San Diego Theater Preview: 2013 SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL (Old Globe)

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by Tony Frankel on July 18, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional

ALL THE WORLD’S AN OLD GLOBE

The Old Globe has officially opened the 2013 Shakespeare Festival, now on through September 29. Adrian Noble returns for his fourth and final season as the internationally renowned festival’s Artistic Director, taking the helm on both Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and Tom Stoppard’s classic farce, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Olivier Award-nominated director Ian Talbot will make his Old Globe debut with the Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare FestivalShakespeare favorite A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The plays will be performed in repertory in the outdoor 605-seat Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.

As if the astoundingly professional and glorious productions for which the Globe is well-known aren’t enough incentive for those coming from out-of-town, the rotating schedule allows for 3 Plays in 3 Days beginning in July. Knowing that our readers are theater junkies, you can even make it to 5 plays in 3 days by adding on the indoor plays as well. Double Indemnity and The Rainmaker play through August and Samuel D. Hunter’s world premiere of The Few and the Jeff Buckley musical The Last Goodbye both preview in September. Check the calendar here.

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Adrian Noble, Artistic Director of The Old Globe Shakespeare Festival since 2010, offered a production of As You Like It at the 2012 Festival that was one of the most inventive and satisfying theatrical events of the year. Now he returns with another comedy (yes, comedy), Shakespeare’s unforgettable tale of mercy and justice, generosity and greed, The Merchant of Venice. Most know the story, or at least the Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare Festivalmain character, Shylock, who, after years of persecution for his Jewish faith, finally gets his chance for revenge. The merchant Antonio borrowed money for his friend Bassanio to woo the rich heiress Portia, but when Antonio cannot pay his debt, Shylock demands his due: a pound of flesh. To save Antonio’s life, the resourceful Portia must triumph in the courtroom – but at what cost?  The Merchant of Venice may be best known for its dramatic scenes, but the play weaves together humor and pathos in a spellbinding, suspenseful drama – or is it a comedy?

Before you run off to see The Old Globe’s production – and I surely hope that you do – let us clear something up once and for all regarding the nature of this comedy’s topicality. It would be a shame for anyone to miss this play because of [whispered softly] “The Jew.” With all of the wonderful characters in Merchant, we think of Shylock as the dominant one, mainly because of the famous pound of flesh he requests as retribution for an unpaid loan. Indeed, the play in Shakespeare’s day and long thereafter was referred to as The Jew of Venice (Antonio is the titular merchant, but he is assuredly not the central figure).

No one can deny that Europe has had a deplorable history regarding the treatment of Jewish people – culminating in that wicked pinnacle of WWII: The Death Camps. By all accounts, the 16th century was nothing so bad, and stereotypical Jewish traits – greed, stubbornness, etc. – were viewed by Elizabethans as fodder for comedy; but Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare Festivalso, too, were the characteristics of French, Irish, German, and other ethnicities. Although modern audiences may view Shylock as a tragic figure, the stereotyped Jew was a comic character in the eyes of the groundlings. Thus, it makes sense that historians classify Merchant as a comedy. While political correctness may dictate a discourse on whether it should even be produced at all – given that the flesh-demanding Shylock is drawn as an unrelenting, merciless money-lender – it must be taken into account that Shakespeare took what could have been a one-sided comic villain and imbued him with a sense of humanity (“Hath not a Jew eyes?”).

What will continue to be troubling is that the Bard tried to have it both ways: we are supposed to pity the wretched creature for being abused (“You spat on me…spurned me…called me a dog: and for these courtesies I’ll lend you thus much moneys?”), yet Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare Festivalwe are supposed to laugh when his daughter escapes into the arms of a lover with Shylock’s Money (“My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!”). And when the hardhearted man is forced into apostasy before a court of law, it is simply ugly to watch. Yet even I, as a Jew, must look at that moment and question the times where my unyielding and unforgiving ways only led to ill treatment from others. Therefore, remove all preconceptions before attending this production and get ready for a take on Merchant that will have you floating out of the theatre.

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Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare FestivalThere is a well-known anecdote in the theater world, but it highlights the delicious drollness of writer Tom Stoppard. When his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (R&G) was poised to open on Broadway in 1967, a journalist asked Stoppard what the absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy was about. The writer said, “It’s about to make me rich.”

