Stratford Update #1: Timon of Athens and Bakkhai

#Stratford2017 is here! C and I are writing to you from beautiful Stratford, from the patio at New Haven on the River, overlooking the Avon River, and basking in weather that is well below 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Hallelujah.

As with each of our previous sojourns to the Stratford Festival, our travel plans went completely off the rails on Monday, but now – with two plays and a “Meet the Festival” forum under our belts – we decided it was time to fill in our loyal readers.

As the title of this post suggests, today’s update will explore the takeaways we each felt after seeing Timon of Athens and Bakkhai. Spoiler alert: we hit our low point early this year.

Timon of Athens

Let’s begin with Timon. Being that we are Shakespeare-ophiles, it’s fitting that we began our trip with one of Shakespeare’s most obscure works. I’ll admit it: I, myself, had never even read Timon, let alone had the chance to see a production. Based in ancient Greek history, Shakespeare’s Timon is reliant on its lead to set the tone and message of the play. Is Timon a good person with a naïve and unbending faith in the good of man? Or is he just as shallow and awful as the people he surrounds himself with?

Stratford’s production has a clear answer in its Timon, Joseph Ziegler. Upon Timon’s first appearance we have already been introduced to the courtiers and “friends” who consciously take advantage of his generosity, so it is not hard to feel for the man whom we do not yet know. Regardless, Timon’s first scene makes it inescapably clear that he takes genuine pleasure in spreading  his good fortunes, despite being had left, right, and center. So Timon is meant to be a pillar. A pillar that we as the audience can admire and want to advise as Ben Carlson’s Apemantus does, but also one that we can view as a cautionary tale. Humanity here – as in the real world – has proven time and again that it is unworthy of unconditional love and support; there is merit in looking out for oneself.

Ziegler is supported by an outstanding cast in a space that utilizes the transformative power of a simplistic scenic design to transport the audience by allowing for heightened imagination. Also, it’s important to note that this is a case in which modernizing the original piece, works quite well – it’s not like people have stopped being greedy sons-of-bitches in the last 400 years… Seeing the show in a contemporary setting made it crystal clear that the mirror was being held up for humanity to take a good look at its flaws.

Standouts include Ben Carlson’s Apemantus (whose clarity and intent is spot-on), Mike Nadajewski’s Painter, and Tim Campbell’s Alcibiades. Of course, Joseph Ziegler’s Timon tops it off, peppering his portrayal with endearing smiles and twinkling eyes before doing a 180 in Act 2: The Scrooging (pause for laughter. Ziegler plays Scrooge annually). Also, if you’re looking for a good Shakespearean insult take a look at the misanthrope-off between Timon and Apemantus – there are some serious zingers.

 

Bakkhai

Here’s where things got a bit disappointing. Both C and I are quite familiar with the Bakkhai so we assumed we knew what we were in for. Well, we were in for… something. I won’t say I hated it, but I didn’t like it. C agrees with me. Unfortunately, there were a great many conceptualized elements that were mashed together, and none of them managed to produce a cohesive end-result. That, and there was a tendency to be so blatant, so on-the-nose, that there was little power in the suggestion of subtle choices onstage and too much reliance on the poor decisions of the director and the design team.

This version of Bakkhai set aside the original’s focus on human hubris and shifted perspective to encompass feminism and women’s sexuality, and explore the fear (but also titillation) its mystique brings to the men who don’t understand it. Now, this is not the worst concept I’ve ever heard. In reading the program notes I thought it would be a great take on the old tragedy, but the production still includes a lot of dialogue that is in complete opposition with that perceived idea, and continues to highlight the misogyny of the ancient Greek’s who wrote the damn thing. Also, the stage is literally designed to look like a vulva – complete with a clitoris. It’s not a suggestive design in the style of Georgia O’Keefe, but just straight up genitalia in a “I’m in art school and you probably don’t understand my concept” kind of way. It’s on the nose and, honestly, does not serve the play – or its concept – in any way.

