In an age when the appeal of the classical arts can sometimes appear to have dimmed, compared to the popularity of the 21st century sparkle of dazzling special effects and digital technologies, I find it especially gratifying to know that the best and the brightest hope for the preservation of what is timeless in our humanity still lives and breathes in the performance arts. A generous gift from my sister presented me with the opportunity to attend the 15th season of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, which included two extraordinary performances by the current company of players, of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” and “Titus Andronicus.”
As the deadline for the end of the season approached, I had to scramble a bit to arrange to attend each of the two performances, but as is sometimes the case, all the particulars of both logistics and serendipity combined to bring the fullness of the experience to the fore. The weather was perfect on both days of each performance, so I was able to walk from the train to the theater building along the “Avenue of the Arts,” and it made the trip both times a very pleasant and relaxing experience getting to and from the theater.
The first performance was “Titus Andronicus,” thought to be Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and it is a fairly grim story that was told in the play, about revenge and its consequences. There are all varieties of intrigue and violence depicted in the story, which apparently was popular in Elizabethan England. In the Philadelphia performance I attended, Aaron Cromie directed the company of players in a remarkably inventive approach, utilizing puppets and silhouettes of characters to suggest scene changes and events that take place outside of the main performance stage. As the play opened, we see the actors adorning themselves in their costume pieces, each one suggesting the role they were about to assume. There was a sense of the original flavor of Shakespearean performance in the air that never left you. It was a bit unsettling at first to see humans interacting with and reacting to the puppets, but after a short time, they became accepted as characters by the audience, even when the puppeteer was visible on stage. I found myself cringing many times during the performance at the suggestions of violence, and there were audible gasps from the audience at such times that demonstrated the effectiveness of the puppet characters.
During several scenes, particularly gruesome acts of violence are committed against puppets, and even though the audience was well aware of this, you still felt a cringe when the damage was revealed. At several points, the human actors were very realistically bloodied and bleeding in front of us. The final scene is so violent that I found myself recoiling at the depiction by such talented actors, who very convincingly did away with each other. It was a tragic series of events convincingly and expertly executed by the players that left me emotionally drained, but successfully entertained. Thankfully, the company of players took a bow after the play ended that reassured us that they were still intact. Brilliant in its design and execution, “Titus Andronicus,” was captivating and satisfying.
The second offering for the fifteenth season at the Shakespeare Theatre was “Twelfth Night,” directed by Carmen Khan, which according to the program is a “…meditation on romantic delusion, intertwined with a sense of poignancy at life’s impermanence,” which results in “…an irresistable, poignant symphony of miscommunication, mis-conception and non-comprehension, all fueled by the longing of romantic desire.” There were moments of downright silliness, laughable rants by drunken characters, and plenty of laughs for the audience, along with the unfolding romantic delusion and confusion, which thankfully is resolved by the end of the play.
Once again, the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre’s company of players dazzled and delighted the audience with a beautiful rendering of Shakespeare’s melancholy treatment of life’s paradoxical circumstances. Each of the players brought Shakespeare’s intentions to life and expertly responded to the script’s challenges and opportunities. The style of the costumes and the setting was intended to evoke the 1930’s style and “the jazz age,” and it was enormously appealing in its originality and flair. The production was over three hours long with a fifteen minute intermission, but I found myself wishing it wasn’t over at the end. It swept the audience off its feet and the time seemed to fly all along the way. Again, the production was so satisfying and engaging, that the audience was on its feet at the conclusion, shouting praise for a most delightful performance.
For further information about future productions, visit phillyshakespeare.org.