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Naval gazing: BSC’s South Pacific.

Barely Bard
By James Yeara

Macbeth
By William Shakespeare, directed by Tina Packer

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Aug. 31

At her best, Tina Packer is a peerless interpreter of Shakespeare, able to make the most obtuse text

humane, clear and moving; her Bare Bard productions were matchless presentations of actors, audience and Shakespeare’s text.

At her worst, well, Tina Packer directs Macbeth. Her current production is Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy informed by the film Moulin Rouge. All that’s missing here is Lady Macbeth swinging in wearing a red dress, singing “Daggers Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” There will be moments to please almost any individual, but, as a whole, this Macbeth will please no one and mean nothing. This overwrought mess makes clear that if a too-metaphorical, -symbolic or -expressionistic approach is applied to Macbeth, the result is too literally “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

But there are plenty of moments to please:

For those who revere previous Bare Bard productions, the opening, where the eight actors step forward, introduce themselves directly to the audience and reveal each character played, will please. Judith McSpadden (Ross, Fleance, Secret Service Agent, Spirit from the Other World, Cream-faced Loon, Young Siward) was particularly impressive as the Cream-faced Loon.

For fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s the moment when the two assassins (Jason Asprey, Henry David Clarke) crawl across the stage like dogs, then curl around Macbeth (Dan McCleary) as he taunts them into killing Banquo (Johnny Lee Davenport). The two assassins sniff, lick, howl and cringe, literally like the canines used metaphorically in Macbeth’s monologue, then morph into humans when Macbeth gives them officers’ caps.

For literalists, the costuming and sound design bring this Macbeth up to date with combat fatigues in different shades of green, black jungle boots, three-piece gray business suits, evening wear, AK-47s, pistols, tank fire, helicopters, and speeches by past and present world leaders (used in the set piece where Banquo’s ghost presents his lineage as the future kings of England). These give this Macbeth a G.I. Joe-gone-wild cartoon feel, but as Lady Macbeth (Carolyn Roberts) comes across as a Barbie playing with a stuffed doll, it’s appropriate. If you couldn’t make the connection between Macbeth and the politics of today, Shakespeare & Company take a hammer and make the connection for you.

For those fans of Adam Sandler/Chris Kattan, there’s a half-hour improv around the drunken porter at hell’s gate (Michael Hammond) that brings the production to a screeching halt. Hammond brings what’s left of the house down, ad libbing, “That’s the nice thing about Elizabethan literature: You have no idea what you’re talking about.” The Bare Bard productions used to be about making Elizabethan literature springwater clear.

Finally, for those who like Buckaroo Bonzai, techno dancing, Mystery Science Theater 3000, Chico Marx, and the smug pretentiousness of performance art, there’s the prophecy scene, where the witches are replaced by mad scientists in white lab coats, the cauldron by animal cages, beakers and tubes, and the verse by tin-eared Italian, German, or Jamaican accents. Having managed to make it through the scene without cracking a smile, the cast is rewarded with having to strip off their lab coats, revealing their lycra dance wear, and bumping and grinding to some anonymous techno beat.

For those who don’t think post-Sept. 11 theater needs a WTC homage with red foam noses and squirting flowers, and for those who long for a Bare Bard that isn’t barely Bard, there’s always next season.

Amateur Orchard

The Apple Tree
Music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Harnick and Bock, directed by Carleton Carpenter

Oldcastle Theatre Co., Bennington Center for the Arts, Bennington, Vt., through July 20

Oldcastle Theatre Company’s production of The Apple Tree—based on three stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer—arrives worm-eaten in a production marked by an amateurishness that shouldn’t be tolerated on a school stage, let alone that of a “professional” company that is celebrating, in its own words, “30 Years of Excellence.”

The trouble begins with the work itself. Harnick and Bock have provided no viable reason to dramatize their worthy source material, and the forgettable, regrettable and lamentable music and lyrics they’ve concocted add nothing to their mundane vegetable of a book. The songs do, however, prolong the agony of discriminating theater patrons, who expect more from the team that produced Fiddler on a Roof and the even-better She Loves Me, a show that could work well on the stage at the Bennington Center for the Arts. The link among the three stories (Twain’s The Diary of Adam and Eve, Stockton’s The Lady or the Tiger and Feiffer’s Passionella) is, supposedly, the battle of the sexes. It only comes across, however, as a very minor skirmish.