The choices throughout the production were generally half-formed or disjointed. For one thing, the costume design was both contemporary and ancient Greek? If this was simply an attempt to separate the Bakkhai women from the people of Thebes, it did not work. It is incredibly jarring to watch 20 minutes of women dressed as you might expect while watching an ancient Greek tragedy only to be met with a Pentheus clad in a grey suit, toting an iPad. Not only that, there was nothing to create unity onstage: no conforming color scheme, texture, fabric… even the contemporary elements didn’t actually look like they belonged on the same stage.

The characterization of some of the characters also lacked cohesion and the interpretation of a Greek chorus as a literal singing chorus did not take into account the vocal limitations of its cast. The concept is neat in theory, but the execution was a far cry from the intended effect. Distractingly canned backing tracks, poor diction, snatches of song that did not succeed in furthering the plot, and a cast of untrained singers made the choral element difficult to watch. Many of the problems would have been solved with lower melodic lines, some live onstage percussion, and perhaps the use of something more akin to chant than actual song.

As for the characters, Lucy Peacock’s Agave, Graham Abbey’s Tirisias, and Nigel Bennett’s Kadmos were the show’s three saviors. All three brought excellence to their roles, with the unfortunate caveat being that they weren’t given much to do. The character who should have resonated with charisma and electricity – Dionysus – fell flat. Again, the concept made sense, but there was no evidence of fully realized commitment to the why. The goal – it would seem – was to have an androgynous, sexual parallel to Jesus whose movement is as fluid as the wine he brings. Unfortunately, the choice (whether by the director or the actor) did not sit well in Mac Fyfe’s voice and body, lending to the odd sensation we could see the actor “acting”. It also had the overall affect of conjuring up an image of this guy….

hedonism

So, yeah… that was Bakkhai.

Stay tuned for more Stratford Festival updates and reviews! Hopefully, we’ll be covering the next batch of shows tomorrow afternoon.

-A and C

 

 

 

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Weekend Round-Up! Pre-Stratford Edition!

Hey, guys! It’s me again. (C, in case the completely divergent styles of writing didn’t make that obvious.) I’m here to take care of the last minute details before we head off to Stratford tomorrow! Why? Because it wouldn’t be fair to you, our wonderful readers (hello!), to just have us disappear for a few days.

So, first up… yesterday’s blog! Only today! I’m going to go ahead and recommend some ways for you to watch Tartuffe. Then I’m going to find something silly.

Then I’m going to tell you the order in which to expect our reviews. There’s a good chance we’ll group them together in twos or fours or something like that, depending on how often we get on the computer. But at least you’ll know the order!

Anyway. As for film, there’s a version from 1984 directed by and starring Gérard Depardieu. If your French is really good, that’s the version for you! OK, maybe there are subtitles. There usually are these days. Or, because Molière really is the French Shakespeare, there’s a 2007 movie that’s kinda like Shakespeare In Love in that it’s all about Molière and the events of the movie inspire the play Tartuffe. The film is called, get this, Molière. Again… it’s in French. But, hey! Subtitles! You always wanted to learn French, right?

Of course you did.

What I recommend doing is just kinda going to good ol’ Lady Google and searching for it. I just did, and there were a number of versions that popped up. You might have to string a bunch of videos together, but… trust me, it’s worth it. The play is hilarious.

Now. Something funny…

Let’s do Good Tickle Brain’s version! I always love her work. Kinda wish we would still be up there when she does her panel, but we won’t… *sad face*

Aaaaaand finally, the schedule!

First up, you’ll be treated to the two Greek plays! (It’s fun how things like that work out!) So, Timon of Athens and The Bakkhai! (I look forward to seeing angry Dionysus. In my novel, he goes on to become Sigmund Freud. Don’t ask. Or do. I’m willing to tell you how that works!) Following that will be The School for Scandal and Guys and Dolls, which… um… they’re both fun. Then Twelfth Night and perhaps Treasure Island. Perhaps. Friday is Romeo and Juliet (which I hear is good even for those of us who maaaaaaybe don’t like the play that much), and our trip concludes with The Madwoman of Chaillot and Tartuffe (which we splurged on extra good seats for! YAY us!). We promise to faithfully execute our Cactus duties and tell you all about them!

