Friday, August 29, 2008

Richmond Mayor's Race '08

Richmond Mayor’s Race Is On
Five mayoral hopefuls agree to candidate forum series.

The five men vying to become Richmond’s next mayor have agreed to engage in a three-part series of candidate forums kicking off Sept. 23.

The series, “Richmond Decision ’08,” is in response to the intense interest in this election by Richmond citizens, as well as many community groups, neighborhood associations and special-interest organizations.

The forums are produced by The League of Women Voters and Style Weekly, with the support of a diverse group of community organizations: Alliance for the Performing Arts, Arts Council of Richmond, Downtown Neighborhood Association, Homeward, OPUS, Partnership for Smarter Growth, Falls of the James Sierra Club, Venture Richmond and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

“Voters are eager to hear side-by-side discussions by the mayoral candidates on a broad range of significant issues facing the community,” Style Weekly Editor Jason Roop says. “This is an unprecedented opportunity for that discussion. Who will replace Mayor L. Douglas Wilder?”

Roop will moderate the series, during which a panel of three journalists representing a variety of local media will pose questions to the candidates. The format is designed to give each candidate a fair, engaging platform to present his views.

The three forums are scheduled as follows:

Forum I: The Future of Downtown Richmond, Sept. 23
The Renaissance Conference Center, 107 W. Broad St.
Topics to include development, revitalization, city services and the master plan.

Forum II: Living and Working in Richmond, Oct. 14
Virginia Historical Society, 428 N. Boulevard
Topics to include growth, safety, environmentalism, housing, health care and workforce issues.

Forum III: Arts, Culture and Education, Oct. 28
The Library of Virginia, 800 E. Broad St.
Topics to include the area’s arts and culture and Richmond Public Schools.

Each event begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m., with the candidate forum starting between 6 and 6:15. The program will run no longer than 8 p.m.
In addition, voter registration tables will be active at the event in order to increase citizen participation in the democratic process.

Forums are open to the public, although space is limited.

The panel for the Sept. 23 forum will consist of Edwin Slipek Jr., architecture critic and senior contributing editor at Style Weekly; Aaron Gilchrist, anchor at NBC 12; and Jimmy Barrett of WRVA’s “Richmond’s Morning News.”

The five candidates for mayor are:

• Paul Goldman is a former adviser and now frequent critic of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. He was a key proponent and grassroots advocate of the city’s charter change to an elected-mayor form of government.

• Robert J. Grey Jr., former president of the American Bar Association, is a partner at the law firm Hunton & Williams. He’s also served as chairman of Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s Committee on the Performing Arts.

• Dwight C. Jones, the pastor of First Baptist Church in South Richmond, is a Democratic state delegate for the 70th District in the General Assembly. He’s previously served as chairman of the Richmond School Board.

• William J. “Bill” Pantele is a private attorney who serves as City Council President, and has been a frequent voice in opposition to Mayor L. Douglas Wilder. He has represented the 2nd District on City Council for seven years.

• Lawrence E. Williams Sr., a previous candidate to represent the 6th District on City Council, owns his own architectural practice and has worked with several community development corporations.

Jason Roop
Style Weekly

1313 E. Main St., Suite 103
Richmond, VA 23219
(804) 358-0825, ext. 323

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Performing an Old Contracting

First, a quick congratulatory cheer for Jim Warren and Ralph Alan Cohen on the announcement of their winning the Governor's Award for the Arts. Truly well-deserved. Their work at the American Shakespeare Center is an inspiration to thousands, and to me. Below, you'll find my thoughts on Measure for Measure, playing at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, which would not exist but for the vision of Jim and Ralph -Grant Mudge.

...Went to the Blackfriars' last Sunday night and saw Measure for Measure performed by the resident company. They have really settled into terrific productions over the last two years and it's a treat to see them doing so well.

It was fun, too, to see the play with James Alexander Bond's Spring '08 Richmond Shakespeare Theatre production so freshly in mind. Just the lyrics of the play's primary song, for instance, brought Andrew Hamm's spelndid melody back so forcefully there were tears in my eyes. More on that in a minute.

