night. I was very eager to see if it would meet the high expectations I had for CRT after seeing their previous work, as I attended the first performance of the show on Thursday night. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

L to R: Richard Ruiz (Sir Toby), Mark Blashford (Andrew Aguecheek), Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte (Malvolio), Curtis Longfellow (Fabian) in TWELFTH NIGHT by William Shakespeare, onstage in Connecticut Repertory Theatre’s Nafe Katter Theatre December 3-13, 2015

Produced in UConn’s Nate Katter Theatre, director Victor Maog does an excellent job at executing a vision for the show that is clearly designed to bring plenty of laughs for the audience during this holiday season. Throughout the production, the entire Black Box theater is put to fantastic use, as actors are seen entering from all over the place and with as high a level of enthusiasm that theatergoers could hope for. With excellent choreography from Marie Percy, many of the scenes also involve a great deal of movement that makes the show engaging from beginning to end.

The biggest highlight of the show, without a doubt, is the large cast of talented performers that all made the show a lively and entertaining experience. The cast consists of a strong mix of both student actors and more experienced performers, with all of them doing a respectable job in each of their respective roles. On the one hand, there is BFA actor Juliana Bearse and MFA actor Jeff Desisto, who turn in solid performance as Viola and Sebastian respectively. On the other hand, there is Richard Ruiz – known for his work with the Public Theater, Yale Repertory Theatre and Long Wharf Theater – who is highly delightful as Sir Toby Belch.

However, it was Andrew Ramcharan Guilarte – known for his work on popular TV shows such as Nurse Jackie and Law and Order: SVU – who ultimately steals the show. Guilarte’s energetic and hysterical performance as Malvolio proves to be the stand-out performance of the night, with two other notable highlights being the performances of Mark Blashford and Kevin Hilversum as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Feste respectively. Rounding out the rest of the cast is Olivia Benson, Arlene Bozich, Darren Lee Brown, Madison Coppola, Max Helfand, Curtis Longfellow, Chester Martin, Joon Ho Oh and Brian Sullivan.

Although it was mostly the actors that made this show such an enjoyable experience, there were also various technical elements that proved to be notable aspects of the production. The set of the production – designed by Brett Calvo – is one that is proves to be fitting for both the setting of the play and the holiday season, with even small Christmas trees on the sides of the set. This festive set is complimented nicely by sound effects designed by Abigail Golec, lighting effects designed by Justin Poruban, and most impressively, the diverse range of colorful costumes designed by Tuoxi Wu.

By the end of the night, I was blown away by the incredible level of dedication that this diverse and talented group of actors had put into the production, as well as that of the brilliant creative team. If you choose to attend only one show during this holiday season, and if you are someone who enjoys lots of laughs, I would certainly recommend going to see this show if you get the chance. This production shows exactly why it is, just as dramaturg Molly Hamilton put it, “one of Shakespeare’s most loved comedies” and it is bound to be a highly pleasurable experience for theatergoers everywhere.

Twelfth Night runs at the Connecticut Repertory Theatre from December 3rd-13th. For more information, please visit www.crt.uconn.edu.

Review : 'Henry V' at Shakespeare & Company

Angelica Potter

Many questions floated around my head as I walked into Shakespeare and Company’s Bernstein Theatre for the opening night performance of William Shakespeare’s Henry V (one of his more popular history plays). What direction is the play going to go? Will it be a period piece or more modern? Will it be long? And probably the question that was on almost everyone’s mind: will I understand it? I perused the program looking for answers and saw that the show only had eight actors: four men and four women. I was instantly curious as to how that was going to be pulled off and as the lights dimmed I hoped for the best. 

If you are unfamiliar with Henry V, it is the story of a prince turned king and his journey to repair his country, England, while also battling France. This intimate production puts an emphasis on the incredible language Shakespeare penned. From the moment the lights go up and the chorus begins the famous prologue: “O! for a Muse of fire…” the audience is drawn in and encouraged to use their imaginations throughout the coming journey.  

This production was masterfully and creatively directed by Jenna Ware. I can’t recall the last time I saw a ‘bare Bard’ production that was so excellently executed. A ‘bare Bard’ production is one that mimics how companies in Shakespeare’s day would have performed it: with minimal costumes and prop pieces in a bare space. This allows for the production to be performed in any space available because the actors bring everything with them.  The troupe certainly worked hard to create a play that flowed so easily from one scene to the next. The incredible cast includes Caroline Calkins, Jonathan Croy, Kelly Galvin, Jennie M. Jadow, Tom Jaegar, David Joseph, Sarah Jeanette Taylor and Ryan Winkles. All, but Ryan Winkles who played Henry, portrayed multiple characters each with their own mannerisms and way of speaking. By using various costumes pieces they would transform into different characters for each scene. Altogether, they were wonderful, however one stood out a little extra: David Joseph. This talented actor brought life, laughter and charisma to his characters and though each was different all were intriguing. He was certainly an audience favorite. 

Wrapping up in two hours plus the 15 minute intermission, this play was undoubtedly one of the best I have seen of late. Yet, I was left wondering why the swords, though sometimes drawn, were never used.  The battle scene was done in a slow motion mime-like way with each character fighting their invisible opponent. It was really interesting to watch, but I felt let down at the same time because I had been looking forward to some kind of sword play. 

If you find yourself in the Berkshires this summer I recommend heading over to Shakespeare and Company to enjoy the beauty of language mixed with a little bit of history and certainly some laughs. Henry V plays through August 23rd, 2015. Tickets and more information on the play (which I highly recommend reading before attending) can be found at www.shakespeare.org

For more of my reviews and theatrical thoughts check out: http://intheatresome1isalwayswatching.blogspot.com/

Review: Playing Hamlet Like No One Is Watching

Chris Peterson

The role of Hamlet is a study in internal conflict. The greatest dramatic role ever written struggles through the entire play with an internal battle going on in his head. Whether it's fear of action, struggling over his love for his mother, his distrust with Ophelia or his own self-doubt, the battle lines are drawn in every scene. 

The production currently running at the Bijou Theatre deals with this internal struggle and proposes the idea that devolving into madness doesn't happen in loud displays but rather in quiet intimacy. We are not an audience watching a play, because they're not performing one.

Instead they're showing the self-destruction of a Prince and we just happened to be in the room. 

