Column: Summer Shakespeare: A critic’s take on the secret to theatrical success


Summer Shakespeare. These words can strike fear in the heart of a reluctant theatergoer. Yes, the plays are supposed to be good for you. But semiprofessional productions in which the artistic company is clearly out of its depths or middling professional productions that put on arty airs can be quite a slog over five acts.

I have sometimes pondered the difference in expectations of attending, say, a Mozart concert by a small philharmonic and an outdoor staging of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by a shoestrings ensemble. You might not get a top-notch rendering of the concerto, but the technical competence required to publicly perform a sophisticated musical composition usually guarantees that you will experience at least intimations of the glory of what Mozart wrote.

This is not always the case with Shakespeare’s plays. A cast and a director engaged in the revival of one of his masterpieces must balance the technical difficulty of speaking Shakespearean verse with the interpretive and scenic challenges of staging work from a tradition that is at once perennially with us and, with every passing day, increasingly apart from us.


SIGN UP for the free Essential Arts & Culture newsletter »

The biggest difference, though, between our under-the-radar orchestra member and our unsung Shakespearean player is that the actor is likely to be acting in a different vein for much of the year while the musician is probably devoting herself to classical music when pursuing her professional calling.

Shakespeare demands a similarly steady commitment. Acting in the plays of Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard or Annie Baker won’t adequately prepare you for the monumental task of performing “King Lear.” (Nor will all those hours spent on the TV sets of police procedurals.) The longer I’ve been reporting on the stage, the more I’m convinced that the distinctions between contemporary and classical acting are at least as great as the points of overlap.

Earlier this spring I had the opportunity to see Antony Sher’s touted Falstaff in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Henry IV, Parts I and II” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and what struck me about this intensely vivid characterization was the way it was shaped almost exclusively through the language. The overwhelming attribute of Sher’s portrayal was the lucidity he brought to Falstaff’s fecund wit.

Sher wasn’t merely trying to make us laugh — he wanted us to understand the quicksilver intelligence behind the jokes. His delivery clarified both the meaning of the witticisms and the psychology of the humorist by expertly varying the intonation and rhythm of his character’s rather tricky repartee. Sher wasn’t creating a character and then speaking his lines. His Falstaff, a merry figure of debauched corpulence, was sculpted out of an immense quarry of colorful words.

Other great Shakespeare performances, such as Mark Rylance’s Tony-winning turn as Olivia in the Shakespeare’s Globe stag staging of “Twelfth Night” and, reaching back in time a bit, Adrian Lester’s Rosalind in Cheek By Jowl’s all-male “As You Like It,” similarly bring us inside a character’s experience by allowing emotion to emanate from the expression of thought. These productions were ingeniously mounted, but their success hinged on the simple recognition that, as Harold Bloom once observed, “Shakespearean drama is ultimately a theater of mind.”


PHOTOS: Shakespeare 2.0 - The Bard onscreen »

Two productions in Southern California at the moment — the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles’ “Twelfth Night” at Santa Monica College’s Main Stage on the Quad (running through Aug. 21), and the New Swan Shakespeare Festival’s “As You Like It,” running (through Aug. 27) in repertory with “Hamlet” in the utterly charming portable outdoor Elizabethan theater on the UC Irvine campus — had me reflecting on these illustrious precedents as I pondered what was working and what could be improved in these local Shakespeare offerings.

Both productions transplant the comedies to American settings. The “Twelfth Night,” directed by Kenn Sabberton, relocates Illyria to vintage World War II-era Santa Monica. The “As You Like It,” directed by New Swan artistic director Eli Simon, begins in 1930s Chicago before venturing into the woods.

These choices don’t do any harm but neither do they shed new light. Shakespeare’s language is minimally tinkered with to accommodate the shifts in milieu, but the changes are superficially rendered and easily forgotten but for a handgun and snood in “As You Like It” and the backdrop of the Santa Monica Pier and some Joan Crawfordesque fashion touches in “Twelfth Night.”

The two companies represent a mix of young performers still in training and journeymen. If “Twelfth Night” features more accomplished veterans, “As You Like It” does a slightly better job of threading its actors into an ensemble.

