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A CurtainUp Feature
To Revamp or Not to Revamp, that is the question
By Elyse Sommer
The new, new thing for many theater companies isn't new at all but a remounting of a play not seen for at least a decade. In most cases, that means a classic or once popular play, though for some companies like the Mint or the Keen Company, it could mean fishing a neglected gem out of the theatrical archives.
The question for directors doing these reprises is whether to revamp the original presentation, and if yes, just how much. Given the famously short attention spans of today's audiences, one of the most common is to conflate the once common 3 acts with 2 intermissions into a two- parter a single intermission, and perhaps a brief pause for the one intermission. This falls into the category of minor and easy rejiggering. A much more noticeable revamping that's common for period dramas is to move the time frame (and with it costumes and scenery) to a different era.
Of course, the most frequently and extensively revamped plays come from William Shakespeare's canon. After all, the Bard's 36 plays have been done and done, and then done again. Thus directors are understandably compelled to counter Shakespeare fatigue with fresh interpretations.
In this 2013-14 Fall season when Shakespeare's ticket selling appeal is being tested by a virtual tsunami of Broadway and off-Broadway productions, there are gimmicks galore afoot to imbue these plays with must-see luster. Oh, okay, let's amend that "gimmicks" and call some of the more unusual departures from more commonly tread paths fresh new interpretations — though there's no denying that some of what's been on offer does seem to believe in Mama Rose's "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" in Gypsy.
The all over the place presence of Shakespeare on theater marquees is in and of itself something of a new-new thing. Shakespeare plays on Broadway haven't always been long-running hits. But the Bard now joins Neil Simon as the only other playwright I can recall having four plays running on Broadway in the same season. (Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Richard III, Twelfth Night — the latter two running in repertory).
The directors helming these Broadway productions are at opposite ends of the to revamp or not to revamp conundrum. David Leveux went all out to make the first in many a year Broadway revival of the famous star-crossed teen lovers appealing to teen audiences. He cast Orlando Bloom as Romeo, and made Juliet's family African Americans. This has attracted lots of fawning Bloom fans. Unfortunately the ultra-modern staging is indeed gimmicky, starting with Romeo's arriving on a motor bike. Jane Houdyshell who plays the nurse is such a good and fun to watch actress that her riding a non-motorized bike isn't nearly as jarring. My colleague, Simon Saltzman found all this newfangled business less harmful to the play's standing than I and a lot of other critics and theater goers did and the show is hanging in there as I write this. ( Simon's review).
As if one trendy R&J wasn't enough, one of Off-Broadway's most popular venues, the Classic Stage, was not at its best marching to the tune of "You Gotta Get a Gimmick." Also updated to the present, the staging was so bare bones that it didn't even have a balcony. Without Juliet's "O, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo" you could easily miss that classic scene altogether. Instead of riding a bike, this production's Nurse, Daphne Rubin-Vega, stomped around on high heels and occasionally burst into Spanish. Amusing but her delivery of the Shakespeare text was hardly memorable, which could be said for most of the cast. ( Review) .
To move to that other end of the to revamp or not to revamp see-saw, we have Richard III and Twelfth Night imported from London's Old Globe for a limited in-rep run at the Belasco Theater. If you think that because the actors all being men is a gimmick, better brush up on your Shakespeare. Back in Elizabethan times it was illegal to have women on stage, so that male actors always performed all the roles.
And so, the "gimmick" in this production is that it's as true to Shakespeare as it would have been done in his day as you could get. What's more the all-male cast is dressed in true to the period costumes and the set (the same serving both the comedy and the tragedy) is a replica of the great halls in which the plays were performed before the real Old Globe was built. In short, the gimmick here, if you want to call it that, is complete authenticity. And, while Mark Rylance is indeed a star he's not a movie star but one of the contemporary theater's finest thespians. He and the rest of this terrific ensemble don't have to learn to deliver the lines with impeccable clarity since they grew up with Shakespeare as their mother's milk. ( Our Review ). If I seem to be against diddling and fiddling with anything but straightforward presentations, this season has also brought some revamping that garnered well-deserved praise. To turn the traditional all male casting on its head, there was the remarkable all-female Julius Caesar —another British import, this one Off-Broadway at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse. Besides the female casting (actually New York's Judith Shakespeare Company has been gender bending Shakespeare for years), Phyllida Lloyd's production is set in a women's prison — an ingeniously effective new twist to the testosterone-laden work. Too bad it had such a brief run. ( Review ).
An even more drastic revamping that should probably be tackled only by audiences familiar with the more traditional approach, is to essentially rewrite the play from the viewpoint of a minor character or characters. Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the most famous example of this approach. But our inveterate Bardolator, Deirdre Donovan, was quite intrigued with Hamlet Hallucinations (Review ) done from the grave digger's point of view at the venerable La Mama Experimental Theater in the East Village.
A Hamlet revamping we didn't get to was the Frog and Peach Theatre Company's staging of the play as a face-off between Sacandanavian cultures with the costuming a mix of the Victorian and the primitive, to accentuate the conflict of cultures and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern re-imagined as women. And for yet another take the Bedlam Company had enough success with it's 4-actor version last season (in rep with Shaw's St. Joan) to reprise it for this Shakespeare heavy season. (Review ).
This sort of bare bones casting is not uncommon for a classic Shakespeare play. Last year, a solo Macbeth set in a mental institution made quite a splash, mostly because the mental patient was Alan Cumming, who first burst on the Broadway scene in Cabaret (a role he's slated to reprise next season) and has won ever more fans as Ely Gold in The Good Wife. ( Review) I wouldn't recommend anything this off-beat to anyone who's never seen the play. The appeal is to dedicated Shakespeare completists (people who feel compelled to see any and all Shakespeare productions they can reasonably get to).
No less-is-more casting to make Macbeth Broadway worthy once more for director Jack O'Brien. He's gone the full monty to stage the play at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater. He has added his own new-new thing by casting Byron Jennings, John Glover and Malcolm Gets as the three witches. ( Review--to be activated after the official opening)
Casting, staging — whether with lots of of bells and whistles shades of Julie Taymor's gorgeous production at TFNA's new home in Brooklyn (Our Review ) or small casts and minimal staging — will continue to influence how directors will mount Shakespeare's plays (or for that matter any revival). Ultimately however, all this Bard storming is all about the actors interpretations of the characters and delivery of Shakespeare's words. As traditional as the wonderful Twelfth Night and Richard III currently at the Belasco are, Mark Rylance manages to bring new nuance to both his roles. It's what actors do with these gifts of rich, open to various interpretation roles that's the difference between making you want to see or not to see a play again.
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