Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Lion in Winter

As part of my experience with the No Kidding Shakespeare Camp, I attended a performance of James Goldman’s 1966 play The Lion in Winter. I had earlier read the play, had seen both movie versions, and attended a workshop earlier in the day led by ASC Director of Education Sarah Enloe and Anne Armentrout on the actual history of the early monarchy until the reign of Elizabeth and some of the history plays focusing on the time of Henry II and John. The ASC’s The Lion in Winter is a marvelous display of the early Plantagenets at their most sinister, conniving, backstabbing best (or worst).

Tracy Hostmyer & James Keegan in The Lion in Winter. Photo by Michael Bailey.
The setting for the play is a Christmas court in Chinon, Anjou during the year 1183. Henry II was 50 years old and had reigned for nearly 30 years. His 61 year old wife, Queen of either England or France for nearly 50 years, Eleanor of Aquitaine had been in exile for nearly a decade following a rebellion against the King. His son Henry the Younger, who had co-reigned with Henry II had died, and the three remaining sons: Richard (the Lionheart), Geoffrey (named for Henry’s father), and John are all vying for the throne. Henry’s mistress, Alais (and betrothed to Richard), the half-sister of King Philip II of France and Philip himself are also in attendance.

The play is rather quick moving, and is full of many twists and turns. These Plantagenets (and Philip) are constantly scheming against one another, and it’s hard to tell who is serious or jesting (or outright lying) when they speak. James Keegan is, as expected, the master of the stage. He’s a raving, roaring Lion of a King, constantly in a battle of wits with his strange brood and with Tracy Hostmyer’s formidable Eleanor. Keegan’s performance is typical of a Keegan performance: large and in charge. The man is the consummate professional and never gives anything less than a stellar, impassioned performance. He’s the true general of the Blackfriars stage and I cherish every opportunity I get to see him perform.

Hostmyer’s Eleanor is an able foil to the roaring Lion. In speaking with her after the performance, I could tell how important this role is to her and I look forward to seeing how her take on the character evolves over the next five months. She plays the scheming grand dame adeptly and with a good balance of grace, cunning, and outright bitch.

John Harrell’s Prince John is a petulant, nasty (and dirty), whining little shit of a prince. Harrell is at his best in a role like this and he definitely knocks it out of the park. You can see him acting from the top of his head to the soles of his feet constantly during this performance. No performer at the Blackfriars uses their body and movement as adroitly as Harrell. He’s always a master of movement and facial expressions, and he does a tremendous job of both in this role.

Benjamin Curns’ Lionheart, at least for me, can dominate scenes due to the sheer legend of the character. Curns, coming off his masterful performance as Richard III is terrific in this role, balancing just enough of Richard the Lionheart’s soldierly front, with his doubts and worries about not ascending to the crown. Richard tries to be emotionless, but is anything but. His love scene with Rene Thornton, Jr.’s regal and scheming King Philip and other private times with Eleanor show just how vulnerable he really is. Curns, like Harrell, is a master of movement and audience contact and both are on display in this performance.

Greg Phelps plays the middle child, the capable, bitter, particularly amoral, and analytically brainy Geoffrey. All of these traits come to life in Phelps’ performance.  Phelps dons a sullen mask for the entirety of the show and is the most level-headed of the characters. He is brilliant as a slighted son, at war with his fate and contemptuous of his family.

I was again very impressed with the work of Tracie Thomason as Alais. On the surface, Alais appears as an innocent, weak, little pretty girl. She is greatly underestimated by all concerned however, and by the end of the play she’s a schemer as well. Thomason adeptly weaves all of these traits into her performance. You totally buy that she’s an innocent waif at the beginning, but by the end there’s no doubt she can hold her own with this dysfunctional bunch of Plantagenets.

The play is greatly enhanced by the meticulously detailed and well-researched costumes of ASC Costume Manager Erin M. West. West visited with the No Kidding campers earlier in the day and gave us a detailed discussion of how she researches and designs costumes, particularly focusing on this production. West is a true asset to the ASC and they are lucky to have someone of her immense talents.

I look forward to seeing this play several more times to see how it and the performances evolve over the course of the next five months. The one thing that seemed odd to me was the play seemed to just end out of nowhere. That may be due to the structure of the two acts; the first being much longer than the second. 

Following the performance and a Talk Back with Rene Thornton, Jr., James Keegan, Greg Phelps, Tracy Hostmyer, and Tracie Thomason, the ASC Education staff and ASC co-founder Ralph Alan Cohen graciously held a cast party for the No Kidding campers and gave us a chance to hang out with several of the actors from this season. It was a great time with great food and I’d like to thank all the actors and ASC staff who took part in the party. The ASC is a first class organization and the strength of it is the people. They really are a great group of people who give it their all in everything they do.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Merchant of Venice

Tracie Thomason as Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Photo by Michael Bailey.
I have been attending the American Shakespeare Center's No Kidding Shakespeare Camp this week. I've had a really good and informative time and will give a full synopsis later. As part of the camp we get to attend performances. Tonight we attended The Merchant of Venice. The show opened officially last week, but there have been a few dress rehearsals and other shows for a few weeks. Stylistically and thematically, the play is odd. I imagine in Shakespeare's time (or 1930s Germany) it was well-received as mostly a raucous comedy with a good in your face comeuppance story. Today, however, it's rather troubling. While I don't feel that Shylock (played masterfully by James Keegan) is a very sympathetic character overall, you can't help but hate his detractors even more as they pile on during the trial and as he faces continual derision and is spat upon throughout the play. I found that several times I would laugh at something and then scorn myself for laughing at or condoning something inappropriate. It's not an easy or light night at the theater. And while there are times you identify with Antonio, Bassanio, Portia and Shylock, there really are no "good guys" in this play and it's very odd that it has this tragic foreboding throughout, and then it turns into something akin to Twelfth Night in the final act.

There are several standout performances in the production. Keegan's Shylock is the consummate characterization of the role. I have never seen Keegan deliver anything but a first-rate performance. He is as steady as they come, not just reliable, but exceptional. ASC newcomer Tracie Thomason turns in a splendid performance as the beautiful and exceedingly wealthy Portia. I look forward to seeing more of her work this season. Chris Johnston is strong as Lorenzo but very nearly steals the show as the foolish and outlandish Prince of Arragon complete with laced cod piece. Benjamin Curns plays the bastard to the hilt as Gratiano, Shylock's trial tormentor and friend of Bassanio. In the final act, he deftly changes back to good old sitcom husband Gratiano. Allison Glenzer, brilliant as always, is wonderful as Nerissa and she and Curns have a witty little pre-show skit. Greg Phelps turns in a strong performance as Bassanio, particularly as concerns his relationship with Portia. Abbi Hawk plays an especially intriguing Jessica, and John Harrell is classic John Harrell as Launcelot Gobbo.

I look forward to seeing this production several more times before its November closing. It really is a masterful production of a very troubling play. Seeing the play prompts me to go back and read it again, particularly the notes (and the note on the text- thank you William Proctor Williams). Don't hesitate to check out this troubling play. It will make you think and reflect upon your own thoughts, and what more should we expect from Shakespeare, but to be entertained and to learn?