Sunday, August 20, 2006

Wives at S&Co : More the Merrier

Big, fat Sir John Falstaff (Malcolm Ingram) tells everybody, early on during "The Merry Wives of Windsor," that he will make love both to Alice Ford (played with daffy, zany appeal by Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and Meg Page (Corinna May -- reasonable in comparison to Aspenlieder).

Meanwhile, Anne Page (Katie Zaffrann) has several men following her around -- subplot! She and Fenton (Ryan Winkles) are an eventual lovely couple, singing a sweet song at the outset of the second portion of the play.

The Mistresses Alice and Meg make comparison of scrolls each has received from Falstaff. Dadum -- the letters are precisely identical. Form that point on, "Merry Wives" becomes a matter of who will be duped by whom.

Actor Michael Hammond (S&Co seasoned performer whose Lear at Brandeis a year ago was thoughtful and impressive) is cast as Frank Ford, husband to Alice. Ford transforms himself into a person known as "Brook." In this way, utilizing the alias, Ford becomes aware of Falstaff's aspirations.

"Merry Wives" is far from Shakespeare's finest effort. Hence, a lengthy exposition cannot be swiftly traversed -- despite the best efforts of a terrific creative team led by director Tony Simotes. He and dance choreographer Susan Dibble move this production along whenver possible. It is not until post-intermission that the show flies with its full flare -- realizing maximum comic potential. At this point, "Merry Wives" is nothing short of fun, and frolic. It's a joy to behold.

Along the way, Mistress Ford disguises Falstaff as an old woman. Soon, the two women inform their husbands that what they've done has been executed in order to plot against Falstaff. Perhaps that is what occurs when rich, beautiful wives to whom not enough attention has been paid find a purpose. In this case, with imagination and zeal, the ladies exact revenge upon Falstaff. The rotund one, meanwhile, who had grown short on funds, thought he would quickly amplify his bank account to match his girth.

The sometimes hoot-a-minute supportive company members, including Robert Biggs as Sir Hugh Evans, Jonathan Croy as Dr. Caius, the French physician, and Elizabeth Ingram as Mistress Quickly, are splendid.

The principals, including Malcolm Ingram, Aspenlieder, May, and Hammond are absolutely first-rate. Watch them act!

Moreover, this production demonstrates just why the company portion of Shakespeare & Company is nothing short of vital.

Take Simotes, whose stamp is firmly affixed to the show. As a founding member way back when and as an actor, director, and teacher, he has trained with Shakespeare & Company, trained others, performed and ventured elsewhere as a multi-talented person of the theater.

Several years ago, at Bennington College, I was fortunate enough to watch as Simotes facilitated a movement workshop. Coaxed to join, I participated -- if briefly. Simotes is smart and disciplined. His students, that day, were learning craft.

Now, he is working with actors (in leading roles) who have been with the company for more than a decade. Each is versatile. It is Simotes' job to motivate, push "Merry Wives" forward, opening up creative faucets at appropriate moments (during the final portion), and allow these superb actors to flourish.

Performed during its given period, the early 1600's, "Merry Wives of Windsor" fits the current era as well. Ever been jealous?

The show continues at the Founders Theater in Lenox through September 2nd.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Goodspeed's "Pippin" Enthralls

"Pippin" bequeathes its audience the best opening number, "Magic To Do," that I've seen in weeks, months -- cannot recall. While the stage is, during pre-show, initially bare, it soons become a creative smorgasbord for: magic; a revolving, shining, metal setting; a wondrous Leading Player (Andre Ward);
acrobats, jugglers.....

Please follow my lead and jump to the task or at least to a production when Gabriel Barre directs. He facilitated John Cariani's terrific "Almost, Maine" in New York last winter. At the Goodspeed, Barre has directed "Sweeney Tood," "King of Hearts," "Camille Claudel," "Summer of '42" "Finian's Rainbow," and others. Working with choreographer Mark Dendy, Barre breathes additional life into Stephen Schwartz's music and lyrics. Roger O. Hirson wrote the book and it suffices.

The production definitely sparkles. Thanks, then, to people such as scene man Beowulf Boritt, magic consultant Peter Samelson, stunt coordinator Ottavio Gesmundo, costume designer Liz Prince, lighting designer Kevin Adams, and others, too.