Director Mat Young has chosen to present a more self-reflective version of Hamlet. It isn't as loud or intense as I've seen it done before. Mr. Young seems to want the torture and conflict to come from the inside and for the most part, stay there. And while this strategy certainly produces some of the most fleshed out performances of these roles I've seen, it also creates moments so subtle, they're barely readable from the second row. Mr. Young tries to draw us in to see and hear what is going on rather than projecting it. The result are scenes that should be more riveting, more palpable. Moments that should be downstage are often thrown up against the back wall, literally. 

The company of actors is a kaleidoscope of talents. Jeremy Funke presents a Hamlet who is rife with contradictions - reckless yet cautious, courteous yet uncivil, tender yet ferocious. Funke has a strong enough grasp on the character to play up these up with skill. What his performance lacks in fierceness, it makes up for in intelligence. 

The Bijou Theatre, Photo: Kevin McNair

The Bijou Theatre, Photo: Kevin McNair

 As Gertrude, Leigh Katz produces a woman who is shallow and emoting very little until it is too late. It's a thought provoking and engaging performance. John R. Smith makes some wise choices with Clauidius as well. 

Lynnette Victoria provides a strong performance as Ophelia but her moments were examples of where the turmoil is deep, that it was often hard to see and hear. 

Mr. Young admirably takes plenty of chances with this production, some of them work(Hamlet's father and the Lead Player concept), others do not(staging of Horatio). 

Julie Thaxter-Gourlay and Mr Young himself are fun to watch as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which only builds the anticipation to see them play those roles in the other production. 

As I mentioned above, thanks to Mr. Young and the talent of the cast, you can see the due diligence and study with these roles. So there are some excellent moments from the entire company, which includes Justine Weisinger, Kevin McGuire, Sam Mink, Chloe Parrington, Ryan Shea, Rob Pawlikowski and Kate Fletcher. 

But where there is excellence in the details, some gets lost in the entire scope of the production, for instance, the setting of the play. I am all for transposing Shakespeare to modern times, but there has to be a definitive reason why. Other than the use of guns and costuming, I couldn't find one here.

So while this production might not be stunning or grandiose, it is intriguing and will certainly spark debate among its audience.

Which is what Hamlet should do every time. 

Shakespeare Retro Reviews – Film: Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”

Jon Ciccarelli

Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company

With the recent news that Kenneth Branagh was going to be appearing with Judi Dench in a new production of “The Winter’s Tale” as Leontes and Paulina respectively in a year-long residency in the West End’s Garrick Theatre, it seems as though Branagh is finally returning to his roots as an old style actor-manager with his theater company branaghtheatre.com. After several years of directing high profile movies such as his recent “Cinderella” and “Marvel’s Thor” and appearing as an actor in a variety of television and film roles, Branagh is coming back to the foundation that made him famous in the first place.

A move that the theatre’s namesake, David Garrick, would approve of. Garrick, himself, was a both a lead actor and business man who held both artistic and business interests equally when working on any theatrical production. He decided to take his own destiny in his hands and thought outside the box never listening to what actors “ought” to do. One of those outside the box ideas was that he essentially created outdoor Shakespeare theater by holding the first outdoor Shakespeare festival. All the Shakespeare festivals around the world owe Garrick a debt of gratitude because he started it all. Yep, two hundred years before Joe Papp, Garrick led the charge organizing outdoor Shakespeare.

Like Garrick, Branagh had achieved some early theatrical success and desperately wanted to produce his own works. So Branagh left the RSC to strike out on his own and created the Renaissance Theatre Company where in the mid to late 1980s he produced stage versions of what would go on to become some of his most successful Shakespeare film adaptations. One of these was a production of “Much Ado About Nothing” that was directed by Judi Dench, set in a sun drenched Italia villa in the Naoleonic era and presented with a youthful energy. If all of that sounds vaguely familiar that’s because all of the elements of Branagh’s 1993 movie were lifted from the 1988 stage production. Dench had always envisioned a livelier take on the classic story of Beatrice and Benedick and she jokingly said “Ken Branagh, he stole all my ideas for the film.” So if the trend continues as it did with “Henry V” and “Hamlet” a few years from now we’ll see a film version of “The Winter’s Tale”, hopefully with both Dench and Branagh.

In this Shakespeare Retro Review, I want to revisit the film that was born out of Branagh’s bold strategy of being his own boss and starting his own company as I think that we can learn a lot not only from this delightful interpretation of “Much Ado About Nothing” but derive inspiration from how it all came about. As actors, we audition like crazy hoping to land roles that will not only pay some bills but also fulfill creative needs and we desperately look for projects to satiate our desire for good parts. Those actors who are often type cast as the “best friend”, “comic relief” or “second spear carrier from the left” and KNOW they could do SO MUCH MORE if only given the chance know how frustrating such situations can be. Well Branagh was there as well and this movie and lot of his early Shakespeare career in film is a tribute to those who say “Screw this I’m making my opportunities happen!” While it’s a hard road to forge your own projects, for those who succeed it can be incredibly fulfilling and gratifying. So let’s dive into Ken Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing”.

Coming out in 1993, the film starred Ken Branagh, his then wife Emma Thompson, Richard Briers, and Brian Blessed. These names don’t seem so out of place in a Shakespeare film but this movie is equally noteworthy for who else is it: Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, and Keanu Reeves. At the time, the casting of these American actors was quite the novelty and controversial where many felt that they had no place in a cast with British actors. This snobbery came from both side of the Atlantic but Branagh stuck to his guns in that he not only wanted to work with talented British actors but just with talented actors. Rounding out the cast is a pre-“House” Robert Sean Leonard and a pre-“Underworld” Kate Beckinsale. In revisiting the movie, its not only a trip to see these actors so young and fresh faced but also in comedic and vibrant roles so different than the dramatic and action parts they would later become more famous for.

For those who aren’t familiar, “Much Ado about Nothing” is about the pairing of Count Claudio and Hero, the daughter of Leonato. Claudio and his best friend Benedick are in the service of Don Pedro who has been at war with his half-brother Don Jon. The war is now over with Don Pedro and the armies returning home. An arranged wedding is proposed between Hero and Claudio but this nuptial news is interrupted by the witty bickering of Beatrice and Benedick, two old flames that hurt each other and now take great pleasure in comically insulting each other. Both of them hate each other the notion of love and marriage…or do they? Don Pedro plays cupid in wooing Hero for Claudio but he decides to get Benedick and Beatrice together. Most of the play is concerned with this as each are told that the other is in love with them. The ruse goes very well as both break their defenses down as they ponder the idea of rekindling their love, but a monkey wrench is thrown into the works by Don John. He along with his servants, Borachio and Conrad make Claudio and Don Pedro believe that Hero has cheated on him. Claudio publically denounces Hero in front of the whole town at their wedding. A plan is hatched to clear Hero’s name and in the end all the couples end of together and Don John’s villainy is revealed with the help of the half crazy Dogberry.

