Tuesday, June 23, 2009

And the Rain it Raineth Every Day

So I've been thinking recently about the content of my blog. I've been writing basically only about theatre, which wasn't really my intent. But real life is tricky. Most of my job is confidential, and the ins and outs of my volunteer house seem too private and its hard to figure out what to say. But I'm quickly approaching the end of my volunteer year and I do have some thoughts on that coming up. I've decided anyway, that I'm not forcing anyone to read my blog (umm ok I might be...) But if you are reading this, you probably are either interested in what I've been saying about the dc theatre scene, or you like me a whole lot, or have the same last name as I do. So here comes another (very long, very in depth) theatre post.

I saw King Lear at the Shakespeare Theatre Company a few weeks ago and it took me a few days to recover from the shock of it. I know King Lear pretty well, I've read it 4 separate times and now have seen it on stage twice. On Monday before seeing this production I was making jokes because the theatre placed this warning on it: "Recommended for mature audiences. King Lear will feature graphic violence, sexuality and nudity." And honestly I thought that was pretty great. At UPS, when our productions featured certain things we had to put warning signs in the hallway for the audience. This applied to stuff like smoking, gunshots, or nudity. In fact, it was a running joke during my thesis play that we wanted to push the limits and have as many warning signs as possible. We did pretty well on that account.

Well for this productions warning signs would have been exceptional. There were too many gunshots to count, 3 entirely naked actors, several characters were graphically smothered to death, smoke, fog, there was even a CAR driven on stage. I'm not sure that last one needs a warning, but just to give you an idea of the spirit of the production. And I was honestly not ready for the levels of brutality this production accomplished. This production is not for the weak hearted, and I'm going to discuss some of the very graphic things it explored. Before I move on I have to say that all the people I went with loved this production. They really enjoyed it, and my reaction is by far the most critical I've encountered.

This production seemed to be very interesting in finding and exploring the moral ambiguities of the characters. Almost no one escaped unscathed. Generally King Lear holds a host of unsavory characters, notably Goneril and Regan, Cornwall, and the villain of the piece, Edmund. And these four nasty characters are enough to to rip the whole fabric of their world apart. This production took it a step further. The characters who are usually sympathetic and noble, the ones who carry the show and act as a moral center for the audience to follow, were all were destroyed by this production. For instance Kent, Lear's loyal servant, the voice of reason, threatened to brutally sodomize Goneril's servant Oswald. Here, Oswald was a nasty piece of work, but still the noble Kent lost his nobility in this threat. Albany, usually the sole voice of reason in the sisters world, rapes his wife. Even Edgar, usually the most noble character, still first emerges as a flamboyant, foolish drunk.

Somehow amidst all this debauchery, Gloucester emerges as the long sympathetic figure, with Edgar, his son also moving past his initial drunken foolishness and finally approaching the heroic space he usually holds. Yet it is this Gloucester, who is particularly nasty about Edmund's illegitimacy in his first appearance. who becomes the hero of the play. And what a tragic hero he is, giving his eyes and his life for Lear.

While this is an enormously long play, this production pushed over 3 hours and very little was cut. However, the last act was sliced and diced and for content it seems, not time. This production, obsessed with pulling the evil out of every good character, and the good out of the evil, cuts Edmund's attempt at atonement at the end. In the traditional script, Edmund and Edgar have a sword fight and Edmund is mortally wounded by Edgar. When Edmund realizes that he is dying and that it in fact is his brother who killed him, he tells Edgar he has ordered Lear and Cordelia's executions and Edgar rushes off to stop it. This is completely absent. Instead, Edgar pulls out a gun and blows Edgar away killing all dialog of the scene and obliterating Edgar's moment of change. This puzzles me. Why would this production, so interested in exploring the darkness and ambiguity of the human soul, remove the one good deed Edmund does? Even at best it is a sorry attempt to save Lear and Cordelia. It truly is a classic example of too little too late. Even if he did save them, it would not be enough to atone for all of his horrific misdeeds. And this is a particularly nasty Edmund, who not 30 minutes earlier strangles Cornwall with his tie, another bit of script alteration that bothered me.

To take this even further, in this production Goneril and Regan die after Edmund, not before. And not only this but Goneril strangles her sister on stage over Edmund's lifeless body, instead of off stage. By the time Goneril finished smothering her sister and shot herself, I was ready for the play to be over. But they were just warming up for the most brutal moment yet: Lear stumbled onstage carrying the naked, beaten, and obviously violated body of Cordelia. I was not expecting this and it shocked me. But maybe not in the way they intended.

