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Shakespeare & Company Summer into Fall 2007 Season
By Elyse Sommer
Summer 2007 Shows Reviewed —Plus Special Fall U.S. premiere of The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
*The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
*Antony & Cleopatra
The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
70 Kemble St., Lenox, (413) 6371199
Varying schedules, all at Founders Theater Other events: Seasonal Calendar
Shows to be covered
(Click show title for basic details * added when review is posted
May 25 to September 2
July 5 to September 2; opens July 14
*Antony and Cleopatra
July 27 to September 2
*The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
September 28 - October 28
I 've been stealing ear-rings, necklaces, bracelets and the occasional tiara all my adult life—Ivor
Who knows? Perhaps I was starved of affectation as a child. . .Ivor
—A rehearsal scene for The Cruise of the Dodo, the musical play within the play, the former obviously borrowed from the Raffles movies, the latter from Ferenc Molnar's Play at the Castle and P.G. Wodehouse's The Play's the Thing.
After following the high-minded social thinkers through three epic voyages in search of the Coast of Utopia at Lincoln Center, I was ripe for Sir Tom in a less scholarly mood. Look as you might for deeper meanings, Rough Crossing will turn up none. Those who insist that anything by this playwright must have intellectual underpinnings, might see insights about the fine line separating reality and fiction but ultimately this is Sir Tom Lite, the theatrical equivalent of a quick snack rather than a nourishing meal. It's a farce but, this being Stoppard, words misused and misunderstood substitute for the usual slamming doors.
With a cast of characters that includes a Hungarian actress and a ship's steward unfamiliar with seafaring jargon, the English language is sure to yield ample opportunity for premeditated confusion. The intent of that confusion is not to lead to a thought provoking conclusion but a happy ending and to keep you laughing at the shenanigans on this storm tossed ship of fools: Two playwrights, Sandor Turai (Jonathan Croy) and Alex Gal (Jason Asprey) are headed for New York to mount their musical comedy, Dodo, even though it lacks either a solid beginning or end. . . Adam Adam (Bill Barclay) the show's composer, his fiancee and the operetta diva, Natasha (Elizabeth Aspenlieder). . .Natasha's co-star and former lover Ivor Fish (Malcolm Ingram). . . and the ship's personnel seen only via Dvornicheck (LeRoy McClain), the ship's steward.
While my favorite Stoppard comedy, the brilliant Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, also borrows from another playwright, Rough Crossing is doubly derivative, using Ferenc Molnar's Play in the Castle and P.G. Wodehouse's The Play's the Thing as its source. Since the Hungarian Molnar was satirizing the French Victor Sardou's plays, there's probably a sly joke here in having Stoppard, a Czech-born Englishman, dipping into a Hungarian satire of a French farce.
As if to offset his borrowing, the playwright has added a special fillip by giving this farce the trappings of a romantic musical comedy. Not that there's enough music to qualify it as a musical. As for André Previn's musical interludes and Stoppard's lyrics and singing by usually non-singing actors, it's all as bad as it's meant to be. For that matter all of Rough Crossing was considered pretty bad when it made its 1984 London debut (The National Theater withdrew it from its repertory and when it finally came to New York the late Mel Gussow described it as having " the shelf life of a banana cream pie"). Still it's fun to hear Stoppard stoop to intentionally sappy lyrics like "Glory be when you kissed me,/Wedding bells rang two for tea."
Though this game of misunderstanding and confusion has been more interestingly played by characters in Stoppard's top tier work, Kevin Coleman has directed it for maximum laughs. He does his best (which isn't quite enough) to keep the intentionally bad play within a play from being tiresome to watch. What holds this production together is the energetic and enthusiastic cast, all but one of whom are Shakespeare & Company veterans.
