Dancing Into Uncertainty

 

 By Sami Zahringer

 

          The tension between the sacred and the profane is at the heart of “Dancing at Lughnasa,” now playing at Ojai ACT through June 7.

 

          Dancing, that so-called vertical expression of a horizontal desire, emblemizes the emotional release of pagan revelry versus the strict, moral presence of the Catholic church. This memory play is as much about concepts of Irishness as it is a nostalgic snapshot of 1936 rural Ireland, right before sweeping industrialization changed everything forever.

 

          Brian Friel’s semi-autobiographical play opens with a monologue from a now middle-aged Michael (an engaging Michael Perlmutter), introducing us to a tableau of his life at age 7, and the five unmarried Mundy sisters who raised him. But “things are changing too quickly” he tells us. The world is advancing and threatening the security of the rural hearth. We know this is the last summer the sisters will be together and, as the tableau dissolves and the story starts, it highlights the poignancy of everything to come.

 

          It’s been a poor harvest but Agnes has splashed out on a new radio, which works only sporadically and, whenever the music comes through, the sisters abandon their chores and launch into wild, spontaneous dancing.

 

          School teacher Kate, the priggish eldest, is the self-appointed moral guardian of her sisters. Suzanne Tobin highlights the fear and confusion at the heart of Kate, “The Gander,” as she struggles with the disintegration of the ordered world and values she knows.

 

          Kate is both ashamed and fiercely defensive of her youngest sister, Chris, Michael’s unwed mother (a luminous Morgan Bozarth),  and her brother, Father Jack, who has recently returned in a shambolic state from 25 years in Uganda, sent home by the church for “going native.” Jack’s tales (mesmerizingly told by Cecil Sutton) of the dances and rituals of the tribe he lived with, echo the stories coming from “the back hills” about the wild behavior at the pagan festival of Lughnasa, and they shock and scare Kate as much as they intrigue and thrill her sisters.

 

          The outside world is encroaching, order is breaking down, even language. Jack’s “vocabulary has deserted (him).” Industrialization is coming and there is less certainty for her to cling to.

 

          Agnes and Rose earn a pittance knitting gloves, but the opening of a glove factory nearby renders their work obsolete. “Simple” Rose, played with touching vulnerability by Tracey Sutton, is a childlike woman, whose closest sister is the tender, thoughtful Agnes, a role given depth and quiet authority by Vivien Latham. We are told well before the end of the play that the pair will leave imminently to find work in London, only to die as destitute alcoholics.

 

          Theresa Secor as cheerful, hardworking Maggie, generates some of the play’s finest comic moments but also some of the most poignant. Lost opportunities for love hang ghostlike in the air for all the sisters but particularly her. Indeed, the only love interest in the play is Michael’s usually absent father, Gerry Evans, a caddish salesman (a charismatic Aaron Gardner).

 

          Special mention must be made of Kenny Dahle’s extraordinarily well-designed set in this production. It might be the best the Ojai Art Center Theater has ever seen. It functions almost as another character in immersing the audience thoroughly in rural 1930s Donegal.

 

          Brian Robert Harris has assembled and directed a talented cast and crew and, if you have any Irish blood at all, you owe it to yourself to see this excellent production. The themes of change and memory, however, will appeal to everyone.

 

          “Dancing at Lughnasa” runs through June 7th at Ojai ACT, 113 S. Montgomery, 8pm Fridays and Saturdays, 2pm Sundays. Tickets - $18 General, $15 seniors, students and Art Center members. Call 640-8797 for reservations or visit www.OjaiACT.org

 

 

The Ordinary Lunacy of Love

Questions? Contact John Hankins at 452-2885 or ojaignusman@gmail.com

Photography by David Baker - ojaiimages.com

 

By Sami Zahringer

      “The ordinary lunacy of love” is the primary subject of “As You Like It,” one of Shakespeare’s best loved and most accessible comedies, now playing at Ojai Art Center Theater (Ojai ACT) through April 19.

 Heady with sylvan charm and dazzling wordplay, it gleefully probes and punctures the conventions of romantic love.  Four couples, each asking their own questions about the true nature of love, engage in mischief and cross-dressing, and experience bewilderment and frustration before finally uniting in a glorious quadruple wedding scene at the play’s end.

      Rosalind, a young noblewoman exiled by her cruel uncle, Duke Ferdinand, (a redoubtable J. Lawrence Landis) goes deep into the Forest of Arden dressed as a boy in order to discourage assailants. She meets Orlando, a courtier she fell for at home while watching him beat the champion wrestler, Charles, (Russell Seveny, both fun and formidable in the role) at his own game. She is accompanied by her devoted cousin Celia, (played with lively warmth by Morgan Bozarth) and Touchstone, the bawdy court clown.

