Friday, May 27, 2011

Spiderman West: The Ashland Style

Scan the blurbs for the staging of Molière's Imaginary Invalid at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and you could quickly conclude that for full enjoyment, you'd best forget about Molière.   A "wild whorl of love and sickness, song and dance," gushes a newspaper review reprinted at the Festival website.  Elaborating:

Seeing a parallel between Molière's blending of court and peasant theatrical styles and Phil Spector's baroque pop-song productions, director [the modern adapter] has set the story in a Parisian apartment where classic elegance has been splashed with mod fashion.

Christopher Acebo's grand scenic design and eye-popping costumes blend with Paul James Prendergast's period-groovy pop-soul songs and Ken Roht's near-campy choreography in explosions of color and motion. Argan, by contrast, mostly sits in a wheelchair and complains, but as played by David Kelly in an iridescent robe and a Spector-ish halo of frizz, he's anything but inert ...

And the jokes are almost nonstop: cheesy puns, off-color asides, sight gags and so on. Anachronistic references to dowries, Viagra and even Hall and Oates fly by ...
 So you might think that  Molière is missing in all the frenetic acting. You wouldn't be quite right--the original was, after all, a comedy and some of the original comic ideas lie there somewhat mangled under the accumulation of debris.

But  Molière is only an incident or an accident  in the full flowering of what you might call "The Ashland Style"--a by-now-fully-matured genre of  theatrical display.  Some of the elements I've already set forth: start with a venerable name--Shakespeare is best,   Molière will do.  Add some of what Ashland has always done best--physical comedy on the order of Feydeau farce.  Tricky near-gymnastics are good, like a scene played at the top of a moving ladder, or a wheelchair that almost skids into the audience.  Add surreal costumes, heavy on primary colors (but no harm if you ask the lead to wear a duck  on his head).

And then the noise.  Oh my, the noise.  I was chatting a while back with a guy who works in Broadway tech. I remarked on  how loud Broadway shows have become. Yes, he said, but it's not the sound guys: they understand modulation.  It's the bankers, or the folks in marketing: they are the ones, he said who want full decibel all the time.

Maybe, although I can think of a good practical reason for all this miking in Ashland: the nature of the Ashland audience.  It's divided into two rather disparate parts.  One part is old--the public pensioners and suchlike who beguile away their sunset hours under a patina of culture.  in the nature of things, their hearing is beginning to go, and they might not complain about loud because they might not know it is loud.  The other part of the audience is the young--the schoolchildren who arrive by busload for a dash of uplift.  Presumably they have already destroyed through the earbuds whatever hearing God gave them but in any event they take loud as a given, a precondition, a matter of course.

Put the sound together with some flashing lights and you've got a halfway decent son et lumière show. So, a Spiderman  replay?  Not exactly.  While it may be like Broadway (or even Vegas. come to that), it's really much more just like itself--a peculiar mix of high culture and boffo that seems to keep bums on seats and cash tumbling into the box office: call it Spiderman west.  You certainly can't argue with this kind of success.  And you shouldn't expect anything else, really: in particular, you couldn't keep the place full by just staging and restaging the old warhorse classics in an old warhorse way.  So if you like lights and color and a lot of actually pretty good pratfall comedy, this is probably the place to be.  If you were looking for a Shakespeare Festival--well, that's a slightly different question.  

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