Monday, January 28, 2008

And now from the subline to the ridiculous

(Or maybe riddikkulous.)

I am ridiculously and almost embarrassingly ecstatic to be a part of the production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that is being produced by the Richmond Ballet and the Richmond Symphony, with soloists from the Virginia Opera. Grant and I are to be the narrators of the Shakespeare text that goes along with the music and dance.

Now as many of you know, I prefer my Shakespeare pared down, so as to focus the easily distracted modern attention on the actors and the words. But this is a different beast, and in this case--oh my! The sets are stupendous and the sound is just glorious. And I have no words for the dancing (Ok, maybe divine, just because it's alliterative). To be able to match the flow and the meaning of those words with the nuance of the dancer, is almost too much of a good thing. I get chill bumps even thinking of it.

At some point in the day, I thought to myself, "I could do that." But just as quickly, I came to reality and said (or thought) of course I couldn't! They just make it look so effortless, even 15 feet away from me.

I get the privilege of giving voice to Puck (among other characters), and as danced by Danae Carter, I get free rein to use every impish tendency in me (which as we all know, is a lot).

Could I gush more? Probably. But please come if you have the time. If you have as much fun as I do, you'll be dancing to Mendelssohn all the way home!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Thoughts on Henley's Production: "The Spanish Tragedy

Length advisory: I'm vying for Bruce Miller for the title of 'longest blog' post by an Artistic Director.

Let me start by saying there's plenty of room for another company doing classical theatre in Richmond, especially if they're as nice as these guys. Last night proves it. Henley's work provides another avenue for Richmond actors to keep classical 'muscles' in shape, and helps increase the overall size of the theatre-going audience. It's been great to see the theatre community support their work and I was delighted to count myself part of that response. Henley won't pull audience away from Barksdale or Firehouse or even Richmond Shakespeare. I'm convinced that die-hard theatre fans will see our productions and try the new company in town, not forgo one for the other.

After seeing Henley's second production, (also caught Thoreau last fall) I'm pleased to report that Henley does a credible job with a tough play. Here's a company reaching very far, giving actors a chance at really chanllenging roles. In this outing, I feel that a few early production choices hampered their efforts---the set is serviceable apart from what the audience must observe as actors squat to pass under the arches; as our RS fans know, I'm a proponent of less scenery rather than more. More importantly, I really hope that Henley expands how they think about that Pine Camp performance space. It could be used in vastly different ways; here, the company feels squashed into one corner while the audience occupies 3/4 of the available space in the room.

What there isn't room for (or time, even in a looong post) is to comment on all the peformances, so with apologies to those whom I'm needing to omit: it's especially fun to see actors who've worked with RS doing great elsewhere, like Stephen Ryan, Patrick Bromley and Frank Creasy (at left as Gonzalo in the RSF07 Tempest) and new faces coming on with great promise--folks like Dean Knight, Kerry McGee Alison Haracznak and in particular Leslie Cline, as the Viceroy, a new arrival to Richmond who uses an excellent voice with dexterity. Cline has a terrific, clear resonance that fills the room and forces everyone around to come up to her level. She's a great balance for Bromley and Frank Creasy, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of her.

Frank's Hieronimo is fantastic, blending madness with self---he was especially wonderful in a couple of understated scenes; I was thrilled by his work. See below for a connection to Hamlet there.

For another, it was also fun to connect with Stephen Ryan's character of the Ghost of Andrea. Having just played the Ghost in Hamlet with my students I found myself thinking "Hey, an epilogue speech for the ghost....I like it!" Stephen masters a sense of otherness and yet nicely humanizes Andrea, even in the afterlife.

The character of Revenge personified is brought to life by Michael Sater, one of those actors from whom you just can't move your eyes. His face seems to evoke the kind French theatrical ancestry that has informed Cirque du Soleil's bouffant clowns for decades; here, despite the gore, the overall effect from Revenge isn't so much grand guignol as the emcee from Cabaret--but in his off hours. I felt he could have gone much farther but the choice for an understated performance was a logical one and interesting to watch. Sater is a remarkable talent and though Thoreau and Revenge were a great start, I'm looking forward to seeing him really tested.

Lastly, Patrick Bromley as the devious Lorenzo is TONS of fun (easily the strongest voice in the company, here he is looking a little less devious as Trinculo in the 2007 RSF production of The Tempest, directed by Anthony Luciano); he's another actor with only more terrific roles ahead. His ringing bass adds an air of complete authority to Lorenzo. It's one of the characters I feel Kyd creates and then doesn't quite know what to do with once he's created him. In comparison, only Hieronimo gets an actual arc through to any kind of resolution.

