Richard III – African American Shakespeare Company

I’ve been watching the African American Shakespeare Company’s productions when I can for some years now. They used to operate out of a building on Filmore, a small intimate theater which gave a sense of being in an art theater. They no longer have that space, and this year they did Richard III, starring L. Peter Callender, in the War Memorial Opera House’s Taube Atrium theater. It’s a more traditional space, at least as it’s set up now. Tickets are $30. It attracted a pretty big audience, I think every seat was taken.

I thought I knew the play, but apparently not well enough. I found the first half a bit confusing and had trouble keeping track of who was who and what was going on exactly (though of course the broader action and themes were quite clear). It wasn’t helped by the acoustics.  After the intermission, though, it came together very well indeed, and I found it gripping.

The set included a sort of catwalk parallel to the stage edge, which, with the front of the stage, was the area of action. The setting was projected onto a back screen and a movable screen mounted on this catwalk, so scene changes were effortless… a picture of a stone wall representing the tower, a palace interior, and outdoors sunset scene for the battlefield. The ghosts that appear to Richard and to Richmond the night before the battle were in video projected on these screens.

I tried to take a photograph of the first scene to include in this blog, but the ill-mannered woman sitting next to me slapped down my hand. I’m not clear why. The announcement had prohibited flash photography and video, but I was doing neither. Anyway, I didn’t pursue it. It wasn’t that important. (The picture I’ve included is the latest in my “Shakespeare’s thumbnails” series.)

For me, the standout performance was that of Queen Margaret (played by Beli Sullivan), the widow of the late king Henry VI. Her fury and curses  formed the backbone of the play, even though she actually appears in few scenes. In fact, something about the production tilted the emphasis toward the royal women: Queen Margaret; the Duchess of York, the mother of the Edward IV, George Duke of Clarence, and Richard III who caused the death of both his brothers; Queen Elizabeth, the widow of Edward IV and mother of the murdered princes; and Anne, daughter-in-law of Henry VI and later Richard III’s reluctant wife. Their stories carried the real emotion of the play.

All in all, a worthwhile evening.

African-American Shakespeare Company’s ‘Much Ado’

Beatrice smSan Francisco is lucky to have the African-American Shakespeare Company. It’s  pretty much what it sounds like: African-American actors, doing Shakespearean and other plays. (Their motto is “Envisioning the Classics with Color.”) They have their own performance space – an intimate and attractive theater at Fulton and Webster, and they even provide free parking in an adjacent lot.

And they’re good. The artistic director L. Peter Callender stages performances with a lot of energy, vitality and color, and including songs and dance. His stagings are often period pieces, but not Tudor. Today, I went to my third play by this group: Much Ado About Nothing. It was a delightful comedic romp, framed by the music of Ella Fitzgerald, and played in post World War II modern dress.

Hero brideI really liked the casting. Leontyne Mbele-Mbong played Beatrice with confidence, humor, and pride; she’s a tall woman, with a strong stage presence. It was entirely believable that she’d get away with saying anything she wanted. For me, she really carried the play. Benedick (Ryan Vincent Anderson) was her perfect match.

Danielle Doyle had fun with the gentle, wide-eyed Hero, the wronged bride; and Twon Marcel was charming as an emotional Claudio, first desperately in love and then furiously betrayed. I did think he took the discovery that Hero was innocent and he had in effect killed her a little too lightly. (Then again, that may be more in the lines than the acting of them.) Dwight Dean Mahabir was a dignified Leonato.

All the actors in supporting roles gave the impression that they could readily have taken on more (and probably have, in other plays) but were having a good time nonetheless.

If you saw the Joss Whedon 2012 film version and liked it, you’d probably love this play. And if you’re in San Francisco, and are here next weekend – you can. The last two performances are coming up on Saturday May 24th at 8pm, and Sunday May 25th at 3pm.

I’m surprised this group doesn’t get more publicity. I found out about them entirely by accident some years ago. SF Chronicle, where are you?

