Theater: Here a Bard, there a Bard, everywhere a Bard Bard

Tim Blough is the fallen king in Portland Shakespeare Project’s “King Lear.” Photo: David Kinder

Forget the rattle. Forget the roll. This summer in Portland, it’s pretty much all Shakes, all the time.

Has there ever been a season of so much Shakespeare, or so many variations on the theme? While the Oregon Shakespeare Festival holds down the heavyweight fort in Ashland with As You Like It, Henry V, Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida and the freewheeling adaptations Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella and The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa, Portland and environs have been going Bard-crazy with a variety of approaches, from fundamentalist to barely recognizable.

How do we love the Bard? Let us count the ways.

  •  Northwest Classical Theatre just finished Measure for Measure.
  •  Bag & Baggage scored with Kabuki Titus, a radically reimagined outdoor staging of Titus Andronicus.
  •  Portland Actors Ensemble has been touring a production of Hamlet, including a stop at a cemetery, which might be preferable to a dank and drafty castle and has the requisite ghost.
  •  Portland Shakespeare Project opens a King Lear set in a contemporary nursing home on Wednesday.
  •  Out at Milepost 5, Post5 Theatre is in the midst of an outdoor Shakespeare fest with more shows than you can, well, shake a spear at, and has a final showing of its own Midsummer Night’s Dream on Friday, July 20.
  •  And as Marty Hughley reported, even early August’s Pickathon music fest is going to mix in three nights of Portland Playhouse’s Twelfth Night with all the banjos and guitars.

If we’ve missed the Shakespeare show you’re in, we apologize: We only have so many fingers.

Over the weekend I took in two Shakespearean variants: Portland Shakespeare Project’s Lear’s Follies, a world-premiere reimagining of the theme by C.S. Whitcomb that will continue in rep with King Lear; and Original Practice Shakespeare’s Much Adoe About Nothing, part of a hectic outdoor rondelay that also includes As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, A Midsommer Night’s Dream and Twelfthe Night (spellings as in the First Folio). I saw Much Adoe at Laurelhurst Park, but the shows are moving around town.

Amid all of this action it’s tough to shake the idea that Shakespeare’s becoming almost more source material than sacred text. Like Greek mythology for visual artists and playwrights, or like the Great American Songbook for jazz innovators, Shakespeare’s plays are serving more and more as springboards for reimaginings – stories so well-known, at least in certain circles, that they become raw material for new creations. Scott Palmer’s Kabuki Titus for Bag & Baggage is a good example: the story was slimmed and reshaped so much that Lavinia became the central character in her father’s play, and the style took more cues from the poetry of silent film than the traditions of the Elizabethan stage.

Of course many productions – probably most – are still rooted in the language of the plays. But considering the radical differences in cultural attitude and intention that 400-plus years have wrought, the idea of achieving any sort of “true” Shakespearean approach becomes increasingly more elusive. You really can’t go home again, and to attempt historical accuracy is simply to map out a fiction of the past.

That’s absolutely true with Original Practice Shakespeare. I’ve heard people argue angrily that OPS doesn’t do “real” original-practice Shakespeare, and it seems a silly thing to get upset about. Of course it doesn’t. So what? Artistic director Brian Allard and company have latched onto a not generally known historical accuracy: Elizabethan actors often knew only their own parts, and sometimes went onstage without knowing what was going to unfold, because they’d never read the entire script. From that they’ve built an unassuming, entertaining and accessible performance style. It involves a broad wink to the audience, a good deal of improvisational skill, and liberal borrowings from the likes of ComedySportz: shows include a referee who carries a whistle and isn’t afraid to use it to stop the action and send the actors into some sort of off-the-cuff improv goof.

OPS grows facial hair. Graphic: Mike Wallace

Actors in OPS shows are equipped with small scrolls that include only their own lines and cues. (This was common practice in Elizabethan times, the company contends, so bit actors couldn’t take a full script down the street and sell it to a rival theater operator.) The referee also acts as prompter for those inevitable moments when things fall apart, which provides a good part of the fun for the audience. It’s a conceit, of course: most of these actors know their Shakespeare pretty well, at least in general terms, and anyone who thinks the performers don’t know the plots of Much Adoe or Romeo and Juliet must be deep into gullible’s travels. But again, so what? The theater lies all the time. It’s called storytelling. And it’s true that knowing a play’s shape isn’t the same as knowing it line for line. Those cues are real.

The shows are also un-“original” in that, unlike the all-male performances on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stages, men and women mix freely in the cast. In Much Adoe an actress, Beth Thompson, even plays the male villain, Don John. Again, it’s not really important: life moves on. “Original practice” is simply a created style, and it’s no more “original” than naturalism is “natural.”

