Titus Andronicus: How the Mighty Have Fallen

Over the weekend, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park, put on a stellar performance of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s less popular and more bloody tragedies.  Since the majority of Mere-O’s readers are not likely to find themselves in Oklahoma any time soon, I will skip over a review of the performance itself; content to suffice myself with one brief comment.  A play like Titus Andronicus gives the director many opportunities to exploit the gruesome, sensual, and bloody elements of the script beyond what Shakespeare may have intended; it was with some reservation that I decided to attend since I knew that there would be ample room for poetic and licentious license in an attempt to sell tickets and keep the attention of an audience struggling with the Elizabethean English.  I was quite surprised to find that artistic director Kathryn McGill remained within the bounds of a historically plausible production, while certainly not shying away from addressing the dark themes and portraying the sinister elements of the play.  Kudos to a non-profit theater company whose goal is “to provide Oklahoma with quality stage productions in unique and exciting environments at a reasonable price and to develop cultural growth in Oklahoma through classical and theatrical projects.”

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Titus Andronicus, you might want to read a brief synopsis.  Everyone else is welcome to take the plunge with me into the dark world of a falling empire and the turmoil of human depravity. Continue reading

The Crystal Cathedral’s “Creation” — Genesis on audio/visual steriods

The Crystal Cathedral is famous for its annual production of “the Glory of Easter,” featuring dangling angels, resounding music, and live animals. This year, they experiment with a new production along the same lines. The tagline is “Once upon all time,” and the show is called “Creation.”

Despite the name, the story is a sort of Paradise Lost, mostly retelling the fall of man through the eyes of a wizend old grandfather and his grandson. The style and format is innovative. “[Creation is] presented on a 200-foot wide screen with six projectors, [and] features vivid computer generated imagery (CGI), awe-inspiring aerial theatre, large scale 3-dimensional puppetry and a powerful musical score…” But the amateur writing of Carol S. Milner (writer/director/producer) leaves much to be desired, with poetry and philosophy that is spotty, vague, and only approximately Christian. Despite this, the production is visually interesting, at times, quite moving, and an overall enjoyable experience.

Let’s talk about God. Grandpa narrator starts the story by saying, “In the beginning was a dream.” Huh? Within two lines Milner eagerly rephrases with the only slightly better “In the beginning was the Presence, and its dream.” Throughout the show the creator of “all the stuff” is referred to as the Presence, and once or twice as “deity.” The scientifically informed grandson is a bit skeptical of this “Someone” who his grandpa is always talking about, but is eventually won over to his grandpa’s viewpoint — or, I should say, emotional state — by the power and presence of that someone he experiences through the story.

The narration of the creation of light is moving. With the help of the enormous movie screen, we zoom through space until we see “outside the universe”, where the Presence dwells and dreams. An old-fashioned Greek Chorus arrives to speak for the Presence, and tells us that “he is dreaming.” Soon the visuals and music culminate and the chorus members all together proclaim the famous words of Genesis 1: “let there be light.”

With falling stars in the background, and extremely strange archers with cross-shaped double-bows shooting streams of light into the audience, the chorus returns to pour out its mystical chant: “Elements! Matter! Mass!” (Why not use the words of Genesis as your script? I don’t know.)

Their pseudo-scientific sounding chant does introduce one of my favorite moments of the production.
To image the creation of the planets, Milner puts about half the planets up on the screen, forming before your eyes, and for the others, she brings out a group of aerobatic dancers. (Think Cirque du Soleil).

Saturn is imaged as three men, connected to the ceiling by cables, floating forty feet above the stage, whirling and spinning in unison. Pluto is a pair of performers, spinning and doing an a beautiful piece of air-ballet. Uranus is five men and women, all gripping a large, metal skeleton-globe which whirls as they dance and perform within and around it.

Perhaps because mankind longs to fly, perhaps because circular motion bespeaks something of eternity… I don’t know why. But the spinning and dancing and flying of the performers was extremely moving.

