Monday, July 1, 2019

This Band of Brothers

"What is this castle call'd?"
The transformation of Public Square has been remarkable. For four summers (the redesign officially opened in time for the 2016 Republican National Convention) folks have been playing in the fountain, dining in the shadow of the Terminal Tower, and attending performances -- and protests -- on the lawn. It’s a far cry from when the square was largely pavement and planters and nowhere to really hang out.

My friend Jeff (he who recently played The Fool in King Lear at Beck Center) and I once entertained the idea of staging free Shakespeare in Public Square. This was some fifteen or so years ago, when you would find very few establishments open in the vicinity of the Terminal Tower after four pm, any day of the week. The plan was to perform one act from some Shakespeare play every day at lunchtime. Five acts, five days. People would come back day after day to see what happens next!

People who put on plays by Shakespeare think like that.

Things downtown have changed, Public Square has changed, and I very much hoped my friends at the touring Cleveland Shakespeare Festival would add this site to their roster of performance sites. They wasted no time. Since 2017 they have produced free Shakespeare in spitting distance from the site of long-lost, 19th century Cleveland theaters such as the Lyceum and the Euclid Avenue Opera House.

Why yes, even my own production of Troilus and Cressida played there last summer, though I was out of town at the time.

Immediately following the closing, matinee performance of the aforementioned Lear (and after a farewell toast with the company; I must recount my experiences in this production soon) I hightailed it downtown to finally catch a CSF show on Public Square.

On Sunday, that performance was Henry V, in a production conceived by Kelly Elliott, the first such production of that play that CSF has attempted since their second season, twenty years ago in 1999.

Her choice to cast all women in this production is not only in keeping with adaptations in American and England and elsewhere, but a call to action to all young, male-identified performers everywhere.

In her director’s notes Kelly explains, “I did not set out thinking I was going to cast this production of Henry V with all women. But I did.” She goes on to describe a scenario I am all too familiar with; too many skilled and eager women at auditions, too few men, and those who deigned to offer their services all too confident of their inclusion in a play written for a large cast with only four named (and minor) female roles.

"Strip his sleeve and show his scars!"
HENRY V, IV, iii
So fuck it. She cast those who, apparent to me and the audience, were best suited to each role and to the ensemble. Of this there is no question. They’re great, starting with the bold, and might I say fierce, Shley Snider as young King Harry on down.

Let me mention a few things I loved about Kelly’s work on this production, her first directing for CSF, and if I am dissing all previous directors of their work that includes me, so, you know. Get over it.

PROJECTION. The show starts with the Chorus (Jenny Hoppes) beginning the performance from the back of the stage. The mics only pick up the actors onstage, she began bellowing “O, For a Muse of Fire” from the rear of the “house” and her voice carried through the crowd until she reached the front and did not need to try so hard -- though she and all other company members remembered throughout they were working al fresco and we were never at a loss for their text.

I recall a free a performance of Much Ado About Nothing in Fort Tryon Park in NYC that my wife and I saw way back in 2002, produced by Gorilla Rep. No mics. They just shouted for two hours. It was amazing. The sun went down (the show started at 8:00 PM) and the acting company used flashlights to keep each other lit. That shit was bargain basement but it was raw, it was big. They didn’t need no stinking sound system.

CSF has a sound system, but these girls were BIG, and by that I mean they filled that space.

REGARDING SOUND. The sound check alone, before the performance took some time. Kelly brought the tiring tents close, and used a curtain between them to create a close backdrop. The show was close, which hard to accomplish in an open space. And they made sure the sound system worked for the actors and the audience, that neither they nor we had to compromise.

That’s sound and also set, for those keeping track. Kelly created a tiny set, with instant entrances, the timing was excellent. I was in the middle of a wide open space and yet my focus was contained. And, as the old people like to bray, I could hear every word!

HUMOR. Jesus God. These women were funny. A playwright friend of mine made a jape recently on social media about how it’s not really Shakespeare without at least one crotch grab. We had one of those in Lear (sorry, Jeff) but they didn’t need one in Henry V. Instead, we were treated to a racy conversation from the French nobles about the merits of horse-riding which could only have been imagined by women.

It may be the best CSF production I have ever seen, and I directed Timon of Athens, which was legendary. You owe it to yourself to get out next week, and to see one of the final three performances. I recommend Tremont this Saturday because I would.

Cleveland Shakespeare Festival presents "Henry V" directed by Kelly Elliott, at various locations through July 7, 2019.

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