So. Until at least Wednesday! Ciao, fair readers!

C

Boozy Books: Tartuffe

Hello! Welcome to the last of our Boozy Books run-ups to this year’s Stratford adventure! Come Monday, we’ll be on a plane up to Canada (and weather that isn’t like a literal sauna) and, as we’ve done the last two years, the week of Stratford (and usually the week after, as well) foregoes the usual format to basically vomit forth all our love for everything we see. So… that.

Anyway. Let’s talk Tartuffe.

The main thrust of the play is that Tartuffe is a religious fraud who worms his way into the house of a man called Orgon, to the point that Orgon and his mother take no action without first consulting Tartuffe. But, fortunately for Orgon, the rest of the household can see right through Tartuffe’s false pieties and make up their mind to get him out of their hair. They finally manage to convince Orgon of Tartuffe’s assholery (though it takes Tartuffe nearly assaulting Organ’s wife, Elmire), but things happen and everything kinda goes to shit for Orgon et al before, in what might very well be the most obvious case of Deus Ex Machina ever, the glorious (and unnamed) Louis XIV uses his wisdom to pierce the clouds of moral turpitude and set everything to rights. (Hey, when Louis XIV is the reason for your existence, you let him be the hero, OK?)

As I discussed on Monday, Molière was a very regular playwright. He, largely because France was so big on them, used the classical unities to their fullest. It’s a play with one arching story, one setting, and it takes place within twenty-four hours (give or take). But because of those constraints, there’s a lot of depth to be explored. Like pretty much anything Molière, the play is outrageously funny. A simple translation and a direct staging would be enough for this play (and all of Molière’s plays) to be funny. So imagine what a great translation and an interesting staging might do. After all, it’s not like the world today is rife with seemingly-pious imposters who’re only looking after themselves…

*cough* *hack* *fall over*

From what I understand of the performance this year, I can only imagine a certain orange buffoon will receive his share of the raillery. OK, maybe just outright mocking. One can only hope.

OK. What to drink? I’m going with a Beaujolais. Preferably a Beaujolais Nouveau, which is the lightest variety. Why? Because it is said that a Beaujolais is the only white wine that happens to be red. And I think a wine that looks like one thing but is another is perfect for a play like this. Its actual taste is light, it’s usually served chilled, and is often served at picnics, which I think fits Molière’s plays to a tee. So… get you some white-red wine and enjoy the festivities!

C

Monday Muse: Ah, Molière!

OK. First of all, I could have sworn I scheduled this. Turns out, I just left it open in my browser and THOUGHT I scheduled it. So… it’s late. Sorry.

So. We’ve come to the fourth and final week of Shakespeare-a-palooza 2017! Next week, A and I will be coming at you live from (hopefully) sunny Stratford, Ontario! As you know, we have a habit of reviewing all the shows we see, so make sure to check back in to find out what other adventures we had. Because, while we only saw three plays our first time in Stratford (two years ago), this year we’re seeing at least eight, maybe nine (if Treasure Island gets a good recommendation). That’s every matinee and night show for all five full days we’re up there except for Friday night, which is devoted to our sole out-of-town trip to Anna Mae’s (an Amish restaurant with the best–THE BEST–potato salad).

Besides the plays we covered this month (including Tartuffe, which is this week), we’re also seeing a Greek play (The Bakkhai), another Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet), a Drury Lane classic (The School for Scandal), and the only other play I seriously considered pairing (The Madwoman of Chaillot). It’s a good collection, though I do wish we’d been able to work HMS Pinafore into the mix. Nothing like Gilbert and Sullivan to make a day great!

Anyway, moving on to today’s topic: MolièreNot his birth name, but the name that has survived through the years. He is, to put it in the easiest terms possible, to France what Shakespeare is to England. And he and the Bard have a lot in common. Both were actors as well as playwrights, both were part of a theater company, and both used their mastery of their respective languages to give incredible insight into the human condition. There is a reason they have survived in a way that others haven’t, though Shakespeare gets the edge here in the North American continent because of our connection to Britain.

