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The New American Shakespeare Tavern20
Average Rating Given : 4.02500
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The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Back on the bus
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
The Shakespeare Tavern's current production is nearly identical to the production before last (the intermediate version contained an additional skit, which, sadly, is dropped this time around -- and it was lovely).

In the interest of recycling and energy conservation, I will post below my previous review, with the pieces that differ (such as a reference to Shakespeare that didn't occur in this year's version) removed. Also, it should be noted that this year's cast replaces Laura Cole, Amee Vyas and Mike Niedzwiecki with (respectively) Veronika Duerr, Rachel Frawley and Matt Nitchie. All perform the roles more than capably.

Otherwise, see below:

**** Begin recycled review ****

The Shakespeare Tavern has brought back its popular Chaucer adaptation that delighted audiences last year. If — after you have heard and taken seriously the warning that this is not a show for the easily offended (although nothing in it is anything worse than you’d see on network television) — you think you’d like to join the adventure … get on the bus!

The tales develop as a group of pilgrims on a “tour bus” share stories to amuse, skewer or outdo their fellow passengers. The pilgrims act as storytellers as well as characters in the stories, with assistance from numerous costume changes and several puppets that almost become a second cast in themselves (particularly Chaucer and, of course, the bus).

Like a good episode of “Saturday Night Live,” this incarnation of “The Canterbury Tales” contains enough brilliant and hilarious moments and strong “skits” to more than cover the slower parts or weaker stories. And the cast is so strong and interacts so well that you’ll be willing to excuse anything that may seem to go too far or cause you to scratch your head a little.

Unfortunately, the tale that I liked least when I saw this production last year remains the opening tale this year. “The Miller’s Tale” feels too long and is the most distasteful of the tales — as well as the most potentially offensive (primarily to Catholics and Italians … and maybe carpenters) — though it does have a few shining bits, including an entertaining, short riff on “The Godfather.”

On the other hand, fortunately, the strongest and best of the tales from last year also returns. “The Pardoner’s Tale,” which wraps up the first act on a very high note, is one of the tales with a clear moral to the story — appropriately (in this Catholicism-heavy context) reflecting one of the seven deadly sins (greed — other tales touch on pride and lust). Anyone who enjoys a story with a good twist will love this one. It’s also got some of the best language and social commentary, as the pardoner begins the story with an explanation of how guilt-ridden people are easily duped into falling for his religious scams. (“They always have — and they always will.”)

“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” … Perhaps the best explanation comes at the end, when a clearly intoxicated nun telling the story is reveling with Chaucer. At any rate, the dance sequence with Mike Niedzwiecki as the very colorful rooster and Rivka Levin as his soulmate chicken is absolutely hilarious and hysterically choreographed. Levin’s chicken outfit is stunning — perhaps the sexiest bird outfit ever — and the new, wing-flapping chicken puppets are wonderful. The tale goes all over the map, with a very odd detour regarding two men who cannot find hotel rooms and run into bad dreams and criminals, but the image of the dancing fowl will be what stays with you!

At the performance I saw, Maureen Yasko was handling all the roles played by Laura Cole and was doing an admirable job of filling Cole’s shoes (tall order, considering Cole’s status as a legend at the Tavern). She was a very capable fill-in and another testament to the Tavern’s increasing reputation for grooming and introducing new talent. In fact, most of this cast are graduates of the Tavern’s apprentice program.

If you’re up for — as the playbill describes it — “a tour on the wacky side: puppets, hijinks and bawdy jokes included,” don’t miss this trip!

The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare
Putting the “fun” in “dysfunctional”
Monday, March 19, 2012
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times – and I may need serious counseling.

Such is the case with Falstaff, for whom audiences of “Merry Wives of Windsor” would feel sympathy if his woes weren’t all his own fault – not to mention darn funny. This is a play about deception: wives deceiving lecherous admirer, spouses deceiving each other, children deceiving parents, reluctant potential cuckold deceiving his nemesis… Yet never has such an abundance of dishonesty been such a hoot.

Many of Shakespeare’s comedies have a few roles that allow actors to pull out all the stops. This play has a much more even distribution of flamboyance – with plenty of opportunities to go crazy with physical comedy, accents, the works. As such, almost everyone has a chance to shine in a juicy, fun role.

While there are a few instances in which a few actors overdo it, even in a wild and lawless play like this, almost the entire play seems to take place right on the outer edge of the bounds of goofiness. The audience, in any case, is so entertained by the characters’ antics and behavior that the occasional toe over that line is forgivable. (As is the “age-blindness” that the casting requires.)

The performances are almost universally perfect. The servant roles – usually the most over-the-top in a Shakespeare play – are wonderfully and surprisingly restrained in this one and performed very well by Matt Felten and Brian Lee.

Tony Brown is gloriously wicked as Falstaff yet never even comes close to alienating the audience. Even though you know he’s behaving very, very badly, you cannot help but smile at the twinkle in his eye when he thinks (wrongly) that he’s going to get away with something. Falstaff’s overconfidence is humorous because we know it won’t be rewarded, and his bragging about his appearance, his acting skills and everything else about himself is hilarious because of its exaggerated ridiculousness. Brown has played this role many times before and has crystallized in it a likeability that it probably doesn’t even deserve, largely through his playful interactions with the audience.

The “Wives” (Laura Cole and Mary Russell) are conspiratorial and clever; their friendship seems very real and warm. Nicholas Faircloth manages to give Mr. Page, one of the blandest characters on the surface, his own personality and signature “move.” But the real gem of a role in this Page/Ford foursome is Mr. Ford, and Matt Nitchie excels in making the most of it. Nitchie is a gifted comedian who evokes laughs with equal skill through dialogue, physical silliness and facial expressions. It’s been a delight to see him spread his wings and get better and better in plays at the Tavern, and he is fantastic as Ford – and perhaps even more so as “Mr. Brooks.”

All of the supporting roles are well-executed, too. Rivka Levin is adorable as a flirtatious, well-meaning go-between who effectively wields her wiles to repeatedly fool a very susceptible Falstaff. Jeff McKerley (parson) and Drew Reeves (Dr. Caius) gleefully butcher the English language and drip with accents, while Troy Willis (host) amiably overstates (and restates) basically everything. Daniel Parvis is brooding and menacing as Pistol – until he dissolves into a winningly smitten schoolboy. Paul Hester as Slender is the unlikeliest of suitors to the much-admired Anne Page and gives his character, which can often be irritating in productions of this play, a simpleness that makes him seem less like an intentional nuisance and more like a clueless buffoon.

With all these “big” (no pun intended, Falstaff!) characters, the potential is there for a battle to upstage one another, but that doesn’t happen in this production. Everyone knows his or her role and supports the other actors and characters, giving each time in the spotlight. It’s a great example of a true ensemble, something that the Tavern has been doing consistently well lately, especially with the comedies. The characters combine into a believable community, with convincing relationships and interactions.

This play may well be making deep, grandiose and insightful statements about the socioeconomic and cultural world of Shakespeare’s time … or about the institution of marriage … or about the Welsh. Maybe so – but you won’t hear them above the laughter.

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare
Fair is foul and foul is fair
Thursday, October 13, 2011
The first indication that this is not your usual staging of “Macbeth” is the appearance of the Weird Sisters. Usually the play’s witches are cloaked in dark robes, with only their gnarled hands protruding. This time, they are jarringly lovely (albeit offbeat) young ladies in long skirts, with only slightly sinister makeup to suggest that evil could lurk beneath the flowing blond locks. They look more like the offspring of a Goth rocker and a Renaissance Festival wench than the triplet sisters of the Grim Reaper. How could you not trust such cherubic faces as these, right?! The disarming contrast sets the stage for a new take on the play -- one that introduces deep themes, challenges beliefs about fate vs. self-determination, and horrifies and captivates at every turn.

The witches’ appearance isn’t the only difference. They also play a far larger and more controlling role in these proceedings – appearing in scenes as macabre puppeteers, representing fate or divine beings or just simply angry outcasts out to wreak vengeance on an entire nation through the ego of one man. These are not just catalysts; they are active participants, manipulating Macbeth and others to ensure the fulfillment of an overriding plan. In a sense, they reflect Macbeth’s own inability to let fate unfold without his interference. Whether you accept this interpretation of the witches’ involvement or not, you’ll acknowledge that it’s masterfully carried out.

But enough (for now) about the Weird Sisters. This play pivots on Macbeth and Lady Macbeth and on their changing relationships with each other and with the world they inhabit. Andrew Houchins and Mary Russell are excellent in the roles.

Houchins transforms throughout the play -- as pressure mounts and his body and mind are deprived of rest and solace -- from a somewhat timid, basically nice guy to an overconfident, bloodthirsty maniac. The more things spiral out of control, the stronger his confidence in his grasp on the wheel. Houchins is believable and riveting at every step.

Russell looks gorgeous when she enters the stage – breathtaking brunette wig and gown – and within moments solidifies the “can’t judge a book by its cover” truth as she shares her venomous thoughts first with the audience and then with her malleable spouse, whom she fears is “too filled with the milk of human kindness.” Not long ago I found Russell, who often plays the sweet ingénue, a little difficult to buy as Kate in “Taming of the Shrew”; there was no shred of doubt about her in this one. She dominated as the icy Lady Macbeth – and yet brought some of her more practiced vulnerability to the few moments of the play in which the ambitious queen’s conscience breaks through and gets the upper hand, however temporarily.

Together, the Macbeths are electric. Their scenes reflect a gamut of stages in their relationship – power- and desire-fueled passion, guilt-and-fear-induced strain, and a post-party-meltdown mix of concern and frustration. At every stage of the gradually disintegrating Macbeth marriage, the two are natural and convincing. The changing power dynamic – Lady Macbeth’s iron control over her weak-willed husband eventually giving way to an impulsive and irrational Macbeth’s charting his own course independent of his wife’s influence – flows naturally from the events of the play and the alterations in the characters and their interactions with each other.