As such, I'm thrilled that Bromley, Creasy and the lovely Julia Rigby (great in a couple small roles in Tragedy) will all be in Richmond Shakespeare's season finale, As You Like It, where audiences will have a chance to see them again!

Cheers to Henley for really chewing into tough material (if Frank Creasy will forgive the pun) and hanging on.

* * *


Watching Henley's production of The Spanish Tragedy Saturday night, I was struck by the repetition not only of plot devices clearly echoing through to Shakespeare's Hamlet, but little word choices that kept ringing in my ears:

guerdon - This is an ancient word, which feels more French than Spanish, and in fact part of its roots come from Old French, as well as Medieval Latin, but the further roots, meaning essentially "gift" or "reward" are in the furthest recesses of Indo-European language families.

Kyd uses it a whole lot in Tragedy. What's interesting is that Shakespeare also loved the word. Costard, in Love's Labor's Lost makes nearly a whole scene out of guerdon. And here's the fun part: the peak of Kyd's use of it in Tragedy included these lines:

My presents are not of sufficient cost
And being worthless, all my labor's lost.
Yet might she love me for my valiancy... II.1 (17-19)

Now, clearly it's a convention not limited to Elizabethan dramatists to ponder over the efforts expended in the pursuit of love, but the repeated use of guerdon really highlighted that moment for me, especially because Costard gives the word a spanish flair in translation. Add a mocking Spanish accent to the word when it appears, Costard has just been give a little money by---you guessed it---an outrageous Spaniard, "Don Adriano de Armado:"

"Now will I look to his remuneration. Remuneration!
O, that's the Latin word for three farthings: three
farthings--remuneration.--'What's the price of this
inkle?'--'One penny.'--'No, I'll give you a
remuneration:' why, it carries it. Remuneration!
why, it is a fairer name than French crown. I will
never buy and sell out of this word." --Love's Labor's Lost, (III.i.)

I may roast proverbially for it, but in our 2002 RSF production we changed "three farthings" to "ten bucks," and ended the speech there. Walking off, Costard repeated "Ree-myoo-ner-ah-thee-ohn" and "gerrr-dohn" a few times before an entering character interrupted him. I think it was successful in that production.

Of course, one neededn't know that three farthings wasn't a large sum to see how much fun Costard has with the new name for a unit of currency. The point here, of course, is that there's plenty to be plumbed in comparisons between "Spanish Tragedy" and Shakespeare's own work.

We know that by 1592 The Spanish Tragedy was a huge hit; Ned Alleyn probably played the Hieronomo role with Lord Strange's Men and a few players of the Admiral's Men, (prominent troupes of the day) working at the Rose Theatre with Geoffrey Rush. (er, Philip Henslowe)

The real question for me is: was The Spanish Tragedy part of the repertoire when Lord Strange's Men, touring through the English countryside, stopped in a sleepy little town on the Avon River, short a man (if memory serves, one of their own had just been killed in a bar brawl), and many argue that so began the theatrical career of a young Will Shakespeare.

For a really interesting local blog on Elizabeth, Strange, Kyd, Marlowe and Shakespeare (and some comments on Robert Southwell from yours truly), check out this posting by Bruce Miller.

Just a couple further connections to wrap up, of the many echoes of Hamlet in ST: Like Hieronimo's madness, the Dane of course puts on an 'antic disposition.' In English, a "Hamlet" may be a small village or may invoke WS's son Hamnet, but the ancient Norse word "Amleth" means essentially, "madness." Also fascinatingly similar to Shakespeare were names like Isabella (in RS's upcoming Measure for Measure) and Balthasar, as well as the death of a regal woman offstage--echoing in Macbeth. So too, were all the other pre-Hamlet echoes: the Hero (Hieronimo) staging a play-within-the-play-to-catch-a-murderer, and the Ghost demanding revenge for the loss of a father. The connections were many and really enjoyable.

Thanks to all involved.

Up next, Measure for Measure, in the RST, A Midsummer Night's Dream with the Ballet at the Landmark, and a few Acts of Faith.

--Grant Mudge

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Thoughts on Barksdale's Production of "Moonlight and Magnolias"

I’ve been waiting for Scott Wichmann to burst through a glass ceiling.

He has been so wonderful on so many occasions. But there has always been a kind of glass ceiling hovering over him; I’ve struggled to define it.

He nearly shattered it during Scapino, a showcase crafted largely for audiences to enjoy his stunning timing, musical skill, athleticism, wit and inventiveness; together they have proven him one of the most engaging actors audiences will ever see on a stage. In fact, Scott flew so fast and scrapped so comedically hard as Scapino that he cracked a rib.

In Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop, he was a lithe, steel muscle playing a myriad of roles, out-Dannying Danny Hoch.

