Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Smart People at Studio 16

Currently I'm reading Ta-Nahisi Coates' newest book, We Were Eight Years in Power. A collection of several of the essays he wrote for The Atlantic during Barack Obama's two terms in the White House, it is a sobering account of the brief window of racial possibility that was opened in the US with the election of the country's first African-American president, but even more so of the accompanying retrenchment of the forces of white supremacy that then paved the way for Obama's replacement in the Oval Office by Donald Trump. Drawing on the sweep of American history, as well as pop culture and his own personal experience, Coates lays bare in at once measured and urgently impactful tones that the US will always be a racially divided country until it comes to grips with the fact that its very foundations (politically, ideologically, economically) are based on slavery and the violent suppression of one race by another, and that this fact continues to inform every aspect of American society.

Coates' book is useful supplementary reading to Mitch and Murray's production of Lydia R. Diamond's play Smart People, directed by David Mackay and running at Studio 16 through this Saturday. The play, while written in 2016, is set in 2007-January 2009, spanning the period from Obama's announcement of his presidential candidacy to his inauguration. Diamond gives us a cross-sectional snapshot of race relations in Cambridge, Massachusetts during this period by focusing on four highly accomplished professionals. Two of them work at Harvard. Brian (Aaron Craven) is a white liberal neurobiologist who claims to have hard scientific data proving that white peoples' brains are genetically hardwired to hate black people. At a faculty meeting on diversity Brian meets Ginny (Tricia Collins), an Asian-American psychologist who studies the internalization of stereotypes by young Asian-American women, some of whom she also privately counsels. The two other characters are both graduates of Harvard and are also both black. Jackson (Kwesi Ameyaw) is a surgical resident chafing under the paternalistic mentorship of his white hospital superiors, while also running his own clinic in a predominantly Asian-American/mixed ethnic neighbourhood. He meets Valerie (Katrina Reynolds), an MFA graduate in acting whose classical training comes up against the limits of colour blind casting, when she visits the clinic to receive stitches after an accident during rehearsal. The play is loosely structured around the progress, or lack thereof, of the two couples' relationships. Along the way, we see Ginny visit Jackson's clinic to make a case for recruiting participants for her research; we witness Valerie take a job as a research assistant for Brian in order to earn additional rent money; and we learn that Brian and Jackson are old friends who like to shoot hoops together. However, all four characters don't come together and sort out their intersecting ties to each other until the penultimate scene, a dinner party at Brian and Ginny's. Crucially, this is also where we learn that even among this rainbow collection of educated, progressive people, those ties do not and cannot supersede race. Brian by this point has lost his bid for tenure, Harvard only having so much tolerance for his proof of its institutional racism. When the other three people of colour at the table try to make him understand that his research represents not so much a solution to the scourge of white supremacy as a threat to the ways in which it continues to flourish by invisibilzing its claims to majority power, Brian proves this very point with his own racist outburst.

Diamond is herself a very smart playwright. Her script trades in some complex, hot-button issues, but it never feels like she is hectoring the audience, or scoring points off of her characters, all of whom she portrays as richly complex and sympathetic, even the hapless Brian. Mackay has elicited superb performances from the entire ensemble; you can tell the actors are really enjoying sinking their teeth into Diamond's fast-paced and meaty dialogue, especially the many comic barbs, and there is palpable chemistry emanating from the stage. That said, I did find the mostly episodic structure of the play a bit of a spectating challenge, with the succession of short, sharp scenes punctuated by blackouts a bit visually wearying. Mackay resolves this structural issue somewhat by staging this production in the round, with the four points of access allowing for swift actor-driven transitions, while also suggesting that a shared arena is both materially and metaphorically perhaps the most apt container for the bloodsport that is race in America. Still, I wondered if we needed all of the moving on and off of furniture between the scenes, or even the multiple blackouts; perhaps having some of the scenes overlap spatially and temporally would have aided in structural continuity. And depending on one's position in the audience, it can be challenging to see some important stage business. Richard and I, for instance, did not learn [SPOILER ALERT!] that Brian had hooked himself up to the heart rate monitor attached to his computer in the final scene--in which the other characters separately report on Obama's inauguration ceremony--until Richard Wolfe (who was seated in another section) told us what was happening in the cab ride home.