One of Dench’s key production choices that differed from earlier “Much ados” was setting the action in a sun-drenched Italy. So Branagh and company filmed on location in Tuscany at a location you would just want to retire to. Emma Thompson as Beatrice starts the film out reading the lines

“SIGH, NO MORE LADIES, SIGH, NO MORE, MEN WERE DECEIVERS EVER”.

These are from a song used later in the play but it gives a nice framework for setting up Beatrice’s attitude toward love and men but also for the laid back, idyllic and pastoral world that we’re about to enter. The picnic atmosphere is interrupted at the news of the armies returning from war and then begins the spirited preparation for their return. Everyone washes up and gets ready including the soldiers and finally Denzel and company arrive to be greeted by Richard Briars as Leonato. The loser in the war is Keanu Reeves as Don John. Now Keanu has received a lot of flack since the film came out for his rather wooden performance as Don John. I take exception with this because Don John is a terrible villain. I think Keanu does his best by playing reserved and irritated as that what’s called for in the role. Don John does not have great monologues like Iago or Richard III and Keanu does well with the scenes that he plays. He a serviceable in the role and quite frankly does well with the dialogue he’s given. So a lot of the flack Keanu has gotten has been unwarranted and people just going along with a party line.

Denzel Washington equally lights up the screen as Don Pedro. Here you can see a kinder, more soft spoken Denzel but still with his classic bravado and twinkle in his eye that audiences know him for. When he sets about playing match maker between Branagh’s Benedick and Thompson’s Beatrice you completely believe him and that as a prince he’s got the personal charisma to convince others to conspire with him. He’s the man with the plan and you totally go along with him. Robert Sean Leonard is perfect as the naïve and inexperienced Claudio. This character is often a thankless role in that he’s very often considered a jerk for the way he treats his bride Hero at their wedding. However, here Claudio and Don Pedro are shown what normally is only described in the text of how Hero has been unfaithful. Claudio and Pedro observe the character of Borachio makes out with a woman who likes Hero. By playing this scene out, Claudio doesn’t come across as a complete a-hole as he’s sometimes depicted in stage versions as his motivations are more understandable to an audience. The other stand out role is Michael Keaton as the thoroughly crazy and word mangling Dogberry. Dogberry takes his job as a cop seriously but acts like he’s perpetually drunk. For those of us who grew up watching Keaton as a comedic actor, this part is a tour de force back to his early films and I think it may actually mark the last time he played such a broadly comic role.

Of course all of the actors mentioned above are the supporting cast, we’re really here to see the main attraction Branagh and Thompson, er Benedick and Beatrice. This is funny because these characters as supposed to be the subplot but since Shakespeare’s day they’ve easily taken over as the leads in the show. Seeing Branagh and Thompson play off of each other is like watching a master class in acting. The chemistry between is palpable and makes you wonder why they didn’t stay together, but that’s another story. The duo make their witty banter and physically comic scenes look effortless. Even more amazing is the darker tone that the play take after Hero is publically accused. Thompson plea to have Claudio killed in the church scene sounds perfectly convincing and Branagh sells the idea of challenging his friend to a duel. Some dialogue in the scene where the duel challenge is issued is done well to maintain the tension as in the full text comic relief is presented along with the more serious motives.

However, this being a comedy all ends well. When Claudio and Pedro have shown themselves to be truly sorry for their actions against Hero a ruse is struck up to have Claudio marry a “twin” of Hero. Benedick tries to woo Beatrice by writing a love sonnet but he’s terrible at it and the scene where Branagh gives Thompson the poem and discuss their feelings is both poignant and hysterical. The final scene is the remarriage of Claudio and Hero and where the truth comes out about the matchmaking to get Benedick and Beatrice together.

Overall, this movie works on so many levels. The American actors execute their parts just as well as their British counterparts with the right levels of passion, comedy and restraint that is required by the script and their characters. Unless you were told that Branagh was the director you would never guess as his attention is never split and all of the actors get the time they deserve on camera. The costuming of simple white dresses for the women and military jackets for the men works really well in its simplicity and any theater company looking to stage the play can easily lift this look and do a lot of variations with it. Branagh and company not only deliver an enjoyable film and a treatment that Shakespeare would be proud of but the film is a testament to any actor or group wanting to take the risk and make something happen on their own. While it’s a scary proposition to act, direct and produce your own projects, Branagh has shown that the fruits of those labors can be fantastic and the maverick spirit is what continues to drive innovation in theater.

You can a copy of “Much Ado About Nothing” here on Amazon.

To read other Shakespeare Retro Review in film click below:

Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood

Shakespeare Retro Reviews - TV: In Search of Shakespeare, ep. 1 “A Time of Revolution”

Jon Ciccarelli

Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company

In 2004, PBS and the BBC aired a four part series on discovering the man behind the works of Shakespeare that was presented and written by English historian and documentary host Michael Wood. Previously Wood had done a similar treatment with “The Secret Origins of Civilization” and “Conquistadors”. In his personal approach, Wood uses every tool at the disposal of a historian and documentarian by sifting and presenting ancient documents, historical reenactments and narration. Along with notable facts, the series camera work offers stunning footage of London, the Globe Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, Hampton Court, The Swan Theatre and many a location in England that would make anyone who has visited the sceptered isle immediately book another trip. Wood’s aim is to get away from the “God of English” letters and present an accessible series that focused on fleshing out the man who wrote these works by placing Will in his own time and place.

Also, in the case of Shakespeare, Wood utilized theatrical presentation courtesy of Greg Doran and the Royal Shakespeare Company to make narrative points along with interviews with other scholars and historians. This notable mix of the scholarly and theatrical creates a lively series for anyone wishing to get to know the real Will Shakespeare but doesn’t have the time to sift through many a dry biography. The documentary approach brings to forefront many of the religious, political and social issues that Shakespeare and his contemporaries lived through and ultimately shaped the plays that have become part of our culture and preoccupy many a theater company.

In this Shakespeare Retro Review TV edition, I’ll be diving into the first episode, “A Time of Revolution” that sets the stage to show the world that Shakespeare was born into and the conditions that shaped his teen years and early adulthood. In true theatrical fashion Wood begins the series claiming that any search for history is a search for ghosts but he acknowledges that his life contains gaps that sometimes create an air of mystery around him.

