Thursday, October 6, 2011

Out at sea with A.S.P.

Omar Robinson and Marianna Bassham catch the wave in Twelfth Night. Photos: Stratton McCrady.
Long-time Hub Review readers know I am fascinated by the Actors' Shakespeare Project.  Some years ago, the group coalesced around actor Benjamin Evett - when he was let go by the A.R.T. in one of its periodic purges - as a kind of reaction to the "director's theatre" which that pretentious institution had long been committed to. The idea, as expressed by Evett, was that the actor could be the wellspring of a valid approach to the Bard - and I thought back then that I agreed with him.  So did a lot of other people - money rolled in before A.S.P. had put up even a single production, and the company has consistently enjoyed an indulgent and supportive response from the press.

But from the beginning, A.S.P. seemed to grope for a coherent company style - and, I'd argue, several years on they still haven't found one.  Instead, the chaos evident in their first productions became their style, almost their calling card.  A.S.P. usually plays in "found" spaces, with bad sight lines and ill-defined playing areas (and when they do play in a conventional theatre, they often alter the stage, or obstruct part of the space, as they have this time around).  The gypsy style extends to the costumes, which are usually from thrift shops.  And lighting is often patched together by incidentals; I've seen productions where the techies followed individual actors with flash lights - even the show's tech didn't cohere.

Evett himself was purged from the group after a few seasons, and the sense that a "collectivist" mentality had taken hold in the company soon became the conventional wisdom.  But what was funny was that high directorial concept still flourished at A.S.P., just as it had flourished at the A.R.T. - I suppose because the acting corps felt that control of such excesses was outside their professional purview.  (As long as the director wasn't telling them what to do, he could set King Lear on Mars for all they cared.)  But the actors didn't necessarily feel tied to the director's vision, either - that was clear as well.  Nor did they feel tied to the classical tradition - many never learned to fence, or sing, or dance.  That hardly mattered, however, as casting was likewise often outside the director's control - such artistic decisions, it was rumored, where largely the result of groupthink and internal wrangling.

The result was that a coherent, sustained focus from these actors on their acting - a sense that developing a genuine ensemble was their real "project" - never seemed to flourish.  (Compare with the ensemble down at Trinity Rep, where everyone's on the same page.) Occasionally things did come together, as in productions of The Tempest, and Timon of Athens - but ironically enough, those high-water marks have all depended more on their visual ideas than their performances.  And in other shows, the actors never really fell into alignment with either the concept or with each other; the ensemble always had a certain raggedness to it.  Sometimes things even degenerated into a really embarrassing mess, as happened last fall with Henry IV, Parts I and II.

To be fair, however, the average A.S.P. production moves along briskly, and sports intriguing moments - the actors are very smart and resourceful, particularly when it comes to comedy, and many are by now quite familiar with each other.  Thus the better productions are wittily conscious of their own deficiencies, and dance cleverly, even campily, around our awareness of what's missing onstage (as was the case with last winter's amusing Cymbeline).

Still, there are aspects of the Bard that seem beyond the company's grasp - perhaps permanently.  You just don't go to A.S.P. to hear Shakespeare's poetry - there are one or two memorable voices among the company, but no one, save perhaps Allyn Burrows, is a consistently sophisticated speaker of verse; nor do you expect any attempt at what I call the symphonic side of Shakespeare - that sense that many themes and strands of thought are coming together beneath the surface of the action like the pieces of a puzzle.  Instead, in most A.S.P. productions, you feel that things are only just hanging together, that they might fly apart at any minute.

Sorry for the long preamble - I am going to get to Twelfth Night eventually, I promise.  These thoughts have been occupying me, however, because of my experience with the director of this latest show, Melia Bensussen.  After seeing the first of her local productions - Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew, both for A.S.P. - I dismissed Bensussen as addicted to concepts and trends but unable to direct her way out of a paper bag; both productions had one or two Big Ideas, but a corresponding lack of general focus, and long stretches of tedium.  Then I caught her other work around town - The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, at Merrimack, and Circle Mirror Transformation at the Huntington - and saw direction that was subtle, insightful, disciplined, balanced.   I did a critical 180; when it came to naturalism, Bensussen seemed like one of the most reliable directors in the city.

But now she's back at A.S.P., with Twelfth Night - and her work is disappointing in much the same way it was before.  An intrusive concept frames the action, and several actors seem to be groping within it - and thus their through-lines have been left undeveloped, indeed, have all but been undone; this is a romantic comedy, in fact, in which nobody seems to be in love.

So what's the story, Morning Glory?  What happens to Melia Bensussen when she directs the Bard - or does it only happen to her when she directs at A.S.P.?  Where does her superb touch go?  Does the intellectual structure built into Shakespeare somehow drive her to a directorial midsummer madness?  Or is she simply unable to wrangle the A.S.P. actors into something like alignment with her highbrow ideas?

I guess we'll never know.  In the meantime, though, there's Twelfth Night to consider - which to be fair to Bensussen, does cry out for a concept.  It's the last of the Bard's "festive" comedies, and we can feel in it a whole mode of artistic feeling pushed to the brink; after Twelfth Night come the tragedies, and the problem comedies; Shakespeare's world - at least his artistic world - is about to crack up.  And the fissures are already evident here: for the first time, the comic mood is inherently neurotic, and there's a deliberate cruelty to much of the farce.  Indeed, music and malice seem weirdly intertwined in Twelfth Night, and a few characters, like Feste the jester, are so detached from the action they operate at a level of near-abstraction.  At the same time, there's a sense of greatest hits revisited about the play; the central pair of twins and their shipwreck pop up from Comedy of Errors, the heroine cross-dresses as she does in Two Gents and As You Like It, and the gay Antonio reappears from Merchant of Venice (only in pirate drag).  Twelfth Night is clearly a kind of artistic summation that's headed for a crash.

