Friday, February 13, 2009

Exit, Pursued by a Bear

'To me, the theme of the play is time, and learning lessons from time,' said director Patricia Miller, of her upcoming production of Shakespeare's 'The Winter's Tale.'

The play opens Friday and continues through Feb. 22 at the UC Davis Mondavi Center's Studio Theatre. Tickets...

This rarely performed Shakespeare work explores two parallel worlds: the elegance of a café society destroyed by a paranoid king's jealousy, and the fertile chaos of a Balkan Romani gypsy community. 'The Winter's Tale' has the emotional depth of 'King Lear' - often considered its inspiration - and the raw comedy of the rude mechanicals in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' It weaves a magical transformation from death to life.

'There's a redemption of family at the end,' Miller added, 'and a way that time heals things that's very mature.'

Time is not only at the core of this work, but also an integral aspect of the people involved in the production.

Miller is juggling several balls herself. She's a master of fine arts student, taking doctorate classes, teaching acting classes and directing a five-act play ... all at the same time. She's also a single parent with a 7-year-old daughter, which necessitates her commuting to and from San Francisco as often as possible.

Cuban-American actor Jorge Morejon, who plays the role of 'Time' in this production, is a doctoral candidate in his second year at UC Davis.

'I have to find a balance between the demands of my program,' he said, 'which is lots of reading and writing, and being involved in stage work, which is what I love. Patricia was kind enough to let me do the role of Time, which is small enough for me to maintain my work as a Ph.D. student, but still allows me to be on stage, which is important for me.'

Brett Duggan, tackling the role of King Leontes, is a professional actor and stand-up comedian who has played all the big comedy clubs in New York, Boston and San Francisco. He's a master of fine arts student who came to UC Davis because he'd be able to study and teach ... but all this also requires considerable juggling of time.

'I lived in Sacramento for a few years, and originally thought I would commute,' Duggan said, 'but just decided it was too intense, having had the experience of rehearsing until 11 p.m. I teach a class here at 8 a.m., so that wasn't going to work. I completely changed my life: I moved two blocks from campus.

'I got rid of my car and ride around on a bike.'


'The kids work so hard,' Miller said. 'They work much harder than regular actors. The two MFAs are up teaching at 8 a.m., and the others are taking classes. Sometimes a full complement all day long, and they come in to me at 6 p.m.

'But (Polish director Jerzy) Grotowski used to make people run around for days without sleep, before they were allowed to work, so grad school is like a similar program. We're just doing Grotowski. That's what I keep telling myself.'

'But we love this,' Morejon added. 'This is the time to do it, if you think about it. We have energy, and we're full of dreams, enthusiasm, optimism and love.'

This is an ideal cast for Miller, who directed last season's 'Nights at the Circus.' All the actors from that play - those who didn't graduate last year - auditioned for 'The Winter's Tale.'

'It's been a dream to have one consistent ensemble of people to work with,' Miller said, 'because they sort of understand my methods ... which are a little unusual.'

Queried about that choice of words, she explained that she's interested in physical theater, as much as text.

'I have long roots, and training in Britain in text-based theater, where you just start with the text and then work out some psychological reason behind that. You have to get involved in the language. My second level of experience was to work in physical theater modes; I try to incorporate a lot of gesture work, and a lot of energetic work with the actors.

'At the same time, we have to maintain the fact that there is this great text, and the audience expects to understand the story through the text.'

Amy Cole, playing Paulina, understands Miller's methods quite well. They met in San Francisco several years ago, at a Marie Overlie workshop. Overlie developed 'The Viewpoint System,' which teaches an awareness of space and how best to utilize it in performance.

Cole enjoys this opportunity to perform The Bard. Although she directs scaled-down productions of Shakespeare for children in the summer, and has utilized Shakespearean scenes for her own auditions, this is her first full Shakespeare production in more than 10 years.

And Paulina is a plum role.

'She's a catalyst for all the miracles and magic that happen at the end of the play, and throughout the play; the part is amazing. I love exploring Paulina, and I love the magic that happens in this particular Shakespeare play.'

It's a whole new world for Mark Curtis Ferrando, who plays 'Clown.'

