BARD BONANZA 2012: True confession. In spite of the wretched, encroaching N. Texas heat, I must confess I relish this time of the year because it’s regional Shakespeare Festival time. Hurray! I would eagerly review Shakespeare festivals everywhere, all year long. Best “Midsummer Night’s Dream” I ever saw was a bi-lingual version with 50/50 Russian/ English cast, each actor speaking in his/her own tongue. Talk about focused performances and oodles of stage magic.
Every year the Trinity Shakespeare Festival winds the artistic merit and scope of their productions tighter and tighter, soaring bravely to new levels of excellence that honor the works and the craft of enlivening them. Over the first three years, Harry Parker, TJ Walsh, Stephen Fried and their creative teams presented interesting, pithy programming with clear vision and extraordinary production values for so “young” a festival. They staged tragedies in the ‘black box’ Hays Theatre with rigorous attention to environmental affect, using the multilevel possibilities and flexible entrance/exit options of the space to best dramatic advantage for actor and audience alike. The comedies enveloped the proscenium Buschman Theatre with unmitigated, joyous abandon. The sets, lights, music and costumes excelled in evoking eras, gender benders, magical forests and romantic courtyards begging for true love’s revelation or satirical send-up. Each year the cast has grown more ‘in tune’ as an ensemble, composed of TCU students, local and regional professionals and national touring artists. In 2012, the directors reversed the playing spaces, with the comedy playing in the Hays (“Merry Wives of Windsor”) and the drama (“The Merchant of Venice”) in the Buschman, with stupendous results.
Written in 1597-98, “Merry Wives” seems in some ways a self-parody, reflecting Shakespeare’s previous life predicaments and scuffles with the law and his middle class values and aspirations. It opens with a fussy, ineffectual magistrate attempting to press suit against the consummate hedonist heathen Falstaff for poaching deer. In earlier days, Shakespeare endured multiple encounters with the law for poaching and received regular floggings due to his carelessness in getting caught. Likewise, much is made in the play of a “man’s honor” and coat of arms, with a proliferation of lewd jokes the result of Welsh mispronunciation and general boorish mayhem. Maybe it gave Shakespeare relief to write about status and the need to achieve/maintain it in so antic a manner. He had just renewed his father’s failed application for a coat of arms and succeeded in acquiring it. It mattered to Shakespeare to be deemed a real gentlemen. Perhaps this play, a ‘comedy of very bad manners’, with its non-stop mockery of pretentious gentility, allowed him to blow off steam, after the hard-won achievement, symbol of genuine “gentle” status.
For Trinity Shakespeare, it allows the irrepressible David Coffee free rein to portray one of the stage’s most lovable fools and self-impressed curmudgeons, the profligate, verminous Falstaff, intent on debauching the indolent wives of wealthy men in order to get at their gold. A brace of cuckolds! In the warm muted glow of a Breugel-like country house setting (scenic design, Sean Urbantke), sit back and revel in Coffee’s hilarious, dissipated depiction of the classic buffoon. “I am made an ass!” he cries, with as much wry self-acceptance as outrage when the comic comeuppance takes place. You have to love Coffee’s Falstaff as much as detest him.
Delightful in their bawdy scheming, Trisha Miller and Lydia Mackay explore (with eye-twinkling, brow-cocking relish) the duplicitous, harridan side of marital accord as Mistresses Ford and Page, baiting both their husbands and the scurrilous Falstaff with their well-matched demeaning machinations. Amber Quinn as the vulgar Mistress Quickly and Delaney Milbourn as Falstaff’s page-girl Robin provide balanced comic relief contrast to their upper class ‘sisters’. C. David Trosko as Slender and Blake Hackler as Doctor Caius earn some of the audience’s heartiest laughs as they portray inelegant, wayward, preening fops with outlandish pretensions, each equally unaware of how ridiculous he looks in affecting the airs and attributes of ‘gentlemen’. Long-suffering husbands Frank Ford (Richard Haratine) and George Page (J. Brent Alford) take the “bait” offered by their wives and arrive at true humility, perhaps “pussy-whipped” describes them more aptly. Shakespeare’s language can be hard to understand, by itself; Chuck Huber’s masterful abuse of pronunciation as the VERY Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans attests to his incredible ear as an actor and makes one wish he’d work it into a stand-up routine. With incidental mood-setting music composed by Alan Shorter, this is an as honest, unpretentious, enjoyable and intimate production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” as you’ll see in this region. Costumes by Leigh Ann Chermack, lighting by Tristan Decker, sound by Chris Hassler and choreography by Kelsey Milbourn.