But that is a minor criticism. This is stellar production of an incredibly timely play, one that in using Obama's election as the social and political background to its dramaturgy ends up foregrounding the problems with Donald Trump being given free reign on the world stage.

P


Monday, November 13, 2017

Vancouver Dance History (2006-2016): Post 39

In addition to commissioning Natalie Purschwitz's amazing installation (now on full glorious display in the lobby of The Dance Centre), one of our more inspired ideas for how we would disperse and animate aspects of the interviews that we collected for our Dance Histories Project during the upcoming Dance in Vancouver biennial was to pull quotes from each of our interviewees and, with their permission, iron them on to T-shirts that also had that their name and interview number on the back, like so:


That's the front of Deanna Peters' T-shirt, and the back of Jane Osborne's, carefully decaled into place at an ironing party that Justine and Alexa and I had at my house last Monday morning. Over the rest of that week, I completed the rest of the 53 total T-shirts (in my earlier summary of the folks we'd interviewed, listed here, I left out Kelly McInnes and Olivia Shaffer, both of whom Alexa interviewed, but whose videos she hadn't been able to upload to our shared Dropbox folder from her phone). Yesterday Alexa and Kate Franklin and I distributed about half of them to the current students of Modus Operandi following their Sunday hip-hop class at The Dance Centre:



For the second half of this part of the project is that we're asking volunteers to wear one of the T-shirts during the week of DiV, and also to learn three shared gestures, and however many additional ones they'd also like to embody--all culled from our video interviews with Vancouver dance artists; whenever they're at The Dance Centre, or wherever else they might be in the city, our T-shirt-wearing volunteers are then invited to either slip these gestures covertly into routine conversations and interactions, or else to deliberately interrupt and/or open up a space through the repetition of the gestures. In this way, the discursive histories we've captured through our interviews will be reembodied and redistributed through this double act of transfer.

The Modus students all seemed eager to participate, and also proved amazingly adept at learning some very complicated gestures. Next Monday we'll have a further T-shirt and gesture distribution session at The Dance Centre with a bunch of dance artists (including several of our interviewees) who are keen to participate. Together with the sound and video installations we're also planning, it will hopefully be a lively complement to the regular DiV programming.

Everything kicks off on November 22nd. You can check out the full schedule here.

P.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Powell Street Festival at ISCM's World New Music Days

Music on Main is partnering with the International Society for Contemporary Music and the Canadian League of Composers to present the 2017 edition of World New Music Days. As MoM Artistic Director David Pay has put it, the event is sort of like the Olympics of contemporary classical and post-classical music, featuring hundreds of composers from around the world, and traveling to a different host city every few years. It's a rare opportunity for Vancouver audiences to see daring new work and innovative programs showcasing performances by a roster of the city's most talented performers and ensembles.

Such was the case yesterday, when Richard and I attended an early evening concert at the Annex dubbed the Powell Street Festival. It wasn't entirely clear to me if the iconic summer festival of Japanese Canadian art and culture was a co-presenter of this particular ISCM event, but it did culminate in the Canadian premiere of Japanese composer Yasunoshin Morita's Reincarnation Ring II, a delightful work of "surround" sound performed by Ko Ishikawa that pairs the shō, a traditional vertical reed instrument, with five "half-broken" iPods playing similar tunes. The performative aspects of the piece were as fascinating as its conceptual premise.