The show’s inherent weaknesses are exacerbated by Carleton Carpenter’s limp direction, which is hobbled by serious miscasting of the two actors who are meant to lend further cohesiveness by playing the romantic leads in each play. As Adam and Eve, Princess Barbara and Captain Sanjar, and Passionella and Flip, actors Mark Irish and Pamela Blair have no chemistry. With no fire, no heat, and not even a flinty spark, they may as well be appearing in separate plays.

Something of a nonentity, Irish indicates more than inhabits and tries too hard to play the foul preciosity of the material or, worse, himself. It is the sort of playing cute that one associates with children’s theater. Far worse is Blair, whose roles are much larger and whose presence comes to dominate the evening. She is all right when she is speaking, as Eve, but her singing ranges from inadequate to grating. At first, one is irked at not being able to hear her (and this, a mere four rows from the stage); later, one realizes that was something of a blessing.

The travesty is that the production contains an actress who could have played Blair’s roles and triumphed over the material’s shortcomings, or at least distracted us from them. Instead, Kerri Lynn Jennings, an absolute smash in OTC’s Company, is used only in tiny parts and as a member of the chorus. In her briefest moments, she shows talent, a lovely vocal range and projection, and that ineffable stage presence that makes us want to watch her even in throwaway moments.

The scenery is serviceable, but the palm trees become a visual distraction and the clunky turntable an aural one. The unforgivable happens again at OTC as inexperienced, I hope, stagehands distractingly dismantle a set upstage during a scene, and walk off a large piece of scenery as if they are doing act one of The Skin of Our Teeth. It’s even more embarrassing because this is under the direction of an Equity stage manager. The final foul flourish comes courtesy of two young people cutting their stage-crew teeth as they vainly attempt to push a sofa offstage as the lights come up for the curtain call. The Seat of Our Pants would be an apt title for this operation.

—Ralph Hammann

Paint by Numbers

South Pacific
Music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Joshua Logan and Oscar Hammerstein II, choreography by Tony Parise, musical direction by Douglas Coates, directed by Julianne Boyd

Barrington Stage Company, Consalti Performing Arts Center, Sheffield, Mass., through July 13

Pretty and pleasing, romantic and sentimental, Barrington Stage Company’s South Pacific is a fitting—if unchallenging—production to celebrate Richard Rodgers’ 100th birthday (June 28). It’s crisply performed, and a simple two-piano accompaniment keeps the focus squarely on the performers. This musical chestnut, about the turning of the tide in the Pacific Theater in 1942, engages because of its classic tunes. Songs like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out-a My Hair” transcend clichés and the many commercial uses and connect-the-dots amateur productions of the musical’s 53-year history. (What may have been daring in this “Greatest Generation” show, the amorous interracial relationships, now serve as markers that the term “greatest” always has an asterisk by it.) BSC’s South Pacific sails along with a trim two-and-a-half hour running time, and the production has the look of a watercolor, with set and lighting design that convincingly evoke an airy and sunlit South Seas island.

Unfortunately, what’s missing at BSC are the tactile brushstrokes that give life to sight and sound. This is like seeing a reproduction of a painting, not the thing itself. The notes are hit, the dance moves are made, the lights shift and the scenery changes, but the sensations are MIA. A musical about the magic and misery of forbidden love has to give a hint of why it’s forbidden, not banish it from the play before it begins.

The story centers on exiled French planter Emile de Beque (dashingly played by Peter Samuel) who woos the Arkansas nurse Nellie Forbush (winsomely played by Christianne Tisdale). That Emile is older, richer and more cultured than Nellie presents no problems; his half-Polynesian children do, however, and racism raises its ugly head in paradise during one enchanted evening.

Couple this with the secondary love story, between the straitlaced Philadelphian, Lt. Joe Cable (played with icy blue-bloodedness by Ayal Miodovnik), and the naive Liat (Elaine Marcos, who gives suggestions that there’s more to Liat than the mere shadow onstage opposite Miodovnik), and South Pacific should snap to attention and lay bare the racism the keeps the white Americans from the loves of their lives.

That only the comic characters—the small-time capitalists, seaman Luther Billis (fully realized by Christopher Vettel) and Bali Ha’i matriarch Bloody Mary (Gail Nelson, who desires to be the headliner)—are played with big-time emotions underscores the taming of this South Pacific.

—J.Y.


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