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Now Playing:
"Seussical; The Musical," April 15-24, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.

"The Tempest," April 15-23, USC Drayton Hall, 777-5208.

"Five Women Wearing the Same Dress," April 21-24, USC Lab Theatre, 777-5208.

"The Ephemera Trilogy," April 22 - May 7, Trustus Theatre Black Box, 254-9732.


"The Merry Wives of Windsor," April 23-30, SC Shakespeare Company at Finlay Park.

Upcoming:
"The Full Monty," April 28 - May 8, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.

"Crimes of the Heart," April 29 - May 8, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.

"The Addams Family: A New Musical Comedy," May 6-28, Town theatre, 799-2510.

"Around the World in 80 Days," May 13-22, Workshop Theatre, 799-6551.  

"The Flick," May 20 - June 4, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.

 

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On Stage Productions
Timeless Humor in Finlay Park with The Merry Wives of Windsor

Review by August Krickel

Call them Shakespeare's Real Merry (House) Wives of Windsor. They might as well be, with gossip, back-stabbing, sexual escapades, and fights breaking out from a heady  mix of alcohol and jealousy comprising most of Shakespeare's continuation of the comic misadventures of Sir John Falstaff. Running through this weekend, live under the stars at Finlay Park, the South Carolina Shakespeare Company's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor wrings every drop of merriment and double entendre from this venerable farce, proving that a classic can still be sheer, unfettered fun. Or, more accurately, broad comedy created as a crowd-pleaser for the lowest common denominator among late 16th-century audiences can be revered as a classic 400 years later, just as long as it's written by the right author.

Falstaff was a popular character in Shakespeare's otherwise straightforward history plays about Henry IV and his son Hal. Based on stock types including the braggart soldier from Greek and Roman comedy, Falstaff was a jolly, rotund libertine who gave us lines like  "The better part of valor is discretion"  (i.e. run away and live to fight another day.) We should despise him, and a major theme of those plays is how Prince Hal outgrows Falstaff and the party-hearty companions of his youth. Yet like Lost in Space's cowardly Dr. Smith, or John Belushi's Bluto, Falstaff quickly became a beloved anti-hero, with Elizabethan audiences rooting for the corpulent old knight in his quest for fulfillment via drinking, gambling and wrenching. So much so, that Shakespeare took this dramatic character and spun him off into his own comedy, just as if Joe Pesci's annoying character from the Lethal Weapon series or John Hannah's bumbling archaeologist from the Mummy films were to get their own starring vehicles.

Windsor appears to be a posh suburb about a day's ride from London, populated by wealthy country squires like Master Page (Jason Sprankle) and his wife (Libby Campbell-Turner), and the overly-jealous (for no good reason) Master Ford (Scott Blanks) and his wife (Becky Hunter.) Into this Renaissance-era O.C comes Falstaff (Hunter Boyle) and his retinue of rowdy rascals, Nym (Joseph Bess), Pistol (Clark Wallace), and Bardolph (Mark Compton), all characters who similarly provide comic relief in the Henry plays. Carousing takes money, and in scheme #1, Falstaff decides he will seduce these two wealthy housewives and profit financially along the way. Part of the attraction of the character, and played gleefully by Boyle, is Falstaff's belief that he will be irresistible, in spite of his acknowledgement of his size and age. Mistresses Page and Ford are appalled, especially when they discover that each has received the same word-for-word love letter, and in a comedic moment that would still get laughs on any sitcom today, speculate that Falstaff must have "a thousand of these letters, writ(ten) with blank space for different names."

Thus they devise scheme # 2: pretend to succumb to his advances, and find some way to make a fool of him in revenge. So merry, those wives of Windsor!  In scheme #3, Master Ford learns of scheme # 1, assumes the least inventive alias ever - becoming Master "Brook" - and eggs Falstaff on, claiming that once Mistress Ford's virtue is ruined, she will then be susceptible to other suitors, such as himself. (His fake self, that is.) As you might expect, these competing schemes run afoul of each other with hilarious results, as Blanks becomes a sort of increasingly frustrated and hot-headed Daffy Duck, with Boyle as a Wile E. Coyote figure who hides in closets and laundry hampers, is dumped in a river, and gets the crap beaten out of him while he's dressed in drag.  Along the way there's scheme #4, involving conflict between choleric French doctor Caius (Tracy Steele) and Welsh parson Evans (David Reed), schemes # 5 and 6 entailing competing plots by Caius and gauche Master Slender (Alex Jones) for the hand of the Pages' luscious daughter Anne (Katie Mixon), and scheme # 7, in which Anne hopes to elope with her true love, Master Fenton (Harrison Ayer.)  And if that sounds awfully silly and more complex than necessary, well of course it is, and intentionally so.