All of the supporting actors are spot-on in their roles, too. Jonathan Horne does a fine job of the bizarre “I’m too evil to be king” ruse that Malcolm plays on Macduff, and that can be a tough call. As Macduff, Troy Willis has mostly angry vengeful wartime scenes, with the notable exception of the heartbreaking moment when he learns of his family’s murders, which Willis pulls off very well. Matt Nitchie and Nicholas Faircloth do good work, too, especially with their subtle expressions of discomfort at Macbeth’s increasingly unsettling and dangerous behavior. Daniel Parvis nails the play’s only comic scene (or what should be the play’s only comic scene, anyway) as the servant who imagines the various ways that professions will be received at hell’s gate while creatively procrastinating the answering of his own household’s door. (He also is the only person in the whole of Scotland with a Scottish accent, it seems. This might be distracting if it weren’t so darned entertaining.)

There were a few snags in the overall stellar performance. The moments just before the Macduff family massacre were odd, with Lady Macduff far too chipper and carefree in her banter with her daughter, considering the gravity of the situation (her husband’s abandonment of the family, not even the perils she doesn’t yet realize). The puppets out of the cauldron during the pivotal scene in which Macbeth learns about the marching forest, Macduff and those who aren’t “born of woman” provoke a little inappropriate snickering by audience members. It’s risky to employ puppets in this scene, and, though it’s overall effective, it still takes a nick out of the play’s dark tone. (Plus, the muffled voices coming from beneath the stage lack a bit of clarity – and volume.)

The jury is completely out on one scene: The Weird Sisters’ delivery of the ingredients in their gruesome broth – eye of newt and all that – is simultaneously disturbing, off-putting and appropriate. While most productions whisk through the grisly and offensive details, hoping the audience won’t notice the body parts of dead babies or “blaspheming Jew,” this one puts special emphasis on them, with the witches expressing mock sympathy and sarcastic “awww”s. At the same time that I wanted to dislike this decision, I also had to give it credit for underscoring just how detached these women are from the suffering of others. Their only reaction to the dismemberment of animals and humans is sadistic levity. Yikes.

It’s October. What better time for Shakespeare’s masterpiece about witches and ghosts? Yet the real magic of this reimagined “Macbeth” isn’t witchcraft; it’s the spellbinding work of director Laura Cole and an impressive cast.

The Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare
Seeing double
Saturday, September 10, 2011
“The Comedy of Errors” presents a significant challenge for theater companies: There must be two convincing pairs of adult-male twins. One production I’ve seen of this show used two actors, each of whom portrayed both twins; this placed too much burden on the audience and made the “we meet at last” scene at the end a huge let-down. On the other extreme, some productions have had two sets of men who wouldn’t be mistaken for each other by Mr. Magoo; this, too, makes it hard for the audience to buy. However, the Shakespeare Tavern’s current production has hit upon the just-right combination: two sets of actors who look remarkably similar and require just a slight leap of faith by the audience. (Hey, we are asked all the time to believe that female characters actually fool others with their disguises as boys.)

Indeed, these pairs are the most similar-looking different-people pairs I’ve seen in any “Comedy of Errors.” Daniel Parvis and Jonathon Horne are the brothers Dromio; Matt Nitchie and Jeffrey Stephenson are the brothers Antipholus. While their personalities are quite a bit different – Parvis the light-hearted, fun-loving Dromio/Horne the pouty, besieged Dromio; Nitchie the mood-swinging sometimes-mirthful and sometimes-abusive Antipholus/Stephenson the naughty, party-boy self-gratifying Antipholus – their various associates’ confusion is not altogether ridiculous.

Parvis and Nitchie are brilliant and at the top of their games; they make an exceptional master/servant pairing. It helps that their characters are the more likeable set of the two, but the actors also have the power to charm the audience. Parvis shines even in small scenes, but he completely nails the extended comedic routine in which he describes his repulsion at the kitchen wench’s wooing (Shakespeare’s version of the “your mama’s so fat” jokes). It’s also one of the scenes that showcases this pair’s more amicable relationship, compared with the mostly frosty and more consistently abusive relationship between Stephenson’s Antipholus and Horne’s Dromio.

Also impressive is Kelly Criss as the appealing and obedient younger sister, Luciana, to the volatile and headstrong Adriana (Laura Cole). (Hmmm… Kate and Bianca?) Criss is believable and fun, though she falls back a few times on the goofy/giggly bit, and that doesn’t seem to mesh with the character. Cole, on the other hand, seems miscast in this role. She seems a bit out of place in the Antipholuses/wife/would-be girlfriend situation and is a little more shrill than necessary at times. (Disclaimer: This character in general is pretty irritating.)

The background characters are all capably portrayed by Tavern mainstays. Josie Lawson is authoritative as the abbess, J.C. Long is hilarious as the near-sighted (if he can see at all) Pinch, Nicholas Faircloth evokes pity as the desperate jeweler, Doug Kaye manages to keep us with him through the somewhat-tedious opening scene and does a fine job as the greatly vexed father (though the double casting of him in this play was not ideal), and Amee Vyas is seductive as the much-leg-displaying “material girl.” As Nell, Vinnie Mascola is … frightening. (The valley-girl accent is a bit too much, though. You half-expect him … er, her … to say “There’s, like, a guy at the gate.”)

The costumes are, not surprisingly, terrific, but it would have been nice if there were more differentiation between the masters’ and servants’ attire, which were the same color and very similar. The difference between them was subtle at best – belt and stitching – and the audience already is trying to keep straight which brother is which.

One other great choice of note in this production: the front-and-back view of the scene in which REAL Antipholus of Ephesus tries to gain access to his own home while his brother is inside in his place. With one side of the stage representing the party outside and the other side giving the interior view, the audience gets to see both sides of the gate. The scene also lends itself to some great physical-comedy touches.

Some of the kinks in the early-in-the-run performance I saw are sure to iron themselves out as the show goes on, and the chemistry is likely to click even more later in the run and during the repertory. If you see just one of the trio of comedies, you may want to select this one. It’s fast-paced and funny, and it represents one of the best “twins casting” efforts you’re likely to see anytime soon.

The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
The shrew is back
Thursday, September 1, 2011
The Shakespeare Tavern is churning out comedies at a breakneck pace, so, just a couple of performances after opening “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” the second Shakespearean comedy, “Taming of the Shrew,” appears.

This production is essentially a remounting of the most recent one, which was a masterpiece of comedy and chemistry. A few adjustments and some recastings take just a bit of the starch out of it and poke a few holes in its magic. Still, a slight downgrade from that nearly perfect production remains a very entertaining, funny crowd-pleaser.

Mary Russell takes over the lead role of Kate. Through no fault of her own, she just has a look of inherent goodness, innocence and naivete that makes her a little tough to buy as a ferocious shrew. Her rantings have an underpinning softness that give her version of Kate a less dramatic transformation than her predecessor’s. Also, there seemed to be less electricity between her and J.C. Long’s Petruchio. Even so, Russell gives the performance her all.

As for Long, he strays a bit from the fine line between method and madness that made his earlier performance shine. This time, he rails a bit more manically than necessary and feels over the top at times. He has lost a little of the restraint that gave nuance to Petruchio and won over the audience, even amid his wildest antics.

A few other recastings also have disrupted the production’s previous magic, even though the replacements are more than capable, and some of the scenes don’t click as well as they did. However, some of the production’s strongest performances – such as Matt Felten’s and Daniel Parvis’ hilarious servants and Troy Willis’ brilliant Vincentio – remain as pitch-perfect as ever.

A few other changes that give this remounting a different flavor:
• The waning moments of intermission are put to use with a fun, entertaining glimpse of how Petruchio’s servants pass the time while the “cat’s away.”
• This time, the widow’s outward appearance reflects her inner shrewishness, as she is outfitted with (and nearly unrecognizable in) an unflattering wig and … Well, I’ll just let you see for yourself. Kati Grace Morton’s performance is sharp-tongued and may be nastier than Kate ever thought of being.
• Matt Nitchie is adorable and simple as Biondello. He could hone the character’s defiant moments just a touch, but his confused obedience is charming in a very limited role.

“Comedy of Errors” is running now, too, so this one is moving to the three-play comedic rotation. Catch it while you can. It’s a riotous night of theater that manages not to alienate the modern woman, “taming” though it may be.

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare
With friends like this, who needs enemies?
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
The Shakespeare Tavern begins its “year of the comedy” at … the beginning. This comedy, Shakespeare’s first, is by no means his best, but it isn’t his worst, either. And it sets up some of his favorite techniques that many future comedies recycle. (Does a woman in drag wooing another woman on behalf of the man she herself adores sound familiar?)

The play centers on Proteus and Valentine, the titular “gentlemen.” The casting of these two leads is another fine example of the Tavern’s apprenticeship program and its remarkable ability to discover, develop -- or both -- talented young actors. Jonathan Horne and Kenneth Wigley are both fairly recent graduates of the program (if indeed, Wigley even has graduated yet from the apprenticeship program – or high school). Horne recently has proven himself in significant roles (and is destined for more, as indicated by promotional photos of upcoming comedies), but Wigley has been cast in purely background roles to this point. Both do a fine job, even though it’s a little tough to buy that they are contemporaries (see previous allusion to Wigley’s very youthful appearance). Kudos to the Tavern for exposing Atlanta audiences to more and more promising young actors.

So, the plot: Proteus declares undying love for Julia, while Valentine eschews romance forever. Then, of course, falls in love. Eventually his best friend shows up and meets the object of Valentine’s affection, and … Well, you see where this is going. Shakespeare had about as much faith in men’s fidelity and honesty sometimes as many modern women have. And he seems to have had astonishingly high expectations for women’s capacity to forgive the men they love for ANYTHING. (It’s fun to imagine these situations if they were to be discussed on “The View,” say.)

Actually, the main characters are the least funny and entertaining of the play, as you may have guessed. The real laughs come not from “gentlemen” but from the lower classes, in the form of two saucy servants portrayed by Daniel Parvis and Matt Felten. Their back-talk would have gotten them beaten or worse if they had served Petruchio in “Taming of the Shrew,” but, fortunately, these young guys are far more laid-back masters, and the servants’ sarcasm and wit are allowed to flourish.