This production was directed by Patrick Tucker, whose "Original Shakespeare Company" appeared several times at the Globe in London, and whom I had the pleasure of meeting at several conferences, including the Teaching Shakespeare Conference in Chicago in 1998. Also---David Hall, whom we had in to teach a class this past January on Sound and Rhythm in Performance (see pics and video post here), was a part of Tucker's 'original' company.

Patrick's work with cue scripts has been thoroughly interesting. The likely argument is that Shakespeare's company received only their own lines of a play---the whole text being too valuable and too time consuming to keep recopying for rehearsals. See Patrick's book: Secrets of Acting Shakespeare: the Original Approach.

With incredibly strong performers in the ASC's resident company (like John Harrell, Allison Glenzer--deliciously "Overdone" in her role--- Gregory Jon Phelps and Rene Thorton, Jr. to name a few) the rich language of Shakespeare is deliciously clear in this production. So too, with last year's Winter's Tale and Love's Labours Lost, both of which I enjoyed very much but the latter of which I adored.

(Sidenote, it was during that LLL last November that an infant gurgled aloud just before Berowne says "...and when Love speaks!" He looked up into the balcony toward the child and smiled--the audience laughed, and he finished the line: "the voice of all the Gods makes heaven drowsy with the harmony." Only in live theatre, and only when you can SEE the audience.)

This, in contrast to such empyrean sentiments, is as profane Measure as you're likely to see, even by the play's own ribald standards. True, it is about lechery, illegitimate pregnancy, the lust of an apparently virtuous man, pimps, prostitutes and ultimately imprisonment and death-by-beheading. Syphillis jokes, flatulence jokes, body part jokes, and bawds abound. So we're not really looking for loftiness. And apart from one erection joke that I could tell was hugely informative in rehearsal (but should have remained there), none of the bawdiness ran afoul of the play's, ahem, meatier matter.

And there it is. Amongst all of the tawdry bawdry, among all the intricacies of a convoluded plot (Angelo will never know he's sleeping with the wrong woman, it'll be dark!) is a perplexing leading character, Vincentio--the Duke of Vienna, who manipulates and manuevers everyone in the play toward one end or another. He places the strict conservative Angelo in power and "leaves town," then donning a Friar's habit to pass among his citizenry ostensibly to improve their morals in ways he can't as the Duke. We are left to guess at his motivations, and shake our heads at his outright cruelty to the novitiate nun, Isabella.

The Duke tells her that her brother is dead (I'll let you see the play to ascertain his truthfulness), but the manner in which he does it cannot be considered anything but cruel. Why, then?

As the Duke, Blackfriars' newcomer John Pasha is able to carry the play--it feels like the Duke is in every scene---and his strength of voice and presence are terrific. I wanted to see more vulnerability in him, but his choices were certainly valid on their own. But the question of what Shakespeare was getting at with the Duke comes down to two bits of text, and one's a song:
He, who the sword of heaven will bear
Should be as holy as severe;
Pattern in himself to know,
Grace to stand, and virtue go;
More nor less to others paying
Than by self offences weighing.
Shame to him whose cruel striking
Kills for faults of his own liking!
Twice treble shame on Angelo,
To weed my vice and let his grow!
O, what may man within him hide,
Though angel on the outward side!
How many likeness made in crimes,
Making practice on the times,
To draw with idle spiders’ strings
Most pond’rous and substantial things!
Craft against vice I must apply:
With Angelo to-night shall lie
His old betrothed but despis’d:
So disguise shall, by the disguis’d,
Pay with falsehood false exacting,
And perform an old contracting. [Exit.]
This song pops up seemingly out of nowhere. It takes us into an act break, but scholars disagree about it. Some say it's Middleton, others argue "obvious" lacunal chunks. Personally I like the feeling of finality it gives to the first half but must acknowledge the weirdness of its verse structure.

In the ASC production, Pasha (as the Duke) really begins to sing. He has an enormous, Broadway voice, which he uses here to hint that the Duke might be a little mad. But the passage does still feel a bit out of place.

