So I am going to do a little mind dump on what I thought of the University of Minneasota- Twin Cities Guthrie BFA Actor Training Program's (could the title of this program be longer?) Sophomore Company's productions of Pericles and The Tempest. This is by no means a full fledged review. I apologize to those who did not get a chance to see either production, because you thoroughly missed out on both accounts.
So let me start by saying Tempest is my second-favorite Shakespeare non-tragedy (A Midsummer Night's Dream being the obvious first choice). I did Tempest as my semester project in high school so I have a significant attachment to this play. That being said I knew the BFA's would to the show justice. When I toured the college two years I saw a BFA production of Measure for Measure that is still in one of my top 10 performances of all time.
What I liked
- The way the ship crash was handled was amazing. The movement and choreography was beautiful.
- I love the sound design. The singing, and various musical instruments used throughout the production were fabulous and simple. Waiting for Ariel to come out and mess with the various stranded groups was exciting, because I couldn't wait to see what new exotic instrument she brought next.
- Caliban- the actor that played Caliban was phenomenal. He was a joy to watch and the level of physicality and commitment was really great. The business with the "four-legged creature" was hilarious.
- Ariel- Ariel is my second favorite Shakespearean character (Puck is the first). The actress that played Ariel was fantastic. In scenes where she was "invisible" and just watching the action, I frequently found myself focusing on her because her expressions and engagement to the scene was so good.
- Singing- I know I briefly mentioned the singing in sound design, but I just wanted to echo that thought and expand. The musical was beautiful. I loved the choice of having Prospera singing to Miranda to put her asleep.
Things I didn't like as much
- I didn't like the choices made with Trinculo and Stephano characters. I am not critiqueing the acting because both actors did excellent work with what they had. It just seemed at points that they were playing for laughs too much. The three dimensionality of the characters suffered a little for this. The comedic nature of their scenes also clashed with the rest of the tone of the piece as a whole. I really enjoyed the humor though.
- Prospera- I didn't particularly like the gender flip of Prospero. In this play Prospero is kind of a manipulative and terrible dude. He has a slave and spirits he controls. The gender flip just made the betrayal of Prosepera's brother less interesting (also less cliche can you say Hamlet?). The actress did a great job and had really rich facial expressions.
I walked in never hearing of this play. I was promised pirates, prostitutes, and princesses all of which I received. This play was kind of sort of written by Shakespeare... Maybe? If you want an synopsis of the plot journey here.
Let me start by saying I had serious reservations about this script. Later in this blog I will expand on how I as an audience member should differentiate from a specific production and the script. All of my praise should be heightened knowing the fact I did not like this script.
What I liked
- The ensemble as a whole. Most of this cast played upwards of 3-4 characters. It was great to watch and see their physicality, voice work, and personality dramatically shift and they literally jumped in and out of different characters. In a play with this many characters and so few actors it can all come crumbling down if even one actor doesn't bring their A-game. This isn't the case because y'all were excellent
- Costumes- This play changed settings and kingdoms more than couple pairings on Friends. With actors shifting from servants to kings to pimps it would have been really easy to completely loose the audience. The simply sashes to signify the new kingdoms really helped me keep track. The costumes in general were beautiful too. My favorite being Boult's potentially David Bowie themed costume?
- Comedy. I haven't laughed this hard at a play in a very long time. It was an interesting direction to take this play. Especially considering from the way the script was written, from what I gathered, this wasn't intended to be a comedic piece (I think). The comedic twist was much appreciated in what could have been a dreadful 2.5 hour plus melodrama (can you say King Lear or Antony and Cleopatra?).
- Sound design just like in Tempest was fantastic. see above for compliments.
- Lighting- Especially in the beginning the design team did some really interesting things with lighting. It was an unexpected surprise as BFA shows I have seen have been as technical stripped down as possible (not a criticism. I like bare bones theater).
What I didn't like
- The script. I love Comedy of Errors and pretty much every Shakespeare play that has ridiculous use of deus ex machina. That being said I could not (and believe me I tried) find the energy to suspend my disbelieve to the level necessary for this storyline.
- Dead character not really dead worked before? let's have two!
- Ship wreck reasonable plot device to separate, isolate, and kill characters (kind of?) work before? let's have TWO (or 3?...)
- Most of this script read like a soap opera (or I guess most soap operas read like this play considering historical continuity?)
- Incest. This play started with a very weird incestuous turn. Playing this for laughs made it much more worse and uncomfortable (I did laugh a lot though)
- Lysimachus. This character troubled me. I didn't believe how he switched from a dirty man seeking a virginal whore to a noble gentleman like a light switch. I also couldn't believe that not only did Pericles marry him to his daughter, that his daughter let him and was totally ok with marry a guy who wanted to pay to deflower her (WTF?)
- While the comedic spin to this journey was fun and very effective as a whole it did lead to some problems. There were a few moments in the script that had to be played as straight dramatic moments. The radical tone shift for these scene made this drama feel like melodrama. really bad melodrama. (Pericles finds out daughter is dead= tear of shirt in hulkish rage)
I just want to reiterate that I liked both of these performances a lot. My criticisms are not meant to seem like personal attacks or anything like that. I found both of these shows as a whole very successful. I hope these comments help and if you agree of disagree with any of my opinions please leave a comment and start a conversation.
Script vs. Production
Walking out of Pericles attempting to explain my reservations about the script led to a very heated argument. How can I love a show and hate the script? Here I am going to try and explain (defend) myself.
Theater is an interpretive art form. I truly believe a play is not finished once a script is published. Plays are written to be seen not read. If you can sit down and read a play and get the full experience than the playwright has failed and you are reading literature not theater. The choices a director, actors, designers, ect. make with a production greatly effect the outcome and quality of the work.
To further elaborate on this concept we turn to one of my favorites The Producers:
In this show Max and Leo picked: the worst script, director, actors and yet their show ends up being a smash-hit because it was perceived as a satire.
When I see a play I work very hard to separate the writing and what is going on stage. The director and actors generally speaking (obvious a conceived work or creative collaboration are different) are given a script and have to work within the confines of what is one the page. That being said, I think it is unfair as a critic to hold that against them. If a script is bad in my opinion I like to look at what as the production done to elevate it.
This rule works the opposite way to. I don't go to a middle-school dinner theater productions (stereotype alert! I am sure there is phenomenal middle school dinner theatre SOMEwhere) and see Hamlet and come out thinking "well that Hamlet is a piece of shit" I think this same courtesy should be provided to actors directors, and production teams. I don't sit down at a One-Act competition and see the teen-issue play "Rememberin' Stuff" or worse "Up Late with Ryan" and say the performance is a failure because the script was written by a Koala bear with crayon (true story).
I mock these two plays because I was in both of them. My Sophomore year of high school we went to One-Act state with "Up Late with Ryan" and missed a critic's choice by one vote because the judges thought the script was bad. Forget the fact that we added a live late night band, cheer leading squad, or an incredibly beautiful dream sequence or anything like that.
So please as you view theater don't hold the script against the production. Unless that production created the script themselves then by all means hate.
I'll end with the gem that is Remberin' Stuff. I did this play in 8th grade and boy oh boy is the writing enthralling. Listen to this opening song and tell me what you think:
DISCLAIMER: I am not making fun of these young performers at all. Just so you know the lyrics, snapping, and blocking of this song are all called for in the script. Also pretty sure this girl is breaking some copyright laws by having this filmed and online. Too bad Koalas can't sue humans.