Director Linda Khoury played one of the merry wives in SCSC's first-ever full-length production in Finlay (then Sidney) Park 24 years ago, and Boyle reprises his role as Falstaff, supported by a who's who of local talent. Steele is almost incomprehensible - by design - as an Englishman's caricature of a Frenchman, following Shakespeare's phonetic spelling of Caius's mispronunciations and malapropisms.  Interestingly, he joins a brief but distinguished roster of dashing left-handed fencers that includes Bruce Campbell as the Daring Dragoon and Frank Langella as Zorro.  Other accents are a mixed bag, however, with some actors opting for British, some American, and some mid-Atlantic. Scott Blanks has perhaps the largest of the supporting roles, and carries out the classic comedic "spit-take" with a finesse that would have made Danny Thomas proud.  In recent years, Hunter and Campbell-Turner have excelled at playing older, matronly roles (the former as Clairee just last month in Steel Magnolias, the latter as Lady Capulet, and as Violet, the drug-addicted mom in August: Osage County), and so it's quite refreshing to see them here as vital,  attractive MILF's (Mistresses I'd Like to read a First Folio with.)   Chris Cook plays Slender's uncle, elderly Justice Shallow - one surmises their names are winking references to their wits - with spry irascibility, while Sara Blanks steals a number of scenes as comic chatterbox Mistress Quickly, whose speeches never mirror her surname. If you think about it, when an older, would-be Don Juan who drinks too much is named "Fall-staff," there are probably proper noun puns all over the place.  And when Shallow brandishes his cane from below the belt while boasting of his youthful prowess with his "long sword," there's little likelihood that he's referring to battle, and little doubt as to the level of the majority of the jokes that work as well now as they did in the 1500's. Khoury allows her actors to use body language to enhance understanding of some of these, as when Hunter adds a pelvic thrust (a skill recalled from her days as Janet Weiss, no doubt) to her line about being "knighted," i.e. being bedded by a knight. Repeatedly, however, I was struck by just how many jokes fit seamlessly into our modern era, as when Mistress Page proposes "a bill in the parliament for the putting down of men."  Even obscure vocabulary presents little challenge for the audience, because Khoury also ensures that every word is spoken with precise enunciation and clarity. Excellent sound coverage by area microphones really helps too, and I noticed that the most experienced within the cast always managed to find the precise spot where their lines would be picked up best by the mikes. Boyle is nevertheless the undisputed champ of the production, inspiring laughter with each line delivery, or sometimes just a wordless entrance in a fine doublet.

Janet Kile's costumes reflect an early 18th-century setting, and while the characters historically would have lived in the early 1400's, Shakespeare's dialogue reflects a fresher, newer, more accessible vernacular. My guess is that unlike his tragedies, Merry Wives incorporates the contemporary language spoken on the streets in his time, vocabulary that only found its way into literature decades later, and more closely resembles the English we speak now.  One word in particular can be guessed from its context, but given that it's repeated several dozen times, it's worth defining here. "Cuckold" just means a guy whose wife has been unfaithful, and if he has been "cuckolded," he's an object of derision, and thought to be less of a man. The Elizabethan symbol for this was the sign of the horns (a murky reference to male deer who lock antlers in competition for females), so when assorted characters extend their fingers like antlers, they are neither Aggies proclaiming "Hook 'Em 'Horns," nor Ronnie James Dio fans invoking the gods of heavy metal. You'll notice that I've intentionally used a lot of references to and analogies with modern pop culture on purpose, because Merry Wives in unquestionably pop entertainment. It's not a deep tragedy or character study like Hamlet, nor does it have the beautiful poetry of comedies like As You Like It. This is the Elizabethan equivalent of Benny Hill, written for mass consumption by a proficient humorist whose gags still work today.  With that in mind, I'd like to recommend that you orchestrate scheme # 8, in which you invite your snootiest, most pseudo-intellectual friends or relatives to see Shakespeare in the Park with you. Then watch gleefully as they either writhe in discomfort at the pratfalls, mugging, and bad puns, or smile with appreciation as they come to understand that humor is timeless, and that Shakespeare was the great master of the art.  The Merry Wives of Windsor runs Wednesday the 27th through Saturday the 30th in the amphitheater in Finlay Park. Just show up to claim a seat before the 8 PM start time, because it's FREE! 

