‘Love is for the bold! You have to be willing to risk everything!”
So exults Belmira, an impetuous young bride-to-be in Marisela Treviño Orta’s stunning River Bride, one of four plays that just opened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland.
The flirtatious Belmira is speaking of romance and escape, but she could just as well be describing the artistic risks taken by Orta with her extraordinary script, first staged in San Rafael in 2014, now given a magical makeover in Ashland by director Laurie Woolery.
A slinky blend of Grimm’s fairy tales and Brazilian river mythology, the play was developed locally as part of the AlterLab new play development program, an arm of Marin County’s award-winning AlterTheater. Co-directed in San Rafael by Ann Brebner and Jeanette Harrison, the original production used only a few wooden blocks as set pieces. In Ashland, this deeply affecting tale of transformation and heartbreak has itself been transformed, with the use of ingeniously simple effects that bring the Amazon River and its fishing villages to life.
With the wedding of Belmira (a playfully sexy Jamie Ann Romero) and local fisherman Duarte (a coiled and intense Carlo Albán) just three weeks away, the bride’s older sister, Helena (Nancy Rodriguez, spectacular), is doing her best to hide her own broken heart, having loved Duarte since childhood. During a stormy day of fishing, Duarte and the sisters’ goodhearted father, Senhor Costa (a delightful Triney Sandoval), haul up their nets to discover they’ve caught a well-dressed, unconscious stranger named Moises (Armando McClain, who makes an art of enigmatic smoldering). Initially suspicious, Senhora Costa (Vilma Silva, also excellent) soon welcomes the soft-spoken newcomer, who quickly forms an instant bond with Helena.
The scenic design by Mariana Sanchez places simple set pieces—a wooden dock, a boat, a framed house on stilts—above a glistening splash of watery blue. The video design by Mark Holthusen works wonders, from a glittering sprinkle of stars and the rising and setting of the sun, making us wonder if the whole story is no more than a dream itself—or perhaps only the echo of life-altering love, nearly found, but lost at last in the depths of the river.
Rating (out of 5): ★★★★★
Projections, the photographic kind, also play a significant part in Christopher Liam Moore’s equally bold – but far less consistently satisfying — staging of Shakespeare’s gender-bendy Twelfth Night. Amongst Shakespeare’s most popular and enduring comedies, Twelfth Night is the story of a grieving, shipwrecked woman named Viola (played her by the effectively tom-boyish Sara Bruner), disguising herself as a young man while making her way in a strange land—and since lands don’t get any stranger than Hollywood, the story has been moved from ancient Illyria (aka Croatia) to Tinseltown of the 1930s. Viola soon finds herself at the center of an entertainingly uncomfortable triangle of unrequited love, balancing her sense of loss (she believes her brother just drowned in the shipwreck that her here) with the bipolar giddiness of new love.
The show opens with a black-and-white “newsreel,” firmly establishing the movie-world premise, cleverly tossing in a crowd-pleasing “Illyria Studios” logo, complete with roaring bear. An onstage pianist plays an appropriate soundtrack to the ensuing mayhem, which includes one of the Bard’s best cast of supporting players—a grieving, also somewhat love-struck, washed-up movie star and full-time drunken uncle, Sir Toby Belch (Daniel T. Parker); a gleefully clueless, martini-swilling suitor (Danforth Comins); a pleasantly acerbic song-and-dance comedian (Rodney Gardiner), and Olivia’s assistant, the tender-hearted yet not-to-be-trifled with Mariah (Kate Mulligan).
That’s only one of about two-dozen major alterations Moore has made to Shakespeare’s play, practically daring purists to ask whether it is acceptable to shoehorn Shakespeare’s plays into containers they don’t quite fit into. In answer to that question, Moore takes a tip from Cinderella’s stepsisters, and simply lops off anything that doesn’t fit. If that notion offends you, then you probably won’t be able to enjoy the messy, mirthful, emotionally powerful, slapstick-driven, frequently confusing, constantly inventive, occasionally frustrating, even angering, but often joy-filled and free-spirited, totally manic-depressive overhaul of Shakespeare’s classic story.
Much of this doesn’t work, but just as much of it does.
