A pair of local productions show the flaws, and some of the genius, of early Shakespeare and late Steinbeck.
Thursday, August 23, 2001
Two plays currently on the boards, Edward III and Burning Bright, are enough to give any aspiring writer equal parts hope and dread. Both plays are not-so-great works written by great writers--William Shakespeare and John Steinbeck. If these were the only works these writers had left behind, we wouldn''t remember either of their names. Therein lies hope for artists and craftsmen of all breeds: The road to greatness can be littered with halting, faulty attempts and experiments.
(On the other hand, it''s tough to believe that either Shakespeare or Steinbeck would have looked back on these works and have been very proud. And yet, there they were, out in public with all their faults for the whole world to see. It''s something that all artists can dread.)
Of the two pieces, Edward comes off as the less assured. That''s not surprising, given that it was probably written very early in Shakespeare''s career, while Burning Bright was written well after Steinbeck had already demonstrated his genius with Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath (among other novels).
Not only is Edward III''s dialogue stilted, but somewhere around a quarter of the play is devoted to a tangent that goes nowhere and is resolved so suddenly that it makes little sense.
Edward, in fact, is so rough that for centuries it was not recognized as coming from the pen of William Shakes- peare (or "Shake-speare," if you buy into the theory that this was a pen name for Edward DeVere). On the other hand, the similarities between this and Shakespeare''s later works are so remarkable that Edward III has recently been included in the Cambridge, Riverside and Oxford editions of Shakespeare''s collected works-about as "official" an endorsement as possible.
As are most of Shakespeare''s histories, Edward III is a truncated telling of actual history. Here, the subject is the English king who began the Hundred Years'' War with France. If the play were to be believed, Edward, claiming the crown of France to be his, marched on France with his son, Edward, the Black Prince. Despite facing heavy odds, the two Edwards kick French butt and return home laden with plunder-as well as French king Phillip and his two sons. (In reality, the first time that Edward invaded France with his son in tow, they ran out of money before the French crown was captured and had to sue for a truce. It was another invasion 10 years later by Prince Edward that resulted in the capture of the French King John-who was taken to London, forced to sign a treaty then went home and immediately repudiated the document, and the war was on again.)
In terms of history, the play is no better or worse than Shakespeare''s treatment of other English kings (and a hell of a lot more fair than his treatment of the Scottish king, Macbeth). But as a storyteller, the young Shakespeare was clearly struggling.
In this production, presented in two acts, a good portion of the first half of the play is given to Edward III''s (John Oswald) nearly violent lust for the Countess of Salisbury (Julie Hughett). Edward sighs, rampages and waxes poetic about his desire for the countess, and damn near commits himself to killing both his wife and the countess'' husband so he can bed her. At the last minute, however, the countess manages to dissuade him and he trundles off to war, where the incident is ignored for the rest of the play. It''s as if the young playwright got lost in a tangent about love and when he realized it, couldn''t figure a reasonable way back into his history.
Then, too, Shakespeare seems to be wrestling with the demon of dialogue. Where in later works, he is confident to have many people on stage, speaking at the same time, here, the play is dominated by more-easily managed two-person conversations. And even here, the dialogue seems more like lengthy monologues bandied back and forth between the speakers.
Curiously, the same can be said for Steinbeck''s Burning Bright. But in this play we can be pretty sure that Steinbeck was making a conscious decision to emphasize the poetry in language. Insofar as Burning Bright was not critically well-received and remains a relatively obscure piece of writing, this bit of experimentation was not very successful.
But Steinbeck was experimenting with more than language. Burning Bright was written as a "play-novelette," a style of writing that Steinbeck invented to capture the strengths of both genres. In addition, he sets each of the three acts of the play in a different location--a circus, a farmhouse, a ship--to emphasize the universality of the tale. The characters and the action are continuous, moving through a variety of circumstance.
Burning Bright tells the story of sorrowful Joe Saul (Rollie Dick) and his younger wife, Mordeen (Anne Marie Hunter). Joe''s best friend, Friend Ed (Flip Baldwin) divines the truth of Joe''s pain: He''s getting on in years and despairs of ever siring a child. In order to ease Joe''s suffering, Mordeen sleeps with a younger man, Victor (Richard Boynton), to conceive a child. Ultimately, however, Victor wants more than Mordeen''s booty and leads Joe to discover the truth. Friend Ed, who knew about the scheme, has to take some harsh measures and do some fast talking to make everything turn out alright.