The rest of the program featured Mark Takeshi McGregor on flutes, Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa on piano (together they perform as the Tiresias Duo), and Brian Nesselroad on percussion performing works by Justin Christensen (Canada), Etsuko Hori (Japan), Murat Çolak (Turkey/USA), and Laura Manolache (Romania). I was captivated by all of them except the first, by Christensen, which employed spoken text in a way that I found knowingly pretentious. But the other pieces, especially those of Çolak (flutes and percussion) and Manolache (flute, piano and percussion), were wonderfully inventive, producing combinations of sounds that were completely new to me, not least for the ways in which they were produced instrumentally.

I guess that's what the world of new music is all about, and I look forward to the other concerts we have planned for today.

P

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Ballet BC's Program 1 at the Queen E

Because Richard and I were attending the world premiere of Marie Clements' and Brian Current's new opera, Missing, last night, we had to trade our usual Friday night Ballet BC tickets for replacement seats on Saturday. It was the final performance of the season-opening Program 1 for the company, and for it Artistic Director Emily Molnar featured the return of two familiar Ballet BC choreographers: resident choreographer Cayetano Soto; and Johan Inger, whose Walking Mad (the piece with the big wall), was a crowd-pleaser back in 2012. In style and tone the works could not have been more different. Nor my reaction to them.

Soto's Eight Years of Silence was first on the program. A dark and moody piece set to a mournfully elegiac musical composition by Peter Gregson, it opens with Brandon Alley (I think) standing alone and centre stage. He (and the rest of the company, as we shall soon discover) wears a shiny, leather-like leotard that hugs his body, almost like an exoskeleton one would see on a lizard or a turtle. From this position of stillness he moves suddenly into a sharp and contained solo, kicking out one leg and then raising it into the air while windmilling his arms around his head and about his torso. Midway through this another male dancer appears upstage and falls effortlessly into unison with the movements being performed by Alley, who eventually cuts short his dancing and walks off stage. This pattern of a new dancer falling into step with and then almost erasing away the movement of a previous one continues with the entrance of the first female dancer, and for a time I was quite taken with the conceit.

But, as with everything in this ponderous and bloated work, it goes on far too long. Soto has structured the piece episodically as variations on a theme, which means there is a lot of starting and stopping, with dancers--at first individually and then in duos and trios--spending a lot of time walking on and off stage in a kind of slouchy zombie mode before they hit their marks and launch into a new movement pattern (for all of their extraordinary talents as virtuosic movers, Ballet BC dancers are among the worst walkers I have ever seen). Occasionally Soto mixes things up by throwing in a blackout and surprising us with the apparition of an unexpected group formation, and as the piece progressed the partnering became more complicated and visually interesting. However, dramaturgically there is frankly no accounting for the decision to bring down the curtain half way through the piece; first of all, if you are going to do so while two of your dancers are still moving in unison, and thus focalizing our attention on their lower limbs and feet, then you had better ensure that they are in sync (last night they were not). Then there is the fact that, per force, most in the audience will assume that the piece is over. Unfortunately, it was not. Nor was there a radical shift in scenographic design or kinetic composition when it came up again: just the same wash of chiaroscuro lighting and the same washed out movement. Consequently, I was even more bored during the second half than the first.

By contrast, I was fully engaged from the get go by Inger's B.R.I.S.A. First created for Nederlands Dans Theater's Company 2, the piece has two things going for it from the very outset: a musical score set to the songs of the great Nina Simone; and an arresting design feature in the form of a shaggy brown carpet that covers the stage. Indeed, these two design elements combined to suggest to me a cross between Twyla Tharp's Nine Sinatra Songs and Pina Bausch's famous Rite of Spring, with its dirt-strewn stage floor. The latter reference may not be so far off; for, whereas Bausch's work culminates in a sacrificial death, Inger's B.R.I.S.A. opens with a symbolic image of rebirth. As the curtain rises and the lights come up, we see two or three dancers shuffling their feet back and forth along the carpet, motoring from side to side like blown up ants in the sand revealed through the lens of a telescope. But we also notice that there is a large bump in the carpet in the middle of its upstage lip, and sure enough one of the dancers soon drags the body of another out from underneath it. This act of rescue seems to send a new current of libidinal energy throughout the ensemble, and one of the pleasures of the piece is to watch the dancers successively release their hips and sway their pelvises to the contagious rhythms of Simone's songs, often falling into simple but infectiously joyous bits of group unison.

