Was there ever a writer who did more with the theme of love than Shakespeare? Indeed, if love is not the prinicipal motivating factor in his plays, you can bet that it’s always waiting in the wings. Love and Shakespeare have both been in abundance in Nashville in recent days. A few weeks ago the Acting Company presented Shakespeare’s As You Like It at Vanderbilt; this weekend ACT I wrapped up a production of Antony and Cleopatra; and Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre is currently staging the most famous story of young love, Romeo and Juliet. The play’s the thing, and this is how they seemed.
The besetting flaw with the Acting Company’s January performance of As You Like It at Vanderbilt was the violation of the first rule of acting: Project! From my seat about three-quarters of the way back on the main floor, only a few actorsFelicity Jones as Rosalind, Kevin Orton as both LeBeau and Jaques, and William Hulings as both Silvius and Charleswere reliably audible.
Volume was not the only problem here, however. Intelligibility in Shakespeare depends much on diction, and, especially for Americans, delivery of the lines. Should the lines be read with meter and rhymes stressed? Should they be given in American accents proper to the class and state of the characters? Or should they be given in an all-encompassing fake BBC diction, or in the style of traditional stage elocution? On this night the metric system remained an American controversy. While most of the cast accentuated stresses artificially, only Felicity Jones had a natural feel for when stress was best. And as for accent, most of the cast here went for option number three.
Director Liviu Ciulei’s concept of setting the play in the 1930s generally fell flat because it seldom connected with the action or the characterizations, but two actors were so good in their major roles that it didn’t matter. Felicity Jones’ Rosalind was, well, felicitous. She projected emotion, a natural sense of character, winning humor, and her lines. Both of Kevin Orton’s roles, although not much more than stock characters, had true individuality; his Jaques was especially suave.
As to the rest of the cast, if stars are celestial bodies noted chiefly for their dimness of twinkle, this is the Acting Company’s constellation: Kevin Kelly’s Orlando wallowed in semi-intelligibility until he became love-struck by Rosalind, at which point he began chewing his lines like a demented Cabbage Patch Doll. Robert Owens as both the true Duke and his usurper brother Frederick seemed puzzled by both characters. Heather Robinson as Frederick’s daughter Celia approached a characterization at several points, but she never was able to sustain the illusion that she was doing more than delivering lines. Most disappointing was Marc Johnson’s Touchstone, who tantalized with some quick-tongued delivery but was able to do little else.
If many of the major roles suffered dimness, some of the minor characters sparkled. Mary Randle’s Audrey was a comic delight. William Hulings’ bit as the shepherd Silvius showed that he could sigh with loveand deliver poetic lines. His portrayal of the Runyon-esque Charles, Duke Frederic’s wrestler, was one of the few successes of setting the play in the ’30s. Finally, Kevin Kelley’s William was a rube in the Jeff Foxworthy moldthis man’s family tree did not branch.
If handling Shakespearean diction was a secondary problem with the Acting Company’s As You Like It, it was the crucial problem in ACT I’s failed production of Antony and Cleopatra. Rather than attempt true acting, both Bob Young as Antony and Arita Trahan as Cleopatra chose a kind of declamation. Weighed down by the meter, Young’s lines were delivered in a clipped staccato fashionit was almost as if Antony were a reporter on a tabloid TV show. When called upon to supply emotion, he only bawled his lines somewhat louder.
Trahan opted to put an exotic spin on her basic BBC approach to Cleopatra by striking majestic poses, which she then attenuated with some Theda Bara vamping. She seemed more at home with her lines, but she never managed to unify text and action into a character. Furthermore, when she was onstage with Young, the two never conveyed a sense of interactionI only got the feeling that each actor was striving for the greatest impact in delivering words.
Of the principal characters, only Robert O’Connell delivered a fully satisfying and natural performance. He seemed to have patterned his Caesar after Brian Blessed’s characterization of Caesar Augustus in the series I Claudius. He portrayed the ruler as a harried family man, striving for harmony and laboring to run an empire as best he could. It worked very well. In a more American vein, Jack Chambers’ Demetrius had the bluff manliness of a football playerand the accent to go with it. More than any other player, he paid audible attention to the metrical scansion of his lines, but he made them mesh with the character and delivered one of the play’s more satisfying performances.
As Pompey, Ken Jackson also delivered a well-executed Americanized characterization. Adding to Shakespeare’s conception of Pompey as a matter-of-fact military man, he wisely adopted a plain, almost Pattonish, approach to the performance. Among the minor characters, Weldon Stice as Pompey’s friend Menas stole each scene he was in. He was the actor most comfortable with Shakespearean diction, but he wore it as naturally as his toga. Olivier Leroux as the Soothsayer gave the most exotic performance of the evening. Even though he is French, Leroux’s ability at dialogue was on a par with Stice and O’Connell. He was the best at physically interpreting his character, and his accent made him even creepier and more mystical.
Quite the best Shakespearean production to hit Nashville of late is Romeo and Juliet, which continues this month and next at Chaffin’s Barn Dinner Theatre. This is an unpretentious production of a play that stands or falls on the reality of situation and on the beauty of language. Everyone knows vast chunks of this workmy lips were not the only ones moving throughout the eveningand woe betide the company that tries to pass off a second-rate performance.
The Chaffin’s cast is headlined by one of the best performances of Juliet I’ve ever encountered. Stacey Schnarr was so utterly charming and so perfectly able to counterfeit the emotions of a love-struck 13-year-old that I couldn’t believe I was watching a dinner-theater performancein Nashville. Whether she was marveling at the name of Romeo, ruefully admitting that Romeo must flee the city, or bending her mind to her own death, Schnarr brought to her role an intensity and an utter fidelity to the situation. When she died, people in the audience were crying.
There were very few missteps with this production. Terri McCoy’s Nurse was garrulousness itself. Once she opened her mouth, the lines tumbled out as if she had been vaccinated with a phonograph needle. In her two roles, Liz Kalota as Lady Capulet had just the right maternal quality; and if her Mercutio lacked biting irony in the character’s death scene, she did well with the extensive wordplay. Adam Burnett’s Friar Lawrence had a combination of scheming and sanctity, although his work as Tybalt lacked a full measure of chilling malevolence.
Only two roles really came up lacking, and again, this was due to the actors’ difficulty with diction. In all fairness to Neil Wade’s Prince, however, the actor’s work as the servant Sampson was a study in indolence. In the end, the major problem of the production was Wayne Wilcox’s Romeo. He just didn’t have the maturity of emotion to make the action work, and his problems with the poetry of the lines made some of his more extensive speeches leaden. Given time and experience in life, Wilcox may be able to do this role well, but ripeness is all. Lighting was minimal but effective, and the set, although nothing fancy, was very flexible.
If there was not much love lost on As You Like It or Antony and Cleopatra, Chaffin’s production of Romeo and Juliet will surely find you slipping your hand into that of your beloved. “Speak low, if you speak love,” said Shakespearebut, please, loud enough for us to hear, and with some poetry, please, say I.
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