September 3rd, 2013

American Players Theatre: “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

On Saturday, August 24th, we made the trip to Spring Green to see APT’s new production of William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” followed by Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”

We had been very excited when we heard that APT was doing both these plays this year, and even more so when it appeared they would do a thing that I had wanted to see ever since discovering Stoppard’s play: to perform the shows together, one after the other, with the same actors in the same roles. This combination appeared exactly once in this summer’s schedule, so we were glad to be able to catch the conjunction.

In Shakespeare’s play, Matt Schwader as Hamlet gives us a very active and vigorous prince, not so much a “melancholy Dane” as a manic-depressive one. The switchover from passive-aggressive to just plain aggressive gave a very interesting emphasis to the play that we had not seen before. For one thing, it become plain that Hamlet is being insufferably cruel to Ophelia (Cristina Panfilio) in the “Get thee to a nunnery,” scene and the interaction that comes after, before the “play,” which markedly contributes to her breakdown after Polonius’ death. Hamlet taunts Claudius (Jim DeVita) to his face, which, given Hamlet’s subsequent murder of Polonius and lack of remorse therefore, makes his uncle seem justified in deeming him dangerous and wanting to be rid of him. Hamlet’s confrontation with his mother after killing Polonius and demand that she have no further carnal contact with Claudius, even while he’s preparing to carry away the dead man, shows that Hamlet really DOES have an unhealthy obsession with his mother’s sex life--. This is what we are calling the “Hamlet is a jerk” interpretation, which we thought worked really well and gave the performance great energy.

Another good departure was to make Polonius (David Daniel) a likeable fellow. Certainly, he’s pompous and talks too much, but he’s not an ass or a stuffed shirt. Most importantly, the scenes involving Polonius, Ophelia, and Laertes (Eric Parks), demonstrate that they are a close and caring family, with children and parent loving one another, which makes Ophelia’s grief and Laertes’ rage at his double bereavement seeming very genuine.

Yet another clever touch was to have veteran actor James Pickering enact the roles of the Ghost, the Player who plays the murdered Gonzago before Claudius, and the First Gravedigger. The fact that the Player and Gravedigger resemble the murdered King is noticed by Claudius, whose visible starts when meeting them underscore that he, too, is haunted in his way.

DeVita as Claudius is a man running as fast as he can to stay in one place, desperately trying to hold on to by charm what his brother held by merit. Deborah Staples plays Gertrude as a woman who is still young and vital, who has fled from a long and lonely widowhood into marriage with her brother-in-law without really appreciating what she was getting into, or what effect the hasty marriage would have on others. By the time Hamlet returns from his aborted sea voyage, Gertrude seems to have forgotten any misgivings he might have had, since it is high spirits that lead her to drink from the poisoned cup.

That this was a very carefully and intricately worked out production was evident in attention to every detail and nuance. Definitely one of the best Hamlets we’ve seen.

Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is the same play, but seen (and only seen) from the viewpoints of the two minor characters, friends of Prince Hamlet from college, who get caught up in Claudius’ plots and come to a bad end thereby. Ryan Imhoff is billed as Rosencrantz and Steve Haggard as Guildenstern, although, since in Hamlet they are interchangeable, they spend most of the play being uncertain what their own names are.

The play opens with the pair waiting “offstage” as they frequently are. That all is not quite right is made apparent both by their coin-flipping game in which “heads” has come up an unprecedented 90+ times in a row, and the fact that neither of them can remember anything later than the morning, and the morning only vaguely. As the play goes on, we see their brief interactions with the “main” characters, between which times the two try to figure out what’s going on, both in the machinations of the Danish court in general, and with their state of suspension in particular.

Steve Haggard is one of APT’s most able comic actors, and his character is the sharper of the two, raising questions about existence which his partner is frustratingly unwilling or unable to appreciate. Imhoff’s character is genially goofy (in fact, it occurs to me that at points when he is “moseying” around the stage, he is literally walking like Disney’s “Goofy”), with a short attention span and short re-tention span as well. He has too little grasp of the situation to be worried about it until things get too bad to ignore.

The one group of characters that do interact with them on a personal level are the Players, lead by John Pribyl in a wonderfully juicy portrayal. However, the Players, with their “all the world’s a stage” solipsistic viewpoint are of no help to the perplexed pair. After all, as the Player King says, “We’re the opposite of people.”

For people who love theater and acting, the play is particularly funny, not only for the Players’ cynical take on acting and audiences, but because Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are acting out the life of bit players: waiting offstage in costume, engaging in desultory conversation or mild amusements, something enough to keep one alert but not so distracted that one misses a cue.

Even without that, the play is wonderfully funny, with both leads handling Stoppard’s witty dialog ably and augmenting it with judicious amounts of physical comedy. It really is a tour de force for Haggard and Imhoff, since they are on stage for 99% of the play. (I suspect this why there are two intermissions, whereas the longer “Hamlet” has only one—because the principals need breaks--.)

The set is exactly the same as the “Hamlet” set, not surprising. I was initially a bit surprised that the costumes (with the exception of Hamlet’s somber black) were not the same, but gradually realized that they are brighter, more fantastic, more artificial, perhaps a bit tawdry—in a word, theatrical. The other characters also pitch their parts up a notch, as well. It occurred to me that perhaps not only was this a reminder to the audience that we are seeing a play about a play, but that it may also reflect Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s view of the world—more dramatic and highly colored, since they see themselves as the protagonists of their own story.

Both productions played to full houses and drew standing ovations. I expect that this will prove a once in a lifetime theatrical event, and we will not forget it.

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Milwaukee Masterpiece 2013

On Sunday, August 26th, we went to the lakefront for this year’s “Milwaukee Masterpiece” car show. It was a lovely day, and we had a good time admiring the many beautiful automobiles on display.

