Saturday, July 31, 2010

Late Saturday Afternoon in Williamsburg: Black Henna Productions presents "Much Ado About Nothing" at McCarren Park

We had a Shakespeare-in-the-Brooklyn-Parks double header this afternoon, heading from Prospect Park's wonderful Julius Caesar to a delightfully wacky and surprisingly effective and affecting production of Much Ado About Nothing on the grass of McCarren Park.

The play, adapted and directed by Johnny Young, was presented by Black Henna Productions in an appropriately summery setting, Club Messina, a luxurious resort owned and operated by Leonato and his family. Audience members were given leis and the Hawaiian theme provided a great backdrop for the talented and comically adept cast.

Played on the grass between the dull, solid building that contains McCarren Park's filthy bathrooms and the Lorimer Street side near Nassau Evenue, it's a location that usually attracts sunbathers on summer weekend afternoons, and some of those already here, including one canoodling couple, stayed on for the show.

With the audience's beach blankets and picnic food (we got up during Act III and ran over to get lime ices from the nearby vendor, hardly missing a line), and even kids with big beach balls, the park setting was perfect for a Much Ado permeated with grass hula skirts, flowered shirts, drinks with little umbrellas. You could almost smell the suntan lotion in the air.

Although quite faithful to the text and plot of the play - unlike the recent New York Classical Theatre production, this one didn't eliminate the minor characters of Antonio (Cas Marino), Ursula (Regina Lim) and George Seacole (Ari Rivera) - this Much Ado About Nothing's resort milieu pretty much stripped characters like Leonato and Don Pedro of their gracious dignity, which proved rather refreshing.

The characters here seemed like regular people, none of them particularly attractive physically (not to insult the actors, who are perfectly pleasant-looking) and all of them at times imbued with a 21st-century American whiny petulance, a kind of hip-sitcom annoying nature that is really fun to watch in action.

The scheming, cellphone-distracted, predatory Don Joan (Dana Mazzenga) - Don John has been reimagined as a woman rather regularly - here is not as big a contrast with her good-time-Charlie brother Don Pedro (Isreal Scott), who's displaced her as CEO of AraGone Inc. (Aragon, get it?)

He's just a lot better-natured, keeps better company, and becomes friendlier when drunk on cocktails rather than meaner and more hostile and more manipulative.

For most of the play, the Friar (Drew Burke) sat among the audience under a beach umbrella on his own beach chair and blanket. Here reimagined as Club Messina's resident beach bum and spiritual guru, he shakes off his wasting-away-in-Margaritaville torpor to play his guitar and sing, offer some good advice, preside at weddings, and record the proceedings of the resort's inept security force, which under Dogberry (a very funny Ian McDonald) doubles as its lifeguards. The only lethal weapon the clueless Verges (Benjamin Thys) carries is his hair dryer.

The studied informality of this production worked nicely most of the time (on a few occasions, the actors stepped on each other's lines). Benedick (Jimmy O'Neill) and Beatrice (Amanda Doria) seem to have day-to-day responsibility for running the two corporations here for, respectively, Don Pedro and Beatrice's uncle Leonato (Kevin Schwab, nicely outfitted in a tropical-weight white suit, a soul patch and a sometimes-swinging golf club), and basically they're the most sensible characters at this beach resort - but they're not that sensible, although they're quick with insults (always pretty sensible, actually).

The play's most fortunate reinvention is making Antonio not Leonato's brother but his business partner and life partner. Cas Marino comes close to running away with the play in his portrayal of Antonio who's given to demurely adjusting his hot-pink dress at crucial moments. What's remarkable about Marino's performance is that he eschews easy laughs and broad comedy, and by the end there's the suggestion that he's the smartest one in the family.

Tim Robinson plays the sleaziest Borachio we've ever seen, but he's pretty well matched by Susan Erenberg's gum-chewing, rainbow-haired, headphoned Constance (as the "good twin" Margaret, she's more reserved but still slightly sleazy). With Mazzenga as Don Joan, their scenes are played fairly broadly, and their villainy is stupid enough to register as funny.

It was a relatively cool end for a very hot and humid July, but in the sun of the late afternoon, it was still a bit uncomfortable (we wished the cast had lent us some of the sunscreen they applied before the show began; the lei was nice, but the plastic around our neck made us hotter). Yet the audience stayed involved, including this little brother and sister. They couldn't possibly have understood a lot of what was going on, yet they were laughing regularly and seemed intently involved in the play.

