Tag Archives: shakespeare

American Players offers a searing ‘Othello’

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so, William Shakespeare famously wrote in Hamlet. That same ethos is even better demonstrated in his later work Othello, where the Bard weaves a tale of evil intent, with all the expected consequences.

American Players Theatre’s production of Othello, which opened in mid-August at the Spring Green troupe’s Up the Hill theater, pulls no punches. With its racism both overt and covert, Othello falls into the category of Shakespeare‘s plays that are sometimes difficult to watch, a list including the anti-Semitic Merchant of Venice and The Taming of the Shrew, rife with unbridled misogyny.

APT’s powerful version of Othello doesn’t shy away from its distasteful elements. But its dramatic accomplishments make it well worth seeing.

The play opens as Othello the Moor (Chiké Johnson), a general in the Venetian army, secretly marries Desdemona (Laura Rook), daughter of Brabantio (Brian Mani), a senator with the Venetian state. The newlyweds are happy, but Brabantio does little to disguise his disgust, literally throwing his daughter at her new husband. 16th-century Venice, it seems, is no liberal society.

Enter Iago (James Ridge), Othello’s ensign, outraged that Othello has passed Iago over to promote Cassio (Nate Burger) as his lieutenant. Operating in partnership with the reluctant Roderigo (Marcus Truschinski), who secretly loves Desdemona, Iago undertakes the machinations that will ultimately lead to Othello’s undoing. 

Director John Langs creates an air of urgency in his production, underscored with an undercurrent of despair. The senators, noblemen and soldiers, including the Duke of Venice (David Daniel), applaud Othello’s military victories, and his minions are obsequious to a fault. But that doesn’t protect the military hero from his ultimate fall. 

In fact, Othello’s power and presumption only contribute to his undoing, a theme that carries over to many of the other lead characters. Iago’s own vanity, colored by his ambitions, drives his near-pathological pursuit of Othello’s demise.

As Othello, Johnson manages his character with charm and bravado, but his descent into distrust, despair and, ultimately, murder under Iago’s influence seems a rather abrupt shift. It’s a fault more attributable to tight dramatic turns in the source material than anything else. In the end, Othello is neither hero nor villain, but rather a tragic pawn in the power plays and social influences of others.

Despite the play’s title, it is Iago who is the dramatic driver of both the concept and action behind the narrative, and Ridge is fully capable of handling the role. His pursuit of Othello is cool, calm and calculating, which makes it all the more unnerving. 

Director Langs draws only a modest distinction between Iago as the “hale fellow, well met” and as the evil conspirator who carefully strategizes Othello’s undoing as if he were solving a puzzle or managing a military campaign. It’s an interpretation that suggests how close we all dance to the edge of sanity and our own capability to operate in a similar fashion. 

Langs’ production also adds a variety of stage business to scenes that could easily have lapsed into mere dialogue. Othello and Iago train with swords while discussing the Moor’s concerns over his wife, first matching movements in warm-up exercises, and then sparing as the conversation becomes more direct. In addition to foreshadowing the swordplay in Act II, the scene, along with others, bring a much needed physicality to the largely intellectual proceedings.

The cast, as a whole, is strong and draws on several accomplished APT veterans in smaller roles, including Colleen Madden (actor Ridges’ wife in real life) as Iago’s wife Emilia, to bring greater depth and breadth to the ensemble. Scenic designer Andrew Boyce’s minimalist set is spartan, ringed by moats of water, and more than proves adequate for Othello’s undoing.

APT tells an engaging tale in which the powers of evil and the vanity of men combine to create a true tragedy. Othello is certainly one of the company’ strongest plays of the season, warning us all that the power of persuasion in unbridled pursuit of ego can lead to deadly consequences.

ON STAGE 

American Players Theatre’s production of William Shakespeare’s Othello runs through Oct. 3 on the APT campus, 5950 Golf Course Road, Spring Green. For tickets, call 608-588-2361 or visit americanplayers.org.

‘Age of Ultron’ is an Avengers overdose

It will surely stand as one of the most peculiar and possibly ironic entries in a director’s filmography that in between Joss Whedon’s two “Avengers” films there reads “Much Ado About Nothing”: a low-budget, black-and-white Shakespeare adaption sandwiched between two of the most gargantuan blockbusters ever made.