Once attached as assistant to Illyria Studios’ owner and primary movie director Duke Orsino (Elijah Alexander, spouting a pouty German accent, and generally behaving so oddly as to make his usually magnetic character almost attraction-free), Viola—using the name Cesario—becomes her/his boss’s reluctant emissary, taking love notes to the beautiful, suddenly reclusive, Olivia (a stunning, and stunningly good Gina Daniels), who is grieving the recent death of her father and brother. In a flash, she falls in love with Cesario/Viola, who’s already fallen in love with Orsino. Complicating matters is the recent arrival in town of Viola’s presumed-dead twin brother Sebastian, also played by Bruner. That choice, to have one performer play both Viola and Sebastian, solves one of the biggest problems inherent in Shakespeare’s text, which is that in Illyria – sorry, in Hollywood! – everyone keeps confusing the two identical twins for each other. Well, in this production, that’s east to see why, because, despite Bruner’s careful attention to giving each twin a different body posture, even the audience becomes occasionally confused about which one is which.
That confusion is just one of the problem’s Moore’s “solution” brings with it. The ending, for example, when the twins finally see each other for the first time, is assailed here in a truly creative and impressively high-tech fashion, but unfortunately it is entirely drama crushing and momentum-killing. Yes. It’s true to the Silver Screen theme of the production, but like an enormous FX overload at the end of a superhero movie, it’s so big it distracts from the joy of the moment, and from the simple, honest and beautiful emotional truth the actors have worked so hard to create.
And then, Moore suddenly regains that lost sense of joy by re-embracing the Hollywood concept one last time, in a lavish, curtain-closing tap dancing spectacle featuring the entire cast in tuxedos and gowns, joining together in an upbeat Cole Porter-style setting of the song Shakespeare wrote to close the show, with a few additional lyrics borrowed from one of the Bard’s sonnets.
Whether you leave this transgressive, transcendent staging of ‘Twelfth Night’ believing it to be a hot mess with a large number of brilliant moments, or an ingenious production with a fair number of bold-but-astounding failures, will ultimately depend entirely on your own personal tastes.
That may also be true of ‘The Yeoman of the Guard,’ staged in the small Thomas Theater as a wild country hootenanny in the middle of which a British comic opera breaks out. Adapted (read: thoroughly rewritten) by Sean Graney, Andra Velis Simon and Matt Kahler (the latter of whom also directs), the show is done in the same audience-participation style that the collaborators developed for their popular Chicago-based theater company The Hyprocrites.
The key component of a Hypocrites show is the notion of “proscenium seating,’ in which audience members purchase (in advance) a seat on the stage. In this case the stage—surrounded by bank of traditional seating from which the more timid audience members can safely observe—is a kind of over-the-top honkytonk complete with pool table, hay-bales, fully functional rocking horses, and various platforms and planks on which to sit. There is even a working bar at one corner, which remains open during the entire 90-minute show, and yes, audience members are encouraged to go get a beer on tap at any moment they feel like it.
And yes, that’s a little distracting.
And yes, that’s part of the point.
At a time when theater is simultaneously undergoing a kind of rough restart, as young theater-loving artists work hard to develop new ways of doing theater for a new less-formal generation, this production of ‘invigorating crazy-quilt sense fun that theater, at times, can so brilliantly bring. That it uses methods that were tested in the “underground theaters” of the Sixties and Seventies, doesn’t make it feel any less revolutionary.
The setting of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 125-year-old operetta was the Tower of London, and the story dealt with an innocently convicted man sentenced to die, and the various attempts of local friends, lovers and visiting minstrels to save him. In the OSF version, the story has been given a gleefully cartoonish country western vibe, with names and situations altered wildly to fit the new theme.