In many ways, Burning Bright hearkens back to Steinbeck''s second novel, To A God Unknown. Not only is the language almost archaic--perhaps to emphasize that these characters are icons, rather than individuals--there are common themes, as well: blood connection to one''s work, the importance of ceremony and the need for sacrifice to ensure the future.
Strangely, some of the same themes are broached in Edward III. Joe Saul and Edward swim in the same sea of love and lust that have driven men to acts of madness since they first glimpsed the apple. If the two sat down for beers, they''d have a fine time rhapsodizing about the virtues of the women they love and the crazy things they contemplated doing. And just as Joe Saul worries about the continuation of his bloodline, so too does Edward. Although he has sons, his oldest son and heir-apparent, is risking his life in battle. And while Joe must eventually come to terms with the sacrifice made by his wife--and ultimately sacrifice some of himself-Edward is aware, too, that sacrifices need to be made: At one point, his son is surrounded by French forces and his death is all-but assured. Edward must choose whether to go to his aid, or let him fight his way out. Either way, Edward reasons, the kingdom is strengthened.
It''s the mark of a good production to take a substandard script and make it watchable. And in both Pacific Repertory Theater''s Edward III and Magic Circle Center''s Burning Bright the directors and cast succeed admirably.
Directed by Stephen Moorer, with choreography by John Farmanesh-Bocca, Edward III is a treat for the eyes. The battle scenes--in slow motion, swirling under RJ Wofford II''s dramatic downlighting--are as rivetting as they are necessary to break up and underscore the long speechifying throughout the play.
As the title character, John Oswald turns in a regal performance that''s just this side of being icy. Perhaps his best scene (one which seems out of character for the rest of the play), is a comedic one in which he commissions a scribe (Tim Hart) to write a poem for the Countess of Salisbury and then proceeds to argue with him about every line. As Prince Edward, David Mendelsohn gives us a noble and heroic figure in keeping with the real prince''s history.
Michael D. Jacobs, as King John of France, gives maybe the most moving performance in the play as he tries to resist the tide and fortune of the oncoming English army. Others in the ensemble cast who stand out include Richard Artois as the Frenchman who''s cast his allegiance with Edward and Rob Devlin as the King of Scotland.
It''s a small thing, and one for which there is no easy solution, but the costumes are a bit distracting. On a large stage, it''s tough to distinguish the plastic breastplates and shiny fabric that masquerades as chain mail, but in the tiny confines of the Circle Theater, it''s all too noticeable. Every plasticky thud and every errant rustle of fabric makes it that much more difficult to suspend one''s disbelief.
Magic Circle''s Burning Bright, directed by Jerry Gill, is also a fine production. Rollie Dick and Flip Baldwin shine as Joe Saul and Friend Ed, despite the script''s labored language. The pair manage to convey a relationship that is both manly and tender at the same time. The play was written a couple years after the death of Steinbeck''s good friend Ed "Doc" Ricketts and seems to be a continuation of a dialogue between the real-life friends (note that Joe Saul has the same initials as John Steinbeck, and the character named Friend Ed...that is just a little obvious). During the course of the play, Friend Ed has to give Joe Saul some tough love, and toward the end of the play, when Joe cries out, "Don''t leave me, Friend Ed," you can hear in Dick''s voice the pain Steinbeck must have felt at Ricketts'' death.
Richard Boynton handles the transitions in Victor''s character well, moving from being simply brutish to revealing a more tender layer underneath. Curiously, although he is nominally the bad guy in the play, there is more growth and development to his character than in anyone else. On the flip side, there''s probably less growth in Mordeen''s character--she loves her man and is willing to live with her huge sacrifice to make him happy. It''s a tribute to Anne Marie Hunter''s portrayal of Mordeen that the character never becomes boring.
Laura Cote''s scenic design, enhanced by Jim Griffin''s no-frills lighting design, handles the radical scene transitions nicely, evoking an appropriate sense of place for each scene.
But, in the end, and through no fault of the producing organizations, neither of these productions are particularly satisfying. They are best seen as historical curiosities, and as a reminder that geniuses don''t always create works of genius.