Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

A Cornucopia of Classics — Mighty Macbeth, Awesome Alcestis, and More

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In LA theater above the 99-seat level, classical theater has two distinct seasons.

During the longer shift from late September through May, the major player is A Noise Within, with its separate three-play rep seasons in the fall and in the spring. But in June through early September, as A Noise Within takes a vacation, the summertime shift takes over — with more groups, more players and somewhat larger audiences, many of whom are drawn to outdoor performances. Of course during most of the year, smaller single-show productions of classics or variations on classics also take place, most consistently at Antaeus.

Andre Martin, Luis Galindo Erik Mathew and Sean Pritchett in Macbeth. Photo courtesy of
Andre Martin, Luis Galindo Erik Mathew and Sean Pritchett in “Macbeth.” Photo courtesy of Independent Shakespeare Company.

Now we’re in the heart of the summer season. I’ve seen as many classics recently as I saw Hollywood Fringe shows in June.

First let’s look at Independent Shakespeare Company, which draws bigger crowds to the classics than any other company in town — thanks in part to its free admission (but please-donate-if-you-can) policy and to the fact that its Griffith Park site, on the lawn next to the Old Zoo in Griffith Park, can accommodate bigger crowds than any other classical theater venue in LA.

Last year, average attendance at ISC’s Griffith Park fare was 1,051, and the maximum attendance at a single performance was 2,803.

As I noted last year, crowds this large can created disadvantages. The farther back in the crowd you are, the less likely you are to see small gestures or to hear individual words, as the ISC continues to observe its tradition of not using individual microphones. This means that sometimes the actors have to shout to be heard, even if shouting isn’t necessarily appropriate, and that the action should be as big and as physical as possible — without overdoing it for those who are sitting close to the stage.

Of ISC’s two productions up so far this summer, Macbeth is an example of how to handle these conditions magnificently, and She Stoops to Conquer is an example of a play that doesn’t work very well under these conditions.

David Melville’s staging of Macbeth is one of the most physical and violent versions of the Scottish Play I’ve seen. Even the pre-murder interplay between Macbeth (Luis Galindo) and his wife (Melissa Chalsma) involves more pushing and other assertive gestures than I can recall seeing in other renditions.

But the final showdown between Macbeth and Macduff (André Martin) is truly not for the squeamish — with choreographic variations that I had never imagined. No fight choreographer is credited in the program, but anyone who works in LA as a fight choreographer should not miss this brutal bout, which literally brought me to the edge of my sometimes-too-comfortable lawn chair.

Bernadette Sullivan, Dana Pollak, Luis Galindo and Ashely Nguyen
Bernadette Sullivan, Dana Pollak, Luis Galindo and Ashley Nguyen

In this production, the arcs of the two leading characters are crystal clear. In the first scenes, the pressure of Chalsma’s Lady Macbeth on Galindo’s Macbeth is overpowering. But after Duncan is murdered, we can see Macbeth gradually turn into the more aggressive of the two, while his wife begins to have regrets. Later, Chalsma’s Lady Macbeth wanders through the audience to begin her famous mad scene, and she gets to interact more closely with the observing doctor than usual. He’s played by Thomas Ehas, the same actor who played Duncan earlier — which subtly underlines her thoughts.

Then, after Macbeth learns of her death, Galindo becomes a Macbeth possessed. His disdainful treatment of Danny Campbell as his last remaining attendant becomes darkly comical. Macbeth’s “signifying nothing” speech is as nihilistic as usual, but he has every intention of resisting nothingness as long as he can. Both Galindo and Chalsma deliver galvanizing performances.

Speaking of Campbell, earlier in the play, he takes some extreme liberties with the porter’s lines, brilliantly updating this scene’s faded humor into a monologue that surely entices even the outermost spectators to laugh. Think of a great comic with the crowd firmly in his hand.

The witches (Bernadette Sullivan, Ashley Nguyen, Dana Pollak), wearing ghostly white outfits and makeup and creepy little grins, don’t remain confined to their own scenes. They often observe other scenes and take small roles. The most creative example of this is the scene in which Malcolm pretends he is a lech in a conversation with Macduff as part of an elaborate test. The witches surround Malcolm as he speaks, silently fortifying the seedy impression he’s trying to create.

