Archive for June, 2007

Shakespeare in the Park: An Edwardian woman gets her man

By Colin Dabkowski
From The Buffalo News, 6/23/07

The women of Shakespeare are often notoriously strong, dagger-tongued personalities adept at outsmarting their male counterparts.

In Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s production of “All’s Well That Ends Well,” director Derek Campbell has focused on the love-struck Helena (Kate LoConti), a character whose cunning, charm and penchant for manipulation finds echoes in famous women throughout literature and history.

Campbell has moved the setting for Shakespeare’s complex comedy from the Elizabethan era to the Edwardian, an approach that succeeds in making its modern feminist connotations more evident. One is almost immediately reminded of Princess Diana of Wales, who, like Helena, used her fierce intelligence and grace to woo an otherwise wayward and obstinate aristocrat.

In Helena’s case, that aristocrat is Count Bertram (played by newcomer Andy Moss), who is an unfortunate and stuck-up man trapped in mental adolescence. When the low-born Helena fails to catch his eye, she embarks on a devious and questionable scheme to force their marriage. He flees fast, and she follows faster, intent on reeling him in at any cost. In the course of her pursuit, Helena gains the trust of Bertram’s mother and plays many of the minor characters like a kid plays hopscotch.

The play is wonderfully acted. Robert Rutland, who plays the ailing King of France, shows his Shakespearean chops for the first time on the Delaware Park stage, and his fresh and dynamic performance makes us wonder what took him so long.

Lisa Ludwig shines as Count Bertram’s eminently mannered mother, whose transformation from serpent to dove is great fun to observe. As memorable comic characters go, Tom Loughlin takes the cake as Parolles, the blundering and unscrupulous soldier whose cowardice undoes him. Loughlin’s skill at physical comedy and deft timing — especially in an exchange with Helena on the subject of virginity — produce the heartiest laughs in the show.

But the gleaming diamond in this production is LoConti, whose forceful Helena contains an easy and modern irreverence imbued with irresistible grace. She makes Helena’s dubious plans — to trick Betram into marriage by stealing his ring and conceiving his child — seem almost honorable by employing a kind of revolutionary forthrightness that Campbell highlights.

Ken Shaw’s costumes, from this red-clad soldiers to the countess’ glimmering dresses, perfectly capture the aristocratic aplomb and haughtiness of the Edwardian period. Campbell’s eye and ear for modern humor is evident in too many spots to mention, but reaches its apex in a scene containing four eligible bachelors, each impeccably dressed in Shaw’s cricket-playing outfits. Each one assumes a dapper, nonchalant stance as they are turned down, one after the other, by the coolhearted Helena.

Lighting designer Brian Cavanagh also deserves credit for creating an enchanting effect of moonlight in an outdoor scene that came just after dusk.

As Campbell suggests in the playbill, there is something bubbling under this play, a “dark, troubled interior” that belies its supposedly comic nature. The play has so many questions and facets to explore that a lesser production might have confused them by focusing on too many at once. By casting “All’s Well” as Shakespeare’s closest approximation of feminism, the play transcends comedy and becomes something much deeper.


‘All’s Well’ as Shakespeare season opens

By Colin Dabkowski
From The Buffalo News, 6/19/07

When Jolie Garrett walked into a casting room in New York City in April, Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s Saul Elkin knew he was “the one.”

Garrett performed a monologue from the first act of “Othello” using the room’s baby grand piano and floor-to-ceiling mirror to accentuate his performance. As Garrett performed the scene, a plea the Moor Othello makes to justify his love for the white Desdemona, Elkin and festival Managing Director Lisa Ludwig were taken aback.

“She loved me for the dangers I had pass’d,/ And I loved her that she did pity them,” Garrett said, nearing the end of the famous speech. “This only is the witchcraft I have used:/ Here comes the lady; let her witness it.”

“We just pulled back in our chairs and thought, ‘God, will this guy ever accept the role?’” said Elkin, the executive and artistic director of the festival.

Luckily for them, Ludwig said, he accepted immediately.

“To me, it’s very ‘Matrix,’ very Keanu Reeves,” said Garrett, a New York-based actor who beat out a field of 30 competitors for the lead role in “Othello,” the second production of the Shakespeare festival’s 33rd season set to debut on July 26. Opening the season will be “All’s Well That Ends Well,” starting at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.

“I have not played Othello, but I have been working on the character for 10 years, adding layer upon layer upon layer, and they saw that when I walked into the room,” Garrett said. “It cannot be mistaken.”

Even over the phone, Garrett’s sentences are measured, carefully considered and often grandiose, recalling the dignity and presence of Laurence Fishburne (who played Othello opposite Kenneth Branagh’s villainous Iago in a 1995 film). The man might as well converse in iambic pentameter. Having appeared in Shakespeare productions in New York and around the country, Garrett is finally ready to set his decade-in-the making creation on its feet.

Considered one of Shakespeare’s best and most memorable tragic characters, Othello demands an actor of commanding presence who embodies the necessary combination of blind trust and ruinous jealousy that sits at the heart of the play.

Elkin, the festival’s executive and artistic director since its inception in 1976, has only staged Othello once, in 1991.

With the title role secured, Elkin looked to the brimming Buffalo theater community to fill the role of the evil and duplicitous Iago, who will be played by veteran Tim Newell. With perennial festival leading man Paul Todaro spending a summer in Pittsburgh, Newell expressed delight at the opportunity in his Artie Award acceptance speech in early June, in which he jokingly thanked Todaro for skipping town so he could play the juicy role.

But for all the familiar faces that will grace the festival’s outdoor stage, a sizable contingent of newcomers, both young and old, are taking cracks at some venerable roles.

The first production, Shakespeare’s comedy “All’s Well That Ends Well,” will star, among others, Shakespeare in the Park newcomers Robert Rutland (seen often at Studio Arena Theatre) as the King, and the 22-year-old Andy Moss as the arrogant young Bertram, a character he says embodies a kind of “preteen angst.”

Moss, a recent graduate of the University at Buffalo’s musical theater program, is excited at the transition from the classroom to the stage, where some of his former teachers will become his peers.

“I think all the stuff I learned from them was great, but I’m learning more being onstage with them than I ever did in class,” Moss said. “You learn to take all that education you have and make it into something that’s a true technique.”

The debut of “All’s Well That Ends Well” on Thursday marks the long-awaited return of director Derek Campbell to the Delaware Park stage. His last stint as a director in Delaware Park was 1984’s “Measure for Measure.”

“Derek coming back is tremendous,” Moss said, noting that he had not yet been born the last time Campbell directed a Shakespeare in Delaware Park production.

Because most of Buffalo’s theaters take a break for the summer, Moss added that Shakespeare in Delaware Park provides an opportunity for different segments of the theater community to merge.

For Elkin, the oft-cited universal nature of Shakespeare’s work is motivation to stay faithful to the Bard’s scripts, while past productions he’s directed have sometimes taken a more radical approach. “I no longer feel now that I have to force relevance,” Elkin said. “The plays sort of speak for themselves.”

As for “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Campbell is moving the comedy up several centuries to the Edwardian period (about 1901-1919), and some of the rehearsal techniques might seem a little unorthodox. Costume designer Ken Shaw, for instance, hosted actors at his house to watch episodes of the British reality show “Manor House,” which is set in Edwardian Britain, to get an idea of the characters’ dress and movements.

Whatever the interpretations or directorial approaches, Elkin said that the impact of the summer event — which reaches 50,000 people each summer — is undeniable.

“There is a moment, when the sun goes down, it starts to get dark and the stage lights take over, the sounds of the city diminish, and audiences stop fidgeting,” Elkin said. “It really is very magical.”

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