Twelfth Night, Play On, and Shakespeare in Detroit

On Friday night I drove 40 minutes east to Detroit and settled in for Shakespeare in Detroit's last production of 2018, and their final production until they move into their very exciting new permanent space in 2020.

As you might know, I've become a huge fan of Shakespeare in Detroit, now in its fifth season. Artistic Director Sam White is one of my personal Shakespeare heroes. You can read all about her and the amazing way she has developed Shakespeare in Detroit from nothing into an exciting fixture of the Detroit theatrical scene in this excellent Forbes article: Is Shakespeare the Key to Detroit's Recovery?

So, it goes without saying that I was very happy to be able to join them for their production of Twelfth Night... well, specifically a production of the Play On Shakespeare translation of Twelfth Night by Alison Carey. I've spent quite a lot of time with the Play On folks now, and saw a one-hour reading of the Play On translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this year (again at Shakespeare in Detroit), but this was my first time seeing a full production of a Play On text. 

In my seat for Shakespeare in Detroit’s  Twelfth Night  at the Detroit Opera House.

In my seat for Shakespeare in Detroit’s Twelfth Night at the Detroit Opera House.

It was an interesting experience. The Midsummer translation was, I would estimate, at least 80-90% Shakespeare's original text, with only a few lines, words, and jokes tweaked for modern sensibilities. The Twelfth Night, though, was much more extensively rewritten. As Twelfth Night is one of the plays I know very well, this was, on some level, extremely disorienting, and I missed many of my favorite lines when they arrived in altered forms. You know when someone wants to use the Star Wars theme music, but don't want to have to pay royalties to Disney or John Williams, so they end up with something that sounds LIKE the Star Wars theme music but is also definitely NOT the Star Wars theme music? It kind of felt like that at first. 

However, once I was able to relax into it, I began to enjoy myself. In particular, the translation highlighted how much of the original text I don't truly understand, particularly the humor surrounding the Sir Toby subplot. Intellectually, I know what a lot of Sir Toby's jokes and allusions mean, but knowing why something is funny is not the same as it actually being funny, so it was fun to see modern analogues of those jokes come to life in a much less forced way.

Again and again, my conclusion when it comes to the Play On texts is this: Are modern translations necessary in order to understand and enjoy Shakespeare's plays? Absolutely not. However, these translations, quite apart from being fascinating literary experiments in their own right, provide yet another valuable angle to unlocking the undeniable complexity of Shakespeare's text.

Like Manga Shakespeare, like my comics (I hope), like West Side Story and Kiss Me Kate, like the Hogarth Shakespeare novel series, Play On's translations are another excellent tool in the toolbox of Shakespeare adaptation and exploration. They are not replacing Shakespeare's texts; they are augmenting them. And, if the enthusiastic reaction of the local students who were at the opening night of this production is any indication, they are definitely helping break down some of the barriers to accessing Shakespeare. 

The production itself was a joy, set in the Roaring Twenties with all the fun that entails. Having primarily seen partially-staged readings by Shakespeare in Detroit, it was wonderful to see a fully-realized production, complete with gorgeous sets and costumes. 

Asia Mark's Viola was delightful, nailing the woman's vulnerability and frustration as well as the boy's sauciness and charm. I enjoyed finally seeing an Orsino, played by Reg Flowers, who was as ridiculously and unapologetically melodramatic and self-indulgent as I always want my Orsinos to be, but seldom are. Maria (a wonderfully tart Vicki Morgan) got a well-deserved boost in this production by taking over Fabian's part, and thus not only masterminding but also executing Malvolio's downfall.

On another note, it was so exciting (and, unfortunately, still a novelty to me) to see a production of Shakespeare directed by a woman of color (JaMeeka Holloway-Burrell, Artistic Director of the Black Ops Theatre Company in Durham NC), with a cast that was comprised two-thirds of actors of color, none of whom felt compelled to shed their identities and act like cookie-cutter "classic" (a.k.a. white) Shakespeareans. This was a colorful production in many ways, and I hope to see many more like it in the future.

Support your local theatre companies, people. There's gold in them thar hills.

