Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Shakespeare Without Words - Hamlet, Sleep No More and Amaluna- Shakespeare Reviews

Hamlet - National Ballet of Canada at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Toronto, ON - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Choreographed by Kevin O'Day, based on William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Music by John King
Runs until June 10th 2012

Sleep No More - PunchDrunk at The McKittrick Hotel - New York City, NY - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Based loosely on William Shakespeare's Macbeth

Amaluna - Cirque du Soleil's Le Grand Chapiteau at The Quays of the Old Port - Montreal, QC - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Directed by Diane Paulus, Music by Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard, Based loosely on William Shakespeare's The Tempest
Runs in Montreal until July 15th 2012, Opens in Quebec City on July 26th, Toronto on Sept. 6th, Vancouver on Nov. 23rd 2012, continues on to Seattle.

Is William Shakespeare without his text even Shakespeare? Is it a bastardization, or a form of flattery, that his plays have been taken beyond his writings and transformed into other mediums?  It’s not a new thing, nor does it only happen to Shakespeare, but from West Side Story to countless opera’s and ballets, to loosely adapted teen comedies, we seem to love using Shakespeare as a template, excising or altering his words and prose to be easily digestible in other formats. Is it simply simplification to dumb things down? If The National Ballet of Canada (via Kevin O’Day), Cirque du Soleil (via Diane Paulus) and PunchDrunk have anything to say, they’ve heighten the drama and emotions behind three of Shakespeare’s plays in three very different, but equally mesmerizing productions.

The National Ballet of Canada brings us the Canadian premiere of Kevin O’Day’s exciting ballet adaptation of Hamlet (first seen in Stuttgart), a production without any of Shakespeare's famous words. The ballet turns the interior emotions and conflict within Hamlet (and the other characters) into outwardly physical movements of beauty and rage, easily conveying Shakespeare’s story of a torn Prince.

With an effective clingy-clangy music from John King, (that at times sounded like sounds from a Foley studio) and set against a beautiful stark set of perforated bone-like walls (and projections) on a platform held by stilts (by Tatyana van Walsum), O’Day’s production takes on an operatic quality. From the first moment of silence as the lights go out, as the audience sits uncomfortably in the dark for the show to begin (with rustles and coughs unacquainted with the purposefully pointed pause at the beginning of the ballet), O’Day uses the medium of dance and awkward body movements to highlight the interior monologues in the externalized art form of ballet. Hamlet’s tortured situation gets the full dramatic treatment that choreography and movement easily accentuates.

I will confess, most of the time I am watching a Shakespeare play, my brain is in overdrive trying to understand the text, trying to interperate the words beyond mere plot points. I usually judge a production on how easily Shakespeare’s words are understandable, but even with the best productions, it usually takes me all of Act 1 before I get in the groove of his prose. So watching Shakespeare without having to internally translate the Elizabethan language is somewhat of a relief, and makes the Coles notes situation all the more bearable.

And while a ballet of Hamlet will be missing the beautiful poeticism of the original play,  I found it far more revealing of every character’s interior motivation, and emotional state, making the plot far easier to understand, than the play has ever done for me. Sacrilegious! I know! But when you’re watching the amazing company of National Ballet dancers moving to O’Day’s choreography, it seemed far easier to get emotionally invested in Hamlet’s plight.

The opening night cast had Guillaume Côté (above) as a thrilling Hamlet that was equally thrilling in his emotional portrayal as his physical dancing. Finally reunited on stag with Heather Ogden (above,  Côté's real life wife) as Ophelia, 
Côté and Ogden danced together with a spark that no manufactured chemistry could recreate. During her character’s breakdown, Ogden also showed a crackling and exciting solo as Ophelia dissolves at Hamlet’s rejection.

Jonathan Renna and McGee Maddox, as Polonius and Laertes, Ophelia's protective father and brother, respectively, are in spectacular form, especially in their dance with Ogden as the men try to hold Ophelia from flirting back at Hamlet. O'Day's choreography turns this dance of three into a fun, funny, but telling moment that involves Ophelia into Hamlet's plight. 

Jiří Jelinek is in superb form as the evil Claudius (which he originated in Stuttgart),  while Robert Stephen (who rotates in the role of Hamlet) and Christopher Stalzer are delightful as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Elena Lobsanova (who rotates in the role of Ophelia) is the vision of loveliness as one half of the actors Hamlet uses to reenact Claudius' betrayal, with up-and-comer Corps de Ballet member Dylan Tedaldi filling in the other half.

With the cast of Hamlet already being filled with the National Ballet's biggest Principal stars and First Soloists (including Stephanie Hutchison as Gertrude), it was exciting to see a lot of the exciting up-and-comers from the Corps filling roles right along side, and not missing a single dance beat. Along with Stalzer and Tedaldi, Brendan Saye (above with  Côté) is wonderfully stoic and gentle as Hamlet's more rational friend Horatio, while Giorgio Galli has a wonderful presence as part of the ensemble, and takes on the role of Laertes on rotation. The male heavy play gives the men in the company lots of opportunity to shine and continues to prove why I had taken notice of all of them in previous shows.

You have probably heard of Sleep No More by now. If you don't know the name exactly, you know you've heard about that walk-through play that is more of an experience than anything else you can describe. Audiences are told to wear a mask, stay silent, and then explore the confines of The McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, discovering the AMAZING set decorations of the 100 room building that makes this just as much of an art installation as it is theatre. But then a choose-your-own-adventure moment happens as you spot an unmasked couple dancing, or a bald-headed witch whizzes by, or you see King Duncan stroll by, or trees start moving. Do you watch? Do you follow them? Who do you follow? 

