Dunsinane – National Theatre of Scotland

dunsinane photographs october 14It is now officially a requirement that I go see whatever the National Theatre of Scotland sends “across the pond” and I sincerely hope the Shakespeare Theatre Company maintains their current relationship. Out of the 4 shows that I’ve seen over the last several years, Blackwatch, The Undoing of Prudencia Heart, Macbeth (Lincoln Center) and now Dunsinane all have been excellent original pieces of theater. And I think David Grieg, who also wrote wonderful The Undoing of Prudencia Heart, is going to have to go on my list of modern playwrights to follow. This play was both engaging and entertaining and annoyingly thought provoking (that’s a good thing).

Dunsinane04The play begins roughly where Shakespeare’s Macbeth leaves off, with Great Birnam Woods marching to high Dunisnane and with Macbeth’s head on a pike. Where it deviates from the original story is that Lady Macbeth is not dead (not a spoiler) and there is a fantastic and not unfunny speech by Malcom that explains why it “seemed” she was dead. Mr. Grieg’s play does however continue the oft supposed precept that Lady Macbeth (Gruach, is her given name in the play) is the real strength and power behind the throne and that defeating Macbeth does little to secure peace in Scotland nor quash the dispute over who is the rightful heir.

The conflict of play can be distilled down to a battle of wills between two people, Gurach and Siward and it does great justice to Mr. Grieg’s skills as a writer that both these characters, despite some decidedly questionable actions, are never unlikable; they are actually quite likable and the play is never better than in the scenes they have together. It doesn’t hurt that their actions, within the constructs of their world and how they understand it are justifiable. Gurach is repelling a foreign invader who wants to install a usurper on her son’s, and her clan’s, throne and rob her son of his rightful place and even his life. Siward is a soldier tasked with a mission to unify and bring peace to disparate nation and to serve the greater good. Two powerful people equally matched in wit and wills, it’s makes for a very engaging first act.

Dunsinane05Our Lady Macbeth, Gurach, is quite the Woman, never does she waver from her purpose, never does she seem to lack confidence in her ability to achieve her will and never does she seem not to be in control; you always feel she somehow has the upper hand even as a prisoner. She personifies the Scotland that befuddles the invading army; she is never as she seems, she wraps lies in truth and truth in lies; she is beautiful, charming and vastly deadly. Even in loss she is victorious.

Dunsinane01Siward, is the classic prototype of the noble soldier. He is tasked with a mission and honor demand that he deliver and he makes every attempt to complete the mission with his honor intact. He is the soldier tasked by politicians to achieve impossible deeds. Invade a country and bring peace, as if peace is achievable with force of arms and foreign invaders will ever be welcomed as liberators. All forces work against Siward, and you feel sympathy for him even as he cuts a bloody swath though the country. He is saddled with trying to make peace with a culture he does not understand, allies who speak in riddles, and an army whose purposes often cross that of the mission, it is enough to drive anyone to the brink of destruction.

The play draws very obvious parallels between this ancient story and current conflicts around the world. Can you think of anywhere else in the world foreign armies are simultaneously welcomed and reviled, where we have little understanding of the culture, where we don’t really know what victory will look like?  It’s one of those plays that lingers in you mind long after the curtain has dropped.

The cast is wonderful, Siobhan Redmond and Darrell D’Silva are wonderful as our respective Gruach and Siward. Their scenes together are the best part of the play. And Ewan Donald performance as Malcom was excellent, he gave the perfect portrayal of a politician, and while you did not want to like him it was hard to deny his perspective even though he is the last ally one would ever want.

Sadly the run has closed here in DC but there are a coupe of other opportunities to see the show both at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and  Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in LA

Much Ado About Nothing – Synetic Theater

synetic_logoAfter Synetic Theater’s wonderful production of Twelfth Night last year I was really excited to see what they would do with this play. Much Ado…is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, easily my favorite of his comedies and Beatrice and Benedick are probably my favorite romantic couple (is it odd that the Macbeths are number two? but I digress) so I had expectations, which can be dangerous, but can I tell you how much I love it when my expectations are exceeded?