The impressive cast is a seamless ensemble of OSF company members and imports from Chicago, and it doesn’t take long to figure out their blend of cartoonish postures and over-the-top emotional distress. Standouts include Michael Sharon as Shadbolt the Jailer, who frequently laments, “I am hideous,” with so much comic despair, it’s hard to know weather to laugh or cry. And then there are the brilliant K.T. Vogt as the avaricious local warden Carruthers and Anthony Heald as the goofily cowboy-ish Deputy Dick Chumlee. Also excellent are Jeremy Peter Johnson as the imprisoned Fairfax (who is almost upstaged by his stunning “signature beard”), Kate Hurster as Elsie, a wandering country singer who becomes involved in the plot to save Fairfax, and Britney Simpson as both Phoebe Meryll, who loves Fairfax (The way she says “I love him” is like a three course meal of dead-serious emoting) and Crazy Kate, whose name fits.
Then there’s the dialogue, which includes much of Gilbert’s tongue-twisty wordplay, but throws in such corn-fed bon mots as “That’s sweeter than a squirrel playin’ Scrabble with a kitten!”
The cast rises nicely to this heightened level of lunacy, all of them playing musical instruments to accompany the abbreviated versions of the giddy, word-drunk G&S songs, which work surprisingly well as country western tunes.
But the star of the show is the concept.
With 70 extra human beings on stage, most of them sitting in places the cast occasionally needs to stand, there is a sense of controlled mayhem and traffic control going on at all times, with people standing up to get out of the way of singing and dancing actors, then looking for another place to sit. One enterprising youth discovered a safe spot near the pool table, under which she’d duck whenever she saw the actors coming.
Does any of this enhance the story or add to the dramatic arcs of the characters? Of course not. Eventually, the experience is only half about watching the story unfold, and half about watching a brave and bold band of performers pull it all off. For the purists, there are always other productions that focus on the plot and the music. For those looking to remember that theater, at its heart—and certainly in Shakespeare’s time—always felt a little bit dangerous, immoral and wrong, this is the show for you.
The most traditional of all the newly opened shows is a world premiere adaptation of another classic. Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ has never been an easy story to adapt. Most movie versions choose to focus on the gothic elements—the graveyard, the spooky house, the crazy lady in a tattered wedding dress—and let the emotional core of the story, in which a young boy learning what it means to be a good man, fall by the wayside.
In this lovely, emotionally grounded, truly beautiful adaptation by Penny Metropulos and Linda Alper, the flashier elements are all represented, though Metropulos (who also directs) uses a vast, mostly bare stage to strong effect, cleverly providing one or two visual prompts—fog in the graveyard, a flash of red light during a climactic fire—and allows the audience’s imaginations to fill in much of the detail. The heavy lifting here is done not my a sense of visual spectacle, but by the powerhouse poetry of Dickens’ words, and the brilliant performances of a large, tone-perfect cast.
Pip (played as a boy by Bohdi Johnson, then by Benjamin Bonenfant) is an orphan, apprenticed to a kindly blacksmith (Al Espinosa) but constantly reminded of his social position by his abusive older sister (Erica Sullivan). After an encounter in the graveyard with a terrifying escaped convict (Derick Lee Wheeden, magnificent), Pip steals food to feed the criminal, an act he sees as sinful and cowardly, setting up an internal moral fracture that he will wrestle with for the rest of his life.
It’s that moral question—“When is an act of cowardice or cruelty also an act of kindness, and does the part erase the bad, or vice versa?”—that is at core of Dickens’ story, and the adapters wisely embrace the question at every turn.
After Pip is hired to be the playmate of the wealthy Estella (Flora Chavez, then Nemuna Ceesay), who is the ward of the mysterious Miss Haversham (an excellent Judith Marie-Bergan), Pip soon falls in love, and believing himself to be unworthy, sets his sites on becoming a gentleman, rich and deserving enough of the beautiful Estella. Pip expectations are given a boost when the stern, disapproving lawyer Mr. Jaggers (Michael Elich, perfection) appears to offer the young man an opportunity in the form of a large monetary bequest from a secret benefactor, Pip’s journey into manhood is set on a series of unexpected courses.
Eschewing (with a few acceptable exceptions) the kind of showy, melodramatic performance Dickens is often treated to, Metropulos’s actors are first and foremost real people, and we see the broken hearts and fearful dreams that motivate them. The play is long (just under three hours) but is worth the time spent. Lovingly crafted, full of rich and transporting relationships, this ‘Great Expectations’ is one of the best and smartest stage adaptations of Dickens’ to come along in quite some time.