Here the story pauses, and we return to “gramps” and son (who we had effectively forgotten), for some expositional dialogue. I’m afraid I must assert that dialogues such as these are the biggest evidence of the writer’s weaknesses, both artistically and philosophically. Quicker than non-Christian audience members can say, “God is dead! ID is not science! Faith is irrational!” gramps steps in and assures little Michael: “Yup. It’s all about believing, and enjoying the beauty of something from nothing.”

My dear writer/director/producer, is that really what it’s all about? What if the beauty is false? Is a story worth believing if it is so utterly flawed and misguided that it would lead those who believe it to live the mere shadow of a life, deceived by their own fantasies, culturally irrelevant, never facing reality? I do not think Milner would answer in the affirmative to any of these rhetorical questions. What, then, was the point of quoted line? Unless the lines are revised for next year’s production, I can only conclude that fear of controversy (read: disagreement with an actual position) seduces Milner into created a script so watery and warm that many will spit it out of their mouths.

Which brings us to another character, anything but luke-warm: Lucifer, the “Lord of the Earth.” Lucifer (my night) was played quite competently by Carson Coulon, a professional actor out of New York. One of the successes, if not perhaps in the script, in an acting performance is Lucifer’s gradual change from love and admiration of creation to envy and covetous desire for creation. In beautiful song and choppy verse, this overwhelmingly interesting moment in the history of the universe — the first turn from good to bad– is worthily portrayed.

Things again get shaky when little Michael asks a really good question. “Gramps, why do you call the Presence a ‘He’?” “Uh, well little Mikey, I don’t know, duh…” Would have been a better answer. Instead lovable ol’ grandpa retreats to that easiest of philosophical “positions” and retorts: “Because it’s my story.”

Now, I am sympathetic to Milner’s desire to retain the interest and good will of the wider American audience… What’s he going to say? “Well, Micheal, God has revealed himself to us as masculine and male, so it behooves us to take his word for it. And that’s not just true for me or true for you; that’s as true as the fact the Earth is a oblate spheroid. Calling God a “she” or an “it” is simply an error, amounting to blaspheme.”? The day ol’ gramps says that is the day the LA Times rips the Crystal Cathedral a new rear entrance. With that understood, the fact is this: Milner had a choice between some amount of immediate acceptance, and a production that people will want to see again and again, after the spirit of our age has died and been replaced. It’s a choice anyone with a controversial thesis has. She chose the former.

Who was she trying not to offend? Those who believe the universe started with nothing but mass and energy, which exploded (without the intervention of a personality). This is called Naturalism. Naturalists tell a story of creation as well. It runs something like this: “In the beginning was no intelligence or purpose; there were only particles and impersonal laws of physics. These two things plus chance did all the creating. Without them nothing was made that has been made. The particles combined to become complex living stuff through a process of evolution. Primitive humans, not having science to tell them what had happened, dreamed up a Creator they called God.”

Note that the atheistic (or agnostic) story is a) no more based on observation than my niece’s belief in the Tooth Fairy. And b) it does not explain where particles came from (nor assert that particles are self-existent. [Scientists mostly believe they are not]). The Genesis story, on the other hand, explains the existence of the world, saying that God spoke it into being. “But where did God come from?” Ah… God is the sort of thing that is self-existent being, as far as we can tell. That’s what he said, at least. The Hebrews therefore give us at the least this: a much more likely story for the origin of the universe. Dare I call the Genesis hypothesis more… scientific? Regardless, given the opportunity Creation had for propounding a philosophically viable alternative to the silly, two-dimensional Naturalistic story, I was disappointed.

After intermission, there are two other scenes worth mentioning. The idyllic pastoral scene in which Adam and Eve (the actors for the night I went were actually married) express their deep love for eachother and gratitude for the peaceful creation all around them is another powerful and moving scene. Adam and Eve sing of the comfort they have in one another, and the joy of the creatures, from ducks to wolves and cheetahs, that they take as companions.

