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Posts tagged ‘Stratford Festival’

“Tempest” in DC Delights, Ariel Soars & Dave Quay Clowns Up a Storm

Tempest 1Taking Amtrak down to Washington DC from New York(and back) is really a delightful way to spend a holiday day away from Mad Manhattan. Even though I was on the Northeast Regional NOT the super-fast Acela, the trip seemed to fly and it was a canny, apt prediction of the delightful flights of fancy Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” I was to witness when I got there.

At Washington’s Harmon Theater, right in the heart of their Chinatown, the Shakespeare Theater Company is now presenting a very creditable, and sometimes absolutely delightful production of Shakespeare’s late comedy “The Tempest.” Often thought of as Shakespeare’s retirement play, it revolves, of course, around the famous character of Prospero, an aging magician and former and now deposed Duke of Milan, who has been exiled to this tropical, semi -Caribbean isle, where he has taught himself all of the black arts of mystery and enchantment and magic.

Talented young director Ethan McSweeney does bring the magic to his production of “The Tempest,” especially in Act Two when he has interpolated the role of “The Voice” for the beautiful, talented Broadway vet Nancy Anderson to sing as larger than life (and almost this stage) iridescent puppets of the goddesses of Juno, Ceres, etc. who seem to dwarf and devour the island. Designed and coached by James Ortiz, this triumvirate parade of monumental myths is proceeded in Act II by Sofia Jean Gomez’ Ariel descending from the heights all in black as an ominous Lady Gaga/Spiderwoman figure with huge black, drapery wings.

In fact, this is the only production of “The Tempest” I have ever seen where Ariel, Prospero’s imprisoned sprite, dominates the story. As performed by Ms. Gomez, this Ariel is CONSTANTLY in flight, literally and figuratively, under the astounding flight direction of Stu Cox, and the flying effects of ZFX, Inc. Sometimes butch as can be, sometimes as light as air, Ms. Gomez’ memorable fairy nymph flies into our hearts and memories.

Part punk-rocker, part gymnast, and part Tinkerbell and all girl, Gomez has an especially strong moment at the end, when her master Prospero frees her and the golden rope she has been suspended from falls to the ground with a thud, as her white, silk robe transforms from something athletic and imprisoning into something feminine, stately and beautiful, and she turns on her former master and doesn’t even look back or say good-bye. Not even a glance backward, she is no one’s slave now. And brava to Ms. Gomez, I say.

In fact, it is the supporting players  and the dazzling Special Effects and Jenny Giering’s ethereal just-right music, that seize this “Tempest” and makes it as magical as magic can be.

Main among the delights is the great young actor Dave Quay’s hilarious turn as the drunken butler Stephano, a role I have never remembered from any previous “Tempest.” In fact, the play barely has a pulse until he arrives stumbling and bumbling and bellowing to great comic effect to wake up the audience towards the end of Act One.

Quay doesn’t miss a beat or a laugh, and he put me in mind of the great Oliver Hardy of the early screen duo of Laurel and Hardy, though he is not stout in the least. He was comically paired with Liam Craig as Trinculo, the also ship-wrecked and also drunk Jester, who was bedecked in jingle-bells so you always knew when they were coming, or leaving, or moving, or anything.(Costumes designed by Jennifer Moeller). It had a very Christmas-y effect.

Less unfortunate is the casting of the central figure of Prospero, the Welsh actor and Stratford Festival regular Geraint Wyn Davies, who was simply too young and too robust for the part of the aging, about-to-retire wizard. I had seen and admired greatly Davies’ performance as the bastard in “King Lear” supporting Christopher Plummer’s great Lear at Lincoln Center a few seasons back.

And this Tempest put me in mind of the problems always associated with casting King Lear, the other great End-of-Life character in Shakespeare. If you have someone who is the right age for Lear, he invariably may be too old or too frail to do it.

There needs to be at least SOME of that frailty in Prospero. In Wyn Davies’, extremely healthy, hearty and hale performance, there was no hint of “The End.” And there should’ve been.

But around him is this great frame of a set by Lee Savage, a great ship-wreck scene that starts the play with a vertiable tempest at sea, and the best use I have ever seen of a chorus of spirits, and I’m going to mention them all! Ross Destiche, Freddie Bennett, Asia Kate Dillon, Ben Henderson, Dan Jones, Matthew Pauli, Stephanie Schmalzle, Kendren Spencer, Jessica Thorne, and Katherine Renee Turner, under the  spirited direction of choreographer Matthew Gardiner. These are the noble, able-bodied and adept souls animating those gigantic puppets under the direction of Puppetry Captain Dan Jones.

 

Brian Bedford dazzles in drag in Bway’s so-so “Earnest”

Having written and played Oscar Wilde in my own one-man show “Love, Oscar”, I have read every thing he wrote and everything that has been written about him, and so I came to the Broadway revival of his best play “The Importance of Being Earnest” fully loaded, as it were.

Brian Bedford, that most esteemed of great British stage actors working in North America, is starring in it at the American Airlines Theatre, in drag as Lady Bracknell, which is wonderful, and he also directed it, which is considerably less so.

This is shockingly his first major foray into drag, in itself  a great British tradition and Lady Bracknell is the role he was BORN to play obviously. His great made-up face is hovering over Broadway right now and it is really something to see, and utterly memorable.

His performance as Wilde’s legendary social gorgon is probably going to be considered as his most vivid portrayal ever. Especially since we, the American audience, get to see so little of his great stage performances. Mostly for the past twenty years or more, he’s been doing his great work at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.

And once in a blue moon, one of those productions transfers here, and we get to see what we’ve been missing. Like Christopher Plummer’s great “King Lear” which was imported intact to Lincoln Center.

And also a number of years back a glittering revival of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” starred Bedford as an aging, befuddled Benedict. It ran for a decidely too-short a time at City Center.