In “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” there is definitely aplenty ado-ing. Too much, certainly, but then again, we come to the Avengers for their clown-car excess of superheroes, their colorful coterie of capes.

What binds Whedon’s spectacles with his Shakespeare are the quips, which sail in iambic pentameter in one and zigzag between explosions in the others. The original 2012 “Avengers” should have had more of them, and there’s even less room in the massive — and massively overstuffed — sequel for Whedon’s dry, self-referential wit.

As a sequel, “Age of Ultron” pushes further into emotionality and complexity, adding up to a full but not particularly satisfying meal of franchise building, and leaving only a bread-crumb trail of Whedon’s banter to follow through the rubble.

The action starts predictably with the Avengers assaulting a remote HYDRA base in the fictional Eastern European republic of Sokovia. They are a weaving force: Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Evans’s Captain America, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye.

Their powers are as various (supernatural, technological, mythological) as their flaws (Iron Man’s narcissism, the Hulk’s rage, the Black Widow’s regrets). Downey’s glib Tony Stark/Iron Man is the lead-singer equivalent of this super group and, I suspect, the one Whedon likes writing for the most. “I’ve had a long day,” he sighs. “Eugene O’Neill long.”

What “Age of Ultron” has going for it, as such references prove, is a sense of fun, a lack of self-seriousness that persists even when things start going kablooey — something not always evident in other faux-serious superhero films. (See: “Man of Steel,” or rather, don’t.)

In Sokovia, they encounter duplicitous twins: the quick-footed Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the mystical Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The real villain, though, is the titular Ultron, an artificial intelligence that the Scarlet Witch slyly leads Stark to create, birthing not the global protection system he hopes, but a maniacal Frankenstein born, thankfully, with some of his creator’s drollness.

Ultron (James Spader) builds himself a muscular metallic body and begins amassing a robot army to rid the planet of human life. Spader plays Ultron who is too similar to other mechanical monsters to equal Tom Hiddleston’s great Loki, the nemesis of the last “Avengers” film. But Spader’s jocular menace adds plenty. He wickedly hums Pinocchio melodies: “There are no strings on me.”

But the drama of “Age of Ultron” lies only partly in the battle with Ultron. The film is really focused on the fraying dysfunction of the Avengers and their existential quandaries as proficient killers now untethered from the dismantled S.H.I.E.L.D. agency.

There’s not a wrong note in the cast; just about anything with the likes of Spader, Ruffalo, Johansson, Hemsworth and Downey can’t help but entertain. But the dive into the vulnerability of the Avengers doesn’t add much depth (is the home life of an arrow slinger named Hawkeye important?) and saps the film’s zip.

All the character arcs _ the Avengers, the bad guys and the new characters _ are simply too much to tackle, even for a master juggler like Whedon. The movie’s hefty machinery _ the action sequences, the sequel baiting — suck up much of the movie’s oxygen.

In the relentless march forward of the Marvel juggernaut, “Age of Ultron” feels like a movie trying to stay light on its feet but gets swallowed up by a larger power: The Franchise.  

‘Twelfth Night’

One of Shakespeare’s most comic romances gets a modern twist in this Strollers Theatre production. Director Greg Harris (who staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream there in 2013) takes this tale of shipwrecks and mistaken identity into the present day, with the disguised Viola still torn between being desired by the beautiful Olivia and desirous of the handsome Duke.

At the Bartell Theatre, 113 E. Mifflin St., Madison. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at 608-661-9696 or bartelltheatre.org.

Feb. 13 to March 7

Soulstice Theatre stages a ladies’ ‘Macbeth’

Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Macbeth is among the most gendered, its characters struggling with the ways their society expects them to act like men or women.

So it’s fitting that Soulstice Theatre’s foray into all-female Shakespeare takes the form of the “Scottish Play,” with every role played by a woman as a woman — albeit a woman still forced to choose between presenting as masculine or feminine.

Director Catherine Jones explains: Her take on Macbeth sets the play in a period shortly after World War I, when the young men of Europe went to battle in the trenches. Her conceit suggests they never returned, forcing the women who remained to realign themselves within their society’s patriarchy, choosing during puberty whether they will take on masculine gender identities (allowing them to wage war or rule) or feminine gender identities (allowing them to remain womanly but relegating them to the domestic sphere).

It’s a change that alters the nature of the play, without changing a word of Shakespeare’s regicidal text. “Our Lady Macbeth (Alicia Rice) has chosen to present feminine, so the way she expresses herself has to be in these very gentle ways,” Jones says. “(With) Macbeth (Amy Hansmann), because she’s trying to fit into this patriarchal social structure, everything’s coded as masculine — you want to be king, you have to be male.”

The result, she adds, is that the play’s two main characters, as well as many others, are forced to grapple with the way they choose to express their genders, not their biological sexes. This more nuanced approach shines the spotlight directly on the implications of Shakespeare’s gendered language — especially when the women start to challenge each other’s manliness or womanliness.

Changing every male role in Macbeth to a masculinely coded female role is an interesting dramaturgical experiment, but Jones says she knew it was one that would pay off when the show’s announcement drummed up a flood of interest even before she held auditions. Once she had a cast assembled, she says, they got together for a table read to discuss the play’s subjects and ended up discussing gender in modern society for several hours.

But Jones says that in many ways, getting to have such a rich discussion and exploration of women’s and gender issues is almost incidental to her and Soulstice’s original goal: finding a way to provide more opportunities for women to be on stage. During the show selection process, Jones says, most Shakespeare plays have to be discounted, because his works have so few opportunities for women. But this year, she came up with the idea of performing an all-female production, and Macbeth’s fixation on gender roles made it a clear frontrunner.

It also gave her the opportunity to have “ladies with swords” — not as tongue-in-cheek a rationale as it sounds. 

Jones says female actors tend to have less training than male actors in stage combat, and what experience they do have tends to be against men, and often couched in domestic violence scenarios. Making all Macbeth’s characters women offered her and fight choreographer Christopher Elst a chance to change that for the dozen-and-a-half women in the cast. 

To further suggest the monosexual nature of the play’s society, Jones says Elst specifically choreographed stage conflicts to reflect the different way women spar with each other, a more brutal and vicious style that lacks macho posturing. 

“Violence as an expression is usually a masculine trait; women usually have to mask that,” Jones says. “So in a society where you are allowed to be violent, and even encouraged, they’re going to take every opportunity to do so.”

It’s certainly not an ordinary interpretation of the Bard’s work — but as an opportunity to have multiple women playing characters with greater depth than the witches three, Jones says, it’s a royal treat.

ON STAGE

Soulstice Theatre’s production of Macbeth opens Jan. 16 and runs through Jan. 31. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., and tickets are $20, $18 for students/seniors/military. For more information or to order, call 414-481-2800 or visit soulsticetheatre.org.

Shakespeare: In 120 minutes or less

Alas, poor Shakespeare! You thought you knew him well … and then came a merry band of pranksters to ruffle your refined sensibilities. That’s what happens in the uproarious The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised].

Other local  companies have staged The Complete Works. Theatergoers may recall the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre’s production in 2012. 

But each production delivers its own brand of lunacy, and the current production, staged by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre in the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, is no exception. 

The show’s simple premise is that four bored guys whip through all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays in about two hours. They commit to this mission while standing in a home’s unfinished basement. It is partitioned by bed sheets hung from a clothesline, “sewn” together by safety pins, which serves as the show’s curtain.

Given that the holidays are drawing near, the guys adorn their basement (and the ceiling above the audience’s heads) with glittering Christmas tree lights. They add a bit of holiday flair to the songs as well.

Just behind the actors sits a set of band instruments, including a guitar, drums, keyboard, etc. The actors also function as the show’s band when they’re not acting.

But it’s the show’s script, not the songs, that draw the most laughs. Audience participation is part of the fun. Be aware that those who volunteer also become targets for the pranksters’ humorous jabs.

To make things easier for the actors’ memories, all volunteers — female and male — are told to respond to the name “Judy.” This is not just because “Mary” is overused, it’s a sly reference to the musical playing just down the hallway from the Studio Theatre — the Skylight Music Theater’s production of The Wizard of Oz. The best of these references is undoubtedly a drawn-out “I’m melting” sequence by Hamlet’s Olivia.

The players’ madcap antics give new meaning to the phrase “over the top.” Kudos for the troupe’s success belong equally to each member: Chris Klopatek, Rick Pendzich, Chase Stoeger and Marcus Truschinski.

Although all of Shakespeare’s comedies, tragedies and histories are briefly mentioned, the most popular plays get more stage time. In the wacky treatment of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo drinks his poison from a Green Bay Packers plastic drinking cup.

One of the best “adaptations” of a Shakespeare tragedy is the show’s version of Titus Andronicus. It’s done as a TV cooking show called The Gory Gourmet. Those with weak stomachs will be spared further details.

The show features a seemingly endless supply of plausible props that one might find in any basement. Like little kids who “put on a show” for relatives at Christmas or Hanukkah, the pranksters repurpose the stuff around them. A Christmas tree skirt, for instance, becomes a maiden’s frock. Old toys, such as a hobbyhorse and child-sized cowboy hat, are put to new and unusual uses, and mop heads serve as some of the wigs for “female” characters. A personal favorite is an old vacuum hose that is used as the asp to kill Rick Pendzich’s Cleopatra.

The holidays are a time for festivity, and one cannot imagine a more festive atmosphere than the one created by the cast of  The Complete Works. This hard-working cast, under the direction of Ray Jivoff, pulls out all the stops to create a sidesplitting experience. 

ON STAGE

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] continues at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, 158 N. Broadway, through Dec. 14. Tickets are $15–$40 with senior and student discounts available. Phone 414-276-8842 or visit chamber-theatre.com. 

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Theatre Gigante resurrects its unique take on ‘Othello’

Take one of the most villainous acts in the Shakespeare canon, season it with some Japanese Noh theater, add some balletic elements and repeat over and over.

That pretty much describes Theatre Gigante’s My Dear Othello, an original work that the troupe is resurrecting after a 10-year absence from the Milwaukee stage. 

Audience members who think they know what’s coming because they’ve seen a production of Shakespeare’s original play will be surprised, say company founder and artistic director Isabelle Kralj and her fellow artistic director Mark Anderson. 

“This is very much hybrid theater, where we fragment, deconstruct and then reconstruct through text, movement and music,” says Kralj. “This is a typical Gigante production.”

Theatre Gigante’s characteristic melding of different forms of artistic expression is an outgrowth of the directors’ backgrounds. Kralj, who once performed with the Slovenian National Theater Ballet, formerly taught dance at UWM and Alverno College. Anderson is an interdisciplinary artist who began working with Kralj in 1999 and currently teaches at the Milwaukee School of Art & Design.

My Dear Othello has its roots in Shakespeare’s original drama, including all four of the play’s main characters: the jealous Othello (Michael Stebbins), faithful Desdemona (Kralj), her lady’s maid Emilia (Janet Lily) and her villainous husband Iago (Tom Reed). Iago sets the play’s events in motion by convincing Othello that his wife has betrayed him, and Gigante’s production focuses on the false evidence Iago brings to his enemy, exploring how he can trick Othello into killing his wife and destroying his career.

“This was written during the Iraq War and tells the story of how a man can be moved to such an act by someone simply whispering in his ear,” Kralj says. 

But that’s just the foundation for Gigante’s production. Authors Anderson and Kralj have added elements from The Moor’s Pavane, a 20-minute ballet by choreographer José Limón that reenacts the murder through dance. The production also mines traditional Japanese Noh theater, a genre that trades on the fact that its characters represent dead souls.

“We merged those ideas and did our own thing,” Anderson says.

“Their own thing” includes repeating the killing of Desdemona multiple times during the performance, with each instance revealing additional information about the scene.

“The repetition becomes a ritual that the characters are doomed to repeat over and over again,” Anderson says. The repetition reflects the propensity of human memory to play out actions, particularly unfortunate actions, perhaps in an attempt to arrive at a more satisfactory conclusion, he says. 

This production of My Dear Othello has been changed from the original 2004 version due to the unavailability of some of the original cast members and musicians who accompanied the performances with Japanese music as a way of reinforcing the Noh dimension.

A new score by composer Seth Warren-Crow replaces the traditional music with percussion and electronica. Rick Graham’s new set design is based on the original panels created by artist Shomer Lichtner, who died in 2006. But there also are creative reasons for the change, Kralj says.

“Revisiting something for us is more artistically rich if we can make changes,” she explains. “Updating the old version makes it more ‘in the now’ for us as artists, and we like having the freedom to make changes in the piece.”

On stage

Theatre Gigante’s production of My Dear Othello runs Oct. 23-Nov. 8 at the Kenilworth Studio 508 Theater on the UWM campus. For more information, visit theatregigante.org or phone 414-961-6119.