Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Prickly Path To Love

Some people treat love like an obstacle course. Determined to make someone prove his love, they create incredible -- and sometimes insurmountable -- challenges to the wooer. Simple little tasks can serve to delay and distract a potential lover. It's the romantic version of moving the goalposts.
  • If you're Salome (the petulant Princess of Judea), you might demand the head of John the Baptist be delivered to you on a silver platter. 
  • If you're an icy Chinese princess named Turandot, you might require potential suitors to answer three riddles with the understanding that, if they fail to answer correctly, they will be decapitated and their head stuck on a pole outside the palace to warn off similar lovesick fools.
If, on the other hand, you're an idealistic young man who has become intoxicated with the thought of marrying:
  • A beautiful, mysterious young women who came to your ball but made a hasty departure in which she left one of her glass slippers on the stairs to your palace, or
  • A pretty young girl who bit into a poisoned apple and now lies in a glass coffin surrounded by seven dwarfs, or
  • A mysterious beauty whose entire kingdom was put to sleep for 100 years under a spiteful magic spell, or
  • An illiterate young woman selling flowers outside Covent Garden who has been taught to speak proper English so that, when presented at an Embassy Ball, she is mistaken for royalty, or
  • A bonnie young lass whose village only appears in the Scottish Highlands for one day of each century...
...then your work may already be cut out for you.

At the recent Best of Playground Festival, playwright Katie May put a wonderful feminist twist on an age-old fairy tale with Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero. Noting that in most fairy tales a princess has some kind of superpower, she built her delightful short play on the hypothesis that "the more useless the talent, the more beautiful the princess."

For May, Rapunzel's talent was the ability to control the rate at which her hair grew. This proved particularly helpful whenever some foolish prince tried to use her hair to climb up the tower in which the princess lived. After some careful mathematical calculations, Rapunzel could grow her hair as fast as the prince could climb, thus making sure that he never gained access to her bedroom. Until, of course, the day she got so involved in solving a mathematical mystery that she forgot to pay attention to her hair.

Rapunzel (Rinabeth Apostol), the narrator (David Cramer) and
The Prince (Jomar Tagatac ) in Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero
(Photo by: Mellopix performance) 

In May's short play, Rapunzel is not only "supernumerically smart" and gifted with numbers, her love of numbers is inversely proportional to her love for the Prince. While the Prince's hunger for Rapunzel knows no bounds, her attraction to him is minimal.

As staged by Jim Kleinmann, Rapunzel's Etymology of Zero drew hearty laughter from the audience. In a post -performance talkback, the playwright shed some light on how Playground's initial casting choices added an inside joke to the story.

In many storybooks, Rapunzel is seen to have long, golden tresses. But, by casting the role with a dark-haired woman, Rapunzel came out looking more like someone from Persia (the birthplace of mathematics). When outfitted with costumes that bore a stronger resemblance to the Middle Eastern folk tales known as One Thousand and One Nights (Tales of the Arabian Nights), Rinabeth Apostol (Rapunzel) and Jomar Tagatac (The Prince) brought new life and a grand sense of comic timing to an old fairy tale. David Cramer served as the Narrator.

* * * * * * * * *
If one playwright can be credited with proving, over and over again, that "the course of true love never did run smooth," it would be William Shakespeare (who wrote those words for A Midsummer Night's Dream). Just imagine:
  • What if you were a budding young prince who vanquished your older brother's chief thug in a wrestling match and, as a result, was banished to a nearby forest?
  • What if just after meeting the young noblewoman who could become the love of your life, you suddenly lost all of your wealth and privilege?
  • What if you were a pretty young woman at court whose heart had been captured by a young prince whom you feared you might never see again?
  • What if, in a defiant show of solidarity, you fled the court to follow him into the woods while disguising yourself as a man?
  • What if you were a simple-minded peasant girl with a boyfriend who could not stop talking about his love for you but, instead, you had fallen head over heels for the dashing, fair-skinned young man who had suddenly rented some nearby farmland?
Orlando (Max  Rosenak) and Rosalind (Ashley Wickett) in
Shakespeare's As You Like It (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

As part of its Master of Fine Arts Program in Acting, the American Conservatory Theatre recently staged Shakespeare's comedy, As You Like It, at the Zeum Theatre. As is so often the case, casting Shakespeare's plays becomes a bit easier in a conservatory situation where students can take on the roles of young lovers while faculty can portray some of the sadder (and only sometimes wiser) adults.

Directed by Mark Rucker, this production employed a simple unit set designed by Liliana Duque-Pineiro for the scenes in Duke Frederick's court as well as those in the Forest of Arden (whose hanging trees of cloth had convenient pockets into which Orlando could insert his love letters to Rosalind). As Duque-Pineiro explains:
 "Mark wanted our Forest of Arden to be a warm magical place in a world that speaks of today, but without a modern look, necessarily. It would revolve around handcrafted, reused, and recycled materials, in stark contrast to new, hi-tech sleek modern design. I left our first meeting with a bag of ideas and two words: felt and cork. Research began, and sketches took center stage on my table, as well as a big practical question: 'How can we create magical woods out of felt and stay within budget?' Add to the puzzle a stage that is very wide compared to its depth, and steep audience seating that makes it tough for actors and spectators to connect easily. I love challenges, though, and this one, in particular, since I would clearly have to dig into my sculptor bag for some out-of-the-box solutions.

Liliana Duque-Pineiros' set design for As You Like It

For the trees, we settled on sweaters of all sizes and colors: they had the warmth and textural qualities of felt, but would be cheap and easy to find. Half of the sweaters were donated by A.C.T. staff members, and the rest handpicked at the Salvation Army. The range we could choose from offered us a rich palette. This project that had started as a normal design process quickly became very organic. Normally I would have drafted each element and submitted the drawings for construction to the [scene] shop. But in this case, the assembly and placement of each sweater was too specific. We started with some initial tests to see how the material would react when quilted and stretched. From then on, it was like painting big canvases with sweaters; every tree had its own personality, its own fungi, roots, knobs, and squirrel holes . . . all of them discovered by manipulating fabric, collars, turtlenecks, seams, buttons, and zippers." 
The cloth trees designed by Liliana Duque-Pineiro for the Forest of Arden

Filled with numerous cases of mistaken identity, As You Like It captures the intoxicating emotions of young lovers and pits them against the malice of bitter, spiteful, and power-hungry men. Max Rosenak (Orlando) continues to impress audiences, handsomely matched by Ashley Wickett's Rosalind. While they received strong support from Dan Clegg (Oliver), Richardson Jones (Charles), Marisa Duchowny (Celia), and Gregory Wallace (Jacques), the strongest performances came from two actors in relatively minor roles.

As Touchstone, Anthony Fusco offered a fascinating demonstration in comic timing. Jenna Johnson's portrayal Phoebe, the lusty shepherdess who is infatuated with Ganymede (Rosalind in male drag), provided the kind of inspired, scene-stealing lunacy one associates with grand farce and/or silent film. Her moments onstage are pure comic gold.

Brian Clark Jansen doubled nicely as the evil Duke Frederick and the much kinder Duke Senior. René Augesen made a surprise appearance as Hymen (the Greek god of marriage ceremonies).

Phoebe (Jenna Johnson) and Silvius (Richard Prioleau) in
Shakespeare's As You Like It (Photo by: Alessandro Mello)

As You Like It continues at the Zeum Theatre through May 28. While the young cast does an impressive job with Shakespeare's text, Jenna Johnson's performance by itself is worth the price of admission (you can order tickets here).

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