Now, we have his dazzling Lady Bracknell on Broadway itself, in a half-American, half-Canadian do-over. Which he directed himself, and that’s the problem.

Nothing in this so-so production comes up to his overwhelming Lady B. Especially glaring is his casting of the two ingenue roles, Gwendolen and Cecily. Both rather plain, odd choices, Sara Topham from Stratford as Gwendolen and particularly Charlotte Parry as Cecily, barely gut the mustard, or even cut it, and Bedford pretty well blows them both off-stage.

 By using such un-ingenue-y ingenues, Bedford assures that his Lady Bracknell is the prettiest girl on the boards. And Topham and Parry are so wearisome, we can’t wait for Lady B. to return to the stage, and she only does appear twice, in two of the best scenes Wilde ever wrote.

Bedford’s production is a very traditional revival of “Earnest.” Lady Bracknell also almost always steals the show, as she does here, with the great introductory scene in Act One, then again the tremendous “handbag” scene in Act Three that works like a charm here because the Lady is front and center for nearly the whole, hilarious discovery/mistaken identity finale.

With two intermissions, you could really skip Act Two completely. Cecily and Gwendolen have to carry it, and they pretty much don’t. But thank god, the great American actress Dana Ivey does turn up as Miss Prism, and makes Act Two her own, and pretty much saved me from exiting the building. When she and Canon Chasuble, (Paxton Whitehead) are billing and cooing, it really is delightful. But then they leave and we’re left in hands of those unfortunate young women.

Wilde is all about Style with a Capital “S” and Bedford himself has it in spades. His outfits designed within an inch of their life by Desmond Heeley, Stratford’s resident costume and set designer, are sumptuous, to-die-for spectacles of overstatement and but also, a strange glamour. 

Lady Bracknell doesn’t just enter a room, she SAILS into it, like a Rose-Bowl float with all flags flying. And Bedford does not overplay this very overblown part. He UNDERdoes it, and creates a very believable British woman of a certain class and type. One can never forget Dame Edith Evans in the movie version, nor anyone else in that British cinema classic, and Bedford decides not to compete by being ever-so-much-quieter in a very LOUD role. Edith Evans BELLOWED her most famous line, “PRISM! Where is my Haaaaand Baaaag?!?” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell snips and sniffs. To great effect, his nostrils perpetually flaring as if smelling something bad.

His movement is minimal. His concentration intense. His enunciation and line reading precise. There is nothing over-the-top about his delicious Lady B as an Old Biddy, except perhaps his costumes and hats.

Lady Bracknell doesn’t laugh. Bedford’s Lady B. is a very serious woman indeed. She is entirely focused in her social climbing, and veddy, veddy determined in all her pursuits. I never noticed before how quite, quite often Lady Bracknell is talking about geography, real estate in particular and addresses that she can recite from memory, and of course, money.

I also had never noticed quite so much that Wilde, particularly in the first act, with Algernon Moncrief(Santino Fontana) and John Worthing(David Furr) is making gay puns and double entendres that the then entirely hidden homosexual community of the time would get, but no one else.

Like the discussion of cucumbers, which of course means something else phallic, if you think about it. The line “No cucumbers could be had even for ready money” that Lane the butler (a not very  convincing or British, Paul O’Brien) says to the always-eating Algernon takes on a WHOLE new meaning. So much of the play is coded for the 1890’s gays. Even the name Bracknell, means something else. A Brack was a swamp. So it’s Swamp Smell. Or something like that. I also always thought he based this his greatest part on his famous mother Lady Wilde, who was almost something of a giant-tess according to his friend and contemporary George Bernard Shaw.

Algernon has never been played as slightly pudgy and a tad bit short before, but this is a slightly interesting new fillup, that Bedford’s production and the casting of American Santino Fontana brings out. He’s always in pursuit of some kind of food, meals, teas, cakes, anything that adds a new wrinkle, but not much else to this always under-developed character. Michael Redgrave played him in the movie, as a dashing, upper-class leading man and usually the role is done that way.

Fontana’s Algy departs from that more than quite a bit, to say the least. He is dark, giggly, and devishly funny in a bouncy sort of way.

David Furr, as his partner in Bunburying (and if you think about THAT double entendre…well, I rest my case) is tall, and hefty. More of the leading man than Fontana, but a burly, he-man jock type. The sort you also never see in this part. He’s tall. Fontana isn’t. So they form a sort-of-Mutt ‘n’ Jeff comedy duo. Bedford has them enter at the beginning of the play whistling Laurel and Hardy’s movie theme song, for instance. Gilding the lily a tad, aren’t we, Brian?

Furr and Fontana, last year’s Drama Desk Award Winner for Best Featured Actor in a Play for the short-lived “Brighton Beach Memoirs”, fare much better however than the ill-cast ingenues. And Paxton Whitehead is befuddled, maybe a bit too much so, as Conon Chasuble.

Wilde legend has it wrote “Importance of Being Earnest” in a weekend, or a week, for money. He wrote it while staying at place called Worthing, which is of course, one of the leading character’s name. It’s one of the greatest comedies of all times, and his greatest success. This all occuring before tragedy struck WHILE THIS PLAY WAS STILL RUNNING and he was the Toast of London.

Then, when he sued the Marquess of Queensbury, his lover, Bosey’s father, for slander for Posing as a Somdomite,” which proved true, he landed in jail for two years of hard-labor, because in modern parlance, he came out of the closet. Homosexuality was completley illegal at that time. His life was ruined at the same time his legend was made.

But his glittering wit and intelligence lives merrily on even in this half-successful “Important of Being Earnest.” Brian Bedford’s Bracknell will be the role he is most remembered for, so go see it for that, and for Dana Ivey, but not much else.

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