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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

OSF 2011: Julius Caesar and Henry IV 2 revisited

http://www.osfashland.org/


I've been fortunate enough to see both these plays a second time recently and it's amazing what a difference a day makes! This isn't about unevenness; although it's likely that some changes have been made in these productions between their preview performances and the ones at the height of the summer season, the fact that I enjoyed both of them even more the second time probably just reflects my own state of mind on the particular days I saw them. So this is a quick post to fill in some blanks that I missed in my initial reviews, and to thank OSF for some wonderful experiences.


Vilma Silva as Caesar and Jonathan Haugan as Brutus

Today I saw Julius Caesar again (here is my earlier post; I covered a lot of ground about the play there, so I won't repeat any of it here). Just... RAVE!!!!!!!!! I liked it well enough the first time to want to see it again, but I have to upgrade my rating now from four out of five stars to, I dunno, about a zillion stars. I was blown away today. It was an incredibly moving and engaging performance.

One difference from when I saw it before was that I was sitting much closer this time (but there aren't really any bad seats in the New Theatre). Whatever the reason, I loved the costumes this time around, where before they left me cold; and the choreography of the actors throughout the scenes made perfect dramatic sense to me today, where before they just seemed to be milling about. And the performances - it just doesn't get better than this: nuanced, powerful, and as clear as epiphany. Though I knew the play well, today it was freshly minted for me; I doubt it's possible to do Julius Caesar any better than this. Maybe it's my new favorite Shakespeare play. Psychologically and politically, it is a revelation.

So what made the difference between a performance that just interested me keenly and one that blew me away? I really can't say. That's the joy, though, of being able to see these productions more than once. There are always delightful surprises. Bravo, all concerned. This is truly great theatre and I'm grateful for it.

Here's a beautifully written review of this production. 

Michael Winters as Falstaff

And last Saturday I saw Henry IV pt. 2 again. (Here's my earlier post on that.) In this case, my experience of the play was not so different than the first time around - except that it was more comfortable and mellow, a beautiful summer evening (where before, it was cold and rainy) and a perfect night at the outdoor theatre. This is more typical of what you'd expect to experience in the "the Lizzie" (as I overheard an actor refer to the Elizabethan Stage recently) throughout most of the season.

I did notice the scenic design more this time, and it is something special: a kind of stylized, erector-set scaffolding covers the background on the Elizabethan stage, and includes a balcony that stretches all the way across the set. This allows for some movement you don't normally see in this theatre, and gives a powerful, ongoing subliminal message about the main theme of the play (or so it seems to me after seeing this production)-- the building of a new state following the disruptions of civil war. Probably I just didn't notice the scaffolding before, in the rain. But this set was another character, almost. Very effective. I really liked that it worked with the Elizabethan stage, rather than ignoring it or fighting with it, as some of the past scenic designs have done. (Such as my personal least favorite, vert ramps covered in bright green Astroturf in last year's otherwise excellent Twelfth Night; they did enable some great physical comedy, but clashed too much  with the Elizabethan aesthetic of the permanent backdrop. At least for me.)

Jeffrey King
Anyway, on Saturday my original impressions of the play and the production were pretty much validated and confirmed, so I felt a little smug about that, and just enjoyed seeing it unfold again in a much more relaxed way and from a better seat (first row, balcony - my favorite). As always with OSF the performances were wonderful. This still isn't one of my favorite plays because personally I just cannot enjoy Falstaff and his lowlifes that much, and this play is largely about them. But Michael Winters somehow made Falstaff more tolerable for me -- maybe because he brought to the fore every bit of wit that Shakespeare put there, behind the obnoxiousness. Also, I'd like to give a shout-out to the wonderful Jeffrey King, who stands out in everything he does with a unique blend of (sometimes rather macho) charisma and strong intelligence (here, as Westmoreland, and particularly last year as a Claudius-for-the-ages in Hamlet).

John Tufts, Ashland landscape, ep 1 of his vlog at http://www.myosf.org/connect/?page_id=688
However, I have to say that whenever Prince Hal (John Tufts) had one of his speeches, a special electricity took over my entire nervous system; he owned that stage. Was it just me? I don't know, but his performance seemed to be in a dimension an order of magnitude beyond anything else. This enhanced effect is probably the result of two factors: (1) Hal's speeches are rare in this play, and particularly welcome and significant if you aren't a Falstaff fan, and (2) John Tufts is one powerful actor. Well, and of course (3) Shakespeare wrote some great stuff.

So- this is not a play for everybody, but if you are interested in Shakespeare it's a must-see at least once; and if you see it only once, this is the production to see!

Fangirl strikes again. I do love OSF!

Update: here's a nice article about Tufts and the Henry vids, and a fine review of this Henry IV 2: "This play is about life. See it." I agree!

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