Now to address Trinity’s “problem” play, “The Merchant of Venice”. We live in a navel-gazing world today where psychodrama swirls around us, fills the pages of monthly self-help magazines. We anticipate contemporary psychological motivations and realities behind stage characters and their actions. What makes Shakespeare a one-of-a-kind genius, the finest playwright in the Western tradition, is his ability to write plays specifically for his world and cultural milieu that yet open themselves readily to contemporary interpretation and audience enjoyment. As they are. Without needing to add modern pop ballads or excise chunks of text. The sticky problem in “The Merchant of Venice” is that the catalytic character, Shylock, is a “Jew”. He gets reviled on stage, spat upon. His daughter elopes with a Gentile and steals considerable money from him with barely a trace of guilt. He loans funds to an aristocratic merchant and tries to exact a horrible torture on the man as compensation, but finds himself outgunned by the law and shamed, thrown out of his home, reduced to destitution. From a 21st century, post-Holocaust point of view, he receives horrible mistreatment by everyone in the play, no matter how much usury he has practiced, how much revenge he has sought. If one doesn’t know Shakespeare’s context, it would be easy to say this is a rude, vile, anti-Semitic play. Not the case. Shakespeare wrote this play for his queen, Elizabeth I, full of coded references to current events. He modeled the female lead, Portia, after Queen Elizabeth, a single woman who can wisely resolve all matters of state. He suggested metaphorically, using hidden references, that Elizabeth bring about reconciliation between 16th century Catholics and Protestants in England. At the time he wrote “Merchant”, Jews were banned from England, with very few exceptions. (Elizabeth’s personal physician, the Jewish Roderigo Lopez, was an exception, executed presumably for plotting to kill her). The scripture-obsessed, repressive Puritans, who practiced usury and refused to associate with “unclean” non-believers, were referred to as “Christian Jews”, reviled and parodied as impractical extremists. This is the nature of the “Jew” Shylock, providing the problematic context of Shakespeare’s play. Gird thy loins, if anti-Semitism a la 16th century riles up your pro-Jewish modern sentiments. For a detailed explanation of this play and the era’s context, see British scholar Claire Asquith’s Shadowplay, pages 112-121.
Trinity Shakespeare’s production of “Merchant” feels as if William Shakespeare channeled Harold Pinter’s minimalist economy of thought and space. Brian Clinnin designs and paints sets that mesmerize. Using somber hues of black, midnight blue and grey, he transforms the entirety of the deep Buschman stage into one, simple, elegant, curved, multi-level courtroom gallery, flanked on either side by ornate gold-flecked Venetian columns. Above the playing space and spanning its full arc flies a panoramic painting of a furious scene of a schooner engulfed in stormy seas, all in muted, austere tones complimenting the somber set. A chaotic scene of impending dire disaster, forever suspended above in anticipation of the hand of God or fate? What few props or set pieces the production requires get carried on and off by minor characters. Dressed in tight-waisted, high-collared 19th century formal attire, the characters emerge and exit almost from or into thin air with measured steps, blending superbly into the set and reflecting its sobriety. (Aaron Patrick Turner, costume design)
The production roils and seethes with inner repressed outrage and anguish, reflecting the frozen emotion exploding off the panoramic painting floating above. The ship of state gets rocked to its core and flounders; it’s up to lovely, rich, wise Portia to set things straight. Trisha Miller charms the audience with her plotting and flirting in “Wives”; but she shows her true mettle as an artist of national stature in “Merchant”. Queenly and reserved, feisty and imaginative, hopeful yet grounded, pragmatic and judicious but brimming with nurturing compassion, she portrays a Portia that would have flattered Elizabeth I well and made her feel very pleased with her favored playwright. Lydia Mackey as Nerissa attends to her ‘Queen’ Portia with the efficient, proper deference of a head servant yet with the loving understanding and respect of a true friend. Both intriguing, versatile actresses, Miller and Mackay play exceptionally well together, a warm balance of voices and carriage. The production provides an exceptional opportunity to see two worthy, legitimate leads share the stage with professional mastery.
J. Brent Alford steers away from stereotypical depiction of Shylock the Jew, and makes him a tangibly real man. Under Stephen Fried’s direction he manages to both repel the audience with his outrageous greed and vengefulness yet elicit their sympathy for the crushing life blows he receives. Chuck Huber, perfectly cast as Portia’s suitor Bassanio, defines a man consumed with guilt, whose heart has led his head and caused a true friend to suffer horrific consequences. It’s not a flashy performance but a winning one. Huber’s enormous gift as an actor allows him to completely inhabit a role with fluent ease exactly as it was written, and as a director guides him. No more, no less, all poetry in action. Richard Haratine as the merchant Antonio, Bassanio’s true friend, gives a fascinating, understated “Pinteresque” performance as a badly wronged man and undergoes one of the most beautiful acting transformations I have witnessed on stage. At the play’s final moment, all leave the stage but Antonio. It’s eerily quiet. One can almost feel the delicate whoosh of angel wings gliding past the audience to bless Haratine’s Antonio for his grace and generosity. His face softens, almost glows with inner light; his shoulders straighten ever so slightly, as if a huge burden has suddenly lifted. The transformation carries him to his exit far upstage. He sets off the rose-hued gramophone placed center stage, pauses in momentary reverie and glides into the projection star-studded night sky filling the backstage wall, never glancing back. It’s one of those poignant, understated, transcendent stage moments theatre lovers hunger for but don’t often get to experience. How often does one get to feel stroked softly by angel wings and lifted to the heavens by a character’s sublime, subtle transformation? I floated out of the theatre to my car. Directed by New College of Drama’s Stephen Fried, sound design by Toby Jaguar Algya, lighting design by Michael Skinner, fight choreography by Eric Domuret.
Trinity Shakespeare concludes its superb 2012 Festival this coming Sunday, July 1. Visit www.trinityshakes.org for tickets, schedules.