The second annual Lit Moon World Shakespeare Festival was already in full swing by 9 p.m. on Saturday, when Irwin Appel’s talented group of UCSB BFA candidates went on at Center Stage Theater with their delicious, rollicking version of The Winter’s Tale. In perhaps the most exciting development of the festival’s first weekend, UCSB appears to be mounting a serious rival to Westmont College’s extraordinary work in collaboration with John Blondell’s Lit Moon Theatre Company. Appel, who comes from a venerable Shakespearean pedigree-his mother, Libby Appel, is artistic director of Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival-apparently has caught the spirit of Blondell’s Eastern European connection with this production, even as he retains a purist’s disdain for complicated scenery and respect for the text, virtually all of which was performed in this two-hour-and-45-minute show.
Dakotah Brown was mesmerizing as the jealous Leontes, King of Sicilia. Possessed of an extremely flexible and powerful voice, Brown wheedled, crooned, and thundered in all the right places, making this very complex and forbidding monarch understandable and emotionally available, at least when he wasn’t being overtly terrible. As Leontes’ principal interlocutor Paulina, high servant to his wife Hermione, Qualiema Green also was outstanding, plumbing the depths of classical tragedy that Shakespeare has cunningly smuggled into this late romance’s hidden places. As Queen Hermione, Lydia Benko distinguished herself with an on-target performance that included a devastating long monologue.
But it wasn’t until the play reached its alternate reality, the kingdom of Bohemia, when things really took off, and that Appel’s imaginative response to the influences of Lilia Abadjieva and Blondell became apparent. Here we found rustics attired in the manner of television’s Hee Haw, or the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? Andres Enriquez recalled Bob Dylan as the rogue Autolycus, and Luke Chapman as Florizel and Terra Luebsen as Perdita set off what was suddenly a fully realized play within the original play. A Bohemian bluegrass hoedown, complete with dancing, allowed Kelsey Foltz, Jacquie Benetua, and Krystal Burns to shine as Bohemian home girls. Altogether, Appel and choreographer Gerry Hansen put together a thrilling show for this talented young cast. We should all look forward to many more seasons of this evolving cross-town collegiate Shakespeare rivalry.
On Sunday afternoon, Abadjieva took over Center Stage with her own brand of stripped-down, hyperactive Shakespeare. Both Measure for Measure and Othello were covered in a little more than half the time it took for the whole of The Winter’s Tale. Of course some things were cut in Abadjieva’s production, but what she and her all-male cast of six did manage to deliver included the weekend’s top performance, by Mitchell Thomas, and much of its most compelling choreography. Thomas was superb as a variety of characters in Measure and as Othello in the play of the same name. He was fully up to the wide range of slapstick tricks that Abadjieva conjured, and managed to draw as much pathos as laughter from his many moments of awkwardness and desperation.
The Abadjieva method for blocking Shakespeare owes something to the aesthetic of punk rock, but only in the most positive sense of that comparison. Rather than exhibiting anything so cliched as disdain for the audience or contempt for the material, Abadjieva’s direction resembles the Ramones in its purity and dedication to the three essential chords of a song, or, in this case, a situation. The dialogue often runs in counterpoint to a series of stylized and repeated gestures, each designed to capture some specific emotional aspect of the relation being played. For the marvelous cast, which included Nolan Hamlin, Casey Caldwell, Garcia Work, Justin Davis, and, in Othello, Stanley Hoffman, Abadjieva’s approach offered an opportunity to exhibit a huge range of physical behaviors, up to and including cross-dressing and playing female roles.
Unlike more camp productions employing cross-dressed actors, these shows did not seem interested in playing up the sexual aspects of gender role reversal. Instead, what we saw was a daring acting exercise taking place somewhere high in the cloudy air of the masculine imagination, and carried off with no comforting net of irony stretched out below to break any falls. The use of film score-style music and tableaus gave way at the end of Measure to antic dances to Elvis Presley. Abadjieva is and remains in many ways the most original and distinctive of the directors working with Shakespeare in this way. She’s the Cat Power of post-punk Shakespeare productions, and we are lucky to have her around again.
The Lit Moon all-female production of Julius Caesar made a great complement to Abadjieva’s male-cast deconstructions. Blondell’s style as a director continues to evolve, and the latest trend-toward a Madonna-in-her-Gaultier-period pop sensuality-is great fun and full of darkly arresting juxtapositions that seem to have leapt not-so-straight out of the unconscious. Originally cast with four Macedonian actresses in main roles, the production was forced by visa problems to run with Lit Moon understudies in these parts instead. While it is impossible to estimate what has been lost, there is a great deal to be said for what has been gained. Victoria Finlayson, Erin Brehm, Kate Paulsen, Heather Bancroft, Heather Ostberg, Sarah Halford, Marie Ponce, and Diana Small are all brilliant. Dressed in the Roman and ballet-influenced costumes of Macedonian designer Blagoj Micevski, the women perform a Julius Caesar that is by turns elegant and demonic, full of stark imagery and emotional unrest. The text is supplemented in places by brilliant pop songs composed by Jim Connolly and sung live with girl-group gusto by the cast. It may take several more viewings to accurately assess the impact of this fascinating new interpretation.