As I mentioned I've seen King Lear on stage before. I saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production with Ian McKellen as King Lear. While that production was by no means puppies and kittens, in fact it was effectively brutal, its violence didn't approach this level at all. And I'm really at a loss. I didn't hate this production. The acting was good, the design was interesting, there were some phenomenal stage pictures and moments, but I really cannot move past the brutality of it. I'm not sure what the place of all the violence is supposed to be. Who is the hero in this tale, where all the characters are despicable? The last lines of the play are usually spoken by Goneril's sweet and misused husband. However, the Albany of this play was such a beast that his lines had to be given away to Edgar, who is the only good charter possibly in the whole production. And certainly he is the only one left standing, or more accurately oddly delivering the final lines crawling across the stage. I'm just left really not sure that I like this interpretation of King Lear, although it was definitely provoking.

Is this play a product of the times? Its set in 1990's in the Balkans. It feels achingly modern and its commentary on war is clear. Is it a product of the focus of the last few years on graphic and violent TV shows and movies and the crowd of anti heroes and despicable protagonists who populate them? Called into existence because of "The Shield", and "Dexter" most importantly "The Sopranos?" Quite possibly. But is this the way King Lear is intended? Or has it mutated into something different entirely? I'm left unsure, and slightly unhappy.

One of my college professors calls King Lear the best play in the English language. And maybe my problem comes down to this : the language was lost in the shuffle of all this epic violence and hatred. The actor who seems to speak the verse best was the villain, Edmund, who delivered his lines clearly and thrillingly in between stabbing, shooting, strangling, and seducing everyone in sight. The other actors didn't always seem to 100% understand their lines in a way that they communicated to the audience. I'm not sure what message that sends. The stage picture at the end, heaps of garbage and smashed up cars and dead characters, including a dead Cordelia completely naked on a table took away the power of Kent's last lines.

Or maybe my problem is that this entire production is what one of my professors would call "phenomenologically hot." Everything was distracting, rather than enlightening. Things that are phenomenologically hot on stage include babies, animals, water, fire, even actors with a certain type of charisma. (Maybe my UPS theatre kids can help explain this concept if they want) And the audience instinctively spends the time wondering if will the baby will cry, the animal will bite (or pee), or if the whole stage might go up in flames. That's how I ultimately feel about this production. Get the lion trainer handy and have plenty of fire extinguishers back stage. Figuratively of course.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seasons of Love

Recently I got to do something pretty spectacular. I got to see the official touring cast of the musical RENT. Which included the original Mark and the original Roger, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal, who first started playing these roles 13 years ago as young unproven actors on Broadway.

I have never seen RENT on stage before. I was aware of it as a musical, but had never heard of seen it before the film came out a few years back. I saw the movie three times in one weekend when it was the campus film and fell in love. I, like so many people, was captivated by this musical, by the music, and the story, the energy and the feeling of it. I bought the movie, got the Broadway soundtrack, and know the music very well. Yet I'd never done the crucial thing, I'd never seen it on stage. Simply because I've never had the chance, until now.

And when I was offered the chance to go see it way back in February, I jumped at it. I wrote a check to a friend and was the proud owner of a ticket. However, I didn't realize until about a month ago that Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp were going to be in it. Anyone who has seen the film has heard their amazing voices (MoM, FYI, you have seen the film). Because 90% of the original Broadway cast was in the film, and these are the only two recordings of RENT I've ever heard, I've literally never heard anyone else sing these two parts. Isn't that sort of spectacular? And my excitement was amazing. These actors make the musical for me.

I'm sure at some point I will see RENT again with a totally different cast. I may even be lucky enough so see these actors in other roles on stage on person. Or maybe even in these roles again. I was thinking last night about all the famous people I've seen on stage. Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Daniel Radcliff, 60 percent of the rest of the Harry Potter cast, and I'm probably forgetting someone really cool or famous. Yet getting to see these actors in the roles I know and loved them for, that is something really special. They inhabit this play in a way that I'm not sure any other actors ever can or will. And because of them, this production.

