Tending Bard @ Trinity Shakespeare Festival

Hey, y’all: it’s the Trinity Shakespeare Festival!

Audiences and critics alike have eagerly anticipated the arrival of the 2010 Trinity Shakespeare Festival in Ft. Worth at TCU (Texas Christian University), given the resounding success of the inaugural festival in 2009. Its initial productions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night received positive accolades from the Dallas Fort Worth Theatre Critics Forum including awards for Outstanding Performances by an Actor and Actress, Outstanding Direction and Outstanding Design. The 2010 Trinity Shakespeare Festival productions easily meet expectations and in many ways surpass them.

Andrew Milbourn as Hamlet

The tragic Hamlet is directed by TCU professor, festival artistic director and nationally recognized stage director Tom Walsh. The relationship comedy Much Ado About Nothing is directed by Stephen Fried, former resident assistant director at Washington DC’s Shakespeare Theatre Company and current acting and directing professor at The New School of Drama. In addition to the stunning original technical and design achievements of both, the plays feature outstanding talents of leading regional and national actors and dedicated TCU drama students. The 2010 Trinity Shakespeare Festival is intense; it’s celebratory; it brings Shakespeare’s works to life with vibrant artistry. What makes the Festival such an uplifting fully fleshed out creative experience? Festival Director Tom Walsh sums it up:

“I want Trinity Shakespeare Festival to focus on story telling – particularly intimacy, clarity and beauty in story telling.  Every person I hire knows that we are working toward those three fundamental elements of the festival. 1) Folks familiar and unfamiliar with Shakespeare must be able to hear every word, understand every word, and perhaps, most importantly, believe every word that is said by the characters… 2) Because of the intimacy of our theatres at TCU, we can provide actors and audiences with an experience of Shakespeare that is rare – it is a close up version of Shakespeare, where actors don’t have to shout at each other, but rather the characters can talk to each other. 3) Everyone needs to come away from our productions having seen the beautiful – in design and in directing – that the designs (set, costume, lights, sound) support the intimacy, support the clarity in story telling, and in and of themselves are beautiful.”

What results is a comprehensive experience of Shakespeare in performance the audience will not likely find anywhere else in this region. Guaranteed.

Critical Comments Part One: Hamlet

Staged thrust-fashion in the black box Hays Theatre, with four sharply defined corner points of entry and exit, it feels like a wooden plank floored formal hall or great room in Denmark’s Elsinore Castle. The only permanent set elements are an enormous brocaded tapestry upstage depicting idealized nobility, the “arras” behind which sad, silly Polonius loses his life, and a massive, interlocked wooden architectural labyrinthine construction spanning the entire head space high above the actors, reflecting the complexity and rawness of the human interaction below. Created by nationally recognized scenic designer and TCU professor Brian Clinnin (who also designed the award-winning set for 2009’s Romeo and Juliet), this set’s coolness and undefined menace reflects lurking madness and grave misdeeds. When Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears (Alex Chrestopoulos), foreshadowed by unearthly bright, intense sidelight, it feels “natural” for him to inhabit the amorphous, eerie space (lighting design by Michael Skinner). How Hamlet’s father’s ghost gets handled often diminishes an otherwise perfectly acceptable staging of this play. In this production, Director Tom Walsh allowed the text to instruct him instead of adding hokey effects with dry ice, etc., interpreting lines to reveal that the ghost can freeze time and action: “In staging the scene I asked myself why would Shakespeare write “’tis here” “tis here” “tis gone”, all in a row.  Then I said, well, the ghost has moved from one part of the stage to the other.  Well, how could he move in the course of three, two word lines.  And then, of course, I came to the conclusion that the ghost could “freeze” time, move, and unfreeze it.  And so the ghost could control time….” A chilling effect, it allows the actors dealing with the ghostly apparition to develop real fear, based, while frozen still and silent, in out of control hysteria. An enthralled opening night patron wrote Director Walsh to express his enthusiasm: “Over the years, I’ve seen MANY a production of Hamlet. Never has the ghost scene worked so well, or communicated so clearly a terror befitting the rolls our heroes must occupy for the next three hours prior to flights of angels singing us all back out to our cars.” I found the scenes with the ghost intriguing and compelling, although I would have preferred its voice left natural, not amplified in an echo chamber, and less of an Obi Wan in Denmark costume.