The biggest difference, really, is that Molière’s comedies are really more in the style of, say, Ben Jonson than William Shakespeare. Molière was a very, and I use the term loosely, ‘regular’ playwright. By this, I mean he adhered to the classical unities, or Aristotelian unities, which directed that a play must have one action (with minimal subplots), it must take place in a period of no more than 24 hours, and it should stay in one place. The French dramatists of the 17th century (of whom Molière was one) were said to be, in this way, very regular.

Shakespeare was… let’s just say not. He, like many of England’s playwrights during the Elizabethan era, owed more to the Roman tradition, especially Terence and Plautus in the case of comedy. Only two of Shakespeare’s plays conform to the unities–The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest–whereas Molière’s fits perfectly. What this allowed Molière to do that Shakespeare did not was use his comedy for satirical purposes. Because everything is so tightly focused, limited to one place for no more than twenty-four hours (with no subplots), Molière had to wring the meaning from his words. He couldn’t rely on spectacle the way Shakespeare could (though that’s not to say his plays couldn’t get ridiculous; satire is often ridiculous). Shakespeare went big and ridiculous, ribald and over-the-top for his comedies. In the words of the Reduced Shakespeare Comedy: “why did he write sixteen comedies when he could have written just one?” Well, of course, Shakespeare was also a master at something Molière was not: staying out of trouble.

Where Shakespeare used framing devices (plays within plays, history in place of the present) to distance his criticisms enough to maintain plausible deniability, Molière went big. He stayed contemporary, spelling out his feelings in ways that were immediately recognizable and instantly understandable to his audiences. Keep in mind, too, that while Shakespeare was writing for, in many cases, the great unwashed masses, Molière was writing for the Sun King, Louis XIV. His audiences would have easily understood just who Molière was sending up, even if he did so using biting sarcasm and irony. Where Shakespeare had to go big to appease his audience (the English never did take to the classical unities the way the French did. Actually, no one took to the classical unities the way the French did), Molière could be more subtle.

That doesn’t mean he was. In fact, even with the King’s patronage and support, when Molière died, he never received last rites because two priests refused to visit him. He had angered the medical profession, the Church, and many other influential people by, basically, talking shit about them in his plays. When he fell sick (collapsing during a performance of, ironically enough, The Hypochondriac), no one wanted to help him.

Ah, the dangers of speaking truth to power.

However, because he was so favored of the King, an exception was made to the ‘not being buried in sacred ground’ rule (it was a silly time and place), and Molière was allowed a normal burial. He was, of course, eventually moved because he’s a goddamn literary icon. Do you think if we knew where Mozart was buried we wouldn’t have moved him to something lavish? Of course we would have. Greatness deserves recognition.

Anyway. I wanted to talk about Molière because, frankly, he’s funnier than Shakespeare. And you gotta love a man who’s willing to piss people off to say something true.

Also, there’s a legend that wearing green is bad luck for actors. This is likely because he was wearing green when he died.

Cool, huh?

I’ll be back Friday to pair Tartuffe, which is all about religious hypocrisy.

Ah, Molière. How relevant you remain.

C

Shakespeare Saturday: Luck Be a Lady!

OK, so…

Obviously, this has nothing to do with Shakespeare. But we made an executive decision that we were going to discuss and pair something other than Shakespeare this year (to be fair, we only skipped Romeo and Juliet, and well, we’ve spent enough time with Romeo and Juliet at Nerd Cactus), and we went through with it!

In case you hadn’t noticed, A had a lot of fun dealing with this show. She loves the musicals, does A. And so it falls to me to discuss versions of Guys and Dolls you can watch at home.

Unfortunately, unless you can lay your hands on a production video, your only real shot is the 1955 movie with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. It’s… not the worst possible adaptation, but it’s not good. I mean, as a movie it’s good, but not as an adaptation. It cuts several songs from the production, adds a couple, and manages to lose the soul of the stage production. The only really good things I can say are that Vivian Blaine and Stubby Kaye play Miss Adelaide and Nicely-Nicely Johnson; they had each originated that role on Broadway, so “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” is the song it was meant to be.

