It’s time to leap for joy, fans of classical theatre. This past week Fort Worth’s revitalized Trinity Shakespeare Festival sprang forth fully formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. It’s a bold birth, ready to make dynamic artistic statements and enliven the words of Western culture’s leading playwright with a vision that connects the Bard’s texts to the modern world. Under the guidance of T.J. Walsh and Harry B. Parker, the 2009 Festival employs two Texas Christian University venues to present combined professional/ student staffed and cast productions of comedy Twelfth Night and tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Not always perfect, they both do admirable justice to the plays and provide high caliber entertainment to full house audiences. No tentative rebirth!
You won’t encounter more masterfully designed, exquisitely beautiful or performance enhancing sets at any regional venue. Twelfth Night, designed by TCU professor and union designer Michael Heil, with credentials ranging across the US, Europe and Asia, creates lyrical magical surrealism on the proscenium-style Buschman Theatre at Landreth Hall. A massive rectangular panel floats upstage at the back of the uncluttered playing space, painted in rich Mediterranean hues to look like sky. It presides over all action and opens up the space with clean linear definition. While clearly man-made, it constantly reminds the audience of the setting’s proximity to nature and the play’s contrasting themes of artifice and truth. Fanciful, stylized, Styrofoam trees frame the playing space and reinforce the clean Mondrian-like linearity of the overall design. Readily movable elements, the actors use these trees to enhance the humor of particular scenes. Like the free-floating sky painting panel, the trees visually reinforce the contrast between the artificial and the real throughout the play. All other set elements are simple and uncomplicated, either carried in and out by actors or softly flown in from above. A whimsical triumph, takes the breath away.
Chiaroscuro, the contrasting use of light and dark elements in pictorial art, comes to mind in the earth-toned, austere reality of the Brian Clinnin set design for Romeo and Juliet on the thrust of the Hays Theatre at TCU’s Walsh Center. It feels like you’ve entered a Caravaggio or Rubens painting set in Verona, with jutting promontory, precarious “balcony” strung taut on wires high above and a rock-filled gutter bisecting the stage, reinforcing the theme of “two houses divided” when it runs red with blood. Without actors, it’s a peaceful scene; yet the shadows and tension created by the looming balcony, the jagged gutter and the downstage promontory portend of disaster to come. With the actors on stage, solo or in stage combat, the wash of “claire-obscure” light envelops them in every moment. Director Alexander Burns and Lighting designer Michael Skinner envisioned together well, arriving at exquisitely evocative stage pictures. The tragic waste of life, the sadness of parental loss, could not be better expressed through light and structural elements, even before the actors speak Shakespeare’s text.
What works on stage?
Twelfth Night: It’s David Coffee’s show as he croons and intones composer Martin Desjardins songs as the court clown Feste. He comes across as part conjurer/ part madman, seems to spin the illusionary tale of romance and mistaken identity. Secondary characters dominate the stage, from J. Brent Alford as irreverent drunk Sir Toby Belch to scheming, lusty Emily Gray as Maria, to indefatigable Daniel Frederick, clearly favored by the audience, who makes a completely geeky donkey of himself with reckless, joyful abandon any time he strides on stage. David Fluitt creates an unforgettable, suffering steward Malvolio, Shakespeare’s satirical depiction of the Puritan opportunists running amok at Elizabeth I’s court at the time. (Stephen Colbert has nothing on the Bard in the way of incisive character assassination.) Trisha Miller Smith has some lovely moments as Countess in mourning Olivia. I wish she had stronger lead portrayals to act against, so her transition from shrewish mourner to impassioned lover could become more clearly drawn.
Romeo and Juliet: Kelsey Milbourn delivers up a feisty, vibrant and eminently lovable Juliet; I wish she were cast with Montgomery Sutton, Romeo from Shakespeare Dallas’ recent production. Once again, secondary characters provide the most interesting, worthy portrayals: Emily Gray as the chatterbox, seedy Nurse and David Fluitt as Friar Lawrence deserve an entire play to themselves for their intriguing performances; Desmond Ellington makes a sympathetic, feckless Paris, and Bryan Pitts evokes a noble command as the frustrated Prince. Mercutio’s spellbinding “Queen Mab” speech seems unfocused and inconsequential as delivered. Tybalt, the “villain” of the play comes across more like Snidely Whiplash than a tragic hothead caught up in a pointless feud. This is such a stunning play it’s easy to overlook some less than inspired interpretations. For the production visuals—set, costume, light, stage pictures, stage combat by Eric Domuret and for Richard Frohlich’s entrancing sound design – ”it’s all one.”
Welcome back to life, Trinity Shakespeare. You’re needed; your aspirations and accomplishments are honorable. I’m delighted to see such enthusiastic, engaged audiences. Bring it on!
Trinity Shakespeare Festival runs at TCU through June 28, with Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet in repertory.