It’s a historical who-dun-it and this detective sense is what drives the episode and the series. Wood starts with the question why go in search of the life a writer as opposed to a conqueror or politician? His answer is that because long after those who may the splashiest show are forgotten it’s the writers who are left. As Shakespeare himself said “they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.” Shakespeare is the greatest writer and who wouldn’t want to know what made him tick. 

Wood’s journey begins in Stratford-upon-Avon in the heart of Old England. He shows the first record of Shakespeare’s existence in his baptismal record, on April 26, 1564. One of the notable features of the series is whenever possible Wood show himself pouring over the actual historical document even to showing passages on camera so the viewer can read it for themselves. This technique makes it all the more real for the viewer. Contrary to popular notion we really don’t know when Shakespeare was born but it’s was a practice to baptize children within a few days of their birth because of fear of the infant dying of plague and going to hell as such was the Catholic belief. This sets up two items that Wood continually returns to the tug of war between English Catholicism and its underground war against Queen Elizabeth and her Protestant agents and the times when plague would influence Shakespeare’s life and career. 

Starting with Henry VIII and his children, England was continually thrown back and forth between the two sects of Christianity depending on who was sitting on throne. In London the religious struggle was very palpable, but in the country towns like Stratford changed slowly and stressing Shakespeare’s country life. Here Wood showcases how much a lover of nature Shakespeare was and true to his Warwickshire roots by using colloquial phrases native to the county in the plays such as the bugs that infested cows were known as “The breeze”, the mound at the top of hill a “hayed land” and weeds were “dead men’s fingers”. He uses this connection to the land to segue into his family. Mary Arden, his mother, was from a prominent land owning family that traced their ancestors to before the Norman Conquest of 1066. He examines the will of Robert Arden, Shakespeare’s grandfather that aside from disposing of property made his teenage daughter Mary an executor. The will alos shows his Catholic leanings. Wood uses this framing device to investigate what few documentaries and books mention, the Catholic world that Shakespeare grew up in. Wood visits a ruined nunnery call Roxell where Robert Arden and members of his family were active and says “The story of someone’s life begins before they’re born”, making a case that Shakespeare always has a soft spot for the Catholic medieval past that cropped up many times in his plays.

However, this medieval Catholic world was becoming modern and a middle class was starting to take root in England – so enter Will’s father John. John Shakespeare was a tenant farmer for Mary’s father but did all he could to better his humble lot. Wood’s next stop is investigating John’s trade of glove making as he visits a recreated shop in the Shakespeare Birthplace house.

The house is the one that Will grew up in but not exactly the same dwelling however, it does give a good indication of the style of living that a middle class family would have obtained.

John didn’t only spending his time making gloves and the next stop of Wood’s tour is the council chambers of Stratford as he examines the Corporation records showing John Shakespeare’s career as a councilman, justice of the peace and mayor. However, along with the power and trappings political office, John and his fellow councilman had to uphold Queen Elizabeth’s directives, one of which was to remove any Catholic iconography from public buildings. Given that Elizabeth’s sister Mary was Catholic and not sure if the country would ever swing back, the council simply white washed the images. The images of saintly battles against evil were later rediscovered in 19th Century and now investigated by Wood. He mentions that it wasn’t just a simple covering up of images but removing the shared memory of the town.

Wood shifts to Will’s schooling and shows scenes of the still existing King Edward VI School.

Grammar school was only for boys and they had a hard curriculum to follow such as reading and translating Latin and drilling in classic authors, one of which Ovid, Shakespeare would use again and again as a source and inspiration. He says that in Elizabeth’s time 161 new schools were opened and it was a drive to reshape the English youth. One of the other more interesting ways that Elizabeth tried to shore up English Protestantism and patriotism was perhaps Will’s first foray into the theater. It was a common practice to have the boys perform school plays.

Wood shows that the all-boys school continues the tradition and shows the boys putting on a production that Shakespeare could possibly have done called “Ralph Roister Doister”. He implies that here was the first place where Will was introduced to the idea of marrying stage spectacle with classic poetry. 

Wood then shifts back to John’s dealings and that he was also making money on the sly in the black market dealing in wool. Everyone in England wore wool clothes and only certain people were legally allowed to deal, however many people bought and sold it illegally. A single deal could score tons of money but it was a risky practice. Wood examines what essentially is a police report on John Shakespeare’s wool dealings. The record is interesting in the window it shows on how John got caught. He was informed by a man who was employed by the government to squeal on his neighbors. 

Briefly returning to the theater side, Wood visits a reenactment of the Coventry mystery cycle, religious plays sponsored by the church and put on town unions for religious holidays, usually for Easter celebrations. The mystery plays were the forerunner of the theater that Will would work in and they were banned when he was a teenager. In Will’s teen years, the life he knew would change drastically as his affluent father fell on hard times and Wood sees something more in this sudden downfall than just bad debts but possibly John being persecuted for being a secret Catholic. Will didn’t go on to university as a result and Wood speculates that he helped in his father’s business. Wood examines the curious case of the spiritual will of John Shakespeare. A pamphlet smuggled in by Catholic missionaries brought a testament that those who kept to the old Catholic faith could bury with them. John’s was found in the rafters of his house 100 years after he died so its been thought to have been a forgery but Wood uses the history behind the pamphlet to illustrate the Catholic underground that surrounded Stratford.

So what appears to be a forgery isn’t so easily dismissed. Wood uses a court case between John Shakespeare and others as a possible connection to this underground and a trip to a holy priory that still stands today, St. Winifred’s priory.

Wood last segment tackles Will’s young adulthood and his budding relationship with Anne Hathaway. The woman he would marry at 18 and have three kids with. Wood acknowledges that the information is sparse on Anne as he examines a supposed portrait of her. He notes that Sonnet 143 speaks of a woman who saved the life of the poet in some fashion. Wood, unlike many other Shakespeare biographers, takes a more sympathetic slant on Shakespeare’s relationship with his wife and speculates one of mutual attraction and benefit. He examines their marriage license and the strange evidence of “another woman” by the name of Anne Whately having a marriage license with Will Shakespeare. However, it turns out there was no other woman and it was just a clerical error. Despite this straight forward mistake, its led many to speculate about some lost love of Shakespeare’s.

The episode ends shortly after discussing his wedding and moving into a possible occupation and hints the next episode will explore the missing years of Shakespeare’s work life and his start in the theater. Overall, Wood whets the viewer’s appetite with mixing a detailed perusal of documents with lively theater reenactments. This exploration of Shakespeare’s early years shows gives a nice tour of his possible early exposure to theater and a connection to Ovid and Latin so prevalent in the plays. 