Tonight’s performance is sold out (!!!!) but if you’re in the SE Michigan area and want to catch the closing performance on Sunday, get your tickets now!

REVIEW: "Breath of Kings" at the Stratford Festival

Here is my review of the Stratford Festival's productions of Breath of Kings: Rebellion and Breath of Kings: Redemption. They're essentially two halves of the same production, so I'm lumping them together. This is what the general story is:

And here's what I thought of it:

EXTRA THOUGHTS (because I can't fit them all into a comic):

I have been deeply immersed in Shakespeare's history plays for decades now, so I am completely incapable of figuring out how accessible and understandable this production is to people unfamiliar with the plays and the history behind it. I thought that Abbey's adaptation was very clear in highlighting the important beats of the story as it unfolded, but at this point I could see these plays in an entirely foreign language and still know what was going on. If you saw this production and weren't that familiar with the history plays, please leave me a comment and let me know what you thought!

There are lots of great performances in these plays, particularly Tom Rooney as Richard II (bringing Richard's wry, self-deprecating, and theatrical sense of humor to the forefront), and Geraint Wyn Davies as Falstaff (one of those casting notices where you nod your head and say "Yep. That was the right choice.") However, I just wanted to give a special mention to Carly Street, who plays a handful of characters including Thomas Mowbray, Lady Percy, the Douglas, and the Archbishop of York, and was unspeakably badass as all of them. A good subtitle for these plays would be "Carly Street Yelling At Men And Showing Them How To Behave", and it's all glorious. 

The set probably deserves a mention. For Rebellion, the stage is covered in a brown mulch that looks like earth, which is progressively scarred, disturbed, and tossed around as Richard's reign decays, revealing an interlocking stone floor beneath it. In Redemption, large chunks of the this stone floor are physically uprooted throughout the action, until, after the battle of Agincourt, the stage resembles the aftermath of an earthquake. It was a bit fussy at times, but very visually striking. 

It is (understandably) very rare to be able to see all four of these plays performed in the same season with the same cast, which is a pity as they are inextricably linked together. The Breath of Kings adaptation is a great way to see them all placed within their proper context, without having to sit through twelve straight hours of history plays. While obviously a lot of text has been removed, it has been by and large done in a very elegant and rational way, and the resulting plays are well worth watching. 

REVIEW: "All My Sons" at the Stratford Festival

As I've said before, I'm pretty bad at writing reviews because (a) I tend to like everything and (b) if I don't like something, I don't want to make anyone feel bad by saying so. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to review the Stratford Festival's production of Arthur Miller's All My Sons, because I have disliked all my past encounters with Arthur Miller and didn't see how that was possibly going to change.

Before I start my review, this is what All My Sons is about:

As you can see, there's a lot of angst. I'm allergic to angst. So... how did I like it?

Seriously, this was really confusing for me because I went in 100% sure that I would enjoy the performances but hate the play... but I ended up loving EVERYTHING.

I'm not making this up, you guys. I enjoyed an Arthur Miller play. Send help. 

REVIEW: "As You Like It" at the Stratford Festival

I've discovered that I'm pretty terrible at writing reviews because (a) I tend to like everything and (b) if I don't like something, I don't want to make anyone feel bad by saying so. Fortunately, I liked the Stratford Festival's latest production of As You Like It

In case you've never seen As You Like It before, here's what happens in it.

No, it doesn't really make a lot of sense. No, you shouldn't worry about it. Just enjoy. 

As You Like It is playing at the Stratford Festival until October 22. If you've ever wanted to be a tree in the forest of Arden, this is your big chance. 

Review of "Possible Worlds" at the Stratford Festival

Two weekends ago I went up to the Stratford Festival with my co-worker to see Possible Worlds. Here is my review!

Let's get the water thing out of the way: the entire stage was several inches under water. Visually and thematically, it was really really cool, especially given the revelations at the end of the play. However, it also meant that my co-worker and I, being obsessed with the physical workings of theatre, spent a lot of time thinking things like "I wonder what sort of non-slip coating they put on the stage," "I'm pretty sure their shoes are all made out of rubber'" "what are those banker's boxes really made of, they can't be cardboard or they'd be disintegrating in the water," and other such ruminations. 

