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


Andrew Hamm said...

I just saw the show yesterday afternoon. Sorry I couldn't stick around to greet the cast; I'm swamped in Measure for Measure and had a meeting and rehearsal.

Congratulations to the cast and crew for assaying the mountain that is The Spanish Tragedy. The script itself is much better than I was anticipating. The clumsiness of the text is balanced by some truly brilliant scene concepts, the gallows scene and the play-within-a-play in particular. The dialogue between the ghost of Andrea and Revenge to discuss the proper timing of vengeance is a great tension-builder.

You can't fault Henley Street's ambition, almost regardless of the result. The Spanish Tragedy is an uneven play, and that results in an uneven production. But I'd like to see more theatre companies take chances like this, do things they don't know they can do. A certain level of failure is needed to grow, and Henley Street is laser-focused on growing.

So when do we get to do a five-actor musical, Grant? ;)

Frank Creasy said...

I'll forgive the pun for sure Grant, given the magnanimous comments you've shared. Thank you for your support, as this production has stretched all involved beyond what we thought we could accomplish given the sizeable challenge. The fact that audiences have responded so well is testament to the collective efforts.

I feel quite privileged to be a part of this production, and to tackle a role as daunting as Hieronimo caused me no small amount of trepidation. The legacy of this role, and of this script, invokes a true sense of awe. What would Hamlet have been if there had been no Spanish Tragedy? We'll never know. But I must say that through our rehearsals, the impressive preparation and performances of my fellow cast members was a real inspiration to me. I knew I had to be at my very best to match those formidable talents. This is a wonderful ensemble cast. And while our opening night performance was not flawless, I think I felt what we all believed that first show: I had accomplished what I wanted to achieve to the best of my abilities. We had done what we were not sure we could do, but somehow it all worked at exactly the right moment.

Two more production performances are left before we wish this show farewell. I'll miss it. But it has helped me to grow as an actor. Surely I'll bring better work to Duke Frederick, Jacques, and the other roles I'll tackle in As You Like It thanks to this production. And of course, the amazing workshop by David Hall, along with the book I'm currently reading ("Playing Shakespeare" by John Barton, suggested by the wonderful Kate Powers) will help me to continue to grow as well.

I have no doubt those who love the great works of the Elizabethans will continue to enjoy all there is to offer now in Richmond. I look forward to seeing my friends in Measure for Measure at Richmond Shakespeare soon...rehearsing As You Like It with Patrick, Julia, Sunny, Adam, and Andrew...and in March, returning to Henley to watch Much Ado About Nothing with Kerry, Suzanne, Dean, Mike, Alex and many others before our own show opens in late March at 2nd Presbyterian for Richmond Shakespeare.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

A. Wiles said...

As soon as Maggie Walker finishes off a fifty-actor musical, perhaps? ;)

Mr. Mudge, thank you for all the Hamlet and Shakespeare in Love references in just one blog entry! I can't help but have a certain affinity for both. :)

Andrew Hamm said...

I mentioned in an email to Kenneth Moretti, but not in my post, that the ensemble feel of the cast was evident. It was definitely clear that you had developed as a team and were having a great time playing together.

That shows onstage, and really makes audiences respond. Twelfth Night was a great example; once that show opened, that was pretty much the most fun I've ever had with a group of actors--until Measure for Measure, I am forced to admit.