In future Shakespeare Retro Reviews, I’ll review the other three episodes in this interesting series.

To see more information about the series and purchase the series click here

To see past Shakespeare Retro Reviews TV click below:

John Barton’s Playing Shakespeare – The Two Traditions

Shakespeare Retro Reviews - TV: John Barton’s “Playing Shakespeare”, episode 1 – “The Two Traditions”

Jon Ciccarelli

Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company

As actors we are always looking to hone our craft but finding the right acting class or even being able to afford them is quite a task. Master classes, those immersive and intensive sessions with theater professionals who have years of experience, are hard to find and can be extremely expensive. However, what if I told you that you can have decades worth of Shakespeare instruction in the comfort of your own living room? Such is the case with the BBC series, “Playing Shakespeare” produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company and hosted by one of their founders and legendary directors John Barton along with a panel of 21 equally legendary actors. 

The series includes 9 episodes (50 minutes each) that run the gamut from high overviews of merging Elizabethan and modern theatrical traditions to laying out all of the acting tools needed to break down and act Shakespeare’s text in an easy to understand fashion. The series was produced in 1982 for  Britain’s ITV’s “London Weekend” segment and includes appearances by Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Peggy Ashcroft, David Suchet, Ben Kingsley, Roger Rees, and a whole host of other stage luminaries. The series became the basis for the series of books “Players of Shakespeare” which featured a single actor giving their take on particular Shakespeare character. Once you can get past the rather cheesy intro and seeing some much older actors 30 years younger (Patrick Stewart still looks the same but with Ian McKellen its pretty weird seeing him in his younger years) and some interesting early 80s fashions, the material in the series is pretty timeless and condenses years of Shakespeare training into a 9 hour volume.

In this Retro Shakespeare Review, I’m going to review and recap the first episode “The Two Traditions” and follow up each episode with its own review as there is so much useful information and great theater moments that you just couldn’t do it justice in one review. 

The series was filmed in the RSC’s rehearsal studio and never veers off into a detached sort of documentary perspective that many similar series can have. Barton and the other actors always speak directly into the camera and offer questions, explore points and get insights always with the viewer present with them, keeping the intimate rehearsal feel. John Barton comes across as congenial professor type complete with a sweater and tie combination. This comes naturally as he taught college for several years before directing for the theater full time. 

Being that this is the first episode he and his fellow actors take some time setting up the structure that they’ll work in. Barton mentions thousands of academic books and articles come out each year on Shakespeare but very little in way of how to play the material. Although he was asked many times to write a ‘How to act’ book Barton states that nothing can replace working directly with actors to break down and analyze scenes and each actor’s experience is worth many books. The best guide and indeed director or instructor for learning how to act Shakespeare’s works comes from William Shakespeare himself. Here several of the actors begin the program by reciting Hamlet’s advice to the players as some of the best advice for acting Shakespeare or even acting in general:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness…
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o'erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the
mirror up to nature”

John Barton notes that the speech goes to the heart of the matter that overall your best instructor for acting Shakespeare is the direction that Shakespeare peppers in the language and scenes. The language can give clues about a character’s state of mind and what they say about other characters and what other characters say about them is equally instructive. He acknowledges that for the novice actor the language can seem daunting and foreign but once you break it down it can become very easy and some of the more juicy stuff that an actor can play. Barton is emphatic that he isn’t acting as a director or lone voice of authority and challenges his fellows to keep him honest as they go through the program. 

As opposed to doing in-depth character studies or looking at a single play, Barton and the group bounce from one play to another to showcase techniques and give the general gist and set up for each scene so the viewer can easily follow. He concludes the introductory segment by stating that the actor’s job is to reach the audience and make them listen. If the actor doesn’t do this they’ve failed in their job. Barton believes that many audiences don’t necessarily listen to actors doing Shakespeare unless the actor makes them and this important point will come up again and again in the series.

The Two Traditions

Barton starts the class portion of the episode by stating the two items to dive into Shakespeare are the text and a group of actors to explore them. However, Shakespeare’s text can be dense and to illustrate this Alan Howard performs a speech from a battle scene from one of Shakespeare’s most densely wordy plays “Coriolanus”. It sounds great and poetical but all of it can also sound the same and can put audiences to sleep. On the other hand there is the modern acting tradition and to demonstrate this Mike Gwilym and Jane Lapotaire act out a scene from an unnamed modern British play. The point of the exercise is to establish a starting point between what actors will be more familiar with and Shakespeare at his most dense and look to marry the two approaches. 

The group notes that “modern acting” with its approach to naturalism is an offshoot of a technique started by Stanislavsky where anything you do on stage must be done from a place of complete truth and never just playing an emotion. Ben Kingsley simply puts it “What’s your motivation”. However in this very “natural” way of acting there are pitfalls. The group notes that there is the danger of being both overly analytical and inward. Mike Gwilym interjects that an actor can be brooding and amazing but all his pauses can bore an audience to death. David Suchet gives a comical rendition of a theater teacher who OVER analyzes the motivations in “King Lear” using flowery sounding words that have the air of being “scientific”. Barton warns to “beware of jargon, it can lead to talking about it (acting Shakespeare), replacing it, than actually doing it”. 

Barton brings the conversation around to how this is different from what Elizabethan actors would have known or done and while the rehearsal practices aren’t known in any great detail, it is known that their practices differ in several key respects. Firstly, actors in Elizabethan theater wouldn’t have had the full text of the play they were rehearsing. They would only have had their cues and lines written out on rolls of paper or cue sheets so they couldn’t read the full text to know what was going on with other characters. Secondly, they put on plays with only a few days rehearsal and sometimes producing 40 plays a year, a different one for each day of a 6-7 day work week. In comparison, some of the actors in the panel note that they could have up to 10 weeks of rehearsal for some productions that they have worked on. An actor in Shakespeare’s time wouldn’t have a director, they would direct themselves in how to work a scene. The play’s author, in this case Shakespeare, would be the closest thing to a modern director in that he would describe the play’s action and characters and what the story was about. Those actors didn’t have the same distractions that modern ones do and treated the spoken word differently, using a different accent and spoke their lines much faster.
Barton begins to bring the modern and the Elizabethan methods together in the group’s next exercise, having Ian Mckellen examine the opening line of “The Merchant of Venice” – Antonio’s ‘In Sooth I know not why I am so sad’. Mckellen tries the line in several ways each bringing something different such as reading it such as comic, avoiding, or self-deprecating.