This peace is inevitably arrested by the entrance of Satan, who has devised to deceive the happy couple by taking on the form of a serpent. He viciously tempts Eve and eventually convinces both her and Adam to eat the fruit. (There is no mention that it is forbidden… The plot-points of the Genesis narrative are apparently assumed.) In a rather awe-inspiring burst of smoke, costumes, and male choral singing, the effects of their fateful choice are dramatically imaged.

There are but a few minutes to soak in the horror of the newly transformed former-paradise, until the show quickly transitions to the closing number, “Angelic Promises,” wherein the actors and the audience members are promised that our “tears will turn to gold,” and “heaven will wrap itself ’round us, a chrysalis of care.”

Creation is a production of good intentions. The indecision about whether or not to draw from the actual in Genesis leaves the production feeling a bit aimless. The lack of mention of Christ, given John 1: 1 – 3, is inexplicable. The audio, however, is stunning, and the acrobatics moving. The combination of CGI, Lion-King-esque puppets, and good acting will surely become more popular; they definitely provide an experience worth having. You’ll have to wait till next year, though, unless you can make it out this weekend. If you do see it, just try not to think, you who try to love God with your mind, only remember that “it’s all about believing, and enjoying the beauty of something from nothing.”

Review of “As You Like It”

William Shakespeare’s adorable comedy As You Like It will be brought to life at the Ahmanson Theatre from the present through March 26th. Sir Peter Hall, winner of multiple Tony-Awards, directs the Theatre Royal Bath with the lead of Rosalind going to his daughter, Rebecca Hall.

As You Like It is surely one of Shakespeare’s most endearing comedies. One cannot help but fall in love with his Rosalind, who seems to possess an endless store of wit. She exemplifies the ideal lover because, while smitten with the manly – if sometimes awkward – Orlando (energetically played by Dan Stevens), yet has the wisdom not to take love too seriously. She revels in teasing her wooer, but does not adopt the off-putting cynical attitude we so often find in the modern lover. Rosalind “sees through” love and so achieves wisdom, but does not remain aloof and has a soul whole enough to allow herself to fall in love.

As for this particular version of the immortal play, it does an adequate job, but did not rally enough energy from the witty lines to make up for a rather slow plot. Part of the fault must lie with the poorly educated audience who strugged to understand Shakespearean English. Yet, much of the cast could not aid our lack. Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of Rosalind didn’t cut it. She used a voice that came off as whiney – completely inappropriate for Shakespeare’s most alive female role. The bounce and playfulness one would expect from Rosalind did not shine through.

Her lackluster performance, however, was compensated for by a funny Touchstone (played by Michael Siberry), Orlando as aforementioned, and an appropriately cynical and wise Jaques (Philip Voss).

To the company’s credit, they played this performance straight. They did not give into the temptation to play up the homosexual angle when Rosalind cross-dresses as Ganymede and asks Orland to woo her. Instead, the situation created funny, awkward moments that were tastefully pulled off.

The early 21st century apparel and minimalist set did not particularly help to interpret the play, though it did not detract from it either. The one unique angle was to portray the usurping Duke Frederick as a totalitarian leader.

One of my favorite scenes in the play was when the big wits, Jaques and Rosalind, meet. Rosalind completely outdid Jaques, a very gratifying scene that on an allegorical level shows that smarts don’t necessitate angst. Hall did not deliver the spark I expected, but nevertheless the scene is pleasing for one who believes that head and heart can be united in the same soul.

A student discount is available as are public rush tickets, which make this trip to a trendy downtown L.A. spot affordable. Advice to the college types: this is a great Valentine’s day date! My wife thoroughly enjoyed it when I told her to get dressed up and surprised her!

Sir Peter Hall’s version of As You Like It is a good introduction for those unfamiliar with the play and is a great bit of culture, so I encourage L.A. area readers to attend. This performance is human, but to see Shakespeare in downtown L.A. is divine!