 
 
 
The Tempest at USC:  Shakespeare Reimagined 

Review by August Krickel

Set on a fantastical island, opening with a calamitous shipwreck, and featuring acts of dark magic and appearances by assorted spirits and deities, The Tempest is perhaps William Shakespeare's most ambitious and atypical work. Capitalizing on the exotic and supernatural implications within the text, director Robert Richmond, designer Neda Spalajkovic, music director Jessi Witchger, lead actor Richard Willis, and a gifted group of soon-to-graduate MFA students (including Spalajkovic) spin a revisionist tale that explores the mysteries of the soul, while retaining most - although not all - of Shakespeare's original.

Much of the core plot may sound familiar to enthusiasts of the author. There are the young lovers, Ferdinand (Dimitri Woods) and Miranda (Candace Thomas), instantly smitten at first sight. There are the comic goofballs, drunk Stephano (Josh Jeffers) and dim Trinculo (Rachel Kuhnle) who imagine they will be new rulers of the island paradise they have discovered. There are Machiavellian bad guys (Ben Roberts, John Romanski, and Tristan Hester, with Matthew Cavender as the one good egg in their crew) who plot and scheme. Each actor embodies these stock characters proficiently, speaking their speeches trippingly on the tongue, just as Hamlet once advised. Trinculo is ostensibly a jester, and male, yet there are no specific references in dialogue to make these absolutes or essential. Thus Kuhnle creates a vaguely gender-neutral character who is an amalgam of funny types from pop culture.  She wears pilot's garb
recalling the eccentric Gyro Captain from The Road Warrior, she stumbles and bumbles through pratfalls like a gangly Lucille Ball, and she affects a perpetually amazed, "Golly, gee whiz!" sort of demeanor that reminded me of Pauley Perrette as Abby on the series NCIS, just when things get hinky. "I have been in such a pickle since I saw you last," Trinculo declares flatly, and brings the house down in laughter. 

Guest artist Richard Willis plays protagonist Prospero, once Duke of Milan until the bad guys above usurped his throne, as well as Caliban, a wild, beast-like island native whom Prospero has enslaved. Yes, you read that right - this is where the revisionist part kicks in. In collaboration with Willis, Richmond has added an extra layer onto two of Shakespeare's more memorable characters, played for the last 400 years by separate actors in several scenes opposite each other. The mechanics are quite simple, given the magical nature of the story, in which assorted conjured spirits come and go, carrying out Prospero's will.  Here, when Prospero calls for his servant, there is a screech of a violin, Willis twists and writhes in pain, and then assumes a different posture, tone and accent, and voilą - he's Caliban.  As Prospero, Willis is simultaneously bedraggled and professorial, as befits a shipwrecked wizard who has learned witchcraft from books. His quick metamorphoses into Caliban preclude any of the feral or reptilian make-up often employed to define the character. Instead, he incorporates body language, and a lilting sort of accent that is vaguely Caribbean, with echoes of Africa and India, to suggest a crafty islander. (Although somewhere in the great Green Room in the sky, Shakespeare's clowns are probably chortling "He's not a native - he's just Welsh.")

As Richmond concedes in the program, it's the old Jekyll and Hyde trope, with the implication that Prospero's mastery of sorcery has created this alter ego. It's definitely an interesting notion, and certainly one worth trying, as I similarly observed about Richmond's staging of Hamlet two years ago, where the action played out as if retold by inmates of an asylum.  Both the director's notes  and advance press material detail this production's larger vision, in which most of the story we see may actually be transpiring within Prospero's troubled mind. There's a bit of justification for this within the script, which constantly plays with illusion and reality.  Prospero famously observes that "these our actors... were all spirits and are melted into air, into thin air," and that "we are such stuff as dreams are made on."  (Even if Shakespeare was likely making a simple metaphor, connecting the illusions seen by the play's characters with the illusion presented to an audience.)  Willis is adept in both roles, the only drawback being that Caliban's character, as well as his lines and time on stage, seem a little diminished in order to spotlight Prospero's victory over his dark side. I do fear that the nuances of this interpretation may be lost on the casual theatre-goer who might not think to read either program notes or press releases, as well as on the audience member unfamiliar with this particular work. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating concept, and while it didn't necessarily enhance my enjoyment of the play, it didn't detract either.

