Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Spanish Tragedy at the Blue Elephant

This performance, at a small blackbox theatre that smelled like dirty socks, was not spellbinding the way Edward II was. However, while I was annoyed at a lot of it, I found some things to like. And some of the things I don't like are, admittedly, nit-picky. 

The company really embraced their identity as an amateur company. The production began with them doing an acting exercise, throwing a ball around a circle, before seguing seamlessly into stage set-up, which was a brief chaotic segment of the cast running around the stage, placing chairs, ladders, bunting, curtains, and blowing kazoos in what was probably supposed to be some fun hijinks but ended up mostly being startling and jarring.

Once that was over, other than three white chairs and a ladder on each side of the stage, it was your typical black-box set up. The actors began with a quick tableau of troops bowing to their King, and then segued immediately (this company was very good at seguing immediately, and using quick light changes to signal narrative shifts) into the first lines of the play, in which a soldier gives a report of the battle to the King.

The King was a woman in a red skirt suit and a cartoonish red velvet-and-gold crown on her head. The actress was quite funny; she played the King as a hearty, toothy British lady who laughed a lot, a sort of jolly Maggie Thatcher type. Most of the other characters were in woolen trench coats, shirts, and trousers, apart from a couple women in shirtwaist dresses and the two noble lady characters, Bel-Imperia and Isabella, who wore floor-length bias-cut gowns. Oh, and Revenge, who was played by a woman in a slinky black dress and thigh-highs. The costume aesthetic as a whole gestured towards post-WWII, but done in that on-the-cheap manner that works well for community and small theaters.

The sad thing about this production was that I could tell they knew a lot about early modern drama and performance and were trying to sell some of those things to the audience. Direct address, for instance. But in this case, direct address was done badly. One actor pointed to different people in the audience while telling the King about dead bodies on the battlefield, which was disconcerting. Another moment happened when the King looking out toward the audience when asking where certain characters were, as if she was seeing them come through the audience towards her. But then those characters entered from the side, which ruined the illusion. I could see what they were trying to do, but I didn’t buy it.

They also made use of doubling, but particularly badly in one instance where a character, Alexandra, had been established as being in prison for a murder she didn’t commit, but magically, in the next scene, the same actress plays an ambassador speaking directly to the supposed (and not-dead) murder victim. And then back to Alexandra in prison, with very few costume attempts to differentiate between the two characters. I think they may have changed the color of her sash, if anything.

The production wasn’t heedful of internal directions in the text, either. In one instance, the king of Portugal tells his servant, “Stand up, I say,” which clearly indicates, to me, that the character should have probably been kneeling up until that point. You know, the way people do. To kings. But the character was already standing, and took that comment as a somewhat confused direction to stand . . . up . . . straighter.

In some respects, they were trying to be daring, sort of art-house-y, and I applaud the attempt. But these interesting and potentially fruitful bold efforts didn't seem to have a larger meaning to them, or to be applied with any precision. For instance, at one point, a line of women funereally pace across the stage while a character describes a battle (lots of descriptions of battles, this play has), and turn facing the back curtain, and then grasp the curtain and mime sewing. Why? The only thing I can figure is that this happened twice when Bel-Imperia was around, so maybe it was to indicate a feminine space with feminine labor? Otherwise, there was no explanation.

Another effect that was not used consistently enough to create meaning was a flickering light. At one point, it flickered during a character’s death. At another point, it flickered when the ghost of Andrea conferred with Revenge. But was it supposed to indicate death, or ghosts, or revenge, or all three? I have no idea, because there were lots of deaths, and lots of instances where Andrea and Revenge had a conversation, but the flickering light was only on in those two instances, that I could see.

My favorite part was the masque. This was well-done, except for one very glaring part. In this mask, Hieronymo, the protagonist of the play, has engineered an entertainment for the Kings of Spain and Portugal. He has created a play which the rest of the court (including, significantly, his two enemies, Lorenzo and Balthasar) will act out. It was antic, and funny, and silly, and mad-cap, and all the things a masque should be on a budget. They used bunting, balloons, and kazoos, and a jaunty tune played on a piano while the actors sang a bawdy song—yay! Then the characters stabbed each other with pencils and pens—still yay!, think the Kings of Spain and Portugal as they watch this farcical entertainment. But then people start screaming, the piano plays jangling chords, a woman is visibly strangled with bunting, and the Kings of Spain and Portugal are still laughing uproariously. They don’t get it yet. Because everyone is actually dead. Hieronymo comes on stage, delivers a brilliant monologue explaining why he had everyone killed, throws reams and reams of paper into the air, and then the big reveal: he pulls aside the back curtain and on the wall is written “VENGEANCE IS MINE,” and the ghost of his murdered friend Horatio, the reason for his spree of death, stands there.

Only we couldn’t see it because there was TOO MUCH FOG. Seriously. There was so much fog that we couldn’t see a man. Standing there. 30 feet away. It kinda killed the reveal.

Finally Hieronymo has killed everyone, Kings included, and stands with a gun, ready to kill himself, when a single piece of paper drifts down from the rafters—a happy accident, because I’m sure they didn’t plan it. He pulls the trigger, dies, and the ghost of Andrea and Revenge come out on stage and tell us what the ultimate (heavenly or hellish) reward of all the characters will be.

I will say, the ending would have been terrific if not for the fog. Other things I liked:

The vocal delivery. Those actors knew what to do with language, even with rhyming couplets, which is hard.

The actor cast as Lorenzo. He was so smooth-faced, apple-cheeked, young and eager, and completely sinister.

The actress cast as Petregana had a sort of Artful Dodger accent and look about her that I found appealing, if a teensy bit distracting.

One more note:

The play makes repeated reference to pagan gods and a pagan belief system (Proserpine, Bellona, Elysium) but also references to Christianity, i.e. “kiss this cross”. What’s that about?

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