Just got back from the Shakespeare Ensemble’s scene night…

Just got back from the Shakespeare Ensemble's scene night. They did six scenes — four scenes from Shakespeare, a Marlowe scene, and a scene from a modern playwright whose name I didn't immediately recognize. The topic of the production was "Life, Love, Lust, and Regicide," a study of twisted relationships, and for the most part it worked pretty well. The scenes were chosen quite well, and most of the performances were quite good, although the first and the last scenes (the death scene from Marlowe's Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the scene from Shakespeare's Richard III where Richard is wooing Lady Anne) were less than spectacular.

Partly, I think, I disliked the Richard III scene because I did the exact same scene, in a very similar context, last year, and our version was (IMNSHO) much better. At the beginning of the play, Richard, at the time the Duke of Glouchester, kills the King of England and his sons, one of the latter being betrothed to the Lady Anne. The scene in question opens with Lady Anne walking with the entourage taking the dead king's body to be buried, bemoaning her loss and cursing Richard. By the scene's end, however, Richard has convinced her that he killed her husband because he loved her, and has practically married her (hence its inclusion in a selection of scenes about twisted relationships). It's a wonderful, disturbing scene, which very much relies on Lady Anne's obvious revulsion at Richard — the audience needs to feel, fundamentally, how horrific it is for Richard to be wooing her practically over the body of her dead father-in-law, whom he killed. (Richard is depicted as being twisted and physically deformed, making it all the more abhorrent.)

Frankly, I didn't get any kind of emotional connection from this scene in the Shakespeare Ensemble production. The version of the scene I was involved in was very stereotypically Shakespearean, and so perhaps this was a more minimalist version of the scene, but even so I didn't quite buy it. Both the actors stumbled over their lines, Lady Anne especially so — if she was trying to achieve the effect of halting speech because of tears, she wasn't acting obviously grieved enough otherwise for me to buy it. Richard, too, lacked emotion, and the two together lacked any sense of chemistry. There was no sense that Lady Anne was revolted by Richard — she was simply indifferent. Richard gave no feeling that he was even pretending to like Lady Anne, so it was no surprise when he revealed in the closing monologue that he didn't. The actors weren't willing to get close to each other — they kept each other at arm's length, not because of the feelings of their characters, but simply because they weren't willing as actors to do so. It's not an easy hurdle to get past, but it's something good actors need to be able to do. They just didn't emote, and the scene fell flat.

I'm not sure whether the first scene suffered from being poorly acted (not likely, since the actresses were quite competent, though the scene did lack some of the physicality that the better scenes had), being written by Christopher Marlowe (thus setting off my "hey! this isn't Shakespeare!" radar, since I didn't realize until about twenty minutes in that there were playwrights other than the Bard represented), or simply running afoul of the fact that it was the first scene in the production, and so my brain hadn't quite gotten over the fact that these people were talking funny. Perhaps it was all or none of the above. Dido was also one of the few plays presented I hadn't been exposed to before, so it could have been any number of things. It depicted less a twisted relationship, and more a twisted relationship's aftermath. I didn't particularly care for the scene presented — stripping a climactic scene of its context can be dicey, too, since we don't have the emotional attachment to the characters that we would have if we'd seen the whole play — but I'm not sure it was anyone's fault except my own.

The other scenes were quite good. The second scene, from All's Well that Ends Well consisted of a marvelous exchange on virginity between Helen and Parolles — the former (I gathered, having never seen or read the play) wanting to marry the latter, and the latter being somewhat oblivious (or immune) to the advances of his would-be lover. It demonstrated, if nothing else, that Shakespeare is still bawdy even to modern ears. The interplay between the two was wonderful — Helen was wonderfully coy, and the whole scene was amusing. I think having seen the full production I would better appreciate this scene, but even on its own it stood well (no pun, of course, intended).

The third (perhaps the "middle," scene, thematically), was from Michael Folie's Dust, in which a man and a woman lying in bed argue about their relationship. The actors did a very good job at building their respective characters and in their interaction with each other — it is no doubt somewhat akward to be lying half-clothed on a mattress with another person, surrounded by a couple dozen people you've never met before, but the actors seemed comfortable. The scene had a much more redemptive theme than the others; though the relationship was perhaps somewhat rocky, it was growing as well.

It ws, overall, a fun show. I'd like to be more involved with theater here, although it would take time I just don't have at the moment — perhaps over summer, or next IAP. I think it would be a lot of fun, especially since the plays done out here will be in different styles and emphasize different themes than they would back in Iowa. It'd be interesting to see how the experience is different.