Visually, the production is stunning. One might think at first that the creative team's reimagining of a 400-year-old classic extends to the production design as well, but that design is actually much more traditional than it first suggests. It's just inventive. Most of center stage is dominated by a huge, two-story slide that reaches up to what looks like the radiant moon. That shining orb is actually just an opening, creatively lit by lighting designer Chris Patterson, that serves as the mouth of the cave where Prospero and daughter Miranda live. When lighting is all dark blues and grays, we're inside the cave, and the slide represents interior rock formations one must ascend to exit. When the space is flooded with bright golds and greens, we're seeing the sun-drenched tropical island, and what might have been stalagmites now look more like tree trunks, while the slide now suggests a rocky cliff leading up to the entrance to Prospero's cave. With changes in lighting creating shifts in locale, and minimal use of any props or furniture, we are able to focus on the actors and the dialogue, just as Shakespeare intended.  As the villains and clowns explore the island, magical entities in service to Prospero watch them, haunt them, tease them, and torment them. We see these beings as mainly silent actors in nondescript rags, but they are usually invisible to the mortals, who imagine their weapons or clothing are being whisked away magically. Leading these creatures is Ariel (Carin Bendas, although some of the character's lines are spoken by Nicole Dietze as a Harpy), imprisoned in an extra-dimensional cage by her (its?) master. Bendas is clad all in white, including an eerie Celtic demon mask that unfortunately obscures most of her face; she is on stage throughout the play, exhibiting admirable athleticism as she twists and contorts her body through various postures and poses, often hanging from a bar or perching on top of the structure to direct her subordinate minions. Prospero never looks at her directly, instead speaking to a mirror, inside which we assume she is somehow confined.

It's the little, creative inventions like that that impressed me so much, because there is actually no modern technology (apart from the electricity powering the lights) involved. Virtually everything about the production, even that crazy slide, could have been created with wood and paint and fabric 200, 300, even 400 years ago.  Another technical aspect that may seem surprising is the onstage presence of musicians.  Yet once again, the text allows for this innovation: Caliban says that "the isle is full of noises, sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments will hum about mine ears."  Which sounds like a perfect excuse for us to imagine two more of Prospero's summoned apparitions who are providing musical accompaniment to the proceedings. The effect is quite cinematic; Witchger performs her original score on harp (for tender and ethereal ambience) and fiddle (for lively    jigs that would have been popular in Shakespeare's era.) At moments of tension Samuel Traquina joins in with intense percussive sounds, while Witchger often contributes surreal vocals. Some of these are simply Shakespeare's lyrics within the script, while at other times she vocalizes with that sort of keening, Celtic-tinged wailing that is so popular in film. Costumes by April Traquina are simple, but precisely tell us what we need to know about the characters. The villains' uniforms look like Gestapo outfits, for example, while Cavender, as the gentle Gonzalo, has a different style of uniform, as if he's the harmless Sgt. Schultz among dangerous SS officers. When the ensemble of spirits are decked out in other-worldly finery to celebrate Miranda's impending marriage, or to frighten the villains, the result is visually striking and chilling, although the tattered garb they otherwise wear didn't do much for me.

It's also worth pointing out that however many innovations, changes, and updates Richmond and his team have crafted, the central artistry of the play remains intact, and recognizable as exactly what Shakespeare wrote. Indeed, there were a number of lines, jokes, and scenes that I had forgotten or overlooked previously, but which were made crystal-clear by the cast, including the mechanics of why the villains were near the island (answer: sailing back from a wedding) and a botched assassination attempt orchestrated by one against another. There has definitely been some trimming down of the script, thankfully resulting in a running time of not much more than two hours.  The split personality device may be a little off-putting to purists and/or confusing to theatre novices, while hardcore Caliban fans will miss their fish-like monster; similarly, the non-traditional set might initially intimidate those used to Shakespeare done in throne rooms and on balconies.  Ultimately, however, the voice of Shakespeare comes though with clarity and beauty, making this production well worth the effort to challenge our expectations and imaginations. The Tempest runs in Drayton Hall on the USC campus  through Saturday, April 23rd (traditionally celebrated as Shakespeare's birthday.) For ticket information, visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/tempest-drayton-hall-theatre-april-15-23 or call 803-777-9353.








 
 


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