Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Looking Back ... The Play's The Thing

As I’ve mentioned before, I really dislike winter. If I were the type to believe in past lives, I would be convinced that in a past life I was a grizzly bear or some other creature that hibernates all winter long. December is mostly bearable because it has all the holiday rush to make me forget somewhat that winter is coming/here. (This year had the added bonus of actually not being cold most days so it certainly could have been worse than it’s been.) But January, February, and March are the real terrible months with nothing to look forward to but miserably cold, dark, and snowy days. So instead of looking ahead to those dismal days, I’m choosing to look back with this post and talk about some plays that I saw in 2011 prior to when I started this blog. As my co-worker points out that today is one of the most depressing days of the year, hopefully this will bring some cheer to you also!

Crimes of the Heart

The McCarter Theatre in Princeton put on a production of this Beth Henley play, which has also been made into a movie apparently. This darkly humorous play introduces us to three sisters who are all home at their grandfather’s Mississippi house and facing different crises – Lenny has just turned 30 and doesn’t feel like she’s done anything with her life, Meg is trying to make it big as a singer, and Babe has just shot her husband under the weirdest of circumstances. While this sounds like a serious set-up (and indeed there are dramatic moments, such as when the women contemplate their mother’s suicide years earlier), it is mostly a madcap comedy with the unlikeliest of scenarios continuing to play out.

The first thing I noticed about this production was the great scenery, including props that were authentic. As we sat waiting for the play to start, I recognized a few 1960s items that I have at home after being passed down from my grandmother. The second thing I noticed was that, yes, there is such a thing as being too close to the stage, as we learned. Having ordered the tickets the day before the show, we were in the first row, which was very, very close to the stage. It was an interesting experience though to get to see that the actors, who appear to be looking right at you when you in the center of the audience, are actually looking over the audiences’ heads. It could also make for an awkward viewing experience being uncomfortably close to the actors, particularly when they did things like undress and change costumes right on the stage. Speaking of actors, everyone involved in this production was top-notch. Overall, this was a great play and, barring the ability to see it again any time soon, I might rent the movie to re-visit these wonderful characters and hilarious plot.

Sleeping Beauty Wakes

This was another production at the McCarter Theatre that was also funny in a dark humor kind of way, although it certainly had very serious moments as well. In this Rachel Sheinkin play, a heartbroken father brings his seemingly comatose daughter to a sleep disorder clinic, claiming that she’s been sleeping for centuries. In this setting, an orderly suffering from narcolepsy starts to fall for the mysterious beauty, while the four other patients reflect on their own sleeping and dreaming patterns since the young woman arrived. When “Sleeping Beauty” wakes up about half-way through the play, things become even more unpredictable.

In my opinion, the first half of this play was the more interesting part with a little bit in the second half starting drag, but overall, it was a good play. (I should also note that I ended up waking up incredibly sick the day I went to this play so perhaps any thing that felt like dragging could have been in part because I was resisting the urge to sleep off whatever sickness I had.) As a musical, this play had phenomenal music – both lyrically and instrumentally – and spectacular choreography to match it. The actors were all great at every aspect of their jobs – singing and dancing as well as believably portraying their individual roles. The use of fairy tale imagery in a contemporary setting and story was an interesting twist and one I think that speaks to modern sensibilities (and our building on previous generations, especially when it comes to common knowledge amongst people of different backgrounds).

Compared to Crimes of the Heart, this production had a set that looked underwhelming at first glance – just a line of austere beds for the patients and an office desk for the doctor – but these were in constant motion depending on the scene. There was also an artistic use of lighting depending on the context, making for a visual treat. Furthermore, the production made use of film images on the screens behind the beds, with these images containing things such as what the patients were supposed to be dreaming of at the time. As you might have gleaned by this point, this was a very different sort of play than the standard character-driven or even plot-driven one. For a sample of what it was like, you should check out the trailer available here. While I generally prefer things that are more character driven (such as Crimes of the Heart), I appreciated the different-ness of this musical as a change of pace and a truly artful experience.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Appropriately, The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey put on this production during the summer. (Okay, for you loyal readers who might point this out, I did actually see this play after I started this blog, but with family visiting from out of state, I didn’t have the leisure to write about it at the time.) I don’t think I need to provide a synopsis of this well-known Shakespeare play, but I will note that this is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and my absolute favorite out of his comedies. (My other favorite is the drama Hamlet, from which I pulled the quote for this post’s title.)

Like with Crimes of the Heart, the first thing I that struck me with this production was the beautiful set. This play was performed at the outdoor amphitheater, and even though it was unbearably hot out of doors in July (ah, remember being too hot? it seems a luxury unheard of now), it was a really cool (no pun intended) experience to be at an outdoor play. Also, it gave the theater the opportunity of handing us all paper fans imprinted with the play’s design. The set itself was really beautiful (see the picture below for some idea of what a portion of the set looked like, although alas my photography skills aren’t very good and it was much better to see in person). The production also made good use of the set’s space, including having the Athenians sit down amongst the audience when watching the players put on the play within the play, Pyramus and Thisbe. Another great example was when Puck came out into the crowd to look for a man wearing “weeds of Athens” (per Oberon’s advice) by checking the tags on everyone’s clothes and saying to himself things like “The Gap, no, Old Navy, no, Tommy Hilfiger, no” until finally going up to the actor portraying the sleeping Lysander and looking at his clothing tag and saying “oh here, weeds of Athens.”

One thing I never quite understand is when Shakespeare’s plays are set in the modern day but the language is the original old English; here it was a bit unclear just when it was meant to be taking place. The fantasy world of the fairies helps in that it is timeless, but the original play also takes place in ancient Athens, which calls for an established time and place. In this production, the actors were clearly not clad in costumes authentic to either ancient Greece or Elizabethan England. However, they weren’t exactly toting the most modern of apparel either, but rather wearing clothes that were funky outfits you wouldn’t see on any ol’ person walking down the street. (I wish I had a better description but I’m lacking a good way to explain just how it looked.) Some scenes also employed the use of water guns, which a quick Google search tells me is not unique to this particular production. Go figure.

The cast was exceptional with a host of good actors, some in multiple roles. The only notable exception was the actor portraying Hippolyta and Titania, who always wore a look of confusion on her face even when she was supposed to be angry or defeated or in love. A special shout-out goes to those in the roles of the players (Bottom, Flute, Starveling, Snout, and Snug) as they were incredibly funny, really evoking the clownishness of these characters. They probably received the most laughs from the crowd watching this incredibly humorous and absurd comedy.

Now that I’m stuck indoors and won’t be seeing any other live, outdoors plays (although perhaps some live, indoor plays), I’m thinking about pulling out some printed copies of plays and reading them (or in some cases, re-reading them). Also, as winter progresses, you might see some other themed posts looking back....

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