Posts Tagged ‘Propeller’

Review – Twelfth Night – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 14, 2013

As mentioned in my review for Taming of the Shrew, I will book for anything that Propellor puts on, because I think they are the best Shakespearean theater company in Great Britain. The combination of original staging, impeccable acting, and transfiguration of the gender expectations puts me into an entirely more receptive state of mind than the “let’s do it all in the most authentic/detailed fashion possible” style I feel is very popular.

And … well, once again I booked for a play I don’t enjoy because of the company. The Twelfth Night subplot of the humiliation of Malvolio doesn’t sit well with me and goes on far too long. The scenes with Viola all sit well with me – I love watching her discomfort both at Olivia’s flirtations and Duke Orsinio’s too-well-received affections – but there’s too much in this play that feels like padding. Maybe a version in which all scenes with Sir Toby Belch were cut out would suit me better; but this is the third time I’ve seen this play in three years and really, it gets boring. If neither Simon Russell-Beale or Mark Rylance can make this show work for me, it just isn’t going to happen.

Except, well, Mark Rylance did make the show work for me: his Olivia was like cut glass, so full of self-importance and yet dragged down by mourning that her sudden change into chickenhawk worked for me. And the Olivia of Propellor’s production wasn’t able to get to that level of comedy, which meant we were reduced to looking to Sir Andrew Auguecheek for laughs (not that he wasn’t very well played but the character frustrates me).

For original staging, we had the duel between Viola and Auguecheek staged in a boxing ring, and the truly lovely shipwreck sequence, done with a ship in the bottle (I love how Propeller really makes less count for more). And Malvolio was truly pathetic and broken, and it was great to see the heavily abused Katherine (of Shrew) returned as a rather swaggering, sexy Sebastian … but … I probably could have passed on this one. I’d just seen in in November and its shortcomings were too fresh for me to overcome my dislike for them, and it’s not like anyone is going to do a version of this in which all of the things I don’t enjoy are cut. So: a good production, a very good Twelfth Night, but on a lovely summer evening I’d probably just as soon have sat outside and had a nice picnic with the actors instead.

(This review is for a performance that took place on July 10th, 2013. It continues through July 20th at the Hampstead Theater. They’ll be back next year for Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, so keep it in mind and remember to book early.)

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Mini-review – Crookback – Tim Welham at Etcetera Theater

July 13, 2013

“Woe betide the reviewer who goes to three Shakespearean plays in a week, for she shall be tired by the last one, and peevish.”

Some weeks ago I received an invitation to see a one man version of Richard III – called “Crookback” – performed at a pub theater in Camden (the Etcetera, over the Oxford Arms). It’s a really great script, one of my favorite Shakespeares thanks to Propeller’s excellent version of two summers ago, and I thought, given the great success of Alan Cumming’s Macbeth, this could easily make the transition to a great one man show.

Little did I account for the collective powers of two previous nights of Shakespeare and the heat of a London summer as experienced in the poorly ventilated top floor of a pub.

Tim Welham’s performance was fantastically physical (he ended practically dripping in sweat) – while his hand was nearly always clamped to his body in a sort of bionic vise, with just one other arm and his voice (and a few hats) he conjured a series of other characters, from Margaret (her arm spiralling and grasping like a crone’s) to Buckingham (with his odd American accent). He managed to keep a generally clear delineation between all of the various mains (which almost entirely consisted of “people Richard kills”), and rollicked us along from one merry murder to the next, assisted by a chalkboard (where names were crossed off when appropriate) and a tape recorder.

To be honest, this approach was not what I was expecting. I thought this show would be far more focused on Richard and his thoughts and not be working so hard to drag the other characters in. And the plethora of other characters finally wound up overwhelming me at the point of the death of the boy prince. By the time the swirl of voices came out of the tape recorder (as if to imitate Richard’s fracturing conscience), we were on Bosworth field and I had, genuinely, lost the plot. I was too damned hot and really just ready to be out of the room and cooling down somewhere, but I recognized “my kingdom for a horse” was my freedom bell and soon, we were out.

