Monday, June 13, 2011

Heart and Soul: The Anarchist Society of Shakespeareans Present A Midsummer Night's Dream

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Written by William Shakespeare
Director - Ron Lacey
Stage Manager - Lena Davis
Sets & Costumes - Sharon Lacey
Lighting - Jon Taie

Theseus/Oberon - Ron Lacey
Hippolyta/Titania - Marty Seeger
Philostrate/Puck - Mike Carr
Peaseblossom - Mindy Klenoff
Mote - Corina Bucora
Mustardseed - Leslie Drescher
Cobweb - Susan Rubin
Egeus - Rob Noyes
Hermia - Katie DiMarca
Lysander - Brad Smith
Helena - Mary Ferrara
Demetrius - Stephen Bagg
Peter Quince - Jon Taie
Bottom - Tom Beyer
Flute - Lou Lim
Starveling - Dennis Stevens
Snug - Gilly Rosenthol

A Midsummer Nights Dream is probably one of William Shakespeare's most produced shows, as I have seen or heard of at least a dozen productions over the last several years. It is no secret that it is definitely a popular one for that matter, as the piece itself can be interpreted in so many different ways.

A new company, the Anarchist Society of Shakespeareans recently put up a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream as their first show. They presented it at the Democracy Center in Harvard Square. As I am a huge fan of Shakespearen shows and I had yet to actually review one, I decided to check it out. A Midsummer Nights Dream, written by the one and only bard himself, William Shakespeare, focuses on the  events surrounding the marriage of  Theseus, the Duke of Athens, and the Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. These include the adventures of four young lovers and a band of amateur actors, who are manipulated by the fairies who inhabit the nearby forest. Through the use of magic and other devices, the characters are changed and reverted back to their original states, making them question the possibility of what happened or what they thought happened. Love and relationships are tested and despite various happenings, everything works out in the end.

Immediately coming in, I noticed the space was creating some challenges. The space was not completely unusable and not necessarily a bad place to put up a show, but it did seem rather cramped.  Though, in this town, free to cheap theatre space is hard to come by. No fault of the group, as it did create a more intimate space when effectively used. Also, since being in the middle of Harvard Square, the doors and windows were open throughout the production, allowing outside noises to travel in, which was severely distracting. As it is with any production, things will happen as it was no fault of the company's.

Ron Lacey's direction and vision is a strong effort, as having a pre-show with music from the 60s and dressing his actors in the garb of the same era. It had potential to create a world of the particular era, but it never goes beyond its initial presentations, ie the music and costumes. Its almost as though he could've spent more time creating the world, as we cannot always rely on the text to do all the work for us. Granted, I give him kudos for the effort of working with the text and having his actors be comfortable in this world. As he starred in it as well as Theseus and Oberon, his time did seem split amongst acting and directing duties, but not enough to really take too much away from the show. He does each well, but there always could’ve been a tad more effort. Some staging was also questionable as well, as we were in a function room; the seats were right behind each other on a flat floor. Anytime there was action below our sight lines, we had to adjust. The minimal vision did almost make the production at times feel very one dimensional. Again, it was the space working against the show.

As for the sets and lighting, there was not much there to actually constitute a world. Sharon Lacey and Jon Taie take on this space with their vision, but it falls short as an actual theatrical production. Again, in the space where the production takes place, lighting from the ceiling and Christmas lights were used. It was a nice touch, but again, to give more to the lighting would’ve been nice. Nothing substantial was needed, but if this world was meant to be in the 60s, more distinct lighting could have been used. Also, the set, dressed with flowers did give a nice feel as well as the use of chairs, but they were not enough to bring us into the characters' environment. They could’ve gone a bit further and threw in some more pieces, wall hangings or the like. The ideas were good and they played, but the lack of other additions made the show feel very flat at times. However, the costumes were nice, as they were very period. Dressed as hippies, partiers or staunch uptight types, each costume helped established each character well, adding more flavor.

The performances were solid, as they actors did their work and really became familiar with the text. Shakespeare is considered difficult in many circles and this group does a good job of holding their own. No one really stood out as a performer, but some real great moments were created during several points of the production. Some performances were stronger than others, and the weaker performances were the result of rushing the text and moments that were meant to be savored. Also, some tried for a laugh which worked some times but other times took too much away from the moment. As the show is comedy, much of the humor comes from the text and potential physical action so it really depends on the choices that are made. Mike Carr's Puck is wicked and playful enough, but his moments in his more memorable speeches are too quick. The text presents opportunities for so much interpretation, but a few disjointed moments were present throughout the show. The four lovers, Brad Smith, Mary Ferrara, Stephen Bagg and Katie Dimarca, were played well, however their relationships between them at times seemed forced and chemistry was not as strong as it could’ve been. Each did well in establishing their own individuality, but it was not fully developed when it came to how they interacted with each other. The players, Jon Taie, Tom Beyer, Lou Lim, Dennis Stevens, and Gilly Rosenthal, are strong as well, as they again do a good job in establishing who they are as well as their own personalities. They of course pull off their show within a show with flying colors, something that is always a hit with audiences. All in all, everyone, each part, does a good job and brings together a show filled with heart and soul. They all seem to feel at ease in their roles.

The show itself presented many good moments. It is a challenge to present such a well-known show in such a space, but I think for what they did it was a good starting foundation and template for future productions, taking in, of course, consideration of the size and to use that to their advantage. With some whimsical and fantastical moments, this particular interpretation of Midsummer could go even further and create an even stronger world. They have the makings of a great company as they just need a few things that can be used to create a stronger theatrical experience. As it is their first production, I hope to see more shows and continue to see their growth as a new promising Shakespearean group.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A Mess of a Show - Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark

Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark

Book by Julie Taymor, Glen Berger and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa;
Music by Bono and The Edge, Lyrics by Bono and The Edge

Original Direction by Julie Taymor;
Choreography and Ariel Choreography by Daniel Ezralo

When I heard they were doing a musical based on the famous comic book web-slinger, I was skeptical, but at least I thought to myself it could be very interesting to see how they could pull it off.   Julie Taymor, Bono and The Edge were going to be involved.  I admit, I was intrigued a bit, but again, I think it was mostly because of the names that were attached to it and they all had a great track record to take on such a huge project.