       Rosalind, one of Shakespeare’s most complex heroines, is played to a tee by Hanna Mitchell. Layering the deception beautifully, Mitchell is at her best in the second half of the play when playing a girl pretending to be a boy pretending to be a girl in order to test the ardor of her inamorato, Orlando.  Wildly clever and strong-minded, Rosalind is also good-hearted and passionate, with deep emotional insight not only about other’s actions, but about her own.

 Playing Rosalind is the balancing act at the heart of the play, and Mitchell achieves it perfectly. She delights in a spiky wit, while still being convincing as somebody wholly given over to passionate love. She possesses a charming and independent femininity and, when in disguise as Ganymede, projects a confident male physicality without ever becoming too strutting or cartoonish.

      Nate Budroe as Orlando is every inch the handsome, young Shakespearean hero, full of sincere and consuming ardor for his Rosalind, and his chemistry with Mitchell is engaging and filled with giddy youthful charm.

      In the ripe tradition of the pastoral, the merits of sophisticated urban life versus the simplicity and beauty of forest living are hilariously weighed in the balance, most notably by Touchstone, the court clown, played in this production with impeccable comic timing and antic, fruity glee by David Stewart.

 Shakespeare’s fools often speak the greatest wisdom and Touchstone is no exception:  “He uses folly as a stalking horse.” Stewart’s facility and pitch-perfect tone in a role that can often fall flat, belies the fact that this is his first Shakespearean performance.

      Cecil Williams plays the cynical, melancholic Jaques with dry wit and panache, one of the most stylish and successful interpretations of Jaques this reviewer has ever seen. Jaques, a contrarian who can moralize a scene “into a thousand similes,” stands somewhat outside of the play, commenting on the actions of others and speaking some of Shakespeare’s most well-known lines, including the famous Seven Ages of Man speech.

      The minor characters are, without exception, every bit as well cast by Walters as the principals in this vibrant production.

 Doug Parker as the elderly Adam is the model of devoted service to his young master, Orlando.

 Duke Senior is given a kindly twinkle by Ken Johnson, and in Aaron Gardner’s hands, the hateful Oliver melts into brotherly love for Orlando after the latter saves his life; and romantic love when he becomes smitten with Celia.

 The winning Kytriena Payseno as the disdainful Phoebe pairs hilariously with the long-suffering, love-struck Silvius (Sloane Tribble).

 Emily Vallance as the goatherd, Audrey, plays up her rustic simplicity to comic ends and there is some excellent physical buffoonery from Clayton McLannock as poor, spurned William.

 Christina Colombo pulling double acting duty, muses wisely on age as the shepherdess Carin, and commands the wedding scene as Hymen.

 Also in multiple roles are Adam Fisk as Friar Tuck and Lord Mowbray; and the production’s co-producer (along with Margo Haas) Len Klaif, playing both Lord Cadin and the discarded vicar in the woods.

      A quite stunning piece of acrobatic capering between the courtier Le Beau (neatly-sketched by Ezra Eels) and Touchstone, at the end of the play, sets the cherry on this joyous, big-hearted, and beautifully executed production. There were big smiles in abundance as the audience left the theater.

      Director Laurie Walters has long experience with this play and expertly juggles high and lowbrow, slapstick and melancholy, pulling the best from her actors in their high-octane verbal jousting. Walters, who runs the Ojai Shakespeare Salon, and is herself an accomplished Shakespearean actress, is in full command of the effervescent scenes of revelry, smoothly tamping the tone right down to sobriety for some of the play’s more reflective scenes. The light, bubbling flow of the play never falters.

      Judith Vander’s musical direction is sure-handed and joyous, while the resonance and experience of Jaye Hersh as song-loving Amien anchors her able fellow singers, Taylor Rowson-Moir and Daniel Mitchell.

      Filled with wise and beguiling meditations on travel, experience, manners, age, and urban artifice versus rustic simplicity, “As You Like It” is at once a social critique, and a kind and playful affirmation of love.

 “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players,” says Jaques, and this outstanding production pulls the audience right in to the drama and fun of love, leaving one feeling both edified and exhilarated. To find such a high quality performance of Shakespeare as this outside the major cities is rare.

 Newcomers to Shakespeare will find a highly approachable play with talented actors who illuminate the play’s meaning and language, and Bard-lovers will find new subtleties and delights in the play with this production. It’s a truly merry night out for all.

 Experience it at Ojai ACT, 113 S. Montgomery St., Ojai, through April 19th. It begins at 8pm Fridays and Saturdays and 2pm Sundays. Tickets are $18 adults; $15 seniors and Ojai Art Center members; $8 students Reservations at 640-8797 or:

www.ojaiact.org