His violent realization of “Chicken,” in Tennessee Williams’ Kingdom of Earth chilled the theatre and was complete and visceral.

In I Am My Own Wife, he transcended gender and allowed a very human audience to accept someone very different from themselves, simply for the grace of their experience, the love of their life. He helped them see a character without prejudice of gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. It was a remarkable experience and one I won’t soon forget.

He’s a little guy who actually became the spirit of Frank Sinatra. I’ve seen him stop on a comic dime, catch an entire audience in one glance, and wind them around his little finger. For Richmond Shakespeare, he's shown us his Bottom. Twice. He was indeed a mercurial Mercutio, created a pathetic Malvolio. His Grumio could knit.

But there’s something still to do. There’s a role--I’m not yet sure which—that will do more than challenge him. It will allow him to become one of the immortals. It will rely on his comic timing, allow free use of his ability to move an audience, and demand absolute immersion; it will push Scott further than he’s ever been pushed. It might not necessarily be as physical as previous roles, but it will elevate him into (beyond?) the atmospheric likes of Bill Irwin, Kevin Kline, or Will Kempe somehow merged with Robert Armin. –Clown work, the work of an actor, at its most intelligent, transcendent and rewarding.

Clearly, I think that role will be a Shakespeare creation. But then, I’m a little biased. Stay tuned on that front.

One thing I know for sure: his role in “Moonlight” was a key part of the process.

In Moonlight and Magnolias this past weekend I had the delightful privilege of watching him work the straightman role, in which comic timing isn’t about the garish, outlandish laugh, the commedia-inspired, pie-in-your face laughter of Scapino or Bottom. Rather it was a character brimming with wit and inspired despite--maybe even because of--exhaustion. It was a subtle performance, and one I was thrilled to see. It’s a stone along Scotty’s path. Something else is coming.

Can’t wait to see what it will be.

* * *

Let me switch gears, however, because while I’m fascinated with Scotty’s progression, the full company in Moonlight and Magnolias was marvelous and I don’t want to give anyone short shrift. These guys (and one gal) are pros. The script was tight, the direction was really flawless and the performances were hilarious. Steve Perigard’s direction has always been great but here, some of his finest work was on display. It’s been fascinating to watch his growing confidence. Here, each moment of narrative suspense—comic or otherwise—was perfectly timed. The overall collaboration between actors, designers and audience (the real work of a director) was outstanding. Of particular note: watching the show one could clearly discern moments where actors and director debated the timing of a sequence; I recall every single one seemed to crack out of the park like a line drive. A specific recollection: Scott’s single “click” at the typewriter. Too long of a pause and you lose it. Too short and there’s insufficient buildup. It was just right, and the laugh was great. Director-freeing-an-actor. Fantastic.

The scenic design work too was fantastic, nicely evoking Hollywood power brokers of the late 1930’s, nearing the peak of its golden age. The properties crew did seriously impressive yeoman's work with aplomb, strewing the stage with the detritus of three men frantically finishing the screenplay of Gone With the Wind in just five days.

David Bridgewater’s rendition of Melanie Wilkes as she gives birth outdid even his “Prissy,” the slave whose famouslyfunnyanddisturbing “I-don’t-know-nothing-about-birthing-no-babies” line is perhaps the 2nd most famous in the film. David was simply hilarious, and has honed gruff tough-guy to an art. After The Lark, Over the River and Through the Woods, The Odd Couple and Caliban in The Tempest, I’m really looking forward to seeing David play someone crisp, smooth and stylish. Someone imperfect, yes, but with exquisite language. Something that forces us to figure out if all that toughness is internal or external. This boorish 1930's film director with fun vulnerabilities was great, but this and one turn as Cyrano just has not been enough to satisfy.

Joe Pabst, too, is an actor I’ve always really liked, from the very moment, long ago in The Boys Next Door (I think) when he leaned against a wall and I couldn’t tell where the actor stopped and the character began. He had several recognition moments like that in Moonlight and Magnolias; like the moment Selznick’s Jewish heritage serves as a lens through which America’s pre-war bigotry was painfully visible. Joe can stagger an audience in those moments. Through them, Pabst crafts the quintessence of an American. We seem to value self-determination, independence and the freedom to craft our life as we see fit. Perhaps that sentiment holds deeply true for all of us, among those truths we hold so self-evident: that God created us equally, to pursue happiness howsoever we define it. Selznick, in Pabst’s performance, seems to seize upon Gone With the Wind to propel him beyond the failures of his father, to achieve that which is proscribed by the society around him (openly or otherwise): simply to create—with the talents given him—and to refuse being defined by the dictates of others. Self creation.

