#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.
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….
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