However, just as the heat on and off stage starts to ignite, Inger decides to cool things down, with one of the female dancers moving downstage right to catch the cooling breezes of an offstage fan. Curious, the other dancers soon join her. But then the fan suddenly cuts out, which leads to some conceptual hilarity as the various members of the ensemble compete for the use of a red hand fan that Peter Smida somehow magically produces from about his person. From there, things ramp up as first rival hair driers and then leaf blowers are retrieved from offstage. All of this might have devolved into mere shtick had the accompanying movement not also been so effective, the various wind producing devices, when directed at different nether regions of the body especially, helping to initiate some surprising currents of movement--as when, for example, Smida and Christoph von Riedemann, lying on their backs on the carpet, lift their pelvises and begin a lively routine of Cossack-style air kicks. Eventually the carpet gets rolled up, and with it one of the female dancers.

But this is not her, nor our, ending. There is a final danced coda that, fittingly, concludes by shooting the breezes on stage out into the audience. And on the warmth of this particular zephyr Richard and I exited contentedly into the cool night.

P.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Missing at the York Theatre

Last night at the York Theatre was the world premiere of Missing, an opera co-commissioned and co-produced by City Opera Vancouver and Pacific Opera Victoria, and presented in partnership with Vancouver Moving Theatre and the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival. The libretto is by the award-winning playwright, filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist Marie Clements, and complements previous work she has done on the subject of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in The Unnatural and Accidental Women and, most recently, The Road Forward (both the live musical performance and the hybrid documentary film). Settler composer Brian Current was chosen to write the music after a blind jury process, and his very contemporary score is surprisingly spare: for example, there is one haunting section, a nightmare scene of attack upon the Native Girl, that is sung almost completely a cappella, with only the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of some kind of drum or woodblock conjuring the terrifying sounds of approaching and retreating footsteps in the woods. Current's score also makes interesting use of percussion and wind instruments, particularly to ring out lighter, more hopeful notes from the triangle and the flute, in keeping with a thematic focus on Clements' symbol of sparrows taking flight. Another important aspect of this production is that much of Clements' libretto is sung in Gitxsan, and while surtitles are used throughout (including, somewhat unnecessarily, for the English lyrics), one does not have to spend much time looking at the screens bracketing either side of the stage to understand the story of inter-generational and inter-cultural trauma that Clements is trying to tell.

For one of the more interesting choices that Clements takes to telling the story of BC and Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women--along with abstracting and deliberately depersonalizing the violence none of us really wants to confront (we never see the attack upon Native Girl, who is also never named)--is to filter it through the perspective of a white settler woman. Following a car crash on the Highway of Tears, Ava (Caitlin Wood) locks eyes with Native Girl (Melody Courage), who is lying on the ground. Returning to law school at UBC, Ava cannot shake the image from her head, and thanks to her Indigenous professor, Dr. Wilson (Marion Newman), she becomes newly schooled in the epidemic of violence against First Nations women in this country--which also means cutting ties to her racist friend, Jess (Heather Malloy). Ava's increasing politicization around Indigenous issues leads her to begin studying the Gitxsan language and she eventually marries her classmate, Devon (Kaden Forsberg), in a traditional Gitxsan ceremony. In the hands of any other writer, the charges of cultural appropriation would likely fly fast and furious, but having established Native Girl's haunting of Ava in the first scene, Clements explores the idea of shared trauma and reciprocal empathy as a bodily process of incorporation--and also, as interestingly, excorporation. That is, the opera culminates in a moving duet between Ava and Native Girl in which, both naming and then touching different hurt parts of their bodies, they physicalize what feeling the pain of another actually means. At the same time, Native Girl's trapped soul can only be freed once she takes Ava and Devon's baby--whom we are told cries often and seems to be wracked by some sort of spirit--in her arms and soothes her.

