We just returned from what we hope is the resumption of our yearly treks to Ahsland Oregon for the great Shakespeare Festival therein. These trips were interrupted by parenthood, but now that erin is of an age and inclination, we want to make this a regular pilgrimage once again.
It was amazingly gratifying to see Erin’s enjoyment in, understanding of, and thorough engagement with the plays. She sat on the edge of her seat, silently chanting for Sebastian to hurry up and turn restore sense and order to Illyria, laughed at Malvolio’s colorful attempts to woo Olivia, trembled as Antonio was nearly carved by Shylock, and laughed as Portia and Narissa tried their husbands’ faithfulness with disguises and rings. She’s eight years old, and this goes a long way toward dispelling the myth that Shakespeare is somehow fundamentally inscrutable or inaccessible to young people.
She also loved Pride and Prejudice, the non-bardic offering we saw.
As for the plays themselves, here are make “bound within a nutshell” reviews. We only had time (and money) for three offerings this year.
This was the second time we had seen this show performed at Ashland, and I have to say I much preferred the earlier offering. The production we saw a decade earlier was done in an arabesque style, with Middle Eastern screens and minarets. The costumes were inspired and the comical characters generally funnier. This production featured an excellent Malvolio, who went far beyond simple yellow cross-gartered stockings to an outrageous canary-yellow ensemble that was funny even with the actor just standing there. There were some very nice lighting effects and other bits of stagecraft. The set was minimalist, giving the impression of an extended garden party, but the actors used it to excellent advantage.
The twins were solidly played, as was Olivia, though her conversion from cold mourning to having the hots for Cesario/Viola was a trifle abrupt in its contrast.
Merchant of Venice
The performances in this production were all top notch; the actors showed good understanding of the nuances of their text all round. There were no standout parts here, with the possible exception of Lancelot Gobbo, who was probably more coherent than I have seen him elsewhere. The actor made excellent use of pantomime to bring out the meanings of his lines— acting on the lines, rather than between the lines. The failed suitors were very funny, particularly Aragon, whose servant followed him around with impromptu mandolin accompaniment. The most surprising alteration was the changing of Tubal to a deaf/mute. The actor signed his lines, while Shylock supplied the spoken word, paraphrased as if he were translating aloud.
The play was oddly staged though, beginning with about 30 seconds of the trial scene from Act IV. As soon as Portia/Balthazar asks how these events came to be, the big prop clock spun backwards and the previous events are related. Since no use is made of the clock afterward, and nothing in the scene really required a recap, nor showed any moment of dramatic interest (such as say, Shylocks knife against Antonio’s breast), one is left to wonder why the director chose such a storytelling conciet. It felt like a gimmick, and worse a gimmick without purpose. How much better it would have been to start with the knife, work backwards with a musical sting and then use the clock throughout the play as a horrible “doomsday clock”, ticking one minute closer to the moment of ultimate peril, as each even tin the play drives inexorably toward the removal of the pound of merchant flesh.
This is a minor quibble, though and easily overlooked in what I feel to be the main flaw. The play left a bad taste in my mouth. Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays to stage in a post-Holocaust world. I think there are two definite wrong ways to play it, and these lie at opposite extremes. The first wrong way to play it is the way that it was almost certainly originally performed, with Shylock as a monstrous villain. While it is true that Shakespeare gives Shylock more humanity and motive for vengeance beyond that in say, Marlowe’s Barabas in the Jew of Malta, he was almost certainly played as a Jewish stereotype, and the audiences at the time would likely have seen his enforced conversion as a fitting end.
This production went to the other extreme, and in my opinion, the second “wrong way” to stage it. In this Shylock is almost thoroughly the victim. The Christians are rarely portrayed with any positive qualities, and Shylock’s suggestion for a pound of flesh to secure the loan is treated as if the request were a lighthearted joke. They laugh as they shake hands. Shylock’s hatred of Christians is downplayed and understated, and it is only as indignities are heaped upon him that we get the feeling that Shylock is being forced into becoming a villain against his will. Up until the minute when Portia cries for him to hold (and her halting performance in the courtroom really fails to show off the intellect of one of Shakespeare’s smartest female characters), you are given the impression that Shylock really does no want the pound of flesh and might not actually be able to force his shaking hands to do the deed. The judgement against him comes off as much harsher than need be. Shylock is a total victim.
This would work if the play were the Tragedy of Shylock the Jew. Unfortunately, given the resolution of Act V, wherein happiness reigns at Belmont with brandy and cigars all round, one is left with a resounding impression that the real villains have won. The text is comedic and triumphant, and the audience is unable to identify with the characters, like being forced to endure an interminable uncomfortable party.
Once again, the play is a difficult and delicate one to produce, and going too far in either direction (Shylock as monster, which betrays modern sensibilities, or Shylock as victim, which betrays textual and dramatic intent) is unsatisfying. This one went too far toward the latter for comfort. I still enjoyed the performances, which were funny, sad and suspenseful, but disagreed with the overall vision.
Pride and Prejudice
This was undoubtedly my favorite of the festival, despite being the non-Shakespeare offering. The play almost did away with the concept of time, sweeping us from scene to scene by merely shifting a few chairs and rotating actors in and out, keeping the action flowing and never letting us feel like there was a drag. The pace was good and the writing cunning enough to express the underlying motivations and overall changes of time and space without ever requiring narration. There were several standout performances, particularly the outrageous Mrs. Bennet and the unctuous Mr. Collins. Even the reserved and proper Mr. Darcy never pulled a scene down, and was even played for wonderfully juxtaposed comic effect. This was thoroughly enjoyable.