Parvis and Felten probably could perform these types of roles masterfully in their sleep by this point, but Parvis in this one faces the ultimate test for a performer: He shares the stage with a dog. There’s a reason for the adage that it’s treacherous to act against animals and children, and Sandy the adorable (and amazingly sedate) four-legged co-star manages, with very little effort, to upstage all the humans. And, in true Shakespearean gender-bending style, she is challenged to portray a male dog, Crab. She sails through her scenes with a subtle, nuanced performance and a high level of tolerance.

Shakespeare’s female characters in this play are not his strongest or best. In addition to their saintly and doormat-like ability to forgive, they have an apparent addiction to mind games, bizarre mood swings and strange behavior. Julia is particularly capricious, even when no one is watching, in the early scenes but transforms into martyr after finally making up her mind about whether she loves Proteus. Silvia is defined pretty exclusively by her righteousness and dedication to her man, but her supposed wisdom becomes tough to believe when she chooses a pompous buffoon to guide her on a dangerous journey to find her exiled paramour. (Whether this character’s ridiculousness is defined by the text or is a matter of director’s or actor’s interpretation is not clear to me, but it undermined the play’s ongoing effort to establish Silvia as the paragon of all women, worthy of the dutiful worship of three men.)

The Shakespeare Tavern can coax the humor out of just about anything and does pull off some very funny scenes with “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” But it’s important to remember one thing as you watch this early comedy: Shakespeare was just getting started! And, fortunately, so is the Tavern’s season of comedy.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), by The Reduced Shakespeare Co.
Pulp Shakespeare
Thursday, June 23, 2011
During the play-within-a-play (Pyramus and Thisbe) at the end of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Hippolyta remarks that “this is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.” You may know how she feels during “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged).” The nonstop silliness of this irreverent romp through Shakespeare’s catalog won’t exactly leave you intellectually enriched but very likely will leave you aching from laughter.

The Shakespeare Tavern has done this play a few times in recent years, but this year there are some changes. Some of the cultural references have been updated (e.g., “Twilight” book out/Sarah Palin book in; Hillary Clinton out/former Rep. Weiner in), and there is an entirely new cast, compared with the most recent trio. This time around, some of the Tavern’s most gifted and entertaining young actors take on the roles of … well, pretty much every character the Bard ever created. And they do so with almost constant skill and style. A few hiccups here and there (and a few unnecessary vocal contrivances) can be forgiven amid the overall consistency of their performances.

Having seen “Complete Works” several times makes it impossible not to draw comparisons with previous incarnations. Some of the changes this time around are better (the new sketch-book prologue to “Romeo and Juliet” is funnier, for example, than the old pantomime version), and some lack a little of the luster of past productions (the “Macbeth” portion in particular seems to have lost something, including one of the better lines).

Daniel Parvis, Matt Felten and Nicholas Faircloth all do admirable jobs of moving through the various plays, to varying degrees. While some of them are marked off the checklist simply because the play’s name was mentioned, others get much more in-depth abridged treatment, notably “Romeo and Juliet” and “Hamlet.” Longtime Tavern-goers will notice some sly inside jokes, such as when the actors discover that they have “forgotten” to do “Hamlet,” and Parvis chastises Felten (a multitime Hamlet at the Tavern) for letting that one slip his mind.

At times the music seemed to overpower the dialogue (or rap, as the case may be), so hopefully as the run continues that will be eased up some. And a few jokes drag a little or go on a bit too long; hopefully that, too, will be tweaked.

This is the type of show that is at its absolute best when it’s fresh for the viewer. If you’ve seen it before, a little of the magic wears off (though it’s still a fun time at the theater). But if you’ve never seen it before and don’t know what to expect – and know better than to expect Laurence Olivier-type Shakespeare – you are bound to have a really good time. A newcomer at the performance I saw had tears streaming down her face – not from the tragic tale of Romeo’s and Juliet’s doomed love, but from uncontrollable laughter.

The Tavern recently completed the entire Shakespearean canon, representing hours and hours of drama, comedy and history over the course of many, many years. If you don’t have that kind of time, try this “Cliff’s Notes” version instead. It’s “Shakespeare light,” but you just might come away with a few nuggets of knowledge in spite of yourself. And you are guaranteed never to see any of Shakespeare’s plays the same way again!

Edward III, by William Shakespeare
All’s not fair in love and war
Thursday, March 31, 2011
First of all, congratulations to the New American Shakespeare Tavern for accomplishing the significant feat of performing all of Shakespeare’s plays. (Asterisk alert: A late-breaking addition to the sometimes-fluid listing of Shakespeare plays will be performed – just in case – later this year. But that’s for another day.) It’s commendable that the Tavern showed the bravery and commitment to its artistic vision to forgo the financial comfort of packed houses for the Bard’s “greatest hits” in order to stage these obscure plays for comparatively sparse audiences. (There were plenty of seats to be had when I saw this and “Two Noble Kinsmen.”) This goal and the accomplishing thereof served the dual purpose of adding a feather to the Tavern’s cap and giving theater/literature lovers a rare opportunity to complete their own Shakespeare punch cards.

Now, on to “Edward III.” Basically, this play is about a king’s honor lost and regained, a son’s coming of age via battle, codes of honor … and the English kicking the derrieres of some favorite nemeses. The Scottish pose a brief threat and are quickly dispatched, largely because they are (according to Shakespeare) complete buffoons. (You may want to think twice before bringing your cousin Hamish to see the show.) The French are the trash-talking foes for the bulk of the play and are portrayed in the typical sneering fashion. (Definitely don’t bring your cousin Francois.) If you happen to be an Anglophile, though, you’re all set. God save the queen – er, king!

In “Edward III,” all is not fair in either love or war. The first half deals with the former, and the second half focuses on the latter. The “love” half puts the king’s honor and fidelity to the test when he falls for a lovely woman whom he and his army have just rescued from the aforementioned Scottish buffoons (Matt Nitchie and Paul Hester are hilarious, if politically incorrect, as the thick-brogued clowns). Poor Mary Russell: Not long ago she was the comely young Anne Boleyn, whose love is demanded by the married king. Now, here she is again – the comely young Countess of Salisbury, whose love is demanded by the married king. Not to give too much away, but her fate turns out a lot better than Boleyn’s (for one thing, her head stays attached), and she is probably the most interesting and heroic character (definitely my favorite in the play, anyway). She holds her own and uses her intellect as effectively as her charm. (She even gets in on a little of the widespread trash talk in the play, as she gloats to her Scottish captors when it becomes clear that their defeat is imminent.)

It’s hard to become reinvested in the king after the first act, but the audience is supposed to “forgive and forget” his moral shortcomings and break out the pom-poms to cheer him on against the nasty French. This is a tough call, especially in a scene late in the play that asks the audience to buy his love for and devotion to his wife. (OK, so maybe it’s a little harder for FEMALE audience members to bury the hatchet at that point.) Fortunately, after a few early moments in which you can kind of see the French king’s point of view, he transforms into such a sniveling and borderline-psychotic wretch (played perfectly by Bill Murphey, a relative newcomer to the Tavern who is making quite a splash) that Edward seems downright angelic by comparison. Also, the very-serious and stuffed-to-the-gills-with-honor son of the king, Edward the prince of Wales (Matt Felten), is quite easy to root for.

In fact, the prince is far more compelling than his father, and the scenes that center on him and the other characters are the best in the play. It may be named “Edward III,” but the highlights of it are the moments that focus on everyone else. This is not a criticism of Drew Reeves’ performance, which is fine; it’s a criticism of the character, who is kind of irritating, often hypocritical, frequently baffling and sometimes just a bit boring. One of the finest scenes is a father/son-type exchange between the prince and Lord Audley (played with quiet nobility by John Curran), in which they discuss the battlefield predicaments that seem to spell their doom and then delve poetically into the nature of life and death. The language and emotion in this scene are touching and memorable, and it builds the framework for later scenes that demonstrate the prince’s devotion to Lord Audley.

So the second half of the play is the standard battle stuff of the other history plays, with a few subplots involving, again, honor thrown in. Will the French prisoner keep his word to return to captivity if he fails in his mission? Will the French prince keep his word to grant liberty to a passing-through Englishman? The overwhelmingly pro-English/anti-French play does grant the French some opportunities for humanity and decency with these side stories. It is nice, actually, to see a few shades of gray in the villains.

The actors are, overall, terrific in this play and do their best to make it seem puzzling that “Edward III” is never produced. However, at least at the performance I attended, there sometimes was too much speed and not enough enunciation, leading to blurred and indistinguishable lines, particularly during highly impassioned moments. Hopefully they have slowed down some as the play has progressed. Since the audience probably just has one shot at seeing this play performed, it would be good if it comes across loud and clear.

The plot may not be groundbreaking, but “Edward III” is still very much worth seeing. After watching it, you’ll be able to leap into the fray of debate over whether Shakespeare did indeed write this play – and, if so, whether he acted alone. And, if you decide that this is bona fide Shakespeare, that’s one more punch for your Bard card that you’re not likely to get anywhere else anytime soon.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher
Blood is thicker than water -- but not testosterone
Monday, March 14, 2011
Imagine if William Shakespeare took “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Hamlet” and several other plays, both comedy and tragedy, dumped them into a blender, and hit “puree.” The concoction that poured out afterward would be “Two Noble Kinsmen.” Even the characters of Theseus and Hippolyta are reused from “Midsummer,” and, as in that one, they get to witness a “fine” dramatic/dance/musical production that is hilariously absurd.