While Welham was a deliciously convincing Richard, the script itself needed further reworking to reduce the noise and distraction and center more on the key characters. I refuse to entirely blame the heat for my impatience; more could be done to make this work in this format. However, for Shakespeare fans, Crookback is a good stab at the format, though perhaps better enjoyed in open air.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 11th, 2013. It continues through July 13th (tonight). Be sure to dress lightly i.e. sleeveless shirt and shorts, and take advantage of the water they offer as you go in.)

Review – The Taming of the Shrew – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 12, 2013

Shakespeare has a few plays I really don’t like. A few I don’t like because they are boring; one (Winter’s Tale) because it’s nonsensical; one because of the violence (Othello); and, well, one because of the misogyny. That’s right, The Taming of the Shrew is a play I actively avoid, because watching a man torture a woman in a comedy just doesn’t tickle my funny bone one little bit. I find it more abusive than Othello, because it makes the audience complicit in Kate’s destruction.

But then there’s Propeller. I think they’re the most outstanding performers of Shakespeare in the country; and, given that it’s an all-male troupe, I’d expect they’d bring something really different to this play. And I’ve been booking for everything they do since their outstanding Richard III; I was just going to have to trust the company to make the best silk purse possible out of this sow’s ear. So I bought my tickets (months in advance!) and waited.

As you would hope, Propellor produced this as a very lively show, with the usual “everybody in the cast sing” moments as well as some rocking out (I doubt the electric guitar was period appropriate but, you know, roll with it); piles of physical interactions and fun staging that still made a virtue of simplicity – much better suited to my tastes than the National’s typical over-heavy set dressings. And the comedy was not limited to the usual “hip thrust to indicate sexual innuendo in the script” nonsense – in the scene where Petruchio shows up to the wedding ill-clad, he is costumed in a fringed leather jacket … and a sumo wrestler’s underpants, aligned so that when he turned his back to the audience and lifts his arms, we were all mooned. (Somewhat more horrifying was the view from the front – my housemate and I were in cringing hysterics because of the nut cleavage. Someone needs to teach this man how to tuck better.)

But did we manage to change the play into one that was not horrifying? Well, no. Punk rock Katherine (with her bleached blond hair and tattered stockings) came off more than ever like someone who’d been mentally abused. Her final scene, in which she admonishes her sister and another new bride for being inappropriately lacking obedience toward their husbands, has been, when I’ve seen this before, kind of a triumph for Petruchio, as Katherine has been restored to a “natural” state for women, obedient and yet still intelligent. In this version, Katherine appeared to be a broken, abused prisoner of war, utterly humiliated and abased, her natural vivacity destroyed. Her changed seemed profoundly wrong.

At the end, when Petruchio is told that it was all a dream (or a play), I can’t help but wonder just what Shakespeare was saying about his own comedy – that it was meant to be an outrageous exaggeration … or not? Despite the overall excellence of this show, I have not been converted to this play, but I think Propeller will probably give you a chance to see it in as good of a form as it will get.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, July 8th, 2013. It continues at Hampstead Theatre through July 20th. Next year they’re doing Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors, which I’m looking forward to much more.)

Mini-review – Henry V – Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

July 26, 2012

There’s no doubt about it, seeing Henry V twice in thirty days was a mistake. This version was better than Theatre Delicatessen’s (I could tell, because I didn’t get bored during the last half hour), but the magic was gone for me. I liked the music, though. And it was cool to see the same cast who was just in The Winter’s Tale perform such different roles.

Memo to self: only one production of any individual Shakespearean play per year. DO NOT FORGET.

(I saw this show on Friday, July 20th, but just couldn’t build up a head of steam to write a review, especially given that it closed before I even looked at my computer again.)

Mini-review – A Winter’s Tale – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

July 13, 2012

What happens if you take the worst Shakespearean play ever and have it performed by the world’s best Shakespearean company?