Parallel to this story of inter-cultural connection we also witness the effects of Native Girl's absence upon her mother (Rose-Ellen Nichols) and her brother, Angus (Clarence Logan). Crucially, the only interaction between the family is shown in a brief flashback scene, in which Angus and Native Girl frolic and play across time and space, while in the present their mother keens her relentless and bottomless grief. In this we are witness to one of the other major issues connected to this national tragedy: that without these cases being solved and the bodies of the missing and murdered women being recovered, there can be no closure for their families, only an endless void. As effective as this is, I have to admit that as with Corey Payette's Children of God (which played the York earlier this year, and which I blogged about here) I did feel at times like the Indigenous characters at the heart of this story appeared peripheral to it. Nichols (who played Pauline in City Opera's original opera about the life of E. Pauline Johnson a few years ago) is such a commanding stage presence, and on some levels she seems under-used. To be sure, Clements is far too intelligent and savvy a writer not to understand what she is doing on this front. Just as this story would not have been ignored for so long had the women who were going missing been white, so is Clements forcing us to ask ourselves, in our focus on Ava, why are we only paying attention now? And to the issue of settler self-positioning in relation to this tragedy, it's important to note that Native Mother does indeed get the last word. And it is very much a challenge: what are you missing?

Assuredly directed by Peter Hinton, and with expert conducting by Timothy Long (subbing for an ailing Charles Barber), this production also features amazing projections by Andy Moro (who also designed the set) and a terrific lighting design by John Webber. With the troubled inquiry into Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada having just released its interim report (asking for, among other things, more time and money), and with the recent discovery and identification of the remains of Traci Genereaux on a farm in Salmon Arm, this opera couldn't be more timely. But it also deserves to have a much longer life, and will ideally tour across the country, and also enter into Canadian operatic canon.

P

Friday, October 27, 2017

Hamilton at the Hollywood Pantages

Richard and I are in LA, where the temperatures have soared past 100 degrees fahrenheit the past three days. We've been enjoying the latest Pacific Standard Time conglomeration of visual art shows that have taken over the major public galleries here in the city; this time the linked series of exhibitions is focusing on Latinx artists along the west coast of the US and throughout Mexico and Central and South America. We especially enjoyed the Radical Women show at the Hammer, which was superbly curated, and which featured a ton of important work we wouldn't have otherwise ever seen.

However, truth be told, the real excuse for the trip was to finally take in a performance of Lin-Manuel Miranda's blockbuster musical Hamilton. The touring version of the show is on in LA through December, and this was the first chance we had to score non-resale tickets; that said, the regular orchestra price for our seats at the historic Hollywood Pantages Theater (a huge over-the-top art deco pile near Hollywood and Vine) was still the most I've ever paid for a theatre show. Was it worth it? In a word, yes: not least for the actual spectating experience itself. I don't think I've been in a house where the anticipation and excitement was so palpable, nor where the full diversity of its members (from the very young to the very old, and with the widest cross-representation of races I've ever seen) have been so consistently rapt in their attention.

As so much has already been said about this particular work, I don't think I will attempt to provide a standard review. Instead, I propose to offer a few impressions of the global experience of the production:

1. Getting there. The performance really started on the way to the venue. A bit pressed for time, we decided to grab a cab from the stand outside our hotel on Sunset Boulevard, rather than use Uber (which has been a mixed experience so far in LA). Traffic was literally bumper to bumper, as there had been an accident on Fountain and Hollywood was closed for some reason. However, knowing we had this particular curtain to make, our driver did an amazing job of negotiating the side streets, depositing us outside the theatre with ten minutes to spare.