Blue Jasmine – Woody Allen’s Anti-love Letter

Warning: Spoilers!

Blue_Jasmine_posterI’d never been particularly drawn to Woody Allen movies. But then I saw To Rome with Love, followed soon after by Midnight in Paris. Both of them were delightful, a mixture of romantic travelogue, appealing characters, and a satisfying story arc. So last year, when he was spotted filming here in San Francisco, I hoped to see something in the same vein in America’s most romantic city.

Last week, I saw Blue Jasmine, and that story definitely wasn’t it.

If the first two movies were love-letters, this was the kind of snarky missive someone might write to an ex while still counting grievances. Woody Allen seemed to dislike all his characters, and San Francisco. It was a mystery to me why he even bothered, unless he’s a little in love with Cate Blanchett. You know the movie has problems when the only thing you can say is, “Cate Blanchett really acted well.”

In brief:

Jasmine, a beautiful self-centered housewife, has had a nervous breakdown when her marriage to wealthy Hal comes to a very sticky conclusion, with his imprisonment and suicide.  Penniless, adrift and mentally ill, she lands in San Francisco to stay with her sister Ginger, who has a nice little apartment in the Mission despite working mainly as a grocery bagger. (Perhaps she lucked into something rent-controlled.)  Jasmine ditched college to marry Hal, and has only her looks and poise going for her.  Since she’s not stable, she can’t make it work. She breaks down, lies, and talks to herself. (Lots of people do, these days, but a cellphone or earbuds are a useful prop.)

I spent the whole movie waiting for something to actually happen. Nothing does. It raises false hopes that there’ll actually be a story arc, but they all collapse.

Jasmine can’t get it together because she’s having a nervous breakdown, and no one addresses that. (Presumably she lost her health coverage together with her previous wealthy-chick life.) Ginger, encouraged by Jasmine, has a brief fling but gets back together with the same guy she intended to marry when the movie started.  Nothing’s changed.

It might as well have ended with “It was all a dream.”

A disturbing thread of misogyny ran through the whole thing.  The choices it makes are unpleasant. Hal, the husband, is apparently modeled on Bernie Madoff; it would be interesting to explore the impact of the implosion of such a career on his immediate family.  But this movie focuses on Jasmine as a despicable character whose only redeeming feature is perhaps that she loves her step-son.

Ginger, the grocery-bagger sister, has an affair with an apparently successful man who seems to admire her. She’s punished by finding out that he’s married, and finds redemption by returning to the working-class fiance she started with.

Woody Allen definitely didn’t leave his heart in San Francisco either. Maybe his liver.  There were no glamor shots. Even the ones that were meant to be beautiful were just blah. Ginger’s neighborhood is rundown and grotty.  This is not the San Francisco visitors or even residents experience. This is a city with spectacular views, but you’ll probably find better ones on Youtube than in this movie. Instead, the movie celebrates the Hamptons. Charitably, you could say it’s interpreting it through Jasmine’s POV, where the Hamptons represent the luxurious and happy life she lost; and San Francisco the unpleasant present. Or you could blame Woody Allen.

This movie was the equivalent of those dreary literary efforts where Miserable Character Stays Miserable in a Dismal Setting.

Clearly, most people don’t agree with me. It has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I guess seeing a beautiful woman fall apart has a certain allure.

Prospera’s Tempest

Julie Taymor’s Tempest isn’t showing anywhere in San Francisco at the moment. but I’ve been keen to see it since I heard about it. I’m a sucker for Shakespeare, The Tempest, and Helen Mirren. So off I went to the only theater I could find, the not-for-profit Rafael in San Rafael. For those who haven’t been keeping tabs on this particular film, it’s the Tempest with very few alterations… except that Prospero is played by Helen Mirren as Prospera, a sorceress instead of a sorceror.

So, what did I think?

The gender-change does wonderful things to the film. It felt so right that — and I found this weird — it’s the Shakespeare version that felt contrived.