Except for the funny chase scene by the Keystone Cops of Club Messina after the bad guys and the few characters who sat among us (notably the friar and Seacole and Dull, played by Mike Honda), the cast didn't wander into the audience. Working without scenery - although the hedges by the building in the back provided a good place for Benedick and Beatrice to listen in on conversations planned for their benefit - the action moved swiftly and we were surprised at how lucky they seemed to avoid the myriad distractions. (A momentary helicopter overhead, drowning out dialogue, was the worst offender, and that's nothing.)

As the ingenue couple whose marriage provides the MacGuffin for the comedy's goings-on (and the course of their on-again, off-again, pretending-to-be-dead, on-again romance doesn't really make sense except maybe as an alternate history for Romeo and Juliet), Melissa Meli as Hero

and Charley Layton as Claudio are jewels: very cute and sweet and even caring but, oh, are they stupid, each in their own way. But as with most of the characterization in this production, everything is just subtle enough to skirt ridiculousness.

We were afraid we might be a little too theater-weary for Much Ado in McCarren Park after coming from an earlier Shakespeare play, as well as an outdoor Cyrano last night, Medea the night before, and a play at Lincoln Center Out of Doors on Wednesday. But we weren't tired or bored for a minute at Black Henna Productions' performance.

Kudos to director Johnny Young, assistant director Malini Singh McDonald, stage manager Robert Babecki, costume designer Deborah Erenberg and everyone involved in bringing outdoor Shakespeare to Williamsburg and Greenpoint.

Saturday Afternoon in Prospect Park: EBE Ensemble presents "Julius Caesar" at Shakespeare in the Pagoda

Early this afternoon we were in Central Park for the 1 p.m. show in this season's new Shakespeare in the Pagoda series at (of course) the Music Pagoda.

The EBE Ensemble presented a taut and thoughtful version of Julius Caesar with a terrific cast under the direction of Kristine Ayers.

The costumes were contemporary/casual, casting was somewhat gender-neutral, and the production made effective use of the setting, which is really quite good for classic theater, as last year's production of Henry IV and Henry V by the Rebellious Subjects company proved.

From our previous experience at the Music Pagoda, we knew enough to bring a little blanket (or a chair, for those not schlepping on two trains from as far away as Williamsburg) because the ground is mostly black dirt.

But it's very comfortable and cozy, and off the beaten track enough so that there aren't many of the distractions that outdoor theater is prey to. (The biggest one today came late in the play when a girl about six ran ahead of his father up the pagoda's steps to play, unaware that she was briefly in the middle of a stage production.)

Early on, a few actors were egging on the crowd to cheer for Caesar. We at first thought they were doing warm-up exercised but as they were shooed away in the play's opening lines by a Roman official, it was clear that they represented the frenzy of the mob that makes Julius Caesar so frightening as a political document.

The way the crowd is whipped up into a frenzy, first against Caesar and in favor of Brutus, Cassius and their fellow conspirators, and then, turning on a dime after Mark Antony's clever (and passionately controlled) sophistry at the fallen leader's funeral, they run to attack the conspirators, is one of this production's triumphs.

The actors use the audience and setting effectively, but the most chilling scene is the mob tearing to pieces the poet Cinna because he's unlucky enough to have the same name as one of the conspirators who kill Caesar. (He's the Roman Shirley Sherrod, with the crowd the Tea Party high on Fox News, without benefit of the complete videotape.)

With the exception of the small roles of Portia and Calpurnia, the wives of Brutus and Caesar, in scenes expressing their fears on the morning of the Ides of March, Julius Caesar is nominally entirely male, but we loved the gender-neutral casting of the title role (and a few others) here. Camille Mazurek has the gravitas and charismatic bearing of the great Julius, and giving the role of Calpurnia to Montgomery Sutton, who plays it as an intelligent but unheeded spouse treated mostly as a boy toy, was really a wonderful touch.

Julius Caesar is probably the Shakespeare play whose text we know best. Back in the spring of 1965, Mrs. Sanjour at Meyer Levin Junior High School 285 in East Flatbush made class 9SPE2 each get up and recite a lengthy monologue (we picked the one by Brutus that opens Act II) and recall its lines and others.

That was old-fashioned teaching, but Mrs. Sanjour also took us on a bus trip one day to Greenwich Village, where we watched the 1953 star-filled film version at a revival showing at a West 8th Street movie house, either the Eighth Street Playhouse or the Art. (Our teacher told us to spot anachronisms, and there's not only the tolling of the clock in ancient Rome - Shakespeare's doing - but at one point Brutus is seen leafing through a page-filled hardcover book rather than a scroll.)