Barton then asks ‘what is Antonio’s motivation?’ and Mckellen feels that its confusion but cannot pin down the character’s motivation. Mckellen then states its tough to know the true motivation without putting the scene into a content and asking questions like: Why are you saying it? How long have characters known each other? A complex array of questions that any actor would ask in first tackling a character. So Barton’s point is that in first approaching Shakespeare’s text, an actor does the same thing that he does when approaching a modern play, ask “What is my motivation?” 

Barton deliberately chooses this opening line to demonstrate that Shakespeare is the inventor of naturalistic speech that modern actors are accustomed to and simple lines like this and those filled with flowery metaphors are not so far apart as one might think. Alan Howard demonstrates a passage from Christopher Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine” to show the type of verse lines (lines set down in a poetical rhythm) that actors were used to speaking before Shakespeare came along. Its very poetical and not very natural sounding and Howard notes its very hard on the voice. Sheila Hancock then does a piece of prose (lines without poetical rhythm) to demonstrate a more casual speaking style but this is equally as unwieldy. Barton’s point is that the naturalistic way of speaking was actually started by Shakespeare and that once you understand how Shakespeare’s text works, the modern and the Elizabethan tradition actually gel quite nicely. 

Sheila Hancock, who was newbie at the time of filming, said that she initially felt inhibited by the language but she found that once she was in front of audience and just gave into it that it was very easy. She notes that the language is so potent that she didn’t have to make as much effort to hit the high beats of the scene, as an actor she had to embellish less. 

Each episode of the series has an intermission where after the main premise set up and discussion have been done, the group gets down to work on a scene or bit of dialogue in a more detailed fashion. Here, Ian McKellen and David Suchet continue the work the opening to “The Merchant of Venice” with Mckellen as Antonio and Suchet as Salerio. Barton points out the differences between the two characters where Antonio is much more straight forward and easy for a modern actor to pick up but Salerio instead uses these rich metaphors or what Barton calls heightened language. Barton defines heightened language as any language that isn’t naturalistic and contains similes and metaphors. So he has Suchet go through it the scene playing it dry to see how it the language sounds much like a modern actor would speak and it sucks. Barton stresses that the words aren’t just window dressing and that the actor needs those words and images to get to their objective. The words are not obstacles but integral to achieving the objective. Suchet completes the instruction by balancing the poetical flourishes and natural sounding dialogue and that balance is what Barton is trying to get out. However, just like modern acting, Elizabethan acting also has its traps.

The trap that Barton points out is “hamming it up” or “any thing so overdone is from the purpose of playing” as Shakespeare would say. Its easy to fall in love with your own voice and let that be your acting. Suchet tries the poetical speech by overemphasizing words and gestures and comes across as very comical and completely unrealistic. Barton comes back to that the actor has to find the balance just as Hamlet’s advice to the plays prescribes. The actor has to marry the heightened language and the natural acting. 

Barton does confess that he may be over simplifying the point of naturalism and heightened language, however, even though it’s a simplified take Barton continues its important for new comers to the text to label them as such. Once they become comfortable with identifying and working with the two traditions an actor can use them to work toward a more nuanced approach. The scene exercise is capped off with Ben Kingsley joining in as Solanio and the three actors continue trying to figure out why Antonio is so sad. The result is a spirited exchange and tour de force of a very small scene with three great actors. 

Barton finishes off the episode with again stressing a balanced approach to performing Shakespeare and examining the text. Don’t be too natural but also don’t be too flowery or in love with your own voice to where it becomes one note. This balance is what the actor should strive for to make playing Shakespeare truthful and real. 

In the next review of the series, I’ll look at Barton and company tackling how “Use the Verse”.
To check out this amazing episode you can visit Amazon.com and get the individual episode here 

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0073J5VYQ/ref=dv_dp_ep1
or get the full series here
http://www.amazon.com/PLAYING-SHAKESPEARE-John-

Barton/dp/B001O7R75O/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1427831339&sr=1-1&keywords=playing+shakespeare+john+barton

 

 

Shakespeare Retro Reviews

Jon Ciccarelli 

Investigating past Shakespeare related movies, books, TV specials and theater productions that are still handy for the modern actor and theater company

Actors and theater producers that tackle Shakespeare are often are looking for the “new thing” or the cutting edge take that will give shape to their roles and productions but there is a wide body of past work that we can pull from for new inspirations and interpretation for acting, directing and producing Shakespeare’s works. In this series of columns, I want to explore and rediscover these useful resources.

In this column:

“Throne of Blood” by Akira Kurosawa

James Shapiro, the Brooklyn born Shakespeare scholar, has been noted in saying that the hottest area of Shakespeare study today, both in the theater and scholarly circles, is in “international adaptations”, that is taking into account what Shakespeare means to any given country and exploring how the Bard’s material is shaped and interpreted by the local or national identities. There is a definite difference between what Shakespeare means to Americans vs. what it means to the British, or Brazilians or even Nigerians. The Globe to Globe Festival of 2012 hosted by Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London and the RSC’s Complete Works Festival of 2006 in Stratford both showcased this trend as they invited theater companies from around the world to bring various Shakespeare titles to their respective venues.

However, nothing in Shakespeare or theater is ever truly “NEW”. Adaptations of Shakespeare have been done continually since the plays were first produced and even Shakespeare was known to rewrite, revise, and update his plays as the various versions of “Hamlet” and “King Lear” can attest. So in this latest column, I want to review and examine one of the more famous film adaptations of Shakespeare, Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood”, based on “Macbeth”.

Released in 1957, the film feels still feels like a fresh take on the better known Scottish tale streamlining some character and plot points and feeling like a story that organically belongs to the Japan and the Noh theater tradition. Anyone looking to do an adaptation or different take on “Macbeth”, “King Lear”, or even the Henry VI plays would be remiss in not checking out this atmospheric masterpiece.

For most of us, “Macbeth” is one of the most accessible plays of Shakespeare in terms of pacing, story, depth and range of characters in the forms of Macbeth and his Lady, Banquo, MacDuff, Lady MacDuff and even smaller roles like the murderers and action scenes. For actors it’s a play that offers a range of great roles to play but also feared by actors as the play whose name must not be mentioned. A heavy feeling pervades the piece from start to finish with little comic relief and that nihilistic feeling easily translates from the more familiar Scottish trappings to the fog shrouded volcanic mountains of medieval Japan.

