Land of the Dead

On Thursday, Kate and I went to see Wm Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead (by Renegade Theatre) at Teatro Zuccone.

First, I forget what a hub the Zuccone it.  In the Lobby, theatre guru Lawrence Lee was online;  in the restaurant, art guru Ken Bloom was dining.  A good way to warm up to the play — familiar faces.  $5 “Zombie” drinks are another good way.

The performance was at moments strong and at moments rough.  Delivering Shakespearean-style dialogue has two problems:  1. Some actors, even famous, professional ones, insist on delivering it such that the rhythms of the language are communicated more clearly than the communicative intent of the language.  Some of the scenes fall into that in this play.  2.  Because some feel that these rhythms are important, they will “false start” or stumble at the opening.  As a result, at several times in the play, the opening to a line was stammered.  In that sense, it felt like what, in a larger city, would have been a highly discounted preview night, instead of an opening night, for one or two of the actors.  But we don’t have such things in Duluth, for some reason…

Similar strength and roughness was visible in the audio.  The better audio systems in theatres become, the more we need to work on ways to understand sound in a play.  At moments, the music overpowered what was being said, although given that zombie combat was going on, maybe I wasn’t supposed to hear.  The musical choices were strong, although I think one was also the climax music from Stage II’s No Exit, so I felt some deja vu.  But most importantly, when the music  leaps in at a million decibels, I am no longer in the world of the play.  I am back in the theatre, watching the play.

But I sound like I am complaining.  I am not.  This performance was actually evidence, for me, of a truism about Duluth art, theatre, and music:  the power and creativity of the artists exceeds the raw materials, sometimes, that are available to work with.  You see this at Art in the Alley (discussed below briefly) when you see mediocre chairs repainted and redesigned.  You see this in Darth Bridger, as the iconic image of Duluth that almost prevents us from having to think about who and what we are becomes rethought by a creative Duluthian.

Land of the Dead to me is a similar story.  Historical names and personalities become ciphers for characterization.  The tensions between Dee, Bacon and Shakespeare depend on extra-play knowledge to work the way the author wants.  And the last scene depends on a reading knowledge of a ton of Shakespeare to be found clever.  More broadly, I tend to avoid movies and plays that fail the Bechdel test.  On the plus side:  hooray to a play that addresses the question of Catholicism in Shakespeare.

And yet, though the raw materials of the play are not as strong as they could be, and the opening night had a few rough spots, there is much to recommend here.  The sets were amazing, the lighting and stage direction created immense tension.  The actors were given ciphers as characters and managed to make me concerned for them.  The fact that half of the cast had no lines beyond moaning and yet seemed real enough, to me, demonstrates the commitment of Duluthians to not just consuming art, but being part of it.

The fun in this play is in seeing the actors and actresses and sound and light (and so on) struggle to make more of the play than the text would give them.  They succeed, and for that reason, William Shakespeare’s Land of the Dead is a good night out.

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