We last taught Julius Caesar in the summer of 2006 at the School of Visual Arts. It seemed freshly relevant in light of the Iraq war. The play deals with issues of leadership and conscience, of political ambition and idealism and how they get mixed up. Brutus is the play's fulcrum and his death at the drama's end, mourned by his enemy and vanquisher Mark Antony as "the noblest Roman of them all," is both inevitable and deeply disturbing. Today's production at the Music Pagoda brought out Julius Caesar in all its facets as both human and political tragedy.

The troupe made good use of the audience, bringing some of us up to circle Caesar's body at his funeral, where Mark Antony wept over our assassinated leader, showed his bloody garment, and told us of Caesar's generous bequeaths to us, the people of Rome.

The show, sponsored in part by Green Mountain Energy (which had a table today) and Arizona Iced Tea, featured among the cast directed by Kristine Ayers (along with the alternating Romeo and Juliet, directed by Dev Bondarin) many familiar faces to Prospect Park area residents, including ensemble members like the magnetic Montgomery Sutton (Rebellious Subjects’ Henry IV/V at the Music Pagoda; Gallery Players’ King Lear and Candide) as a callow and impetuous Octavius Caesar and in a sweet turn as a worried Calpurnia;

a bearded Eric Alba (EBE’s Buddha Nosh and Russian Roulette) portrayed a complex and conflicted Brutus, a good man, well-meaning but easily swayed and ultimately too naive to be an effective leader;

and Joshua Luria (Rebellious Subjects’ Henry IV/V) as Casca, who's plain-spoken but in the end not too dumb to comprehend the implications of the conspirators' actions.

The play also featured guest artists Camille Mazurek (Pulse Ensemble Theater’s Twelfth Night and Ladies in Retirement) doing a magnificent job in the title role, creating a portrait good enough to do what the best of actors playing Caesar do, which is to dominate the play's action even after the assassination (she also appears at the end as Strato, the friend who assists Brutus's suicide);

Nick Reinhardt(Rebellious Subjects’ Henry IV/V) as Mark Antony, by turns cynical, oleaginous, inflammatory and masterful;

Len Rella (Gallery Players’ Candide;Gorilla Rep’s Julius Caesar and Joan of Arc), playing the wily Cassius looking very lean and hungry and also petty, sneaky, easily offended - but not so much a manipulator that he doesn't feel pain and sympathy at others' distress;

Ugo Chukwu (The Heights’ Players Take Me Out) as stolid Messala, and effectively as Flavius and other players in the Roman streets.
Jessica Rothenberg (The Huntington Theatre’s The Cherry Orchard; Gallery Players’ King Lear) does effective triple duty as a hapless Lepidus, Artemidorus the failed informer, and most brilliantly in her brief turn as Portia, showing womanly steel despite her frail condition (there's a suggestion that Portia has suffered a stroke).

Elizabeth Spano (whom we saw last year in Curious Frog’s Romeo & Juliet) on the other side of Prospect Park) and who reprises that role in the Pagoda this summer) is the soothsayer ("Beware the Ides of March") and Brutus's protective servant Lucius; and Jessica Frey (Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival’s Much Ado About Nothing, Pericles) plays Cinna and some really riled-up Romans.

The play's costume design was by Amanda Jenks, with original music by Nicholas R. Wright, fight choreography by Turner Smith, and live foley design by Joshua B. Jenks and Nancy Valladares. On Julius Caesar, director Kristine Ayers was joined by assistant director and stage manager Mandee Kulaga.

According to the promo material,
EBE Ensemble is dedicated to developing and presenting new and unique works of theatre. They believe that making theater accessible enhances a community and that, through an ensemble-based approach, they can better present quality theatre that strives for an emotional truth. Now finishing their third season, EBE Ensemble has produced several new plays and adaptations and created the “You Fill in the Blank” play festival and competition in addition to the award-winning national one-act festival, Elephants on Parade.

For us, Julius Caesar at the Music Pagoda proved a fast-moving, exciting, and powerful production of Shakespeare's most readable play, a political thriller with ominous overtones for today.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday Evening on the Upper West Side: Hudson Warehouse presents "Cyrano" in Riverside Park

At the end of tonight's performance of Cyrano by the Hudson Warehouse at the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in Riverside Park, we found ourselves fighting back tears, a testimony either to the sentimentality of an old fool or the high quality of the play we'd just seen, since it was also filled with laughs and amazingly good action sequences.
Directed by Hudson Warehouse founder Nicholas Martin-Smith, whose work we last saw a year ago in the company's innovative Hamlet, the adaptation of Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (a play many people mistakenly believe is much older than its 1897 date, probably because of the play's 17th century setting) by Joe Hamel, who played the title role with, well, panache.