Yeah, you can tell it's a party - Steven Barkhimer and Paula Langton in Twelfth Night.
At the same time, it's among the most densely patterned of Shakespeare's plays.  Indeed, it may be the most densely patterned.  What distinguishes Shakespeare from almost any other playwright is the sense in his mature work that we're watching merely the stage manifestation of a hidden thematic structure - almost a thematic argument.  In Twelfth Night, this embedded discussion has reached almost a fevered pitch, and Bensussen has clearly latched on to "twinning" as a conceptual handle on it; but she has done so in a standard-issue New Age way - she cites Jung in her program notes, and you can feel yin-yangy issues of gender hanging in the theatrical air.  Only it's always problematic citing Freud or Jung to "explain" Shakespeare, because, well, they derive from Shakespeare (and literary content in general), rather than the other way around; Shakespeare explains them, they don't explain him.

For the "twinships" in Twelfth Night extend far beyond the gendered example of Sebastian and Viola, the genetically-impossible identical brother and sister torn apart by shipwreck at the play's start.  Yes, these two are twins, and the fact that they operate as a single love object for half the characters in the play is an intriguing meditation on gender and disguise.  But Viola is also a "twin" of Olivia, who falls in love with her (they've both recently lost brothers).  And the anagrammatic names of Viola, Olivia, and her servant Malvolio let you know that they're a mismatched set of triplets.  And then Orsino and Olivia can be considered a pair of twins, because both are in love with their own emotions; and Olivia and Antonio are twins too, because they're in love with someone in disguise.  Even Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek operate as a "twin" couple, because their dishonest relationship mirrors the deceptions between Orsino, Viola, and Olivia.

As you can see, the "mirrors" in Twelfth Night, as one critic put it, basically ramify into infinity.  But that's only one of the thematic schemes operating in the play - madness, foolery, the sea as a metaphor for emotion - Shakespeare juggles all these concepts, too.  But perhaps a clue to his central aim is hidden in his title.  Most scholars interpret "Twelfth Night" as a reference to the madcap finale of the Christmas season, when in Elizabethan days households were up-ended, and a "Lord of Misrule" held sway, if only for a day.  But of course on the religious calendar Twelfth Night is also the Feast of Epiphany, and to my mind epiphanies are what in the end Shakespeare was getting at - epiphanies that perhaps only arise when the normal conventions of life have been overthrown.  Almost all the Bard's comedies, of course, end with a scene of discovery - but for the first time in Twelfth Night we feel shocks of self-discovery are the order of the day, in which true love and self-love are rudely forced apart.  Indeed, one by one, the self-image of just about everyone in Illyria is smashed over the course of the long final scene.

Okay, that was a lot of ground to cover; I only went into it all to indicate that I have some sympathy with the rather bald methods of expression Bensussen deploys in her Twelfth Night.  Indeed, she all but diagrams parts of this thematic matrix for us; designer Cristina Todesco, for instance, has actually re-configured the BCA's Plaza Theatre to allow a painted tsunami (the sea as emotion!) to come crashing through the pillars of Illyria - which are hung with mirrors (of self-love!).  (Tellingly, the vain Malvolio prefers a tiny stretch of sand to the rising tide around him.)  Key costumes likewise look water-logged.  And to make absolutely clear that her focus is on twins, Bensussen gives to Viola many of her brother Sebastian's scenes, the better to underline their thematic unity (it's confusing to newcomers, I think, but we get the point).

These are the kinds of things that directors with an intellectual bent are prone to do with this play.  But you have to also make the drama and comedy work minute-by-minute on their own terms; and this is where Bensussen fails.  There are plenty of bits that work here and there, but they all feel like ironic, self-aware scraps hung on her conceptual scaffold; the "characterizations" behind them are inconsistent or unrealized.  And there's no joy in Bensussen's Illyria, either - none at all; she has taken Shakespeare's melancholy undertow and made it a storm surge.  Indeed, the production's emotional spearhead is not Marianna Bassham's confused Viola but rather Paula Langton's bruised, bitter and vicious Maria (Langton's is perhaps not coincidentally also the best performance in the production; I didn't like it, but I could appreciate it).

Elsewhere, Doug Lockwood actually makes comic hay of Sir Andrew Aguecheek's wackiness, but again, only in discombobulated snatches; there is a daffy core to Sir Andrew that Lockwood misses. But honestly, you could make the same observation about almost everyone else in the cast.  And there are some moments that simply mystify; Malvolio (Allyn Burrows) doesn't just prefer sand to sea - he also likes to meditatively rub his butt in the dirt; why?  Likewise Sir Toby splashes around in the onstage pool because . . ?  And what's with Maria's lip-lock with Feste - as she marries Sir Toby, is that supposed to be symbolic (or is the affair with Sir Toby one of convenience)? At the same time, other gambits are overly obvious: we understand why Olivia is wearing a big fat Jungian symbol on her chest, for example, we just don't want to think about it.

Sigh.  At least, for once at A.S.P., there's an honest sword fight.  And there's one moment when the show suddenly grips you: as the betrayed Antonio, newcomer Omar Robinson delivers his accusations to Viola (whom he thinks is Sebastian) with an emotional force that briefly wakes you up and makes you listen (my companion by this time was literally dozing, but I saw him stir).  And for a few minutes, the production leaps off the chalkboard and something real seems to be at stake.  Robinson's not yet a polished actor, but he at least knows his big moment when he sees it.  And for a while, all the other actors began to connect a little bit, too.  Maybe they'd had some kind of epiphany.

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