“Antony and Cleopatra” have commitment issues

The What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW) just opened their second major Shakespeare production in a month’s time at the Channing-Murray Foundation: Antony and Cleopatra. Director Eric Krull makes an interesting link between the diva-like characters of the play and the many thematic parallels in modern hip hop music, but I am not sure if it was fully realized in this hip hop version. The only real incorporation of the hip hop element was the DJ-like musical interjections between scenes and acts, but this wasn’t carried into costuming or staging. While vanity seemed a clever and thoughtful linking device, by only using the music element the vision of the production was more confused than anything else.

The hip hop element could have been carried into the set, staging, or costumes, and would have been a better choice in this last case than the sad and all-too-revealing slave sacks that were used. Granted, this is a student production (not that we should ask anything less of them) operating with limited funds, but the pillow cases tied with rope to appear as togas could have been improved. Also, all of the actors looked incredibly uncomfortable walking about barefoot, and the male characters really struggled with their senatorial garb to a distracting degree. Bright colors, sneakers, and a full embrace of the hip hop aesthetic would have been more feasible, more appropriate, and would have served as a fun contrast to the dark and woody Tudor-style interior of the Channing-Murray space. The only set pieces were two columns made of mirrors that almost too pointedly emphasized the issues of vanity and may not have been worth the effort when Krull already had an interesting space to work with. Antony (Patrick Harris) and Cleopatra (Kate Stephens) had a lot of lines to swallow and didn’t miss a beat, however Harris was too much the stoic and Stephens too much the diva to find any chemistry, unfortunately.

Overall the production suffered from a sense of overt seriousness and gravity that left no room for emotional development or cathartic crescendo. Harris seems to be cast by the group–and his is quite the veteran with ten WYW productions under his belt–most often in serious roles like last season’s Doctor Faustus than comedic roles. This may be perhaps due to his dead-pan delivery and general demeanor of gravitas. However, his use of this same affect as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in WYW’s last product was probably one of his best roles, resulting in a Monty Python-esque thoughtful humor. The fact that the leads didn’t overwhelm the production–which tends to be a problem for this play, like Macbeth–left room for the often unsung supporting roles to get a little more attention. Sarah Chaney’s Charmian provided desperately needed comedic brevity, even if it was only in a well-timed sardonic affect and some slapstick miming. Nevertheless, this worked. One of my favorite minor roles, Enobarbus, got interesting treatment from Mark Pajor, who found a chummy initial characterization that was worked into a believably guilt-wracked traitor. (Check out this great interview with Patrick Stewart and several cast members of the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing his two famous interpretations of Enobarbus.)

It is Homecoming this weekend at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, so seeing Shakespeare may not be on the top of your list. I cannot say that this production would serve as the best substitute either. It just seemed that Krull didn’t fully commit to his concept. Rap and Shakespeare definitely go together: the Q Brother’s 2008 Funk It Up About Nothing won the Dress Circle Award for Best Musical among several other awards at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It is a genius “ad-rap-tation” and is thankfully coming back to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in early 2011. This production is a lesson well learned for the company on the necessity of taking risks and fully committing to an idea, however unconventional it may seem.

Student troupe opens season with its namesake

The What You Will Shakespeare Company (WYW), one of the student-run theatre troupes on the University of Illinois campus, opened their season this weekend with a crowd-pleaser, William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will. It seemed apt that the itinerant troupe opened with the play from which their namesake is derived. The production featured a spare set and simple staging, complemented by live musicians (comprised of piano, flute, and violin), and a strong ensemble performance.

WYW, as an entirely student-operated company, has no dedicated performance space. This actually makes for consistently interesting productions in terms of staging. Often the group reserves an interesting local building, foyer or decorative hallway in one of the many historic buildings on the UIUC campus to adapt to their bare-bones productions. Twelfth Night took place in the Tudor-style upstairs hall of the restaurant at the Channing-Murray Foundation. By day, this space functions as a Unitarian Universalism chapel; the heavy banister and simple oak dais were put to interesting and effective use. Scenes marked by the antagonisms between Maria (Nora Ellis), Sir Toby (John Jager), Sir Andrew (Patrick Harris), and Malvolio (Nathan Luft) used the banister well to magnify a humor of the body. For example, Fabian (Liz Porter), Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew move about behind the high banister–here representing some hedgerows–while they watch Malvolio pine over Maria’s epistolary forgery. Every time Malvolio rotates in their direction, the whole group absolutely commits to hitting the deck with a shocking abruptness that consistently had the audience giggling.

Aside from the space itself, the only additional set pieces were a large table and a few chairs. The table was adjusted to a slight angle to gesture as to whether we were in Orsino’s or Olivia’s–an understated move that put stock in audiences’ imaginations. Also, Jager’s boisterously jovial and believably drunk Sir Toby played well off of Harris’ dead-pan Sir Andrew. Harris, who typically plays more serious roles, makes a smart choice of deploying his uniquely flat affect to create an understated Sir Andrew, allowing his jokes and puns to stand for themselves. Director Liana Alcantara takes a purist comedic approach to the text rather than playing up the dark comedy elements of Malvolio, Feste (Ian Pozdol) and Antonio (Anna Rose Floeter). Luft’s Malvolio is likable and works to promote a consistently good-humored tone throughout the production despite this flattening of tensions.

The well-rounded ensemble was supported by well-cast romantic leads. Orsino (Casey Theil) and Sebastian (Xander Franklin), while hamming it up at times, both found a nice balance to their characters combining leader with lover. Veteran performer Sarah Robinson lent the production some gravitas with her Olivia, but it was Sara Boland-Taylor’s Viola that nearly stole the show. She showed herself a close reader of the text and capitalized on a humorous whiney-yet-effervescent femininity to throw the problems and chaos of cross-dressing into relief. Much of the cast are newcomers to WYW, and many of them will be in the company’s production of Moliere’s Tartuffe later this fall. I am excited to see what the group will do with the popular but controversial socio-economic French comedy. Able to pull off Shakespeare’s best play to bring along a date to, odds seem good that the rest of the season may be equally fruitful.