Thursday, August 31, 2006

Fringey Come, Fringey Go

Sorry it's been awhile. I got distracted by (of all things) theatre -- a lot of it. The 25th anniversary Edmonton Fringe Festival wrapped up this weekend, and I'm only now starting to reorient myself and look towards future projects.

It was a great Fringe, by the way. Not only did my own play, Purity Test, receive a lot of good reviews and popular acclaim, but a lot of other local shows got showered with praise as well. It's a bit pointless to provide full coverage after the fact, but just for the record, some of the shows I enjoyed included How I Learned to Drive, Down Dangerous Passes Road, Tales of Death, Finer Noble Gases, How Not To Suck (featuring former Walterdale AD Sam Varteniuk), and Catch/Jolly Jumper. I also had a good time at the Fringe Forums, where artists and aficianadoes got together and debated the past, present, and future of Fringe.

In the midst of all this theatrical madness, plans were quietly being laid for Walterdale's next season. The new website is now up, and it looks lovely: you can visit it at We're also just about to have auditions for our Christmas show, which is a musical adaptation of A Child's Christmas in Wales. Auditions are on September 10 and 11; if you want to come and try out, email Janet at

Antony and Cleopatra is still on my radar, but I doubt I'll have a lot of time to think about it soon, since I'm also just about to start my teaching term at Grant MacEwan. But when thoughts escape, I'll direct them here.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Utah vs. Stratford

To add insult to injury, my wife just got back from a lengthy stay in England, during which she saw two productions of Antony & Cleopatra--one at the New Globe in London, and one in Stratford-on-Avon, starring the mightly Patrick Stewart! Both productions were strong ones, the Stratford show in particular. Sheila very considerately brought back programs, posters, and postcards from both shows--and will be providing detailed reports on both shows. But it's still ironic, I think, that we both flew out of Canada and saw A&Cs, and I ended up with the short end of the stick.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Utah, Part 2

In my last post, I outlined some of the things that went wrong in the Utah Antony & Cleopatra. Here's one or two things they did right:

--The relationship between Octavius and Octavia. Even though neither actor was very strong, the director used blocking to communicate Octavius's reluctance to let his sister become Antony's wife. This is easy to overlook; but Octavius isn't the one who suggests the marriage (Agrippa does), and he spends almost exactly the same amount of time bidding farewell to Octavia as Antony does in a later scene (when he's planning to return to Egypt). The director kept having Octavius interpose himself between Octavia and Antony, until finally the frustrated Antony, crying "Come, sir, come, I'll wrestle with you in my strength of love" grabs Octavius and pulls him away. He turns it immediately into a joke, but it also served to reinforce Octavius's dislike and fear of Antony.

--Also, calling "Octavius" "Octavian." It's easier to say, especially the possessive.

--The scene in which Cleopatra learns that Antony has remarried (2.5), and the scene in which she quizzes a messenger about Octavia's appearance (3.3). Lots of inherent comic irony in these scenes, and a chance to show both the best and worst sides of Cleopatra. In Utah, the messenger was a great comic actor, easily tempted by offers of gold, and then terrified when he thinks he's said the wrong things. In 3.3, he kept looking back to Charmian and Iras before answering Cleopatra's questions:

CLEOPATRA: Is she as tall as me?
MESSENGER: She is... [Behind Cleopatra, Charmian and Iras shake their heads] not, madam.
CLEOPATRA: Didst hear her speak? Is she shrill-tongued or low?
MESSENGER: Madam, I heard her speak; she is... [Charmian and Iras gesture to the floor] low-voiced.

This went on until the Messenger, getting cocky, said, "And I do think she's thirty" in a sneering tone of voice that suggested any woman over thirty must be a hag. Cleopatra grew cold, and the Messenger tensed up, expecting another violent assault like the one in 2.5.

--The Soothsayer. In Utah, he was tall and thin, with dark circles underneath his eyes. He spent most of his scenes staring up at the sky (which, in the open-air pseudo-Globe, actually contained stars), and only reluctantly read Charmian and Iras's palms. His presence alone onstage book-ended the production, as if he were a reticent sort of chorus figure. But more interestingly, he reappeared twice in the second half of the play: once as part of the "hautboys" scene, and again disguised as the clown who brings Cleopatra's asps.

The "hautboys" scene (4.3) features Antony's night watchmen reacting to strange, ethereal music (according to Shakespeare's stage direction, "Music of the hautboys under the stage"--hautboys are like oboes). One soldier declares, "'Tis the god Hercules, whom Antony loved, now leaves him." In Utah, they gave this line to the Soothsayer--very clever, I think, since no ordinary soldier should be able to read such omens or portents.

As for the Soothsayer/Clown doubling, I had already planned to do that for practical purposes; but now it occurs to me that it might be valuable to make it plain that the Soothsayer is providing Cleopatra's means of achieving immortality. His lines are goofy (and not terribly funny, although the Utah audience did chuckle once or twice), but I think they could be delivered with a hidden earnestness that suggests the speaker knows Cleopatra's plan.

Humour in the play is a problem which I'll have to address sooner or later. I was very pleased with how much levity I could wring from King Lear--but then, that tragedy has a Fool as one of its major characters (for the first half of the play, at least). In this play, we have one Clown in one short sequence near the very end of the play--not enough laughter. Enobarbus may draw out a few guffaws, but even he gets pretty serious in a hurry.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Egypt in Utah

Just got back from a three-day Shakespeare conference in Cedar City, Utah. I presented a paper on "Hamletmachines and CyberDanes" (something from my grad studies), but the main reason for going was not the paper, nor any of the other academic shenanigans. Mainly, I wanted to check out the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and in particular, to see their production of Antony & Cleopatra.

You see...big confession here...I'd never actually seen a live performance of the play until now. Hence the need to fly 500 miles (including one hop in a tiny twin propeller plane) to the hot red desert (not Egypt; the other one).

How was it? Well, Cedar City is pretty...and the conference was OK, although there were only a handful of papers about A&C--most of them dealing with film & TV versions, not stagings. The Shakespearean theatre was lovely, a quaint, open-air riff on the original Globe (without the "pit" for groundlings to stand in). I saw a very fun production of Merry Wives of Windsor...

And then there was A&C. Oh, dear. What a travesty. Antony was a hulking boor with a radio announcer's voice and a tendency to sway, as if drunk, even at the character's most sober moments. Cleopatra was a strong actress (she'd done a great job as Mistress Quickly the night before), but she seemed unfocused, shiftless--generally lacking in either authority or sex appeal. Octavius was similarly vague. Octavia was unspeakably bad. And the costumes...oh my god... it was like they threw every style from East Indian to Cavalier England into a tie-dye machine.

But a show with a few bad actors and a nightmarish design concept might still be saved, if the director knows what he or she is doing. This guy didn't. As a result, the blocking was mostly unmotivated (and poorly suited to the thrust stage), and the actors' gestures lacked specificity and realism. This trend reached its nadir when Cleopatra plucked a rubber asp out of the basket and held it like it was...well, a rubber toy, instead of a deadly serpent or her ticket to immortality.

Yipes. Just yipes.

For all that, there was a handful of interesting moments, and I feel no remorse about stealing or adapting them into my own production, mainly because I can't help feeling they were either accidental, or ripped off themselves. I'll describe a few of them shortly. I also have some reports from Sheila, my wife, who just got back from England, where she saw two productions of the play (at Stratford and the New Globe), both light years better than the one I suffered through.