Essay: Globe Summer Festival is Steady as She Goes

Jay Whittaker as Richard III

Jay Whittaker as Richard III
Photo by Henry DiRocco

It’s gratifying to see that the Old Globe’s Shakespeare Festival continues under Adrian Noble’s steady leadership.  I  also find it interesting that the common theme in this summer’s Shakespeare Festival at the Old Globe is oppression.  What’s most interesting is that this theme uplifts audiences when treated with a light touch even as it hammers audiences into grudging submission when confronted directly.

This summer marks Adrian Noble’s third as artistic director of the outdoor Shakespeare Festival, and he has proven to be a stabilizing force during a time when the Globe has been undergoing leadership changes.  Mr. Noble, a former artistic head of Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, has settled into a pattern that is to some degree a necessary one.  He schedules two Shakespeare plays, one serious, one not-so, and then a large-cast production of a historical drama.  Doing so allows the Old Globe to hire principals with classical backgrounds and cast them in roles where they will shine, then hire a company of experienced actors to play the secondary roles and use the master of fine arts candidates from the University of San Diego in the smaller parts that are nevertheless essential to mounting the sort of theatre that Shakespeare envisioned.

Generally, each principal actor performs at least two roles, so the second one will be smaller than the first. And, the students often have an opportunity to impress, either as understudies or in sometimes even as the principal performer in a larger role.  Last summer, for example, saw MFA candidate Ben Diskant perform a major role as Ariel in “The Tempest.” I also saw Grayson de Jesus step in for Jay Whittaker as Mozart in “Amadeus” last season and he pulled off the difficult role quite credibly.  Not coincidentally, Mr. Diskant went on to perform a another major role in a John Doyle production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” at the Cincinnati Playhouse, and I just saw Mr. de Jesus performing well in the touring company of “War Horse,” which is wrapping up its run at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre.

Under Mr. Noble, some of the same actors have appeared, both in the principal roles and in the acting company.  That’s to be expected: while there will always be some turnover a good repertory company will bring some actors back season after season.  These actors are versatile enough to play a variety of roles, and they help a company to gel as an ensemble more quickly by modeling an appropriate performance style.

This season, returning actors are Globe Associate Artist Robert Foxworth, Adrian Sparks, and Jay Whittaker among the principals, and Charles Janasz, another Globe Associate Artist, among the featured players.  In addition, Miles Anderson, whom festival audiences liked so much for the past two seasons, is here, too – except that he’s working indoors in “Divine Rivalry.” Several of the rest of the acting company have Globe experience, including former MFA student Vivia Font, who is playing featured roles in all three productions.  And, Mr. Noble’s production team is anchored by returning pros such as Associate Artist Ralph Funicello (scenic design), Deidre Clancy (costumes), Alan Burrett (lighting design), Shaun Davey (original music), and Associate Artist Steve Rankin (fight director).

In sum, from an organizational point of view, the festival seems to be doing quite well. Now, let’s jump back to the theme of oppression and see how that theme plays out on the artistic side.

The Cast of "As You Like It"

The Cast of “As You Like It”
Photo by Henry DiRocco

Oppression can take many forms, and the plays Mr. Noble selected for this season each illustrates a particular type.  In Shakespeare’s “Richard III” the oppressor is the king himself, emerging from the weakness of Henry VI and the long and tiring internal battle known as the War of the Roses to destroy his supposed enemies and to consolidate power.  In Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” the oppressors rely on societal conventions: an oldest son who lords his birth position over his youngest brother; a ruler who lords his precarious political power over a brother he perceives as his potential rival; and gender stereotypes that force the heroine to dress and act as a man in order to accomplish her goals. Finally, in “Inherit the Wind” we have oppression of ideas, as a dominant group tries to silence talk of a theory that is thought to challenge cherished beliefs.

Oppression, of course, has its opposite, which is resistance. In “Richard,” resistance yields a conventional narrative.  It is slow in developing and so there are many victims before Richmond (Dan Amboyer) escapes to France, gathers forces, and marches back to defeat his cousin, assume the throne as Henry VII, and put an end to the war. In “As You Like It,” the resistors take tack of going “into the woods” to set up an alternative society until the oppressors relent.  And in “Inherit the Wind” the resistors behave in a typically American manner: they go to court to expose bigotry and small-mindedness as a means of getting their way.

