Aug 24, 2010

Final Ashland Blogging: Merchant and the Rep Percentage

"Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?"

So begins director Bill Rauch's thoughtful, sensitive new production of The Merchant of Venice, in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Elizabethan Theater through early October. The show opens with this provocative line from the fourth act's horrific trial scene, then "rewinds" (a clock at the top of the stage spins, and we hear whirring blips of rewinding tape) back to the play's beginning.

Unfortunately, this directorial choice is the strongest in the show, hinting at a level confusion and ugliness that the evening never quite delivers. Instead, this Merchant feels queasy, tentative, down-the-middle, with neither the romantic comedy nor the social horror feeling definitive, despite--because of?--the decision to present the text without excision or rearranging.

Anthony Heald's nuanced, entirely legible Shylock makes sense of every beat in this challengingly under-sympathetic character's arc, but this sensible, utterly defensible approach comes at the expense of the politically incorrect frisson the role, and the play, can generate at its best/worst. It's as if Heald and Rauch are unwilling to let us feel the full force of the odious, money-grubbing Jew stereotype which unmistakeably informs the play's writing, lest we join in that feeling for even a moment. The effect is a curious distance that robs us of involvement or implication; when, during the trial scene, Gregory Linington's oddly Einstein-coiffed Gratiano shouts taunts at Shylock, they draw awkward titters more than disgust, and I'm not sure the audience is entirely to blame.

Ugliness is not a problem for Al Pacino's Shylock, in Daniel Sullivan's Shakespeare in the Park production, headed to Broadway in October. Pacino can present the worst side of his characters without fuss or apology, while simultaneously giving them fully, recognizably human shape; this is practically his entire raison d'etre as a performer. And in Lily Rabe's Portia, Hamish Linklater's Bassanio, and Byron Jennings' Antonio, you have a satisfyingly odd, sexy, bumpy love triangle that's also recognizably human (the Jessica/Lorenzo/Gobbo triangle is more forced, but it fits the production's vision).

Rauch's production doesn't just suffer in comparison to Sullivan's juicy, involving production; it suffers more in comparison to his own brilliant, ultra-confident, near-perfect Hamlet, at the indoor Bowmer Theatre. Indeed, the outdoor shows at Ashland this year were, for me, a bit of a wash. I've already noted my boredom with the outdoor Henry IV, and while Darko Tresnjak's Twelfth Night is a undeniably bright and buzzy, its broad-brush comic style and colorful Mozartian overlay (with a stunning David Zinn set and lush Linda Cho costumes) were so much marzipan for me: It all looked so much better than it tasted.

And maybe it's because it's the outdoor stage, but I also have to confess that parts of Merchant and Twelfth Night suffer from the sort of declamatory, Shakespeare-by-numbers acting approach that Charles McNulty deplored in his thoroughgoing takedown last year--a puzzling piece, as I noted when it came out, given that on balance, OSF routinely employs some of the best actors I've seen anywhere, bar none. But I learned something else on this most recent trip in conversation with one director: I'd heard about the brain-exploding complications of the repertory schedule, and I always figured that the main complication was in casting actors in as many as three shows apiece, across a ten-month season--I was thinking about the performance part of the equation. I also knew about the rigors of changing over sets from the tech side of things. What I hadn't realized is that the interlocking rep schedule also straitjackets rehearsal time; the director I spoke to said that while the Equity contract allows up to 45 hours of rehearsal a week with actors, a director in Ashland may get closer to 20 hours a week with her actors, unless she can beg, borrow, or steal actors' time (and rehearsal space) for more.

The mind reels to think what this means for the festival's stepped-up emphasis on doing musicals, which were programmed sporadically until Rauch made a commitment to them a few years ago. But more importantly, I think it's entirely possible that a certain percentage of the Shakespearean acting at Ashland reverts to a default "classical" style that's clear, straightforward, and at worst uninspired. (One actor told me that while Shakespeare is definitely spoken with an American accent there, there's still a debate over what kind of American accent--is it "Tooz-day" or "Tee-ooz-day"?)

In short, in my whirlwind of nine shows in five days, I saw a festival in transition. Rauch has not only diversified the company racially and culturally, he has also striven to diversify it aesthetically, injecting American Sign Language, hip-hop diction, and the rock 'n' roll commedia approach of the Actors' Gang, among other influences, into the company. I've noted before how versatile the acting company appears to be, and I was especially excited this time out to see how many old hands weren't just hanging around but seemed as fresh as ever (Michael Elich, for instance, seems positively ebullient). But not every actor and director can, or would like to, do everything well. The audiences for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, including yours truly, have clearly embraced the festival's new direction (box office is booming, in other words), while the company and organization itself seems, by my rough estimate, only three-quarters of the way there.

For a large American theatre in this uncertain, transitional American moment, that's a damn good percentage.

Previous OSF posts:
The LA/Ashland Pipeline
Ashland Blogging II: Love for Lydia
Ashland Blogging III: Danlet
Ashland Blogging IV: Sob Story
Ashland Blogging V: Honorary Clasheros
Ljova, Lubitsch, and Ashland Blogging VI
For the LA Times Culture Monster blog: Ashland Blogging at Another Level

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