Seen and Heard

Seen In Brooklyn: A few years ago, I swore off seeing theatre in languages I don’t understand, operas and theatre in Italian excluded from this promise. This may sound rather philistine of me, but after all, there are enough productions in English and French that I don’t have time to see, why bother with German, Norwegian, Swedish, Japanese or any other foreign tongues. So how does that explain my desire to go to BAM for the Next Wave’s presentation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in Russian? Come again— Shakespeare in Russian— nyet! But since the creative forces behind the English company, Cheek By Jowl, director Declan Donnelan and set/costume designer Nick Ormerod (with lighting by Judith Greenwood), were responsible, I was curious. And boy am I glad I broke my own rule and went!

Of course there are projected super titles in English to help the audience overcome the language barrier, but frankly, anyone who knows the play hardly had to refer to the titles: in this case the actions spoke louder than the words. Performed on a stark white set, with a cyc across the back and curved side panels that serve as projection screens for images of trees, this Twelfth Night is stylized and fun. The 13 members of the all male cast enter wearing identical costumes: black trousers with white shirts and black suspenders. They later change according to their roles as men or women (or in the case of Viola, both).

In Act I, the costumes are primarily black, with the exception of Viola as Cesario, who appears in a beige dress, then beige suit. In Act II, the entire cast is in beige, as if Olivia’s period of mourning if over and the real fun begins, and the action careens toward a happy ending when all identities are revealed, Viola is once again a woman, and united with her brother and her true love, the count Orsino. The set also changed its colors in Act II, with a series of panels that fly in to indicate locale shifts changing from black to off-white, and the simple tables and chairs also moving from ebony to ivory, as it were. The whole enterprise has lightened in tone, adding to the fun of the evening where the performances shine through, making Shakespeare crystal clear, even in a language I don’t understand.

Another unusual bit of Shakespeare in BAM’s Next Wave this fall is this week’s high-tech version of The Tempest, conceived and directed by Michel Lemieux and Victor Pilon of Montreal’s 4D art, in conjunction with French-Canadian director Denise Guibault, in which six of the 10 actors are seen in a 21st-century version of Pepper’s Ghost, aiming for the effect of holograms, where the images appear out of thin air, as Prospero conjures them up in his memory. The Mitsubishi projectors (at least some of them) are on the floor with a complicated process of projection via mirrors onto transparent screens (we don’t want to give away too many secrets here) but the effect is a blend of life-size live actors and larger than life video images. Lighting is by Alain Lortie, costumes by Michel Robdias, and the multi-level set, evoking an island made of Prospero's books, is by Anick La Bissonière. The blending of virtual and live actoris is rather seamless, although it does sometimes appear as if the live actors are watching the others in a film, when in reality the actors on stage cannot see any of the projected images that the audience sees. The overall ambiance is on the dark side, because of the projections, since they are subtle; more subtle than the bright LED screens one sees in concerts these days. (And my apologies to anyone who noticed my anachronistic mistake in wrting about this production in the November issue of Live Design: I mentioned that Shakespeare had heard of gaslight as a new invention in the theatre in France, but I was about 150 years ahead of myself. The startling new technology the Bard had heard about was indoor theatre with candles as lighting. We've come a long way since that invention!)

This production has provided a means to introduce younger audiences to Shakespeare, with a 90-minute text and lots of video, there's always something compelling to look at. And the directors say that perhaps the characters from the shipwreck never really wash up on the island, but are just in Prospero's mind as he fights the demons from his past and searches for a way to forgiveness. — Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

Seen on Broadway: Comedy is a precious commodity on Broadway these days, which makes The Little Dog Laughed, an off-Broadway import at the Cort Theatre, all the more welcome. On its face, this is a typical boy-meets-boy story. Mitchell (Tom Everett Scott), an up-and-coming actor visiting New York to pick up an award and see a gay-themed play with an eye toward playing one of the lead roles in the film version, falls for the basically guileless rent boy he hires, Alex (sweetly played by former Roseanne costar Johnny Galecki). There are complications. Mitchell is deeply closeted. Gay-for-pay Alex is “together-ish” with high-strung Ellen (Ari Graynor), who fears her life is over at age 24. And then there is Diane, Mitchell’s maniacal agent, played in a spectacular turn by Julie White. Diane, who has all angles covered at all times, and who would prefer that Mitchell maintain his heterosexual front (and that the coveted play straighten out in rewrites) determines to get everyone a happy ending to their troubles, even if it kills them.

Playwright Douglas Carter Beane, who has toiled in the salt mines of Hollywood, views Diane with a mixture of awe and terror, much like the showbizzy hellion of his most successful play, As Bees in Honey Drown. With the success of Brokeback Mountain, however, and with a few TV stars now out and about, the gay cover-up angle is a little dated. Diane, and the play itself, are more incisive digging its comic claws into class matters, which Jeff Mahshie’s costumes convey. Mitchell and Diane wear black for status and glamour, that is when Diane isn’t wearing fire-engine red or smashing pantsuits; Alex and Ellen to fit into milieus neither is particularly comfortable in and outgrowing. Ellen’s final, transformative outfit, as she makes an unexpected ascent, is funny, but also troubling—emotionally, do the clothes really fit the woman? Is there such a thing as a happy ending, or are all endings merely expedient? Director Scott Ellis keeps the production zipping along before closing in a sneakily suspended way.

Allen Moyer’s multipaneled set, framed on both sides of the stage by vertical arrangements of the banquet chairs Diane spends a lot of her time sitting on, opens up on the bottom to reveal the bedroom of Mitchell’s hotel, where much of the play takes place. On top, vignettes slide open for monologues that comment on or add contrast to the main activity. Showmotion, which built the scenery, also automated the tables and chairs that slide in and out for other environments. Don Holder’s lighting (provided by PRG) creates a nightclub ambiance for one sequence, and is otherwise used to wash over the panels as stylishly and as colorfully as possible, with some patterning to add texture to the checkerboard look. [There is a techno music score, by Lewis Flinn, but no sound designer is credited; the audio equipment was supplied by One Dream Sound.] The clever design, which keeps pace with Diane’s unstoppable motormouth, helps ensure that the little dog has some company where laughter is concerned. —Robert Cashill

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