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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: May ::
Subterranean Shakespeare Presents The Taming of the
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1005  Thursday, 26 May 2005

From:           Matt Henerson <
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Date:           Wednesday, 25 May 2005 15:09:25 -0400
Subject: 16.0998  Subterranean Shakespeare Presents The Taming
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0998  Subterranean Shakespeare Presents The Taming
of the Shrew

"When I hear about productions like this on the West Coast I am ever
more pleased to live in New York."

Out of curiosity, Mr. Weiss, have you ever seen any Shakespeare on the
West Coast?  In this particular instance, we are talking about a small,
mostly non-union Shakespeare festival based in Marin, immediately north
of San Francisco.  I lived and acted in the Bay Area for seven years,
and--yes--I saw a good deal of poor theatre and poor Shakespeare.  I
also saw first rate work done at Shakespeare Santa Cruz, the California
Shakespeare Festival, and San Francisco Shakespeare.  We are, after all,
discussing an area slightly larger than Rhode Island in which there are
more than twenty producing Shakespeare festivals.  And this is without
taking into account the wonderful work done at theatres like the Globe,
South Coast Rep, A Noise Within, La Jolla Playhouse, Mark Taper Forum,
as well as hundreds of excellent smaller theatres doing Shakespeare in
Southern California, that famous cultural wasteland populated--as we all
know--exclusively by shallow, narrow-minded, botox-addicts.

By contrast, I also studied and worked on the east coast for five years,
where I saw any amount of over-directed, badly-spoken Shakespeare in
theatres ranging from Boston to New York to DC, and I paid considerably
more for the privelege.  To be sure, I also saw a good deal of excellent
work, but as I consider the twenty or so finest productions of
Shakespeare I've seen, several are British, several are Canadian,
several are Californian, one is Georgian, but not one comes from New York.

Of course this may simply represent a difference in taste.  I was born
and raised in Los Angeles, and grew up watching the Globe companies in
the 80's and 90's.  Jack O'Brien and Michael Kahn are very different
directors, and somebody raised on Jonathan McMurtrey and Kandis Chapell
might prefer them to Emory Battis and Ted Van Griethuysen in the same
way in which one might prefer Blake to Wordsworth or Melville to
Hawthorne.  Doesn't make any of these actors or authors better or worse
than another.  Nor do I buy into the highly patronizing "regional
styles" arguement--East Coast audiences are more sophisticated, and
Eastern theatres consequently take more risks thus producing more
important productions.  In my experiece, for example, New York audiences
are particularly apt to genuflect to anything with a British Accent.
How else shall we explain the ovations and accolades heaped upon the
Alameda's intellectually and emotionally negligible HAMLET in the mid
90's.

Finally, let's consider the current JULIUS CAESAR at the Belasco, a
production which Daniel Sullivan first mounted at the Globe in San
Diego, by the way.  I saw both incarnations.  In San Diego, the
exquisite Robert Foxworth played Brutus as a cold and intellectual
narciscist with the bizare capacity to rationalize the murder of Robin
Gammell's gentle, tired and elderly Caesar, a man Brutus obvioulsly
loved and respected.  You didn't love Brutus, but you were fascinated by
him.  You could feel the tension rising in the audience as Joel Pollis'
needy Cassius conceded point after point to this wrong-headed, stubborn
patrician.  And you wept as, one by one, the few people who meant
anything to him--Caesar, Potia, and finally Cassius--deserted him.  The
production was done outside on a shallow thrust.  The set--a war torn
Eastern European city--had two levels.  Thje soothsayer watched some of
the action from above, and at one point, during Antony's funeral
oration, a shadowy figure behind a dirty glass window pointed a rifle at
either Antony or the crowd.  It was a tiny detail; the rifle never
fired.  But it helped to establish a dangerous and lawless world in
which any public firgure was a knife thrust away from either assuming
Caesar's power or following him into the grave.  By the way, top ticket
price: $45.00.

At the Belasco, the gifted and charismatic Denzel Washington played
Brututs like an action hero, as conflicted over assassinating Caesar as
he might be about swatting a fly.  He was sexy and assured, and until he
got to his oration to the citizenry after Caesar's murder, you couldn't
have cared less.  There were no personal stakes in the play for him.  He
and Colm Feore's Cassius seemed to be in two completely different
productions, and you were left to appreciate strong character work by
Casca, Decius, and Metellus Cimber.  The set might have had a second
story--from where I was I certainly couldn't have seen it--and the
careful, dangerous world so effectively established on the Globe's
thrust became, on the Belasco's procenium, a collection of flash pots
and sound effects.  Top ticket price: $101.00.  Anybody seeing these two
productions in isolation might be justified in reversing the "regional
styles" arguement to which I alluded above.

Of course nothing is that simple.  The economics of Broadway theatre in
particular forces producers to rely heavily upon star casting.  Denzel
Washington is an excellent actor--one of the best working in films
today.  But because he is such a successful film actor, and therefore
such a recognized commodity, he is perhaps unwilling to deviate from the
characteristics of his personality to which he owes so much of his
success: his charisma, his sex appeal, his coolness, etc.  Nor are high
ticket Broadway productions the only New York productions of
Shakespeare.  I've only seen one show at Theatre for a New Audience, and
I've never seen anything at the Pearl.  Much of what I saw at the Public
in the late 80's and early 90's was star driven, and therefore
disappointing in much the same way as the Belasco CAESAR.  No more would
I recommend everything I've seen at the Globe in the last several years.
  And finally, because I grew up in Los Angeles, I am perhaps overly
impatient with regional bigotry.  I find the attitude that everything
out of California is shallow and provincial as offensive as the
oft-repeated bromide that only the British can do Shakespeare.  It's
tough enough making a living as an actor without having to deal with the
assumption that, because I'm an American I can't speak, and because I'm
a Californian I can't think.  If you have seen Shakespeare all over the
country, and you still hold a poor opinion of West Coast theatre, I'm
sorry for you, but I certainly don't dispute your right to it.  If, on
the other hand, you are basing your opinions on a production or two, and
reviews you read on line, I invite you to come out to the Bay Area for a
few weeks this summer.  Tim Ocell is directing WINTER'S TALE at
Shakespeare Santa Cruz, and Lillian Groag is doing TEMPEST for Cal
Shakes.  You might be surprised at the quality of the work you see, and
at what you'll pay for tickets.

Matt Henerson

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