Again, it is to the actors' eternal credit that the production managed to keep us engaged in the story (and not just the striking methods of storytelling) throughout the performance.  It was, all in all, a mesmerizing production and, despite having reservations about the source material, we both really enjoyed ourselves. 

On the whole (being, as previously mentioned, an inherently frivolous person)  I prefer my plays with more jokes and/or chaotic battle scenes, and less philosophical ruminations on the nature of human imagination and reality, but offhand I can't imagine (ha ha) seeing a better production of this play.

You might bring a towel with you, though, in case you happen to be seated in the "splash zone"...

Shameless Plug Line: Don't forget to pick up at Good Tickle Brain t-shirt and/or comic book at the Good Tickle Brain Shoppe!

Review of "The Diary of Anne Frank" at the Stratford Festival

I wrap up part one of my Stratford Festival reviews today. (Part two has to wait until I see the rest of the season later this summer.) 

The Diary of Anne Frank is a very atypical play for me to go see, in that it is (a) contemporary, (b) based on real events, and (c) definitely not a comedy. I don't tend to enjoy contemporary drama that takes itself seriously (such as Miller or Williams) because, by and large, I really don't enjoy watching people with issues be terrible to each other. I enjoy Shakespeare plays about people with issues being terrible to each other because the distance of time and place and culture somehow dulls the edge.  But contemporary family dramas involving overwrought parent-child relationships? No. Not really my cup of tea. I'd rather, you know, have fun instead.

When my family couldn't fit Anne Frank into our annual Stratford binge, I  wasn't terribly sad about it, but something niggled at the back of my mind. "I really ought to see this," I thought. So when the Stratford Festival generously offered to provide me with a pair of tickets, I decided to take the plunge. (I hasten to note that my review is not influenced by the acceptance of said free tickets - if I didn't like the show I would have just never mentioned I had seen it in the first place.)

I really can't speak highly enough of director Jillian Keiley's decision to break the fourth wall right at the start by having the actors directly address the audience as themselves, not as their characters. As someone who is pathologically self-analytical in a theatrical situation, I tend to wall up when I feel a production is trying TOO HARD to elicit a particular emotion from me. By having the actors disarmingly introduce themselves and the characters they played, Keiley was very sneakily able to circumvent this tendency of mine.

You go into a production of Anne Frank expecting it to be sad, and it is invariably sad. It is to this cast's credit that this production was not uniformly colored with sadness and fear and poignancy, but instead had all the shades of emotion one would expect in a real teenaged girl's life: humor, laughter, frustration, brattiness, rebelliousness, annoyance, love, etc. 

Was this fun? No. But not everything has to be fun all the time, and I'm glad I saw it.

Review of "Hamlet" at the Stratford Festival

Last week I reviewed Pericles, the first Shakespeare play of my Stratford Festival season. Today I'm turning my attention towards their production of Hamlet. 

As I've mentioned before, I'm not a particularly critical person and am not always good at analyzing or articulating my reaction to a show. At the intermission of Hamlet I was wondering vaguely what was wrong with me, as the show I had seen was doing everything right (as far as I could tell) and yet somehow was not pulling me in. I still don't know why that was, but I do know that the second act redeemed all that.

Confession: I've had an actor-crush on Jonathan Goad ever since I saw him as Hotspur in Henry IV, part 1 at the Stratford Festival many years ago. Like all Hotspurs, he had a manic energy and dangerous edge, but he also had the charisma and competency that many Hotspurs seem to lack - all qualities that he also brought to his Hamlet.

Again, as is usual at Stratford, the supporting cast members were all uniformly excellent. I particularly enjoyed Geraint Wyn Davies's Claudius, whose brief moments of villainous plotting were all the more alarming for how charming and reasonable he seemed most of the time, and for Adrienne Gould's mad scene as Ophelia, which definitely ranks as one of the more unsettling ones that I've seen.

When you inject this much energy into a production, it is sometimes possible for things to get lost in the hustle and bustle. It is to director Antoni Cimolino's credit that this Hamlet, despite being physically lively and fast-paced, is also accessible, comprehensible, and, most importantly, entertaining.