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Abrupt Mood Changes

November 5, 2009

LLL.jpegFinessing a sudden change in mood from comedy to tragedy and visa versa in the theatre is a challenging feat. I was reminded of this fact last night at a performance of Dominic Dromgoole's Globe Theatre production of Loves Labours Lost at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley. The production is currently being presented under the auspices of Cal Performances as part of The Globe's current US tour.

Shakespeare's sophomoric 1598 comedy of love and wordplay has one of the trickiest temperature shifts in the dramatic cannon, when, in the final part of the play, the celebratory mood that pervades almost the entirety of the proceedings is suddenly broken by the announcement of the death of the Princess of France's father. Managing the about-turn from ecstasy to depression effectively can make or break a production of the play. To my mind, the change has to be extreme. If it feels half-hearted, the ensuing denouement and final weird song about the cuckoo leave the audience feeling puzzled rather than floored.

Unfortunately, the temperature bumped rather than plummeted in the hands of Dromgoole and his British cast. I felt a change in atmosphere in the room, but it felt relatively tepid, like an English summer day.

The scene before the shift was marked by an eruption of movement and hilarity that felt inorganic to the rest of the production, as if the director were purposefully setting up the big moment, rather than letting it catch us unawares. Actors ran around the stage for no apparent reason, and threw bits of baguette around.

When the messenger walked on stage to deliver the news, he stood out front so we could see him clearly. The cast took a while to notice him, with the princess herself being the last to stop bombarding the stage with bread. This created a lovely bit of dramatic irony, as the princess was the last to hear the news -- news that concerned her before anyone else on stage.

But somehow, the timing was off and the messenger's proclamation felt flat and stagey. The Princess' grief seemed real enough. (Michelle Terry is a wonderful performer -- I found her haughty-gamine Princess to be completely engaging throughout thanks to her lively physicality and sonorous speaking voice.) But the entire moment fizzled and the final cuckoo song, though quirky and melancholy, did not carry the weight of tragedy. The entire last 15 minutes of the production seemed more like a balloon slowly letting out air than one that went pop.

I wonder if Dromgoole might improve the staging of this final scene by listening to Mahler's Fourth Symphony, Mozart's Don Giovanni and pretty much any of Beethoven's symphonies? Mozart, Mahler and Beethoven are masters of sudden mood changes. Dromgoole could learn a thing or two from these guys.

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