Oh, and there’s always the pleasure of hearing Sinatra sing… anything.

OK, so it’s not a bad movie. In fact, it’s a well-respected movie, but it does feel like it’s missing something, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe those cut numbers (especially “Marry The Man Today”) would have helped fill the movie out.

You can also listen to Sinatra sing “Luck Be a Lady”. Because it’s always fun listening to Sinatra sing, right?

Or you can probably find snips from various productions on YouTube. “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” is my favorite. But if you can find a good version of “Adelaide’s Lament”, you’re in for a hoot. Fortunately, the movie didn’t cut that.

-C

Boozy Musicals: Guys & Dolls

Happy Friday, friends! Boy, have I been looking forward to this post. I get to pair Guys & Dolls with booze! I would say the two go hand-in-hand quite naturally, really. You see, there is an assortment of gambling/boozing gangsters in the story aaand alcohol is sort of used as a plot device to further one of the storylines . So, yes, pairing Guys & Dolls as our first ever Boozy Musical does seem rather fitting. Let’s get started!

For those who are somehow unfamiliar with this classic musical, there are several (let’s saaay three? At least…) plotlines running through the course of the show. Interestingly, I find the opening number, “Fugue for Tinhorns”, to be a perfect reflection of the story to follow – three characters sing three distinct sets of harmony and lyrics around and over each other in canon. It’s one of those numbers that kind of changed the face of musical theatre, because (for that time) it was pretty inventive. Most musicals up to that point stuck with one character singing at a time or having all characters sing the same lyrics. Let’s just say “Fugue for Tinhorns” is an oft-visited subject in good ol’ THA481 (History of Theatre).

Ok, now that I’ve told you about the brilliant, groundbreaking, and deliberately orchestrated opening number, let’s get to the story. Basically, two of the major plotlines are love stories. One follows Nathan Detroit (illegal crap game organizer extraordinaire) and his fiancé of fourteen years, Adelaide (lounge singer desperate to tie the knot and be an honest woman). The other love story kinda has that 90s teen movie trope that involves a bet about whether the guy can make the chick fall for him – of course, this was back in the 50s so clearly the OG “make a bet, fall in love” plotline. Anyway, the characters involved are Sky Masterson (gambler and secret bible expert) and Sarah Brown (boring, prim, proper, and only interesting once Sky gets her drunk). The third major plotline involves the crap game that Nathan is supposed to set up for his gangster friends and the ensuing chaos as they try to evade police. There are a couple other underlying things going on, but those are the biggies so we’ll leave it at that.

As you might expect from a musical comedy the action is fast-paced and sharp, and the plot (or at least the end result) is fairly predictable. Most of the characters come across as a bit one-dimensional simply because the writing of the time focused on character types that were generally defined by one major character trait (sometimes two). So, despite the interwoven storylines, the show is really very easy to follow and quite fun, as a result of its great pacing, bopping around from one plot to the next. As usual, I’m no fan of giving away the “deets” so if you’re looking for a tell-all synopsis go ahead and check out its Wiki page.

What I do want to get into – albeit briefly – is the use of alcohol to further the Sky/Sarah storyline. Sky kind of uses alcohol to loosen Sarah up… Now, I will tell you that in the context of the show he’s already won his bet, so it isn’t a scene about taking advantage of her. If the scene is directed properly it’s actually Sky’s attempt at getting Sarah to stop being a pain in his ass and have a little fun. Because, while I do not like the idea of women being plied with alcohol, Sarah does need to lighten up. A lot. She is boring, predictable, virtuous, and the most unwatchable part of the show right up to the point that Sky orders her a “dulce de leche” and convinces her that Bacardi is a type of preservative.

Obviously, you know where this transition is leading… Yup, I’m pairing Guys & Dolls with the (until recently) fictional Bacardi cocktail Sky refers to as “Dulce de Leche”. Now, I’m sure a lot of you recognize this as a flavor of ice cream that gets its name from the thick caramel condensed-milk swirls that is the actual South American treat known as dulce de leche. At the time the musical was written there was no such cocktail. The Bacardi dulce de leche drink was not invented until the 1992 Broadway revival of Guys & Dolls. It was concocted as a specialty to be served at the show’s grand opening. The recipe is as follows: Bacardi, Godiva, and cream.