Jonathan Croy is hilarious as Turai, the playwright who can't seem to get hold of a much needed drink but who manages to persuade the devastated composer that the inadvertently overheard romantic exchange between Natasha and her former lover was just a rehearsal of a scene Ivan had written for the play. Jason Asprey is also amusing as Turai's compulsively nibbling partner and Bill Barclay fortunately does not overdo Adam's inability to speak under tense circumstances. Elizabeth Aspenlieder, a lovely blonde made to look even lovelier by costumer Govane Lohbauer is obviously having a ball as the sexy Hungarian diva with an accent that seems purposefully aimed at making the Gabor sisters turn in their graves. But it's company newcomer LeRoy McClain who provides the biggest laughs as Dvornicheck, a.k.a. Murphy, the steward who's deliciously eager to serve but keeps downing the cognacs intended for Turai. (I look forward to seeing him in the more serious Blue-Orange later in the season).
While detailed scenery tends to contribute to the fun of this type of comedy — to wit, a recent revival of The Play's the Thing in New Jersey (review)— Shakespeare & Company has always worked with minimalist staging to accommodate several productions alternating in one venue. Carl Sprague's budget and schedule accommodating scenery for Rough Crossing has just enough of a nautical flavor to make us feel we're on board the SS Italian Castle. It would have been nice to see a little more coordination with the sound designer, so that the sense of being on a storm tossed voyage wouldn't be l left mostly for Mr. McClain's Dvornicheck to convey.
For those who prefer their plays to be more serious and intellectual, I can't guarantee that all the laughs will land . Unless like Dvornicheck you fortify yourself with a few cognacs (I forgot to check if Josie's Place in the theater lobby serves them).
For more about Tom Stoppard and links to his plays reviewed by us, see our Stoppard Backgrounder
—Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on June 21st.
The necessity of using Shakespeare & Company's main stage for all but one of its summer season offerings, is an ideal fit for the minimalist set Blue/Orange calls for—a few chairs, a water cooler and a table to hold the bowl of oranges that give the play its title. I can't help wishing that director Timothy Douglas had taken advantage of the Lenox theater's configuration to lend more of the London production's lecture hall aura to Penhall's dramatized arguments about mental health care, organizational conformity, alienated youth and race. The Founders' Theater stage is surrounded by viewers on three sides, at eye level, and on two raised areas, much like a large teaching auditorium. Therefore it would have been easy to put about a dozen or so audience members either at the rear of the playing area or on the narrow loges above it.
That staging quibble aside, the drama now has the sparkle and intensity that was missing from the version I saw previously. That sparkle is supplied by its three firecracker actors.
Malcolm Ingram gives a magnetic portrait of Mark the senior doctor who is intent on doing what's best for the hospital's bottom line (freeing up scarce beds as fast as possible) and his career path. He has the tall, lean, charm of Bill Nighy the actor who originated this part and who Penhall actually had in mind when he was writing the play. Jason Asprey, brings the needed intensity, frustration and disillusion to Bruce, the young doctor who's torn between ambition and doing the right thing rather than than accepting the realities of the over-burdened and under-financed health care system.
LeRoy McClain, a terrific new addition to Shakespeare & Company's acting roster, is a fine edgy and anxious the third leg of this dramatic stool as Christopher, the young black man who's caught between the doctors' opposing opinions as to whether his seeing oranges as blue instead of their true color signifies a typical neurotic's seeing what he wants to see or a more dangerous form of mental illness. Mark is all for releasing him from the hospital (a free National Health Care facility). Bruce feels his delusion about the oranges as well as being Ugandan ex-dictator Idi Amin's son require further observation by designating him as a schizophrenic requiring what the National Health Care system calls a "Section 3."
The play's strength derives less from what's going to happens at the end of its twenty-four hour time span than from the ambiguities that lend nuance and dimension to the characters. While the older, doctor has the clear edge in this battle of wills, he's not an unsympathetic monster, just as Bruce isn't exactly a heroic David fighting a Machiavellian representative of a super practical bureaucracy. Both doctors are at well-intentioned but also manipulative. As the human rope being tugged this way and that by Mark and Bruce's argument, McClain's Christopher often seems more sane than his doctors. No wonder one-time guru R. D. Laing who declared that the people outside mental institutions were often madder than their inmates is quoted several times.