Which leads me to the core of it all. Are we to see the Duke as playwright? As puppeteer manipulating the strings of everyone onstage? Or do we see him through a kind of divine-right-of-kings lens in which he plays the role of God? Dressed as a holy man but always deciding things for his people, are we to think Shakespeare is angry at this God? That the Duke, for all his 'divine benevlence' is a venomous depiction of the cruelty of God? Shakespeare certainly knew the difficulty of pregnancy before wedlock. It's almost as if he is finally coming round to proclaim justice on his own actions:
The very mercy of the law cries out
Most audible, even from his proper tongue,'
An Angelo for Claudio, death for death!'

Haste still pays haste, and leisure answers leisure;
Like doth quit like, and MEASURE still FOR MEASURE.

In general I don't think we're meant to know. Ultimately, Shakespeare leaves it up to us to decide Isabella's choice at the end of the play, sisterhood or marriage, chastity or adult knowledge. Which moment you'll now have to see to ascertain. If you saw the RS production in Febraury, you know the choice our Isabella made.

Otherwise in the ASC production: Harrell is a delightful Lucio, one I'd like to have seen push his insolence with others even a little farther. But the performance recalls much of Harrell's great skill with words, always deliberate, always fun, and always crystal clear: from Holofernes to Camilo to Benedick and Tartuffe, (just to name a few that it's been my privilege to see) Harrell remains an excellent example of the kind of performer that would have drawn audiences back to the Blackfriars of 400 years past--over and again even as they do today. Wishing I'd seen his Volpone or Richard III. He'll try the supreme wordsmith monarch next with a different Richard: the Second.

James Keegan's Pompey reflects a versatile leading man who can ribbon his beard right along with the clowns and succeed in the task. It's not necessarily comic genius--while he IS funny, he just feels a little out of his element in the direct address comedy---but the strength of the fey Pompeii, the delightful character he's created we enjoy tremendously. I'm looking forward to his Lear.

Our own alum Stephen Lorne Williams (Prospero in the RSF Tempest in 2007) joined the ASC company this season and is a delightful and authentic Escalus. His trial scene of the bawd Pompey and the drunken fool Froth (a nicely convincing Alyssa Wilmoth) was simply a treat, very sweet and ringing completely true. Keegan coming to sit on his lap, nothing compared to Williams' embarrssed grin at the bizarreness of the situation.

I've been wanting to see Sarah Fallon ever since the Professional Theatre Training Program (PTTP) at the University of Delaware began inviting me up to audition their students. We've hired several actors from the school, all fabulous, and Ms. Fallon seems no exception. Her Isabella is at one and the same time somehow the hesitant novitiate in a sisterhood and a woman coming into the peak of her life's strength, vibrancy and adulthood. It's a fascinating portrayal, marked by her shattered visage upon arriving to see the Duke, to plead for justice, thinking her brother dead.

Word among the actors and staff is that the King Lear they're performing is truly outstanding. With Keegan in the title role, Williams as Gloucester, Glenzer and Fallon as Goneril and Regan, Phelps and Pasha as Edmund and Edgar and Harrell as the Fool, I can't wait.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

RTCC Award Nominations Are Out!

The first annual Richmond Theatre Critics Circle award nominations have been announced.

The award ceremony will be held on Sunday, October 19th at the Firehouse Theatre. Visit the Richmond VA Theater Blog for the full listing of nominees, but right here we're going to crow about Richmond Shakespeare's eight honorees!

Best Play
As You Like It (indoor), Richmond Shakespeare

Best Direction - Play
Andrew Hamm, As You Like It (indoor) (Richmond Shakespeare)
James Ricks, Richard II (Richmond Shakespeare)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role - Play
David Bridgewater, Henry IV, Part 2 (Richmond Shakespeare)
Joseph Anthony Carlson, Henry IV, Part 2 (Richmond Shakespeare)
Stephen Ryan, Richard II (Richmond Shakespeare)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Play
Liz Blake, Measure for Measure (Richmond Shakespeare)

Outstanding Achievement, Costume Design

Rebecca Cairns, As You Like It (indoor) (Richmond Shakespeare)

We're incredibly proud of all of our nominees, and would like to add our gratitude to the full casts and crews of all of our shows for the past year. No actor, director, or designer works alone; it takes an ensemble to create a play with a truly standout performance. Similarly, it takes a commitment to quality work the year round to empower an individual show or performer. You are all nominated.

