Friday, July 10, 2009

It's Shakespeare, Kids!

On Sunday, I'm taking a 9-year old to see the final performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Stonington Opera House. This morning he and I watched Peter Hall's 1968 movie version -- which I ordered through the Bangor Public Library. From the opening credits, it struck me that Hall and Julia Whitworth have some crossover about the mysteries of this play. Even the setting of Hall's movie looks ever so slightly like Deer Isle. (Check out the granite-like backdrop to the opening credits.)

You can learn more about Hall's movie on IMDB. Love the Hollywood writing credit: Shakespeare. Too bad Will's not a member of the writer's guild, eh? He could live off of summer royalties alone. And for those who love Brit actors and hearing the language in its natural patois, look for Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and Diana Rigg in all their youthful glory. They speak the language perfectly, so it's an excellent place to start learning the rhythms.

An alert for the nudity censors among you: Hall's fairies show a lot of skin (it's the 1960s, after all). This is VERY different from Whitworth's production (although Stonington does get some steam going). But both Whitworth and Hall see the (somewhat rotten) fruits of power plays in love. And the scenes can be as chilling as they are exciting.

Most important: If you're thinking of taking a youngster to the Stonington Midsummer this weekend, help him or her before the show by going over the plot and characters together, talking about the themes and getting familiar with the style of Shakespeare's poetry. (Not a bad habit for adults, too.) Perhaps on the ride to Stonington, pop a DVD into the car player -- perhaps the 1999 movie with an all-star cast including Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, Christian Bale, Stanley Tucci.

Children have a natural openness to Shakespeare's verse, and I think Whitworth's interpretation, which features four local Island girls, is engaging for young people, too.

Here's the point: Learn Shakespeare early and you have the basis for a lifelong relationship with language, history, beauty. Take your kids to live performance and you engender creativity, elegance and the ability to think imaginatively -- as well as good community participation.

See you Sunday, kids.
PS: Look at the amazing Helen Mirren as Hermia. She was 23 in 1968, when the film came out.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tragical mirth in MIDSUMMER

A Midsummer Night’s Dream walks a fine line between comedy and tragedy – and never more so than in Julia Whitworth’s production running through July 12 at Stonington Opera House. Whitworth’s production begins with a haunting drum. Could it be a heartbeat of love? Or a martial call to war?

Then, in the midst of combat between Athenians and Amazons, a soldier and a woman warrior inexplicably kiss in the heat of battle. Is it love? Or a war crime?

Later, nectar from a magic flower makes one person fall in love with his enemy, another fall in love with his beloved’s best friend, and still another fall in love with an ass. So what if it's delivered by hypodermic needle.

From any vantage point, it’s a dark and stormy night on the outskirts of Athens, where Ray Neufeld’s humid, leafy set underscores the tightness of the air, the deepness of the woods – where shadows lurk and fairies work wondrous mischief.

And yet this production has some of the lightest humor imaginable. Three Stooges meet Fred Flintstone. The Marx Brothers. Lucille Ball. Goldie Hawn. Robin Williams. Their spirits are all in the rafters of this production.

In Shakespeare's own words: Very tragical mirth? Merry and tragical? Hot ice?

When I asked Dr. Esther Rauch, a literary scholar and retired vice president of Bangor Theological Seminary, how to think about these wacky contradictions, she said: “I think this play is best read as a kind of a riff on ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ It’s almost exactly a twin play, and they both are based on ‘Pyramus and Thisbe.’ But where ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is very serious, this is a send-up.”

What do Romeo and Juliet have in common with Midsummer’s four young lovers? What is the relationship between laughter and tears? City and country? Athens and Maine? For more, listen to my full conversation with Dr. Rauch or read the transcript.

Better yet: Dr. Rauch and I will discuss all of this – and more – in a talk back after the performance 7 p.m. Friday, July 10 at the Stonington Opera House. Come join us for a conversation about the course of true love and how it never does run smooth, whether you’re laughing or crying.

Painting: William Blake's "Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing" (1785)

Photo: Esther Rauch and Alicia Anstead

Reviewing the situation: MIDSUMMER RAVE IN BDN!

Check out Judy Harrison's review of A Midsummer Night's Dream in today's Bangor Daily News.


"Considered by many a director to be a madcap romp in fairyland, Shakespeare’s comedy at the Stonington Opera House becomes something more under Whitworth’s direction. This is not glum production."

"The lush, green backdrop full of dark, leafy greens seductively draws the audience into the action onstage."

"The opulence of the kings and queens, be they fairy or mortal, is dazzling."

AND THE CORKER: "While many theater companies in Maine send audiences home with a new appreciation of the Bard’s work, Opera House Arts is the only one that consistently sends them into the foggy night thinking, questioning and rethinking Shakespeare’s canon."

Reviews are such quirky and debatable acts of journalism: consumer guide? critical analysis? a good read? Is the critic part of the arts world? Should she remain aloof? objective? analytical? And what role does the review play in the life of a show or the career of an actor?

All good questions. Judy? Readers? Actors? What's your review of reviewing?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How now?

Welcome to Shake Stonington! If you were in the audience Sunday July 5, please take a few moments to share your thoughts on the Stonington Opera House production of A Midsummer Night's Dream -- and to read earlier entries on this blog. (Scroll down the right side of the home page and look for June and July entries.)

Please also take a few moments to share the blog with friends. You can do this by email, Twitter, Facebook or knock on doors! When you do, please share info about upcoming performances 7 p.m. Thursday July 9 and Friday July 10, 5 p.m. Saturday July 11, and 2 p.m. Sunday July 12. And you can join critic-in-residence Alicia Anstead and guest scholar Esther Rauch, plus director Julia Whitworth and members of the creative team for a talk back after the performance 7 p.m. Friday July 10.

What fools these mortals be? Naw. We're only fools for Shakespeare.

Getting to the Bottom of Midsummer

If you think A Midsummer Night's Dream is simply a walk in the woods, joke's on you. Director Julia Whitworth's takes the audience on such an entirely unexpected journey with the show that it's anything but a walk. It's a trip -- beginning with the siege of the Amazons and ending with, well, as a veteran theater critic I'm constitutionally incapable to delivering a spoiler here. Let's just say that if Shakespeare twists notions of love and marriage into a knotty bow, then Whitworth adds swords and shackles.

This is why I can't wait to hear the thoughts of Richard Brucher, a professor of English at the University of Maine -- and guest scholar after the 7 p.m. performance (TONIGHT, JULY 5) of Midsummer at Stonington Opera House on Deer Isle in Maine. He will be in the audience tonight and will join Whitworth and me for an onstage conversation with the audience after the show.

For a preview of his thoughts, you can listen to my interview with Brucher or read the transcript.

We'll be talking about how sexy this production is, and also about Nick Bottom, my favorite character in the play. I think he may be Brucher's favorite character, too, because old Bottom is so genuine. "Shakespeare gives him some wisdom about the unpredictability of love," Brucher said. "But of all the characters he seems to be the most willing and able to accept it when it’s offered to him. Nick Bottom is the only one who gets any sex out in the woods."

And believe me, Titania makes a donkey out of Bully Bottom.

TONIGHT: A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM, 7 p.m. July 5, Stonington Opera House, Stonington, MAINE.

Photo by Carolyn Caldwell, courtesy Stonington Opera House.