2. Believe the Miranda hype. As book-writer, composer, lyricist and original star, there is no denying that this show is Lin-Manuel's baby. Two years after its Broadway debut, with the work now fully franchised and raking in the cash, and with Miranda single-handedly trying to save America, one might be tempted to cut this particular tall poppy down at his knees. But it's hard to deny the real talent behind what we see on stage. In terms of musical idioms alone, Miranda's abilities seem limitless. Of course, the way in which he has so seamlessly incorporated hip hop into the musical theatre form is what everyone has been obsessed about (and the rap battles between rival senator-MCs Alexander Hamilton and a boastful and self-obsessed Thomas Jefferson--who does not come off at all well in this version of history--are a real highlight of the show); however, Miranda has just as much facility with more lyric forms, and he gives most of his lead cast members an opportunity to let loose in a power ballad. His rhyming abilities also ably cross musical genres: someone who constructs a whole song around the multi-syllabic word "Unimaginable" has got to be respected.

3. The show is about today. While Miranda does not shy away from delving into the historical complexities of colonial America, the early days of the US republic, and Hamilton's own complicated personal life, the material never feels overly explanatory or didactic. Instead, we receive many of the scenes and plot details as resonantly contemporary. From the references to slavery and Wall Street (Hamilton having been the architect of the US's financial system), to King George's "I told you so" musings on the difficulties of governing and getting rid of a leader you do not like, it is hard to ignore how much the issues explored in the musical intersect with the pressing problems of a divided modern-day America. A case in point: Hamilton is arguably the first major American politician brought down by a sex scandal. Plus ca change.

4. Hamilton and Burr. One of the great strengths of this work is the central dynamic between its two leads. As with any great tragedy, we know from the beginning that the mercurial Aaron Burr is going to kill our hero, Hamilton. However, like Jesus and Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, the two men--whose lives were thoroughly intertwined from a very young age--are presented as two halves of the same coin. Indeed, Hamilton is as much of an antihero as Burr, who as both character and narrator in many ways emerges as the work's central focalizing agent--particularly with respect to the idea of how historical legacy depends on who is telling the story.

5. Movement. In all of the press around the musical, I don't recall there being much discussion about Andy Blankenhuehler's choreography. That's a shame, because it's an integral aspect of one's enjoyment of the show. And while I haven't seen Christopher Wheeldon's celebrated adaptation of An American in Paris, I would hazard to say that there hasn't been as satisfying an integration of music and movement in an American musical since Jerome Robbins helped lift the music and lyrics of West Side Story (of course, I had to get a reference to Stephen Sondheim in here somewhere).

6. The cast. It is truly remarkable to cast one's eyes upon a professional theatre stage and see so many non-white bodies. But it's the depth of talent among these individuals that most resonates. A couple of members from the Broadway show have joined this touring ensemble (including Rory O'Malley as King George III and Emmy Raver-Lampman as Angelica Schuyler, both amazing); but most of the cast is new and relatively untested. You wouldn't know it. This production is as good as anything I've seen on Broadway or in London's West End. Consider, as well, the fact that three of this show's leads--the actors playing Hamilton, Burr, and Eliza Hamilton--were being replaced by their understudies last night; this did not diminish my appreciation of the work in any way. Everyone was at the very top of their game.

Throw in the fact that outside the theatre I also got to trod upon Bette Davis's Hollywood star and you have the makings of an amazing performance memory.