Directors Walsh and Fried have assembled a diverse, skilled repertory ensemble, from pro equity actors to TCU drama majors, to enliven both productions. Some casting and directorial choices in Hamlet work better than others. As Hamlet, TCU’s Andrew Milbourn informs the monologues and serious dialogue scenes with a reserved noble bearing and lively intelligence. Oddly, his expression of madness comes across more as cheekiness or flippancy rather than a calculated show to distract nefarious King Claudius from his real purpose. I found the ever present orchestrated underscoring beneath Hamlet’s monologues distracting and feel Milbourn’s interpretation and voicing deserve non-enhanced appreciation. Jessica Cavanagh, with a commanding yet feminine presence, brings a somber dignity to Queen Gertrude, even as she seems too young to be the mother of Milbourn’s Hamlet. Alyssa Gardner makes a pretty as a picture Ophelia but acts with a breeziness that lends a more contemporary air to her performance than exhibited by most of the cast. Aaron Kirby presents a caring, honest Horatio, Hamlet’s trusted friend, in limited viewing; as the play’s epilogue is cut from this production, Kirby doesn’t get to speak Horatio’s satisfying, signature speech at the end. Actors delivering stand-out performances in this production include Richard Harratine as the eccentric, earthy gravedigger, Justin Bryant Rapp as analytical, honor-driven Laertes, James Crawford as the Player King, David Coffee as the long-winded but well-intentioned, homily-spouting Polonius and David Fluitt as Claudius. Fluitt’s Claudius shows a crafty pretender’s false confidence that becomes increasingly (and satisfyingly) undermined as Hamlet’s plot and the horror of his misdeeds come home to roost. Attired more stunningly resplendent from one scene to the next (Ric Druemont Leal, costume design), by play’s end Fluitt’s Claudius appears to be little more than a rooster-like “puppet king” in fancy duds, every bit the unworthy usurper Hamlet reveals him to be.

I have never experienced a more clearly delineated, more beautiful or more perfectly cast production of Much Ado About Nothing than in Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s current production.  Gaze at the idyllic, pastoral, sun-splashed villa courtyard of Messina’s governor Leonato under the broad proscenium arch of the Buschman Theatre, framed with real grass and massive live trees, and feel gently transported across space and time. Kick back, un-furrow your brow, loosen up your smile muscles and your appreciation for rapier-sharp wit; get ready for Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing. It’s magnificent, funny, ribald, thought provoking, artful, playful, and sober, everything a Shakespearean comedy should be and more. A glorious realization of the Bard’s wise and witty play about love and honor, it’s directed by national Shakespearean scholar Stephen Fried to explore Chekhovian undertones while eking out every farcical nuance imaginable. The rambling, elegant, realistic, imaginative set makes one want to climb up on it, apply sunscreen and move in. Stay tuned for my discussion… Critical Comments Part Two: Much Ado About Nothing

Trinity Shakespeare Festival’s Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing continue in a revolving schedule through June 27.  Performances will be in TCU’s newly renovated, intimate, indoor, air-conditioned theaters: the Jerita Foley Buschman Theatre and the Marlene and Spencer Hays Theatre.

Get tickets at www.trinityshakes.org or call 817-257-8080.

Also in person, at the Buschman Theatre box office  (located in Ed Landreth Hall on the TCU campus, just west of S. University Drive and W. Cantey Street)

Check out my interview with  festival actor and TCU senior Justin Bryant Rapp on This Week in the Arts netcast: http://thisweekinthearts.flowercast.net/2010/06/19/twita-elaine-taylor-mark-brian-sonna-and-justin-bryant-rapp/

Amy Peterson photo

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