Friday, July 31, 2009

Willy the Shakes

Shakespeare was a bloody genius, no bloody question. But here's the awful truth, folks. He wasn't writing for us. Us sophisticated, 21st century, postmodern pinheads, that is. He was writing for 15th century Elizabethan pinheads. They were his audience.

Just to make things nice and sparkling clear. Shakespeare, whatever high-flown artistic motives he had, was writing to entertain that audience. And, in the process, make money.

As a result, here in the 21st century ...

Shakespeare's serious stuff doesn't translate. And his jokes don't fly.

To make matters worse, most of us first encountered WS as an assignment. Or, even worse. As a self-imposed exercise in intellectual snobbery.

Which makes attending a Shakespeare play sorta like going to church. Not the fun kinda church where they shake tambourines and hoot and holler. No. The dull variety of church. Where you sing every tedious verse of every tedious hymn in a slow, measured pace while the organ thunders. Where you perform elaborate rituals without context. Where you listen to a long, long, long, long sermon in an archaic dialect that makes you feel good about yourself by, perversely, showing how rotten you are.*

Such is the Church of Shakespeare. It's only natural that a pack of clowns would make us laugh by farting in it.

I refer, of course, to the Florida Studio Theatre's Reduced Shakespeare Company production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged). All 37 plays in two hours or your pizza is free. No kidding.

It's funny stuff, folks.

* Titus Andronicus as a cannibalistic cooking show.

* All of Shakespeare's comedies mashed up together. Only one plot for the lot, after all. It's only fair.

* Shakespeare's history plays as a football game.

* Hamlet as reimagined by the Monty Python troupe holding a seance with the spirit of Groucho Marx.

Michael Daly, Brad DePlanche and Christopher Patrick Mullen act and Jim Helsinger directs. The comedy, in case you asked, which you didn't, but I'll tell you anyway, is character based, which is a fancy way of saying you're supposed to believe three theatrical nuts really think they can distill Shakespeare in two hours or less, including one reluctant maniac who starts equivocating when it's Hamlet time. Is that coincidence or what?

It's hilarious, but it's only hilarious because the sacredness of Shakespeare is indestructible.

At one point, one of the characters jumps into Hamlet's What a piece of work is man speech. The point being, essentially: What a piece of shit is man. It's depressing, if you think about it. But who cares? The language is so damn beautiful.

This feels like a hilarious mockery of Shakespeare. Hilarious it is, but it's no mockery.

It's really a love letter.

The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged)
Through Aug. 23
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota

*Hey, that's obviously the off-putting Hallmark Productions surface level of the Bard. Suffice to say, as much as Shakespeare was feeding the spirit of his time, he was speaking beyond his time. There's an ocean of meaning below the crowd-pleasing stuff. And all the centuries to the last measure of recorded time really are his audience. I could go on about this, but this byte-sized review is not the time or place.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Once upon a time in Vienna

Plays about the artistic process have the same problem as sports movies. You watch Barton Fink struggle to write or Muhammad Ali sharpen his skills in beating the crap out of people. If you’re a professional, you think “That’s not the way it works.” If you’re not, you probably don’t relate to the material.

Jon Marans' Old Wicked Songs has a strikingly original take. Whether you're an artist or not, the playwright grabs you.

His play's central character, Stephen Hoffman (Ken Ferrigni), is an aging child prodigy with pianist performance problems. He goes to Europe get his groove back. The master piano teacher commands him to study with a voice coach first — Prof. Josef Mashkan (Kenneth Tigar). The deal: for three months, Stephen doesn’t get to play the piano. He sings while Josef plays. Which is sort of like sending Dale Earnhardt for three months of track and field lessons, but there’s a method to this madness. It’s all about using music to create an emotional connection, and not go through the motions in a dead formal exercise.

The lessons revolve around Schumann's Dichterliebe, a heartstring-tugging cycle of unrequited love songs set to 16 poems by Heinrich Heine. Like Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, Josef gets into a battle of wits with Stephen and it’s no contest. It’s Old World vs. New World, American impatience vs. European romantic brooding; Philip Glass’ one-note, android music and Phillip Johnson’s glass houses vs. loop-the-loop 19th-century compositions and Vienna’s bric-a-brac encrusted architecture. Stephen might seem like a strawman set up to be knocked down except for one thing ...

For all his weepy, music-must-touch-the-heart romanticism, Josef is a right bastard.