This show…this show is Synteic Theater doing what it does best at its best. It was fun, it was intense, it was laugh out loud funny, it nicely skirted along the edge of absurdity, it was poignant, it had perspective and it was beautifully choreographed and fantastically performed. What I’m trying to say is I really liked the show. One of the hardest things to do in Shakespeare comedies is to make them genuinely funny, mostly you realize “Oh, that’s funny, ha-ha,” rarer is it just to spontaneously laugh at a funny moment (not that it doesn’t happen.) In stripping the language out of the story Synetic allowed the humor to take center stage and then they just had fun with it.

MuchADo01Largely, the success of this show has always rested on the couple “too wise to woo peaceably,” Beatrice and Benedick, and I can’t think of performers more capable of bringing these characters to life than Ben Cunis and Irina Tsikurishvili. They have great on stage chemistry, this is a battle royale between equals in character and temperment and they portrayed the love/hate/love, nature of their relationship beautifully. I really liked the backstory vignette they created for the couple and I really like adding the PTSD factor to Benedick’s backstory, it makes sense, it’s topical and it lent some intensity to the story. Mr. Cunis gives a wonderful performance, with a distinct young Brando vibe (think The Wild One, 1953,) with a deadly combination of machismo, charisma and vulnerability, that is so unattractive in  a leading man right? Ms. Tsikurishvili as Beatrice is an equal to her Benedick and their scenes together are always entrancing and entertaining to watch. It would have been very easy for the romance to tip over into treacly territory but they balanced out the sweetness of genuine love with sufficient pride and stubbornness to keep the relationship interesting. Bravo!

But let me not diminish the rest of the cast, this was a wonderful collaborative performance and there was no weak link. The scenes where the actors are tricking Benedick and Beatrice in to falling (back) in love with each other are hilarious, and I’m mildly amazed at how well the narrative came a cross. There is a fantastic scene in between Don Pedro (Philip Fletcher) and his bastard brother Don John (Dallas Tolentino) where a struggle over a leather jacket becomes a phenomenal pas des deux and yet still serves to highlight the power struggle between the characters. Actually it would have been very easy for the individual performances to overwhelm the narrative but throughout the entire show the performances, the choreography all worked together to serve the narrative most effectively.

And I have to give special kudos to Vato Tsikurshivili, Zana Gankhuyang and Justin Bell as Doggberry and the Nightwatch! That was just flat out, straight up, comic genius. From the moment they came on stage they stole show, just a little bit, the facial expressions the, “driving,” the chasing, I was nearly in tears. Just really really well done!

So this is the point were I usually talk about what I didn’t like about the show…I got nothing. As I was watching it the first act break didn’t come where I expected it, but I was wrong, they put it in the right place. There may be flaws in the show (all shows have them) but the positives of the show are so thoroughly overwhelming they just don’t matter. I think, I might have to go see the show again, to see if there’s anything I really don’t like; yes that is the excuse I’m going to use to go see the show again. Actually there is a friend I’ve been meaning to introduce to Synetic and I think this is the show to do it with and if you haven’t gone to see them yet, this is an excellent place to start.

The show runs through March 22nd so there is ample time to go see this and I encourage you to go. I would rate if PG 13 for sex and drug content but it’s no worse than whats on Prime Time cable. There aren’t any videos of the performance but here’s a little behind the scenes.

Gigi – Pre-Broadway Run

GiGi06Well I managed to catch the show on it’s next to last day in town, but fear not, if you’re a fan of the movie and music this was merely the out of town try-out and GiGi is headed for a revival on the Great White Way, starting mid March.

So lets start with the good stuff and we’ll work our way down to Vanessa Hudgens; well, that was mean right off the bat, sorry. I was excited when I heard of the revival and then less so when I heard the casting of the lead, I am not a fan of stunt casting but being a firm believer in taking chances (on theater) I decided to give the show a whirl. I am always willing to be pleasantly surprised.

GiGi03The show is a frothy, frivolous, fun slice of La Belle Époque en Paris. Don’t look too far below the surface or the border line pedophilia and grooming your granddaughter to be whore, albeit a refined and high class one, might make you a little queasy. And, boy were there were a lot of mothers with their little girls at the show. But it’s Paris! at the turn of the century, that’s just the way things were! My understanding is that the book has been reworked since the shows original (and unsuccessful) run on Broadway and I did notice a distinct effort to ameliorate the viewpoint of beautiful women merely as disposable objects of entertainment for men of wealth. I liked taking the iconic “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” originally charmingly and kind of creepily warbled by Maurice Chevalier and making it a duet between Mamita and Aunt Alicia; it was a nice point/counterpoint of two women’s philosophies. Mamita in her gentile but honorable poverty and Aunt Alicia in her grand accommodations, yet both secure in their independence even if by different means.

Speaking of these two ladies, Victoria Clark as Mamita and Dee Hoty as Aunt Alicia,  are the best part of this show, easily. I’m going out on a limb, especially since I haven’t seen ANY of the recent contenders and say Ms. Clark is going to get herself a Tony nod. She grounds that show and gives it heart while the rest of the cast twirls and glitters around her. She is the real Paris, beneath the frivolity and froth. She was excellent, as one would expect, and she and Dee Hoty seemed to be having much fun on that stage. Ms. Hoty’s Aunt Alicia can throw some very elegant shade, it was most entertaining to watch.

GiGi04That I’m halfway thought the post and haven’t mentioned GiGi yet should be telling, there I go being mean again! Not that Ms. Hudgens was bad. Actually, GiGi as a young naive girl doesn’t really have a great deal of depth for an actress to portray, her character is all surface. For the first 3/4 of the show Ms. Hudgens does fine playing the bubbly, giggly, not a care in the world girl, it suits her relatively well. But when it comes for her to transform to the grown woman ready to make grown decisions it starts to falter a bit. One issue might be the transition is too abrupt. I would have gotten rid, or seriously cut down the “contract” negotiations song (which was supposed to be funny but wasn’t) and done some great song and dance medley of GiGi being “trained,” clothes, walking, talking balancing things on her head to segue in to grown and ready to be a whore self supporting GiGi. Granted, it probably did not help that poor Ms. Hudgens had to share most of her stage time with Ms.s Clark and Hoty, its is easy for a young actress to seem diminished in the presence these two talented ladies.

GiGi02It also probably did not help that there is no discernible scrap of chemistry between GiGi and her leading man, played by Corey Cott, at least not from my seat in the balcony. I think they cast Gaston as too young; because in this day and age it’s far more palatable if an 18 year old girl is sold to a 25 year old man instead of a 35 year old man right? Mr. Cott is charming but Gaston is supposed to be a sophisticated world weary man in the grips of ennui, and GiGi is his escape form that. The relationship did not seem to evolve in any organic way from an avuncular relationship to a romantic one. (It really sounds wrong when you write it like that doesn’t it, an avuncular relation ship should never become a romantic one, right?)

I’ll wrap up with the set and costume design which were beautiful. The sets evoked the Eiffel Tower and the beautiful Art Deco wrought iron detailing and architecture of the time and place. It was unmistakably Paris. The only off note in the costuming, oddly enough, were GiGi’s costumes. They’ve quite clearly used the movie as the inspiration for her costumes but they looked cheap; from the 2nd row of the balcony they looked cheap. Even the penultimate gown she wears to Maximes, looked shiny and wrinkly and like they were trying to use the feather boa to hide it. It just struck me as odd; all the other costuming was beautiful and rich looking and it really stood out. Weird.

GiGi opens at the Neil Simon Theater, March 19.