Inductees to the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company might find themselves a bit puzzled upon entering the Miles Playhouse and taking in one production in which all the roles are cast traditionally (men playing men and women playing women) while a second, a three person version of “Macbeth” employs three male actors. (Play #3, Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” mixes things up in the manner that LAWSC is more accustomed do with women playing all the roles except Lady Bracknell and Dr. Chasuble).
So it goes. In her program’s director’s note, Lisa Wolpe, artistic director of the now 17 year old LAWSC explains that, yes, the-three play “Wicked Wilde Shakespeare Festival” is employing male actors for the first time. “Macbeth3” was previously staged with three women and the traditionally cast “A Tyrant’s Tale,” a truncated version of the Bard’s “The Winter’s Tale” has men playing men and women playing women “just to see what that unique modern twist on things can do!”
Of the two short Shakespeares that share a single evening, “Tyrant’s Tale” is the one to see, a circumstance made easier by the fact that the two productions require separate admissions and that “Macbeth3” more often has the later curtain (9:30 p.m.). That “Macbeth3” also adapts a play more familiar to most audiences may lessen the head scratching among those trying to keep score. Even with a play as direct and straightforward as “Macbeth” – further streamlined by Wolpe’s elimination of those pesky heirs, apparitions, wives et al — it does help if you can distinguish a Duncan from a Banquo.
“The Tyrant’s Tale” slims down to its 75 minute running length with a surprising ease as well, and in cutting things down, adaptor/director Wolpe has in no way slighted the actors playing Leontes (Scott McRae), Hermione (Heidi Rose Robbins), Antigonus (Kevin Vavasseur) or Paulina (Wolpe herself) all of whom have substantial portions of their roles left to explore. Admittedly, the would-be murderer Antigonus is now sort of a blend of his own character and fellow Sicilian Camillo, allowing him to continue throughout the entire play without suffering the fate of being devoured by a bear.
The production is framed by a device that has the sickly young Prince Mamillius (played by David Glasser) being read a bedtime story: the tale of a tyrannical king. No sooner does the this “tyrant’s tale” get underway when the two kings Leontes and Polixenes (Andrew Heffernan) burst in in fencing combat. A quick leap of logic later, and Leontes believes that his queen and dear friend Polixenes have been lovers and that the heir being carried by Hermione is illegitimate.
Given the number of times Leontes (deservedly) is branded a tyrant for his treatment of Hermione, it’s rather obvious where Wolpe got her title. The focus of this production remains largely on jealous Leontes and the fallout over his rush to judgment. With so little time, McRae has little room to bring the king from contented monarch to jealous lunatic to penitent widower, but the actor maintains what audience sympathy for the character he can. Robbins, whose Hermione looks both miserable and beaten up after her accusation, is a pillar of righteous strength as the queen with Wolpe’s crusading Paulina a staunch ally throughout.
One the action shifts to Bohemia, things get a little goofy. Polixenes’s son Florizel (Glasser again ) has fallen in love with the shepherdess Perdita (Laura Covelli), and she with him. Their one scene together encounter is taken up mostly by a lusty tango the likes of which most meek shepherdesses probably wouldn’t engage in. Still, love being the powerful thing it is, anything goes in Bohemia, and the disguised Polixenes, who watches the dance, perhaps now has cause for his disapproval over the match.
Speaking of goofy, the reunion with Hermione (i.e. the statue that comes to life) will avoid audience head shakes only if we believe the heat and repentance from Leontes and the forgiveness from Hermione. With McRae and Robbins, it’s certainly there, meaning “A Tyrant’s Tale” concludes more than satisfactorily.
Although “Macbeth3” was originally crafted for three women, the genders shouldn’t much matter. Three actors telling this story is two more than Steven Dillane had when he did his solo version several years back at REDCAT. And, really, if you’re zeroing in on the inner torment of the throne-seeking thane, perhaps the exclusion of heirs, armies et al aren’t such glaring omissions.
Andrew Heffernan (who must be exhausted on double bill nights when he has to move from three characters in “A Tyrant’s Tale” to this) has but one character to enact in “Macbeth3”: the title character whom Heffernan dispatches with plenty of finesse. There’s not a lot of subtlety anywhere in “Macbeth3” – again, no time! _ given how quickly Wolpe’s players need to move this very different tyrant’s tale from idea to action to recrimination.
Vavasseur is chilling as the lone apparition (here called Satan) who rises shirtless from a blasted out oil drum to inform Macbeth that he’ll be king someday. Vavasseur’s effectiveness as Lady Macbeth _ while not on the edge of camp _ is nonetheless blunted by the vaguely Bo Peep-ish wig they have him wearing. McRae has to take on a Witch, Banquo, Duncan, Macduff and even the drunken Porter who somehow managed to elude being sliced out of the story. No Malcolm or Lady Macduff, but the Porter stays?
The city can use as many Shakespeare festivals as companies are able to produce, and this one is nothing if not intriguing. Here’s hoping that Wolpe and LAWSC come back for a second go-round next year bring whichever genders to whichever roles they choose.
“A Tyrant’s Tale” continues today at 4 p.m. June 20 at 4 p.m., June 25 at 8 p.m., June 26 at 8 p.m. and June 27 at 6 p.m. “Macbeth3” plays 8 p.m. June 20, 9:30 p.m. June 25-26 and 4 p.m. June 27 at 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica. $15 or $25 for two performances in one afternoon or evening. (800) 838-3006, www.brownpapertickets.com.