Settings and casting variations on Shakespeare are virtually infinite. “Othello” in an Army barracks? “Shrew” on a Dude Ranch? A female Prospero or even Richard III? A campy “Pericles” set in a tavern? Been there, seen that.
Due to its being the most widely produced of Shakespeare’s plays, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is beneficiary (or victim) of an outsized number of such constructs. In 2014, for example, the Stratford Festival in Ontario had two men alternating performances as Oberon and Titania on the main stage, while in a nearby venue four intense young actors presented a “chamber” version that turned it into a dirge (no easy task).
How refreshing, now, to see the romantic, magical work played where it is largely set, in an open-air nocturnal park, and cast by-the-gender (mostly), if not by-the-book (hardly). The comedy, as funny here as you’ll ever see it, is a perfect fit for The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in Central Park, where last month a recognizable Julius Caesar bought the farm. No killings or politics in this one.
In life there are the care-givers, the care-receivers, and those who simply don’t care. All three are represented in Scott McPherson’s “Marvin’s Room,” finally debuting on Broadway, thanks to Roundabout Theatre Company, after its 1990s Regional and off-Broadway runs. Like other socially conscious plays from that era – Beth Henley’s “Crimes of the Heart” comes to mind – “Marvin’s Room” attempts to mesh Drama and Comedy, and, like “Heart,” it succeeds.
McPherson’s play was inspired by the circumstances of some older Florida relatives in declining health and further influenced by his personal experience caring for his AIDS-afflicted partner, cartoonist and activist Daniel Sotomayor, who died in February 1992 at age 33. In a tragic irony, the playwright himself succumbed to the same scourge nine months later, also at 33.
Lily Taylor, Janeane Garofalo and Jack DiFalco [Photo: Joan Marcus]
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, is a degenerative disease found in people who have suffered repeated blows to the head. Symptoms, which manifest themselves eight-to-ten years later, begin with memory loss and general physical, social and judgmental instability, leading inexorably to dementia and a propensity to harm others…or oneself. There is now a play about a retired NFL linebacker exhibiting symptoms of CTE. What took so long?
Ken Weitzman’s “Halftime With Don,” simultaneously world-premiering at New Jersey Repertory Company and a couple other U. S. houses, is a fictional drama whose most interesting portions are semi-documentary. This is not a knock, by any means. The well-founded points made about CTE add to a sense of reality. (The play is not about football per se, but name-checking such as Junior Seau and Mike Webster drive the theme home.)
William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw are the raisons d’être for the Stratford and Shaw Festivals in Ontario, where those venerated playwrights (and others) are staged by world-class directors, actors and designers. The venues being a couple hours’ drive apart makes a tandem visit a piece of cake, but an either-or coin-flip would be a no-lose. I recently attended both.
When, in Shakespeare’s only double-titled play, “Twelfth Night or What You Will,” shipwreck-survivor Viola assumes a man’s dress, demeanor and name (Cesario), she and her twin brother Sebastian are indistinguishable from one another, causing no end of confusion among their would-be paramours. Viola digs her employer Orsino, who knows her as Cesario, while Orsino yearns for Olivia, who lusts for Cesario. Talk about your triangles!
Finally paired up: Olivia (Shannon Taylor), left, Sebastian (Michael Blake), Viola (Sarah Afful) and Orsino (E.B. Smith) [Photos: Cylia von Tiedmann]
With the year nearly half spent, some random observations before leaving for Ontario to cover the Stratford and Shaw Festivals for Digital First Media newspapers in Michigan (and online) and for MC2, the Canadian National Mensa magazine. So…a few observations from first half of 2017:
Much ado about very little: The Public’s free Shakespeare in Central Park’s production of “Julius Caesar,” condemned and cut off financially by folks who probably didn’t see it (and interrupted mid-scene by one zealot) was not a particularly outstanding production of that play. As in most others I’ve seen, the final third (after the orations) was a heavy sit-through. The principals were well cast and acted, with Elizabeth Marvel most interesting as Marc Antony, despite portions of her Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech being overpowered by a distracting, wandering, undisciplined horde of supernumeraries. As for the Trump-like Caesar flap: as my colleague Charles Gross pointed out, Caesar actually resembled Bill Clinton as much as he did Trump. And, you’ll recall, the misguided conspirators all end up dead, some by their own hands. Shakespeare knew: Assassination does not pay.
From left: Tina Benko (Calpurnia), Gregg Henry (Caesar), Teagle F. Bougere (Casca) and Elizabeth Marvel (Marc Antony)
Anyone who does not believe truth is stranger than fiction hasn’t been following the news lately…or has never heard about Joe Monaghan, whose story is encapsulated in the playbill of Two River Theater Company’s “The Ballad of Little Jo.” The relatively short article is an absorbing read about the real-life fellow whose life is fictionalized in the musical play, in turn adapted from director/screenwriter Maggie Greenwood’s widely praised 1993 movie.
Okay, the ‘fellow’ tag is a tease. Joe Monaghan was a woman.