Hamlet at Writers’ Theatre

So.  Writers’ kicked off the season with Hamlet.  Pretty bold.

I had a copy of the old Lawrence Olivier version and watched it for the first time a week or so ago – just to try and get Kenneth Brannagh out of my head.  It reminded me of two things:

  1. One of the really interesting things when comparing interpretations of Hamlet is..because it is so bloody long..what the director chooses to leave out.  For example, the Olivier version entirely dropped the characters of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.
  2. I cannot stand Polonius.  Seriously.  If I were to make a Top 10 List of most heinous fictional characters of all time, Polonius would most certainly make the cut.

I wonder what it says about a production of Hamlet when the actor playing Polonius (Ross Lehman) steals the damn show?

One easy place to judge is how they pull off the scenes with the ghost.  Is it believably creepy and intimidating or a cheeseball mess?  Larry Yando and some particularly effective audio and lighting made it work very well.

Shannon Cochran, a regular at Writers’, played Gertrude with some attitude of the eye-rolling variety that I rather enjoyed.  (I wouldn’t have been surprised to hear her say, “Dude, seriously.  He is grievingfor his father.”)  Michael Canavan as Claudius was not quite as..slithery as some I have seen.  Made several scenes easier to take, actually.  Kareem Bandealy rocked playing Horatio – probably my favorite character –  as there were many sniffles to be heard during the final scene.

Which leaves us with Scott Parkinson as Hamlet himself.  He has been at Writers’ Theatre before and I enjoy his work.  The odd thing is I think much of what I noticed in his performance were director Michael Halberstam’s fingerprints.  For example, the distinctive interpretive thing that I saw was the progression of the “madness”.  I am no scholar of Shakespeare, (and Halberstam most definitely is) but my sense is that Hamlet begins in grief, has a “crazy like a fox” thing going for a bit, and then somewhere along the way loses the line between feigning madness and going mad.  Some of the subtlety was lost on me and Hamlet looked freakin’ nuts very early on.  Also, I wasn’t really feeling the love between Hamlet and Ophelia.  (However, I may be overly-influenced by Brannagh’s full-frontal-assault version of the affair.) Having said that, Parkinson played the laughs to perfection, which can’t be easy, and he nailed the final scene.

As always, Writers’ took an epic and played it so well that you forget the small space and just live in it for a bit.  I was particularly glad during the fencing not to be sitting in the front row.

So, yeah.  This was a good one.

Writers’ Theatre: A Little Night Music

I am not sure I’d ever even heard of A Little Night Music before.  And if you ask me tomorrow, what’s playing at Writers’ Theatre, I will probably say, “that one with Send in the Clowns“.  But damn, it was good.

Writers’ doesn’t have a company of actors, but a cast of usual suspects.  William Brown directed Shannon Cochran, his co-star from Private Lives, in the lead role.  (Note: Private Lives may have been the show that made me a subscriber – they were that good.  That was an awfully long time ago.)  She is bloody fabulous, as always.  The actor with the toughest job, I think, was the guy that played the Count.  The character is so ridiculous as to be nearly a cartoon.  Think Gaston in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.  But he did well.  There was also a fine young actress – a student at Barrington High School – playing the daughter.  She found this perfect balance between innocent and worldly.

There is a relatively large cast, with several actors doing double duty in minor roles.  They make it work.  I’m not sure why so many had to spend quite so much time in their underwear, though.  Intimate space and all.  Which reminds me that I when I renewed my subscription for next year, I actually asked for new seats.  Musicals makes actors spit, and I am currently in the line of fire.  Also, I am constantly worried about where I put my feet and my bag, so as not to trip up an actor.  I was also whipped by the flying skirts of the dancing actresses.  So.  No more front row for me.

If you’d like to see the trailer, you can find it here.  Runs through July 8.

The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard

Writers Theatre’s first show of the season was The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard.  Michael Halberstam directed and Sean Fortunato was the lead.  Natasha Lowe played his first wife, which messed me up a bit because I haven’t shaken her performance in Streetcar from my head yet.

The first thing I noted – tweeted, actually – was the music playing before the show.  (Intermezzo plays at intermission..what the heck is the term for the music that plays before the show?)  Anyway, it was ABBA.  Seriously.
But it had a point.  Fortunato plays a highbrow playwright and the action is the collapse of his first marriage and the subsequent marriage to his mistress.  Music is one of the themes used to compare and contrast artistic taste, talent and temperament.  
The playwright likes pop music.
Another thing that happened was that I spent the entire first act trying to identify the accent of one of the characters.  Fortunato does voices and accents really well and he was all seamless going from his English character to his English character doing a woman to his English character doing a Scot.  But I couldn’t get a handle on the other one.  Then, at intermission, the guy in front of me said that Writers had better get a new voice coach because that one was slipping in and out of an accent the entire time.
Huh.  So that wasn’t on purpose?  Well, if I even noticed, then it was a problem.
In any event, I very much dig Stoppard.  I enjoyed the art imitating life imitating art.  Except for that accent issue, I appreciated the acting.  
Pretty strong kick off, I’d say.

Writers’ Theatre, Heartbreak House

Writers’ Theatre really likes Shaw. I believe I read somewhere that he was the most produced playwright in their history, and since this one was not a musical..I was totally game.