There is a lot to love – some even to adore – about this play, and most of that is in the first half. Shakespeare and his writing partner, John Fletcher, seem to have forgotten that they were writing a comedy somewhere along the line, so enjoy the laughs while you can. Through all the play’s peaks, valleys and head-scratching detours (war starting over the remains of three women’s husbands? impromptu theater in the forest? really?), though, the audience remains 100 percent invested – and that is because of this near-perfect cast, particularly Daniel Parvis (Palamon) and Matt Nitchie (Arcite) as the title characters. The audience can forgive nearly anything in the plot for the sake of them and their very capable supporting players. The actors and the director deserve high praise for making sense out of this “Shakespeare potpourri” and actually bringing a kind of flow to it.

The basic plot is that a huge wedge is driven between two very tight-knit cousins when they both fall in love with a woman they see through the window of a prison. They are prisoners of war, but really popular VIP ones. And, yes, they merely SEE her, but both willingly throw away their iron-clad bond with each other over her, even though they moments earlier proclaimed that life in prison is better than freedom simply because they are there together. (Just go with it.)

The relationship between the “kinsmen” is played to such perfection by Parvis and Nitchie that the audience (or, at least, I) cared about a thousand times more what happened to them – whether they would patch things up – than what happened between either of them and the accidental femme fatale, Emilia, who happens to be Hippolyta’s sister and an avowed bachelorette. She protests her intention not to mess with the silliness of marriage almost as vehemently as Benedick does in “Much Ado About Nothing,” so the audience knows right away not to believe a word of it. (Her speech about old times with her gal pal is yet another “Midsummer” ripoff – er, homage. It’s a nice, sentimental tribute to the bonds of friendship that is reminiscent of Titania’s speech about her late, great friend as well as the “remember when” exchange between Hermia and Helena at the beginning of that play.)

Back to Nitchie and Parvis, though: This is a fantastic pairing of the Tavern’s two rising stars. While they both usually do masterful jobs in nonleading roles, this puts them front and center, and they are more than up to the challenge. The chemistry between these two lifelong best friends is absolutely critical to the success of this play, and they completely nailed it. Just a tiny move or an inflection by either of them adds so much. While the characters probably come across as basically indistinguishable and not very interesting on the page, that is wiped away by the nuanced manner in which Parvis and Nitchie make them their own and differentiate them. I saw this on opening weekend, and it already “clicked” on every level; there is seemingly very little room for the improvement that almost always occurs throughout the play’s run.

The rest of the cast is impressive, too. Despite the harshness of her past and of her eye shadow (I tried not to mention it – I really did – but she reminded me of Mimi from “The Drew Carey Show,” and it could not be ignored), Mary Saville as Hippolyta also has a soft side. She is believable as a warrior, and she is more than a little intimidating, but she also shows tenderness to her too-cute-for-her-own-good little sister. There’s also just the tiniest bit of jealousy in her. Though she’s not on stage much, she makes the most of the time she is, as does Andrew Houchins as Theseus. Houchins’ Theseus is still basically likable despite the rather irritating way in which the character plays with people’s lives for his own entertainment. Kathryn Lawson as Emilia is lovely and tragic. She really is much more than a pretty face, even though there’s no way the guys could have known that, and she evokes a great deal of sympathy for her predicament toward the end.

Amee Vyas plays an Ophelia-like (the character doesn’t even have a name) jailer’s daughter driven mad by unrequited love for Palamon and a lack of nourishment/rest/common sense while pursuing him. She does a very perky, risqué madwoman admirably. The characters’ reactions to her madness run the gamut: a very sweet, loving treatment by her uncle (Stuart McDaniel, in the best of his mini-roles); the desperate concern of her father (Winslow Thomas, in a welcome return to the Tavern) and spurned suitor (the underused-here Paul Hester), both also unnamed; the amused, somewhat exploitative recruitment by the traveling troupe of actors; the creepy, disturbing, off-putting “medical advice” offered by a very slimy doctor (played to the oily height by Clark Weigle). Her storyline itself runs the gamut, too – silly and harmless one moment and highly uncomfortable the next. Listen carefully to Hester’s detailing of his rescue of her to see just how much Shakespeare plagiarized himself.

It’s almost a shame that there had to be minor roles in this play, which results in the relegation of some impressive talents (ex: Erin Considine) to just a few lines. The cast has almost no weak link, and they all do incredible work to make this play much more than it maybe ought to be. While the original play is by no means a “sow’s ear,” the performances and directorial decisions elevate it to a much finer “silk purse” than might seem possible.

All in all, two pieces of advice: (1) Go see this play and find out how it ends (and why that almost doesn’t even matter). This is all but guaranteed to be your only chance, and I promise you that you don’t want to merely read this play. (2) Read the summary in the playbill before the show begins. It wisely doesn’t give away the ending and it makes the twists, turns and bizarre subplots a lot easier to decipher.

If only there had been curtains in that prison cell…

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
Characters gone wild in Verona
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
First things first (literally): What happened to the prologue?! Shakespeare’s very own “Cliff’s Notes”-esque play summary, memorized by generations of high school students, is MIA in the Tavern’s new and markedly different presentation of “Romeo and Juliet.” Did someone think that the prologue will ruin the play by giving away the ending? Is there anyone in America, with the possible exception of Taylor Swift, who doesn’t have at least an inkling of what lies ahead for the young couple? The prologue is not the only scene trimmed from the production, apparently to move things along, but it is the unforgivable one. I will stop short of picketing and initiating a letter-writing campaign, but I do encourage (is “implore” too strong?) the Tavern to consider reinstating the prologue, if it wasn’t just accidentally forgotten on the night I saw the play (which I secretly hope was the case).

This is a very well-acted production, basically across the board; it’s just a production filled with very unusual – and sometimes very disappointing – interpretations and choices. For example, Jonathan Horne does a fine acting job as Paris. Unfortunately, this Paris is the most irritating interpretation of him I’ve seen in years – smug, selfish, pompous, pouty, jerky, disrespectful and a little slimy. And he packs all of that into barely 10 minutes on stage! There is a really baffling interaction between him and Lady Capulet that is probably supposed to add depth to both characters, subtext or something, but, as far as I can see, does nothing but muddy up the plot and destroy later scenes when we’re supposed to feel bad about the demise of “noble” Paris. Truthfully, it also was a little icky.

Speaking of Lady Capulet, she is well-performed by Mary Saville … as a completely miserable, probably battered wife who seems to take joy in nothing whatsoever. Capulet, skillfully portrayed by John Curran, is an absolute menace – terrifying, really, and not just to his wife, daughter and nurse; even the early confrontation with Tybalt has an eerie Mafia-hit feeling to it. Mercutio is supposed to be a little off-the-wall, but this production has him downright certifiable. He crosses the border from eccentric-but-wise to manic wild man, who, as Shakespeare might say, is “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” J.C. Long does a perfectly believable job as a raving lunatic, but it’s disappointing that Mercutio lacks nuance and sometimes is borderline incomprehensible.

But maybe the weirdest directorial decision involves a relatively minor character. Peter, the servant (who looks an awful lot like Lord Montague, “coincidentally”), cannot read and has to enlist the assistance of “the learned” to find out who’s supposed to be invited to the Capulets’ shindig. But when the nurse is being accosted by the maniac Mercutio, Peter is sitting on the steps behind her – reading (or at least holding and looking at) a book. Then later, he is exasperated again when Capulet gives him the list of invitees to Juliet’s wedding to the snob Paris. What is that about? It cannot be an oversight, because most of the time characters don’t just happen to read books in the backgrounds of scenes. Is Peter implied to be faking his illiteracy, and, if so, for what possible reason would he do that? He could have been knitting a sweater during the mock-the-nurse scene and it would have been less of a distraction.

Time to highlight some positives! Two scenes that are noticeably absent are also noticeably not missed. The controversial and often-horrible scene when Juliet’s “death” is discovered, about which I have railed quite a bit in my time, is removed. Last year’s tasteful rendition of it is replaced by a nonexistent rendition, and nothing is lost – especially considering the way her parents and Paris are portrayed. It would have been tough to pull off true sadness with the way they have come across before that point and the abysmal home life in Chez Capulet. Also missing is Romeo’s purchase of the poison from the apothecary. It always seemed like filler anyway, and we get the gist without the play-by-play, in this case. No big loss.

Jeff McKerley is endearing and wonderful as Friar Lawrence. He conveys the exactly right amount of warmth, sympathy, fatherly love (especially since I don’t think we ever see Romeo with his real father), devotion, exasperation and pain. It is a nice touch to have him mix the special sleeping potion for Juliet on stage. Somehow, it’s comforting to think that the friar doesn’t have this unsettling concoction just lying around, already prepared, next to the eye of newt. It is no accident that Friar Lawrence comes across as a hundred times more parental and loving to both of the star-crossed lovers than any of their parents.

Kelly Criss is easily the most believable of recent Juliets in terms of age-appropriateness. It’s not difficult at all to think of her as a 14-year-old; she has a childlike quality and a youthful look that almost make some of her more risqué moments a tiny bit uncomfortable to witness. While there are a few snags in her performance and, again, some directorial decisions make her seem almost bratty (would it be nicer to say “spirited”?) early on, she hits her stride and charges through the truly meaty stuff with impressive panache. She makes it clear that she is not merely stunt casting (Matt Felten’s real-life wife), and the audience can almost feel her heart breaking at more than one point.

Felten, as Romeo, has been down this road before and is a little older than he used to be, so the smitten teen is a bit more challenging to pull off convincingly these days. But he still manages it, for the most part. He also has an impressive ability to be loud/shout/express anguish and still actually make sense, and his emotions seem very real. His swordfighting scene with Tybalt is nicely done, largely because both he and Daniel Parvis (Tybalt) are skillful with swords. And his scenes with Friar Lawrence are touching and sweet.

“Romeo and Juliet” is timeless and will be loved by a lot of people forever. Every February it will sell out almost all of its performances. There really isn’t a need to try so hard to inject something new into it, and this year’s production would have been better off with less tinkering and reinventing. Nevertheless, the basic story is the same and the acting, as I mentioned, is generally excellent, so audiences should still leave satisfied.

Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare
A 'Night' to remember
Tuesday, January 11, 2011
Disguises, cross-dressing and confusion are standard fare for Shakespeare’s comedies, but a strong leading lady is somewhat less common. “Twelfth Night” is one of those that puts the spotlight squarely on a woman, and that works to excellent advantage in this production, in which Veronika Duerr shines as Viola/Cessario.

A possible downside to having seen many productions of this play – including many at the Shakespeare Tavern – is that it’s sometimes a little difficult to shake the “ghosts” of past excellent performances and to avoid making comparisons. That was the case, to some degree, with a few of the characters in this production, but not with Viola/Cessario. Duerr, though a little difficult to believe as a boy, makes the role her own and does a great job at both the sentimental moments (mourning a brother, tearful reunion with the not-dead brother, expressing deep love – anonymously – for her “master”) and the comedic moments (particularly Cessario’s reluctance – to put it mildly – to duel Sir Andrew). There is no “Twelfth Night” if there is no skilled actress in the Viola/Cessario role; no worries about that in this staging!

Other standout performances came in less-expected roles. Sir Andrew Aguecheek has a few memorable moments and lines in the play but usually isn’t considered one of the highlights. Matt Nitchie changes that. Nitchie is increasingly fearless when it comes to physical comedy (perhaps the minidress and feather fan in “Hamlet: The Musical” were a sign), and he is fantastic in this one. His early scenes didn’t seem to bode that way, as Sir Andrew starts out kind of mumbly and sulky (part of an overall gloomy feel that I’ll discuss in a minute), but he blossoms as the play goes on and steals nearly every scene in which he appears. His dance moves alone are a sight to behold. It is a wonder that he doesn’t pull a hamstring.

Andrew Houchins also is impressive as Orsino, the spurned lover and object of his “servant’s” affection. Houchins, usually cast in bitter and/or funny and/or loud roles, probably doesn’t leap to mind for a romantic leading man, but he was utterly charming as Orsino. Orsino’s pouty outburst toward the end (“if I can’t have you, nobody else can, either!”) was a little reminiscent of some of these other angry/bitter/loud roles, but overall he is playing someone refreshingly different, and he makes it easy to believe that Viola would fall for him (if not easy to believe that she’d agree to let him kill her, but that is never believable – sorry).

One other extremely minor role – so minor, in fact, that I’m not entirely sure from the cast list what the character’s name is (Valentine, maybe?) -- deserves a special mention. In almost no stage time and very few lines, Orsino’s other servant does a remarkable (and funny) job of conveying his jealousy of the new apple of the master’s eye. Just a few snide remarks and snarly glances got the message across and were a very entertaining nuance.

I did have a few quibbles, both about the production and about some performances. The mood of the play seemed a little too dark, especially in the beginning. Yes, everyone is bummed out (brothers’ deaths, rejection by one’s beloved, etc.), but it still seemed a little too moody to make anyone laugh much – more so than any “Twelfth Night” I’ve seen before. For a while, it seemed that all of the characters were reluctant to be there. Several of Shakespeare’s tragedies have been presented at the Tavern with less overriding malaise than this comedy begins with. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why that is, but, thankfully, the gloom lightened up some as the play progressed.

Also, some of the actors do a great overall job but hit some snags at places. Mary Russell is wonderful, especially in her early sad scene with the jester and her first encounter with Cessario, but the occasional shouting bouts when she develops a severe case of lovesickness seemed a little out of character and manic. Jeff McKerley gets a lot of laughs as Malvolio, but some of it seems slightly over-the-top; he is really perfect, actually, in the more serious scenes after the prank on him takes a bad turn. While he is a fine drunken lout as Sir Toby Belch, Nicholas Faircloth seems too young and fresh-faced to be the longtime thorn in his niece’s side. Sure, people have uncles who are not much, if any, older than they are, but it is a little jarring in this context. It’s not Faircloth’s fault that he is not older, of course, but it’s an unusual casting decision. Daniel Parvis does a flawless and refreshingly innuendo-free (compared with some previous performances of the same role) job as Antonio; my objection is that he is reduced to practically a cameo and woefully underused. It would have been an improvement if he had been cast instead as Sebastian and given a bit more to work with (which actually was how I initially thought it was cast when the two characters arrived on stage).

I will close this review on a high note, much as the play itself closes, by pointing out two big highlights:

(1) The lighting. I will be the first to admit that I almost never notice anything about lighting. But there were a few moments in this production that were lit so brilliantly that a non-lighting expert like me couldn’t help but notice. The scene with “mad” imprisoned Malvolio was especially impressive; you could see the actors in shadow, just enough to get what they were doing and their expressions, but not so much to detract from the dungeon-like atmosphere. It was really lovely.

(2) The final song by Feste the jester, which ends the play, was magical. It is the best I ever have seen that done, and it did much to erase any misgivings about anything else in the play and to leave a beautiful, positive last impression. It is helpful that J.C. Long is a gifted singer, but that alone didn’t do it. It was a combination of the song, the singer, the two guitarists (Nitchie and Parvis) to the right and left of the stage, the brief return of the play’s couples to illustrate the appropriate verse of the song, and (again) the lighting. Very moving.

Overall, going to see “Twelfth Night” is a good way to spend any night.

Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare
No good deed goes unpunished
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
To answer your first question, it’s TIE-mahn, rhyming with “Simon.”

To answer your second question, it’s not really clear why you’ve never seen this play and may never even have heard of it. It actually is quite compelling – and extremely relevant to today’s society. It’s unlikely that Shakespeare had a crystal ball to see our modern culture, so the only explanation is that two-faced sycophants go way, way back.

The aforementioned sycophants are the “friends” of Timon, who lives (guess where?) in Athens and spends money like water to keep his friends happy, healthy and, in some cases, out of prison. Unfortunately for Timon, as his very loyal and extremely fretful servant/accountant has been saying repeatedly, the money finally runs out and Timon is forced to open his eyes to the fact that his friends are a bunch of users and selfish jerks.

Such is the content of the play’s first half, which is the more eventful half. The second half takes us to the remote area of the forest where the newly avowed humanity-hater Timon has taken up residence and receives a series of unwelcome visitors. The dialogue in the second half is sarcastic and witty, giving the tragic circumstances of Timon’s shattered life a very dark humor.

Maurice Ralston as Timon is perfect. Ralston is a master both of being likable and of being sarcastically witty, and he has ample opportunity to showcase both as the “two faces of Timon.” Without going into too much detail to give away the ending, I will say that Shakespeare apparently wasn’t interested in being Hollywood before there was a Hollywood. If you are waiting for the “It’s a Wonderful Life” conclusion with the “no man is poor who has friends” outpouring of support, you might be disappointed. Timon’s character development goes only so far, and Ralston does a fine job every step of the way. His portrayal of the ailing Timon was so realistic that it wasn’t always clear whether Timon or Ralston was coughing up a lung. (Thankfully, the answer is Timon.)

Others in the cast seem at times to be stiff, cardboard or even bad – but after a little while it becomes clear that this is intentional. The characters wear masks to underscore their falseness, and they are really nothing more than caricatures, so what comes across as bad acting and/or overacting really is purposeful. (I think so, anyway!) Two characters, in fact, are so one-dimensional that their masks relegate them to nothing beyond their professions: The writer’s mask has writing implements, and the artist’s mask (my favorite in the play, which is used cleverly as a prop as well as a costume piece) is a palette with paint blotches.

Especially compared with Shakespeare’s other plays, some of the actions in this one seem a little anticlimactic, particularly Timon’s vengeance. Other Shakespearean characters have gone much farther – MUCH – to make their points, so at times it feels a bit bland by comparison. This is not a criticism of the play; it’s just an observation that a few punches were pulled, and that was a little surprising.

Besides Timon, there are only three main characters. All are portrayed well by the actors (Paul Hester, Andrew Houchins and Travis Smith), and two (loyal servant and valiant soldier) make sense. The puzzling one is Appemantus (Houchins), described in the character listing as “a churlish philosopher,” which is accurate. His scenes with Timon are interesting, and the two characters match wits and wage intriguing intellectual battles. But Appemantus’ bitterness and indignation at extravagance and shallowness go too far and cause him to be kind of a jerk on the other end of the scale, even as he is making completely logical points. He is a fascinating character, and he evokes constantly changing reactions that include agreement, disgust and even pity.

This play has a lot going for it, and it has a lot to say. “Timon” could be the poster child for dozens of platitudes. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. Money can’t buy happiness. A fool and his money are soon parted. You get what you pay for. Once bitten, twice shy. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Any number of statements about the evils of capitalism/materialism, the honesty of the common folk and the corruption brought about by wealth. And, sadly for Timon, the subject line of this review: No good deed goes unpunished. For him, many good deeds bring cataclysmic punishment. This play is not a big promoter of the concept of karma.

“Timon of Athens” has its critics, and it’s almost never (possibly actually never) performed, but the Shakespeare Tavern has accepted the challenge, and the result is a memorable, thought-provoking night of theater. After seeing this play, you might think twice before lending your buddy some lunch money – at least until next month, when the Tavern presents the Timon transformation in reverse with “A Christmas Carol.”

Anne of The Thousand Days, by Maxwell Anderson
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Even if you have heard of “Anne of the Thousand Days” by Maxwell Anderson, you almost certainly never have seen it performed on stage.

Change that. As soon as possible.

This play is beautifully and intelligently written and, in the hands of the Shakespeare Tavern, exquisitely cast and performed. There is nearly nothing to criticize about the production. It’s the perfect counterpoint to the Tavern’s concurrent “Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. This one presents a less propagandistic version of the story – in such a raw, almost intrusive, examination of the main characters’ motives, emotions and weaknesses that it often seems that you are watching Anne’s and Henry’s personal diaries come to life before your eyes.

While the king in “Henry VIII” is sanitized, one-dimensional and uninteresting, in this play he is thoroughly dissected and presented as neither hero nor villain but as a deeply flawed, multifaceted, frustrated, selfish, obsessed, smooth, complex … well, human being. Troy Willis, who plays Henry in both shows, is able to break free in this one and demonstrate his impressive skill at portraying the gamut of human experience. Let’s face it: Henry VIII had his wife beheaded over trumped-up adultery charges – not exactly anyone’s definition of Prince Charming. And yet the author and Willis absolutely defy you not to at least understand him a little at times and even be completely won over on occasion.