There’s something mildly befuddling about the wildly divergent inhabitants of this strange land Viola (Therese Barbato) finds herself in after a shipwreck that separated her from her presumably dead twin brother. Shakespeare intends for this world to seem both mad and merry, but the production compounds the comic confusion with a farrago of accents and theatrical mannerisms. This is a country where lovesick Duke Orsino (Chris Butler) sounds like a Southern politician and the reliably soused Sir Toby Belch (Stephen Caffrey) seems to have sprung from a London musical hall.

But the production does overcome one of the notorious problems of staging “Twelfth Night,” that of figuring out how to cast the twin siblings who are supposed to be nearly impossible to tell apart. Barbato, whose performance improves as soon as Viola disguises herself as Cesario, is nearly indistinguishable from Connor Kelly-Eiding’s Sebastian, thanks to the gender-bending hipster styling of costume designer Christian Woods.

The prolonged comic shtick and abstruse wordplay of the “Twelfth Night” subplot — involving unruly Sir Toby, dunderheaded Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Christopher Rivera), sly mastermind Maria (Kimberly Scott), and their puritanical victim, Malvolio (Time Winters) — aren’t easy to pull off today. But the humor of “Twelfth Night” can still be hilarious in the right hands, as the Shakespeare’s Globe staging proved to my great surprise.

If the comedy sometimes seems strained in Sabberton’s production, it’s because the actors are too often playing the riotous late night atmosphere, generalizing the mischievous mirth rather than making it credible and character-specific. Winters’ Malvolio has a battered dignity and Fred Sanders’ guitar-strumming Feste, though a touch too melancholy, grounds the fool’s clowning in humanity, but the romp is (as so often the case in determinedly festive revivals) enervatingly raucous.

Still, the enchantment of this “Twelfth Night” comes through as the plot of this romantic comedy is finally unknotted. Shakespeare’s magic doesn’t fail, though the pleasure of this loose-jointed production can seem as miraculous as the far-fetched happy ending.

Simon’s production of “As You Like It,” much like the play’s central characters, transforms for the better in the forest of Arden. There’s quite a bit of villainous overacting in rough-and-tumble Chicago. But when Steph Philo’s Rosalind dons a mustache and a gent’s jacket and slacks, escaping the tyrannical court with her cousin Celia (Maribel Martinez) and the fool, Touchstone (Sam Arnold), only to meet up by chance with her heart’s desire, Orlando (Nick Manfredi), the exquisite beauty of this comedy about romantic love shines again.

Simon does manage to wring a few laughs from his kooky supporting cast, most especially from Kelsey Jenison’s oat-munching slattern, Audrey, the object of Touchstone’s unbridled lust. Arnold’s Jonah Hill-like everyman softens some of this wise fool’s cynicism with jolly amiability.

The production begins with Jaques (Adrian Alita) introducing the cast through his “seven ages of man” monologue (“All the world’s a stage”). This liberty seems presumptuous but at least the speech is cut off in the second act by characters who understand this to be not Shakespeare’s philosophical creed (as it’s too often played) but as a didactic Elizabethan set piece colored by the jaundiced view of a once dissolute, now depressive, outsider.

“As You Like It” isn’t so much plotted by Shakespeare as choreographed. The play is arranged like a dance for couples two-stepping to the soundtrack of love. Simon’s production succeeds when it succumbs to the amorous rhythm.

When Philo’s Rosalind, still assuming a quasi-male identity, puts Orlando through his paces to test the staying power of his infatuation, the play and production reach full strength. Calmer, simpler, less frenetic, the staging touchingly has Rosalind lie on the ground across Orlando’s legs as she disabuses him of the dewy-eyed notion that heartache is fatal. “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love,” she memorably tells him, as her own heart nearly bursts with affection for her newfound soul mate.

Shakespeare in summertime (or in any season for that matter) thrives when the dramatic poetry is understood and communicated with the full feeling of that understanding. Directorial concepts can enliven, but the intelligence of the characters and the prodigious playwriting mind behind them is the true source of enduring entertainment.

Follow me @charlesmcnulty