R&G, which will also be directed by Mr. Noble, is classic Theatre of the Absurd. In his 1942 essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus (playwright of Caligula) put forth his theory of the “absurd,” asserting that the human being is on a useless quest for meaning, harmony, and lucidity in a world where we have no way of actually knowing whether or not God or eternal truths exist. The absurd occurs when the human looks for meaning in a meaningless existence. It is our need for explanation which will always collide with an unreasonable and unjust world.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare FestivalYet that is exactly what our two titular protagonists attempt in R&G. They wake up one morning to discover that they are minor characters in the greatest tragedy ever written: Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As the story of the troubled Dane plays out around them, they struggle to figure out what is happening, what it all means, and whether they can escape their ultimate fate, which of course is death at the hands of a king who was meant to kill Hamlet (who sneakily switched an instructional letter to do so while at sea). R&G are now clowns, much like the gravediggers in the play in which they are stuck. The result is not only a fast-paced and extraordinarily funny farce, but a linguist’s dream come true.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare FestivalIn a 1960 essay, critic Martin Esslin, who adopted the word ‘absurd’ from Camus, created the term Theatre of the Absurd to name that which had already taken place in the plays of Beckett, Adamov, Ionesco and Genet. In essence, Absurd Drama presents a godless universe where human existence has no meaning or purpose – therefore, all communication breaks down. Rational construction and argument give way to foolish and illogical speech, ultimately concluding in death or silence – or both, as we discover in R&G. (Click here for an explanatory piece on Theatre of the Absurd and Existentialism.)

Mirroring the philosophy and existentialism in Hamlet, and the two halves of one self in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Stoppard offers wordplay and chewy intellectual musings that are so compact, it may warrant a second viewing.

“Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end?”

“What a fine persecution—to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened.”

“Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.”

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Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare FestivalThere are ten – count ‘em – ten productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream playing in Southern California this summer. How does one choose? You would think that Shakespeare’s most joyful and popular comedy is mass-produced because it’s easy to stage. Wrong. Fortunately, the Globe has brought in Director Ian Talbot, who not only played Bottom in Dream at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, London, but served as the company’s Artistic and Managing Director from 1987 to 2007 (the recognizable Talbot also performed with the Royal Shakespeare Company for 5 years). In fact, Talbot has played the role of the hifalutin actor-turned-ass, Bottom, nine times. Talbot’s musical comedy sensibility for Dream makes this play a perfect match for him: Not only has he produced over 70 shows at Regent’s, but he also directed Olivier-nominated musicals such as Oh What a Lovely War, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Pirates of Penzance, and Kiss Me Kate.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare FestivalFor those few unfamiliar with the play, it is clearly a comedy (versus the “problem play” Merchant of Venice). Midsummer is filled with magic, humor, music and spectacle. The merriment unfolds in an enchanted forest where fairies play tricks on unsuspecting lovers, while bumbling actors are transformed beyond their wildest dreams, especially Bottom.  With a magic potion that grants love at first sight, anything can, and does, happen to these characters.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema San Diego preview of The Old Globe’s 2013 Shakespeare FestivalThe best way to fall under the spell of this enchanting play is to stage it outdoors; after all, much of it occurs in the forest. I agree with Old Globe Artistic Director Barry Edelstein: “Seeing Shakespeare outdoors on a balmy summer night is one of the most magical experiences it’s possible to have in the theater.” Plus, the Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in San Diego’s Balboa Park not only has a forested backdrop (listen for the birds and monkeys from the neighboring world-famous zoo), but the thrust stage ensures a good view for all.

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Also at the Globe, look for Post-Show Forums, where you can discuss the play with members of the cast following the performance, Shakespeare in the Garden, a free series of informal presentations of ideas and insights that enhance the theatergoing experience, and Out at the Globe, an evening for LGBT theater lovers (but everyone is welcome) with a hosted wine and martini bar, appetizers and door prizes (show sold separately).

photos of R&G and Merchant by Michael Lamont
photos of Dream by Jim Cox
photo of Lowell Davies Festival Theatre interior by Craig Schwartz

2013 Shakespeare Festival
The Old Globe
Lowell Davies Festival Theatre in San Diego’s Balboa Park
scheduled to end September 29, 2013
for tickets, call (619) 23-GLOBE or visit http://www.TheOldGlobe.org

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