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Friday, May 21, 2010

Three OSF plays so far....Hamlet (I liked), She Loves Me (and I loved it), and Well (of tiresomeness)


So far I've seen three OSF plays. Plenty of time to catch them all as the season goes through October! But soon the Green Shows will begin, and the outdoor Elizabethan Stage will open, and I've already missed out on several great lectures and tours. You just can't do it all!

I mentioned the "hip hop Hamlet" in an earlier post. It is an amazing production and I want to see it again - and then will probably have more to say about it. Last week I saw the Kenneth Branaugh full-length version of the play on DVD, which was beautifully done and kind of fascinating - hadn't heard many of those lines in years, though they were all still familiar. But for me seeing a play in the theatre is always better than in a film. Now I might read the play again before seeing the OSF production again - from a closer seat this time, because everyone says Dan Donohue's (Hamlet) facial expressions are not to be missed. Here's a review I liked.

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Light, but not condescending: The musical She Loves Me is also not to be missed. I wasn't sure what to expect from what threatened to be an old chestnut - the latest version of this oft-produced 1930's Hungarian play was, I think, You've Got Mail, translated to modern New York, and even that is dated now. I'd seen an earlier Hollywood version too, the wonderful classic Shop around the Corner, which kept the European setting of the original play, more than once over the years. And there was a Hollywood musical (but I'm not a fan of those) In the Good Old Summertime, which I don't remember seeing.

I hadn't even been very aware of this 1960's Broadway musical, by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick; it won a Tony, but in 1963, I was in India and totally cut off from what was going on in the US, and I'd never seen a production of it since then. I see it was revived in the Nineties, but I was otherwise occupied then, too. Anyway I needn't have worried; the OSF production is fabulous! First-rate in every way. It's more a light opera than a musical, actually, in that much of the dialog is sung, and it's all seamlessly put together.

This production is a jewel box, a truffle, a treat. Among the many high points is seeing Dan Donohue, who plays Hamlet in the other production, in a hilarious cameo role. I'm a fan! It's just an exquisite entertainment all around - light, but not condescending. I suspect this play could be really awful in a lesser production, but everyone concerned put their hearts and their considerable talents into this one. Here's a very positive review that parallels my experience of the play: Theater review: OSF's 'She Loves Me' a perfect blend of charm, wit, musicality and artifice By Marty Hughley, The Oregonian

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Well: Well... "Ceci n'est pas une play"? I'm afraid I agree with this negative review. (By the way, this same reviewer really liked Hamlet, so he's not just a grouse.) I was afraid this might be a depressing play, but I really wanted to like it - unconventional staging; lesbian playwright and humorist; mother-daughter and health themes against a historical backdrop of racial integration, from what I'd read, and it sounded intellectually interesting at least. As it turned out, both expectations were wrong. It wasn't depressing, but I didn't like it much either. In fact as I was driving home,  a one-word review popped into my head: "Tiresome." For me, it was repetitive and slow and labored and self-conscious. The adjectives keep coming: arch, pretentious, obnoxious, even amateurish.


Still, I'd be interested to see this play again under a different director. Maybe that's where it fell down. It did have some great moments and some interesting ideas, and most of the audience received it warmly enough - though there wasn't even the hint of a standing ovation (which seems almost expected in this warmhearted town for anything halfway good). But then, the way it ended, nobody was quite sure what was going on or if it was really over; the lead actress never took a bow (typical of the unconventional - excuse me, metatheatrical -staging). That confounding of expectations, too, was in keeping with the rest of the play, but I think it backfired. People just shuffled out eventually. And if this mess really was intentional, then it was a big mistake IMO because a playwright can't afford not to engage an audience. I mean, really, what's the point of writing a play for an audience if you don't even try to reach them? Well, I think the writing attempted it, but the execution failed. Probably.



I was lucky to run into a neighbor when I saw it, and later we talked a bit about it, and as so often happens, in the process of talking things over, the play became more interesting to me so I'm sure if I cared to sit through it again I'd get more out of it. Her one-word review was "challenging." Another neighbor said the same thing. They were talking about its structure and so on - self referential, multi-layered (play within a play within a play) and all that - all the postmodern literary conventions - but these conventions are old hat to an old lit major like me, so I didn't find it challenging in that way - not hard to follow or parse - just not engaging. I believe the technical term is "meh."

Here are some things I had a problem with... I hate plays that require the audience to participate (I'm very shy, and it's painful to me) - but this one needed that dimension to work. It only involved the audience here and there in small, token ways (I wonder if at other performances people do call out answers to questions addressed to them, for example, but my audience resolutely stayed behind their boundary); but with so many conventional boundaries being crossed onstage, it felt stupid to just be watching that unfold. Things were done to poke the audience, but they weren't enough. For example they repeatedly raised and lowered the lights. I know why they were doing that (would have known even without the characters explaining it each time), but (and I know I'm not the only one affected this way because more than one person commented on it as we were leaving) when the lights went down, it made me sleepy! And when they came back up abruptly, it hurt my eyes. Both effects alienated me.

And then when the Mother had her long set piece toward the end, engulfed in her recliner, alone on a dark stage with only a dim spotlight on her, and speaking veeeerrrrryy sloooowwlllyy (she suffers from fatigue) and it just went on and on I'm sorry, but it really did seem as if she was at the bottom of a well. Was that intended? If so they got their pun across, but it didn't work for me as storytelling, it just made me drowsy, bored and irritated. (Illo from http://filmsleepy.com/default.aspx )

Toward the end, one of my favorite moments occurred. As the supporting actors (playing actors playing actors, or were they playing themselves?) returned from offstage to a play in shambles, one of them says something like "What is this, one of those fucked-up New York things?" and another follows up with "It isn't working," and that got probably the biggest laugh of the day. And a woman sitting behind me said loudly "It isn't working!" and that got another laugh from people like me who agreed. The dang thing was so self-referential that the woman in the audience could well have been another actor. But the people who laughed in agreement with the heckler were not doing so in appreciation for, or identification with, the play.

And now this review, like the play (at an hour 40 minutes it was short for OSF) has become tedious and gone on way too long already. Sorry about that, if anybody is still reading this. I won't even get into the content and my take on that (short version: mixed feelings, unclear presentation)... just to repeat, it had its moments, but. Well simply never drew me in and made me care. Sorry. You can't win them all. Better luck next time, to the next director and cast.
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PS - later, talked with another friend who saw Well on a different day, and she said her audience had been more active, responded to cues, etc. - and she even went down to the stage to talk to the actress at the end; it was that kind of atmosphere that day. Which kind of confirms my suspicion that one reason the performance I saw was as flat as it was, had to do with the audience, which just wasn't a lively one. On the other hand, isn't it the business of the play and the players to put it across better than they did with us? Maybe all the flubbed lines on my day contributed to my audience's reserve. I don't know.
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Consolation prize: great photo I found of the plaza in front of the box office and the intimate New Theatre, where Well plays... this and more images of Ashland found at http://traveljapanblog.com/ashland/tag/oregon-shakespeare-festival/


Next up - Pride and Prejudice, and Ruined. Now there's a variety: Jane Austen to the Congo. OSF is nothing if not far-ranging!

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