It's always great to be in this neighborhood, where we spent our summers (three blocks away from here) in 1980s, and it was nice to be out of the house on a night that wasn't so oppressively hot that we were forced to stay home and watch Everybody Loves Ramen reruns.

Cyrano is a play which most people think they know, but don't really. We suspect that most of the people who unwittingly came upon the play in progress as they were about to walk through the monument with their dog, stroller or skateboard saw the impossibly long-nosed fellow and knew it was Cyrano.

But the play is actually more than the simple story of an ugly but articulate man writing love letters (expressing his own true feelings for a hopeless love) as a favor for his handsome but inarticulate friend.

It's a rich brew with a large cast of characters, a few of them quite distinctive in their own right, and here played expertly with a cast which always works as a unit, working together - yes, taking their star turns and getting their individaul laughs, but ultimately in service of presenting a believable world and moving the story forward.

The numerous fight scenes, with swords, of course, as well as a variety of other weapons including fists, are breathtakingly skillful and hilarious. The seemingly endless battle when Cyrano legendarily took on a hundred opponents is a tour de force choreographed by fight director Jared Kirby, who's a genius at this sort of thing.

There was a historical Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-1655), a playwright and duelist, and the story is based, very loosely, on his life. He was a witty and contentious man (though he reserved his most venomous satire for the man who'd been his lover for thirteen years) who did have a female cousin who lived with his aunt in a convent, did fight in a lesser battle at Arras during the Thirty Years' War between the French and Spanish, and he had a large nose - but not all that big.

The phallic nature of Cyrano's nose has always been difficult to ignore, and queer readings of the play have concentrated on how hard it is to conceal one's true self and deepest feelings. Cyrano tries to hide his love for Roxane; Christian tries to conceal his lack of verbal ability; and Cyrano has a complex and contradictory reaction to what makes him different from other people: he can both make fun of himself a thousand times better than anyone else can (as in the wonderful variety of witty self-directed insults he suggests to dullard Valvert in the duel early in the play) yet demand that his friends make no references to his most distinguishing characteristic or face his wrath.

The pathos of his hopeless love for Roxane, as well as Christian's own inability to get Roxane to love him for his true tongue-tied self, as well as the gallant nature when each in turn is willing to sacrifice his own best interests for those of a friend, gives the play its depth, but the comedy that permeates the work - in the form of characters like the baker/steward Bagueneau (played with brilliant comic timing by Ron Dreyer, who made a great Puck last summer in Midsummer Night's Dream) and others among the soldiers, servants, monks and nobles, as well as the verbal dexterity of the protagonist, is never lost until Cyrano's death at the play's conclusion.

Joseph Hamel was a winning, friendly, volatile and extremely funny Cyrano, but his hidden melancholy side is there all the time. It's a demanding role, full of style, but the actor made it look effortless.

To the character of Roxane, Amanda Jones brought dignity, vivacity and a slight petulance (it is, after all, kind of annoying to constantly ask for witty protestations of love from someone you apparently care about); in addition to her beauty, she had the depth that made you understand why two men are in love with her.

Matt Fraley's Christian was appropriately clueless at times, but it was always clear to the audience what a kind and sensitive person Christian is. With the audience rooting for Cyrano, it's sometimes hard to make Christian as sympathetic and noble as this actor does.

As the play's nominal "villain," De Guiche - who it turns out, as we suspected, is a pussycat after all - David Palmer Brown was outstanding. He's both blustery and phumphering, dynamic and distracted, and he gets the most flamboyant costume with the long wig. It's really interesting for us to see actors we saw last season like Brown (who was Polonius in Hamlet) or Tyler Hall (here, the Friar as as well as a dashing Bertrand; last season he was one of the multiple Hamlets) or Matt Fraley (who was either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern) and Ron Dreyer again.

Other terrific cast members included Emily Rose Parman as a gentle and earthy Lise; Vince Phillip as a sensible, loyal Le Bret; Valerie O'Hara as Roxane's dithery but protective duenna Marguerite; and Chel Shipley, Ryan Patrick Lingle, Roger Dale Stude and Coulby Jenkins as musketeers and various roles.

That some of these actors have worked together before, and with the director, probably makes these Hudson Warehouse productions so special. In his director's notes in the program, Nicholas Martin-Smith, discusses his realization that what his parents shared in their fifty years together was "true love," a friendship carried in a very simple way, without ego, and how that realization compelled him to direct and produce this Cyrano.

He and the cast succeeded in conveying that "true love" - not only in the passions of Cyrano, Roxane and Christian, but in the strong feelings of friendship and camaraderie among the entire ensemble.