Sunday, August 1, 2010

Michigan Shakespeare Festival: To Be Or Not To Be

Dear Oberon,

Our Saturday (yesterday, July 31) at the Michigan Shakespeare Festival turned out to be most enjoyable, from the monologue contest to Romeo and Juliet to our dinner with special guest Robert Duha, managing director of the Festival, to Richard Joyrich’s Bard Talks presentation about Comedy of Errors, and finally to Comedy of Errors itself.

Early in the day, we met Festival founders Rick and Debbie Davies. I wanted Mr. Davies to know that modest as it may have been, Oberon has supported and enjoyed the Festival as long as we have known about it. I told him of our hope that the Festival will become a true Shakespeare festival for the whole state of Michigan and will eventually rise to the stature of festivals like those in Ashland, Cedar City, and Stratford. One thing I always liked about Robert Duha was his intention to challenge Stratford for area Shakespeare pre-eminence. Thus this year’s slogan: “Great Shakespeare. No Passport Required.”

If MSF is to rise to such heights, it must put out a superior product. It is not only capable of doing that very thing, it has done just that in the past. In recent years, it so happened that MSF and Stratford both ran All’s Well That Ends Well. MSF not only held its own in comparison, but in many ways Oberon members who saw both thought MSF’s production, one of artistic director John Neville-Andrews’ last before leaving, to be the superior.

Thus the Michigan Shakespeare Festival has held such promise in large part because its Shakespeare has been so well played. I wish I could say the same for both of this year’s productions as witnessed by this reviewer on Saturday. The results were at best mixed. I believe that it is important to have this discussion since the future of the Festival could very well hang in the balance.

Let’s start with the good news.

The Festival’s production of Comedy of Errors is a romp. It takes a play presenting difficulties of production and deals with them not only creatively but hilariously. Long speeches, a problem in early Shakespeare, are broken up by such means as the lighting and the reading of them and by inventive stage business.

Identities of characters are established early on even though the basis of the play is confused identities. The actors develop their characters into beings both comedic and sympathetic. You know who these people are. Despite the ridiculous situations, you are with them all the way.

After the attention getting prologue and opening scene, the play goes through a slow period, but that is more than forgotten as the post-break half of the play unfolds.

Admittedly this play is filtered through 21st century consciousness, but the clearly unShakespearean asides and interjections work because one suspects that Shakespeare probably would have been all in on the additions. For the most part, this production can therefore be forgiven the sin of rewriting Shakespeare. By the way, the business of this play—all the actions and goings on which may be suggested by the script but are not in the script--is some of the best that this reviewer has seen.

While the audience of Comedy of Errors went home with great memories of what they had just seen, I’m not sure sure that Romeo and Juliet provided the same result. Please understand that the following comments on Romeo and Juliet are made in the spirit of support of the Festival and of wanting to see it succeed.

I can’t think of any other words to describe the Festival’s Romeo and Juliet than “pedestrian” and “disappointing.” The greatest mystery to me was that while the same company in Comedy, a play of much less depth, developed the characters of the play with great success, the characters of Romeo and Juliet, came off as flat and often lifeless, with the possible exceptions of Benvolio and at times Mercutio and the Nurse. Most bothersome was that they all talked the same with clipped and quick reading of the lines. Where was the understanding? Where was the revelation? Where were Shakespeare’s exquisite characters? Where were the human beings? Where was the vision?

Certainly we know that Shakespeare masterfully presents all of these things in this play, but where were they Saturday? How could this humanistic tragedy become so superficial?

In the same vein, resisting the danger of providing these characters with any individual, human quality, the costuming was woefully monotone, again with the possible exception of Benvolio’s hat. One gets the impression that no theater production of anything is ever going to keep this actor, Brandon Saunders, down. There is also the strange spectacle of the gang members parading around in Edwardian suits adorned with the swords and knives which the Montagues and Capulets needed for their feud.

Maybe it was problems with the main characters. Romeo seemed too much like an advertising executive to be an adolescent in the throes of melancholy and new love. And OK, I get it, Juliet could be an eye-rolling teenager of today twittering away on her cell phone, but after a few lines of beautiful poetry were destroyed by her screeching, it became apparent that this production favored sounds over Shakespeare’s words. Could there be a greater sin in the theater than that?

There was so much to be picky about. Where was Capulet’s ball? Where were the merrymakers, the dancing, and the music? Where was the subtle, developing love between the two young title characters? Even the reading of some of the most beautiful lines of the play, the lovers’ sonnet dialogue (“If I profane with my unworthiest hand”) was stark and isolated although, to the actors’ credit, sensitive.

The final scene was disappointing to say the least. Where it should have come to final focus on the Prince’s pronouncements, he was off to the side behind other characters and the lines were thrown away along with so many other important lines in the play

The omen to all this was Juliet moving her leg when she was still supposed to be dead to her family gathered around her on her funeral pyre. Maybe it was a matter of timing. The family was leaving but they could hardly have missed their daughter rolling to the side while deceased. Maybe the director needed to remind everyone that Juliet was not really dead, but we all knew that, didn’t we, and Shakespeare provides for this most adequately, thank you very much. It is an example of how stage business fails in this production and is not the only example, just among the most egregious.

The takeaway for this reviewer is that it is almost as if this play was taken for granted.

But all was not lost. The swordfight choreography by David Blixt was thoroughly enjoyed by everyone this reviewer talked to. Not only was it effective, it also appeared to be authentic, which would be no surprise since Blixt, an actor who has been associated with the Festival for many years, wrote a well researched historical novel which creates a kind of setting for the family feud which fuels this play.

Stay tuned for developing news about Michigan’s Shakespeare Festival. Michigan deserves Shakespeare. The Festival deserves our support. Every year Oberon members spend the entire day there soaking up the Shakespeare and enjoying the ambiance and the experience. This year, the Festival showed great promise with its production of Comedy, with its high school monologue contest, now a Festival feature and a precious project for Shakespeare education, and with its popular Bard Talks in which Oberon participated for the first time and was well received. Plans for next year include Pericles, Much Ado About Nothing, and Tartuffe. The question as it now stands for this Festival is whether next year will ever come.

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