These choices are not only illuminating on their own terms, but they’re especially appropriate for the venue and the size of the crowd. And so is the play itself — much of it occurs outdoors and/or during the night. Who needs a campfire when you’re in a park after dark, and Macbeth and his witches are on the prowl?

Ashley Nguyen, Dana Pollak and Bernadette Sullivan
Ashley Nguyen, Dana Pollak and Bernadette Sullivan

On the other hand, Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer, from 1773, is a very domestic comedy. The central premise is that a suitor (Melville) from the city is tricked into thinking that the country home of his intended is an inn, where he can boss everyone in a cavalier fashion, as opposed to the painfully formal and tongue-tied manner that he employs when he’s trying to impress someone of his own class. His intended (Claudia de Vasco) “stoops to conquer” — that is, she pretends she is a maid in the “inn” in order to see her suitor as he is when he isn’t trying to impress.

In other words, most of this play takes place indoors. Even from my relatively privileged perch, closer to the stage than much of the rest of the audience, I felt rather distant from what was happening in this play, despite some valiantly eye-catching costumes by Kate Bishop.  I’d like to see the same company performing it indoors.

**All Macbeth production photos courtesy of Independent Shakespeare Company. 

Macbeth and She Stoops to Conquer play in rep on the east side of Griffith Park, in the Old Zoo area. Here are directions and a map. Thu-Sun 7 pm. This weekend, Macbeth plays Thursday and Sunday, She Stoops plays Friday and Saturday. She Stoops ends on July 27, after which it is replaced by As You Like It. Macbeth plays through August 31. 818-710-6306.

LA has two long-running midsize classical companies that offer public performances primarily in the summer — Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles and Theatricum Botanicum.

For the second year in a row, Shakespeare Center is inhabiting the charming Japanese Garden on the north end of the VA West Los Angeles Healthcare campus. This year’s title is all too predictable — A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a play that’s produced annually at the Theatricum (although I haven’t seen this year’s edition there) and, this summer, in at least three smaller productions around town, not to mention the now-closed Troubie variation, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream.

Paul Perri and Wyatt Fenner in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Paul Perri and Wyatt Fenner in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Nonetheless, the Japanese Garden is remote and rustic enough to serve as a natural Midsummer venue. Kenn Sabberton’s staging is a mixed bag. While some of the individual parts are scintillating, the pacing of the sum of these parts feels sluggish. Could my personal reaction simply be a result of a Midsummer overdose over the years, as opposed to the experience of someone seeing the play for the first time?

Perhaps. I heard a few lines in this production that I don’t recall so much from most Midsummers, for which I guess I should be grateful, but then maybe they’re usually cut for good reasons. However, the single component that needs the most editing isn’t Shakespeare but rather the music, composed and directed by Brian Joseph, who also plays Quince. Music is essential in Midsummer, but not this much music. Three numbers take place before the play even begins.  While some of the music enhances the drama, not all of it does.

In stark contrast to the ISC (see above), everyone in this Midsummer wears a head mic, although the audience isn’t nearly as big as the ISC’s. While this makes the lines easy to discern, occasionally it isn’t so easy to discern exactly who is saying them.

There are only nine actors in the cast. All of them except Joseph play more than one role (and of course Joseph doubles as a musician). The four who play the lovers also play fairies — and mechanicals. They’re nimble enough, changing characters and costumes, as well as remembering all those lines, but near the end, it looks odd for only one of the three couples — Oberon and Hippolyta — to serve as the sole members of the audience for the Pyramus and Thisbe play. But of course the younger lovers are otherwise occupied, playing the mechanicals who were presenting the Pyramus and Thisbe play.

Willow Geer, Aaron Hendry and Leo Knudson in "Taming of the Shrew." Photo by Ian Flanders.
Willow Geer, Aaron Hendry and Leo Knudson in “Taming of the Shrew.” Photo by Ian Flanders.

And now a few belated words on the latest production of another Shakespeare standard, The Taming of the Shrew, which opened the Theatricum Botanicum season. This production doesn’t feel sluggish, and initially I didn’t mind director Ellen Geer’s decision to include the Christopher Sly narrative framework, which is often cut. By setting that framework in the present day, she led me to think that she might be able to offer a present-day perspective on the main play’s baffling conclusion.

However, when that central narrative finally reaches its conclusion, it feels as antiquated as ever — delivering the message “yes, women, smile and subjugate yourself to your husbands,” with no apparent effort to explain it or subvert it, from a 21st-century viewpoint.  So why bother to include the Christopher Sly framework at all? And what’s with the program note that says some have considered the play “a feminist diatribe”? In what universe has The Taming of the Shrew ever been considered “feminist”?

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Japanese Garden, VA West Los Angeles Healthcare Center campus, 11301 Wilshire Blvd. — follow signs to the north end of the campus. Tue-Sun 8 pm, through July 28. Gates open for picnicking at 6:30. 800-838-3006.

The Taming of the Shrew, Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. In repertory with three other shows that rotate Thu-Sun, with matinees and evening performances, through Sept 29. 310-455-3723.

No one will ever consider Euripides’ Alcestis as overly familiar as Macbeth, Midsummer or Shrew. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the original. But then Nancy Keystone’s version at Boston Court, created in collaboration with her Critical Mass Performance Group, isn’t exactly the original, either. It’s a contemporary interpretation of the original — and it’s about as original as an interpretation of a previous play can get.

It’s also a play about death that comes brilliantly to life.

Lorne Green, Kalean Ung and Nick Santoro in "Alcestis." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Lorne Green, Kalean Ung and Nick Santoro in “Alcestis.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

In the original tale, Alcestis is the queen who volunteers to sacrifice her life in place of her husband’s, the king’s.  Keystone keeps much of the narrative, but by converting the characters into people who look like our contemporaries, she creates a mesmerizing meditation on death — what we might die for, how we think we might die, what do we want to do before we die, how the survivors handle loss and mourning., and finally, how even coming back from the dead is a postponement, not a finale.

Much of this story is told without words — or, in the case of a brilliant depiction of the fates hard at work, with only one word. Some of the action is danced more than acted. Randall Tico’s music and sound design is haunting. Adam Flemming’s projections add visual texture.

Kalean Ung and Jeremy Shranko, as the tormented couple, make sure that the play’s abstractions never seem dry or impersonal. Death (Russell Edge) is himself a vital presence. Comic relief comes from Nick Santoro as the king’s rowdy and rockin’ friend Herakles, Ray Ford as the king’s chief factotum and Valerie Spencer as the king’s cranky mother — who refused to make the sacrifice for him that Alcestis made. A scene that depicts the king receiving mourners, and their behavior after they go through the line, is richly funny.

Alcestis, Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through July 28. 626-683-6883.

A few brief notes on other classics around town:

Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, which counts as a classic not only because it’s by Arthur Miller but also because the role of the narrator (Robert Lesser) isn’t too far removed from that of a Greek chorus. Directors Marilyn Fox and Dana Jackson and actor Vince Melocchi in the leading role maintain the play’s smoldering sexual tension, which we all know won’t end happily. That the play touches on undocumented immigrants and homophobia makes it seem strangely current.

Carlo Goldoni’s Trouble in Chiozza, first produced in 1762, now being revived at Classical Theatre Lab at Kings Road Park, West Hollywood. In the program, director Louis Fantasia compares Goldoni’s light domestic farce to Chekhov; I didn’t buy it. If a Chekhov play is a hearty baked potato with plenty of toppings, Trouble in Chiozza is a potato chip. It’s more frantic than funny.

Christopher Marlowe’s Dido Queen of Carthage, from the 1580s, produced by Downtown Repertory Theater in the courtyard of the historic Pico House, an 1870 structure across the plaza from Olvera Street, in downtown LA. This is a very sparse production in which the building itself provides most of the atmosphere. The cast is a little too young and inexperienced for most of these characters from Aeneid and Ovid, but it’s fun to see them finding such an obscure play and re-animating it with their passions. Additional program notes might help, especially if they explain the first scene between two characters who never re-appear.

No, I won’t claim that Sister Act, at the Pantages in Hollywood, is a classic. Let’s wait a few decades before we consider that. But this musical version of the movie comedy is one of the funniest translations of a commercial movie into a commercial musical that I’ve ever seen, with a witty score by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater and a propulsive book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner and Douglas Carter Beane. It’s much improved from its 2006 premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse.

What is ‘Devised Theatre’? 

“Devised theatre can be exceptional at highlighting underrepresented narratives in the world. Since everyone’s voice from the group is an integral component in the process, more perspectives get sifted through while collaborating.”

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