The title in Japanese in “"Kumonosu-jô", per the commentary on the film, translates to “Castle of the Spider’s Web”, while the title for the English release was the still evocative “Throne of Blood”. Spider’s Web castle is the film’s counterpart to Dunsinane Castle, while the surrounding Spider’s Web forest stands in for Birnam Wood. It also notes that “Macbeth” was Kurosawa’s favorite Shakespeare play where he enjoyed both the story of an ambitious general bent on becoming absolute ruler of his country but also the various supernatural elements which Kurosawa takes full advantage of.

Plot of the film

The film opens on a windswept and barren mountain landscape. Fog billows through many crags while a group of off screen men chant about dangers passed from long ago. As the camera travels through this shroud of rock and smoke, it centers on a lone pillar that stands as a monument to the castle that once stood on its site but now no trace remains  – The Castle of the Spider’s Web. The men continually chant of how the location came to ruin through ambition and duplicity. The scene fades back to an earlier time and the full breath of Spider’s Web comes into view.

As in “Macbeth”, a great battle begins the story to defend the kingdom of the Lord Tsuzuki (Takamaru Sasaki), but gone is the somewhat grandfatherly figure of King Duncan and instead Tsuzuki is a hardened commander who has fought his way to top and rules with absolute authority. One frightened messenger after another arrives to tell their great ruler that their enemies have taken the series of fortresses that ring Spider’s Web castle and the situation looks dire. As Tsuzuki confers with his remaining commanders, word comes of the miraculous push back of their enemy’s forces by his generals (Minoru Chiaki) as the Banquo character and Washizu (Toshiro Mifune) as the Macbeth character. The military victory is one of stalemate as they take back fortresses captured in the latest skirmish. Lord Tsuzuki seeks to honor his valiant commanders with new promotions.

The tired and battle weary Miki and Washizu attempt to return to Spider’s Web castle but as the name indicates, the path is incredibly difficult and twisted. The pair ride for what seems like forever and in circles even questioning themselves the way to the castle that they’ve been to many times. The samurai soon discover a hut they’ve never seen before and a singing old woman. The woman pays them no attention as she simply spins a loom and appears to be sewing but instead is a wheel that collects a thread. She like the male voiceover chorus sings of humanity’s frailty and insignificance. Miki and Washizu attempt to speak with her but she already know who they are and tells them of new honors that await them at the house of their great lord. Also, that Washizu will become the Great Lord but Miki sons will rule after him.

The forest spirit disappears and as the two return to Tsuzuki's estate, the foretold rewards are granted on the dumfounded men. Washizu returns to his fortress stronghold and relays the fantastic events to Asaji (Isuzu Yamada) his wife. Like Lady Macbeth, Asaji sees that providence has visited on Washizu and he must act but while Lady Macbeth is showy and uses sex as a way to manipulate her husband, Asaji is cold, methodical and uses logic to manipulate her husband into considering killing their great lord.

As opposed to Duncan casually coming to Macbeth’s castle on what seems like a festive tour, the Great Lord arrives at Washizu’s palace for necessity. The enemy who launched the attack at the beginning of the movie is still out there and Lord Tsuzuki uses Washizu’s palace as a base of operations. Asaji uses the turn of events to further prod her husband toward assassination. The night of the murder plays out in a similar fashion, where the guards watching the Great Lord are drugged by Asaji with wine, here sake. The murder is more methodical than reflective but Washizu returns just as shaken to the core as his Scottish counterpart and Asaji takes charge to cover up their tracks by composing her husband and putting a bloody spear in the hands of one of the three unconscious guards. She yells "murder" through the courtyard, and Washizu stabs the guard before he has a chance to plead his innocence.

Great Lord Tsuzuki's vengeful son Kunimaru (Takamaru Sasaki) and an advisor named Noriyasu (Takashi Shimura) both suspect Washizu as the murderer and lead a thrilling chase from Washizu’s palace to the palace of Miki to warm him. As the two arrive at the palace, Miki denies them entry and as they are fired upon by Washizu’s men, the pair rush off into the wilderness to take refuge with the Tsuzuki’s old enemy. With the former Great Lord’s son and a rival out of the way, Washizu easily takes control, however, the other prophecy, that a son of his will never succeed weighs on Washizu’s mind.

Being that the forest spirit told him that Miki sons would rule, he decides to make Miki’s eldest son Yoshiteru (Akira Kubo) his heir apparent and make it official at a grand banquet. Asaji, though, will have none of this and she is the one who says that Miki cannot be trusted and eggs her husband on once more to murder his childhood best friend. Asaji sweetens the pot by telling her husband that she is pregnant with their first child. Although Miki has some reservations about the turn of events he is initially optimistic about Washizu’s plans for his son but at his son’s urging begins to reconsider the proposal.

The evening of the banquet arrives and despite their best efforts, the new royal couple make an awkward ruling pair. The court is decidedly on edge making the absence of Miki and his son all the more apparent. In this apprehension, Washizu begins to have fearful visions of seeing Miki’s ghost and challenges it to a duel. He and his wife try to calm their guests but each sighting of the ghost sends Washizu further into a rage even striking the mat intended for Miki. As Asaji urgently dismisses the guests, a guard arrives to inform Washizu that the order to murder Miki has been carried out and carrying his severed head, but that his son escaped.

Asaji soon has a miscarriage and news of an imminent invasion led by Tsuzuki’s son arrives and Washizu flies into a rage. He returns to the forest to summon the spirit for more prophecy and she tells him that he will not be defeated unless the trees of Spider's Web forest rise against the castle. Washizu scoffing at the impossibility of such an event uses the news to rally his troops. He informs them of the prophecy using it as a form divine propaganda that they will be victorious over any invasion. They share his confidence.

As he and his warriors wait for an attack, the cry of women is heard and Washizu finds Asaji in a crazed state trying to wash imaginary blood from her hands. A panicked soldier then arrives informing him that that the trees of Spider's Web forest have started to move toward the castle. The prophecy has come and Washizu decides to fight regardless. However, instead of dealing with the coming enemy, Washizu’s own men take revenge on him. Seeing that the prophecy was not a divine directive that Washizu would prevail but instead the spirits turning against him, the men take matters into their own hands and rain hours down on their commander. The enemy army arrives and its show that the trees were really just camouflage, bits of branches broken off to cover their numbers. The film concludes where it began on wind swept mountain focusing on a crumbling monument to a long gone castle with the chorus of men chanting on the futility of ambition.