Congratulations to all our friends and colleagues around Richmond who have been recognized. It truly is an honor to be nominated.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Our Humble Author Will Continue the Story...

Our humble author "Will" continue the story....

During last night's final performance of RSF 2008, I found myself wondering not only how many closing performances I'd seen at Agecroft Hall, but how many I'd seen overall.

Richmond Shakespeare has just begun its 24th year, just concluded its 11th summertime festival, and after a brief rest, will gear up for our 4th season downtown at 2nd Presbyterian Church. August 1 marked the beginning of my 13th year with the organization, a fact which still surprises me.

In that time, while other activities have precluded my seeing all the performances, I've certainly witnessed the majority, somewhere in excess of 300 evenings in the unequaled beauty of Agecroft Hall's grounds and gardens, looking out over the James River. Night falls, the stars come out---last night one shot across the sky---it's truly one of the most special places on earth.

In fact, last night was one of the best of all, with a large and appreciative crowd out for the closing of Henry IV, Part Two. The weather was unseasonably mild, with a cooling breeze and crystal clear sky. Lower than average temperatures meant for a wonderful evening, and after the patrons finished their picnics and ambled on into the courtyard theatre, the cast gave them one heck of a performance.

It hadn't been an easy birth---Henry IV-2 is a complex play both in psychological and dramaturgical terms. Its Elizabethan jokes need careful preparation to be understood, its many scenes need vibrant stage electricity to keep the momentum flowing.

I can't possibly list what thrilled me about all the performances of this sixteen-member ensemble, led by our now frequent guest director James Alexander Bond----there are moments I will treasure from each and every actor in that company. To list just a few: Cynde Liffick's vomiting into her purse as "Doll Tearsheet" (Indeed, all 3 productions had vomit jokes this summer---what can we say? It's an elite art), Zach Arnold's deep focus as Bardolph, the ruddy-nosed compatriot to Daryl Clark Phillips' rich, deep and satisfying Falstaff, Suzanne Ankrum---our warrior turned summer bird, the wild rhythm and dance of the "Rumorettes," the silly combat (which I love) of the Eastcheap Tavern, and of course most especially, the final scene between Prince Hal and King Henry.

It began early in the run: actors, dressers, ushers, box office staff, board members, anyone working the show would draw close, inching nearer to the stage to listen to David Bridgewater and Phillip James Brown go at each other in one of the most compelling scenes in all of Shakespeare. It's an epic scene, and as intimate as any father-son argument. The language roared through the clouds each night, and each audience was pin-drop silent in the moment before father embraced heir and, after a moment, said "Oh, my son."

People called it breathtaking, fabulous, and even "one of those moments in the theatre when you feel privileged to have been allowed in the same room while it was going on." They were right. These two actors were simply amazing.

If you missed Henry IV, Part Two I feel sorry for you---it was an incredible experience. The good news is, there's a final episode in the saga, one that you needn't have seen the first two to understand, but if you have---your enjoyment will be all the more rich. We'll stage Henry V next summer, and Phil will be returning to finish this first tetralogy in Shakespeare's History Cycle.

So, whether you were in the audience, on the stage, behind it, taking tickets or hanging lights, distributing posters or pouring champagne, thank you for joining us for the Richmond Shakespeare Festival 2008---thousands of you---we look forward to seeing you this October for our indoor season kickoff, Hamlet, and of course back at Agecroft Hall as soon as summertime rolls back around.

Do keep in touch and e-mail me with your thoughts---I try to answer as many as possible; it's

Until then, the closing lines of last night's performance are freshly in my mind, as we think of returning to this story---we start rehearsals in less than a year----about 8 months:
I will lay odds, that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleas’d the king.