But it also changes the story in unexpected ways. Instead of being a story essentially about revenge and forgiveness, it’s about a dying, powerful, mother making provisions for her sweet but rather dim daughter. Oh, sure, Prospera gets in her revenge, but it’s a very modified one. Why? Well, these are people who her daughter will be allied with after her time. She doesn’t have the luxury of chopping them into small pieces of begging near-corpses. It may be the goodness of her heart, but she’s proven capable of being pretty tough not just with Caliban, a reluctant slave, but Ariel, whom she loves. But they’re her network, the only people of power she still knows. And she has her darling dim child to take care of. (It reminded me a bit of Mama Mia, the movie. Same dynamic between a Mom who’s competent and a star, and a daughter who’s young, cute, and in love.)

Why do I feel Miranda’s not very bright?  Well, she shows no signs of having any power herself. In the original, that was easily explained — she’s female, she doesn’t get to learn all this arcane stuff. But in this version? Her mother is in no position to leave her her ducal heritage; but she can give her a wizardly one. She’s got the books. She has the staff. It’s what she does, and what she could teach her daughter to do. Any smart kid would *want* to learn all that — but this one doesn’t. Instead, she bounds around the island doing, apparently, nothing much. (Unless the sandcastle in hand in the opening credits was some evidence of magical ability — but if so, the point wasn’t pursued any further.)

Miranda has no future here, and Prospera’s dying. So, working with the material at hand, Prospera grabs an opportunity and betroths Miranda to Ferdinand, the son of the King of Naples. The very King who conspired with her brother to exile her and 3-year-old Miranda, but she confronts him just enough to create a feeling of regret and obligation, not of revenge. She’ takes back her dukedom from her rascally brother, but not for herself — her every 3rd thought is of the grave, which sounds like she’s knows she has something that will kill her in a few months or years.  What that does is makes Miranda into a princess again, a sole heir to Milan. It gives her clout with her new in-laws, cementing the alliance. This is pretty important because once they get back to the mainland, the King of Naples will be the bigger shot. Milan’s been paying him tribute, after all.  I’m pretty sure dear brother has a very short life-span. Shorter than his sister’s. He may, regrettably, never make it back to Milan, poor chap.

Theoretically, Prospera could just have taken Miranda back to Milan with her. But the kid hasn’t been trained as a lady of the court. She hasn’t been trained as a magician. She’s pretty much been running wild on the island. The only way Prospera can secure her future is a good marriage, and there’s no time like the present to achieve it.


As for the movie itself: Helen Mirren was pitch perfect as Prospera. She owned the role. I thought Djimon Hounsou did a great job with a difficult part; his Caliban was more than a nasty stupid monster. Everyone else was okay. Ariel looked rather too manly for the role; when Prospera calls him “my delicate Ariel” it’s a hard sell. So also the sleeping in  cowslips.

The costumes were brilliant, all black leather and zips for the formal court costumes, and rustic cottons and linens for what they wear on the island. Caliban’s “costume” — make-up, actually — was also superb. The setting was beautifully done, too; and I think Prospera’s cave was marvelous with long floating staircases cantilevered from the wall. But the pine (in which Ariel is supposed to be trapped by Sycorax) was actually a banyan tree (ficus bengalensis). Which I wouldn’t have minded if she hadn’t clearly referred to a pine and then threatened to shut him into an oak.

The special effects… not so much. Ariel had this sort of Tinkerbell glow going on, which made him difficult to take seriously. He’s naked (or in a body suit, I don’t know) and in the first few scenes adopts these very contorted positions so we don’t get full frontal nudity. (I read somewhere they digitally removed anything that showed, so I don’t know the contortions were necessary. They reminded me uncomfortably of early girlie magazines in which models adopted strange poses to convey nudity without actually showing anything the censors would block.)  It made me wonder if they auditioned for the ability to twist one’s body into pretzels.

The sky scene — where Prospera makes amazing images in the sky to entertain the two youngsters — just wasn’t amazing. It didn’t have much impact, a missed opportunity to do something mind-blowing.

All in all, though, Prospera more than carries the film. It’s worth seeing.