Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "Othello" is "a wonderfully vivid and lively experience."

— Good productions should, at the very least, make an audience understand why a play is great. That Shakespeare’s Othello is a great play is beyond question, but the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival production, which opened at the Reynolds Performance Hall in Conway on Saturday, makes the tragedy a wonderfully vivid and lively experience.

It is helped in great measure in this by the performance of David Alford as Iago. Alford, who also happens to be the director, is electric in his malevolence and guile.

With his shaved head and dressed in camouflage, he is utterly believable as a soldier of second rank who can charm at parties (even performing a rap of Shakespeare’s surprisingly suitable verses) while putting together the pieces of his plan and sowing the seeds of doubt for poor Othello (Derrick Parker).

Alford transports this Othello to the modern Middle East, and this kind of setting-shift can be fraught with danger, often drawing unintended conclusions or simply distracting from the play itself. But the impressive set design by Chet Longley - a blasted place with ominous ruins and sandbagged fortresses - and incisive sound design by Matt Choirini make for an ideal setting where love can so easily and so quickly turn sour.

The wild, drunken party where Casio (an excellent Chris Crawford) loses his reputation is expertly staged. After it is done, you understand that this debauchery is part of the bargain in a war-torn land where soldiers are going to blow off steam after battle.

As Othello, Parker makes a convincing case for being a leader only too ready to be led to the madness that is jealousy. Parker, who sometimes speaks too softly in his first scenes, is especially effective in the second act when clutching at his head as if trying to rid himself of the thoughts Iago has planted there.

Paige Reynolds’ Desdemona is a touching figure, a soul who is completely unaware of the darkness that is enveloping her new husband. Likewise Emilia (Heather Dupree), who unwittingly helps her husband, Iago, set the trap for Othello. Adam Mincks as Roderigo has many nice moments where his displays of ignorance come in comic form.

But this Othello pivots on Iago, and Alford makes him so real and alive, you are on the edge of your seat at the end wanting a full explanation for his vile deeds. Shakespeare leaves that question hanging, not unlike a piece of tantalizing but bitter fruit. That the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival makes that question plain is but one measure of its success.

Othello continues as part of the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival through Sunday. Call (501) 450-3265.

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "As You Like It" is "a spirited take on the comedy"

Setting clicks for spirited "As You Like It"
by Werner Trieschmann
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
June 17, 2011

LITTLE ROCK — Plan to perform "As You Like It" outdoors in June in Arkansas and you can expect to like it hot and steamy. But just when the Arkansas Shakespeare Festival was about to kick off its fifth season at The Village at Hendrix in Conway, what must have been the only black cloud in the state parked itself over the stage as well as the waiting crowd sitting on blankets and chairs in front of it.

The black cloud didn’t produce any rain Thursday. The strong wind that came with it did push some curtains around, but then the weather settled down. The happy result was a cool evening in which the game performers offered a spirited take on the Shakespeare comedy that goes to the forests of Arden to tangle and untangle many romantic knots.

The production, directed by Andrew Hamm, was playful and managed to walk the very fine line of being funny without falling completely over into corny. An early wrestling match between the fearsome Charles (Dan Matisa, wearing a Mexican wrestling mask) and fearful Orlando (David Huynh) was a highlight. The wrestlers even used the old hit-the-opponent-with-a-folding-chair trick.

"As You Like It" is pretty much about the love affair between Rosalind (Amy Fritsche) and Orlando. Fritsche brought a recognizable zeal to the part, especially when disguised as a man and spurning the advances of Phebe (Caroline Mincks). Huynh played the lovesick puppy part to the hilt.

As Orlando’s brother, Oliver, Derrick Parker did some nice double-takes and stares of disbelief in the second act. Matisa, playing in the second act the melancholy Jaques (who delivers the famed “All the world’s a stage” speech), is a natural comedian and offered a fresh spin to his lines throughout.

While the entire company of actors did have to compete with thunder rumbling in the distance and microphones that cut out from time to time, they held the sizable crowd’s attention.

The enjoyable evening was capped by a song about the spring in which the cast incongruously but hilariously danced the macarena. Put that together with the lovely setting of Hendrix Village and cooperative Arkansas weather, and the Shakespeare Festival’s decision to take it outdoors was a smart one.

"As You Like It" continues today and Sunday with pay-what-you can-performances at 7:30 p.m. at The Village at Hendrix on the Hendrix College campus, 1600 Washington Ave., in Conway.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

"As You Like It 3: Like with a Vengeance!"

As You Like It opens next Thursday, inaugurating the green at The Village at Hendrix as a theatre space and launching the 2011 Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre season. Yesterday was a day off, concluding our second week of rehearsal, and it feels like the whole show teeters on a balance point. Behind us lie two weeks of learning blocking, music, combat and dance choreography. In front stand five days for us to play, refine, specify, sharpen, clean up, and shave some time off the show, followed by next week’s tech rehearsals and finally opening night. Throughout the process, the amazing artists I’ve worked with continue to remind me why directing theatre is my deepest and most joyful artistic passion. Every single day leaves me exhausted and thrilled in equal measure.

Theatre is by nature the most collaborative of all art forms.  A playwright gives words to speak and life events to perform. A director takes that text and casts it in the context of a vision of performance and meaning. Designers create environment and mood, locating the show in a specific place and time. Actors interpret the words, guided by the director’s idea and the designers’ context, into action. Everybody throws an ingredient or two into the resulting artistic gumbo, and then the audience shows up with a spoon and the spice of their own perspective, the last addition and the one that makes the whole thing, officially, into theatre.

Theatre is collaboration above all else, and the company members of As You Like It have all added their own uniqueness to the show. In several cases, an actor’s or designer’s work has made me completely junk my own ideas about the play in favor of theirs. Touchstone (Adam Mincks) and Audrey (Rachael Small), for example, are so cute together that I couldn’t bear to let Shakespeare’s intimation of an unhappy ending for them stand unchallenged; in this production, they may work out after all.

Over and over, the actors teach me anew what the play is about. In this, my third time directing As You Like It, I feel like I’m just beginning to really understand what the play is about. Different directors and different companies will have different ideas, but for me, this summer’s production is about truly being yourself. Every character who tries to create an identity for themselves end up in trouble at best, miserable at least. Duke Frederick (Rob Dillon) puts on the manner of a conquering lord, and loses his family. Orlando (David Huynh) puts on the trappings of a wrestler and almost gets himself killed. Rosalind (Amy Fritsche) puts on a man’s clothing and wreaks havoc in the Forest of Arden. Oliver’s (Derrick Parker) pretensions at being in charge, Phebe’s (Caroline Mincks) strained shrewishness, Touchstone’s city snobbery; it just goes on and on. And then there’s the melancholy Jaques (Dan Matisa), one of Shakespeare’s most enigmatic characters, who refuses to be happy in the face of four weddings and the very god of marriage herself. It is only when these characters allow themselves to simply be who they are, in the presence of someone who accepts them as such, that they are happy.

And such wonderful happiness it is! As You Like It is full of music, romance, silliness, excitement and reconciliation; the play is full to bursting with the simple joy of simply living. I can’t wait for you to see what the amazing artists of the Arkansas Shakespeare Theatre have cooked up for you.

Every one of the four shows at Hendrix Village is pay-what-you can, so bring the whole family. Bring the whole block. Come early to stake out a good seat; live music starts at 7:00 each night.