If a typical Elizabethan theatergoer time-traveled to an evening of contemporary American drama, she would find herself astonished at the passivity of the audience. Modern viewers have been trained to behave. We watch the proceedings on stage politely, applauding with enthusiasm if the production enthralls us, applauding out of obligation if we've spent two or three acts suppressing yawns. Far less reserved, Elizabethans ate, gossiped, and heckled during performances, often talking back to the actors when addressed by them through soliloquies and asides. As Peggy O'Brien, director of education at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C., notes in the book The Friendly Shakespeare, playgoing during the Renaissance was "a cross between the NCAA finals and a Madonna concert."
In the current production of British playwright James Prideaux's two-act The Housekeeper, Area Stage Company's artistic director John Rodaz brings a sense of the Elizabethan stage to modern-day Miami Beach. Although Rodaz hasn't transported any raucous audience members across the centuries, he and scenic designer James Faerron marvelously re-create what Rodaz's program notes call "an indoor Elizabethan playhouse like the Black Frieres in London circa 1620." It comes replete with period details such as a Renaissance balcony, lighted candles, and a chain placed across the front of the stage to protect the actors' costumes from burning. Transmuting Prideaux's contemporary romantic comedy into an Elizabethan farce, however, proves more problematic than reproducing a close-to-authentic set.
Directors alter the original settings of plays regularly. George C. Wolfe moved Bertolt Brecht's The Caucasian Chalk Circle from Russia, just prior to the revolution, to a Haiti-like Caribbean island for New York Shakespeare Festival's Public Theatre in 1990; at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month, Ingmar Bergman relocated Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale from Renaissance Sicily to nineteenth-century Sweden. Given certain particulars of The Housekeeper, Rodaz's reinterpretive instincts were sound: The two acts are rife with Elizabethan-style asides and sexual double-entendres and puns. But injecting the script with a shot of seventeenth-century bawdiness cannot redeem its less-than-believable characters, thin plot, and unimaginative language. Prideaux's unromantic, not especially funny comedy remains lifeless in any time period.
Enter Manley Carstairs (Peter Morgan Patrick), an insulated, self-absorbed, talentless novelist who has lived his entire life at the beck and call of his overbearing mother in a sixteen-room mansion. Literally within moments of his mother's burial, finally free of his servitude to her, he hatches the brilliant scheme of engaging a housekeeper who can wait on him hand and foot so he can write novels in peace. He hires the first candidate who shows up at his door, homeless Annie Dankworth (Lisa Morgan Patrick), a sham of a domestic complete with phony references and a penchant for kleptomania. These two verbally spar until they finally declare their love for each other, with ne'er a surprise throughout the play.
Straining a bit too hard for that ribald Elizabethan zing, the Morgan Patricks (husband and wife in real life) sacrifice any subtlety of character, although, admittedly, Prideaux's stale dialogue doesn't offer the actors much to draw on. The jokes they're saddled with are even harder to pull off. Annie thinks a dessert "looks like porcupine poop," while Manley describes himself as "a lewd, lustful, libidinous lecher." And to gauge Prideaux's ironic talents, consider the subtlety of the name Manley.
The actors have moments during which genuine characters can be glimpsed behind the broad gestures and mugging. Descending the spiral staircase that dominates the back of the set, Lisa Morgan Patrick's stage whisper to God A "Please don't let me screw this up" A hints at how badly homeless Annie needs to get herself off the streets. Peter Morgan Patrick reveals the lonely man behind the caricature when he remembers how a chance at love as a young man was thwarted by his overbearing mother. But such isolated moments cannot buoy an otherwise uninspired evening.
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A bit of the Renaissance arrives in Hollywood later this summer during Florida Playwrights' Theatre's second annual Shakespeare festival. A Midsummer Night's Dream opens on August 12; Much Ado About Nothing opens the following week, on August 19. The two play in repertory through September 10. From four o'clock in the afternoon until show time, FPT will host a "green show" in the park across from the theater. A tradition dating back to the Elizabethans, the green show, explains artistic director Angela Thomas, features a "small snippet of a show put on before the actual Shakespearean play, to set people up for the mood and language of what's to come." Expect a madrigal group singing Shakespearean songs, young actors performing sonnets and short scenes, fencing, juggling, and craft and food vendors. For further information, call 925-8123.
When the folks at Actors' Playhouse began their two-million-dollar renovation of the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables this summer, they encountered more history than they had anticipated. Sure, there was that cool stainless steel Art Deco kiosk out front and the green and pink terrazzo tiling that circled the kiosk. But as they ripped up stained red movie carpet, peeled back tacky red wallpaper, demolished concession stands, knocked down walls that had turned the single movie house into a quadruplex in the 1980s, removed dropped ceilings, and tore down moldy curtains, the original design of the nearly 50- year-old theater slowly began to reveal itself. "We knew it was a great building," marvels Actors' Playhouse artistic director turned construction supervisor David Arisco, "but we did not know the grandeur it had."
The pink and green terrazzo, complete with repeating floral motif, now extends far back to the very end of the theater's lobby. Art Deco mirrors and teaklike wooden pillars that Arisco accurately likens to the decor of a ship captain's cabin stand on majestic display. And inside the cavernous theater itself are fluted columns, floral wall sculptures, a grand proscenium, and the original sea-foam green paint, liberated from behind curtains, wallpaper, fiberglass insulation, and chicken wire. Envisioning the restored beauty of these once hidden treasures requires a leap of imagination, as the theater is still in the throes of demolition, but the possibility of the past coming back to life in a new setting and a new era is part of the restoration excitement. "I feel like a kid in the woods or an explorer in an old house," remarks Arisco, who has ventured into parts of the old theater the rest of us never will see -- up and down hidden ladders, across a secret catwalk, along a tunnel that discreetly overlooks the lobby.
Along with the historical delights come some structural challenges. What Actors' staff assumed would be an easy task -- transforming the balcony into their children's theater -- requires considerably more work than they'd imagined. As a result, construction won't start until at least next year, during what Arisco terms "Phase Two." Meanwhile, all efforts focus on "Phase One," the 600-seat main-stage theater, slated to open with Man of La Mancha on November 15. Subsequent phases include the possibility of a second-floor "black-box" theater where Arisco hopes to stage readings and develop new works that eventually will be seen on the main stage. Just like the rehabbing of an old house, the work, it seems, could go on forever. But for Arisco, opening his season on time is more important than having the entire theater in perfect shape: "With spit and polish we'll have a restored lobby and a working main stage by November.