Finally, there’s Joy Williams. Joy took on a potentially forgettable role, but especially at the climax of her character’s journey, in which she comes completely undone by exhaustion and laughter and doubles over onstage, Joy crafted a uniquely human moment. Her near-collapse was so real we absolutely loved her for it. So----Mr. Selznick! The rest of the day off was far too little a thank you for Williams’ effort. That girl deserved a raise.

Thanks to all of you for a really delightful night in the Barksdale.

Congratulations to Steve Perigard, to the design team, to the actors, to Bruce Miller for selecting the play and to Barksdale Theatre for rising transcendently above. Richmond will look forward to their next production. After all, tomorrow is….another day!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

"Sound and Rhythm" Recap

Tuesday's workshop with David Hall was a huge success! Eight members of the cast of Henrico High School's A Midsummer Night's Dream and four members of the cast of Henley Street Theatre's Spanish Tragedy, as well as a mix of Richmond's theatre talent combined to create quite a full house: twenty-three participants made it the biggest event in the history of the training department, and we've got bigger and better things to come.

This was pretty much exactly what I dreamed of when we founded the training department: a mix of professional, community, and youth theatre artists all working together to improve their craft. I'm just sorry I had to leave so early for Measure for Measure rehearsal downstairs.

David's expertise as an actor and teacher made for an enlightening, exciting night. My favorite part (admittedly I didn't catch the end) was when he delivered one of Cassius' monologues from Julius Caesar while a student called out random numbers signifying states of tension. It really was a pure clinic in Shakespearean acting.

David warms up the crowd.

David amidst the wreckage of fallen actors.

I'm not sure what's going on here, but it must be actorly.

And here's a little video:

Thanks to David for teaching, and for Becki and Cynde for helping. Big thanks to Thomas, Kim, Frank, Jonathan, Karen, Justin, Kerry, Ken, Kelly, Susan, Becky, Mike, Jennifer, Brandon, Connor, Adam, Bridget, Robbie, Audra, Alex, and Emily for coming out to play.

Next up: the fabulous Jill Bari Steinberg teaches "Playing Multiple Characters" February 12!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Richmond Shakespeare’s January Workshop

“Sound and Rhythm in Performance”
with David Hall
January 15, 2008, 7:00-9:30 PM
Second Presbyterian Church ( 5 N. 5th Street )

Richmond Shakespeare is thrilled to import Shakespearean actor David Hall from England for one night only!

This acting workshop will explore how an outside-in or “physical” approach can inform and benefit an actor’s work, with text or without. This will be a highly active session promising to be great fun and very valuable. Students will look at the influence of breath and physicality on mood and character, work with spatial awareness, scales of physicality and what we can do with them, states of tension, the rhythms of emotions and, if time allows, some archetypical characters. Thus we’ll build a vocabulary of movement and experience, which can be fed into, complement and improve many aspects of performance and rehearsal work.

David Hall trained at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in the UK , with John Wright of Trestle Theatre Company and members of Theatre de Complicite. He has performed in theatres across the UK , in the open air and indoors, from village halls to huge theatres, including Shakespeare’s Globe and for the National Theatre in London ’s West End . He has toured with Trestle Theatre Company (using full masks) and played many leading roles for Patrick Tucker’s Original Shakespeare Company, the first company in the world to mount full-length performances of many of Shakespeare’s plays using the First Folio texts and Cue scripts only.

The class is open to high school age and up. Space is limited. Participants should, as always, bring a bottle of water and be prepared to move.

Contact Director of Training Andrew Hamm at or 804-855-4998 for more information or to make a reservation.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Join the New Richmond Shakespeare Street Team!

You can become a part of Central Virginia’s Pollak Award-winning classical theatre company by spreading the word about the shows and helping us grow. Director of Training and Official Cool Guy Andrew Hamm is forging a new group of young theatre enthusiasts into an elite strike force designed to make sure every single person in Richmond sees and loves Shakespeare! (Okay, maybe that’s a bit ambitious, but it’s still going to be awesome!)

By joining the street team, you will be able to:
· earn community service hours for school!
· meet the artists in the company!
· get the first shot at internships!
· get the first shot at being in the Festival Young Company!
· make great contacts in local theatre!
· hang out with your friends!
· eat free food!
· meet other young theatre artists and fans!
· check us out backstage!
· gain many other benefits we haven’t even thought of yet!
· become super-awesome!

NEXT EVENT: A city-wide Measure for Measure poster-hanging party Saturday, January 19 from noon til 3:00. We will meet in the parking lot of Tabernacle Baptist Church (1925 W. Grove Ave.). The parking lot is across Meadow St. from the church building.

Join the street team! Contact Andrew Hamm at 804-232-4000 or