RENT premiered on Broadway over 13 years ago. And it became a sensation. Something about the intertwined stories of these 7 characters speaks to people. RENT tackles a broad variety of topics, or alternately, a specific thing. It tells the story of young people dealing with AIDS, drug addiction, suicide, homosexuality, even homelessness. Because of its frank, loving, supportive treatment of these things RENT became a symbol for the disenfranchised, the lonely. It seems to be about hope and yes, love. Oh man, maybe I am fixated on love and its place in theatre. Which is a good thing to focus on, if I have to pick, I guess.

Getting to see it was a perfect fleeting few hours of theatre. I wanted to drag my feet and make it go on forever. I always feel that way when watching a particularly good play; I don't ever want the moment to end. But it did, of course. However, even a few weeks later I'm still pretty happy about it. I told my friend Julia, who is getting ready to see the same production in Seattle soon, that seeing it was a bit anticlimactic for me. She was disappointed to know I felt that way. I'm not sure thats exactly right. I just wonder if sometimes, its the whole entire theatrical experience that makes a show. The build up, the let down, all of it, more than the actual two and a half hours of theatre that create a show.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Epic Memorial Day Weekend

Sorry this post was a long time coming! But here it goes. The day after Garrison Keillor I went on a 22 hour epic adventure with my new friends. It was Keri's birthday, and she wanted make it count. And it did.

My day started at 12 when I got picked up from the metro. We went to a park in Laurel Maryland and had a picnic lunch, my second in two days. I brought more of my great pasta salad and we had a nice time and a ton of food.

From there, we hopped in the car and drove the Boordy Vineyard, (http://www.boordy.com/) which is the oldest vineyard in the state of Maryland. We got to go on a tour, and our lovely tour guide, Pat, also led the wine tasting for half of our group. Up until now my entire wine tasting experience has been in Walla Walla, where we have a million and a half wineries (140? Is that the current count?) but they are mostly small boutique wineries, however they are producing fantastic wine.

Somehow its become a thing in my family that I like white wine more than red, but the Walla Walla valley is best for red. So on my family wine tasting last summer, I think I was forced to try every bottle of white Walla Walla produces. And now I think my taste is actually moving towards those rich, flavorful reds. So the opposite was true here, I loved the white wines, but was disappointed in the reds, all except for their reserve red, that I payed an extra dollar to taste. It was worth it.

After the winery we went out to dinner and then the main even. The drive in. It was outside of Baltimore and they were showing four movies. From dusk to dawn. And they literally played movies from last light to first light. In order the movies were Coraline, Star Trek, Obsessed, and Knowing. The only one of those I wanted to see was Star Trek and I wanted to see it a lot, and was previously unable to get anyone to go with me. But I loved Star Trek as a kid, (it was the only thing I ever remember Nick and I agreeing on to watch together) and I loved this movie. It was a lot of fun. I don't see movies very often anymore, and I paid 8 dollars to see 4, which is amazing. Or as I like to think of it, I paid 8 to see Start Trek and got 3 free. I found Coraline very creepy, and not necessarily in a good way, which is interesting because its animated and I think its for KIDS. I was really disturbed by it. Obsessed was ridiculous and mostly fun. It was good to be a the drive in where you can yell at the screen. It was good that Knowing was last, as the end of it made absolutely no sense, and the lighter it go the less we could see it anyway. By the time Knowing was over, it was almost 6 am and the first movie started at about 8 pm. Woah.

I was dropped off at my front door at about 7 am. I promptly fell asleep and woke up in the early afternoon. At about 5 pm, when I was considering another nap, I got invited to go the Memorial Day concert on the lawn, with my housemates Deanna's visiting mother and grandmother. We brought sandwiches, and they had a blanket and I took a very brief nap there waiting for the concert to begin.

This concert was actually sort of star packed, although the quality and reputation of the "celebrities" varied greatly. We had Laurence Fishburne, who is currently on CSI, Joe Mantegna who is on the show Criminal Minds (also on CBS), we had Katie Holmes (with Tom Cruise sitting in the front row!) preforming a moving piece with Broadway actress Diane Wiest. We had former American Idol (runner up?) Katherine McPhee, singing my favorite song from West Side Story, "Somewhere." Most excitingly for me was Colm Wilkinson, the original Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, my favorite musical, singing "Bring Him Home." That was the highlight for me. While he is getting older, he still has a wonderful voice. I wasn't even aware he was a part of the concert until they announced him and I was beyond thrilled to get to hear him sign in person, especially such an appropriate and emotional song.

And on Monday we had a memorial day grill out in our back yard with Deanna's family, a very nice end to a busy 3 day weekend.