What you get out of all this is a freewheeling, sometimes slapdash approach that nevertheless breathes a lot of vitality and quick-witted freshness into familiar material. It’s like watching a clown do a pratfall: clumsiness can be exuberant, especially if the stumble has panache. And often enough something happens in the moment that’s inspired. I suspect original practice works better with comedy than tragedy, where the winks and tricks could devolve into lampoon.

Much Adoe featured some good, quick-witted performances. Jamie M. Rea and Allard were well-matched as the sharp-tongued lovers Beatrice and Benedick; Elizabeth Daniels was warm and funny as the maid Margaret; Gary Strong brings an Oliver Hardy gracefulness to the clownish constable Dogberry; Kenneth Sergienko leaves you scratching your head, as usual, over what a twit Claudio must be. At the end, the cast circulated among the crowd holding a hat (a bucket, actually) for contributions. Not sure that’s original practice. But it’s been around for a long, long time.

 Much Adoe sticks to the script. Lear’s Follies, at Portland Shakespeare Project, radically rewrites it. Whitcomb’s eight-character play transports the story of Lear to an American Southern tobacco plantation in the late 1920s, as the Great Depression is about to hit, and turns the ungrateful sisters Regan and Goneril into sons. It involves Wall Street offices and hobo trains clackety-clacking across a silent-movie stage, and of course a great wind blows, bringing madness and redemption in its wake. Yet this is also very traditional American theater, an everyman tragedy in the tradition of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.

Washko, Andersen in “Lear’s Follies.” Photo: David Kinder

Director Michael Mendelson has assembled an excellent cast, led by veteran Tobias Andersen’s fierce and vulnerable performance as Colonel Leroy King, a legendary farmer-businessman who fought for the South in the Civil War and afterwards built a tobacco empire from out of the ashes. Gary Norman and Gavin Hoffman are his duplicitous sons, embittered because the colonel’s held tight to the reins of the family empire into his 80s, and Melissa Whitney and Katie Butler are their acquisitive wives. Amanda Washko, who is new to me, gives a subtly riveting performance as Corey, the Cordelia character; old pro Dave Bodin brings a sturdy candor and generosity to Kent, the family doctor; and Matt Smith brings a compelling, strangely offbeat sadness to the Fool’s role as Jonesy, an old vaudevillian who’s lost his way.

The overlay of classic American cultural tensions onto Shakespeare’s tale of a foolishly fallen king has intriguing reverberations and underscores the sort of questions that a good production of Lear inevitably raises. What sort of relationship did the old man have with his kids to inspire such contempt? Why shouldn’t he retire (tell that to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles)? Does power make people unduly susceptible to flattery? Is power blind to simple truths? The more you know about the source play, the more Lear’s Follies resonates.

In addition to its strengths the show has some drawbacks, which isn’t unusual with new plays. The ending is curiously tentative and flat, and there are pacing problems: the thing needs more action. Much as I like Smith’s performance of Jonesy as a kind of beaten-down Sad Sack, I wonder if the play wouldn’t benefit from a more aggressive approach: the Fool as showman/narrator; not precisely like Joel Grey in Cabaret but something along those more assertive lines. And there’s a stretch in the second act when Whitcomb wonders aloud on the nature of narrative approaches: better to keep that in her head and let the characters tell their own stories. Is a little rewriting called for? Yes, I think so. Is it worth it? Absolutely. And it’ll be fascinating to see how it plays with the “real” King Lear that opens this week.

That’s assuming that any Shakespeare is “real” these days. It’s a pretty mythical landscape out there.

4 Responses.

  1. Ty Boice says:

    What a cool thing!

    Thank you Bob, by the way Post5’s Midsummer opened June 29th, not July 29th. We close this Friday the 20th.
    I hope you can make it.

    Henry IV part one opens August 17th, see ya there!

    Ty Boice

  2. Here’s one you missed:

    For its fourth season, Willamette Shakespeare presents “Much Ado About Nothing”, a comedy about the trials of love, the pain of jealousy, and the joy of reconciliation, in eleven free performances during the summer of 2012. The production will be performed outdoors on four successive weekends in five different locations in Oregon. Spanish classical and Gypsy jazz guitar player Jason Okamoto will play his original score accompanied by versatile accordion, clarinet and keyboard player, Ali Ippolito.

    Locations include:
    Milepost 5, Portland – July 28th
    Willamette Valley Vineyards, Turner – July 29th
    Stoller Vineyards, Aug 3 – 5
    Montinore Estates, Aug 10 – 12
    Catlin Gabel School, Aug 17 – 19

    More information at http://www.willametteshakespeare.org.

  3. Bob Hicks says:

    Thanks for the update, Daniel. A “Much Adoe” and a “Much Ado”: we’re awash in Beatrices and Benedicks!

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