I’ve said before that one of the strengths of this company is the set design. They go for intimacy and work in a small space which requires major creativity. Heartbreak House had the best set I have ever seen. It was the garden of an English country house and I want to live there.

There was grass. Not Brady Bunch turf, but something green and soft that looked like grass. OK – the blades were lying on their sides like it was cut-and-mulched, but still. And. The actors use the aisles for many of their entrances, so one of the aisles had actual gravel. It was awesome, and my seat is in the first row.

Side Note: Overheard in the audience, “That gravel is a liability. Someone is going to turn an ankle.”

Then trees and the porch and the façade of the house. And big pillows and chairs and rugs. It was hard to sit still in my standard modern chair.

As is often the case, my favorite character was the Crazy Old Man. It becomes clear rather quickly that all of the characters are crazy. By the end, there is no greater understanding, no glimpse of peace or happiness or reaching any goals of any kind. And the Blitz starts.

What is interesting is the underlying awareness the characters have of their own sense of drama. That they create their own nonsense because they lead such utterly tedious lives. Such that when the Blitz starts, one guy is turning all of the lights on and almost no one is taking any cover. They want to watch because finally something is happening.

As a societal commentary, Shaw seems to be saying that there is a certain class of people in England with the emotional maturity of 14-year old girls.

So that was fun.

Travels With My Aunt

I saw Travels With My Aunt at Writers’ Theatre tonight.  It was at the small stage in Books on Vernon.  They did the “general admission” thing again – does twice in a row make it a trend or a permanent feature?  No matter, because I was early.
I have not yet read the novel by Graham Greene, but I am sure going to – it was fabulous.  There were four actors playing 26 characters in the show.  One of the actors, LaShawn Banks, was the lead in Turn of the Screw a few seasons back.  In that piece, he also played multiple characters and I remember it as an excellent performance. 

The weird thing is that all four actors play the narrator, Henry, and then they play a bunch of other characters.  You get used to it pretty quickly, though.  Even Sean Fortunato, who plays the Aunt, manages to go back and forth between the two rather seamlessly.  Not much more than a shift in body language, but you can follow it.

The effects were old school and performed right on stage. The sounds of the Orient Express beginning to chug, for example, were created by opening an umbrella at increasingly speedy intervals. Writers’ Theatre always makes that stuff charming.

Henry, a 55-year old retiree, meets his Aunt Augusta at his mother’s funeral.  She lives in a world of adventure and sometimes all-out fantasy and poor Henry gets sucked right in.  Happily, while Henry is a rather dull guy, he doesn’t pout or whine about the half-truths and other inconveniences that their Travels entail.  In the end, Augusta determines not to return to England.  And Henry must decide whether to go back to his old comfortable world, or to live in her crazy/thrilling one. 

Seriously, I have to go read this.

She Loves Me, at Writers’ Theatre

I’ve had a rough time at Writers’ Theatre lately, which is the absolute opposite of the way the critics felt and only a matter of my taste.  And getting sprayed by a half-naked Stanley Kowalski.  I was apprensive going into She Loves Me, another musical.

Remember that Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie – You’ve Got Mail?  It’s based on that.  And did I mention it is a musical?

It opens with your standard cheery “What a beautiful morning” song.  And if you can live through that, it gets pretty good.  All the actors could sing and the characters are generally likeable.  The small orchestra was hidden behind a screen and they were great.

Inasmuch as the standard rom-com is not my favorite genre, I really got into the sub-plot involving the store owner, Mr. Maraczek (played by Writers Theatre veteran Ross Lehman.  I love that guy.).  He goes from friendly to cranky to outright mean..and secretive.  And then the P.I. comes to visit him.  Oh.  Damn.

Overall, it was light and fun and a fine start to the season.

Seeing it Live

Weekend Assignment #319: The Play’s The Thing.
Nowadays we get most of our comedy and drama from television, from movies and even from internet downloads. Perhaps we sometimes forget that all of these evolved from a much older art form, the stage play. Do you ever attend plays, musicals or operas? Why or why not?

Extra Credit: Have you ever seen anything by Shakespeare performed live?
I do, and I am weird about it.  In a “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like” way.  I subscribe with The Writers’ Theatre, which is a small group in suburban Chicago.  I love them because they have this great mix of presenting classics and totally new shows.  I don’t love every show (in fact, don’t click on my last couple of reviews, because I didn’t enjoy them.  They weren’t bad.  I’m just cranky.  And I don’t like Streetcar.) but even when that happens, I appreciate their ingenuity.
I don’t go to any other theatres.  I can’t think of the last…Shakespeare on the Green?  Steppenwolf?  I seriously don’t remember.  It might have been when my grandfather took me to the opera.  That was awesome.  I don’t go more often partly because I would have to schlep into the city.  Partly because it is expensive.  Mostly I am just satisfied with The Writers’ Theatre.
I have seen more Shakespeare on stage than any other genre.  (Is Shakespeare a genre?)  The most recent was As You Like It and before that was Othello.  Both at Writers’ Theatre.  In fact, I first discovered the place when my then-boyfriend and I were trying to find something to do for Valentine’s Day.  We were looking in the paper and one or the other of us spotted Richard II.  That was not a typo.  Richard 2.  Whotheheckever heard of that being produced?  We were there.