In fact, the performances of Willis and Mary Russell as Anne Boleyn are so outstanding that they create a tug-of-war over the audience. Just as you are beginning to feel that Henry is not so terrible – just as Willis has charmed you into believing Henry’s sincerity – Russell pulls you back with an emotionally charged scene or speech or single line. The audience members are volleyed back and forth throughout the play – and cannot take their eyes off the cerebral combat on the stage.

Though this play is all emotion and philosophy and intellect – not much action, no swords – it is completely mesmerizing. You could have heard a pin drop at the theater the night I saw this performed; the audience as a whole hung on every word. My review of “Henry VIII” warned of the possibility that your mind may wander a bit; that is highly unlikely to happen during “Anne of the Thousand Days.”

The rest of the cast – beyond Willis and Russell – is airtight. There is not a weak link in this production, and even the most minor characters have nuance and depth. For example, in her 20 words (or so it seemed) of lines, Elizabeth Boleyn (Anne’s mother, played with sad resignation by Erin Considine) reveals a lot more than you would expect and gives some insight into her past and circumstances that lend context and richness to the situation with her daughter(s). As Anne’s father, Maurice Ralston carefully walks the fine line between protective father and self-preserving, pragmatic subject. Matt Nitchie is simple, genuine and heartbreaking as Anne’s first/true love, Lord Percy. Tony Brown’s Wolsey is far less black-and-white than the “Henry VIII” version. And Daniel Parvis as the wrongly accused “adulterer” Smeaton the musician is absolutely devastating; his performance epitomizes the injustice not only for Anne but also for all who are collateral damage in her undoing.

No doubt the play’s unfamiliarity contributed to the relatively small audience on the night I saw this play, which may continue to be the case – but shouldn’t be. This is a powerful, memorable play that deserves to be appreciated by far more people.

Ideally, you’ll be able to see both of the Tavern’s current, rarely staged productions about the English monarch. If you can see only one, though, make this the one. (Sorry, Shakespeare!)

Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare
Heads will (not) roll!
Thursday, September 23, 2010
“Henry VIII,” the rarely performed Shakespeare history play (with a very sanitized portrayal of the British monarch), is one of the final few works that the Shakespeare Tavern is performing to achieve the lofty goal of completing the Shakespeare canon. If you don’t take advantage of this chance to see it at the Tavern, there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t get another opportunity anytime soon.

Whether you should go see it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for heart-stopping, action-packed thrills and chills, well… I am not even sure if I saw a sword on stage in this one. What it does have are some exquisite costumes and some outstanding performances from actors who realize that the power of their portrayals is essential to carry this play.

Troy Willis is a little eerie. In the masterfully rendered royal garb, complete with the fur-rimmed hat, he bears a spooky resemblance to the title character. As usual, he does a fine job of acting, too, but honesty compels me to report that Shakespeare and John Fletcher (his co-writer on this play) don’t really call on him to do much. He swoons a couple of times, looks sad a couple of times and loses his cool a couple of times – but overall he is a somewhat bland, colorless character beneath the opulent attire.

The real star of this play is Katherine of Aragon, the wronged first wife, whom Shakespeare manages to deify without implying that Henry’s discarding of her is a flaw on his part. (In fact, the story goes that Shakespeare wrote this play after Queen Elizabeth’s death and basically was kissing up to the royalty by glossing over all the king’s “peccadilloes.”) Indeed, Katherine herself – while defending herself before the villainous Cardinal Wolsey and even while dying in exile – makes a point of mentioning that she still loves her husband and prays for him. Either she was a saint or this is a somewhat ridiculous stretching of the truth by a kissing-up subject/playwright. It may be a bit of both.

Whatever the case, Laura Cole’s performance as Katherine is the show-stopper. Her accent was a little muddy and awkward to decipher at times, but her emotion and horror at her betrayal (by the meddling Cardinal Wolsey, mind you – not the husband who cast her aside and, oh yeah, married another woman) transcend any accent frustration. She is fragile (increasingly so as the play progresses) yet strong – and opinionated. In addition to the previously mentioned superhuman capacity to forgive, Katherine seems insightful and can smell a rat. She tries to talk some sense into the men around her regarding the Duke of Buckingham, who is executed early on for speaking against the powerful Wolsey, but she is ignored – and, unfortunately, metaphorically shrugs and adopts the “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy.

For the most part, the cast is solid. Tony Brown is perfect as the conniving, ambitious Wolsey and does a seamless 180 to evoke sympathy from the audience that detested him a few minutes earlier. Daniel Parvis, the Tavern’s resident comic genius and equally gifted dramatic actor, plays an almost-disappointingly reduced role in this one but does get to deliver the bookend speeches to the audience. (The final one, interestingly, mentions that some in the audience may have nodded off during the play! This premonition by the authors helped a little with the guilt factor of audience members who either fulfilled that prediction or very nearly did.)

The Tavern usually does a great job of concealing less-wonderful actors in smaller roles, but, unfortunately, there is a little bit of slippage in this play, and one already-overlong scene in particular suffers.

I mentioned the costumes early on, but it bears repeating. The Tavern’s costumes almost always are astonishing, but in this play they deserve their own billing. Gorgeous!

It’s not too puzzling that this play is not being churned out repeatedly by acting troupes throughout the nation. It’s slow-paced, it deals with a lot of political and interpersonal drama and it presents a Henry VIII that flies in the face of all we learned in history class. (The Tavern is offering a counterpoint – or a less glowing point of view – when it opens “Anne of the Thousand Days” soon. This play purportedly shows the little uncomfortable details – such as spousal beheadings and disappointment, rather than euphoria, at the births of baby girls – that somehow didn’t make it into this one. It promises to be an interesting juxtaposition, especially as the same principal actors are playing the same people in both.) But, while it may not be a ONCE-in-a-LIFETIME opportunity to see “Henry VIII,” it’s certainly an extremely rare one, and that alone argues in favor of taking this chance to see it done. Just be sure that you’re well-rested and alert.

Hamlet! The Musical!, by Shakespeare, Eddie Levi Lee, Rebecca Wackler and Phillip DePoy, with additional material/edits by Drew Reeves and Renee Clarke
It’s still rock ‘n’ roll to me
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
About halfway through “Hamlet: The Musical,” a song is performed twice. The first time, it’s drowned out by a flurry of noisy distractions, sight gags and non sequiturs. Then, after a “rewind,” it is performed again – with all focus on the heartfelt meaning of the ballad, this play’s equivalent of the tribute to Hecuba performed for Hamlet by the traveling troupe of actors.

The same could be said about “Hamlet: The Musical” as a whole. You could spend the whole evening focusing on the screwball comedy, the updated cultural references, the wacky lyrics, the sexually charged costumes and innuendos. You also could focus on the surprisingly sincere, poignant and philosophical moments – the beautifully done Shakespeare, the gripping examination of life and death … and what comes after.

The interesting thing is that it all often takes place simultaneously. It’s a drama, a comedy, a musical, a farce – a little of everything in a confusing emotional mix. As such, it’s almost impossible to “package” – or even describe. It’s a theatrical experience that unapologetically plays by its own rules.

The plot (I think) is that a hodgepodge of modern stereotypes – the hotshot movie star, the has-been rocker (with strong, probably intentional, similarities to Bret Michaels), the strung-out backup singer, the cougar actress – somehow end up together in Purgatory. There (I guess) they are supposed to perform in an impromptu “Hamlet” production, with the apparent reward being a ticket to heaven (maybe?). Why “Hamlet”? What implausible coincidence brought all of these folks to Purgatory at the same moment? And whose idea is this play-for-advancement plan, anyway? In short: HUH?

Honestly, it’s hard to know what’s going on, but that’s really not the point. This is about the music and the performances, which do not disappoint. J.C. Long as the big-name actor, Travis Smith as the washed-up rock star and Lynna Schmidt as the actor’s mother, in particular, are mesmerizing – and not just because of their outstanding musical performances. They also turn in acting performances that dazzle at each stage of their evolution. As the play progresses, they gradually transform from the modern-day “actors” awkwardly reading scripts and delivering choppy, uncomfortable lines for comic effect (mercifully, the carrying-the-script phase was brief) into smooth, eloquent embodiments of the Shakespearean characters. “Big-name actor,” by the end of the play-within-a-play, has shed not only his script but also his reluctant attitude – and actually *become* Hamlet. It’s an impressive effect that all of the principals handle effortlessly.

The lyrics are sometimes a little difficult to decipher, and the songs achieve mixed results. A musical presentation of Polonius’ sage advice is lighthearted and joyful. A three-part character analysis sung during Claudius’ “my sin is rank” speech is an insightful show-stopper that rivals the theatrical power of many Broadway standards. An “intermission” sequence is the play’s frat-house silliness. The music keeps you guessing and interested to see what’s coming next, especially if you know your “Hamlet.” (Speaking of which: Watch for some nice inside jokes for “Hamlet” geeks, especially a running gag about the lesser characters and glorified extras with names. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern get very little respect in this one, but that’s OK. They have their own play.)

I won’t say anything about the ending other than that it packs a lot more wallop than the rest of the play will lead you to expect – or even than many other, more consistently serious plays have. Though much of the play will remind you of some of the goofiest moments of “The Complete Works,” you’ll be surprised at how long the play may have you thinking afterward -- about issues much deeper than burly men in cocktail dresses with feather fans.

When the Shakespeare Tavern says this is not your grandfather’s “Hamlet,” believe it. If the thought of Gertrude in leather pants and red stilettos is going to make you queasy, steer clear. And yet, there is a lot going on here that will intrigue Shakespeare lovers and pique their curiosity. How will they interpret Ophelia’s meltdown? You’ll have to watch and find out.

Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare
Not that he loved Rome less, but that he loved himself more
Friday, June 18, 2010
Most people have neither read nor seen a production of “Coriolanus,” but much of it seems familiar. The strongest resemblance is to “Julius Caesar,” particularly with the theme of manipulating (and disdaining) the masses and the question of one’s loyalty to his country – and both are set in Rome. But the play also is eerily similar to modern times and makes you believe that politics – and politicians – are about the same today as hundreds of years ago.

The difference between Coriolanus and other politicians (plus some of Shakespeare’s other master manipulators, like Iago in “Othello”) is that he is not the baby-kissing, glad-handing sort. His ego and pride preclude him from even making a tiny attempt to hide his disgust for the commoners, and the plot revolves around this stubborn arrogance.

The Shakespeare Tavern brushes the dust off this play and staffs it with a very capable, believable and compelling cast. As one of the only people in the nation who found the movie “Gladiator” completely boring – mostly because of the long geo-political speeches about (oddly enough, again) Rome – I was at risk of nodding off during some of the politics in this play, but the cast brought the characters (likeable and otherwise) to life and kept my attention.

Joanna Daniel, as Coriolanus’ extremely influential mother (to say the least), is part Medea, part PR professional/“spin doctor” and part guidance counselor. Not a lot about the character screams out “dear, sweet mom,” as she revels in disturbing glee at the thought that her son could be maimed in the war and thus return home a hero. (Not exactly a Hallmark card in the making.) Daniel is magnificent -- and spooky.

Besides the relationship between the mama’s boy and his mama, the second-most-interesting relationship is between Coriolanus and his archenemy, Tullus Aufidius. J.C. Long (Coriolanus) and Andrew Houchins (Aufidius) give new meaning to the “thin line between love and hate.” Even as he dreams of slaying his own personal supervillain, Coriolanus waxes rhapsodic about Aufidius’ skill and almost idolizes him. Aufidius is primarily in the hate camp, and his motives and attitude are more difficult to read. Still, there are times when there seems to be an equal chance that one will murder the other or that they will go out for beers.

The play often seems to support Coriolanus’ intense snobbery and low opinion of the lower class. I hope that, if the “groundlings” of Shakespeare’s day ever saw this play performed, they were as dimwitted, indecisive, capricious and easily swayed as they are portrayed. Otherwise, they would have been incredibly offended.

The cast was excellent, but the play was a bit unsatisfying, especially in comparison with Shakespeare’s classics. Coriolanus comes across as a self-centered jerk who gets away with murder. Many of us have had co-workers like him – those who create havoc for all around them but who somehow manage to escape any blame. In “Coriolanus,” his friends – about to be under siege at his hands – blame others in Rome for forcing him to act like that. OK, then…

Perhaps it was just me, but one character vanished without a trace somewhere along the way. If this were on DVD, I’d check the deleted scenes to see what became of poor Titus Lartius (Matt Nitchie), whose fate surely lay on the cutting-room floor. Again, this may have been explained at some point (perhaps during one of my mini-zone-outs in the less-exciting political chatter), but the quick-change multipurpose-actors method did me, at least, a slight disservice in this play, as I had a little trouble keeping up with some of the role recycling.

The ending was probably the least satisfying part of the play. It felt abrupt, as though Shakespeare got tired and wanted to wrap it up quickly. The actions by some characters at the end are also quite weird and tough to reconcile with all that has gone before. It left me with a “that’s it?” sort of reaction.

Despite its shortcomings (the play, not the performance), “Coriolanus” is a well-acted and “limited-edition” piece of Shakespeare that is not to be missed by anyone serious about getting the full Bard experience. It’s also bound to be a hit with those who are interested in politics as well as psychology buffs. Sigmund Freud definitely would have had some fun with Coriolanus!

The Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare
“Taming of the Shrew” is all the rage
Monday, April 12, 2010
The chemistry between the actor and actress playing Petruchio and Kate is vital to any production of “Taming of the Shrew.” In the Shakespeare Tavern’s latest production of this wild Shakespearean comedy, the chemistry is electric between the leads and representative of the overall excellence of the cast, which clicks all the way around. It’s a laugh-out-loud – and just plain LOUD – tour de force of well-choreographed chaos and slapstick with just the right amount of true, deep emotion to keep it from becoming a caricature.

J.C. Long and Maureen Yasko star as Petruchio and Kate, and both exercise their lungs to full effect. As with “King Lear” last month, this sometimes leads to the blurring of lines amid the rage, but it’s not as much of a problem in this production. Long, in particular, has a tendency to express himself at a high volume, though he has shown – notably as Ariel in “The Tempest” – that he can be subtle and nuanced when he wants to be. Fortunately, Petruchio is the perfect outlet for Long’s bombastic side, but he also handles the sentimental parts well and shows a real (and believable) tenderness toward Kate when the character lets down his guard.

Yasko is a gem. From the moment she appears on stage with her sister, Bianca, Kate’s strength and depth are conveyed through sheer body language. Bianca comes across as a paper doll – two-dimensional, uninteresting – while Kate, shrieking and “shrewish” and all, clearly has much more beneath the surface. Yasko makes it easy to see how Petruchio could be challenged and intrigued by Kate, despite her railing, while the rest of the shallow men in Padua look no deeper than the picture-perfect exterior of Baptista’s younger daughter.

And yet, while yelling and flailing to full effect, Yasko turns on a dime to bring the audience under her spell and gain sympathy. The audience shares her disappointment and broken heart when she believes she has been humiliated by the no-show groom on her wedding day. Her performance in this scene may be the best I’ve ever seen.

Much of the play is the aforementioned slapstick, which is executed impressively – especially the scenes when the newlyweds arrive home to perhaps the worst domestic staff ever assembled. The lunatic ballet that ensues is amazingly well-orchestrated, even in the play’s opening week. Dialogue? Forget it in this scene, and just enjoy the spectacle!

But for all its Three Stooges-esque shenanigans, the play also has heart. The tender moments between Petruchio and Kate are best illustrated by a beautiful touch in this production during the pair’s first onstage “kiss,” which recalls – with a delightful twist – a far-less-sweet gesture from an earlier scene. It’s one of several exceptional directorial decisions that add layers, color and depth to the text.

The rest of the cast shone as well, with very few exceptions. At some point, one of my reviews may indicate that Daniel Parvis or Mike Niedzwiecki has totally bungled a role, but I would not hold my breath for that if I were you. Pairing these two was brilliant, and their scenes together are basically flawless. In fact, all the male actors interact with one another as if they are fraternity brothers. The entire cast works together wonderfully and supportively, with no upstaging – the best sense of an ensemble.

A couple of roles are interpreted a little differently in this production than in “Shrews” past. Doug Kaye’s Baptista, never without a goblet in hand, runs the gamut from mildly tipsy to nearly intoxicated. And Tony Brown’s Gremio comes across as, well, more lecherous, creepy and old than any I’ve seen before. His obsession with Bianca felt a little disturbing, honestly, and left his “poor me,” “my-cake-is-dough” scenes a bit hollow. The audience feels more relief at Bianca’s escaping that fate than pity for the spurned would-be husband.

Other standouts in this mostly all-star lineup included Matt Felten as the saucy (and hilarious) servant, Grumio; Andrew Houchins, uncharacteristically subdued as the dim, disgruntled servant Biondello; and Troy Willis as the feared and respected Vincentio, ingeniously defined in this production.

The finale of this play is a tough pill to swallow for many modern women, and the “big speech” by Kate (SPOILER ALERT: The “shrew” gets “tamed”) is especially difficult. However, bearing in mind the play’s setting and succumbing to the sincerity and honesty with which Yasko delivers the speech make it a fine bit of poetry and theater, whether one shares Kate’s philosophy or not.

So check your Helen Reddy CDs at the door and do yourself the favor of going to see “Taming of the Shrew” at the Tavern.

King Lear, by William Shakespeare
A cure for that too-happy feeling
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
If the improvement in the weather has you walking with a little too much spring in your step and a little too big a smile on your face, perhaps a dose of monarchal misery is just what the doctor ordered to bring you down a notch or two. (Or perhaps, conversely, to make you feel even better about your own life…) Fortunately, “King Lear” is now playing at the Shakespeare Tavern.

There were some kinks in the production that I saw that surely will iron themselves out as the run continues (e.g., a couple of lighting miscues and an uncharacteristic stammering by Doug Kaye that actually may have been intentional).

The acting was solid, for the most part, with some exceptional performances. Daniel Parvis, fresh off another masterpiece as Mercutio in “Romeo and Juliet,” again shows his versatility and inarguable talent as Edgar. His “Poor Tom” characterization was a little too Gollum-esque (“Lord of the Rings”), but his transformation to and from the sane and crazy versions of himself was impressive, as usual. His third persona, the unseen and tender guide for his father, was endearing; the Scottish accent was reminiscent of an earlier performance as the servant in the Shakespeare Tavern’s most recent production of “Macbeth.”

Several actors stretched by playing “against type” – or against what previous roles may have caused the audience to expect. For example, Erin Considine erased any concerns I had that she may not make me truly dislike her, given her previous performances as impossible-to-dislike women. After her very first weaselly, insincere, exaggerated speech about her “adoration” for Lear, though, Goneril was 100 percent despicable. Drew Reeves, who often does play villains, was perfect and understated as the decent son-in-law who grows increasingly uncomfortable with the circumstances until finally making some heroic decisions at the play’s conclusion.

Mike Niedzwiecki, who last month lent some ambiguity to Tybalt, is all ambiguity as the Duke of Cornwall (is he evil? isn’t he?) until his defining scene with the Earl of Gloucester, when any doubt is erased in a stomach-churning display. The absolute horror of this scene is a credit not only to the boldness of director Tony Brown but also to the actors involved, who make it realistic enough to completely appall the audience. (Warning: If you are squeamish, consider averting your eyes.)

