Saturday, November 26, 2011

Colin Ryan's a Fortunate Man

Colin Ryan will have two Christmases this year . . . four times a week from December 8-18.  Starring in two one-man Christmas-themed plays performed as Christmas with Dickens & Dylan, at the Actors Shakespeare Company of New Jersey,  Ryan will have an opportunity to display his finely-tuned acting skills and to exercise his educational expertise by introducing audiences to the multiple nuances of language and story that reverberate through every culture.

Ryan, playing Dylan Thomas in A Child’s Christmas in Wales and Charles Dickens in A Christmas Carol, is as excited about his double roles in the two-tiered show as he is about his double roles as a member of the ASC since 2003. 

“Of course, I was very familiar with A Christmas Carol –  who isn’t? – since there are so many adaptations out there.  But I was far less familiar with A Child’s Christmas in Wales, and what a splendid find that is.”  Each of the plays, condensed to run a total of 90 minutes plus an intermission, offers a singular insight into the meaning and culture of Christmas; and, says Ryan, “Both were intended for a listening audience such as ours.”

First on the bill is A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Thomas’ lyrical, touching, mostly autobiographical “memory play.”  Thomas wrote the play for the radio and was featured as the reader in several productions.  “It’s a rich, almost mythological and poetic look at childhood,” Colin Ryan effuses.  What I love about it is that it’s not fantasized in any big way. It’s not all rose-colored and idealized but rather only slightly rosy and enriched by the great enjoyment the author gets out of the scary, sad, and mischievous moments he remembers from his childhood.  It’s not at all saccharine.  It’s genuine even when it’s sweet . . . very real.”

What Ryan hopes is that through the Dylan piece, school children and adults alike will find a mode for experiencing their own memories and for giving them life and meaning.  And for the Dickens piece, he hopes his audiences will find the resonance for our troubled times. 

“You know,” says Colin, in his educator mode.  “Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to read it aloud to live audiences.”  In fact, since 1853, when Dickens read portions of his novella in the St. Martin-in-the-Fields church hall to benefit a public hospital, the work has been a staple of the season, a cherished literary work that embodies the spirit of the season.

“So the conceit is that I – as Charles Dickens himself – have been paid to read my work for this group assembled.  But I’ve lost my book in my journey to get here, and so I have to recite the story from memory.  So mine is the primary voice, which is, of course,  the voice of The Christmas Carol narrator.”

Colin says he is continually struck by how very current the work is, how it mirrors so vividly the challenges we all face today.  “I was running lines with my wife (ASC member, Former Education Director Elizabeth Belzoni), and I got to the speech where Scrooge says that it would be fine with him if the poor would die, that they should go ahead and do so ‘to decrease the surplus population.’  She stopped me and pointed out how heart-stoppingly current that speech is.   That’s frightening.  But so true!”

For Ryan, who has seen dozens of adaptations of A Christmas Carol, the thing that stands out about this one is that it doesn’t suggest that Scrooge’s is an easy redemption.  He suffers for his revelations, and it is a difficult journey he takes to get to enlightenment.  “(Director) Peter (Galman) and I have been careful to track that.”  Dickens’, Ryan reminds me, was not interested in teaching his readers to have fun.  The original version is horrifying in the pictures it conjures, and it’s not about Scrooge finally seeing the way he missed out on the true meaning of the fun everyone was having at Fezziwig’s party.  It’s about taking responsibility for the condition of mankind, for carving a meaningful space in one’s own world.

“There’s so much substance here,” Colin sighs.  So many layers of language in each piece, so much meaning.”

Together, the two pieces offer a feast of holiday gifts for all.

Christmas With Dickens & Dylan, directed by Peter Galman and starring Colin Ryan, opens December 8th, at the Westside Theater.  Performances on Thursday 12/8 and 12/15, on Friday 12/9  and 12/16, at 7:30 PM; as well as on Saturday 12/10, 12/17 and on Sunday 12/11, 12/18 at 3:00 PM.   For information and directions, call 201-200-2390 or email

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Filming Shakespeare ?. . .

Last week, I had the great good fortune to see the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's Tempest, starring Christopher Plummer, in a version taped on high definiton (the hyper-filmic 24P), projected at Symphony Space on Broadway, in New York City.

After the screening, Plummer, who was also the Executive Producer of the film project,  and his director Des McAnuff and their producer Barry Avrich miced up and answered first canned questions to be added to the EPK material for the DVD's distribution and then some audience comments and questions as well.

Throughout the talk-back, Avrich kept insisting on calling the production a FILM, and he called McAnuff a film director.  To me, the label denigrated the richness of the hybrid that the production actually seemed to be -- not a film because we are always kept at bay by the fourth wall, absent in the world of film, but not theater despite the fact that we are always aware of and wishing to be closer to the magic of the live stage.  The effects, except for some cinematography and editing, are purely theatrical conceits and conventions; though Shakespeare's script may be, as Avrich avowed, cinematic, my experience of this production was not exactly that at all.

Those of you who attended the screening of Richard III a couple weeks ago know exactly what I'm getting at.  Olivier enlisted the camera to be his collaborator in telling the story, and he set his production in a purely filmic world.  He followed a tradition of film adaptation that has been popularizing Shakespeare since film emerged as a medium.

This Tempest is not that at all.  It will, or could, actually popularize the experience of theater going.  But if an audience expects to see a film, s/he should rent Julie Taymor's version or Paul Mazursky's or Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books.

DVD versions of live productions abound these days, especially in the world of Opera.  The Met regularly releases taped versions of their best work for viewing around the country, around the world; many of the world's best opera companies are doing the same.  Some of these productions remain faithful to the purely staged performances, and others allow themselves more leeway, knowing they are on film.  A great production of Don Giovanni, for example,  took the DVD viewer into the Vienna woods and enlisted a variety of locations to enhance the story and music.  Even that production, however, was not precisely a "film;"  it, too, was a hybrid.

What should we call these?  Do we have to have a label?

The Tempest movie trailer