We thought that this year there was a particularly fine selection of classic cars present, and some very interesting collections. For example, while there was an exquisite Jaguar XKE coupe being shown, there were also a number of the Mark I and Mark 2 Saloon (‘sedan’) cars, which were the more sedate Jaguars from the same period. There were some very rare models represented, such as a 1937 MG SA 2 Litre Saloon (usually you only see the two-seater MGs) and 1938 Bugatti Type 57 Ventoux Coupe (Bugattis of any kind are very rare, but this was a type I’d never even seen a picture of before.)

There was also an interesting section of one-offs, customs, and conversions, such as the very handsome 1953 Victress S-1A Roadster (very advanced for its day), the 1961 Shabbla 1965 World's Fair Concept Car by Bucci Carrozzeria (which looks like something Buck Rogers would drive), and the 1962 Wild Goat Special Roadster by The Goodrich High School Auto Shop, built from plans originally published in “Popular Mechanics” magazine.

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The Lone Ranger

On Sunday, September 1st, Georgie and I caught up with “The Lone Ranger” at the budget cinemas.

Having now seen it, I’m inclined to side with Johnny Depp and others associated with the movie to the effect that, like last summer’s “John Carter of Mars,” it was never given a proper chance. The press decided pre-release that it was going to be a turkey, and that’s pretty much all you ever saw in reviews. In our opinion, although it’s far from a great movie, it was a lot of fun. Once you get down to it, the story of the railroad encroaching on Indian land is a treatment of a pretty classic Western story, to which the iconic “Lone Ranger” elements—the man left for dead and rescued by the Native American, the hidden silver lode (the source of the “silver bullets”) are nicely integrated.

Yes, the action sequences that both begin and end the film are overdone (literal ”train wrecks” in both cases), but so shamelessly so that it’s interesting to see what kind of stunt they are going to pull next. The weakest part of the movie is the awkward framing device, in which 90+year old Tonto tells the story to a boy visiting a Wild West show in the 1930’s. (Think about Peter Falk telling the story in “The Princess Bride.” Admit it, when you think about that movie, you always forget those parts, don’t you?) Also, it’s kind of surprising to see that extreme old-age makeup hasn’t changed much since Dustin Hoffman’s famous image in “Little Big Man,” especially since we now have the technology to both digitally age a face and then to animate it using CGI.

Depp’s “Tonto” steals the movie (but we expected that). Much more than a “sidekick”, he is in fact the senior partner in the relationship with Armie Hammer’s “John Reid”, and does the most outrageous stunts with a grave solemnity that’s consistent with the character’s revealed background. Hammer does a decent job of playing a man out of his depth, but he’s pretty much overshadowed by Depp, by William Fichter as one of the nastiest villains to come along in quite a while, and Ruth Wilson as the wife of John’s brother, who fights raiders at the ranch, joins the boys in hanging off a speeding train, and suffers getting (accidentally) hit in the head with a lump of coal by Tonto. They are well supported by Tom Wilkinson (seen as the saintly Graham Dashwood in “The Very Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”) as railroad man Latham Cole, and Helena Bonham Carter in a featured role as ballerina-turned-madam “Red” Harrington, who sports one of the coolest ever artificial legs (“Can I touch it?” is a running gag.)

So, if you’ve got two and a half hours to kill and wouldn’t mind a thrill ride, you could do worse than go see “The Lone Ranger.”

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Bristol Renaissance Faire 2013

Despite having bought advance tickets in February, we couldn’t fit getting down to the Bristol Ren Faire until absolutely the last day, Labor Day Monday, but had a very good time. The weather was perfect, in the 70s and dry, and traffic down to Bristol in the morning was light and free flowing despite the construction zone that backed up southbound traffic later in the day.

We got there just after opening and strolled in with no line at that time. We started our usual tour, and bought some very good brownies to snack on at the new “Green Angel Kaffee Haus” on Guild Hall Row (a good thing in more than one way, as it turned out--), chatted with “Jayne the Foole” at Blackheath Books, got good seats for the noon jousting session, and visited friends at Court, and Master Felix Needleworthy at his shop. We did quite a lot of shopping around, as there are very attractive discounts on the last weekend, which gave us ample to do while waiting for a chance to get lunch. By the time the jousting was over, the turnout for the Faire was so great that lines at the more popular food stands were hugely long, and it took until more like two o’clock for the queue at “Maiden Voyage” (the fish and chip shop) to get down to a mere ten deep (as opposed to fifty--). So, it was a good thing that we’d had the brownies to sustain us.

We did find one particular prize while shopping, and bought Georgie an outfit from Pendragon Costumes that can be useful for both Ren Faire and Steampunk, and very versatile in application of its parts.

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West Allis Players, "Romeo and Juliet"--forthcoming

I auditioned for the West Allis Players' production of "Romeo and Juliet", and have been cast as "old Capulet" (or "Lord Capulet," Juliet's father, a part I was pleased to get. Being a Shakespeare purist, I wasn't quite as pleased to find out we are using an abridged script, which cuts the show down to two hours long. However, it has all the "good parts," the cast seems good, and I hope to have fun with it. It's being directed by Mary Beth Topf, whom I've worked for quite a bit in the past, including on "Taming of the Shrew" and "Beauty and the Beast," and I think she's very good. Also, for the first time, I'm in the same show as friends Lily (Apothecary), James (John the messenger), and Briana Sullivan (Chorus), so that's a plus as well.

The show will go on at the usual venue, West Allis Central High School, Friday and Saturday nights, October 4th, 5th, 11th and 12th, and one Sunday matinee, October 13th.

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