Unfortunately, I found myself distracted by small irritations that ordinarily wouldn’t have had that effect: mountainous Rapunzel-like wigs for all three sisters, with Cordelia’s the worst (this is a shame, considering the beautiful wig that Juliet wore in February); Troy Willis’ oddly pirate-like, in-and-out accent as the disguised Earl of Kent; the wild, untamed false eyebrows on King Lear; the unflattering ribbons on the women’s dresses (probably historically accurate for the time period, given the Tavern’s track record of attention to such details, but still a distraction).

If I could change just one thing, though, I would encourage several actors in the cast to focus on clarity and just slow down a little. Yes, it’s a long play, but the rushed, sometimes mumbled dialogue – especially when combined with crazy and/or loud rantings – obscures the lines and causes the audience to lose much of what’s going on. Fine performances by Mary Ruth Ralston, Matt Nitchie and Jeff Watkins would have been even finer with a slower pace and a bit more intelligibility at times. (Scenes with feverish Lear and “Poor Tom” together could have used subtitles.)

The Shakespeare Tavern’s reuse of actors in different roles in the same play comes back to bite it a bit in this play, as several characters disguise themselves in the text. The disguised Kent, for example, would be very easy to mistake for a different character altogether and actually seems more differentiated than some of those that really are supposed to be different characters. This is a bit less of a problem with the multiple variations of the same character played by Parvis, but it still makes deciphering who is the same and who is different a little challenging for those who are not very familiar with the story (or who haven’t seen or read it in a long time).

It had been years and years since I had seen or read “King Lear,” and I had forgotten that my fundamental problem with it is that I cannot feel much (if any) sympathy for King Lear, who causes all the trouble for himself and everyone else by acting like a spoiled brat and punishing his favorite daughter for failing to suck up sufficiently. While you never want to see an old man losing his mind and suffering in the streets, it’s also a little hard to really root for him, particularly given all the horrible things that befall everyone else because of his attitude and actions. (Some other characters’ actions are puzzling, too. For example, why does Kent want to return to serve the hotheaded king who just banished him?) On the other hand, Shakespeare has provided enough sympathetic characters (Edgar, Duke of Albany, the somewhat misguided but still likeable Earl of Gloucester) to keep the audience emotionally invested through to the end.

The play is a downer but is, despite some misfires, an overall well-acted and well-directed production of the downer. I wouldn’t rank it among the Tavern’s great triumphs, but I also wouldn’t say it is anything close to a failure. It takes what it is given and does an admirable job with it. If you are a “King Lear” fan or are curious about it, be sure to catch this production, as it seldom appears on stage.

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare
A very pleasant surprise
Monday, February 8, 2010
It’s February, and that means that the Shakespeare Tavern will be performing “Romeo and Juliet” to sold-out houses of romance fiends and schoolchildren who have read just one Shakespeare play so far (this one – seemingly the universal “starter Shakespeare”). Unfortunately, the play is one of my least favorites by the Bard, but I give it a try once every run to see what’s new in the cast, direction, etc. Usually, the result is the same: I survive another round of the overdone classic and eagerly await what March has to bring.

To my utter shock, this year’s production of “Romeo and Juliet” was more than just endured; it was enjoyed.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the surprising likeability of this year’s rendition is Lee Osorio, who plays Romeo. Not to take anything away from some of the Romeos past, but Osorio brings a sweetness and vulnerability to Romeo that make him much more sympathetic. Not once, for example, did I just want to slap him (Romeo, that is, not the actor) and tell him to knock it off. While his performance hits a few snags here and there (which likely will even out as the run continues), Osorio makes the audience care about Romeo and remember that, after all, he is still very much a boy. He comes across as a young man who could be your son, brother or nephew, and he even achieves the near-impossible by instilling a bit of believable sincerity into the fickle character’s sudden shift from adoring Rosaline to loving Juliet.

Oddly, Juliet seems to be more mature than Romeo, and she’s the one who is supposed to be in her very early teens. This was a little strange, particularly in parts of the play that emphasize Juliet’s naivete, but it can be overlooked. Though Mary Russell as Juliet could be a little more childlike, she does a fine job overall and is a good match for Osorio. The two of them click and bring chemistry and tenderness to their scenes together.

Two somewhat minor roles that nevertheless can destroy a “Romeo and Juliet” production when they are done badly – as is often the case – are Paris and Tybalt. Thankfully, both roles are in excellent hands in the Shakespeare Tavern’s production. Paris is skillfully portrayed by Matt Felten as a decent, well-meaning guy in the wrong place at the wrong time – Shakespeare’s ultimate collateral damage. (Some past productions have portrayed Paris as bumbling, comical or, worst of all, smarmy.) Tybalt is presented as relatively subdued but always quietly dangerous by Mike Niedzwiecki, who continues to blossom as the Tavern gives him opportunities. His Tybalt steers clear of the too-easy cartoonish bad guy that has appeared in some other productions, and his physical presence makes him further imposing. (One small quibble: Perhaps when he is slain after an arduous swordfight, he should fall in a way that makes his breathing a little less obvious when he is “dead.”) Though the play affords him no chance to show Tybalt’s “good side” (alluded to by Juliet and the nurse, who calls him her best friend), Niedzwiecki somehow makes a good side to Tybalt seem possible.

Other performances that deserve particular praise are those of Daniel Parvis, who steals yet another show with his slightly insane portrayal of Mercutio (transitioning from comical to insightful to heartbreaking without missing a beat), and Troy Willis, who does an exceptional job as Capulet, even managing to make the audience kind of see his point of view in the disowning-Juliet scene, which is a tall order.

There are a few less-impressive performances, but, thankfully, they occur in not-too-pivotal roles and don’t detract from the overriding strength of the cast.

Finally, a giant thank-you is in order to the Shakespeare Tavern for again jettisoning the inappropriately slapstick “wailing scene” following Juliet’s faux-death and going with a very tasteful, somber scene that deals far more respectfully with a family’s grief. This one example speaks to the overall excellence of the directorial decisions made for this year’s production. Nicely done.

In these and other ways, the Shakespeare Tavern has breathed life into the stale and sometimes tiresome “Romeo and Juliet.” If you haven’t sworn off this play forever, and if you’re not too irreparably jaded by February and Valentine’s Day and the like, check this one out. It very well may surprise you as much as it surprised me.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer
Canterbury Tales is a bawdy, irreverent crowd-pleaser
Monday, January 11, 2010
The Shakespeare Tavern has brought back its popular Chaucer adaptation that delighted audiences last year — with one vignette from last season dropped and two new ones added. If — after you have heard and taken seriously the warning that this is not a show for the easily offended (although nothing in it is anything worse than you’d see on network television) — you think you’d like to join the adventure … get on the bus!

The six tales develop as a group of pilgrims on a “tour bus” share stories to amuse, skewer or outdo their fellow passengers. The pilgrims act as storytellers as well as characters in the stories, with assistance from numerous costume changes and several puppets that almost become a second cast in themselves (particularly Chaucer and, of course, the bus).

Like a good episode of “Saturday Night Live,” this incarnation of “The Canterbury Tales” contains enough brilliant and hilarious moments and strong “skits” to more than cover the slower parts or weaker stories. And the cast is so strong and interacts so well that you’ll be willing to excuse anything that may seem to go too far or cause you to scratch your head a little.

Unfortunately, the tale that I liked least when I saw this production last year remains the opening tale this year. “The Miller’s Tale” feels too long and is the most distasteful of the tales — as well as the most potentially offensive (primarily to Catholics and Italians … and maybe carpenters) — though it does have a few shining bits, including an entertaining, short riff on “The Godfather.”

On the other hand, fortunately, the strongest and best of the tales from last year also returns. “The Pardoner’s Tale,” which wraps up the first act on a very high note, is one of the tales with a clear moral to the story — appropriately (in this Catholicism-heavy context) reflecting one of the seven deadly sins (greed — other tales touch on pride and lust). Anyone who enjoys a story with a good twist will love this one. It’s also got some of the best language and social commentary, as the pardoner begins the story with an explanation of how guilt-ridden people are easily duped into falling for his religious scams. (“They always have — and they always will.”)

Of the two new tales this year, “The Franklin’s Tale” is a real surprise — very sweet and heartfelt. The beautiful love story almost feels a little out of place amid the over-the-top ridiculousness of some of the other tales and the don’t-take-this-too-seriously goofiness and slapstick. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is the only one that comes close to it in tone. Who knew the brow-beaten American tourist was such a romantic?

As for “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” … Perhaps the best explanation comes at the end, when a clearly intoxicated nun telling the story is reveling with Chaucer. At any rate, the dance sequence with Mike Niedzwiecki as the very colorful rooster and Rivka Levin as his soulmate chicken is absolutely hilarious and hysterically choreographed. Levin’s chicken outfit is stunning — perhaps the sexiest bird outfit ever — and the new, wing-flapping chicken puppets are wonderful. The tale goes all over the map, with a very odd detour regarding two men who cannot find hotel rooms and run into bad dreams and criminals, but the image of the dancing fowl will be what stays with you!

At the performance I saw, Maureen Yasko was handling all the roles played by Laura Cole and was doing an admirable job of filling Cole’s shoes (tall order, considering Cole’s status as a legend at the Tavern). She was a very capable fill-in and another testament to the Tavern’s increasing reputation for grooming and introducing new talent. In fact, most of this cast are graduates of the Tavern’s apprentice program.

Finally, there are some clever references in the play to remind you of “whose house you’re in,” including a cameo by the Bard himself (in two-dimensional form).

If you’re up for — as the playbill describes it — “a tour on the wacky side: puppets, hijinks and bawdy jokes included,” don’t miss this trip!

Almost, Maine
by John Cariani
Centerstage North Theatre
BattleActs! Comedy Improv Competition
Laughing Matters
Daddy Long Legs
by John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (songs)
The Legacy Theatre
Laughing Matters Winter Wonder Laughs
Laughing Matters
Midnight at the Masquerade
by The Murder Mystery Company
The Murder Mystery Company in Atlanta
Stories on the Strand
Atlanta Radio Theatre Company
The Bachelor! A Double Date of Death!
by Marc Farley
Agathas: A Taste of Mystery

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