Robert Foxworth and Adrian Sparks in the courtroom

Robert Foxworth and Adrian Sparks
Photo by Henry DiRocco

Of the three paths to resistance, the “into the woods” method is the most charming, light on its feet, and therefore most effective.  Mr. Noble has banned melancholy from his woods, and practically turns “As You Like It” into a musical with the assistance of Mr. Davey’s lilting melodies.  Even the glum Jaques (Jacques C. Smith) can’t remain so for long, and his “Seven Ages of Man” soliloquy comes across as almost wistful.  The party gets so good that the oppressors are moved to come enjoy it, repenting of their misdeeds in the process.  Dana Green’s Rosalind may look a bit old for the callow Mr. Amboyer’s Orlando but such details matter little when everyone’s having such a good time.

Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s “Inherit the Wind” is steeped in the very American tradition of weighing ideas by debating them in the courtroom.  Based on an actual trial of a teacher who was arrested for discussing evolution in a Tennessee classroom, the Lawrence and Lee potboiler practically spills out its overwrought rhetoric onto a hot and humid South that still fumes over the defeat of its way of life, as represented by the Confederacy. But right makes might, and the renegade ideas ultimately win out over the bigoted ones.  Mr. Noble literally piles up furniture and spectators to give the trial its circus-like feel, and as the stand-ins for Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, Robert Foxworth and Adrian Sparks more than rise to the occasion, even if they sometimes have to stand on furniture to do so.

The success of Mr. Noble’s productions only makes the failure of “Richard III” seem more substantial by comparison.  Director Lindsay Posner makes an inauspicious Globe debut by wasting Jay Whittaker’s talents as the title character and bringing a production concept (a postmodern 20th Century society where military dictatorship has taken over) that had already been done, and much better, by Ian McKellen.  There’s no charm in this heavy-handed concept, and I worry for Mr. Whittaker that his voice won’t last for the four-month run, as Mr. Posner has him shouting so much.  Under Mr. Noble’s administration, there’s always been one of the three plays that works less well than the others, and this season that play is the misguided “Richard III.”

Still, we are fortunate to have with us each summer a high quality repertory ensemble that speaks the speech “trippingly on the tongue” and provides the pleasure of its company on pleasant summer evenings in the park.  The festival runs through September 30.

[box type=”shadow”]The Old Globe presents The 2012 Shakespeare Festival:

“Richard III,” directed by Lindsay Posner

“As You Like It,” directed by Adrian Noble

“Inherit the Wind,” directed by Adrian Noble

The creative team includes Old Globe Associate Artist Ralph Funicello (Scenic Design), Deirdre Clancy (Costume Design), Alan Burrett (Lighting Design), Lindsay Jones (Sound Design), Shaun Davey (Original Music), Peter Golub (Original Music), Old Globe Associate Artist Steve Rankin (Fight Director), Elan McMahan (Music Direction), Christine Adaire (Vocal and Dialect Coach), Calleri Casting (Casting) and Bret Torbeck (Stage Manager).

The repertory company features Jay Whittaker, Robert Foxworth, Adrian Sparks, Dana Green, Dan Amboyer, Jacques C. Smith, Happy Anderson, Vivia Font, Aidan Hayek, Old Globe Associate Artist Charles Janasz, Joseph Marcell, Jonas McMullen, Robin Moseley, Bob Pescovitz and Lou Francine Rasse, as well as The Old Globe/University of San Diego Graduate Theatre Program candidates Matthew Bellows, Adam Daveline, Jeremy Fisher, Rachael Jenison, Jesse Jensen, Danielle O’Farrell, Allison Spratt Pearce, Deborah Radloff, Stephanie Roetzel, Christopher Salazar, Jonathan Spivey, Whitney Wakimoto, Bree Welch and Sean-Michael Wilkinson.

Performances run June 3 – September 30 in the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre on the Old Globe campus, 1363 Old Globe Way, in Balboa Park.  Tickets (starting at $29) may be purchased at the box office, by calling (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623], or by visiting  Check the Old Globe website or the San Diego Story calendar for exact performance dates for each of the three productions.[/box]

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