Enjoy!

A

 

Monday Muse: Guys & Dolls, A Musical Fable of Broadway

Happy Monday, Nerd Cacti! Welcome to week three of Shakespeare-a-palooza!! That means we’re getting suuuper close to the week of the trip y’all! I can practically taste Laura’s homemade granola and feel the breeze on the back patio of Balzac’s. August 28th, you are so close, yet so damn far…

Anyway, this week marks our departure from Shakespeare-iness as we explore some of the other shows we’ll be attending when we hit Stratford at the end of the month. This week we’re spotlighting Guys & Dolls – the classic Broadway musical which I have had the privilege to perform in, and love very much despite its glaring problems (and in today’s day and age, they are quite glaring). It’s a well-known masterwork that helped set the stage for the American musical comedy: delivering laughs and conflict, stock characters that Broadway audiences would come to recognize in an instant, and doling out happy endings to all.

It’s a fun musical, to be sure – typically staged in an atmosphere awash with color and spectacle, and boasting a good handful of memorable songs and characters – but over time, I’ve come to find that it’s best enjoyed at face-value. Looking closely at this 1950s relic, a modern audience will find that the material has not aged well. It is brimming with problematic stereotypes, outdated gender expectations, and an old-timey Americana depiction of what is supposedly “wholesome” that leaves much to be desired. Simply put, beyond the flash and the catchy showtunes, Guys & Dolls is outdated.

Yes, as much as I love this musical, I can admit to its flaws. The gender-based humor is not kind to women, the depiction of police is irresponsible, and the fact that the audience is led to cheer on gangsters who receive little to no recourse is downright deranged. Under the magnifying glass this is far from a perfect example of American musical theatre. It features an array of chauvinistic themes, allowing the male characters to be the featured protagonists despite their errant and obvious flaws, while the women are caught in the narrow-minded writer’s depiction of either being virtuous or loose (with no apparent in-between). Also, Adelaide and Sarah’s duet at the end of the show – “Marry the Man Today” – can make the modern, emancipated woman feel a little itchy if it isn’t directed properly. If it is left to the lyrics and not paired with strong motivation on the part of the actors, it comes off as an ode to settling for the sake of being married.

Interestingly, the show’s subtitle – “A Musical Fable of Broadway” –  suggests that there is a moral to the story. I think, above all, this is my problem with the show. To me, it says that beyond shallow entertainment I should learn a lesson from this particular story. But – as I mentioned – being a believer in equality, it is hard to consider the story as something deeper than an old-fashioned romp that was written before women’s lib and the dawn of realistic character development. Sure, there are lots of examples of women being shoved into one of two pigeonholes, – moral and boring or sassy and loose – but this show’s deliberate subtitle suggests that there is an important lesson in watching a good woman fall for a crook, and another equally good woman (heart of gold, bitches, don’t judge Adelaide cause she sings in a sleazy lounge) settle for another crook who has given her no real reason to stay with him beyond the fear of ending up unmarried and old.

As I said, I love Guys & Dolls. It’s fun and silly and – oddly enough – charming, despite these issues. More often than not, this musical relies on its cast to make you like the characters they’re depicting and – generally – they succeed, because each character is written with such broad strokes that it’s easy to find something to relate to and connect with (even if it is a 14-year engagement to a man who won’t commit). Personally, I plan to watch the show for the spectacle – as I have done on at least four different occasions. It makes me laugh, it makes me hum along, and – if the choreography is good – is guaranteed to hold my attention. I love it in much the same way I love I Love Lucy (which has many of the same gender-based oopsies as Guys & Dolls)… it entertains me beyond measure, I honestly love the broad-stroke characters, and – in many ways – it is a nostalgic connection to something I discovered early on in my life.

That’s it for me, friends! I’ll be back on Friday for the pairing, which includes a bit of a history lesson so I’m sure C will be pleased.

See you then!

A