The script tells the story of Pippin (Joshua Park), who is the son of Charlemagne (the same Micky Dolenz of "Monkees" fame - he was the lead singer). Pippin is confused, a bit dazed, too, and is a prime candidate to experience adolescent sexual liason while he attempts (here we go again) to find himself. Eventually, Pippin stabs his father but, through artistic license and imagination, the act is reversed!

Pippin falls, sort of, for a yellow-haired widow named Catherine (Teal Wicks). He and she try the domestic scene, complete with domicile. The play concludes as, again, the trappings are absolutely removed and the Leading Player insists that each instrument grow silent. By now, Pippin and Catherine, wearing only quite modest undergarments, have become basic and, in so doing, that much more human. Fini.

Along the way, Pippin watches as temptresses, all in white (of course) fly above him, swooping down and around. Earlier, Fastrada (Shannon Lewis) attempts to crown her son, Lewis (the very ripped James Royce Edwards) as future king -- rather than Pippin.

Bob Fosse created the choreography for the 1972 Broadway presentation of "Pippin." Barre has indicated that he and Dendy studied Fosse's take and utilized it as springboard material for their version. The Goodspeed show is not vintage Fosse. Schwartz and Hirson have been involved as this revival evolved.

Quibble? "Pippin" is not a thrill a moment for its two hours and forty minutes. Yes, another post-teen male (see that guy Hamlet) becomes a prince of dusk. True, some of this is all too familiar.

Here's the but: the artistic team flies this re-invented show with enthusiasm, smarts, and vigor. The cast members seem (who really ever knows?) to love the work. At the final curtain, it appears as if they've completely enjoyed themselves. You, prospective theater patron, might very share that sentiment should you see "Pippin" before it closes on September 29th.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Pensive and Persuasive: "Hamlet" at Shakespeare & Company

Actor Jason Asprey, as Hamlet, is smoldering, dark, and inwardly emotive.

During recent seasons, the actor has impressed as a supportive, significant player in a number of productions staged by the Lenox company. This time around, he is furious when finding out that his mother Gertrude (played by Asprey's real life actual mother, Tina Packer) was complicit in the death of Hamlet's father. Hamlet will avenge that murder.

Hamlet inadvertently kills Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain. Playing Polonius is Dennis Krausnick, who happens to be married (again in real life) to Tina Packer. So, Krausnick is stepfather to Jason Asprey.

Hamlet, after accidentally stabbing Polonius to death, is exiled. Previously, Hamlet and Polonius' daughter Ophelia (striking, dangerous-looking Elizabeth Raetz) demonstrated obvious feelings for one another. Now, however, goes mad, reappears with a wreath of mismatching branches around her head, and eventually drowns.

Laertes (played by Kevin O'Donnell) challenges Hamlet to a duel and eventually kills the prince. Laertes goes down, too; Gertrude drinks poison and falls.


Director Eleanor Holdridge has cut the script to three hours playing time. The initial scene which often features, somehow or other, a menacing ghost is eliminated. Replacing it with "To be and not to be...." out of time sequence doesn't work especially well. And, one misses specter.

During its first hour, S&Co seems a good production with several great moments. Thereafter, it becomes a sterling presentation (except for an occasional lull). Asprey gets better as the plot unfolds. The actor is thirty-eight years old; sometimes he is youthful but, at other moments, he wears the countenance of one who realizes he carries the intellectual/emotional weight of too many upon his shoulders.

Asprey is wiry, intense, and introspective. As is the case with virtually every actor Shakespeare & Company trains, his enunciation and diction are enviable. Krusnick plays down Polonius but it works. Packer, a woman who typically lights up any room she enters with her very presence, keeps Gertrude under control. Hers is a character who hopes to move forward but knows better. Packer smiles often but perhaps these looks are often rueful.

My experience with her tells me that she knows "Hamlet" inside and out. She has memorized much of the canon. As an actor within the context of this version, though, she carefully maintains her role without overstepping.

Kevin Coleman choregraphed the riveting fight scene at the play's conclusion. Coleman (as actors Asprey and O'Donnell demonstate) is a precious resource. The swordplay is authentic, exciting, and bold.

I know: Coleman staged such a scene for community college actor I directed half a dozen years back. Coleman (also an actor, director, and educator) cannot be undervalued.

Frankly, I believe that Holdridge's attempt to create "electrical synapse impulses" which represent Hamlet's brain doesn't quite make it. The jolts are inoffensive but they are not particularly effective.

On the whole, this "Hamlet" piques and maintains interest. That Asprey remains "under" the top works to this production's advantage.