August 23, 2011

Shakespeare’s Populist Productions

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Enchanted forests are not just the stuff of bedtime stories. The F.R. Newman auditorium made for a very convincing Forest of Arden as the Ithaca Shakespeare Company (ISC) charmed audiences with its ninth summer season in the Cornell Plantations. From July 7 to July 24, the ISC attempted a first, alternating the intensely romantic As You Like It with the boisterously physical A Midsummer Night’s Dream (staged on odd and even nights respectively).

It’s not hard to see why the ISC continues to overwhelm; it treats Shakespeare as popular entertainment, and invites everyone to join in the fun. Director Stephen Ponton guided the spirited cast (a rather even mix of professional actors and theatre students) through sunshine-filled performances that were both festively exuberant picnics and throwbacks to raucous, open-air Elizabethan theatres. An hour before the show, the stage was encircled by audience members relishing picnic dinners, sipping wine while reclining on foldable chairs or gazing at the swaying lanterns dangling from the boughs. Age was evidently no barrier to enjoying Shakespeare, as young children cheered enthusiastically during lively scenes and one family read comic-book versions of Shakespearean plays before the Midsummer performance. This dedication to recreating the Elizabethan Shakespeare experience is hardly surprising, since the ISC was first established as the Red Pull Players, a Cornell student theatre group named after a popular English Renaissance theatre.

As the ISC became a repertory theatre this year, the audience also had the pleasure of seeing the same cast crafting different worlds from one night to the next. Adam Turck’s hysterical Bottom-Pyramus in Midsummer was a crowd favourite, as he burst heartily into song and staggered about the stage, contrasting sharply with his eager, love-struck Orlando in As You Like It. Judith Andrew was equally compelling as Orlando’s immensely loyal servant Eva, and the wistful faery queen Titania in As You Like It.

The ISC’s earnest and sunny As You Like It was a welcome change from the wintry, darkly contemplative interpretations exemplified by recent high-profile productions such as Sam Mendes’ Bridge Project tour and Kenneth Branagh’s cable television film. The forest-setting was used to its greatest advantage in Act 2 Scene 7, when the exiled lords of Duke Senior’s court sang melancholic songs to the strains of Mark Brutvan’s guitar. As You Like It features more songs than any other Shakespearean play. The hearty delivery of the ironic, despondent and amusing lyrics clearly hit the right note with the crowd, judging by the copious cheers and camera clicks. A sample lyric from “Winter Winds” sung by Lord Amiens (Michael Kushner): “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly… this life is most jolly.” This song, about the abyss of man’s ingratitude, adds to the melancholy of Jacques’ (Patrick Mazzella as a comedic, lovable rock troubadour) oft-quoted Seven Ages monologue, “All  the world’s a stage… and one man in his time plays many parts.”

These world-weary musings (albeit delivered with a playful lightness by the cast) are challenged by the exceptionally strong and devoted Orlando (Adam Turck) who goes about the Forest of Arden tagging love poems on trees. The poems are addressed to the independent and witty Rosalind (a vivacious Hannah Dubner), who Orlando hardly knows. Jacques’ words ring true when Rosalind angers her uncle Duke Frederic (Rick Mertens), and flees to the Forests of Arden along with her cousin Celia (Karen Vincent) and the court fool Touchstone (Matt Winberg). A particularly delightful part of the play was the verbal sparring between Orlando and Rosalind. Rosalind, disguised as the gentleman Ganymede, tries to cure Orlando of his love for Rosalind by coaxing Orlando to pour out his feelings to an imaginary “Rosalind” played by Ganymede. These conversations cause Rosalind to fall even more deeply in love with Orlando.

Tangled love stories abound in Midsummer, when the faery king Oberon (Dan Berlingeri) punishes his queen Titania (Judith Andrew) by getting his court jester Robin Goodfellow (an animated, outlandishly attired P.D. Shuman with flame-red hair) to apply a magical floral juice on Titania’s eyelids so that Titania would fall in love with the first creature she sees upon awakening. That creature turns out to be Nick Bottom (Adam Turck), an overenthusiastic actor recruited for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding play, who now has a donkey’s head due to Goodfellow’s mischief. The faeries’ intervention brings chaos to four young Athenians, when Goodfellow mistakes Lysander (Max Lorn-Krause) for Demetrius. Consequently, both Lysander and Demetrius (Ned Donovan) become infatuated with the previously unloved Helena (Erin Wagner), much to the consternation of Lysander’s lover Hermia (Kate Cough). The young lovers’ quarrel quickly takes the form of a physical brawl, with the actors doing a commendable job of injecting humour and desperation into the battle of the distraught lovers. Another crowd-pleasing moment was when the cast concluded Midsummer with the English Long Sword Dance, an adaption of a traditional northern English dance typically performed by working men just like the “rude mechanicals” in the play.

Even if you’ve not read Shakespeare, there’s a lot to like about these shows. The entrancing setting and feisty cast make Shakespeare in the Plantations a great place to be on an Ithacan summer evening.

Original Author: Daveen Koh