Fast foward a couple of years. Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark is currently playing in previews on Broadway.  The reason? It has been continuously hitting several production and creative snags.  Also, there have been several accidents involved with the show. Rewrites, recasts and various other changes in the show have been constantly going on. I don't think anyone these days hasn't heard of the many issues with putting this show up. With a whopping 65 million dollar budget, this is the most expensive Broadway show ever conceived.  If you want to read more, as I don't want to spend this review talking about it forever, just Google "Spider-Man Musical Problems." I guarantee you'll find something worth reading. Also, the Wikipedia article is worth checking out.  I for one can't help but admit that for all these reasons and more, I found myself buying a ticket and checking it out.

Bono and The Edge of U2 fame are responsible for the score for this show. Best known for their rocking and pounding music, U2 is one of the most popular and influential bands, proving that they still rock after 30 plus years. Julie Taymor, Glen Berger, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa were responsible for writing the book and story for the show. Taymor, of course, is best known for her work on the staged musical of The Lion King, putting her on the map as one of the most imagery and scenery driven directors.  Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark is based on the Marvel superhero of the same name.  The story follows young Peter Parker as he is endowed with super spider powers after being bitten by a genetically altered spider.  Struggling with the day-to-day problems of the average teenager, his relationship with his girl friend Mary-Jane, finding his place in the world around him and stopping the crazed Green Goblin, Peter finds his calling as a hero and as Spider-Man and tries to balance it all. 

I have to say, that this show, every single bit of it, was a complete mess.  The first obvious parts were of course the book and music. Taymor, Berger and Aguirre-Sacasa struggle to form some sort of story that is loosely based on the first movie that came out years ago.  The story apparently went through several changes and you could tell that pieces of each person's ideas came together, but not in the best way.  There was the introduction of Arachne, the character from Greek mythology who apparently represented a sort of guide for Peter. She was supposed to anyways, as she was terribly underused and was kind of shoe-horned into the story. Her addition neither took away nor gave something to the story. She was just there. Also, there were many elements of the original story of Spider-Man that were removed, that didn't necessarily effect the overall arch much, but to many die-hard comic book fans, it presented many problems.  There were many plot elements that didn't make sense and it left you questioning the holes they made. The first act was rushed as Spider-Man had to make his debut. As for the music, U2’s Bono and The Edge are known for their pulsing and rocking songs that have been some of the biggest hits with the masses. This was not the case for this score. There was lots of power behind the music, but it had no substance. With unmemorable songs, this was another issue that plagued the production. I want to go to a show, walk out and hum the music because it should stick with the average theatre goer.  I was not impressed by the music and I felt a bit let down, knowing the two's particular track record.

Taymor's initial direction is as expected. She clearly captures the story as well as she can, but combined with elaborate costumes, moving set pieces and big projection screens, I could only wonder how this production could look so cheap with such a huge price tag.  It felt lazy and forced.  I think at this point, everything on stage, between the stylized set pieces and over-the-top costuming for the villains, was doing it just to make it a statement.  Granted, the city set pieces, moving walls and projection screens were quite impressive as a part of design concept but just didn't fit with this show. However, the high-flying wire work was really fun to watch. As Spider-Man swooped down from the balcony and over the audience, I got goose bumps and was really impressed.  The frustrating thing of course was the fact that you'd have to pay a bit more to be a part of the "Flying Circle" area to have the action fly over your head. Being the balcony was nice, but you would catch only about a third of what was happening. At one point I realized that I was not actually watching a musical. At that moment, I remembered reading somewhere Taymor, The Edge and Bono described it as a rock opera/circus show.  Clearly, I could see what they were going for, but it seemed rather ambitious combining all those different elements.  If several things didn't sync up too well, it creates a messy vision. Perhaps changing the show into a more Cirque De Soliel show would be a much better idea. With high-flying acrobats and huge sets, it seems like the better direction

The performances of the actors were less than impressive. Reeve Carney, who pays the title hero, has the pipes, channeling a bit of Bono.  However, he was clearly phoning it in. As his wire work was impressive, his actual performance was a bit dull.  Jennifer Damiano, who just recently came off of Next To Normal, falls short as Mary Jane Watson. The chemistry between the two is no where to be seen, as both of them are clearly going through the motions. Patrick Page is probably the more active one of the three leads, as he plays the sprightly Norman Osborne well enough.  When he transforms into the Green Goblin, he clearly enjoys hamming it up and has a particularly cheesy moment a la lounge singer when awaiting his final battle with Spider-Man. He has fun and makes his performance stand out.  Everyone else in the cast is talented for sure and works their butts off to put on a show, but again, with the material, they can only go so far. Again, the actors pull of the aerial stunts well, but like the leads, everyone was going through the motions. Literally.

So there you have it. Spider-Man.  I felt like I was a part of history in some ways. There is no denying that the show had some really interesting elements and some great aerial acrobatics.  That was about it. When I went to the show in NY, the house was packed with families and tourists alike.  The show will continue to sell but the question remains: Will it actually open?  I didn't hate the show, but as you can see, I thought it was a complete mess, but I am glad I was a part of it. With giant sets, highflying moments and a sub par score and plot, Spider-Man stands out as a very unusual and confusing experience. The show will continue on and remain as a slice of Americana in its most unique form.