P

Monday, October 23, 2017

King Charles III at The Stanley

Following last season's staging of The Audience, the Arts Club continues its Stanley stage love affair with recent British plays about the royal family. On now through mid-November is Mike Bartlett's King Charles III. Cleverly written in blank verse and with all manner of Shakespearean references, the play imagines an all too real crisis of succession that just might ensue following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. In the days after his mummy's funeral and leading up to his official coronation, Charles (Ted Cole) starts not just to believe in, but to act upon, his droit du seigneur. In his first official meeting with the sitting Labour Party Prime Minister, Mr. Evans (Simon Webb, channelling Jeremy Corbyn, albeit in more sharply tailored suits), Charles queries a new bill that will soon come before him for royal assent. The bill applies restrictions on the freedom of the press and despite his own family's private life having been mercilessly subjected to the muckraking of the UK's notorious tabloid press, Charles believes that the bill is fundamentally flawed. Be that as it may, Evans instructs Charles that it is his duty to sign the bill, for not to do so would run counter to hundreds of years of ceremonial convention and undermine the very foundations of Britain's parliamentary democracy. However, receiving the Tory leader of the opposition, Mrs. Stevens (Christine Willes), immediately after Mr. Evans, Charles latches on to her not at all disinterested statement that, as King, it is his prerogative not to sign the bill.

Things escalate when, incensed by the Crown's usurpation of parliament's democratically elected power, Mr. Evans introduces a new bill that would eliminate the requirement for royal assent for all future legislation. Once again at the prompting of Mrs. Stevens, Charles exercises his power to dissolve parliament and call for new elections, alienating the populace and throwing the country into a constitutional crisis. Meanwhile, inside Buckingham Palace there is additional intrigue. Prince Harry (Charlie Gallant, sporting a bad ginger dye job) moons over the free-spirited commoner Jess (Agnes Tong), whose past will soon be splashed all over the pages of the press that Charles has lately come to defend. The ambitious Kate (Katherine Gauthier, a dead ringer for the Duchess of Cambridge), sensing an opening, does her best Lady Macbeth in convincing William (Oliver Rice) to force his father's hand, with the abdication that inevitably follows leading to William's coronation instead of Charles'.

Not everything in Bartlett's play works. I found the conceit of having Diana's ghost (Lauren Bowler) appear to both Charles and William somewhat clunky, and the character of Camilla (Gwynyth Walsh) was curiously marginalized. The final scene's pageantry and tying up of loose plot lines also tends to foreclose upon any tragic pathos we might feel for Charles as a fallen protagonist, his brief "hollow crown" speech not enough of an emotional punctuation to the play's larger themes--especially when, as in this staging, the blackout that follows seems to come almost as an afterthought. But Bartlett's plotting is absolutely gripping, not least because of his success in making us believe that this scenario could indeed be something that comes to pass. He also pulls off the use of blank verse, successfully adapting its rhythms to contemporary colloquial speech while also showcasing passages of beautiful poetic interiority in many of the characters' soliloquies to the audience. The character of Charles is also richly complex, someone who is at once Machiavellian and idealistically naive, a little bit Richard III and a lot Richard II. That Bartlett is channeling both the Houses of Lancaster and York in his portrait of the divided Windsors is to be expected, but it's his wider allusions to the corpus of Shakespeare (including King Lear) that make the work even more satisfying.

Unfortunately, director Kevin Bennett's production does not always elevate the text in equally rich ways. The performances are uneven, with several actors having trouble speaking the verse. Some of the blocking choices are bewildering, especially when one character will stand in front of another downstage with his or her back to the audience. I also don't understand Bennett's penchant for upstage tableaux, often keeping his actors on stage as background figures to populate a scene. Sometimes it works, but mostly it's distracting and looks ridiculous, as when the company, in black trench coats, pulses in a line to techno music while Harry and Jess have a moment in a London club. The fourth wall is broken from the very start of the play, when the entire company does a version of a royal walkabout, kibitzing with and waving to the audience while the house lights are still up. Those lights continue to come up during Charles' and other of the main characters' soliloquies. However, the choice to have Harry climb down from the stage and walk out into the audience during a nighttime scene with his brother doesn't seem to fit at all within such a dramatic world. I did enjoy Kevin McAllister's set, which manages to feel sparely modern and imposingly medieval at the same time. And Christopher Gauthier's costumes were a monarchist's delight, especially Camilla's hats.

P