This past weekend was in a word, surprising.
I attended productions of two Shakespeare plays at completely different venues on either side of Charlottesville and found myself flummoxed by the quality of the shows vs my expectations. Friday night prompted a foray to Barbouresville to Four County Players to see Taming of the Shrew, a personal favorite of the Bard’s theatricals as I once played Katarinah in three scenes from the play as part of a seventh grade English class project. (I can still recall gleefully stomping on the cap and swishing about in an elegant Elizabethan costume.)
I admit, I had less than high hopes for the production as Four County is a dyed in the wool community theater which means it is a hit or miss proposition. However, the set, designed by Lauren Chilton, a recent UVA grad, hinted that I may be in for a better time than I thought. Indeed the simple set of a downstage center arched doorway flanked by varying levels and sizes of platforms and painted like stones worked quite well for Director, Kristen Franklin Heiderstadt’s blocking to keep the action moving and the actors on their toes. Once the play started, I was quite engaged.
Production elements were what one might expect from an established community theatre, neither fabulous nor a disaster. The costumes were simple yet effective though obviously culled from costume shops all over town. The lighting adequate. The talent level of the cast was uneven and since the players perform out of love for the art, I shall refrain from calling them on the carpet for their faults and instead pat them all on their proverbial backs for putting in a valiant effort. It was obvious which actor’s were versed in the language and which were not. One actor was so bad at interpreting the text that he may as well have been speaking Chinese for all I could understand.
Standout performances were the leads, Mendy St. Ours as Katarinah (Kate) and Martyn Kyle as Patruchio, along with Eamon Hyland as Tranio and John Cobb as a guitar wielding Hortensio. For the most part Heiderstadt’s guidance served the play well but occaisionally she caved into the temptation to over block causing actors to move about the stage for no reason other than to move. But St. Ours and Kyle ((NAME)) were so thick with chemistry and practiced in their timing that they kept the audience laughing and focused to the fullest. The audience audibly “Awwwed” when the Kate and Patruchio shared a sumptuous kiss at the end.
It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend an evening. I was happily surprised by the level of entertainment.
Sunday’s mini-road trip to the American Shakespeare Center to see it’s latest production of Twelfth Night was a surprise of a different kind. ASC’s productions are usually exceptional to the point that I have said many times they are one of the best Shakespeare Companies in the world. But this version of Twelfth Night was as flat as a soda left out in the open overnight. Rick Blunt, usually so engaging and funny, seemed to phone this one in, failing to distinguish his Sir Toby from any number of other comedic characters he has played on the Blackfriars’ stage. Most of the cast lacked energy which led me to believe there had been a wild party somewhere in Staunton the night before. Exceptions were Stephanie Holliday Earl, who made a regal Countess Olivia, Patrick Earl, the suffering love-sick Orsino, Patrick Midgley as Valentine/Antonio and Seth McNeill as a very silly and effective Sir Andrew Aguecheek. Please understand that all the actors were professional – just a bunch of them seemed like they were somewhere else other than on the stage.
I chatted with several people during intermission and post-show who felt the same way: It was a good production but somehow missed the mark yet everyone failed at pin-pointing the problem. The Costumes, designed by Erin M. West, were visually stunning and beautifully executed but like the rest of the production just somehow didn’t gel. There was audience interaction but it seemed plugged -in rather than part of the flow of the piece. John Basil’s direction, which according to the director’s notes in the program, is centered on the Madness of love and the Elizabethan Tomfoolery indicative of the feast of Epiphany (the twelfth night of Christmas) where anything can happen. This concept of madness apparently seeped into his direction. The result: too much business and not enough heart like an over spiced dish which renders a muddle of flavors rather than a tasteful treat. Particularly annoying was the scene in which Malvolio (David Millstone) is supposed to be imprisoned in a dungeon and Feste (Andrew Goldwasser) is speaking with him through a an open hatch supposedly in the dungeon’s ceiling. Basil staged it with Feste center stage speaking into a cube set on the floor with a hinged door on top. Malvolio, who is supposed to be below, is posted in an alcove space behind a curtain back center stage – essentially behind Feste. Each time the lid of the box was lifted the curtains were drawn to reveal a manacled Malvolio who spoke to the ceiling. Towards the end, Feste plays with opening and closing the box lid as the curtains are closed and opened in tandem. It was a mess made particularly confusing by the access to a trap door that lay directly underneath the box which was used to pleasing effect in the last production ASC did of the show.
I must add that it was my first time seeing Andrew Goldwasser at ASC and I enjoyed his performance. He is a good find. His voice is strong and sure. His singing well- schooled and his acting chops honed. It will be interesting to see how his talents are utilized in the other two plays of the season.
On a side note: every theatre company has a less than stellar show every now and then so, dear readers, keep going to the Blackfriars and I promise you will be better pleased than I was with this production of Twelfth Night.
Overall bookending my weekend with the Bard was great and I highly recommend it.