Interesting Diversions from “Macbeth”

I’ve pointed out several parallels to the play in the movie’s synopsis but some of Kurosawa’s changes to the story work well and better suit the Japanese setting. The Malcolm and MacDuff characters are almost non-existent in the film and really their counterparts only serve to create antagonists for Washizu. The Act 4 scene with Malcolm and MacDuff where the two try to feel each other out for treachery can be somewhat boring and is a stumbling block for most productions and in this case Kurosawa intentionally leaves it undeveloped. While in a longer version, you could have had the characters developed, the movie doesn’t really loose anything from not having these characters more present.

Asaji as the Lady Macbeth character does many of Lady M’s signature moves such as egging her husband on to kill his king, assisting to cover up the murder and going mad in the end with the hand washing scene, however, she goes about it in much more different way. As opposed to an over sexual being, who manipulates he her husband through emotion and sentiment, Asaji is the polar opposite taking a cold and direct voice to her husband’s ambition. She is very direct and matter of fact and totally right about everything she says. She is the voice that you know is right but do not want to listen to.

Another change is that in the play once King Duncan is dead and the couple is crowned, Lady Macbeth thinks its smooth sailing, however, Asaji here tells Washizu that Miki and his son must be killed if their reign is to continue. The idea of keeping the country in a constant state of war where Washizu is suspected of killing the king from the start works nicely to keep the tension ever present and plays better in the historical context of ever warring clans jousting back and forth for power. What doesn’t really work is the death of Miki where its set up very well but you never see Washizu really fret over it or give the order or even see it carried out. Its sort of decided on and we get to the banquet and a ghost randomly shows up. For a film that spends a lot of time on atmosphere and build up Miki’s “Banquo at the party” scene feels underwhelming.

Asaji’s pregnancy works well to justify the Miki’s murder and her miscarriage is serves as nice turning of the tide against Washizu that prompts him to return to the forest. We really don’t lose anything pairing down three witches to one as the forest spirit is sufficiently creepy and theatrical and really just dealing with one prophecy as opposed to three works well to streamline the end of the movie.

Its hardly a spoiler to note that Washizu dies at the end as does Macbeth, however, HOW he dies is one of the main departures from Shakespeare’s play. The decision is a tour de force both from a cinematic standpoint and story standpoint. The final death or judgment of Washizu doesn’t come in a one-on-one duel with the man whose family he killed in the form of a MacDuff character, but it is Washizu’s own men or country who take revenge on him. Like many an Asian leader before him, Washizu uses the prophecy as his royal claim as he was inspired by a divine vision to assume control and this legitimizes his rule. However, as the trees of Spider’s Web forest appear to march toward the castle, the men become afraid that powers that be have turned against their commander and he must be purged.

First a single arrow lands in the wall next to Washizu and as he protests another and yet another rain down on him. Finally, the ambitious commander is done is by a hail of arrows from all of his archers in what has become one of cinema’s greatest death scenes. Viewers are certainly impressed with the scope of arrows being visited on both the actor and the surrounding set and with the intensity that they hit. This is because they were using REAL ARROWS as this site’s video explains.

The actor Toshiro Mifune wore planks of wood under his costume to receive the arrows that were had pins on the end of them so they would stick into the wood. The prop master on the film is interview and states the needles were about as thick as those found on phonograph players. Mifune needed several drinks after the shooting the scene as he joking notes.

“Washizu's famous death scene, in which his own archers turn upon him and fill his body with arrows, was in fact performed with real arrows, a choice made to help Mifune produce realistic facial expressions of fear. The arrows seen to impact the wooden walls were not superimposed or faked by special effects, but instead shot by choreographed archers. During filming, Mifune waved his arms, ostensibly because his character was trying to brush away the arrows embedded in the planks; this indicated to the archers the direction in which Mifune wanted to move.”

What is Noh Theater?

The stylistic presentation of the film’s setting and characters is based on a style of Japanese theater called “NoH’ The word in Japanese can mean skill or faculty and is older than the more commonly known Kabuki dating from the 14th century. Noh theater is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. The style bears some resemblance to Greek theater in that they use masks, a chorus that comments on the events, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance. Emotions and motives are conveyed using stylized conventional gestures and the masks present the various archetypes.

Noh mask

According the Wikpedia article on Noh theater (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noh) there are four major categories of Noh performers: shite, waki, kyōgen, and hayashi.[14]

  1. Shite(仕手, シテ). In plays where the shite appears first as a human and then as a ghost, the first role is known as the maeshite and the later as the nochishite.
    • Shitetsure(仕手連れ, シテヅレ). The shite's Sometimes shitetsure is abbreviated to tsure (連れ, ツレ), although this term refers to both the shitetsureand the wakitsure.
    • Kōken(後見) are stage hands, usually one to three people.
    • Jiutai(地謡) is the chorus, usually comprising six to eight people.
  2. Waki(脇, ワキ) performs the role that is the counterpart or foil of the shite.
    • Wakitsure(脇連れ, ワキヅレ) or Waki-tsure is the companion of the waki.
  3. Kyōgen(狂言) perform the aikyōgen (間狂言) interludes during plays. Kyōgen actors also perform in separate plays between individual noh plays.
  4. Hayashi(囃子) or hayashi-kata (囃子方) are the instrumentalists who play the four instruments used in Noh theater: the transverse flute (笛 fue?), hip drum (大鼓ōtsuzumi?) or ōkawa (大皮?), the shoulder-drum (小鼓 kotsuzumi?), and the stick-drum (太鼓 taiko?). The flute used for noh is specifically called nōkan or nohkan (能管?).

“A typical Noh play always involves the chorus, the orchestra, and at least one shite and one waki actor.

Noh performance combines a variety of elements into a stylistic whole, with each particular element the product of generations of refinement according to the central Buddhist, Shinto, and minimalist aspects of Noh's aesthetic principles.”

Conclusion

If you are looking for an interesting take on your next Shakespeare production or looking to do something with a more international feel to it, nothing can quite compare to this cinematic classic. The themes of ambition leading to ruin feel like they spring from the midst of Mount Fuji as opposed to England or Scotland and lend a very contemporary feel for a nearly 60 year old film. Thus it reinforces how adaptable Shakespeare is and open to an infinite amount of interpretation. Theatrical in its presentation and execution, Kurosawa’s film never loses its connection to the stage play on which its based and is still a riveting movie for Shakespeare fans, theater practioners looking for ideas and just for lovers of film.

“Throne of Blood” is available on Amazon, see its page here: