juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
Well is not a play about the playwright and her mother. Well is "a multicharacter theatrical exploration of issues of health and illness both in the individual and in a community." Playwright Lisa Kron puts her chronically unwell mother on stage and hires four actors in order to revisit the desegregation of her childhood neighborhood and her own time spent in an Allergy Unit, but as the play begins to disintegrate around her she scrambles to pull together fragmented memories and repressed emotion in order to eke out meaningful themes on the issue of wellness. Performed at Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2010 season, Well is a performance of great intention and middling success. Split the play into approximate thirds, and it goes like this: a unique but initially ineffective concept, an unexpectedly successful evolution, and a hasty and disappointing conclusion. That middle third hides some wonderful gems, but the entire play is something of a disappointment.

Well is as much about the constructs of a play as it is about issues of family, wellness, and race, and so it opens with play-acting running concurrent to the living room "real world" where Lisa's mother sits. Significant time and energy go into establishing the unusual premise, which makes for an intriguing but unsatisfying beginning. The play within a play is exaggerated—brightly colored, over the top, and farcical—and you could call it "stylistic suck" because these rowdy, unrealistic scenes often tread the line of aggravating (and on a personal note the farcical humor left me cold, making these scenes all the worse). But when the constructs of the play first begin to crumble, Well reaches a golden period: it slips back and forth between "real" and "play," breaking character, interweaving stories, and throwing the audience into a thoughtful, meaningful tumult of confusion and concept. This is when it realizes it finest moments—which sometimes come too hard, fast, and clearly delineated, but still ring with meaning and truth. These moments address issues which are close to my heart, and so I found Well to be at times personally meaningful; viewers without this connection may find these moments well-realized but perhaps not as moving. Regardless, it is this middle period that shines. It excuses the lackluster beginning, but suffers in the play's troubled conclusion.

For as it continues, Well's constricts continue to disintegrate and this golden period also crumbles. The fallacy of the play is destroyed one too many times, and the effect is ironically unbelievable. In part, this is because, while Well makes the laudable effort to avoid a simple, neat conclusion to its heavy, complex themes, it unfortunately settles on a trite, short conclusion which does its themes no service and undercuts the brilliant moments achieved in the play's middle period. As a whole, however, I expect that Well is different—and much better—when Lisa Kron stars as Lisa Kron (as was the case for many East Coast productions). In that case, when the play dissolves completely Lisa is there to stand—stripped to nothing but a woman in a bright light—as her authentic self. Such is not possible in this OSF production, so when the last foundations of the play crumble, no authenticity is revealed beneath: the protagonist remains an actor. Metatheatre is an unruly beast: it has great potential which it finds difficult to achieve, perhaps because—ironically—it gazes so hard at its own navel that even as it disregards the false trappings of theatre, it loses any sense of universality and timelessness. So it is with Well: Well takes on too much—play constructs, family issues, health, and race make for an overfull platter, and racial issues in particular go underaddressed; what is addressed sometimes displays a glimpse of something meaningful, but is often wrapped in a busy, messy, if well-intentioned setting which never quite convinces. I applaud it as a brave and complex effort, and appreciate some of its themes and messages, but I came away with troubles and a sour taste. Ultimately, Well is a failed effort, and I don't recommend it—but I will quote from it.

LISA: Hi, Kay.

KAY [an Allergy Unit patient]: Hello

LISA: Is your cousin coming to pick you up?

KAY: No. My sister.

LISA: That's good.

KAY: Yeah, I guess it's good.


(Kay slams something down on the bed.)

LISA: Do you think you're having a reaction?

KAY: I don't know. Maybe. I guess.

LISA: Do you want me to go get you some alkali salts?

KAY: No. Lisa ... it's not fair. I don't want to be sick. My sister is cleaning my house for me, getting my safe room ready. She is good to me, but I can't help it. I don't want her going through my things. Oh, I don't know, I don't know. I'm not reacting. I'm angry. I'm so angry, Lisa. I know she thinks if she were me she'd be better, but do you know what the problem is with being sick? It's that you're sick. People who are healthy think they know how you could get better, because when they imagine what your life is like they imagine having your sickness on top of their health. They imagine that sick people have all the resources they do and they're just not trying hard enough. But we don't. I don't. I know my sister is only trying to help me, but I can't help it. I think, You suffer for one day the way I do. I want you to feel like this for just one day. Then you tell me how to get better.

(Photo: Lisa introduces her play in the "play" section of the stage; in the background, her mother sits in the "real" section. By Jenny Graham, copyright OSF.)
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
Georg Nowack and Amalia Balash, coworkers at a parfumerie, have a contentious work relationship—but they are also one another's secret pen pals who met through a lonely hearts newspaper ad. When the pen pals decide to meet, Georg discovers Amalia's identity and everything he thought he knew is thrown into turmoil. This familiar story is the fifth adaptation of Miklos Laszlo's play Parfumerie, and it's a musical. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2010 production of She Loves Me is, in a word, delightful. It's by no means flawless: The plot is slightly bloated by the romantic foibles of another parfumerie employee, whose quest for love is intended to function as a foil to the relationship between Georg and Amalia but instead feels underdeveloped and contributes the musical's worst numbers. The production, meanwhile, falters at the close of the first act, when the café meeting scene becomes a rancorous, physical comedy. She Loves Me is something of a subdued musical—not quiet precisely, but the characters are realistic and a little dorky, the romance is more private than grand, and so the loud comedy comes as a surprise and feels out of place in the otherwise understated production.

But these are small, forgivable distractions in view of the entire production, which is joyful, clever, and a pure pleasure to watch. It doesn't offer remarkable depth—it is, after all, a romantic comedy, and though the romance is enduringly unusual the story doesn't break much new ground and it comes to such a swift conclusion that it almost feels simplistic. But the musical offers brilliantly funny, catchy songs about topics as mundane as shopping and eating ice cream, the main characters are refreshing in their simple and adorably flawed humanity, and the production's clever set design, colorful costuming, and strong musical performances are a joy. OSF's new trend towards musicals has had a rocky start, but with She Loves Me they meet their usual standard of excellence. My entire party loved this play without reservation. A joy from the second song (the first is good, but the second is great and it's where things get rolling) to the ovation's refrain, this is not OSF's biggest, best, or most brilliant production—but it may be one of the most enjoyable to watch. I recommend it with enthusiasm.

(Photo: Georg interrupts Amalia while she waits for her "dear friend." By Jenny Graham, copyright OSF.)
juushika: A black and white photo of an ink pen. (Writing)
My family just spent two days visiting Ashland, Oregon to attend the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We go every year (more than once a year), and it is one of my favorite places in the world. Saturday afternoon for a near-packed matinéee performance, we saw Shakespeare's Hamlet. (Pictured is Hamlet, to the right, deciding whether to slay Claudius, to the left. By Jenny Graham, copyright OSF.)

It's difficult for me to separate my love for the production from my undying love for the script. To be fair, the best script can be ruined by poor performance, and even OSF has done it. (I refer specifically to last year's production of Macbeth. Macbeth is my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, perhaps my favorite piece of literature, but the 2009 production was my worst experience with OSF. I never wrote a review, but this Oregon Live piece describes some of my issues: it was a frantic production, rushed and loud, which felt made for TV rather than theatre—all the way down to questionable special effects. It did a disservice to the script by adding in lines and chopping out others, gender-flopping without considering the impact of gender roles, and playing fast and lose with casting; it destroyed the tone by playing much of violence and madness with humor, which stripped away the play's gravity and its horror and without those—well, what's the point of Macbeth? But this review isn't about that production—it's about this year's Hamlet, which was much better.)

Such a strong, recognizable script as Hamlet gives a production an immediate step up, and as long as the production doesn't do that script a complete disservice then it probably won't be bad. But Hamlet isn't "not bad." It's amazing. It isn't perfect, but this is a strong, smart play with wonderful acting and some of the best interpretation of Shakespeare's most famous lines that I've ever had the privilege to see.

The star—and rightly so—is Hamlet himself, played by Dan Donohue. Prior to seeing the play I heard another theatre-goer describe it as Shakespeare's darkest comedy. I wouldn't always agree, but for for this production I do. Donohue draws out all of Hamlet's humor: the comedy of his madness, his personal insults, and the double-entendres of his language. It's clever humor rooted deep in the script and blossomed through stage direction, and it endears Hamlet to his audience swiftly and deeply. The humor and tragedy don't always find a perfect balance (and as a result, the last two acts of the play—the graveyard humor (5.1) followed by the tragedy of the swordfight (5.2)—rub a bit roughly against each other), but often they do, and even when tragedy is underexplored Hamlet's personal struggles never fail to shine. Shine indeed is the optimal word: brilliant spotlights highlight Hamlet during his soliloquies, all of which are wonderfully dissected, paced, and delivered; here Hamlet shows that the intelligence which gifts him with such sharp humor also curses him with constant complicating thought and introspection. Acting and directing carve out a very specific delivery, and they make the play's most famous, oft-quoted lines seem new again. I've never seen a more engaging Hamlet. He perfectly walks the line between independent and accessible: his struggles are personal and private, but—as is the play's greatest strength—every viewer can understand them.

Read more: Polonius, setting and stage, disappointments and concerns. )

These are small complaints, no less valid for being specific but still not major disappointments. OSF's 2010 production of Hamlet is undeniably strong. It's smart, it's careful, it's sensitive, and while not all its risks turn out to be successes, more often than not they do—and none of them overshadow the production's brilliant portrait of Hamlet's character, of his thoughts and doubts, of his attempted actions. What a wonderful start to the season, and even better that it's playing all year long. Go see this play (and I hope I'll have the chance to do so once more before the year is out).

I'm aware that this review is probably longer than most people will bother to read, but I had a delightful time and it's been too long since I talked Shakespeare (or reviewed a play!), so I just can't help myself. This is OSF's 75th year and they have a lot of great plays running and coming—we also saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and while I may not take the time to review it I loved it too. If you have the chance to get there this year, I urge you to go. I'm looking forward to our two more visits of the year.

Along the lines of writing and epic posts, I've lately been playing with IOGraph, which maps mouse movement and delights the hell out of me. Following is a picture of my mouse movement while writing this post (dots indicate mouse stops, lines indicate movements). Total recording and writing time: 3.5 hours. Click through to view notes (of what the graph indicates) and to view larger.

IOGraph of...
juushika: Photograph of a stack of books, with one lying open. (Books)
The second play that we saw in this short trip to Ashland was one that I knew nothing about but the author before seeing it: The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler. The playwright, Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), is a cousin of a family friend. In all else the play was foreign to me. OSF is only the second theatre to show this play, and it is largely undiscovered. We saw a matinée on a Friday with a much quieter crowd—and I loved it. The premise is meta-tastic and somewhat absurd: after committing suicide at the end of her play, heroine Hedda Gabler awakes to find herself trapped in the fictional character's afterlife, condemned to repeat the life of her play until her story dies, and she sets out find herself a new ending.

(Picture at right is by Kim Budd and copyright the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It features Medea "doing it again", Hedda in the middle, and at right slave Mammy.)

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler by Jeff Whitty. )
juushika: Screen capture of the Farplane from Final Fantasy X: a surreal landscape of waterfalls and flowers. (Anime/Game)
On our recent trip to Ashland, my mother, father, and I saw two plays. First, and an evening performance, was Midsummer Night's Dream. It was a Thursday night, and there were many visiting high schools (and some younger) come to see the performance. Of course Shakespeare is my true love, and so I was most excited to see this play. However, this was Midsummer with a twist: set not in Elizabethan England or Athens, the play takes place instead in the American 1950s-1970s.

(Picture at right is by Jenny Graham and copyright the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It features Fairy Queen Titania and Fairy King Oberon.)

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare. )


juushika: Drawing of a sleeping orange cat. (Default)

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