The second half of the first annual Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival brought another half dozen remarkable productions of Shakespeare plays to Santa Barbara. For many, the highlight was the Bulgarian National Theatre’s irreverent six-man production of Romeo and Juliet at the Lobero. It ended with a spectacular onstage rainstorm and combined raw theatricality and inventive slapstick. At Center Stage Theater, puppets and people alike had their strings pulled by the unearthly power of Shakespeare’s magical language. I’ll Believe Thee Romeo and Juliet, presented by Bulgarian National Theatre (Sofia, Bulgaria). At the Lobero Theatre, Thursday, October 19. Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer
It takes some kind of nerve to stage the most famous love story in the entire canon of Western literature. What can any contemporary director possibly add to Romeo and Juliet?
If you’re Lilia Abadjieva of the Bulgarian National Theatre, the answer is plenty. Almost as soon as the play started, Silvester Silvestrov strutted onstage in a polka-dot housedress and oversized sunglasses to deliver a complete synopsis of the action in just three minutes of glib gossip. With the business of telling the plot out of the way, the six men in the cast proceeded to tear the timeless tale wide open. With fearlessness and honesty, and through parody, absurdity, and absolute defenselessness, they exposed the deep tragedy of love and death, and genuinely explored what it is to be human.
At first, the ludicrousness of cross-dressers in puffed-sleeved ball gowns doing slapstick routines had the audience tittering. But, as scene after farcical scene sped past, the emotional truth of the work began to hit home, and the tragedy within the comedy revealed itself. In desperation, Juliet attempted suicide, first with a plate, then with a knife, a fork, and a water glass, until she finally expired—from a pollen allergy.
When a heartbreakingly beautiful rain began to pour from the rafters, Romeo and Juliet floundered and staggered and died a watery death, only to be resurrected as strobe-lit ravers and pouting models strutting on a flooded catwalk. This production was a similar success, and just as radically illuminating.
Maybe I’m a Maze The Tempest, presented by Lit Moon Theatre Company. At Center Stage Theater, Saturday, October 21. Reviewed by Charles Donelan
Milon Kalis was responsible for the elegant and challenging scenography of this Tempest, which involved a simulated forest made of vertical hanging lengths of bamboo. Lit Moon stalwarts Stanley Hoffman, Peter John Duda, Victoria Finlayson, and Kate Louise Paulsen outdid themselves in handling multiple roles, showing that they have the ability not only to differentiate but to embody vastly different characters while serving in the same play. For example, as Miranda, Peter John Duda looked stunning and demure in a full-length gown, while as Alonso, King of Naples, Duda was suitably regal and fully masculine—a neat trick.
The play’s most unusual concept involved transferring the audience, one or two at a time, from the Center Stage seating area to a set of folding chairs arranged in the round onstage. This occurred early in the performance, and the intimacy achieved by the move more than justified the disruption. I was perched in a corner, and there were moments when the actors were facing away from me, but many more when I felt as though I were there among them, a willing prisoner of Shakespeare’s enchanted island.
Asking Big Questions Rogue, by Erik Ehn. At Westmont College’s Porter Theatre, Saturday, October 21. Reviewed by Charles Donelan
Contemporary playwright and CalArts dean Erik Ehn wrote this complex and intriguing theater piece during a residency at Westmont College last year. It explores the origins and significance of the characters Hamlet and Ophelia through juxtaposition with material drawn from the life of the Catholic Saint Vincent. The cast for this production was made up entirely of Westmont students, and they have grown into their roles admirably since last year’s performance, which was also successful. This version was truly powerful, and showed that the play and the cast have great depth and resonance.
As Hamlet, Amber Angelo, who also played the queen in Richard II, showed again that she is the most exciting young actress in Santa Barbara. Her physical presence and Mitchell Thomas’s skillful directing created what amounted to a play within a play as she struggled with Hamlet’s interiority from inside a rectangular space defined by white light against the theater’s back wall. Her simple costume of a man’s black suit and a white tank top made an effective contrast to the wide variety of outfits gracing the rest of the ensemble.
Party On, Macbeth Shakespeare Jam Cabaret. At Center Stage Theater, Saturday, October 21. Reviewed by Felicia M. Tomasko
As these intimate performances at Center Stage Theater extended well past midnight, we got the unmistakable impression that the festival performers would continue until the sun rose, if the audience kept applauding.
This performance featured many Shakespeare festival artists: Erin Brehm of Lit Moon, Czech dancer and choreographer Antonie Svoboda (who brought That Play to Westmont last week), and James Connolly and the Gove County String Quartet. The evening was a night of Connolly’s music, as his compositions flavored all the performances. It was alternately evocative, haunting, and uplifting.
Svoboda, a vision of ethereal beauty in white, dashed through the theater’s doorway and ended up completing her opening piece by breaking down obstacles. Brehm offered another view of Lady Macbeth in a monologue that she wrote to investigate what Lady Macbeth might say if she reluctantly entered therapy. What if the lady decided to express herself through music? Brehm broke into a rendition of “I Couldn’t Die,” humorously set to the familiar tune of “I Will Survive.” The Gove County String Quartet wrapped the entire evening in gorgeous, multi-layered compositions such as “Forgetting the Names of Trees in the Polish Woods,” and everyone broke into song to wish Lit Moon Director John Blondell “Happy Birthday.” This jam indeed was a fitting tribute to a great week of theater.
Puppet Love As You Like It, presented by the State Puppet Theatre (Bourgas, Bulgaria). At Center Stage Theater, Wednesday, October 18. Reviewed by Felicia M. Tomasko
Storytellers and puppeteers Iroslav Petokov and Nedilina Mladenova pulled a delightful romantic comedy out of their sleeves—literally—for this Bulgarian puppet theater performance. Like magicians conjuring rabbits out of hats, the duo sprung puppets from their deceptive costumes and into a life of their own. These were not marionettes, but pliable and expressive hand puppets that the two storytellers used together with their own bodies to portray Shakespeare’s characters. The Orlando puppet, for example, sat on Petokov’s lap, with the human actor’s hands and feet creating his expressions and body language. Director Hristina Arsenova, who shortened the original text, kept the essence of the play intact. Even without the English supertext projected behind the action, the audience could follow the story through the tonal qualities of the Bulgarian narrative and the intense physicality of both actors.
At one point, Petokov even threw in the death scene from Romeo and Juliet, perhaps to express a sense of love as tragedy, in contrast to the sense of love fulfilled offered in As You Like It, but he quickly switched back to the love story we were all waiting for. And by the end, we all liked it.