While there are differences between the American and British health care system (in this country, only someone with proven violent behavior can be held in a hospital so that the discussion about Section ! or 3 wouldn't apply), the overall issues of race and organizational cost cutting measures are sadly all too universally relevant. There are no easy fixes for the issues discussed but some judicious script cutting could keep the play from being a bit too talky. Such cuts would also give the actors just a few less words to commit to memory. After all, they not only do bravura work in these demanding roles but three times a week undertake key roles in Tom Stoppard's comedy, Rough Crossing. I should add, that for all the seriousness of Blue/Orange's themes, it's not a grim tooth clencher but offers its share of laughs, albeit the color is neither bright orange of blue but decidedly black.
Blue/Orange in London
—Reviewed by Elyse Sommer on July 14
Antony and Cleopatra
Her playing onstage mother to her real-life son in last year's Hamlet was an interesting bit of casting that worked quite well. Her reunion with Nigel Gore, her husband in that play, is intriguing but not quite the tour de force to make one forget visions of more age-appropriate Cleopatras. That said, her taking on the challenge of playing the thirty-nine-year old Queen associated in many people's minds with Elizabeth Taylor, typifies her can-do spirit as Shakespeare & Company's own "queen."
This is not the first Antony and Cleopatra to inject humor into the tragedy of the passionate affair of Marc Antony (Gore), the middle-aged Roman ruler and soldier, and the seductive Egyptian queen. Vanessa Redgrave's interpretation of Cleopatra as an imperious late Renaissance leader who happens to be a woman was also tempered with comic touches (Review of that production). But as that interpretation for New York's Public Theater thrilled only the most diehard Redgrave fans, so Packer's often playful and giggle-inducing Cleopatra is likely to be an unqualified hit only with those who swear that she can do no wrong. Though I count myself among Packer's admirers, the reach for laughs and her tendency to overdo being girlishly in love makes for a mixed-mood production that's only sporadically powerful.
What about the lover who's torn between his duties as a Roman ruler and soldier and his desire to live a life of the flesh with Cleopatra which causes him to become embroiled in a war with Octavius Caesar, one of his fellow triumvirates? Packer and Gore have certainly developed a good deal of chemistry from working together and Gore is a physically agile actor who knows how to deliver the Bard's words. I suppose the fact that he's not movie-star glamorous makes him a good match and makes it more possible for the passionate relationship to ignite convincingly.
Director Michael Hammond ingeniously and immediately establishes the situation that drives the play by having the neither young or glamorous lovers making love in a subtly curtain-shrouded pillow bed. However, when not bedding his equally enamored mistress, Gore relies a bit too much on excessive raging and ranting. Thus, Craig Baldwin's less volatile Octavius Caesar is the more emotionally persuasive of the two leaders — and as complex, given that his feelings for his sister hint more than a little at (undeclared and unfulfilled?) incestuous passion.
While I miss seeing the familiar Shakespearians of past seasons who have either taken leaves of absence from the company, moved behind the scenes (like director Hammond), or to the neighboring Berkshire Theatre Festival, the rest of the actors in this production perform well— with some, like Walter Wilson as Marc Antony's loyal general Enobarbus, better than that.
With the main stage used for three other productions (Midsummer Nights Dream, Rough Crossing, Blue Orange), set designer Carl Sprague is to be commended for creating an easy to take down and remount set that takes us from Egypt to Rome and to sea — not to mention that subtle beginning and a drop-dead finish that reunites the lovers after a middle-aged Romeo and Juliet-like ending. The giant upstage curtain that dominates the otherwise bare-bones scenery (Shakespeare & Company has always relied more on acting and text than scenic glitz) several times allows actors to appear on the upper gallery.
