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Theatre Review (San Diego): 2010 Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe

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2010 is the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Old Globe Theatre in beautiful Balboa Park in San Diego, California. Given several fires, the death of legendary founder Craig Noel last April, and a succession of Artistic Directors who have departed for other work possibilities, Executive Director Louis G. Spisto was faced with a dilemma: how to bring about a thrilling Shakespeare Festival to celebrate the 75th Anniversary.

Adrian Noble, the former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was brought on board to give the Festival new excitement. The results bear out Spisto’s choice. The productions have a new dynamism and scope. 2010 Festival seems new and fresh; Noble directed King Lear, a grand task by any reckoning, and continued the trend to showcase non-Shakespearean works, in this case The Madness of George III. Ron Daniels, the former director of the RSC’s Experimental Theatre, The Other Place in Stratford on Avon, directs The Taming of The Shrew.

The first thing you notice as you enter the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre is a new stage designed by Ralph Funicello. This magnificent new structure offers increased opportunities for variety and theatricality, with a huge back gate and long ramps on the side of the stage for entrances. In The Madness of George III Funicello has placed a series of mirrored doors in front of an open area in the back which is sometimes covered with huge doors and at other times is open to a background of trees in Balboa Park. For King Lear Funicello covers the ground with autumn leaves and uses a wide and long platform that comes from the back and acts like a tongue, thrusting the action into the space. In the first scene Lear’s throne sits on top and reminded me of the isolation he feels at the top of the play. For Shrew we find a large neon sign spelling out The Taming of The Shrew with one letter askew. Seated onstage were two rows of the audience, and the cast mingled before the play and at intermission with the gathered spectators. Though I had some qualms about parts of these designs, they did open the space up.

Noble is a director of theatrical spectacle who gives his productions a sort of grandeur. He also makes sure the audience understands the language by having the actors speak clearly, at a proper pace, but nevertheless providing them with individual microphones, which give tremendous clarity, and words aren’t lost when the actors face upstage. Noble used the space extremely well and kept a theatrical tension going at all times.

I was a bit disappointed in The Madness of George III as a play. Though beautifully directed and acted, the play at times seemed a bit silly when it should just be humorous. Some of the characters and situations were exaggerated to the point of absurdity; then an occasional serious line was said about the nature of humanity, governance, and the human condition, but these moments were fleeting. The acting was superb, with Miles Anderson giving a bang-up performance as George, alternating between wild madness, pathos, and humor—truly wonderful work. Kevin Hoffman as the Prince of Wales and Emily Swallow as Queen Charlotte offered outstanding performances as well. George’s trio of doctors were amusing (Adrian Sparks, Bruce Turk, and Joseph Marcell), and Robert Foxworth provided sober support as the doctor who eventually helped George through strict discipline.

Foxworth is really at the Festival to play King Lear. He is a bit vigorous to play an 80-year-old King, but he aged throughout to the point where he was quite frail and defeated at the end. Foxworth has a great command of the language and can be a force to be reckoned with. His daughters were very good as played by Emily Swallow as a secretive and plotting Goneril, Audrey Saverino as a nasty and snide, smiling Regan, and Catherine Gowl as a straightforward Cordelia. Bruce Turk made an interesting Fool, given to singing and prancing about. Charles Janasz, also a bit young for his part, was an effective Gloucester. Jay Whittaker played the stalwart Edgar and a Janno Roberts was a sinister Edmund.

Having seen two productions of Lear recently in Los Angeles by Antaeus Theatre, I found myself disappointed in this Lear. The Antaeus’ productions were funnier, more moving, clearer, and altogether more effective. I think the intimacy of the productions there are part of the reason, though the performances by Dakin Mathews and Harry Groener and the rest of the casts were revelatory. I usually lose interest in any production of Lear when Poor Tom, Edgar in disguise, appears and begins his ravings. I had this experience again in San Diego but not so in Los Angeles. What Noble’s production did have was extraordinary special effects and lighting. I have never seen such an effective storm. The center platform worked sometimes extremely well but at others seemed to limit the action, such as in the Poor Tom scenes or the final moments of the play.

The Taming of the Shrew can be a controversial play because of the political incorrectness of Katherine’s submission to her husband and her final conciliatory speech. The production by Ron Daniels only made things worse. His concept seemed to be to avoid the “problem” of the play at all costs. His comedy scenes were often outside the text and involved Morris dances, Samba music, and a long pantomime when Petruchio asks for food. The two leads were excellent; Jonno Roberts and Emily Swallow seemed to have real chemistry, but they were hampered by the concept of having no taming and no shrew in the play. It all seemed so reasonable, and Katherine seemed to acquiesce in the first meeting.

As good as the two leads were, the secondary characters were for the most part a disaster. It is always troublesome to have non-comedic actors play comedy parts or comic actors who feel they must exaggerate to be funny. The Lucentio of Jay Whittaker was really awful, unfunny and hard to listen to, seeing as he put on a fake squeaky voice. Clown Bruce Turk was over the top as Grumio. Joseph Marcell was just boring as Gremio. I finally realized after he played each part this summer basically identically that He was the same actor I knew from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and was playing a variation on that character. He did speak very well, and was quite elegant, but that doesn’t really fit Kent, his character, in Lear. Charles Janasz acquitted himself well again as the Pendant and overall had a very good summer. The costumes by Deidre Clancy were very good and showed a real sense of humor.

Considering it is his first summer as Artistic Director of the Festival, Adrian Noble did a brilliant job despite my various qualms. He brings energy and a new sense of purpose to the Festival and is a very welcome addition. The 2010 Shakespeare Festival at The Old Globe plays through Sept. 23.

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