Much to do for Bard lovers
It’s been just over a year since the demise of Milwaukee Shakespeare, but there is no dearth of Shakespeare in Milwaukee.
Several Milwaukee Shakes veterans became involved in a new company, goats & monkeys, which did a successful reading of Hamlet in October. Marquette University and UWM’s Peck School of the Arts Theatre both staged A Midsummer Night’s Dream shortly thereafter. Carte Blanche Studios did the same play in midsummer. Meanwhile, Renaissance Theaterworks presented Love’s Fire, staged adaptations of Shakespeare’s sonnets, barely a fortnight ago
All the productions take on the challenge of large, five act works in small black box theaters. As the Boulevard’s artistic director Mark Bucher puts it, it’s “a large canvas, but the actual Shakespearean stage was small (research shows as small an area as 15 x 30’) so the language affects the play’s movement more than scenery and costumes.”
Boulevard’s All’s Well That Ends Well
The Boulevard’s All Well That Ends Well opened February 10 at the company’s Bay View venue on South Kinnickinnic. In his curtain speech, artistic director Mark Bucher announced the misfortune of two actors leaving the production due to health issues just a week before. A furious reworking ensued, resulting in adjustments to accommodate the loss. Bucher himself would be reading one of the missing parts.
All’s Well is believed to be the completed version of a yet undiscovered draft entitled Love’s Labours Won. It was once considered the original version of Much Ado About Nothing. It’s rarely staged.
The girl-gets-handsome prince love story, naturally, has a Shakespearean twist: The prince doesn’t want anything to do with her and runs off to war to shirk his husbandly duty. In the process, he insults the King of France (Charles Hanel), who arranged the marriage, and his mother, the Countess of Rossillion (Karen Ambrosh), who blessed it. Shannon Nettesheim plays the love-struck Helena, and Chad Laudonio the reluctant husband, Bertram. David Flores portrays a slithery Parolles, the prince’s mentor.
The plot thickens as the women contrive to assist their sister’s cause. Diana (Melissa Keith), the country maiden and target of Bertram’s post-nuptial seduction, becomes the conduit for Helena’s ruse to reunite with Bertram. There are sundry lords and attendants, as well as the obligatory Fool to divert and appraise skewed gender and social roles.
It’s full of all the humor and well-intended finger-wagging commentary on our frail humanity for which the Bard is legend. Early on, Parolles lectures Helena on virginity, comparing it to a desiccated pear or a cheese that attracts mites when aged too long. Letters, lots of letters, propel the action through a whirlwind of courts, countrysides, battlefields and beds. The happy ending arrives only after stubborn male ego is properly subdued by the wits of wily women. The ultimate message should be clear enough with the title – All’s Well That Ends Well – spoken three times by the play’s end.
The Boulevard’s mission includes providing emerging actors with opportunities. The cast of 11 includes veterans with extensive Shakespearean experience, others with some, and novices. The inexperience shows.
The language is the thing. Shakespeare’s words carried the show, despite some actors’ discomfort with them. Flores and Bucher’s conviction and energy buttressed the cast’s inexperienced members.
Nettesheim bore considerable weight herself. Her elegant demeanor suited her role, playing Helena with an innate innocence and honest simplicity. Ambrosh portrayed the Countess with gravitas and a can-do feminism that eventually gave way to a degree of resignation to life’s realities. Keith offered Diana (her namesake, the goddess of Love, of course) a mirror of Helena. She appears only in the play’s second half, as a sensible ally of the women’s cause.
The lords, Paul Madden and Hugh Blewett (who just turned 18), and Mark Nimmeman, as the Fool, were admirable.
The stage is a small rectangular riser with simple stools at each corner and a settee. The performance is in the round – an unusual arrangement for both Shakespeare and the Boulevard. Part of the set actually extended onto the risers usually reserved for seating. The design expanded the performance area and reduced the house to 40 seats. Of course actors sometimes showed their backs to the house, but lively blocking kept that to a minimum.
The play’s treatment of class delineations would have been better served by costumes that show station. Everyone wears current street clothes, which could work, but here the men were at best disheveled. Bertram should at least wear a tie with his three-piece suit. Battlefield scenes in that same suit didn’t impart the mood. Parolles managed an appropriately foppish look; later, his dishevelment reflected his unhappy fate. The women fared a little better, but the look of the productions suggests stopping for rehearsal on the way home from a casual day job.
An Off the Wall Macbeth
This is Dale Gutzman’s 7th Macbeth. Off the Wall’s artistic director defines his purpose thusly: “It’s one of the most accessible Shakespearean plays and among the shortest. It’s easy to do in a small space. Macbeth was written to enlighten people. It deals with life’s secrets and man’s fears; I want to find things that hurt us today. The murder of a child is just that.”
The theater seats an audience of just 20. With a cast of 17, attending will be a claustrophobic experience for some. “It’s a very different production, Gutzman said, “very tactile, with the actors literally among the audience. A shower takes place on stage and there’s sword play. The themes are weapons and water. Above all, I really want the language to live.”
The cast includes Jeremy Welter as the soldier who murders the King to usurp the throne. Tamara Martinsek, who starred in Chess, Medea and Cabaret for Off the Wall, plays Lady Macbeth.
Macbeth runs February 17 through March 7.
Carte Blanche: Much Ado
With the success of its Midsummer Night’s Dream, Carte Blanche Studios decided to do a Shakespeare production each season.
Artistic director Jimmy Dragolovich, who also directs the show, said it represents a challenge: “It’s a comedy but it’s a language-heavy show and that requires considerable focus. Much Ado also has more women than usual and that fits CB’s ensemble.”
Much Ado is a love story full of twists, turns, deception, conspiracy, jealousy and ribald adventure. Carte Blanche sets the show it in the Elizabethan era, with live period music (mandolin, flute and drums) and period costumes. A Sicilian house with columns provides a simple, classic set. Scene changes will avoid the grand choreography of past Carte Blanche productions like The Producers and opt for minimal, quick adjustments. There will be no curtain.
Dragolovich has a solid background in the Bard’s work, but the cast of 18 is fairly new to Shakespeare. Many did appear in Midsummer Night’s Dream. The leads include Don Pedro played by Michael Traynor; Jordan Gwiazadowski as Benedik; and Emily Craig as Beatrice. Michael Keily appears as Dogberry. Dragolovich will play the role of the villain, Don John. It’s the first time in 13 shows he will act as well as direct. Like Bucher, he came to the role due to the departure of a cast member.
“It’s a learning experience,” he said. “I’m big on getting to the bottom of the language. We spent a lot of time dissecting the text so everyone knows what they’re saying. Compared to Midsummer, this work is easier; Midsummer had a lot of rhyme. Much Ado is largely blank verse.”
Much Ado About Nothing runs February 19 through March 7.