Arthur Oliver's costumes rely mostly on color to differentiate between the passion-charged atmosphere of Egypt and the political confabs in Romeo. Cleopatra's rather garish gold-trimmed, turqoise gown displays enough cleavage to make one wonder what all the fuss was about when Hillary Clinton recently displayed a smidgen of hers but does little to flatter Packer. The white gown she wears later in the play isn't much better.
The drama of the naval battles that lead to Marc Antony's defeat, owe much to movement director Susan Dibble for their dramatic impact. Another unseen hero of this production is composer and sound designer Bill Barclay and the musicians who play his lovely, evocative recorded score.
Though imperfect, this Antony and Cleopatra does have its memorable moments; an example besides the already mentioned battle scenes is Cleopatra's jealous fit towards the messenger who brings news of Antony's marriage to Caesar's sister. And, of course, there's much wonderful poetry to savor in this tale of love and hate and diplomacy gone awry.
The Secret of Sherlock Holmes
The play Paul wrote for Brett took much of its dialogue from Conan Doyle's stories. However, it was not a collage adaptation of the Sherlock Homes stories, but a character mystery —its focus on what forged the personal and professional bond between the high strung, brilliant Holmes and the more laid back Doctor Watson. It did make it to the stage in London, with Brett in the title role. Though the reviews were less than ecstatic the two-hander might have made it to this country had Brett lived to be in it.
All this by way of introduction to Shakespeare & Company's decision to take this play out of mothballs and give American audiences a chance to see what it contributes to the Sherlock Holmes canon. With Berkshire residents and visitors, eager to take a break from leaf peeping with a theatrical outing, its staging during October is sure to keep the Founders Theater filled (it was packed at the Saturday opening night performance I attended).
This production begins with the plus of having one of the company's best actors (also its associate artistic director), Michael Hammond, play the flamboyant and brilliant Holmes and another company regular, David Demke, assuming the role of Holmes' friend, colleague, flat mate and chronicler. To create a more fully furnished setting than is usual for Founders Theater productions, the designers have also taken advantage of the theater's ability to change its configuration. The current layout has a proscenium stage and the long platform stage of the more regularly used thrust staging is now part of the center seating area. This works very well and Paula Seixas' aptly detailed Victorian set puts the famous Baker Street sitting room side by side with a smaller space for scenes that take place in Dr. Watson's surgery. It's all atmospherically lit (by Matthew Miller) and the Victorian furnishings include coat racks for Holmes and Watson's frequent changes from one suit jacket to another (and, of course, there's a scene with Holmes in the famous cape coat)
So far so good. While anyone not familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories and the famous Baker Street setting, might initially be a bit confused by the Doyle-oriented dialogue and story snippets, it won't take long to catch on and enjoy the Baker Street flavor. Thanks to the topnotch performances, the first act achieves the playwright's intent of establishing each man's personality, how the friendship began (Holmes interviewing Watson as to his suitability as a flat mate makes for one of the play's most amusing scenes) and how their relationship deepened despite their very different personalities.
The first act's finale has Holmes fall victim to his nemesis, Dr. Moriarty (think "The Final Problem"), and then reappear causing Watson to fall into a faint and Holmes to exclaim" I had no idea you'd be so affected!" It's a perfect setup for the second act.
While Hammond and Demke do their best, the second act's more psychologically complex revelation of Holmes' personality (per "The Empty House") is unfortunately something of a muddle, whether you are a Sherlock Holmes aficionado or not. And so, the high expectations raised in Act One, turn into something of a letdown. The play's big Secret about Holmes' split personality is not all that convincingly "elementary my dear Watson."
Besides the two well worth seeing performances and the handsome staging, Shakespeare & Company has offered numerous inducements that are sure to attract audiences. For starters, Berkshire residents can take advantage of half price tickets for the entire run. A special themed weekend of events us planned all around Lenox as well as at the Kemble Street campus, with a Victorian lunch at the Company's Josie's Place, promising to be literally delicious fun.