What you get out of Sleep No More really depends on you and your choices, what rooms you enter and what items you might riffle through. As you slowly discover The McKittrick Hotel, the events in Shakespeare's Macbeth begin unravelling around you a la Hitchcock, without words, solely through dance, movement, and music (timed to the action AND the room you're in!), but what parts of the play you see all depends on what you decide to do. It can be extremely frustrating (as I've heard some people complain), especially as my personal natural tendency is to move away from the crowds, but you'll quickly learn that a crowd probably means something is happening. Whether it is Lady Macbeth watching the blood off her body in a tub, or a strange disco orgy with a goat head and a baby, the events that lead to Macbeth's ultimate demise is enacted for you to discover and while following the crowd often gets you to major scenes, but sometimes going it alone can yield some surprising and cool results!

I happened to catch Lady Macbeth seducing King Duncan to drink the poisoned wine, then followed Duncan as he slowly died a painful death. Watched as his cohorts wrapped his dead body and buried him, then ran along (and I mean RUN) as they seeked revenge up and down 6 levels of The McKittrick Hotel. By the final scene (and yes, there IS a final scene and do NOT leave before then), I was exhausted, enthralled and amazed by the adrenaline pumping experience and absolutely loved the experience. But I ran. And kept watch of the major characters, always following one of them by the half-way point in the show (using the first half to work my way at discovering the lay of the lands). 

I've since traded stories and experience with others who have gone to experience the show, and have heard countless things I've managed to miss, and vice versa. You may not get to see all, or any, of Macbeth, but the mystique, the fully enveloping set, and the voyeuristic experience (that many have noted resembles the famous scene in Eyes Wide Shut) is reason enough to visit The McKittrick Hotel.

Amaluna the newest Cirque Du Soleil show in the touring Grand Chapiteau has made its debut in Montreal, the first stop for every Big Blue and Yellow Tent show before it tours the world. While the last one I saw there, Totem, was still a bit of a mess (since Montreal in a sorts, acts as a preview stage for the rest of the tour), Amaluna starts off its run strong and cohesive and ready to go! The clowns could still use some work, being the least funny clowns in my Cirque memory (and I’ve seen Banana Shpeel, a whole Cirque show about clowns), and a part where a woman in a big white dress dancing begins to drag the first act, but all in all, this was one of the best Cirque shows I’ve seen, despite it having some of the least death-defying types of circus tricks.

What makes Amaluna work is a unified and well-flowing narrative, much like Ovo, my favorite Cirque I’ve seen to date. Is it maybe a coincidence that Amaluna is only the second Cirque show to be directed by a woman, with Ovo being the first? Plus as Amaluna's director, Diane Paulus, this may be the first Cirque show directed by a Broadway musical director (if I'm correct). Diane Paulus leads a female heavy cast, an all-female band, in a celebration of women in a bit of a twist on one of Shakespeare's plays.

Diane Paulus (Hair, The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess) fashions Amaluna as an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (although I’m gathering it is a very loose adaptation), except Propero being a woman this time around. It gives Cirque’s usual line up of circus acts a wonderful story as a backbone (instead of its usual unintelligible "story") and lets the characters continually interact with each other throughout the show, giving us a deeper connection to the performers (who in many previous Cirque shows, would disappear once their act was over). Amaluna also gives us a love story to hang onto and hope for, especially when said star-crossed lovers (Miranda and Romeo, switching it up from Ferdinand) are super fit athletic circus performers with bodies of steel (who have their own impressive circus acts of their own)! 

A winning and lovely Ikhertsetseg Bayarsaikhan as Miranda, and the handsome and gentle Édouard Doye as a muscular (hands-only) pole climbing Romeo, centre the efforts of Prospera (Julie McInnes) as she keeps watch over her island kingdom. Cali the lizard (juggler Victor Lee) protectively keeps watch of Miranda as she innocently flirts with this endearing lost Romeo, all while other fellow male sailors (who will later bounce and flip over high bars) flee their nets and into a gang of female warriors keeping watch of the island (swinging from high and low bars). The circus acts, while seemingly simpler than some more gimmicky and dazzling acts from previous shows, are still each uniquely stunning and awe inspiring. A duo of unicyclists, tumblers who juggled, aerialists, tightrope walkers and more, round out the cast, but it's Lara Jacob Rigolo quiet act of intense concentration and balance that surprisingly garners one of the biggest applause of the night. Rigolo balances bone/palm stems one by one like a mobile, turning it into a showcase of core strength and quiet balance. 

As always with Cirque, the music, the set (by Scott Pask), the lighting (by Matthieu Larrivée), the costumes (by Mérédith Caron) are wonderful, and save for some moments in Act 1 and the clown antics, Paulus has created a beautiful ode to women through the art of the circus, and perfectly pairing Shakespeare's strange tale of The Tempest, with the strangeness of Cirque du Soleil's own unique style.

Shakespeare might be rolling in his grave, but I thank Kevin O'Day and The National Ballet, PunchDrunk and Cirque du Soleil for giving us beautiful and exciting works that should only mean to flatter Shakespeare.

Hamlet photos by Vincent von Tiedemann

Amaluna photos by Vincenzo D'Alto
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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