Wednesday, September 29, 2010

You Take The High Road and I'll Take The Low Road

Once a play has been around for 300-400 years, reviewing it in performance is no longer a question of judging the script's artistic merits. Those are long established and accepted as a given.

Like a recipe, however, a script is a road map for creativity. A cook may add some spices and make other small changes to a basic recipe that gives the final product a personal touch. Stage directors and actors do the same, often tweaking an ancient plot line to make it more relevant to modern audiences.

Occasionally, the addition of nonspoken shtick can add wonderfully insightful touches of humanity to a production. It doesn't matter whether the play in question is considered "high" or "low" comedy. The bottom line is laughter.

The craft that sparks an audience's laughter is more precise than one may imagine. When Hello, Dolly! first became a success, Carol Channing had a friend take notes of every movement, inflection, and minute bit of detail in the production. In subsequent revivals, that notebook became her bible. “It is inviolate,” she claimed. “If you don’t do each gesture on cue, you don’t get the laugh that comes with it.”

Two classic comedies of note recently received new productions.
  • Each play is more than 300 years old.
  • Each script offers grand opportunities for a director and his cast.
  • Each production was nurtured by one of the Bay area's leading regional theatre companies.
  • Each production was directed by a major talent whose career has been nourished by Bay area audiences.
Although one play was carefully scripted, the other was not. How well did each fare with its audience?

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First staged in Paris in 1671, Moliere's farce, Les Fourberies de Scapin, embraces several stock characters (Scapino, Zerbinette) from the commedia dell'arte tradition. Because the title character is given free rein to indulge in all kinds of scandalous behavior, he can be a prick or a prankster, a clown or a curmudgeon.

With the beloved Bill Irwin in charge of casting and directing A.C.T.'s new production of Scapin (as well as taking the lead role), there was little doubt that Scapin would be an evening of low comedy delivered by a seasoned professional clown. Adapted by Bill Irwin and Mark O'Donnell, with a unit set designed by Erik Flatmo and costumes by Beaver Bauer, this new production of Scapin is light, bright, pretty to look at and, for the most part, quite enjoyable.

Act I contains a great deal of Irwin's trademark moves as a clown and sets the stage for a comedy of mistaken identities. Octave (Gregory Walker) speaks to Sylvestre (Jud Williford) of his secret marriage to Hyacinth (Ashley Wickett) and his frustrations with his overbearing father, Argante (Steven Anthony Jones). Leander (Patrick Lane) confesses his passion for the mysterious Zerbinette (Rene Augesen) despite his father Geronte's (Geoff Hoyle) desire that he marry well.

Bill Irwin and Jud Williford in Scapin. (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What soon becomes obvious is that, in the absence of their fathers, the sons have rebelled and the servants want revenge on their employers. This plot is as old as the hills (or at least Plautus) and will resurface in a few weeks when 42nd Street Moon offers a semi-staged production of Stephen Sondheim's 1962 hit musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

However, I had the strangest reaction to the performance of Scapin that I attended. It felt as if the energy in Act I was from a completely different show than what held the stage in Act II. I'm still struggling to find a way to articulate how odd this was. My guess is that Act I's excessive weightiness was caused by the need for careful exposition (combined with Irwin's injection of jokes specifically aimed at A.C.T. subscribers "who keep coming back for more").

Once the curtain rose on Act II, levity returned to the stage and the farce continued to build through to the final curtain (in spite of a fairly ridiculous chase scene). When Irwin finally got a chance to lock horns with someone of equal talent (the great Geoff Hoyle), the proceedings went to an entirely new level.

Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle in Scapin (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Randy Craig (keyboards) and Keith Terry (percussion) supplied the musical accompaniment with OmozĂ© Idehenre adding to the confusion as Nerine (Hyacinth's wet nurse). Ben Johnson and Keith Pinto did double duty as gendarmes and portersScapin continues through October 23 at the American Conservatory Theatre. You can order tickets here.

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Over at the Bruns Amphitheatre in Orinda, the California Shakespeare Theatre scored a major hit with their final production of the season. First published in 1600, the comedy in Much Ado About Nothing is a bit more sophisticated than anything you'll find in Scapin.

Shakespeare's Beatrice (Domenique Lozano) and Benedick (Andy Murray) are the unlikeliest of lovers.
  • Each is older and wiser than their friends. 
  • Each purports to hate the other's guts. 
  • Each is perfectly suited to each other (largely due to their intellectual strength) in ways they find difficult to understand. 
Beatrice (Dominique Lozano) and Benedick (Andy Murray) in
Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by: Jay Yamada)

At the play's outset, one could easily ask either character "If you're so smart, how come you're so stupid?"

Meanwhile, Beatrice's cousin, Hero (Emily Kitchens), and Benedick's friend, Claudio (Nick Childress), have fallen in puppy love with each other. Their wedding, however, is sabotaged by "the bastard Prince" (Don John), whose brother, Don Pedro (Nicholas Pelczar), is the Prince of Aragon.

Hero (Emily Kitchens) and Claudio (Nick Childress) in
Much Ado About Nothing (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Opening night of Much Ado About Nothing was one of those blessed evenings in the theatre. The moon was full, the weather balmy, and the production (which features Daniel Ostlig's unit set and costumes designed by Christal Weatherly) easy on the eyes. Much of the credit for the show's success -- which was one of the most fulfilling performances of a Shakespearean play I have ever attended -- falls to director Jonathan Moscone. As Moscone (who is celebrating his 10-year anniversary as artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theatre) notes:
"When you make theater outdoors, you have no choice but to be present, for the outside world is your world. Nothing separates you. It is altogether bracing, for nothing can be taken for granted. And I love, love, love that about this job. It requires right brain/left brain, 24/7. It demands presence. And when I get exhausted, or I complain, my love for this job, and for this company, is in full bloom.
I make theater and I work in a business. I tell stories through language and movement, sound, light, clothes, and architecture. I do this with a lot of people and for a lot of people. Theater is what I do, plain and simple. I’ve been doing it professionally since 1993, and unprofessionally since I was two years old; and I will continue to do it until they take the baton away from me and send me to the retirement home for useless directors with no other marketable skills."
While the supporting cast included Dan Hiatt as Leonato, Andrew Hurteau as Friar Francis, and Delia MacDougall as Margaret, the true star of the evening turned out to be the irrepressible Danny Scheie

In an election year where people have thrown out brazenly untrue accusations and shown absolutely no remorse for their own blithering incompetence, Don John's use of character assassination as a form of evil sport (against a helpless and innocent victim) has an eerie timeliness. Casting Scheie in both roles was a stroke of genius. What he did with each character was a thrilling display of craftsmanship and comic timing.

Danny Scheie (Photo by: Jay Yamada)
If you have ever, in your wildest fantasies, wanted to see what it would be like to have Leslie Jordan performing Shakespeare, you simply cannot afford to miss Danny Scheie's brilliant performance as the evil Don John and the idiotic chief constable of Messina, Dogberry. It is a theatrical tour de force.

Performances of Much Ado About Nothing continue at the Bruns Amphitheatre through October 17. You can order tickets here.

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