Sunday, February 07, 2016

Shakespearean January

A friend and I have been to numerous plays and other events together over the last - geez - ten years. (Well, nine years and five months, but still, that can't be right, can it?) The last thing we went to together was A Midsummer Night's Dream at King's College in Wilkes-Barre in April 2014. In January of this year we made up for that by going to two plays by Shakespeare.

Image from The New Vintage Ensemble Facebook page.

The first was Hamlet, presented by The New Vintage Ensemble at the Scranton Cultural Center. We saw the final performance of the run on the evening of January 16. It was an unusual experience for me, since I knew several of the actors personally; in a way it reminded me of watching my friends appear in plays in college. Conor O'Brien, former proprietor of The Vintage Theater, played the title role, while blogger and NEPA BlogCon co-organizer Mandy Boyle Pennington (who I first met at an event at The Vintage Theater) portrayed the First Player, Osric, and Francisco (the first character to appear in the play). Simone Daniel, who I met several times at The Vintage, took on the role of Horatio, Hamlet's best friend and confidante.

This was the first outing for The New Vintage Ensemble. The story unfolded on a spare stage; costumes ranged from simple to surrealistic. Hamlet runs over four hours when presented in full, but even this somewhat abbreviated version ran close to three. While the performance started off slowly, the action of the story quickly took hold and carried the characters off to their sundry dismal fates. Conor O'Brien made a fine Hamlet, more cunning and clever than the indecisive semi-madman he is usually portrayed. Hamlet was given the line regarding the fates of his old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a statement usually delivered by the late-arriving Ambassador from England, whose role - like that of Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince who claims the Danish crown for himself (since no one else is using it) at the end of the play - was eliminated.

On January 30 we went to see the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble's presentation of Romeo and Juliet. We have actually seen a production of Romeo and Juliet previously, in February 2011 at the Weis Center for the Performing Arts at Bucknell University. In that earlier production the action was translated into a conflict between competing early 20th-century organized crime families. This production also brought the action into a more modern setting, one that is recent history now, but was actually an event whose beginning was still seven months in the future when we saw the Bucknell version: the "Occupy" movement of late 2011.

We have seen several performances by the BTE together over the years, including Macbeth (2011), Flood Stories Too (2013), As You Like It (2013), and The Merchant of Venice (2013.) While neither of us know any of the performers personally, we feel like we know the ensemble members from seeing them play different roles in different plays.

Even the theater itself was a character in this production: Upon arriving at the doors you immediately saw notices from the management advising that the pitching of tents, setting up campsites, or any similar activity was strictly prohibited. Going through the doors you entered into a lobby under occupation, with hand-lettered cardboard signs dotted around the tents that filled much of the space. The performance space was immersive, with sets spilling off the stage, the walls covered with more protest signs (incongruously including the hand-drawn logos of the play's corporate sponsors), spectators seated on the stage with the actors, and actors performing throughout the audience, on ladders, and on the catwalk over the stage. Characters wore the garish fashions of four and a half years ago - the Montagues now being protesters in the Occupy movement, and the Capulets representing the Establishment (embodied primarily by ambitious political candidate Lady Capulet.) The Prince, who is fed up with the violence between the two factions, has been distributed over several masked police officers in riot gear, his proclamations announced through a bullhorn. Invitations are written on iPads, messages are sent by text, and Romeo's misplaced cell phone spells disaster

This was a very engaging and energetic production, bringing new life to a play that for many has been done to death from high school on. Strangely enough, while the "Occupy" theme of the play seemed remote, almost more like something from the early 1970's than the early 2010's, the positioning of Lady Capulet as an ambitious politician, particularly one in conflict with a movement composed of idealistic youths, opened the possibility of another interpretation. The story was basically one step away from being in the here and now, portraying a conflict between the "establishment" supporters of Hillary Clinton and the "progressive" supporters of Bernie Sanders.

One missed opportunity was the complexity of the character of Mercutio. Mercutio was, as usual, portrayed as the closest friend of Romeo. Yet Mercutio is neither Montague nor Capulet; he is instead a relative of the Prince, and as such can move relatively freely among both sides of the conflict. He can also defy the Prince's orders with some degree of impunity. In the context of this production, Mercutio, excellently and playfully played here, is solidly with the protesters. But his (in this case, her) connection to the Prince in the original would translate into a connection to the riot-geared police in this version - an interesting complication that was not touched upon.

Perhaps the "Occupy" theme was carried a bit too far. There were no programs or playbills provided with cast lists or production notes - nor, as far as I can tell, is this information available at any official site. Instead, audience members were provided with double-sided hand-drawn photocopied sheets, with instructions given by a member of the cast on how to fold them into a matchbook-sized booklet. Unfortunately, this booklet contains very little useful information, and is pretty much just a souvenir of the play. (I was able to glean a partial cast list from several newspaper reviews published online.)

As the actors mingled with the audience before the play I noticed one young lady in a long green dress, and wondered what role she would perform. When the play began she took her place on a riser above the main stage. While she did speak some lines at the beginning of the play - chiding the minions of the Montagues and Capulets squabbling in the street, just before the forces of the Prince show up - it turned out that her role was to provide the music for the play, singing, playing guitar and keyboard, as well as both body and cardboard box percussion. Her voice had a lush, rich, haunting quality to it that reminded me most of Colbie Caillat. (Others have compared her to Norah Jones.) Later in the play the actors who had portrayed the by-then-deceased Mercutio, Tybalt, and a few others joined their voices to hers on her song "Man in Black" as the story spiraled to a tragic conclusion. Her musicianship was remarkable almost to the point of being distracting: I realized I was paying more attention to her singing than I was to the action of the play.

Image from

Her name, I learned after the show, is Sydney Panikkar, and she is just fifteen years old - remarkably young, it seemed to me, to be so deeply involved in this production, though I realized later how ironic this is, since the titular characters of the story are only thirteen or fourteen years old. She does not have a website for her music yet, though she does have an online presence through Twitter and Instagram, as well as a YouTube page. She also has her music available for sale at the website, where you can download one song at a time or her entire album, "The Perfection in Imperfection."  (Per the site it is available as a download only, but her representatives had physical copies for sale after the play.) She is a talented and promising young musician, and I hope we will be hearing more from her in the future.

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