More specifically, Josef seems to be an unrepentant Nazi bastard, constantly dropping little bon mots like, “The Jews weren’t the only ones who suffered.” The play is set in 1986, when Kurt “What, Me Nazi?” Waldheim is running for Austrian president. For Josef and Stephen both, that particular nerve has been rubbed very raw. Where their pain comes from, we find out later.

I expected the play to end on a Stephen-learns-from-Josef-but-the-teacher-learns-from-his-student note. Followed by one big hug. That’s not what happens — but I can’t tell you what happens without spoiling it.

Enough to say, it’s a great play with great direction by Maran — who obviously had great insight into the playwright’s intentions, since he happened to be the playwright. As to the actors, Ferrigni and Tigar put all their hearts, minds and souls into the performance.

Josef would have been proud.

Old Wicked Songs
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through Aug. 2
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

Thursday, July 2, 2009

My funny valentine

When you're talking to the walls, it's time to take a vacation. The title character (and only character) in Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine winds up doing just that. The 42-year-old London housewife is stuck in her dingy flat, stuck with her lump of a husband, stuck in a rut. Then — by sheer dumb luck — she wins two tickets to a vacation in Greece. She goes — and eventually stays until she's good and ready to come home. The fact that she goes at all is an accomplishment. People are stuck for a good reason. She's not used to making decisions — she's used to asking permission. She has to work up her courage. When she finds it, she keeps it. Of course, to a sexually frustrated British housewife, Greece means more than statues and scenery. Shirley finds romance, too. Not the permanent kind. Just the validation that she's still got it.

It's a one-woman play and very well written. The art of story-telling means more than having a story — it's figuring out how to tell it. This is structured like a first-person novelette. You could take away the stage and have Shirley telling you her story on a bare stage with a microphone like a stand-up comedian. It would still be interesting. The words on the page, alone, are interesting. The playwright tells a truthful, warmhearted story without being sentimental or manipulative. It's a crowd pleaser, but never cheats. It earns every ounce of laughter and applause. And, on the opening night performance, there was a lot of it.

Kate Alexander directs and Shirley Bradshaw stars. Brilliant direction, acting and material. Dead brill' as the Brits like to say. See it if you can.

It's the next best thing to a vacation in Greece.

Shirley Valentine
Extended through Aug. 8
FST Gompertz Theatre

The other 40-year-old virgin

Playwright Martin McDonagh pulls a bait-and-switch on the audience in his The Beauty Queen of Leenane — the Banyan Theater’s season opener. Bait-and-switch as in he promises one thing, then sells you another. The damn thing is, it works.

In the first act, you think you’re watching one of those repressed-woman-finally-blossoms plays. Sure and it’s set in a crappy town in Ireland in the 1990s. The central character, Maureen Folan, is a 40-year-old spinster who’s been trapped in a miserable, sexless existence taking care of her poisonous mother. Then, an old love interest shows up. They connect, and it’s very touching. He wants to take her to America with him. You figure, after a complication or two, he finally will.

It doesn’t work out that way. In the second act — let’s just say Maureen has something in common with Norman Bates. And I don’t mean a deep love for mother. The playwright’s dropped hints. But he tricked me into liking his character, so I ignored the hints. When Maureen does a bad, bad thing, I didn’t see it coming — and I usually expect bad things. Maybe the rest of the audience did, but I doubt it.

It's a shocker, but the playwright (who was 26 when he wrote this) pulls it off. Presto-chango! Frustrated-but-Goodhearted Maureen turns into Murderous Maniac Maureen. The trick works, but he should have ended it there. He pulls a dead rabbit out of the hat. The more the dead rabbit hangs around, the more it feels like a trick. Maniac Maureen just isn't believable.

OK, so I didn't like the ending — a minor point. Everything else, I liked. It's good writing and good theater, brilliantly directed by Gil Lazier. He has a crisp sense of pace and back-and-forth actions and reactions. He doesn't let you get a fix on the play — is it comedy? Tragedy? When the play hits you between the eyes, there's no time to get your guard up.

Great acting, too. Kim Crow plays the mom-from-hell, Jessica K. Peterson her demonic daughter. Derry Woodhouse and Gordon Myles Woods are the Dooley brothers. Derry's the shy, smart one; Gordon's the mean, loud stupid one. Each character comes across as a complex person with an inner life and a history.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane
A Banyan Theater Company production
Through July 12
FSU Center for the Performing Arts
5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota