Monday, May 20, 2019

The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) (1999)

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) was either:
  1. Written by people who love Shakespeare for people who hate Shakespeare.
  2. Written by people who hate Shakespeare for people who love Shakespeare.
  3. Written by comedians for an audience of absolutely no one.
Nick Koesters, self & Allen Branstein
(Beck Center for the Arts, 1999)
The bane of critics everywhere and to the delight of audiences everywhere, this show has been produced constantly since first produced by the Reduced Shakespeare Company at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1987. The wife and I saw the original in 1997, near the end of its nine year run at the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End.

Classify this one as Shakespeare (not) On Stage, as not only does Shakespeare not appear, but the entire play ostensibly celebrates Shakespeare while simultaneously reinforcing those elements that everyone hates about Shakespeare.

It is also horribly dated, including gags that are casually sexist and outright racist, that is, unless you think the idea of three white guys deciding to interpret Othello as a rap song as “cute.”

This month, I will appear for only the third time onstage at Beck Center, and each time in the Studio Theatre. Eric Schmiedl’s adaptation of King Lear opens May 31. Seven years ago, I played Chris in Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn.

Twenty years ago, with Nick Koesters and Allen Branstein, we performed The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged).

I was shocked when director Roger Truesdell asked me to consider the role, especially playing against two accomplished comedic actors. “But Roger,” I said. “I’m not funny.”

“Yes, you are,” Roger said. “You’re just afraid people might think you are.”

The one saving grace of Complete Works is the note on the front page which reads:
“... it’s also important to keep the show fresh and timely by updating the many topical references as events warrant.”
To put it another way, you are free to change the script to make it funny. As a result we felt entirely justified in not only changing the late-80s pop culture references to late-90s pop culture references, but also anything else that wasn’t funny.

What we couldn’t do was write a different play, so we still labored with the Titus Andronicus cooking show, including my lame impersonation of the then-87-year-old Julia Child (huh-larious) and the aforementioned “Othello Rap.” At least we could pretend to be appalled, like you do, and to change truly offensive verses like:
Now Othello loved Desi like Adonis Loved VENUS
And Desi loved Othello cuz he had a big … SWORD
AL: Desdemona, she was faithful, she was chastity tight
DAVID: She was the daughter of a duke
NICK: Yeah, she was totally white
My voice was more Ad Rock than Ice Cube.

We also had great fun tweaking other local companies. Our changes are in red.
AL: One popular trend is to take Shakespeare’s plays and transpose them into modern settings. We have seen evidence of this with Shakespeare’s plays set in such bizarre locations as the lunar landscape, Nazi concentration camps and even Akron.
DAVID: Akron?
NICK: Who does Shakespeare in Akron?
Later, I had a discursion regarding ‘The Apocrypha’ or those works whose authorship was once in dispute, referred to as “‘The Lesser Plays,’ or simply, ‘The Bad Plays.’ And yet, not all of The Apocrypha are completely without merit … except Edward III.”

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival had produced the only-recently canonized Edward III that past summer. One night a contingent from the company were in the audience and they booed my little joke.

“Oh,” I ad-libbed,” you’ve seen it.”

I went on to to describe what a fascinating play Troilus and Cressida is, but then bore the shit out of absolutely everyone, which is coincidentally what I also did for Cleve Shakes audiences in 2018.

We changed scripted references about Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich and Boris Yeltsin to Donald Trump, Rudolph Giuliani and Vladimir Putin, which are more relevant now than they were twenty years ago.

The inclusion of Putin was odd, though, because the run of the show ran over into the year 2000, and Vladimir Putin was only just inaugurated on January 1st of that year -- we changed the reference from Boris Yeltsin after the announcement.

No one knew anything about him, except the name, so I suggested we change Nick’s recitation on "Chernobyl Kinsman" (Two Noble Kinsman, get it?) to include this exchange:
NICK: Does it have Vladimir Putin in it?
DAVID: It doesn’t have anybody pootin’ in it, Nick.
He's a monster. We didn't know.

We threw in Ally McBeal jokes, Jar-Jar Binks jokes, references to The Blair Witch Project, and my personal favorite, when Nick’s Macduff emerged with "the usurper's cursed head,” he was, in fact, holding a replica of his own head, which was the same prop used when he played the lead in Macbeth at Beck Center the previous season.

It gets better. As prescribed in the stage directions, “(drop kicks the head into the audience)” -- but then Nick hollered, "GOOOOOAAAL!!!!" and ran in a tight circle, before sliding on his knees and ripping off his shirt to reveal a Brandi Chastain inspired black sports bra (Google Women’s World Cup 1999.)

The script as written closes with a familiar theater cliché:
"If you enjoyed the show, tell your friends. If you didn't, tell your enemies."
By the second weekend we were sold-out in spite of receiving some scathing reviews from those aforementioned critics who simply hate the idea of this admittedly dumb little play.
AL: If you enjoyed the show, tell your friends.
DAVID: If you didn't ... you must work for the Free Times, man.
Exit, pursued by a laugh.

Beck Center for the Arts presents "King Lear" directed by Eric Schmiedl, May 31 - June 30, 2019

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Million Dollar Quartet (musical)

James Barry (airborn) as Carl Perkins
in "Million Dollar Quartet"
(Great Lakes Theater)
Finally took in our latest offering at the Hanna, the jukebox musical Million Dollar Quartet. Word has been strong, audiences are loving this, I have had the chance to meet and talk with several theatergoers who may not be familiar with the work of Great Lakes Theater but have seen and followed this show from Broadway to the tour to independently produced productions like this one, and their praise for these particular artists is high.

Personally, I was excited to bring my mother-in-law to see the show. She lives in Athens, and the time has never been right to get her to a show there, but I definitely did not want her to miss this one. She is a great fan of live music, rhythm and blues, and the works of Cash, Perkins, Presley, and Lewis. The whole family came and it was a great evening in downtown Cleveland.

Everyone had their favorites, I think my wife was particularly taken with Sky Seals’ soulful performance as Johnny Cash, and the girl had a lot to say about fiery Gabe Aronson as Jerry Lee Lewis, and the production is definitely constructed so that it is that man’s show to steal. The boy, the bass player, was very impressed by Eric Scott Anthony as Brother Jay. We asked if it was because he rode the bass on his back near the end, but no, he was the way he rode the thing across the floor playing slap bass, that he knew had a high level of difficulty.

The term “jukebox musical” used to be pejorative, used dismissively by critics to describe shows made of unoriginal tunes, strung together to create an artificial narrative. But these shows are so prevalent the term itself is no longer a put-down. Yes, these are previously written songs, but if the book is strong enough and carries you through and the artists are to-notch, what you get is an evening where everyone gets a live, powerful rendition of songs they already know and love. The audience last night was quite enthusiastic, indeed.

Growing up in suburban Bay Village, I was raised to believe rock and roll started in the sixties, with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. We didn’t listen to R&B or rockabilly, I was only marginally aware of Elvis (who passed, as a punchline, when I was nine) and entirely unfamiliar with any of the black progenitors of rock and roll.

It wasn’t until hooking up with the woman I would later marry and getting to know her family and what they listened to that I started to know, understand, and deeply love the music which inspired the British Invasion acts. Most significantly was when we took a road trip to Memphis, visiting Graceland and Sun Studio.
July 10, 2000 (journal)

Did Graceland. I was amazed. Much more enjoyable than I ever imagined. It’s small -- homey, surprisingly un-opulent. It had been described to me as being tacky, but I would call that classist.

What my wife thought she saw was a man from dirt-poor roots who did not try to become someone else, struggling to be normal.

The much-maligned Jungle Room is great! The decor is fanciful, but also kind of sexy. Loved the wall fountain. It’s funny, by that I mean it has a sense of humor.

Everything is modest. A kidney-shaped swimming pool a small one. An ordinary-sized kitchen. Nothing grand. Normal-sized rec room. It was touching. Charming. Some fun, swinging, 60s, 70s era living.

We didn’t go overboard on souvenirs; postcards, a few books, a CD of gospel songs. I am starting to “get” Elvis.

Noticed Colonel Tom Parker was mentioned exactly once the whole time we were there.

July 11, 2000 (journal)

Drove over to Sun Studio. Our tour guide was named Mick, late 20s. Spiky black hair, great glasses, attitude.

And what’s the tour? The front office, the studio itself, that’s it. Mick described the scene, and played a selection of sound clips from recordings and outtakes created right in that very room. It was more than worth the admission.

Our guide was just so great. The tour group was small, and he engaged each of us. Mick was sincere, he loves this music, tapping his foot. He had this wry smile all the time. I wish we had asked him about himself.

Hard to put my finger on, but that is now my favorite rock and roll museum.
Great Lakes Theater presents Million Dollar Quartet at the Hanna Theatre through May 26, 2019

Friday, May 3, 2019

Family Theater Day (2019)

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
(EnTechneVision Inc.)
The temperature spiked twenty degrees, and with it, face-ripping winds, ripping down Euclid Avenue. Because that is spring in Cleveland!

Spring also means the opportunity to check out some incredible, international touring companies share their work at student matinees in the days prior to Family Theater Day, this Saturday May 4 at Playhouse Square.

“Playwriting reached its peak with Shakespeare’s King Lear,” or so says Captain Nemo in the EnTechneVision, Inc. production of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea from Canada, a seriously intense production happening in the Ohio Theatre.

The reference to Shakespeare's mad king is echoed in a great storm scene in which the captain rails at the sea and sky with, "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!"

Utilizing three live performers, puppets, actions figure and some seriously beautiful projections, this is a wild adventure perfectly suited for a third-to-sixth grade audience. The language is dense and the subject matter heady (the first children’s play I have seen to introduce the concept of nihilism) it has a strong message about ecological disaster, and urging humankind to find a balance between technology and nature.

Conversely, another program that questions our dominance over wildlife is Shh! We Have a Plan by the Northern Ireland troupe Cahoots, gently told with light and sound, puppets and pantomime and absolutely no dialogue.

There were several short plays we composed for Guerrilla Theater Company which did not include dialogue, though I have to admit I wasn't very good at it, not when I was twenty-five.

Dance of the Demented includes signs with words on them, and I still felt I needed there to be dialogue at the end. One piece I composed which was entirely choreographed (titled, without irony, The Dance) about the importance of human connection, was misinterpreted to be homophobic.

Torque wrote the best of our wordless scripts, The History of Western Civilization, which you can read more about that play here.

Plays that do not include language must be deceptively sophisticated. You must be understood, and we are acclimated to leaning heavily upon language to make ourselves clear. To tell an entire story, to communicate not only emotions but also plans and ideas, takes great plotting, and planning, and rehearsal and physicality and just, you know, everything that makes up live theater.

Now I want to write an hour-long, dialogue-free children's play.

Playhouse Square presents Family Theater Day this Saturday, May 4, 2019

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Play a Day: Tastes Like Chicken

Joe Barnes
For Tuesday I read Tastes Like Chicken by Joe Barnes and available at New Play Exchange.

"Happiness means doing what you want, when and where you want to do it."

Well, no it isn't, and that's the point of this scathingly dark comedy which pokes holes in the devastating effects of the late twentieth century and America's descent into solipsistic navel-gazing and self-pleasuring self-analysis.

I blame the Baby Boomers, but you know that.

Joe Barnes is the most level-headed, knowledgeable and unbiased source of international political news and commentary I am connected to on social media. He is my Super Ego is trying times. Which makes it all the more hilarious that he composes hilarious and intentionally politically-incorrect burlesques like this one.

A dysfunctional family satire about the abdication of personal responsibility, and how easy it is become a complete sociopath when there is someone there to reassure you that it is all right. The social contract is flimsy and fragile, and also flammable.

And there you have it. Thirty plays in thirty days! It has been a tremendous month, and I have a lot to think about and process. But there is also work to do. I have put off any writing this month, tomorrow morning I will resume my pages, and return to projects which have waited patiently while I read.

Applications, submissions, proposals, play scripts.

What should I write tomorrow?

Monday, April 29, 2019

Play a Day: King Lear (BONUS)

This is a year of many auspicious anniversaries.

Thirty years ago I performed my first Shakespearean role, that of Friar John in Romeo and Juliet. Twenty-five years ago I directed my first Shakespeare, which was also Romeo and Juliet. In that production I provided a recorded voice over for Prince Escalus.

Twenty years ago I directed Hamlet, and did a walk-on as the Ghost of Hamlet’s father.

I have performed a few other Shakespearean roles. Petruchio in the Guerrilla Theater Company production of The Taming of the Shrew. Bardolph in Henry IV for Cleveland Shakespeare Festival. Pistol in the Merry Wives of Windsor at Great Lakes Theater, and also in The Tempest as Adrian.

What? You don’t know who Adrian is? He is the least-consequential named character in all of Shakespeare. He has a name, "yet--" he does nothing and provides absolutely no information we do not already know. In this production his signal contribution was to get his head bitten off by a harpy.

The fact is, in spite of being regarded as a Shakespeare guy, I have performed very little Shakespeare. This summer, however, I will be playing one of my very favorite roles, that of the Earl of Kent in the True Chronicle Historie of the life and death of King Lear and his three Daughters, or as more popularly known, King Lear.

As Adrian with Dougfred Miller as Antonio
The Tempest, Great Lakes Theater (2007)
Is it just me, or is this play going through something of a renaissance in the 21st Century? Is it because the Baby Boomers are entering their final years and want to redefine him for a new age?

I have had the opportunity to witness a couple iconic performances of King Lear in my time. In 1990 we and a college group visited London and Stratford and saw Lear performed by John Wood, who most Gen X Americans would know as Professor Falken from the motion picture War Games. The two standout performances were that of the non-yet-famous Ralph Fiennes and Alex Kingston as Edmund and Cordelia, respectively.

Several years later, Toni and I were in London and saw Ian Holm play Lear at the National, following his long hiatus from the stage. On that trip I picked up a copy of the book Shakespeare Made Fit: Restoration Adaptations of Shakespeare edited by Sandra Clark.

In that I learned of Nahum Tate’s adaptation of Lear, in which he created a much happier conclusion, one in which Edgar and Cordelia (who never speak to one another in Shakespeare’s original) fall in love and overthrow Edmund to live as King and Queen of a united England. Published in 1681, “Tate’s Lear” was the favored version until around 1863, when William Macready staged the first truly popular restoration of Shakespeare’s original tragedy.

David Troughton as Tom, right
With Penelope Wilton
The Norman Conquests, BBC (1977)
It was Tate’s version that was to be my third Shakespearean production, announced for Cleveland Shakespeare Festival’s 2000 summer season. When it became necessary to abridge that year’s production schedule from three productions to two, Tate’s Lear was cancelled. We had a wonderful cast who were tremendously disappointed, and it still pains me to remember that I let them down, having made the proposal myself not to move ahead with the production.

Ironically, perhaps, one of the other two productions that year was a compact and modern production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, directed by Eric Schmiedl. Referred to as “The GQ Love’s Labour’s,” Eric had cut the text down to just the lovers’ story (no Don Armado, sorry, no Holoferenes) punctuating the narrative with a few passages from popular magazines describe what the modern person wants in a relationship.

My relationship with Eric goes back to our tenures briefly overlapping at Karamu in the early 90s, later we were in the Cleveland Play House Playwrights’ Unit. He has directed me in Sarah Morton’s Night Bloomers, Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn, David Sedaris’s The Santaland Diaries, and now we are entering the rehearsal process for a streamlined, studio production of King Lear at the Beck Center for the Arts.

Kent is such a desirable role for a man my age, and I hope I can do him justice. He has the first line of the play, and it is entirely unassuming, one of the rare circumstance in Shakespeare when the action just starts, right in the middle of a conversation, Kent speaking with the Earl of Gloucester about a point of interest which has marginal bearing upon the issues of the narrative.

He is pressed into action, having to suddenly bridge a confounding gap and is forced into action he couldn’t have considered five minutes previously. He is not particularly remarkable, except for his absolute devotion to those he loves, sharp wit, and his ability to kick a young man’s ass.

David Troughton as Earl of Kent, right
With Linda Kerr Scott and John Wood
King Lear, Royal Shakespeare Company (1990)
I have seen two men whose performances as Kent rest upon my shoulders. The first was David Troughton, whose work I had first seen when he played Tom in the BCC production of Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests. Why a ten year old would be watching a British comedy about intimate relationships you can blame on my brother, regardless I remembered him when our school group visited Stratford that 1990.

Troughton was a then-member of the RSC, and in addition to leading workshops and acting as a mediator between our team and the company, he and his wife Alison welcomed us into their home and they were just remarkably kind and thoughtful people.

He and Ciarán Hinds conducted the final battle between Achilles and Hector (respectively) from Troilus and Cressida for us during a stage combat workshop. I saw him play Holoferenes in Love’s Labour’s Lost onstage, and he was Kent to John Wood’s Lear.

It was a remarkable week.

Most recently, I saw the production at Great Lakes Theater, directed by Joseph Hanreddy. That was four years ago. Hanreddy has done such marvelous work with our company, and this was no exception, a towering performance by Aled Davies in the lead role. His Kent, his "Caius" was Dougfred Miller.

I first met Doug the summer of 2005, when we played Merry Wives of Windsor at Great Lakes. Doing summer shows, my birthday often overlaps rehearsal or performance (this has happened numerous times) but I don't tell anyone. There's too much, I want it to be about me. That July 26 I walked into Becky's after rehearsal, on my own, prepared to drink a solitary toast to my own 37th anniversary. Doug was there at the bar and invited me to sit with him -- I hadn't really gotten to know anyone in the cast yet, and he expressed a deep, sincere interest in me, which was very gratifying on such a day.

Dougfred Miller as Earl of Kent, right
With Cassandra Bissell
King Lear, Great Lakes Theater (2015)
The next year we created a great moment together on stage for The Tempest -- the one in which I played the least consequential named character in Shakespeare. Doug was Antonio, the usurping Duke. Director Andrew May had stage these moments where Ariel was literally playing with us -- we were like puppets on strings. She paused us as I (as Adrian) had made a fist, as to strike Antonio. We were released and I hit him, Doug (as Antonio) reeled from the impact, as our "strings" were cut, sending us crashing to the floor.

Not remembering having been in this state, I rose from the floor, rubbing my hand as he rose rubbing his chin. We looked at each other -- and then away. A marvelous take. If anyone in the audience caught the exchange, I have absolutely no idea.

A performer possessed in equal measures great compassion, dedication to craft, an unparalleled wit and god-like sense of comic timing, his Kent was to me emblematic of Doug's work at its finest.

As we begin rehearsals for King Lear this evening, I enter the only way I could, following the example of such generous men, with humility and hope.

Beck Center for the Arts presents "King Lear" directed by Eric Schmiedl, May 31 - June 30, 2019.

Play a Day: Brujaja

Melissa DuPrey
For Monday I read Brujaja by Melissa DuPrey and available at New Play Exchange.

Set in La Doña, a botanica or shop for alternative medicine and practices, this script is an elegant story of modern America with deep, multicultural roots.

Ours is a land of seekers, we have always sought secret knowledge to assist us with our dreams. But medicine and science has led to Big Pharma, as desire for truth and enlightenment turns to organized religion.

And so there are always those who seek answers elsewhere, and for good reason. Unfortunately, suspicion and mistrust can also lead to disaster and pain. Yes, the drugs that were originally created to help us can also kill us, but so will the measles.

"You cannot pretend to know all the answers," says the mother to the daughter, and it is an important lesson. As DuPrey's brief play reminds us, we cannot ultimately hold back change, but that we have each other to guide us through difficult times.

Who should I read tomorrow?

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Play a Day: Nutshell

C. Denby Swanson
For Sunday I read Nutshell by C. Denby Swanson and available at New Play Exchange.

The word theater derives from the Greek for to behold, or "seeing place."

The character based on the true life individual Frances Glessner Lee informs us "the word autopsy derives from the Greek for seeing oneself."

Swanson's Gothic investigation of this near-forgotten mother of forensic investigation is rich with gallows humor, presenting an unreliable narrator whose live was dedicated to making the unseen seen.

The stories we tell about women, true and imagined, are about controlling women, their behavior, they are treated as symbols, not people, in order to mold their behavior. This is true of our folk tales, as well as our modern television procedural dramas.

It is also true of the stories we tell about people of color, though, as is the case with the violence against women forever captured in the crime scene dollhouse dioramas painstaking crafted by our protagonist, these injustices are hiding in plain sight.

I have read twenty-plays in twenty-eight days, four solid weeks of play-reading. Each day I meet a new playwright, and there are so many I have not yet experienced. It is a great joy to indulge in the work of fellow writers.

Tomorrow night we begin rehearsal for King Lear at the Beck Center. Tuesday I will close the month with a thirtieth play. On Wednesday I will resume my daily ritual of writing at five each morning.

Who should I read tomorrow?