'I haven't done Shakespeare before, so it's a totally new experience. Since Shakespeare is new to me, taking it line by line - punctuation mark by punctuation mark - is different.

'But it's a good experience.'


Miller is excited to be directing 'The Winter's Tale,' because she expects audiences to arrive at the theater with no preconceived expectations, as they might with 'Hamlet,' 'Macbeth' or other better-known works. 'The Winter's Tale' was one of Shakespeare's later plays, and - as with other late plays such as 'The Tempest' and 'Pericles' - this one also involves a father's loss of a daughter, and trying to regain that relationship.

'The play really parallels Shakespeare's own experience,' Miller said, 'because he lost a child; he returned for his older daughter's wedding. He was very alienated from the family, because he was down in London working at the Globe and other places. Some theories, picked up from the English department, suggest that it's really him working out redemption, rebirth and reconnection with family.'

Miller borrows liberally from her own life experiences. She was born in Philadelphia and raised in England, where she received her training; she also spent a lot of time in the former Yugoslavia. She has had teachers in Poland and Croatia, along with American Stanislavski technique teachers.

She spent a lot of time with Balkan musicians and worked with the Voice of Roma, a Sebastopol organization devoted to increasing knowledge of gypsy culture.

'I'm very involved in the lineage of the teachers who have taught me. You bring them all into the room with you.'

Her diverse experience leaves her eminently qualified to create the two worlds that she envisions for this production: the court of Leontes, modeled after the British monarchy in the 1930s, around the time of the abdication of Edward; and 1950s Bohemia, in a Balkan gypsy community that is quite colorful and musical.

Miller was very specific about the music she wanted.

'Often, with music in a Shakespearean production, people just go to the Elizabethan, which is beautiful. I love Elizabethan music, but the audience just has a quiet little sleep, because people expect to see Morris dancers.'

She therefore went in a completely different direction: San Francisco musician Daryl Henline is composing the original music for this play.

'He's the only 'outsider' being dropped into this production,' Miller said.

A Balkan gypsy celebration demands music with a lot of polyrhythm, but the instrumentation will be fairly minimal; the people in the cast who are musicians are more in the genre of classical pianists, and things like that.

'We're trying to incorporate people learning the accordion. We're obviously using percussion from the set, so it might be a clicking of sticks, as opposed to an actual instrument. And a skin drum, of course; you must have a skin drum. And a lot of polyphonic singing, some of which is indicated in the text, and some of which I've added for the community celebration.'


Miller's cast obviously likes working with her.

'She's fun. She's a hoot,' Ferrando laughed. 'She can be a little crazy sometimes, but in a good way, usually, for the actors.' He finds himself doing a lot of research for arcane references. 'They're references she grew up with, but I never noticed. I never was attuned to Laurel and Hardy, for example. I'm too young for that, so I have to go back and look at those videos.'

'She has tons of ideas,' Duggan said. 'It's exciting; it's a lot of fun; it's challenging. Yes, there will be a point where it'll feel like 'Oh my God, what's going on!' ... but the final product always is really strong.'

As I watched Miller direct her cast in an intense scene between Paulina and Leontes, it was almost like observing a conductor working with an orchestra. She approaches the text almost as if it were a musical number, tapping out the beat on a table as the actors speak.

I asked Cole about that.

'There's a lot about the timing in Shakespeare,' she said, 'because it's verse, and how the lines connect up. That scene, in particular, has a lot of lines in iambic pentameter: I'll finish, and Leontes completes the rest of my line, and I'll do the same for him. So it really is important; it's written that way. I cut him off as soon as he speaks, which adds tension.

'It's a constant churning, so you don't want to let it drop. That's the case in most plays, but especially in Shakespeare, because of how he wrote the verse. This is one of his later plays, so the verse is very complicated. He's deliberate with everything.'

While Miller is conscious of the Shakespeare fans, she's more interested in winning over the 'green' audience: playing to the guy in the third row, who is busy texting his girlfriend.

'It's actually this huge gift, as a director, to read reviews from the unspoiled fresh eyes of a 19-year-old undergraduate, who's forced to do it because he thought it would be the easy option ... because he didn't get in the English class, and doesn't like writing. I love winning over the scientists; it keeps me on my toes.

'It's all about this audience.'

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