That’s the question I was asking myself when I booked to see Propeller‘s A Winter’s Tale at the Hampstead Theater. I don’t buy that every play by the Bard is good: while he may hold as a poet, some things just don’t fly these days. And the ending of this play is just too far gone to be credible to me. It also is jarring in tone, being a sort-of comedy with themes that are better suited to Othello than Much Ado. Silly shepherds being gulled by a salesman OH HO HO um only remember just a few minutes back when a loyal and good man was being eaten alive by a bear? Or even just a few scenes ago when we saw a woman die because of her husband’s irrational jealousy? Wait I’m laughing so hard I can’t stand it! Or maybe it’s really a tragedy with a tacked on, Hollywood (or Dickensian) happy ending …

I can’t help but think that given the material, Propeller have hugely succeeded with this show, because they kept my focus throughout (even the horrible pastoral party scene, much enlivened by a drag Girl Scout) but also got me emotionally involved in the plot thanks to the top notch acting. Richard Dempsey broke my heart as Hermione, and Robert Hands was convincingly over the edge as Leontes.

And yet … and yet …

Even with the comedy sheep band of the second half of this show, I found most of the scenes in Bohemia irritating (the father/son confrontation excluded), and the final scene in the sculpture room just made me want to pull my hair out. WHAT oh WHAT was Shakespeare thinking? I could not suspend my disbelief to accept the ending of this play as anything other than a … well, these day I would have thought the studio had forced the director to add it, like Decker’s voiceover in Bladerunner. I walked out shaking my head, again. If you’re a Shakespeare completist, then this may be your best chance to see the least painful performance of this play possible, but I can pretty confidently now say that I will die and never again go back for a production of A Winter’s Tale.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. It continues at the Hampstead until July 21st.)

Review – Pocket Comedy “Comedy of Errors” – Propeller at Hampstead Theater

September 28, 2011

After seeing the amazing Richard the Third that Propeller did this summer at the Hampstead Theater, I’ve been kicking myself for not making it to Comedy of Errors, the other half of their dual bill season. I was so impressed by R3 that I considered trying to see C of E somewhere on the tail end of the tour but just couldn’t make it work (financially or schedulewise). However, it appeared the theater gods were going to smile on me as Propeller returned just a few months later with a “Pocket Comedy” version of Comedy of Errors, the whole play in one hour (and once again at Hampstead Theater).

However, on looking at it, the schedule was a bit strange and unworkable. Shows at one P.M.? On a weekeday? And further shows at TEN A.M.? Just what in the world was this about? Don’t tell me it was … aimed for the kiddie audience?

Alas, so it was, a house full of eight and twelve year olds who, while warned about use of cellphones, had no qualms about crackling candy, talking to each other fairly loudly (“BUT THEY JUST MET. HOW CAN THEY BE GETTING MARRIED?”), and putting their feet on the backs of the chairs in front of them (and let’s not mention the hysterical nervous laughter over scenes given gay overtones by the same-gender casting). I’m afraid this meant that I missed many lines (and some meaning) during the show. I also found myself, in this audience, uncomfortable with the over-acted, sexually oriented jokes, such as when a crack was made about marital problems (and the items each person carried drooped) and again later when a line about trimming someone’s beard was accompanied by actors mimed scissoring their crotches.

We did get through most of the salient plot points in this sixty minutes Shakesaganza, but while there was a lot of buffoonery and slapstick, to be honest I just never really got all that into it. I wanted genius, I wanted my world to be turned upside down, I didn’t really want Curly Larry and Moe’s laffs-a-minute classical theater. The performers did a great job of keeping their characters straight (given that they were all at a minimum double-cast), but … even in his comedies I think Shakespeare goes just a little bit deeper than this. Maybe I wanted too much, maybe my expectations were too high, but for me it just didn’t deliver. I’ll hope that some day I can catch Propeller’s full-length version of this show, but I have to report that this stripped-back performance, while adequate, was entirely missable.

(This review is for a performance that took place Monday, September 26th, 2011. It continues at Hampstead Theater through October 1st.)