Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ashland Theater Note:
Goldoni and Cervantes (Updated)

Underbelly groupies will recall that I've complained before about how the Ashland Shakespeare folks will step on the Shakespeare in favor of the comic stage business. But I think I've also said that they are pretty good at the stage business.

Two cases in point. One: Carlos Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters--adapted, as we might say, for the modern stage. Goldoni, who died in 1792, wrote plays with about the speed and care you would expect from Law & Order or a Bollywood film studio, so there is no particular need for reverence here and adaptation is no crime. The plot is easily accessible. It's about, well, a servant who has, well, two masters, and hilarity ensues. The framework is perfect for bringing out all the stuff that Ashland does best. The script itself--the verbal humor--is good-natured but forgettable, not designed (or designed not) to offend anybody, like a Scott Simon NPR monologue. The clowning is mostly first rate, although in a generally high-quality cast, it is the servant, Mark Bedard, who pretty much runs away with it. Bedard, who was a relatively minor newcomer to the company just last year, has an impressive bag of physical tricks: he can sit, fetch, beg, play catch, shake hands and roll over--indeed, just about anything except come to heel or play dead. The rest of the cast was fine but I was particularly taken with Richard Howard and David Kelly as the commedia dell'arte mainstays in the piece. They're somewhat similar in style: they've both played Richard II. They've both been at Ashland forever; they must have worked together before, and it is amusing to watch them work off riffs that must have been in the making since sometime back in the early 90s.

My only real reservation about Servant is that the audience, to put it crudely, wasn't drunk enough. This kind of mindless clowning is good fun for an hour or so but after the intermission you start looking at your watch. The cast dabbled a bit in audience interaction: they almost got upstaged in repartee with a quick-witted stranger named Ralph, and some guy in the first row quite gratuitously kicked Bedard in the butt (he responded with aplomb). A bit more groaning, hooting and obscene yelping could only have enhanced the experience.

Example two: Don Quixote, another modern adaptation. It was the props department who had a field day on this one. You had puppets of all shapes and sizes and conceptions, and one intern even got to play the back end of a horse. Dear Mom: The good news is that I will have a part in a play.... (Checking the program notes, I see that her previous experience includes The Vagina Monologues and something claled The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could; maybe the back end of a horse is an improvement).

The, the puppets were lovely. Casting was serviceable all around (oak leaf cluster to Josiah Phillips as Sancho Panza), though once again I found myself diverted by a meta-point from Ashland history. That is: for the "priest" and the "barber," the director cast Mark Murphy Prybil, another pair of Ashland veterans. These two have been around the Ashland company almost since the time of Cervantes himself: I remember them particularly from 17-18 years ago as more or less of a two-man show in something called "Voice of the Prarie." As with Howard and Kelly, it was fun to watch these two guys riffing off each other still, or again.

The scripting was serviceable, but at the end of the day I think the whole thing fell a bit flat. At its best (in the first act), you could say it was a set of Cliff Notes on the novel, with the respectful solemnity of a Merchant-Ivory soaper. Unfortunately, this fealty brought in some of the worst features of the novel as well: its gratuitous violence, its general slackness, its lack of a long story arc. In the second act, the adapter, in what must have been a fit of desperation, shifts gears away from Quixote himself into a story-within-a-story about Cardenia and his odd love life; I wouldn't be surprised if a good chunk of the audience (this certainly includes me) just had trouble figuring it all out.

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